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This book discusses the concept of 'agnosis' and its significance for criminology through a series of case studies, contributing to the expansion of the criminological imagination. Agnotology – the study of the cultural production of ignorance, has primarily been proposed as an analytical tool in the fields of science and medicine. However, this book argues that it has significant resonance for criminology and the social sciences given that ignorance is a crucial means through which public acceptance of serious and sometimes mass harms is achieved. The editors argue that this phenomenon requires a systematic inquiry into ignorance as an area of criminological study in its own right.

Through case studies on topics such as migrant detention, historical institutionalised child abuse, imprisonment, environmental harm and financial collapse, this book examines the construction of ignorance, and the power dynamics that facilitate and shape that construction in a range of different contexts. Furthermore, this book addresses the relationship between ignorance and the achievement of ‘manufactured consent’ to political and cultural hegemony, acquiescence in its harmful consequences and the deflection of responsibility for them.



1. Introduction

The shocks of the Brexit vote and of Trump's election heightened concerns that misinformation and lying are undermining democratic political processes. The perceived salience during campaigning of false stories have added to the idea that we have entered a new era of 'post-truth' politics. And there are, to be sure, new and very worrying developments in the generation of false 'facts' and fallacious reasoning. Some of these are technological and relate to unprecedented and accelerating industrial capacities of corporations, states and individuals to gather and misuse data. Fabrication, fakery and dissemination have never been so easy and the potentialities for 'totalitarianism' control have never been greater. Other, non-technological developments are deeply concerning too. There appears to have been a shift in political norms and expectations: for example, that political leaders in a democracy should pay a price when they are found to have been lying. Unsurprisingly, the manufacture of ignorance around current financial, economic, social and environmental crises has built upon the strategies deployed in narrower more focussed sectional campaigns close to the hearts and bank accounts of the wealthy and super wealthy. It draws from and builds upon longstanding campaigns to discredit movements threatening regulation of the pursuit of profit: tobacco; climate chage; finance; workers' health and safety; inequality. Taken together the urgency of these current assaults, undermining knowledge and understanding, and the harms that follow, have been important motivators for the contributors to this book.
Alana Barton, Howard Davis

2. Agnotology and the Criminological Imagination

In this chapter we reflect upon the concept of ‘agnotology’ and its usefulness for the expansion of a zemiological criminology. Initially presented as an analytical tool in the fields of science and medicine, agnotology explores the social and political underpinnings of forms of ignorance and their role in both generating and securing acquiescence in mass harms and crimes of the powerful. Typically originating within state-corporate symbioses of ideology, policy and practice, ‘crimes of the powerful’ include harms inflicted through health and safety violations, ‘security’, criminal justice, social and economic policies, war, disaster and environmental destruction. In each case real harms are obscured, denied or otherwise neutralised. Two cases of mass harm are presented here as examples. First, we discuss corporate constructed agnosis over the use of asbestos that has allowed corporations to kill hundreds of thousands yet avoid criminal justice. Second, we reflect on the Holocaust and the role of agnosis in this most extreme form of state-generated harm. Despite its scale, and in contrast with the attention from other disciplines, criminology has remained remarkably taciturn about this crime. We conclude that the central zemiological purpose of an imaginative criminology—the understanding of and struggle against major harm—cannot be undertaken without systematic and rigorous attention to ignorance.
Alana Barton, Howard Davis, Holly White

3. Counterinsurgency, Empire and Ignorance

Counterinsurgency, as the violence of empire, is directed at the subjugation and compliance of a population. At its core, this involves both the generation of knowledge about that population and the cultural production of militarised ignorance of, about and within a subject people, designed to ‘confound the native’, ‘cover the tracks’ and ‘reassure the self’. This chapter explores four aspects of the relationship between counterinsurgency and agnotology. First, links between race, imperialism and agnotology and the roots of counterinsurgency as the theory and practice of empire’s violence. Second, the ‘organised forgetting’ of imperial wars and counterinsurgency’s past crimes as a means of preserving its appeal in the present and, third, disinformation as knowledge warfare. Finally, using the example of the US military’s Human Terrain System (HTS), the role of social science itself in the cultural production of ignorance in and of counterinsurgency as part of the ‘War on Terror’.
Mark McGovern

4. The Ideology and Mechanics of Ignorance: Child Abuse in Ireland 1922–1973

This chapter argues that there was a suppression of any public acknowledgement of the reality of sexual crime, immorality, child abuse, family breakdown and poverty in the Irish Free State. A tactic borne of a desire by the post-colonial elite to preserve the nation’s founding myth of religiosity, purity and virtue, seen as central to the survival of the State and its religious mission. It was a crusade to create a cultural myopia, prosecuted by Church and State, through legislative and non-legislative means. A cause pursued so vigorously that it left those who bore witness to the illusory nature of the founding myths, no matter how inadvertently, to be branded as other, non-Irish, anti-Catholic, taboo figures to be feared and despised. A reality that contributed substantially towards the unchecked abuse of children in Ireland’s industrial and reformatory schools for decades to come.
Anthony Keating

5. Framing the Crisis: Private Capital to the Rescue

How, in the UK, were the financial, then economic, crises which erupted from 2007 onwards politically and popularly framed—framed, indeed, in ways which have allowed business-more-or-less-as-usual to proceed in their aftermath? The focus of this chapter is upon various discursive initiatives and narratives which were constructed and utilised as and since the crisis unfolded. I argue that it was through a series of (quite often contradictory) blaming and framing techniques—in turn, resting upon the use of analogy, motivated myopia and deceit, and often invoking some form of morality—that the construction, use and fact of economic, legal, political and social ignorance transformed the financial crisis into one of the public and the social.
Steve Tombs

6. Managing Ignorance About Māori Imprisonment

In 2016, New Zealand’s (NZ) prison population reached its highest-ever level of 10,000 people, with over half being Māori. Māori experience prison conditions and treatments that are undoubtedly harmful and, within five years of being released from prison, 80% of Māori are reconvicted. Within a neo-colonial context, this penal capture is normalised.
This chapter considers how Māori imprisonment is systematically ignored and managed by the NZ state. It demonstrates how state violence and the use of incarceration as a means of controlling Māori have been ignored, within colonial and neo-colonial contexts. The chapter charts three main strands of agnosis: (i) an emphasis on Māori deficits and pathologies; (ii) the distorted incorporation of Māori culture into Correctional processes; and (iii) a denial of structural disadvantage, institutionalised racism and state violence as explanations of ‘crime’. Taken together, these forms of knowledge and institutional processes obscure the neo-colonial contexts that propel high rates of Māori imprisonment and entrench systemic disadvantage and marginalisation. The chapter concludes with a consideration of how ignorance has been resisted through the production of alternative knowledge and actions. In particular, it reflects upon the recent successful claim at the Waitangi Tribunal, in which the Department of Corrections was found to have failed in its role to tackle Māori reoffending. It considers the implications of this resistant counter-knowledge to challenge neo-colonial relations of power and the continued penal capture of Māori.
Elizabeth Stanley, Riki Mihaere

7. Border (Mis)Management, Ignorance and Denial

The escalations in deaths at Europe’s border in 2015 brought international focus on the failure of European leaders to respond logistically and humanely to an otherwise-silenced human disaster. Greece, Italy and Turkey faced significant criticism, particularly from Northern European states, for their failure to either prevent people from entering Europe or to prevent the loss of life at sea.
Although geographic spatial positioning was an obvious facilitator for their unrequested roles as both transient and host states, the financial and legislative outsourcing of border controls has been a more invisible contributor to the catastrophes that unfolded across Southern and indeed Eastern Europe. This chapter develops such a focus by using the UK’s response to the so-called refugee crisis as a case study. I argue that the longer-term expansions of stringent border controls, particularly since the 1990s, have been deliberately developed so that Britain is shielded from the realities of refugee influx, border deaths or crisis. This ‘orchestrated invisibility’ facilitates a sense of ignorance towards human suffering, which in turn allows the UK a sense of unknowing, even when it has become impossible not to know.
Overall, this chapter traces relevant legislation to external borders and buffer zones (Carr 2012) and simultaneously maps the role the UK, and specifically Britain, has played in the creation of crisis. Its role in conflict, arms trade and economic destabilisation has placed it on the peripheries at best and centrally at worst to many of the nations that refugees are fleeing from. Nonetheless, by feigning ignorance and exercising collective denial (Cohen 2001) through socio-spatial distance, the UK has failed to respond humanely to a catastrophe, aspects of which it is, at least in part, responsible for.
Victoria Canning

8. Climate Change Denial: ‘Making Ignorance Great Again’

The denial of climate change and its negative consequences for global environments is pervasive in certain corridors of corporate and political power. This agnosia by powerful elites is a substantial contributor to global environmental degradation and destruction. This chapter explores the power of ignorance and argues that political dismissiveness of climate change is a recipe to exploit the environment for political and profitable purposes. Moreover, it argues that ignorance, defined as ‘unjustifiable belief’, provides those in positions of power and entitlement to assert their own unquestioning expertise within an ideological bias that not only furthers their political and capital aspirations but endangers the planet.
Reece Walters

9. Spectacular Law and Order: Photography, Social Harm, and the Production of Ignorance

This chapter brings into conversation the study of ignorance and visual criminology. Visual criminologists have tended to argue that visual evidence of harms, particularly those perpetuated by the state, might expand the criminological imagination and has the potential to produce counter-discourses to official understandings of crime. Surveying the classic theory of photography and spectatorship, I contest this claim on two counts. Firstly, I argue that photography may be more ambivalent than this. Rather than awakening consciousness, photographs of harm and suffering often merely reproduce official and state perspectives, or else are so unbearable to witness as to provoke a desire to unsee. Secondly, I suggest it is not the photograph itself that has the power to emancipate, but spectators themselves, as active producers of meaning.
Alex Dymock

10. Penal Agnosis and Historical Denial: Problematising ‘Common Sense’ Understandings of Prison Officers and Violence in Prison

The aim of this chapter is to consider if the much-publicised ‘causal relationship’ between prison officer numbers and prisoner violence is a form of ‘penal agnosis’: the cultural production of penal ignorance (Proctor, Agnotology: a missing term to describe the cultural production of ignorance. In R. Proctor & L. Schiebinger (Eds.), Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). My use of penal agnosis draws directly from the writings of Cohen (States of denial. Cambridge: Polity, 2001) and Mathiesen (Silently silenced. Winchester: Waterside Press, 2004). Silencing techniques deployed in everyday life help to keep people quiet and neutralise criticism. Whilst these are varied, of particular concern here is when an event becomes “isolated in the present” (Mathiesen, Silently silenced. Winchester: Waterside Press, 2004: 42), specifically contemporary media and political discussions of prison officers and prison violence. This chapter provides a theoretical context to the invisibility of historical evidence regarding the deeply embedded harms and violence of penal confinement. It focuses on how the narrative of prison staffing levels is not only time-locked but also how the current understandings of the relationship with violence are derived primarily from the perspective of prison officers. Through critique of this approach an alternative space is opened for thinking differently about how to best respond to the current harms and violence of incarceration.
David Scott


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