Reification refers to the process by which something is made real, brought into existence, or concretized; that is, when an abstract idea or construct is made real as a result of treating it as though it were real. This phenomenon has very real and tragic consequences in the field of criminal justice, in which the abstract ideas pervading a society include the fears and prejudices of the masses or of powerful groups within that society, which come to be reflected in, and amplified by, media representations of crime (movies and television fiction and reality shows).
The concept of reification comes from the German Verdinglichung, which literally translates as “making into a thing” (from the Latin res, meaning “thing”), or Versachlichung, literally “objectification” or rendering something impersonal. Karl Marx stressed the “thingification” of persons or social relations under the influence of capitalism, arguing that capitalism reduced animate things (subjects), such as human creativity and labor, to things (objects) to be bought, sold, and traded, and social relationships to the relationships between traded objects. Thus, capitalism shapes thought such that an inversion occurs between object and subject, and between means and ends, inverting also attributes (properties, characteristics, features, powers) of persons and social relationships into inherent, natural characteristics of things.
After Marx, the concept was developed extensively by Georg Lukács in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” in History and Class Consciousness. The concept is also well represented in the works of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Gajo Petrovic, Raya Dunayevskaya, Raymond Williams, Timothy Bewes, Axel Honneth, John Zerzan, and Slavoj Žižek. Reification is the most radical and widespread form of alienation characteristic of modern capitalist society. One of its most common examples is witnessed in the phenomenon of advertising, which creates false desires through the real labor of advertising.
In the arena of criminal justice, reification takes specific forms. When popular fears and prejudices, often shaped by media representations, attribute dangerousness and criminality to specific acts, ethnic or racial groups, or the lower classes in general, these fears and prejudices can have very real effects in the society, shaping the decisions of functionaries at every level of the system, from legislators to police to parole officers to judges and juries. Thus, media representations have the power to reify the fears and prejudices they advertise, a phenomenon that has the concrete result of reifying the phenomena most feared, creating the very phenomena that is the substance of the fears and prejudices. The result of this reification of fear and prejudice is witnessed in the overrepresentation of poor minorities among the arrested, the prosecuted, the convicted, the sentenced, and the prison populations.
Moreover, once individuals among the feared group are initiated through the criminal justice system—arrested, prosecuted, judged, and sentenced to punitive procedures that tend overwhelmingly toward the coercive and authoritarian, rather than the therapeutic and healing—the reification process reaches completion. As youth detention centers, group homes, jails, and prisons dehumanize their wards, their harsh and oppressive control strategies teach inmates the worldview characteristic of the violent criminal—that brute force is a legitimate means of acquiring what one wants and needs and has substantial pay-off value in guaranteeing safety in a cruel world. The punitive procedures themselves and the unsafe and brutalizing conditions in many incarceration settings ultimately create the kind of individual that they are purported to cure. The younger the age at which an offender is initiated into the criminal justice system directly parallels the individual’s likelihood for becoming a repeat criminal offender and a repeat inmate in the prison system.
Many social critics argue that the United States is a prime example of a hypercapitalist society whose institutions, techniques, and laws turn people in schools, corporations, factories, and prisons into things, isolated and alienated from their neighbors and sorted according to their market value. The U.S. private prison industrial complex offers a prime example of the phenomenon of reification, as popular fears and prejudices, amplified by media sensationalism, have reified into the prophesied reality. The implicit identification of crime with the poor in general and with specific minority groups overrepresented among the lower class (African Americans and Hispanics) has led to the creation of laws explicitly targeting the acts of the poor (theft, drug and alcohol use, drug trafficking, illegal immigrant status) and to the increasing overrepresentation of the targeted groups in arrest records, probation reports, and prison population demographics.
In the United States since the mid-20th century, criminal justice statistics have come to concentrate on the offenders of “victimless crimes” such as drug use, with the slow but relentless result of the “coloring of the prisons,” and notably to the neglect of other, far more dangerous and destructive crimes, such as price-fixing, monopolistic practices, consumer deception, embezzlement, unsafe workplace conditions, and fraud, that tend to be committed by the well-off. The latter, far more destructive crimes cost the public far more each year than all property crimes combined.
- Arato, Andrew. Lukács’s Theory of Reification. Denbighshire, UK: Telos, 1972.
- Bewes, Timothy. Reification, Or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2002.
- Burris, Val. “Reification: A Marxist Perspective.” California Sociologist, v.10/1 (1988).
- Honneth, Axel. Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Lotz, Christian. “Reification Through Commodity Form or Technology? From Honneth Back to Heidegger and Marx.” Rethinking Marxism, v.25/2 (2013).
- Petrovic, Gajo: “Reification.” In A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Tom Bottomore, Laurence Harris, V. G. Kiernan, and Ralph Miliband, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
- Reiman, Jeffrey. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004.
- Sykes, Gresham M. The Society of Captives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
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