Historical Criminology Research Paper

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Historical criminology brings methods and concepts from history to the study of crime and criminal justice. This research paper covers the differences between criminologists and historians, leading theoretical frameworks in historical criminology, methods of historical research, and the role of time in criminology theory and research.

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Key Issues/Controversies

Criminologists And Historians

There are well-established areas of research that overlap history and criminology. Manuel Eisner (2003) and Hans van Hofer (2011) analyze levels of crime over time. The study of crime trends makes intuitive sense to criminologists, particularly when these trends are examined from the Second World War. Trends in crime and imprisonment during the late twentieth century are readily interpreted using criminological models, so readily that criminologists do not regard this as “history.” Criminologists are also interested in the history of criminology. This research examines the founding assumptions, theoretical traditions, and methods of criminological inquiry. Mary Gibson and Nicole Rafter have led the examination of Cesare Lombroso and biological criminology. They have explored the emergence of biological positivism in nineteenth-century Italy (Gibson 2002) and the popularity of criminal anthropology in the United States (Rafter 1992). Their work has advanced our understanding of Lombroso as more (and less) than the originator of the “born criminal” concept and raised new questions about criminology as a science of the human condition.

Nevertheless, there are real differences between criminologists and historians. For criminologists, historical research must do more than reveal the past. To be of use, history must be relevant to the present, meaning, there must be a clear statement about a present concern. In a sense, there is a commitment to “futurism.” Criminologists try to build models that are good enough at explaining the present to anticipate what is likely to happen, and this provides a basis for advising crime policy (Lawrence 2012, p. 8). Historians are reluctant to comment on the present. They are more concerned with understanding the significance of past events against wider currents of human experience. They are happy to correct misrepresentations of the past (by politicians or others), but do not feel the need to offer policy recommendations.

Criminologists are committed to theory-driven research. They are particularly troubled by “empty empiricism,” an assemblage of facts presented outside a clear conceptual framework (Loader and Sparks 2005, p. 14). While there is ample room for theory construction, and new theories of crime are always welcome, leading journals appreciate research developed within a theoretical tradition of criminology. Mathieu Deflem’s (2002) investigation of international police cooperation deals with history, except that as a sociological criminologist, he constructs his book different than an historian would. He declares from the beginning that his work draws on the framework of Max Weber and that he will explore several propositions. Historians rely on theories to organize their facts, but do not specify them in the same way. Theories are not stated in the tradition of scientific research, but are rather weaved into the fabric of the narrative. Historians refer to concepts in the course of presenting their research material. They engage the arguments of other historians along the way: sharpening arguments, questioning evidence, and weighing interpretations.

Because the research training criminologists receive does not include historical research, most criminologists are not in a position to provide historical background into their topic of interest. The curriculum may include an option concerning the history of crime, but methods’ requirements, even at advanced levels, do not include the craft of historical research and writing. Further, as social scientists, criminologists are suspicious of anecdotal data and wonder whether a few historical events can be stretched far enough to become social processes. In contrast, historians can choose crime as a topic of study rather more easily, and in fact, many have turned to crime in recent years. In Britain, there has been an “explosion” of scholarship concerning the history of crime (Godfrey et al. 2010, p. 18). The British Crime Historians have met every 2 years since 2008. Further, the American Social Science History Association and the European Social Science History Association operate networks for historians engaged in the study of criminal justice and legal history. Historians of crime, who are familiar with the aims and techniques of social history, are receptive to social science concepts.

And then there is the matter of style. Criminologists question the value of description. Historical material makes sense provided it is organized around criminologists concepts. The sequence of events is secondary to the explanation of concepts and their connection to the criminological literature. Historians are more comfortable with narrative. Not all historians rely on chronology to organize their work, but they adhere to the belief that the sequence of events matters. Historians would not frame a research question as a “test of a hypothesis,” so their writing does not follow the familiar sequence of literature review, research questions, data analysis, findings, and discussion. The technique of historical argument can be compared to constructing a dry stone wall. The builder fits all the available stones into a shape that holds together. In the same way, the historian must fit all the known evidence into a coherent pattern.

Theoretical History

Historical criminology could not have developed without the contribution of several theoretical frameworks which have built bridges between history and criminology. In the 1970s, the work of several British historians crossed over to criminology. The British Marxist historians, as they became known, pursued a “history from the bottom up” or “history from below,” that is, the experiences of working class and ordinary people. Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969) by Eric Hobsbawm, Albion’s Fatal Tree (1975) by Douglas Hay and others, and Whigs and Hunters (1977) by EP Thompson examined the response to crime in the context of class structure and the emergence of industrial capitalism. Because these works engaged a conceptual vocabulary drawn from Marxist social theory, they found a ready reception among criminologists pursuing “radical” and “critical” approaches. Criminologists brought historical arguments about the rule of law and maintenance of social order to the contemporary critique of criminal justice policies. The British Marxist historians had excavated deep into the foundations of Anglo-American legal heritage. They offered insights into the administration of English criminal law in the eighteenth century that could apply to the policing of street crime in American cities of the late twentieth century.

About this same time, another influential book appeared: the English version of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977). It was, ostensibly, a book about how Europe had come to rely on imprisonment. It inspired a great academic discussion about the “birth of the prison.” But it was also more than this. In this book, and other work that followed, Foucault wielded an arsenal of images that captured the imagination of criminologists. Criminologists retold his examples (the execution of Damiens, Bentham’s panopticon) and added his words (“discourse,” “surveillance,” and many more) to the lexicon of criminological terms. Historical studies framed as a: “history of the present” or “genealogical account” began to appear in criminology books and journals. Foucault made “appalling” mistakes about what happened, when, and where. But none of this mattered to criminologists who, particularly when it comes to history, prefer an entre´e of ideas with only a small serving of historical details, perhaps as the ape´ritif. Foucault did not write a history of criminal justice; he turned criminal justice history into a worthy intellectual project.

Foucault even inspired further research by what he did not say. Foucault did not address the confinement of women, nor, for that that matter, did other widely-read historians of the prison. Nicole Rafter (1985) pointed out that it was a mistake to regard the history of women’s imprisonment as an extension of the history for men. She presented the women’s reformatory movement, the rise of custodial prisons for women, the legal and social characteristics of imprisoned women, and the effects of “race” and class on treatment of women (Rafter 1992). Work by Zedner (1998), and others, confirmed that gender could not be explained away as a lighter or softer version of men’s experience. Historical research into institutions for women opened the doors to a parallel world operating according to its own logic, moving at its own pace, and leading to its own consequences.

David Garland took the “history of the present” to another level. In a series of influential books and articles, Garland produced an intricate history of changes in crime policy from the late nineteenth century. He examined institutional practices within wider social and cultural contexts with a particular eye for “moments of transition.” In Punishment and Welfare (1985), he examined how science entered legal culture before the First World War, and in The Culture of Control (2001), he analyzed the displacement of rehabilitation by security as the characteristic response of governments in the late twentieth century. Garland’s research opened up new issues for analysis: changes in prison practice, the origins of criminology, the role of the state, and convergence of welfare policy and penal policy. He generated a new conceptual vocabulary for historical study in criminology, such as “penal welf-arism,” “mass imprisonment,” “the crime complex,” and “the culture of control,” and in the process, opened up new tracts of real estate for development by historical criminology.

The social theory of Norbert Elias has also been influential. In The Civilizing Process (1939), Elias recovered the transformation of European society from barbarism to civilization. Drawing on an interesting set of archival documents, commentary about manners, he charted the emergence of polite society. Through a process of cultural change so gradual as to seem invisible, control of violence shifted from external force to internal restraint. Elias’s theory of social change, sometimes called “process sociology” has been especially important in studies of penal policy and practices. Pieter Spierenburg (1984) and John Pratt (2000), two of Elias’s leading interpreters, have brought the civilizing process to punishment practices in the Netherlands and New Zealand. Mucchielli (2010) points to recent crime trends in France as evidence of an overall decline in violence. Crime figures in recent decades suggest Elias’s concept of the “civilizing process” at work, a fall in violent crime owing to the stigmatization or delegitimization of violence.

Archival Methods

Historical criminology borrows the methods historical research. Research in historical criminology relies on primary sources, documents, and materials that originate in the time period of interest, such as prison registers, police reports, and court records. Digitization has made significant material accessible for the historical study of crime such as the Old Bailey online project. The proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court, are available via the internet for 1674– 1913. Internet access has also made available an increasing number of books and periodicals, government documents, and newspapers from the nineteenth century and earlier. The vast majority of archival material, however, remains accessible only through traditional search strategies.

One of the challenges is avoid a narrow administrative history. Making a historical portrait from documents left by prison managers, police authorities, and so on presents a particular view, that is, a managerial or institutional view. The “usual suspects” – the poor, immigrants, the crowd – did not produce their own written records. To interrogate the deeper purpose and wider impact of institutions and practices, it is necessary to get beyond official records. It is true that much of the institutional record is “limited for anything other than administrative history” (Bosworth 2001, p. 434). Diaries of prisoners, letters from the accused, and the like are rare. But the official view can also be reframed with reports of visitors, commissions of inquiry, courtroom testimony, newspaper accounts, and even novels.

Another challenge is moving beyond the nation state. Criminal justice is a national or local project, and not surprisingly, much of the historical record concerns the response of national governments and city authorities. For the history of human trafficking, terrorism, drug trafficking, and other cross-border crimes, the records and materials left by nongovernmental organizations are particularly useful. These include organizations such as the Jewish Association for the Protection of Women and Girls, founded in 1885 in response to concerns that women emigrating from the Pale of Settlement were vulnerable to the white slave traffic (Knepper 2009) Other intergovernmental organizations, such as the League of Nations, also provide valuable material. The League of Nations led major campaigns concerning human trafficking and drug trafficking in the early twentieth century. The archives in Geneva contain minutes of meetings, correspondence, field reports, photographs, and other materials (Knepper 2011).

Recent interest in “globalization” has invited new questions about the past, including an awareness of the legacy of empires. On paper, the British Empire represented one of the largest criminal justice systems in world history, with colonies, territories, and possessions extending from Australia to India, Ireland to Singapore. The Colonial Office attempted to coordinate police, prisons, and legal measures, and the influence was felt not only in the colonies but within Britain itself. Looking back yields insight into the diffusion of police and practices, and opens up new lines of inquiry, including the conditions for successful “policy transfer” and the influence of colonial practices on domestic institutions (Godfrey and Dunstall 2005).

Criminologists can gain a sense of history from published work by historians, but they cannot answer the questions they pose through secondary sources alone. Historians are interested in different questions, and the nature of historical research means that choices need to be made about sources and interpretation. Criminologists need to conduct historical research for themselves; they cannot proceed as if theory is all that really matters. Imposing a particular theory on the past yields a dull and pointless project, something like bringing one’s own food to eat while on a holiday tour of several countries. As in social science, there is an interaction between theory construction and empirical findings. The historical researcher needs a theory to judge the significance of documents; the documents lead to new evidence, leading in turn to revising theories (Knepper and Scicluna 2010).

The Criminology Of Time

Before Foucault, another French intellectual challenged social scientists to think about history. In the 1950s, Fernand Braudel encouraged social scientists to situate the objects of their inquiry in time. It was a mistake to believe that the significance of time could be gauged with a questionnaire or a few months of observation. Each social activity, he proposed, operates according to its own particular time, so that any historical moment is moving at multiple speeds.

In his history of the Mediterranean, Braudel presented three levels of historical time. He saw the natural environment, the mountains, deserts, and the sea, as the source of constraints on behavior that persist across generations. These behaviors produce the “almost immobile history” of geographical time. He described the “slowly rhythmic history.. .of groups and groupings,” shaped by long-term trends in trade, transport, empire, and forms of war. This he referred to as social time. And, he narrated “history of short, nervous, rapid oscillations” brought about by political and military leaders. The “history of events” unfolded in individual time; individual time “has the dimension of their anger, dreams and delusions.” (Braudel 1980, pp. 3–4) The fact that Braudel came up with his idea of multiple time while in prison during the Second World may suggest a particular relevance for criminology.

Criminologists have been interested in discontinuities, so much so that “paradigm shift” has become a cliche´. Continuity, as suggested by geographic time, may be more important than we have realized. Media and crime affords one example. Given the development of electronic media since the Second World War, and the internet, satellite communication and so on in recent decades, it is easy to believe that the media has a powerful effect public understanding of crime, leading to particular crime policies. The influence of media on policy making about crime has been described as part of the “challenge of our times” (Garland and Sparks 2000). But as Robert Shoemaker points out with a look back at the eighteenth century, crime was a recurring topic in every form of print. As print become more available, popular understandings of crime were shaped more by what people read than by what they knew from personal experience or reports from friends and relatives. Pamphlets from social reformers exaggerated the extent of crime to justify particular projects. Newspapers overemphasized crime both in the frequency of reports and tone of coverage. Printed reports of trial proceedings distorted understanding of crime and justice, as much by what we left out as what was said. Edited versions of trials portrayed English court procedures as more coherent than they actually were. Eighteenth-century readers approached this surfeit of information with a skeptical eye; they knew that crime problems were more complicated than reformers, journalists, and the authorities made it appear (Shoemaker 2009). So, aside from the technology, what has really changed?

Braudel was interested in trends or cycles that occur over several decades, or what he referred to as “conjunctures.” This is what LaFree had in mind when he urged criminologists to pursue historical analysis. There should be more emphasis on historical data and historical interpretation because theoretical insights cannot be obtained through cross-sectional designs that compare within a single moment of time. Crime events, such as the rise in crime during the 1960s and fall in the 1990s (in the United States), can be understood by recognizing that crime occurs within “distinct historical periods,” and one of the goals of criminology is to understand factors behind the transition from one era to another (LaFree 2007). A recent example can be seen in theory of “crime waves.” Periodization is a familiar idea to historians, and criminologists, who are accustomed to thinking about the importance of social context, are well-positioned to pursue it. Martin Killias (2006) examined fluctuations in crime rates across Europe with reference to “breaches,” the way in which social developments surrounding technological advances open up new opportunities for crime. He combined the historical idea of periodization with the criminological idea of opportunity structure.

One of the criticisms of Braudel’s approach, and particularly his emphasis on “structural history” grounded in continuity, is the absence of human agency. The agency-structure problem is well known to social science, and in examining biographies, criminologists have provided an interesting solution. In what must be the “longest longitudinal study,” John Laub and Robert Sampson (2003) interviewed men some five decades after they had been selected for a study of delinquency. The interviews confirmed how individuals construct their own lives through the actions they take within the constraints of historical and social context. Criminal activities did not correspond with historical events, such as economic downturn, or social conditions, such as substandard schooling. Rather, in looking back over the course of their lives, the men saw the significance of choices they had made. Sampson and Laub (2005) encourage a view of time that balances structural constraints with human agency. Some historical events affect people very deeply. Others pass over, like a cloud across a quiet lake.


Criminologists have produced significant historical scholarship over the past few decades and, in recent years, have taken several steps toward incorporating historical criminology as a subfield of inquiry. Two presidents of the American Society of Criminology – John Laub in 2003 and Gary LaFree in 2006 – have used the annual presidential address to emphasize the value of historical perspectives (Laub 2004; LaFree 2007). In 2011, the Crime, Criminal Law and Criminology in History network was established with support from the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology, and in 2012, the European Historical Criminology working group was established within the European Society of Criminology. It may be a step too far to suggest that historical criminology represents a recognized subfield. Criminologists and historians ask their own questions of the past, cultivate expertise in their own methods of inquiry, and organize their inquiries in different ways. But, from what has been done so far, one thing is clear enough: The most interesting criminology arises at the point that history and criminology meet.


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