Criminology in a World Adrift

This guest post is published in advance of the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Jeff Ferrell, author of the forthcoming Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge (March 2018)

Over the past few weeks two international tragedies have made the headlines. In Bangladesh, the number of Rohingya Muslim refugees driven from Myanmar by a military campaign of physical and sexual terror has now reached one million. Trapped on a strip of muddy land, welcome neither in Myanmar nor in Bangladesh, the refugees talk of being ‘lost in time.’ Meanwhile, Australia announces plans to close its primary detention center for refugees and asylum seekers – a center located not in Australia itself but in Papua New Guinea. There, refugees talk of ‘feeling lost and drifting’ after four years’ confinement. As Australia and Papua New Guinea argue over responsibility for the refugees, an Australian politician agrees that the refugees ‘are stuck in legal and physical limbo.’

Of course these aren’t the only groups adrift from citizenship and legal protection, adrift in time and space, adrift while made to move or made to stand still. Countless Central Americans refugees ride El Tren de la Muerte (the Death Train), a U.S.-bound freight train, up through Mexico. Millions of Syrian refugees, remnants of Syria’s ‘lost generation,’ flood across Europe. Africans crowd rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean, only to find themselves bounced between European borders. Chinese officials work to move 250 million rural residents into Chinese cities – cities where homeless rural migrant workers already occupy abandoned air-defense tunnels and shelter in McDonald’s restaurants.

So pervasive is this global dislocation that the defining trajectory of the contemporary world seems not so much up or down as simply adrift. For North Americans and Europeans this trajectory also plays out, not just in faraway headlines but in their own daily lives. Here urban economic development predicated on spatial privatization and high-end consumerism displaces residents from once-affordable housing and creates a vast army of part-time service workers and temporary employees. The legal regulation of these urban areas in turn operates around risk management and the policing of transient populations, with the razing of refugee and homeless encampments, the use of banishment and dispersal orders, and the aggressive ‘moving-on’ of street populations. Contemporary urban development spawns social dislocation, and the legal controls meant to protect urban development from transient populations serve to make such populations only more transient.

To make sense of all this, criminologists will need theoretical models that can account for drift’s intertwined social, spatial, and legal dynamics. They’ll need methods as fluid and flexible as are the groups to be studied. Perhaps most importantly they’ll need epistemologies attuned to the inherent ambiguity and uncertainty of drift. And in this work of disciplinary reinvention they can find assistance – from drifters themselves. Drifting certainly brings with it the profound pain of dislocation and loss. But as contemporary drifters themselves know and put into practice, drifting also forces open new ways of seeing and living in the world, offering dangerous disorientations that are also critical, cosmopolitan, and alive to possibility.


Jeff Ferrell is Professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University and Visiting Professor of Criminology at University of Kent. He is the author of Crimes of Style, Tearing Down the Streets, and Empire of Scrounge, and co-author of Cultural Criminology: An Invitation.

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