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In the Shadow of 9/11: How the Study of Political Extremism Has Reshaped Criminology


White-collar crime and illegal political extremism share several characteristics with relevance to criminology. Neither is associated with lower socioeconomic status individuals, both involve perpetrators that rarely see themselves as criminal, and both face unique data challenges. Following Edwin Sutherland's influential research, the study of white-collar crime became a recognized specialization within criminology. Similarly, following the coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001, political extremism became increasingly accepted as a legitimate research topic in criminology. I explore several ways that the study of terrorism has influenced criminological research and how responses to terrorist attacks since 9/11 can help us understand policing. Terrorism research has vividly illustrated the socially constructed nature of crime, has encouraged researchers to see not only the deterrence potential of punishment but also its capacity to produce backlash, has accelerated cross-national criminology research, and has hastened the embrace of open sources as an important form of criminal justice data. Changes in policing following 9/11 and the resulting war on terror also provide critical insights into the extent to which policing depends on community trust and legitimacy. As with the embrace of white-collar crime nearly a century ago, mainstream criminology has been enriched by widening its scope to include political extremism.

*This address was delivered at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Chicago, IL, on November 18, 2021. The author would like to thank Anina Schwarzenbach, Brandon Behlendorf, Martha Crenshaw, Hsin Jaw, John Laub, Rick McCauley, Sally Simpson, David Weisburd, and Yesenia Yanez for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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Full Citation:

Lafree, Gary. 2021. "In the shadow of 9/11: How the study of political extremism has reshaped criminology." Criminology (December). https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9125.12299

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