Notes on the Study of Language: Towards Critical Race Criminology

Added: 03-01-2018

Coyle discusses linguistic theory and the use of language as a powerful tool for domination and control. He explores language habits in justice discourse and argues that interpretive contextual language is mistaken for reality. Regarding race, he finds that justice language, “not only criminalizes people of color, but also builds and maintains racist ‘criminal justice system’ discourses and practices.”

interpretation social language justice linguistics racism marginalization control criminal justice system criminalize criminology discourse habit poststructuralism structuralism

Type Reading Time Author Date Source
academic 26 minutes MICHAEL J. COYLE 01-01-2010
Type Reading Time
academic 26 minutes
Author Date
michael j. coyle 2018-03-01 19:02:31 UTC
Key Takeaways
  • The justice system is built on the foundation of language, and language is a social construct that is influenced by racist ideologies, making justice language a racist tool that criminalizes people of color. 
  • It is important that we recognize our language habits, and acknowledge that language and meaning are not objective products of structure.


This paper examines the ‘justice-related language habits of modern discourse,’ and whether the justice system practice is shaped by the construction of language. Coyle begins with a discussion of linguistic theory, referring to Edward Sapir who asserted that we exist at the mercy of our everyday language in society. Society is shaped based on language and we experience life the way we do, based on our knowledge of language. He then compares the highly debated theories of structuralism* and poststructuralism** as these theories determine how we look at the construction and influence of language. 

While structuralism sees language as a logical product of social structures, poststructuralism sees language as interpreted, intersubjective and determined by context. Poststructuralism rejects that language is a product of structure, rather language is the location of creating meaning and experience based on context and discourse. A poststructuralist view on language can explore what is the meaning of justice, what is wrong and right justice, what is the meaning of justice discourse privileging and marginalizing, and who are the agents of justice discourse. 

Coyle moves on to discuss other researchers and theorists who have written on the consequences of language on the justice system and how language can be used as a tool for domination, control, shaping legal practice and deviance. These studies show that the use of language can privilege certain discourses while marginalizing other. Coyle emphasize that, given these studies, justice language choices can support, create and recreate entire justice discourses that in turn seem to describe an innate social reality, making the language choice the foundation for building reality and perception. Thus terms such as ‘offenders,’ ‘victims,’ and ‘crime’ become “accepted obvious interpretations of social situations.” Then the accepted dominant interpretations become dominant justice system. 

Here Coyle gets to the central question of his research: “How everyday language (reality) not only criminalizes people of color, but also builds and maintains racist ‘criminal justice system’ discourses and practices, even while acknowledging the problem of ‘race’ in matters of ‘crime’ and ‘criminal justice.’” 

He begins his argument by discussing how “race is languaged”. Both language and race are social constructions (race is not a matter of biology) that are invented, maintained, and eliminated to sustain social discourses. In fact, language is created to negotiate experience of imaginary difference (i.e.: race). So, race becomes a linguistic device to express beliefs about human groupings and justify ideologies with definitive historic and economic purposes (i.e.: colonization, slavery). Indeed, language continually constructs and maintains racism, as it is in the word choice and word control of everyday accepted language that people of color are criminalized. Thus the study of justice-related language, can explore how racism is sustained.  

In the next section, Coyle highlights other research on justice-related language. A study finds that ‘metaphors’ in language have the power to suppress and control people. For example, referring to Native Americans as uncivilized barbarians,’ African Americans as ‘beasts,’ European Jews as ‘vermin,’ and other sexist, war-related or homophobic language, creates legal and moral standing for the criminalization control of these populations. Another study finds that when British parliamentarians discuss Romani people, they are seen as a threat and referred to as ‘dishonest’ and ‘criminals,’ and portrayed as potentially stealing children. Another study finds that the use of offensive language, specifically the term ‘fuck,’ by Aboriginal people in Australia, disproportionately involves them in the Australian criminal justice system. This research shows how language is used as a tool for criminalization of minority groups. These studies show how language can be used as a powerful tool against other and how it can justify action and social control. 

Coyle also discusses his own work where he explores language of justice and argues that justice language is based on interpretations, metaphors, rhetorical frames, and ideology, however this is rarely acknowledged, instead justice language habits are mistaken for reality. He finds that often, “the language of social control, and ‘criminal justice’ in general, is designed to encounter people of color, as well as those of lower socio-economic status and of certain gender.” An example of his finding is comparing the terms ‘victim’ and ‘innocent victim’, where he discovers that those identified as ‘innocent victims’ are those who are believed to not be responsible for their victimhood, while ‘victim’ is used for everybody else and disproportionately used for those experiencing racial prejudice. 

In the final section, Coyle re-emphasizes the importance of justice language research to “unmask how language is used to justify social control, subjugation, and criminalization of persons, especially persons of color.”


*Structuralism is “an approach in academic disciplines in general that explores the relationships between fundamental principal elements in language, literature, and other fields upon which some higher mental, linguistic, social, or cultural "structures" and "structural networks" are built. Through these networks meaning is produced within a particular person, system, or culture. This meaning then frames and motivates the actions of individuals and groups.”:

**Post-structuralism is often defined in “direct contrast to structuralism’s claims of culturally independent meaning, and typically views culture as inseparable from meaning.”: