VCSIA Winner — Kanupriya Sharma
In late 2017, I was seeking out potential supervisors in criminology to undertake my doctorate research in the discipline. The project was based in India and aimed to present a cultural understanding of women’s imprisonment and post imprisonment experiences through the lens of their prison-borne heterosexual relationships. Among the few discussions I had with senior academicians in the field, the one thing that particularly struck me was their visible discomfort in supervising a study based outside the UK/Europe.
While ‘the lack of contextual/geographical knowledge’ seemed to be a plausible explanation for the ‘lack of interest’ in my project at the time, these conversations made me reflect on the reluctance of international criminologists in supervising students from non-western, Southern contexts. This lack of confidence in chartering in unknown geographical territories, especially the Global South, somewhat highlights the limited reach of criminological scholarship and the global disparity within knowledge production. As Connel (2006:242) remarks, “Throughout history and including the present era, when it comes to social science, there is a heartland that produces knowledge and ‘an exotic periphery’ that might be spoken
about or extracted from, but which is not imagined as a source of valuable insight.” Criminology is no exception to this worldview. Until now, criminologists have insufficiently reflected on the ethnocentrism of their discipline, preferring instead to believe that criminology is ‘universal’ and ‘scientific’ rather than culturally and historically constituted. This Westerncentrism of the discipline is problematic not only because it is discriminatory, but also because it unnecessarily excludes alternative accounts and understandings of crime, violence and social justice. For me, this knowledge disparity became more striking when I finally joined the PhD programme at the Institute in 2019 and found little or absolutely no literature pertaining to South Asia in the intellectual repository of the University.
The euro-dominated reference list burdened me to either rely on western prison literature or find respite in South Asian literature of other associated disciplines. This triggered the idea of forming an intellectual network of criminologists and other social scientists to discuss and critically analyse the existing terrains of the discipline and call for a more global, diverse and inclusive theoretical and methodological approach in criminology. In January,
2020, I founded the Cambridge Decolonising Criminology Network at the Institute amidst passive resistance and active ignorance from the academic staff members. At its inception, the network was primarily seen as a harmless initiative led by a student of color and/or at most a tokenistic endeavour to talk about matters related to race in criminology. However, for me it became a space where I could belong, where my ideas found wings and my
reproval of knowledge disparity became a tool for critical reflection of the discipline. The network grew leaps and bounds during the lockdown as the discussions shifted online and scholars from across the globe became involved in the network.
Today, the network boasts of a diverse set of membership and audience. Since 2020, the network has organised several online seminars, reading group discussions and meetings with academicians from diverse disciplines, opening doors to subaltern, indigenous and non-western theory and understandings of crime and justice. We now have a full-fledged committee to run the network, mostly led by MPhil students, the members of which continuously try to bring about institutional and structural change in terms of racialised attainment of knowledge and inclusive pedagogy. Our existence is now visible, with some active doers and more passive supporters. However, since the network is mostly student-led, with only a handful of staff members involved, my fear is to find a way to sustain the network in the long run. Currently, my biggest challenge and need is to institutionalise decolonisation as a working approach, not merely as a stand-alone, BIPOC-led initiative within the Institute and the discipline. I want criminologists to recognise how important it is to critically reflect on our structural and disciplinary histories and not see decolonisation as ‘just a fad’ as some resistant or sceptical scholars may suggest. I refuse to reduce decolonisation as a voluntary domain of a few academicians who have the individual choice to diversify their reading lists or supervise/hire people from diverse backgrounds and push the epistemological boundaries of their research practice. I believe that it is time to make ‘decolonisation’ mainstream. It is time to question and transform what we teach and how we teach. It is time to look at how our institutions function, what we research and how we conduct and explain our research, as well as how we engage with people inside and outside the familiar. It is time to bridge the existing knowledge divide so that there is no Global
North or South. Just Criminology.
This blog is in no way intended to blame or discredit any individual or institution. I am very aware of the structural challenges that I had to face in establishing the Cambridge Decolonising Criminology Network and this blog is an attempt to explain and reflect on some of these provocations that I had to face along the journey. I am very thankful to the director of the Institute and the panel of judges who found me worthy of being shortlisted for the
award. While there is still a long way to go, this award is a huge encouragement that not all is lost and that there are still people who continue to believe in the importance and impact of decolonial work. I also want to thank my research participants, the women who I interviewed in prisons across India, who made me reflect on some of these epistemological
issues and induced me to challenge the western hegemonic system of knowing and understanding. I had the privilege to interview these women amidst the pandemic, and get involved in their lives in the most intimate ways. When the devastating second wave of Covid-19 hit India, I, with the help of some of the members of the decolonising criminology network, was able to run a counselling programme for covid-affected people in prisons and
raise funds for PPE kits for correctional staff members. The network has not only served as a stimulating academic space for me but has provided me with undying support and comfort in the most challenging of personal circumstances.
To reiterate, I am really thankful to all those people who have challenged me, supported me or provoked me in this arduous journey. Without them, this network wouldn’t have taken this shape.
PhD Candidate in Criminology and Gates-Cambridge Scholar
University of Cambridge