Professor Gail Super SSHRC-funded research studies "precarious penality on the periphery" – a study on crime and punishment in South Africa's informal settlements

January 7, 2019 by Kate Paik

Professor Super's study of crime prevention and punishment in informal (shack) settlements in South Africa seeks to shed light on the overlaps between lawful community-based crime prevention initiatives and unlawful forms of non-state punishment. The objectives of her research include researching the blurred boundaries between law, legitimacy and violence on the margins of the state; the seeming disjuncture between community level attitudes and the liberal values enshrined in the South African Constitution; and how the police and courts frame the  various forms of vigilantism that emerge in marginalized spaces.

South Africa provides an excellent site for analyzing the multiple relationships between state law and local forms of punitive justice because of its history of state toleration of informal policing and punishment. Professor Super uses the term “precarious penality” to depict an unstable, violent and exclusionary penality that manifests in contexts of socio-economic precarity. The illegal penal phenomena that are central to precarious penality are labile, ephemeral and unstable. They sometimes emerge out of lawful crime prevention initiatives, such as neighbourhood watches and, as such, are the point at which practices of crime prevention and punishment collapse into each other. In these contexts a generalized distrust of the state is coupled with a call for harsher punishments in order to solve a range of complex social problems.

Professor Super was awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2018. With this funding Super will travel to South Africa to conduct interviews with residents in informal settlements, will analyze police data; and the records of criminal trials of “vigilantes”.  She will hire student research assistants to assist with analyzing the data.

Professor Super has extensive experience in conducting in depth semi-structured interviews with marginalized communities and in conducting archival research. Prior to becoming an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, she was a human rights lawyer in Namibia, where she focused on children in police detention and prison. Her broader research program focuses on the political context of penal policy-making, specifically the role of crime and punishment in constituting authority and vice versa. She has published articles in a number of top journals, including The Law and Society Review; Punishment and Society;  and Theoretical Criminology. Her first book Governing through Crime in South Africa: The Politics of Race and Class in Neoliberalizing Regimes was published by Ashgate in 2013.