Sunday, 17 February 2019

History of Criminology

History of Criminology


As Garland has noted (2002), the division of criminology into periods such as classicism and positivism is a common feature of textbooks, but the application of such labels is misleading. The periods that historians might prefer to call, say, ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘fin de siecle’ (there are a number of terms that could be applied with equal validity) are labels that can only be applied retrospectively when layers of intellectual endeavour and historical conditions have been identified and ‘named’. Since the criminological project can only be really clearly identified as beginning in the late nineteenth century (Lombrosian positivism
especially), the corralling of writers like Beccaria and Bentham into a neat history of the discipline is particularly problematic. This chapter does not seek to comprehensively document the history or pre-history of criminological theory – there are a hundred textbooks that can do that. In general we can say that early modern writers were concerned with vagabonds, unruly apprentices, lawless mobs and highway robbers. In the eighteenth century, those concerns largely continued but they were joined by social commentators who were advocating change to the arbitrary use of power, and the greater calibration of punishment to the offence caused. It is these commentators that have received the greatest
attention from modern criminologists and for that reason they have been dragooned into some histories of criminology. 

Henry Mayhew (1812–87) was a journalist and sometime editor of Punch magazine, who published three volumes intending to document the lives of London’s working classes in the 1850s. He carried out interviews with a wide range of street workers and street dwellers which showed the labouring poor in the main to be hard working, uneducated but well-meaning. Although the chapters were formed using the words of the interviewees, Mayhew’s editorializing shines through, and he has cut, clipped and trimmed interviews to form a narrative that (largely) supports social reform of the kind he advocated – relief and support for the deserving poor and the respectable labouring classes. The last volume in his series, however, focused on those who were even further at the margins of polite society than the domestic servants, costermongers, street traders and street entertainers he had previously encountered:

To show the class of characters usually frequenting these lodging houses, I will now give the statement of a boy – a young pickpocket – without shoes or stockings. He wore a ragged, dirty, and very thin great coat… designedly made – in the outer garment were slits through which the hand readily reached the pockets of the inner pockets of the inner garment, and could there deposit any booty. (Mayhew, 1861)

The 15-year-old boy described his apprenticeship in a pottery, and his life living on the streets after being dismissed from work for clumsily breaking pots. He therefore fitted Mayhew’s theory that misfortune led to crime, and that orphans especially were prone to becoming thieves. After being recruited and trained in the ‘art’ of pick-pocketing, he was imprisoned 13 times.

Every time I come out harder than I went in. I’ve had four floggings; it was bad enough – a flogging was – while it lasted; but when I got out I soon forgot it. At a week’s end I never thought again about it. If I had been better treated I should have been a better lad. I could leave off thieving now as if I had never thieved, if I could leave without. (Mayhew, 1861)

Mayhew comments in the text that he doubts the veracity of that last sentence. Mayhew, like his contemporaries, saw crime as a moral failing, a weakness in the character of those who fell into gambling, drunkenness, prostitution and theft because they lacked the will to lead an honest working life (Mayhew’s volume on criminals, London’s Underworld, published in 1862, was originally entitled ‘Those who will not work’.) The boy expected to be transported to a penal settlement, a device supposed to sweep criminals away from Britain’s shores rather than have any rehabilitative effect. Mayhew interviewed one ex-convict who made the long trip back, with old age, rather than the penal experience, bringing the end of his criminal career.

I was two years and a half at this same trade. One week was very like another – successes and escapes, and free-and-easies, and games of all sorts, made up the life. At the end of the two years and a half I got into the way of forged Bank-of-England notes… I saw Cashman hanged for [robbing] that gunsmith’s shop on Snow-hill, and I saw Fauntleroy hanged [the last man to be hanged for forgery, in 1824], and a good many others, but it gave me no uneasiness and no fear. The gallows had no terror for people in my way of life. (Mayhew, 1861)

Despite casting doubt on the effectiveness of contemporary systems of transportation, corporal and capital punishment, Mayhew was influential in helping to cement the idea of a criminal ‘class’ who lurked in urban areas, and who were essentially unreformable, but he was only reflecting a new zeitgeist. 4 For example, a decade before Mayhew’s volume was published, the Leeds social reformer, Thomas Plint, described the criminal class in Crime in England (1851) in similar terms and Charles Dickens, who was an important social reformer as well as successful author, disseminated ideas about the criminal class to a large middle-class audience. The ideas of Mayhew, Plint and a mass of newspaper writers who took up their ideas, helped to create a conceptual divide between those who deserved help from government and philanthropists, and those who had placed themselves beyond society – a group who only necessitated punishment and constant surveillance.

The ‘criminal class’, and changing perceptions of criminality, are described more fully in Chapter 4. However, with hindsight, one could identify the 1850s and 1860s as the start of the ‘othering’ process which created a cultural milieu where criminals were defined as separate from respectable society – and when the criminology of the other, rather than the criminology of the self truly began. It could be said, therefore, that Mayhew, and others like him, have been unduly written out of the history of criminology.

Socio-historical processes of identification and categorization that Mayhew employed were reinforced and accelerated by the new ‘science’ of criminology and the scientific/historical conjunctions that supported it between the 1870s and the First World War. As the ‘science’ developed and recruited more adherents across first Europe then the world, it coalesced into a form of enquiry substantial enough to warrant its own historians, and to regularly feature in standard histories of criminology. Let us briefly chart the history of scientific criminology – which as we shall see relied on the measurement of physical characteristics, and taxonomic categorization. Those people who were being ‘left behind’ or ‘left out’ of a dynamic Victorian economy were attracting attention from medical psychologists, biologists and social policy-makers as much as they were from criminologists. The ‘residuum’ of nineteenth-century society caused such concern both to those who wished to give them a helping hand up the social scale, and those who wanted to keep them down. 5 Those poor devils – the insane, the vagrant, the homeless, the criminal, the disillusioned, the downtrodden, the poor – that were chewed up and spat out by mature capitalism in the Victorian period, the lowest and most unproductive members of society, that Karl Marx considered the non-productive working class. That is where the criminological gaze started to fall.

In 1876, Cesare Lombroso of Turin University produced his best-known work, L’uomo delinquente, and one frequently cited as the origin of scientific criminology. The conclusions he drew from his series of autopsies on criminals drew heavily on the theories of Charles Darwin. His book On the Origin of Species (1859) suggested a biologically determined path of human development ratherthan one of ‘divine creation’. The erosion of religious authority that Darwin’s work implied was first taken on board by scientists. Lombroso’s views were that criminality was not a rational choice or a moral failing but could be the result of a hereditary trait passed through the generations, reinforcing the inability of some to adapt to civilized society – their physical appearance and the criminality and vice being the proof of that theory. Lombroso’s theories struck a chord with many influential thinkers across Europe (and particularly with continental European police forces). Darwin had asserted the importance of hereditary and environmental factors in the sphere of biology, and had implied that such factors were potentially more important than ‘the will of the individual’ in the development of humanity. Lombrosian theory therefore seemed to fit well with modern understandings of biological determinism, and consequently his theories on criminality achieved credibility. His belief that certain physical stigmata were apparent within national groupings, and in prostitutes and criminals (e.g. a deviation in head size and shape from the types common to ethnic groups, eye defects and peculiarities, pouches in the cheeks like those of some animals, the abundance, variety and precocity of wrinkles) promoted an anthropocentric criminology which lent itself to scientific investigation, measurement, categorization, cause and effect. Scientific criminology seemed to offer the opportunity to identify criminals before the crime had been committed; it therefore appeared (however fallaciously we now view those theories) to be a hugely valuable weapon in the Victorian and Edwardian war against crime. Although they never wrote about the darker possibilities of their theories, Lombroso’s and Darwin’s theories were as unsettling as they were reassuring because they also fitted frighteningly well into emerging theories of degeneracy in the 1890s.
If, as Darwin had proved, the course of human history was not divinely ordained, then ‘progress’ was not assured. If mankind could evolve, could it not also ‘degenerate’? As Godfrey and Lawrence note:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics in 1851, and the concomitant discovery of ‘entropy’ (the idea that the universe had a finite life, and that energy could eventually be dissipated), while obviously having no immediate implications for Victorian society, did perhaps augment the notion both that ‘progress’ was not assured in human affairs, and that the ‘will of the individual’ was insignificant when set against the environmental constraints acting upon him/her. Certainly, the impact of the development of notions of ‘degeneration’ is vital to an understanding of changing perceptions of criminals in the nineteenth century. Degeneration theory was a diffuse current of social thought. It was, broadly speaking, concerned with the underbelly of progress, with the notion that modern, urban, industrial life was inherently unhealthy (both mentally and physically) and would eventually produce a ‘degenerate’ race of humans, weak, debilitated, morally corrupt and incapable of decisive social interaction. (Godfrey and Lawrence, 2006)

Psychiatry, as well as criminology and a host of other social sciences, was developing in this period, and much of what has been written about degeneration has come from practitioners seeking to use degeneration as an explanation for the ‘feeble mindedness’ of inmates in mental institutions. For example, the work of Henry Maudsley, who emerged in the 1870s as the leading psychologist of the era, was very influential. He noted that:

in consequences of evil ancestral influences, individuals are born with such a flaw or warp of nature that all the care in the world will not prevent them from being vicious or criminal, or becoming insane… No one can escape the tyranny of his organisation; no one can elude the destiny that is innate in him, and which unconsciously and irresistibly shapes his ends, even when he believes that he is determining them with consummate foresight and skill. (Maudsley, 1873: 76)

The theories promoted by Maudsley, as a psychiatrist, were almost indistinguishable for proto-criminologists like L. Gordon Rylands for example (Rylands, 1889: 35; Wiener, 1990; Leps, 1992.

The theory of degenerative genetic criminality was not monolithic, nor was it static. For example, in 1906, Dr. T.S. Clouston, President of the Royal College of Physicians, explained that inherited conditions did not lead directly to criminality, but that over time, problematic inherited characteristics could allow temptation to overwhelm the weak of will.

A bad nervous heredity means mental unresistiveness to the causes of mental weakness and ill-health. The margin of security is less. While a man who has good heredity may with impunity take many liberties in the way he uses his brain, this is not safe if he has a bad heredity. There are modes of upbringing, of education, and of conduct in life that should be avoided where a man is handicapped by bad heredity… While heredity implies a potentiality towards good and evil it commonly needs a special exciting cause or combination of causes to bring out visible effect. Take the excessive use of alcohol as an example – the father and mother of a boy have indulged in it before and during his life  in utero , he has been poisoned  in embryo , they have both acquired an uncontrollable craving for it, the boy has thereby acquired a weak constitution, probably neurotic in its character, and his development of body and mind has not been perfect. Few students of heredity would say that he had necessarily acquired the special craving for alcohol from his parents. All that is affirmed is that his power of mental inhibition would probably be weak and his defences generally below par. He would not be able to withstand social temptations, and alcohol would have a quicker and worse effect on him than on his parents. But on the other hand, if his health in childhood and youth were specially attended to, and his body and brain thereby strengthened, if his education were made a specially suitable one, if he selected an open-air occupation, if he took no alcohol, if during adolescence especially he were guarded from severe temptation, all these influences would be likely so as to strengthen his mental inhibition and antagonise his heredity that he would not fall into the alcoholic condition, and  might even procreate mentally healthy children. (Clouston, 1906: 61–62, emphasis added).

So there we have it, in brief. Until scientific criminology came along with all of its faults, particular views on criminality privileging moral failings as the cause of vice were given credence by religious figures, and a range of dispersed voices occasionally ventured ways that the authorities could prevent the spread of immorality. New scientific criminological discourses in the 1890s then placed authority in the hands of a small group of experts: psychiatrists, geneticists and, yes, ‘criminologists’. We could continue the history of scientific criminology up to the present day with discussions of the criminal gene, and how it may or may not cause or enable criminality in particular individuals. However, let us now leave the progression of criminological theory, to instead pose some different and perhaps provocative questions. In reviewing the orthodox history of criminology, it is clear that criminology as a discipline could not claim a common methodological approach – Lombroso
employed scientific rationalism, Beccaria and Bentham were philosophers who developed their ideas on punishment without empirical research. This is unsurprising, and criminologists today employ a wide range of methodologies – ethnography, participant observation survey, and interviews.

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