Book Review: Imaginative Criminology by Seal & O’Neill

Imaginative Criminology: Of Spaces Past, Present and Future by Lizzie Seal and Maggie O’Neill, Bristol University Press 2019.

Lizzie Seal is Reader in Criminology at Sussex University. She is the author of Transgressive Imaginations (2012, Palgrave) with Maggie, and Capital Punishment in Twentieth Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (2014, Routledge). She tweets @lizzieseal

Maggie O’Neill is Professor in Sociology and Head of the Department of Sociology & Criminology at University College Cork. She co-authored Transgressive Imaginations (2012, Palgrave) with Lizzie and most recently Walking Methods: Research on the Move with Brian Roberts (2020, Routledge). She tweets @maggieoneill9

Review by Phil Crockett Thomas

There is a current trend within criminology for combining a hitherto marginalised word with the name of the discipline and branding a distinctive approach with its own canon, which perhaps reflects the dominance of the neoliberal imagination of academia as a ‘marketplace of ideas’. Thankfully Lizzie Seal and Maggie O’Neill’s Imaginative Criminology doesn’t give the impression that the authors are engaging in this kind of intellectual ‘camp building’. Rather that they are extending an invitation to an expanded criminology which is heterogeneous and interdisciplinary both in its methodological approach and intellectual resources.

The book is part of the New Horizons in Criminology series, edited by Andrew Millie, which aims to provide concise introductions to cutting edge or marginalised topics for a non-specialist audience such as the criminology of climate change, and ‘convict criminology’. Well meeting this aspiration, the book is engagingly and accessibly written. In eight short chapters it introduces many interesting projects and stimulating ideas. For readers wishing to deepen their engagement, the book is extensively referenced without feeling clunky to read. Imaginative Criminology encompasses a range of interwoven methodological and analytic approaches: gaining insights from fictional or artistic sources, biographical or participatory research, and employing arts-based methods or collaborating with artists to do creative ethnographic research, notably walking. These are skillfully and satisfyingly combined reflecting Seal and O’Neill’s considerable joint experience working with these methods. It is also interdisciplinary drawing insights from criminology (particularly cultural and critical criminology), sociology, literary theory, cultural theory, and geography.

The incorporation of participatory and arts-based methods into the social sciences has been growing in recent decades, thanks to several factors including increasing academic acceptability of creative practice-based research, and the perception of the arts as more democratic (and appealing) to research participants. The 50th anniversary of C Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959) saw the publication of a number of texts across the social sciences which returned to Mills’ classic provocation in an effort to refocus the political and methodological orientation of the social sciences. The Sociological Imagination has since functioned as a touchstone to the authors of Imaginative Criminology and many other scholars taking the ontological position that everything could be different than it is and that as such, an important task of the social sciences is to imagine how things could be different (and better). Seal and O’Neill see the arts and participatory arts-based methods as valuable tools in this endeavour.

In many ways, Imaginative Criminology continues in the approach developed in Seal and O’Neill’s previous joint-authored monograph Transgressive Imaginations (2012), which explored representations of criminalised and marginalised groups in fiction and arts-based ethnographic research. Both books take social transgression rather than crime as their foundational concept and explore the nuances of being perceived as socially transgressive, as well as self-identifying as such. Importantly, in its attention to the gendering of social transgression, Transgressive Imaginations served as a corrective to the dominant conceptualisation of transgression-as-resistance within ‘cultural criminology’. Imaginative Criminology diverges from the earlier text in its focus on the spaces and spatial politics of social transgression and punishment. Arguing that criminology is undergoing a (late) blossoming ‘spatial turn’ (p.10), this new work moves away from individual identities to explore the polysemy of space. They attend closely to the way that transgression is spatialised into boundary markings such as borders, and practices of confinement and exclusion. Seal and O’Neill draw on two classics on the politics of space to orient their analysis: Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) The Production of Space and Doreen Massey’s (2005) Space, Place and Gender. From Lefebvre, they take the notion that spaces exist both in concrete reality and the imagination and that these are mutually shaping (p.12). From Massey, that space is lived, polysemic, and relational. Spaces contain multiple temporalities and are alive to the past, present and future. Following this, the authors emphasise the role of history and contested memory, in shaping present spaces.

This is a slim volume which introduces a wide range of topics. Chapters two and three re-imagine spaces past: respectively the violence of colonialism in the creation of homes for forcibly removed Indigenous children in Australia, and the religious and gendered violence of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Both of these sites are explored through analysis of popular cultural representations and archival oral history testimonies. The focus on non-penal spaces of confinement and contested national cultural memory responds to Michelle Brown’s (2009) argument that prison overdetermines how we think about punishment both within research and in wider society. Chapter four discusses two recent participatory arts projects which centred on creative writing with male prisoners in England. They are guided in their analysis by their assessment of participants’ writing as ‘creative writing, rather than simply as exercises of rehabilitative programming’ (p.55). Chapters five and six feature O’Neill’s walking ethnographies. Chapter five is a timely discussion of global mobility, exclusion and containment. For O’Neill walking is a disruptive and ‘subversive’ (p.13) practice, partly for the way it enables an analysis of capitalist and neoliberal spaces. This is evident in their discussion of the gentrification and ‘social cleansing’ of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in chapter six. Also discussed in chapter six isBelfast’s historical spaces of violence and conflict explored through participation in a walking tour (the only section of the book that includes images). This chapter is a little unsatisfying to read because it aims to cover two complex sites briefly. The final chapter discusses the treatment of themes of transgression and control in dystopian teenage fiction. Here they note that it is only in recent decades that criminologists have begun to engage seriously with the arts and literature as a rich source of cultural and social information about crime, punishment and justice. This chapter presents a textual analysis of the content of several novels and conjectures on their potential for social critique. As such, it would have been fascinating to learn about how readers engage with and ‘use’ these books.

This is an exciting, engaging, and generous invitation to an imaginative criminology of space. The authors’ reimagination of the concerns of criminology as global ‘orderings’ (Frauley, 2015) of exclusion and inclusion is both welcome and urgently needed. Perhaps inevitably, depth is sacrificed in the commitment to scope. The brevity of the book and ambitious amount of ground covered means that chapters sometimes end abruptly, and the conclusion feels like a missed opportunity to build connections between chapters. In the meeting of the arts and the social sciences, art world logics and knowledges rarely take precedence over those of the sciences. This book is no exception to that rule, and it feels as if the authors have played it safe with the arts-based methods employed. I am excited to see how this work develops, and no doubt subsequent imaginative criminological scholarship will draw more substantially on the resources of the sensory, sonic, visual, fictional and digital. Encouragingly, the authors write that ‘there is no single or best way to do imaginative criminology; there is a multiplicity of ways’ (p.16).

Dr Phil Crockett Thomas is the research associate on the Distant Voices project, based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow. Phil has a PhD in Visual Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London (2018). Her practice combines creating fiction, poetry, collage and film with more traditional social science approaches. Her website is, she tweets @crowdedmouth.

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