Of crimes and criminals: The development of criminology in Britain



I begin with the clear assumption that the phenomenon to be explained is a present-day phenomenon – the modern discipline of criminology – and that my task is to trace its historical conditions of emergence, identify the intellectual resources and traditions upon which it drew, and give some account of the process of its formation and development. This explicit concern to write a history of the present acknowledges that our contemporary problems and practices are quite distinct from those of the past; but equally, it recognizes that our present arrangements were constructed out of materials and situations which existed at earlier points in time. The present is continuous with the past in some respects, and discontinuous in others. It is the historian’s job to identify the processes of transmutation which characterize change and, in particular, the generation of those differences which constitute our modernity.

Modern criminology, like any other academic specialism, consists of a body of accredited and systematically transmitted forms of knowledge, approved procedures and techniques of investigation, and a cluster of questions which make up the subject’s recognized research agendas. These intellectual materials and activities are loosely organized by means of a ‘discipline’ – the standard form of academic organization. The discipline establishes and enforces appropriate norms of evidence and argument, evaluates and communicates research findings and other contributions to knowledge, fixes and revises the canon of theoretical and empirical knowledge, supervises the training of students, and distributes professional status and authority among accredited practitioners. These disciplinary functions are carried out, more or less effectively, by means of a variety of institutions – professional journals and associations, institutes and university departments, professional appointments, processes of peer review, letters of recommendation, training courses, textbooks, conferences, funding agencies, and so on – which make up the material infrastructure of the enterprise. One has only to describe these taken-for-granted features explicitly to demonstrate that the modern discipline of criminology is indeed ‘modern’, and to pose the question of how such an institutional structure came to form itself around an intellectual specialism of this kind.

Modern criminology is a composite, eclectic, multidisciplinary enterprise. The subject is typically located in departments of law, sociology, or social policy – though there are now several independent centres of criminology in British universities – and training in criminology is normally at the postgraduate level, following on a first degree in a more basic field of study. In their research and teaching, criminologists draw upon a variety of other disciplines, most notably sociology, psychology, psychiatry, law, history, and anthropology – indeed, one of the major

∗ David Garland, The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, (2nd ed., 1997)

dynamics of modern criminology is the incessant raiding of other disciplines or ideologies for new ideas with which to pursue (and renew) the criminological project. They also address themselves to a wide range of research topics which somehow or other relate to crime and its control. Major areas of work include research on the incidence and distribution of criminal behaviour, inquiries about the causes or correlates of criminal conduct, clinical studies of individual delinquents and ethnographies of deviant groups, penological studies, victim studies, the monitoring and evaluation of criminal justice agencies, the prediction of future criminal conduct, the study of processes of social reaction, and historical work on changing patterns of crime and control. The list of ‘central’ topics is long and diverse, and each topic breaks down further into numerous sub-topics and specialisms. When one considers that these substantive areas have been approached using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods, drawing upon the whole gamut of theoretical perspectives (psychoanalysis, functional-ism, interactionism, ethnomethodology, Marxism, econometrics, systems theory, postmodernism, etc.) and ideological concerns (the implicit welfarism of most twentieth-century criminology, the radicalism of the 1970s, feminism, left realism, etc., etc.) it becomes apparent that modern criminology is highly differentiated in its theoretical, methodological, and empirical concerns.

The very diversity of the modern subject makes the question of its historical emergence and identity seem even more puzzling. How did this vast, eclectic bundle of disparate approaches, theories, and data come to acquire the status of a distinct academic specialism? At one level, the answer to this has already been set out above: the subject derives whatever coherence and unity it has from the exertions of its discipline-forming institutions. The danger of an exploding, unmanageable chaos of concerns is held in check by textbooks and teaching and a pattern of professional judgments which draw the subject together and establish its de facto boundaries. But this response begs a prior question, which is: Why has there emerged a discipline of this kind? What makes it possible and desirable to have a distinctive, specialist discipline of criminology in the first place? It seems to me that an answer to this question can be formulated if one has regard to the basic problem-structures or projects of inquiry which underlie these disparate investigations. My argument is, as suggested above, that criminology is structured around two basic projects – the governmental and the Lombrosian – and that the formation and convergence of these projects can be traced by studying the texts and statements which constitute criminology’s historical archive. Criminology, in its modern form and in its historical development, is orientated towards a scientific goal but also towards an institutional field, towards a theoretical project but also towards an administrative task. Whatever fragile unity the discipline achieves emerges from the belief that these two projects are mutually supportive rather than incompatible, that etiological research can be made useful for administrative purposes, and that the findings of operational research further the ends of theoretical inquiry. Occasionally, criminologists lose this faith, and when they do, their arguments cast doubt on the very viability of the discipline.

As with most ‘human sciences’, criminology has a long past but a short history. Discourse about crime and punishment has existed, in one form or another, since ancient times, but it is only during the last 120 years that there has been a distinctive ‘science of criminology’, and only in the last fifty or sixty years has there been in Britain an established, independent discipline organized around that intellectual endeavour. My account of the emergence of the modern British discipline will be divided into four parts:
1. a brief discussion of what I will call ‘traditional’ representations of crime and criminals;
2. an outline of the empirical analyses that were brought to bear upon crime and criminal justice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which began the tradition of inquiry which I call the governmental project;
3. an account of the emergence of a positive, specialist ‘science of the criminal’ – the Lombrosian project – in the nineteenth century, both in continental Europe and in Britain;
4. an account of how these two projects converged in a way and to an extent which facilitated the formation of a criminological discipline in Britain in the middle years of the twentieth century. – This order of exposition implies a certain developmental pattern, and to some extent that seems appropriate. Criminological thought and practice have developed, at least in some respects, in a ‘scientific’ direction, and the analysis presented here is concerned precisely to chart this evolution and to reconstruct the events and developments which played a role in that transmutation. The chronology of events is constructed in order to show how our particular ways of organizing thought and research have come into existence. But it needs to be emphasized that no overall process of progressive development is being asserted here, and there are no exclusive boundaries neatly separating the thought of one period from the thought of another. Some residues of the ‘traditional’ ideas to be found in the seventeenth century still circulate today in the form of common-sense and moral argument. Forms of thought and inquiry which flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have been rediscovered in the late twentieth century and adapted to serve contemporary purposes. Conversely, certain ideas and arguments which appeared progressive and persuasive to criminologists at the start of the present century have come to seem pseudo-scientific and faintly absurd.

Criminology’s history is not one of steady progress and refinement, although whenever a framework of inquiry has endured for a long enough time, such refinements have taken place. Instead, it is a story of constant reformulation in response to shifting political pressures, changes in institutional and administrative arrangements, intellectual developments occurring in adjacent disciplines, and the changing ideological commitments of its practitioners. The very fact that a basic orientation of the discipline links it to a field of social problems and to administrative efforts to govern that field imparts a certain instability to the subject and constantly transforms its objects of study. As a discipline,criminology is shaped only to a small extent by its own theoretical object and logic of inquiry. Its epistemological threshold is a low one, making it susceptible to pressures and interests generated elsewhere.

Social rules and the violation of them are an intrinsic aspect of social organization, a part of the human condition. Discourse about crime and criminals – or sin, villainy, roguery, deviance, whatever the local idiom – is thus as old as human civilization itself. Wherever generalized frameworks developed for the representation and explanation of human conduct, whether as myths, cosmologies, theologies, metaphysical systems, or vernacular common sense – they generally entailed propositions about aberrant conduct and how it should be understood. As we have seen, some writers have taken this recurring concern with law-breakers as sufficient license to talk about a ‘criminology’ which stretches back to the dawn of time. But rather than see such writings as proto-criminologies struggling to achieve a form which we have since perfected, it seems more appropriate to accept that there are a variety of ways in which crime can be problematized and put into discourse, and that ‘criminology’ is only one version among others. The propositions about crime and criminals which appear in the writings of ancient and medieval philosophers, the theologies of the Church of Rome and the Protestant Reform tradition, the mythico-magical cosmologies of the Middle Ages, and the legal thought of the early modern period were not aspiring criminologies, even though their subject-matter sometimes bears a resemblance to that which criminology seeks to explain. These broad resemblances begin to appear less compelling when one looks in detail at what the discourses involved and their implicit assumptions about the world. Entities such as fate and demons, original sin and human depravity, temptation, lust, and avarice are the products of mental frameworks and forms of life rather different from our own.

The differences between these mentalities and our own can be quite instructive, pointing up some of the peculiarities of our accustomed ways of thinking about crime. It is significant, for example, that the major tradition of Western thought – Christianity, in all its variants – did not separate out the law-breaker as different or abnormal, but instead understood him or her as merely a manifestation of universal human depravity and the fallen, sinful state of all mankind. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is an understanding of things quite alien to much of the criminology that was written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the same way, the explicitly moral and spiritual terms in which the Christian tradition discusses individual wrong- doing, the lack of reference to systematically controlled empirical evidence, the invocation of the Devil, or demons, or divine intervention to account for human action, and the appeal to scriptural authority as proof for propositions are all starkly contrastive reminders of the rather different rules governing modern criminological discourse.

But traditional accounts of crime – Christian and otherwise – are not entirely remote from modern thinking about the subject. Scattered around in the diverse literature of the early modern period, in criminal biographies and broadsheets, accounts of the Renaissance underworld, Tudor rogue pamphlets, Elizabethan dramas and Jacobean city comedies, the Utopia of Thomas More and the novels of Daniel Defoe, one can discover rudimentary versions of the etiological accounts which are used today to narrate the process of becoming deviant. Stories of how the offender fell in with bad company, became lax in his habits and was sorely tried by temptation, was sickly, or tainted by bad blood, or neglected by unloving parents, became too fond of drink or too idle to work, lost her reputation and found it hard to get employment, was driven to despair by poverty or simply driven to crime by avarice and lust – these seem to provide the well-worn templates from which our modern theories of crime are struck, even if we insist upon a more neutral language with which to tell the tale, and think that a story’s plausibility should be borne out by evidence as well as intuition. Indeed, Faller’s research (Faller 1987) suggests that what was lacking in these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts was not secular or materialist explanations of the roots of crime, which were present in abundance alongside the spiritual explanations proffered by the church. What was lacking was a developed sense of differential etiology. Crime was seen as an omnipresent temptation to which all humankind was vulnerable, but when it became a question of why some succumbed and others resisted, the explanation trailed off into the unknowable, resorting to fate, or providence, or the will of God. When, in the late nineteenth century, the science of criminology emerged, one of its central concerns would be to address this issue of differentiation and subject it to empirical inquiry.

‘Traditional’ ways of thinking about crime did not disappear with the coming of the modern, scientific age, though they may nowadays be accorded a different status in the hierarchy of credibility. These older conceptions – based upon experience and ideology rather than systematic empirical inquiry – have not been altogether displaced by scientific criminologies, and we continue to acknowledge the force of moral, religious and ‘common-sensical’ ways of discussing crime. Expert, research-based knowledge about crime and criminals still competes with views of the subject which are not ‘criminological’ in their style of reasoning or their use of evidence. Judges, moralists, religious fundamentalists, and populist leader-writers still offer views on criminological subjects which are quite innocent of criminological science. Unlike physics or even economics, which have established a degree of monopoly over the right to speak authoritatively about their subjects, criminology operates in a culture which combines traditional and scientific modes of thought and action. Intuitive, ‘instinctive’, common-sense views about crime and criminals are still more persuasive to many – including many in positions of power and authority—than are the results of carefully executed empirical research.

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