The Idea of Crisis: Reflections from the 2022 NSfK Research Seminar

by Elin Jönsson

Elin Jönsson. Photo: Private

As soon as I read the theme for this year’s NSfK Research Seminar – “Crime and Crisis in the North: Past, present and future” – I knew I had to apply. But I also knew that if I would be granted a spot at the seminar, my presentation would not fully adhere to this theme. First of all, taking an interest in the (mis)conduct of large corporations, my PhD project goes beyond the legalistic definition of ‘crime’, because corporate conduct can be harmful without necessarily being illegal. Second of all, being concerned with the regulation of corporations in the global setting, my project extends beyond the boundaries of the North, by taking an interest in the ‘governance gaps’ or ‘regulatory vacuums’ across the globe. Rather than “Crime and Crisis in the North”, then, it is perhaps more fitting to say that my presentation revolved around “Harm and Crisis around the World”.

There was one key concept, however, that remained throughout my presentation: Crisis. Just prior to the NSfK Research Seminar, I read Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory by Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi. Here, they discuss – among other topics – the crisis tendencies of capitalist society, which is described as a ‘crisis complex’. As a criminologist interested in global corporate harm, my mind immediately drifts to the current climate crisis, as well as the causes and effects of the recent financial crisis (which Ólafur Þór Hauksson gave an excellent presentation on at the seminar). It also drifts to the violations of human rights linked to processes of economic globalization, which Steven Bittle and Laureen Snider discuss in their work as an “ongoing human rights crisis”. Our contemporary society thus appears to be permeated by multiple crises, with consequences that stretch across the globe.

But for a long time, criminology has been called out for not engaging enough with the powerful actors that can be associated with the above-mentioned crises. Over 80 years ago, Edwin Sutherland famously called upon criminologists to shift their attention to the crimes committed by the white-collar class. More recently, and in a Nordic context, Janne Flyghed argued that while we know much about traditional crimes – their development, causes, and means of prevention – we know significantly less about crimes of the powerful, such as large corporations and nation-states. In fact, Flyghed suggests, our dominant focus on traditional crimes effectively obfuscates the crimes of the powerful, rendering them more or less invisible.

Guided by an ambition of contributing to this area of research, my PhD project attempts to approach the study of powerful actors through the concept of crisis. Returning again to the work of Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, focusing on crisis and crisis tendencies allows us to elucidate the fragility and instability of contemporary society. Using these notions as starting points enables critical analyses of the struggles and practices that cause, and are caused by, them. Therefore, while the NSfK Research Seminar is over for this time, we must continue to consider its theme and the idea of crisis, to find inspiration for research projects in the future – projects in which crises and, above all, the powerful actors associated with them are at the forefront.

Elin Jönsson Elin Jönsson is a PhD Student at the Department of Criminology, Stockholm University, with an interest in ‘crimes of the powerful’, attempts at controlling them, and national as well as international policy-making. In her PhD project, Elin explores the regulation of Swedish corporations in a global setting, with a focus on the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility.