Defining Zemia

Avi Boukli, The Open University


What is fascism?

A student asked me

and can you believe
I couldn’t remember
the definition?

 — Solmaz Sharif, from “Force Visibility”, Look: Poems, published by Graywolf Press 2016.


Zemiology, since its emergence at the start of the 21st century, has an ambiguous relationship with criminology. Whilst the tensions are often overstated, recent attempts to reconcile and harmonise these two perspectives are also problematic. In this brief blog spot, I focus on “zemia”, the central concept around which zemiology has been organised. While this is the first attempt to define “zemia” based on its historical and linguistic past in the context of zemiology, this current work is part of a larger project (Boukli 2019; Boukli and Kotzé in print).

Briefly, zemia can be approached in four different ways:

  • It can be taken to denote a communicative idea, thought, feeling or emotion.
  • Its meaning may be understood in relation to performative speech acts conveying wear, decay, attrition, wastage, lack, loss, disadvantage, bodily harm, damage, disaster, spoiling and debt.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to criminal jurisprudence.
  • It may be seen as being directly connected to the practice or institution of punishment of a) crimes; and b) deviant transgressions, as well as to informal “punishment” in a less literal sense.

Current zemiological work fits most closely with the second category of the list above. Indeed, within this growing body of work copious references are made to various forms of financial, physical, psychological and environmental harms which impinge upon basic human needs and rights as well as earth’s well-being. This includes, but is not limited to, poverty, debt, malnutrition, inadequate housing, the proliferation of preventable illness and disease, pollution, destruction, accelerated animal extinction, resource depletion, genocide and numerous other deleterious events or absences that emanate from either too little or too much state intervention (Hillyard and Tombs 2007; Muncie 2000). Similarly, Tifft and Sullivan (2001:198) define social harms as “actions or arrangements that physically and spiritually injure and/or thwart the needs, development, potentiality, health, and dignity of others”. In other words, the perpetuation of social conditions that facilitate the proliferation of what Arendt (1958:134) has called the “waste economy” and of what Bauman (2004) subsequently refers to as the mass production of “human waste”.

While much of the social harm literature acknowledges the intellectual debt owed to early pioneers such as Sutherland (1945) and more recently Mathiesen (1986) and de Haan (1990), the intellectual debt evidently runs much deeper. Indeed, Plato follows the Socratic paradox, according to which no one causes harm out of their own will (οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν κακός). Rather, any form of harmful injustice emanates from ignorance, or by omitting to act or intervene (Plato 2000 Republic Book IX, 589c; Pemberton 2004). From this, it becomes obvious that the English word “harm” is not as conspicuously ambiguous as the Greek word “zemia”. Yet even with this ambiguity a few points of clarity can be teased out. Zemia is sometimes (quite commonly in Ancient Greek) used to mean (a) “make worse”. However, it is also sometimes used to denote (b) “hurt”. For instance, we may hurt someone without necessarily making them worse. We may “hurt” someone by thwarting them, by interfering with their interests, by making life somehow more unpleasant for them (e.g. by fining, by depriving them of drugs and cigarettes, by preventing them from drunk driving), but we do not thereby necessarily make them worse than before. For example, punishment could take the remedial form of treatment, which may actually do some good. That is, if zemia is used in this latter sense it is inflicted upon someone in order to make them better (Cross and Woozley, 1994:21-21).

Very much aligned with the speech acts outlined above in approach two, zemia, according to the Greek Neohellenic Lexicon by Aulos, denotes not only damage, but financial loss or deficit due to a “wearing down or decline” of some kind. Similarly, Aristotle distinguishes between kerdos (gain) and zemia (loss) and in doing so identifies the mean between these two poles as dikaion (just). Any deviation from the mean is to transgress an external standard of distributive fairness and therefore constitutes injustice. In this context, then, Aristotle asserts that gaining (kerdainein) more than one’s own share while causing another to suffer a loss (zemiousthai) is to commit an injustice (Balot 2001). As a result, at the very core logic of free-market competition lies zemia, animated by unrestrained competition and unlimited gaining with no social obligation.

Zemia is then linked to relational justice. For Aristotle, “justice is something in relation to some people” by which he means that it is not a characteristic of an individual but rather a characteristic of a good divided up by individuals, who stand in a certain relationship to one another (Balot 2001:27). This is particularly interesting considering our current socioeconomic immersion within an inherently exploitative capitalist system and its attendant dominant ideology of capitalist cruelty. Another reading of zemia makes this link between capitalist exploitation and harm a little more explicit. According to Allen (2000:69), zemia primarily meant “harmful loss” or “payment” and understood outside the context of punishment the word “linked the process of punitive exchange to the process of monetary exchange and to the status of citizens as economic actors”.

However, as intimated here, and articulated in approach three above, zemia can also be understood in the context of punishment. Indeed, Allen (2000) identifies a number of punitive words used in fourth century Greece to signify punishment, among which she notes the word zemia as denoting penalty. In this context, zemia and its cognate zemioo (verb, meaning to cause zemia) refer to the effect or consequence punishment has on the wrongdoer rather than a “set of relations between people or their roles in punishment” (Allen 2000:69). Allen (2000:174) further demonstrates the punitive tones zemia possesses by referring to Demosthenes’ (21.42) explicit description of laws as a codified delineation of how much anger should be ascribed to various wrongdoings: “Observe that the laws treat the wilful and hubristic wrongdoer as worthy of greater anger (orge) and punishment (zemia)”. Moreover, in Kata Agoratou, Lysias uses the term zemia in several places to denote punishment in either the form of fines or the death penalty. Similarly Xenophon, in Apomnemoneumata (3.9.10-3.9.13), uses the terms “imminent zemia” and “death is the zemia” to signify zemia as punishment in the legal sense. Crucially, in Protagoras Plato argues for the utilitarian efficacy of zemia/punishment by highlighting its seemingly reformative and preventative utility. The word zemia therefore means both penalty and punishment and refers to disparate sentencing practices from fines to death. Furthermore, the cognate word zemiotis (ζημιωτής) refers to the person who sets a penalty.

From this brief historical excavation of zemia’s deep roots we can see that zemia is the word missing from today’s puzzle. In a world of snap decisions, elections, connections and separations, zemia can encapsulate a wider range of meanings linking structural and interpersonal harms.


Photos © Avi Boukli

Forthcoming relevant publications:

Boukli, A. (2019) Zemiology and Human Trafficking, London & NY: Routledge.

Boukli, A. and Kotzé, J. (eds.) (In Print) Zemiology: Reconnecting Crime and Social Harm. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.