Globalization and Rural Crime

Posted by Michael Woods, 21 September 2014

With the current vogue for Nordic Noir, it feels only fitting to come to Stockholm to talk about rural crime. Last week saw an international workshop on rural crime and community safety organized by Vania Ceccato at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), with the presentation of 13 papers that will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Rural Studies early next year. I was invited to chair the meeting as the editor of the Journal of Rural Studies.

Research on rural crime, policing and community safety is still a developing and to some degree disjointed field. Although some criminologists have been examining rural crime over several decades, it still tends to be pushed to the margins of the discipline; whilst more recent work by geographers and sociologists is not always joined up with criminology. Nonetheless, the multi-disciplinary range of papers in the workshop threw up some recurrent themes – the reliability and appropriateness of official crime statistics; the hidden nature of certain types of rural crime, especially violence against women; tensions with myths of the rural idyll; the importance of  models of ‘community’ in understanding rural crime; and the significance of cultures of rural policing in shaping perceptions and records of crime and anti-social behaviour (the latter noted by Andrew Woof in an interesting paper on policing anti-social behaviour in rural Scotland – as well as some new directions, including Richard Yarwood’s paper on rural policing as hybrid networks, examining the role of search dogs in mountain rescue operations.

The papers covered international examples from Sweden, Britain, Australia, Brazil and the United States, but I was struck that whilst there were clear parallels between different countries identified, few explicitly considered international networks or positioned changing patterns of rural crime in the context of globalization. Yet, the significance of globalization was implicit in several of the papers. Rob Smith from Robert Gordon University, in discussing the ‘rogue-ish’ illicit activities of rural entrepreneurs cited examples that involved not only connections between rural and urban areas, but also between Scotland and the Baltic States; whilst John Scott from Queensland University of Technology highlighted the discourses of insider/outsider dichotomies that are used to explain crime in Australian small towns – even if contradicted by crime figures – resonating with studies that have identified fear of crime articulated in anti-immigrant and anti-migrant worker rhetoric in Britain, Belgium, Sweden, the US and elsewhere. In these ways the globalization of mobility impacts on both the reality and the perception of rural crime, including not only the mobility of people but also of objects. On a field visit from the workshop to a rural police district north of Stockholm the local commander listed smuggling and trafficking through small rural harbours and across the Baltic Sea among the crimes prevalent in the area.

Other papers demonstrated examples of understandings of rural crime being informed by what I call the ‘globalization of values’, especially around environmental crime. Here new ‘crimes’ have come into existence in the shape of non-compliance with laws or regulations that have been introduced as part of international agreements, or through the transnational circulation of new worldviews on environmental protection or animal welfare. These can clash with traditional rural values and practices, and may not always be accepted by rural residents as criminal behaviour, as Elaine Barclay from the University of New England at Armidale showed with respect to Australian farmers’ perceptions of environmental crime. Similarly, Erica von Essen from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences argued that illegal hunting in Sweden represented a form of resistance against conservation policies and an assertion of a beleaguered rural identity.

Expanding the theme, the globalization of the rural economy can be seen to have created new opportunities for crime. Only a few weeks ago, Britain established a new Food Crime Unit in response to the recommendations of an independent report into the so-called ‘horsemeat scandal’ last year, in which horsemeat was found to be being fraudulently passed off as beef or lamb in some ready meals. The potential for fraud had been increased by the complex supply chain, in which sub-contracts for sourcing and processing the meat had been placed with various intermediaries and agents across Europe. Moreover, earlier this year, an EU report had suggested not only that food fraud was more widespread problem than often appreciated, but that some organized crime gangs were moving into international food fraud in preference to drugs. Such moves notwithstanding, the global narcotics trade is arguably the most notable criminal manifestation of globalization for rural areas. Not only are levels of substance abuse higher in some rural areas than urban areas, as Joe Donnermeyer of Ohio State University noted in his paper at the workshop, and not only is the illicit domestic cultivation or production of illegal drugs such as marijuana an established aspect of ‘rural roguery’ in some areas, but much more damagingly the mass producing and trafficking of narcotics such as cocaine and opium – and the effects of violent feuds between the cartels active in this trade – is arguably the primary way in which rural regions from Afghanistan to Colombia to northern Mexico are engaged in the global economy.


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