Remembering Nils Christie

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Jon Collins
1 June 2015

I first became interested in restorative justice when I was a masters student studying criminal justice policy at the LSE. Each week the course covered a topic and top of the reading list in the week focused on restorative justice was Nils Christie’s legendary 1977 article Conflicts as property. In that year I read countless academic articles, but it is probably the only one that I can remember with any clarity. It is certainly the only one that directly affected my future career choices.

In a course stuffed with future barristers and solicitors, there wasn’t a huge amount of support for the ideas underpinning restorative justice amongst my coursemates. But there is a simple intellectual elegance to Conflicts as property, arguably the most significant contribution to the academic literature on restorative justice, that caught the attention of even those who did not end up as advocates for the ideas it introduces. If you’re interested in restorative justice you will probably have read it long ago, but if not I’d urge you to read it now. It’s great.

This was brought to mind because of the sad news that Nils Christie has died at the age of 87. Christie was a major figure in the field of criminology and others more qualified than me will no doubt be offering obituaries in the coming weeks and months. His contribution to the development of modern thinking about restorative justice is indisputable. And I’m sure that there are thousands of students who – like me – were first engaged in restorative justice by his writing.

Christie wasn’t the only academic, of course, who played a role in developing the thinking underpinning restorative justice in the last few decades of the twentieth century. But along with people like Howard Zehr (whose book Changing lenses is another seminal text for the restorative justice movement) and John Braithwaite, he played a pivotal role in putting restorative justice on the academic agenda.

All those in the restorative practice field should celebrate Christie’s significant achievements. But reflecting on his immense contribution has also reminded me of the importance of supporting academics who work on restorative practice issues. For a field to progress, there should be a healthy partnership between academics and practitioners.

At the RJC we’d like to see that happen and we’d like to play a part in making sure that it does, so wherever possible we’ll help academics to get access to the information that they need and encourage all our members to support their work. We also try to take to the time to answer the questions that we receive from researchers and students and encourage them to get involved in the restorative practice field, while urging universities to include restorative practice on relevant courses.

It’s important that we not only support current academics but also engage with the academics of the future. That way, we can ensure that the work of Nils Christie and his contemporaries is carried forward with the next generation.