CrimScapes: Brief Overview of Research Key Findings

by CrimScapes Research Team


  1. Based on the observation that politics of criminalization have grown in importance globally, CrimScapes investigates ethnographically the specific manifestations across a variety of fields such as hate speech, women’s imprisonment, abortion, drug use, the spread of HIV/AIDS, search and rescue activities and sex work while looking at a specific European region for each. 
  2. In general, politics of criminalisation can be employed in two distinct ways: On the one hand it aims at supporting citizen rights and protecting vulnerable groups – e.g. when intensifying anti-hate speech laws to protect victims of hate -, on the other hand, it targets people, who are conceived as thread to public security and/or moral orders – e.g. when drug use, abortion or sex work is restricted or fully banned. 
  3. Understood broadly as the application of and increasing reliance on criminal law, crime control measures and imaginaries of (il)legality, politics of criminalisation come at the expense of – or entangled with – other forms of democratic governance, such as social justice, welfare and humanitarianism. 
  4. Politics of criminalization usually don’t go unquestioned. They play out and become enacted and negotiated locally in specific “landscapes of criminalisation.” In view of developments across European regions, it becomes obvious that these ever-changing “crimscapes” are often characterized by a legal ambiguity, creating “hostile environments” for those who have to navigate them as addressees of these politics. 
  5. Politics of criminalisation have effects on and contribute to a wide range of social phenomena, such as the creation of individual and group subjectivities, the ways in which social movements organise today, as shaping state-citizen relations and informing transnational regimes of participation, mobility, emotions and notions of “in/justice”. 
  6. Hence, politics of criminalisation present dilemmas to democratic governance. For example, criminalisation and juridification may hinder processes of collectivisation and solidarization. As criminalization “expands”, it might also involve the proliferation of non-state, and thus not-elected, actors. It unfolds threatening effects on everyday lifeworlds through subtle and manifold mechanisms beyond criminalisation, and is key to understanding the social order in Europe today. 

CrimScapes Key Findings 

The CrimScapes research project has undertaken a comprehensive examination of the proliferating influences of criminal law, crime control measures, and the imaginations surrounding (il)legality. The ethnographic research works to analytically grasp the motivations behind, and challenges and implications of, criminalisation for a variety of actors and practices that (re-)shape entangled landscapes of criminalisation, “crimscapes.”
While encompassing a diverse array of themes, including abortion, sex work, incarcerated women, hate speech, sea rescue, infectious diseases, and drug use, the research contributes to the international debates on a punitive turn in the penitentiary system.
It shows that this global trend does not go unchallenged and is articulated very differently locally – an endeavor that’s captured by the original concept of “CrimScapes – (shifting) Landscapes of Criminalization”.
Our original material has allowed for two things: 1. The research has, in part, explored “new terrains”. Therefore, its social impact has consisted in bringing a hitherto scientific and social blind spot into the public eye to some extent. 2. The cross-case analysis has revealed the pervasive impacts of criminalization on citizenship and democratic governance, prompting a critical reflection on citizenship that goes beyond narrow legal interpretations. In sum, the research shows the impact on the creation of individual and group subjectivities, and the ways in which social movements organise today, as shaping state-citizen relations and informing transnational regimes of mobility, emotions and notions of “in/justice.” This expanded understanding considers responsibilities, subjectivities, and the dynamics regulating access to rights.

More precisely, the project’s key findings, including examples from our research fields, are: 

  1. Politics of criminalisation are a growing and driving, yet mostly overlooked, policy trend across the world and in Europe. These politics encompass the growing mobilisation of criminal law, crime control measures and imaginaries of (il)legality as both responses to, and producers of, the politics of threat and uncertainty that are currently expanding across the European region.
  2. This “punitive trend”, a policy trend which has widely been described with regards to the anglo-saxon world, plays out and becomes enacted and contested locally across “landscapes of criminalisation” in Europe. It thus can be best understood through multi-sited ethnography in different fields of criminalisation across the region, focusing not solely on top-down processes, but particularly on the lived realities and how people “navigate” these environments.
  3. These crimscapes are often characterized by a legal ambiguity, creating “hostile environments”. We have been discussing the original concepts of  “institutional abandonment”(A. Dziuban) and “criminalisation machine” (J. Struzik) to grasp the mechanisms, contradictions and continuities, as well as unpredicted consequences of criminalisation.
    One of the most compelling and horrifying examples certainly is the effect of the legal ambiguity of the de-facto abortion ban in Poland, leading medical staff to refrain from providing assistance in cases of life-threatening miscarriages – accounting for the tragic death of several pregnant people within the past months.
  4. Politics of criminalisation can generally be employed in two distinct ways: On the one hand it can describe the mobilization of citizen rights – e.g. when intensifying anti-hate speech laws to protect victims of hate – , on the other hand, it can point to a challenge of participatory and transparent democratic processes – e.g. when public funds are given to police over community development.
  5. Politics of criminalisation don’t always go unquestioned. At times, they are contested and even disrupted by a turn to rehabilitative and non-punitive measures.
    In Germany, for example, the current government claims to turn away from prior penal policy and works to legalize a number of offenses and crimes. However, these developments don’t (yet) seem to establish substantial counter-practices of the general punitive turn. As shows the analysis of criminal law reform in Germany in 2023, trends towards legalising certain offences don’t necessarily call into question punitive logics at their core. 
  1. Politics of criminalisation can be understood as contributing to a wide range of current social phenomena, such as the creation of individual and group subjectivities, and the ways in which social movements organise today, as shaping state-citizen relations and informing transnational regimes of mobility, emotions and notions of “in/justice”. More precisely, we have identified the following core themes:
    • Criminalisation, (Historical) Figurations and Social Justice
      Notions of justice are inherent to politics of criminalisation. These notions are shifting and contested, and notions of social and criminal justice are far from being conjunt. Crucial for these contestations of in/justice and the shifting politics of criminalisation are emergent social figures of crime and criminalisation, vulnerability and protection.
      For example, figures such as “the criminal hero”, “the hater”, “the irregular migrant”, “the female offender as victim” and many more are important in the un/making of notions of justice and within the both, persistent and shifting governing logics of criminalisation.
    • Criminalisation, Citizenship and the Politics of In/Visibility
      The politics of visibility play a central role in various fields of criminalization, where the perception of being seen or unseen impacts regulation, representation and vulnerability. Through our analysis, visibility emerges as a regime of governance that varyingly shapes the ways in which people understand themselves, each other, and the common good.
      For example, imprisoned women shift between making themselves seen and unseen by the state/prison. Whereas the condition of the modern women’s prison can be conceptualised through the notion of carceral care,  prisoners’ citizenship is enacted within a permanent movement between longing for the state´s care and welfare, and hiding from its control.
    • Criminalisation and the Politics of Emotions
      Our research points to the ways in which emotions, criminalization, and citizenship intersect, especially as social movements form and respond to the challenging socio-political environments of criminalisation.
      For example, emotional dimensions underpin the medical-legal construction of HIV/AIDS in the courtroom. In harm reduction centers, we can witness how emotions such as refusal and shutting down help navigate criminalized fields. Finally, numerous social movements such as the pro-abortion movement transform their crimscapes by redefining hope and turning disappointments into productive catalysts for a more radical, embodied activism.
    • Criminalisation and Care: Criminalisation OF and AS Care and Radical Wellbeing as Mode of Navigation
      The research came to understand that contemporary landscapes of criminalization are characterized by the close entanglement of regimes of control and regimes of care. The notion of carceral care proved to be able to capture the simultaneousness of these seemingly oppositional regimes.
      For example, research from the fields of drug use, sex work and women’s prisons show, that In order to navigate their everyday life, affected communities try to anticipate, and subsequently live up to regimes of carceral care. But while they try to live up to the therapeutic and rehabilitative caring regime their affords are often thwarted by custodial measures of security and control.
    • Criminalisation, production of crises and chronicity
      Our research has documented how the lives of persons impacted by criminalisation are marked by what we have come to call, building on others, conditions of chronic crises. Criminalization not only restricts individual freedoms, but it can also deepen social inequalities, limiting access to citizenship rights and opportunities for affected groups. The relationship between criminalization and citizenship becomes particularly pronounced when state institutions target specific communities, often leading to a primary perception of the state as threat to well-being or survival rather than source of care and protection.
      For sex workers or people who use drugs in Poland, for example, citizenship rights are compromised due to police targeting, social and self-stigmatisation, and seemingly insurmountable legal and medical constraints.
  1. As inclined above, politics of criminalization hence present dilemmas to democratic governance. These dilemmas entail, but are not limited to:
    • Either in the name of protection and empowerment or of containment and punishment, criminalisation needs to be understood in relation to the general tendency toward juridification of social problems. 
    • The individualizing effects that result from the negotiation of social problems and the pursuit of social justice within a legal framework. Criminalisation and juridification hinder processes of collectivisation and solidarization.
    • Nevertheless, for some criminalized populations, criminalisation has provoked, perhaps paradoxically, the construction of political identities, communities and modes of participation, that are crucial to understanding the social order in Europe today. 
    • A foundation of democracy is that people (demos) have influence on political processes, often through the election of decision-making officials. However, our research indicates that criminalization “expands”, and it might also involve the proliferation of non-state, and thus not-elected, actors, such as non-governmental not-for-profit or for-profit organizations and corporations.