Book Review: Harmful societies

Steve Tombs

Steve Tombs reviews Simon Pemberton’s new book

Each year, the Office for National Statistics calculates the number of ‘excess winter deaths' – deaths from December to March compared with the average number of deaths occurring in the preceding and following four month periods in England and Wales. The figure for last winter is likely to see a significant hike up to some 36,000 – mainly of older people, not killed by the cold per se, but by illnesses brought on by lack of access to affordable heating, or suitably warm, dry accommodation, or most likely both.

The term ‘Deaths Brought Forward' (DBF) is commonly applied by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) when looking at statistical evaluations of air quality effects at a population level. COMEAP's most recent annual figure is 29,000 such deaths. Other estimates are higher; the all-party Environmental Audit Committee concluded in 2010 that ‘[a]ir pollution probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity', possibly:

 … contributing to as many as 50,000 deaths per year … Averaged across the whole UK population it is estimated that poor air quality is shortening lives by 7–8 months. In pollution hotspots it could be cutting the most vulnerable people's lives short by as much as nine years.

(Parliamentary News, 2010)

And each October, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) press releases the numbers of ‘fatal injuries' to workers as the trail to its annual statistical publication. Often referred to by HSE as fatal accidents, this headline figure of somewhere around 150 in fact obscures the 50,000 or so deaths per annum related to working in Britain. While we know little about the vast majority of these deaths, we know for sure that they are overwhelmingly not the result of accidents, a term implying these were unforeseen, unpreventable, or usually both. Quite the contrary, they are mostly the effects of failures of employers to meet obligations in criminal law to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and members of the public.


The language used across these three quite disparate areas of social life – or, rather, social death – is revealing. ‘Excess winter deaths', ‘deaths brought forward' and ‘fatal injuries' each seem to combine the technical and the prosaic, but in neither respect does the language signify the extraordinary phenomena to which it refers. None conveys a source, nor any sense of agency or structure, nor responsibility regarding the deaths at issue. None reveals that the deaths are much more likely to be concentrated in some social groups rather than others – dimensions of a multi-layered, structured vulnerability. All terms could, in fact, be describing some natural phenomenon. Taking these observations together, it is perhaps unsurprising that none of data attracts much, if any, popular or political attention.

Meanwhile, the odd death from ecstasy or PCP, some specific types of homicides amongst the 500-plus a year in England and Wales, or the sporadic death or deaths related to so-called terrorism are the stuff of headlines: these consistently demonstrate a capacity to invoke widespread moral outrage, pervaded by the urge to ‘do something' (usually very punitive), in a spiralling political, media and popular frenzy of vengeance. Moreover, these forms of death are the tip of an iceberg of concern with interpersonal harms identified as ‘violent crime' that has a firm grip on the construction of violence pervading academic criminology.

Yet on closer scrutiny, each of these forms of death refers to a form of violence; to widespread, routine, preventable killing. They are exemplars of what Chernomas and Hudson termed ‘social murder' - the inevitable effects of forms of capitalism within which profit maximisation is prioritised, at virtually any (and very considerable) cost. It is hardly a coincidence that Chernomas and Hudson begin their book with the same quotation selected by Pemberton to open Harmful Societies. Understanding Social Harm. Through citing Engels' The Condition of the English Working Class, Pemberton claims that the sentiments and analyses offered by Engels therein represent ‘one of the original, if not the original, social harm analyses'. And in this brief but telling reference point, the focus and substance of Harmful Societies is immediately revealed.

Observing that much has been written about the potential of ‘social harm’, Pemberton's starting point is that, at present, such an approach:

 … remains a relatively empty space, insofar as few studies have actually sought to develop the conceptual lens and to operationalize it through empirical study. It is hoped that this book will contribute to how we may begin to collectively imagine an alternative approach to the study of harm.

It is a hope that is more than realised in the five chapters that follow a brief, context-setting Introduction.

Social harm

Chapter 2 details the ‘social harm’ lens operationalised throughout the book, addressing both the ‘social’ and ‘harm’. In developing the coverage and limits of these terms, Pemberton engages with a variety of critiques of a ‘social harm' approach, sometimes successfully, others less so. Through this more or less convincing engagement with ‘his, critics, Pemberton arrives at a definition of harms ‘as specific events or instances where “human flourishing” is demonstrably compromised,, a definition very much rooted within Doyal and Gough's needs framework. This in turn generates a proposal that these harms can be categorised as ‘physical/mental health harms; autonomy harms; relational harms.  In terms of the ‘social,, this is refined as ‘socially mediated, and points to ‘preventable harms, insofar as they are either ‘foreseeable, events or the result of ‘alterable, social conditions. Chapter 3 develops this theme; that harms are not inevitable but are determined by the forms of organisation our societies take. Here, Pemberton introduces the notion of capitalist harm, harms inherent to the capitalist form of organisation.

On these bases, Pemberton goes on to set out a typology of harm regimes, which, drawing upon, but supplementing, a combination of existing varieties and models of capitalism literatures, groups nation states according to the harm reduction/production features they demonstrate. Herein sits the methodological rationale for the following two, data heavy, chapters, which seek to document and explain the variance in harms between different regime types. The first of these, Chapter 4, examines the performance of the selected nation states and the regime types in relation to a number of physical harms; Chapter 5 then scrutinises the performance of the selected nation states and the regime types in relation to autonomy and relational harms. No review could do justice to the breadth and scope of the data brought together in these chapters, and this one will certainly not attempt to do so.

By way of conclusion, Chapter 6 draws on the analysis presented in the two preceding chapters to provide an analytical overview of how the regimes perform in relation to the harms presented in the study. From this discussion, the chapter presents regimes as a sliding scale from the most harmful forms to the least harmful. In so doing, it examines the features of nation states that appear to make them more or less harmful and serves to explain the variance in the experience and extent of harm.

Work in progress

Whilst advancing our understanding of social harm considerably, the book also underscores that a social harm approach is very much a work in progress. There remain key issues with the definition of ‘social harm’, its theoretical justification, ontological bases, and its operationalisation. Challenges, for example, to the claim of those taking a social harm approach that crime can indeed possess an ontological reality within the specific sets of social relations in which acts so – defined are situated, developed by Kris Lasslett, need to be more fully addressed; that said, this specific claim is not central to Pemberton,s analysis here. More significantly, the limitations of Doyal and Gough's ‘needs, framework requires greater attention than Pemberton allows: if such a framework is to underpin a definition of harm, then it requires conceptual and theoretical development. Finally, Pemberton, in his concluding chapter, wrestles with, but does not resolve, the challenge posed recently by Richard Garside (2013), to the effect that, if social harm can go beyond criminology, can it go ‘beyond capitalism’? That said, questions about the transformative potential of a well-developed critique of ‘where we are, or ‘what we have, are hardly specific to advocates of a social harm approach, but apply to virtually any critical analysis of the various destructive tendencies of dominant economic, political and social arrangements.

These points made, the promise of the work-in-progress that is a social harm perspective is more persuasively, deftly and thoroughly revealed through Harmful Societies than any other text that exists. The scope of the book is brave, almost breath-taking. And it is the scale and scope of what is attempted here that puts much criminology, and indeed much social science, in its place. But it is not just in what it tries to do that Pemberton’s book stands out from much of the disciplinary-hidebound, apolitical and, at times, banal products of academic-publishing, but in what it achieves. Harmful Societies has theoretical, conceptual, methodological and empirical significances, making novel contributions in each respect, and with which I hope many will engage and subsequently develop.

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology, The Open University


Chernomas, R. and Hudson, I. (2007), Social Murder, and other shortcomings of Conservative economics, Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Garside, R. (2013), ‘Addressing Social Harm: better regulation versus social transformation’, Revista Crítica Penal y Poder, Special Issue: Redefining the Criminal Matter, 5, pp. 247-265.

Lasslett, K. (2010), ‘Crime or Social Harm? A dialectical perspective', Crime, Law and Social Change, 54 (1), pp. 1-19.

Parliamentary News (2010), ‘Early Deaths from Air Pollution Shame UK, Says Report', 22 March,