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Book Review

A Suitable Amount of Crime

By Nils Christie
London, UK: Routledge, 2004

Once again, Nils Christie has pulled it off. He has written a slim, easily readable book which re-engages his adult lifelong preoccupation with the meaning of crime. His basic proposition is what his seasoned readers might expect, namely that “crime does not exist” (p. 3). Further, for those who wish to deeply explore the meaning of crime and its partner-in-law of punishment, the true focus, says Christie, should be on acts and the “destiny of acts through the universe of meanings” (ibid). In turn what is at issue are the social conditions that facilitate or inhibit particular acts being ascribed the meaning of crime.

The novice reader of Christie might ask: “If crime essentially does not exist, and is merely a concept, then why should scholars such as Christie devote so much time and energy to exploring the meaning of crime?” The answer lies in Christie’s basic observation that concepts have consequences. A Suitable Amount of Crime constitutes a summation of his efforts to unwrap and unravel the processes whereby certain acts become socially defined as crime, and the ramifications of this with respect to punishment, and especially the use of imprisonment.

Having made crucial ontological and epistemological points about crime Christie posits some central questions:

First, what is behind increases or decreases in acts generally perceived as unwanted or unacceptable? And how is it eventually possible to influence the occurrence of these unwanted acts?

Second, what is it that makes a shifting quota of these unwanted acts to appear as crimes and the actors as criminals? Particularly, under what material, social, cultural and political conditions will crime and criminals appear as the dominant metaphors, the dominant way of seeing the unwanted acts and actors?

...... When is enough, enough? Or, as in the title, what is a suitable amount of crime? This question leads naturally to the next: What is a suitable amount of punishment?

Christie then proceeds to take the reader on an informative journey through a remarkable diversity of themes and topics. This is not a book only about crime and punishment, it is also a statement of Christie’s perspective on contemporary institutions around the world, and how they affect our human condition. A frequent theme is the diminishment of the intimacy and mutual consideration found in small, tightly knit societies and the concurrent dehumanization of everyday life as fuelled by the relentless march of capitalistic activity. “We know,” states Christie (p. 22) that “Simmel.... was right. Money is the enemy of primary relations.” In illustrating this point Christie observes that where cathedrals and royal palaces used to be the cultural landmarks, and later universities and schools, these have now been usurped by economic icons. As Christie notes (p. 23): “Palaces for God, palaces for kings, palaces for knowledge and education. And now, in modern cities, these are all overshadowed by skyscrapers and shopping centres; palaces for trade and money. The target of September 11 was not a random choice.”

Christie’s book has 8 chapters. Having documented “Crime does not exist” in Chapter 1, he continues under the titles: “Monocultures”; “The use-value of crime”; “Incarceration as an answer”; “State - or neighbours?”; “No punishment”; “Answers to atrocities”; and “When is enough, enough?” Each chapter is divided into sub-sections with the content being short (less than a page to about 3 pages). This stylistic feature of his work allows Christie to engage many topics. The use of numerous sub-sections also facilitates Christie in his characteristic use of vignettes, often both literary and moral in their tone. To cite some examples: “The suffocated wife”; “Angry old people”; “Costs of a monolithic reward system”; “Punishment in the service of welfare”; “Words as weapons”; “The great incarcerators”; “Trivial truths”; “The importance of not having answers”; “Penal systems as signs”; and “Individual resistance.”

What emerges is an academic kaleidoscope. The narrative is at once historical and contemporary. For example, Christie’s reflections on events of September 11, 2001, in the USA are set in the context of earlier atrocities concerning Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden, the Gulags, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The narrative is also at once academic and personal. When discussing academic perspectives on “the fall of central authority” at the end of the second world war (Dahrendorf, 1985, on Berlin, and Enzenberger, 1985, on Hungary) Christie draws on his own teenage experiences of the German occupation of Norway.

Underlying this academic kaleidoscope is Christie’s enduring preoccupation with the importance of civility in interpersonal relations. It is matters of civility which are the common theme in his discussions of driving behaviour in Sao Paulo, Brazil, neighbours’ reactions to a man acting bizarrely in a small park in a residential area of Oslo, phenomenally varying imprisonment rates in different countries, the disenchantment of some judges in the USA and in England, or his childhood memories of the personal habits of his three great-aunts in Norway.

One of the contributions of A Suitable Amount of Crime is Christie’s clarification that a stringent avoidance of tendencies to posit the perpetrators of the world’s most atrocious acts as ‘terrorists’ or ‘monsters’ (e.g. in the case of genocide in Rwanda) does not imply an advocacy of ‘turning the other cheek’ or trying to disengage oneself from recognition of atrocities. To the contrary, Christie states (p. 98):

.... atrocities are general features of human history, parts of our destiny. Many nations have been involved, as victims or as perpetrators, often as both. It is important to include atrocities in the normality of abnormality. We must find ways of both preventing and reacting to atrocities where we mobilize the common stock of knowledge on how to handle social conflicts.

Christie advocates that “we must always try to initiate negotiations.” Before and in lieu of a resort to retaliatory violence there should be attempts ”to create conditions for dialogue.” (p. 99). Christie exhorts our meeting those who have done wrong, and trying to understand why they acted as they did.

At the same time Christie acknowledges that there are situations where use of force may be necessary, both concerning individuals posing a danger, and in some political conflicts. But even in such situations he emphasizes the importance of a search for common ground and shared human traits, because, he says, “this is essential for the control of the controller” (p. 98). Christie observes that, in the absence of a search for understanding, there can be a perception of the other person as outside normal humanity and unworthy of basic rules of decency. “The idea,” says Christie, “that monsters exist is dangerous for all, but particularly dangerous for those among us with the formal task of controlling other people’s behaviour” (ibid).

Christie’s point therefore is not to advocate “amnesia” (p. 100) but rather that we adopt the most ethical response. Toward this he advocates that all relevant information be brought to the surface, and be “imprinted in all our minds and all human history.” With this done, Christie says, “we might in the end have no better final solution than forgiveness and restoration” (ibid).
Based on his acknowledgement that unacceptable acts do exist, and that in some cases “the crime concept.... might be the right one to apply” (p. 7), and further that restraint, including imprisonment, may on occasion be appropriate, the tendency of some criminologists to categorize Christie as an abolitionist would appear to be incorrect. Indeed Christie himself engages this issue head on when he states that “abolitionism, in its purified form, is not an attainable position. We cannot abolish the penal institution totally.” Christie describes his own stance as “minimalism. This is close to the abolitionist position, but accepts that in certain cases, punishment is unavoidable” (p. 98)..

At the same time, Christie observes that abolitionism and minimalism do have much in common. They both take not crime, but “undesirable acts” as their point of departure. They both explore ways in which unwanted acts can be dealt with: “can compensating the injured party help to handle a case, or establishing a truth commission, or helping the offender to ask for forgiveness?” (ibid). For the minimalist punishment is but one of a number of options, and this, together with the minimalist’s willingness to consider the series of events preceding the undesirable actions yields what Christies describes as a “liberating perspective” offering freedom to choose.

Having described his minimalist position “from the heart,” in his concluding chapter Christie makes an effort to “anchor” his views to a type of reasoning (p. 102). His reasoning is expressed as a basic triumvirate of values: (pp. 102-104, italics in original):

  1. IF we believe in the values of kindness and forgiving
            - then we ought to keep the institution of penal law a small one.
  2. IF we believe in the values of keeping civil societies civil
            - then we have to keep the institution of penal law a small one.
  3. IF we believe in the value of living in cohesive, integrated societies
            - then we must retard the growth of the institution of penal law.

Christie then reflects on how related ethical stances and values can be drawn upon in a reformist strategy of subjecting countries with very high prison populations to a process of collective “reintegrative shaming” (cf. Braithwaite, 2002). There are indications, reports Christie, that this strategy has met with some degree of success in Russia, and in the Baltic states. Officials in these countries appear to be embarrassed about the size of their prison populations as compared, for example, to those of western Europe, and are receptive both to foreign visitors and to suggestions for reform.

In further exploring the ethical role of the criminologist as advocate Christie makes important observations on the current state of the discipline and of the academy more generally. One of his entrances to the topic concerns the phenomenal amount of criminology-related professionals in the USA and their relative public silence about the massive size of the prison population there. However even in his own country - Norway - Christie expresses concern about recent pressures on universities to become part of what he terms a “mono-institutional society,” where “ideals from the area of economy and production have clearly invaded the neighbouring institutions.” Christie aptly observes: “Money is the crowbar.” He elaborates that “activities are to be evaluated according to their profit, and profit is measured in money according to the principle of most to those supposedly having the highest productivity” (p. 25).

Christie’s observations on Norway resonate in Canada and elsewhere: “universities are just now under extraordinary pressure to prove that they are useful and deserve their money” (p. 118). Concomitant with this have come closer relationships between universities and criminal justice institutions with allied pressure that universities provide a curriculum that is “useful” for criminal justice administration. “Increasingly,” states Christie, “universities are organized as if they were factories or shops” (ibid).

The worry in this market trend is that researchers can become captive to the system. Therefore, as strongly as Christie argues the necessity for interpersonal proximity in the resolution of conflict, he equally argues that in the academic quest for understanding, and especially critical understanding, it is essential that researchers be able to put distance between themselves and the objects of their study. This is not to suggest that researchers should not have in-depth contact with prisoners, and with those working at all levels of the system. Such contact is basic to an informed understanding of what is, and what has been, going on. Indeed Christie’s activities are exemplary in his consistent openness to communication with people throughout the criminal justice system both locally and internationally. But, what comes through clearly in his narrative is the need for researchers to have a retreat where they can reflect free of utilitarian pressures. In sum, while Christie advocates that scholars be “out” with those in the penal system, he is equally adamant that we academics be permitted to “also have the ivory tower.... Distance is a necessity to see the whole perspective” (pp. 119-120).

Elements of exterior pressure have long been present for criminologists to produce useful knowledge. But Christie identifies why the current moment is especially grave (pp. 121-122):

The particular danger in the situation is that it all happens at the very same time when the universities are converting to market institutions. When we need them most, the protective shields are taken away. From a theoretical point of view, the whole development is a fascinating confirmation of the power of the one-dimensional society. From the perspective of those of us with a strong wish for preserving room for free criticism, it is a most alarming development.

Despite this bleak market trend Christie remains sufficiently an optimist to conclude his book with a section entitled “individual resistance.” “Hegemony,” states Christie, “is not quite total” (p. 122). He first identifies communal “kernels of resistance” such as the village of Vidarasen (described by him earlier in the book)1, which involve the creation of a counter-culture and demonstrate the importance of community. However, Christie is more concerned to highlight individuals’ capacity for strength and endurance, and their ability to be carriers of “stubborn humanity” (p. 123) under even the most dire of circumstances. He briefly tells the stories of 3 individuals, their circumstances, and how they survived. In closing, Christie states (ibid):
So, this is my contribution to hope in this work. Totalitarian powers are not in total command, even under the most extreme of conditions. Not inside the prisons, not inside the ghetto, not inside the totalitarian state. Some humans make the choice to live, and eventually to die, with dignity.

Perhaps it is the ability to resiliently and continuously see not only the problems in any given situation but to also see each and every situation’s potential that is one of the ultimate gifts of Professor Nils Christie’s work.

I highly recommend this book for novice through to veteran readers with an interest in crime and punishment. It provides the reader with an inspirational and revitalizing refuge in face of dominant political, policy, and sometimes academic discourses which seem to take crime as a given and fail to query punishment as a response.

Carleton University


Brathwaite, John (2002) Restorative Justice and Responsive Regulation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dahrendorf, Ralph (1985) Law and Order. London: The Hamlyn Lectures, 37, Steven.
Enzenberger, Hans Magnus (1985) Ach Europa! Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

1. A thorough account of life at Vidarasen can be found in Nils Christie Beyond Loneliness and Institutions: Communes for Extraordinary People. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1989.

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