What is the relevance of history to criminology?
History of course is of immense value itself and needs no justification
in terms of any other discipline. The distinction between past and present
is a relative one. The social sciences, including criminology, are usually
oriented to the study of 'the present period'. Just when that begins and
history ends is extremely subjective. Examination questions used to take the
form: 'Describe and explain the main developments in penal policy since the
Second World War' or 'Why has crime risen steadily since the Second World
War?'. The Second World War used to function as the beginning of the
'present period'. Everything before that was history. But to the majority of
today's students the Second World War is history... and so are the 1950s and
1960s! So the distinction between history and the present is an arbitrary
one. It is not surprising therefore that a study of history helps us to
understand the present, This is as true of crime and criminal justice as of
any other area of study. A study of history can do several things for us:
Help us ask the right questions
Students (and teachers) of criminology tend to take contemporary aspects
of crime and crime control for granted, seeking to understand and explain
them as if they have always been apparent. This can be easily illustrated
with a couple of examples. Inter-personal violence (for example between two
people brawling in a pub or two groups clashing on a football terrace) is
now understood as obviously problematic. Yet historical study informs us
that such behaviour was not only commonplace but also largely accepted in
the past. Perhaps therefore we need to ask not only 'why people act
violently towards each other' but also 'why was it that inter-personal
violence became the object of increasing social concern and of criminal
sanction'? Today most people regard the Police as having an inevitable role
in combating crime. How the Police actually function may be the subject of
debate and critical appraisal but the need for a professional Police Force
is rarely questioned. History, however tells us that the introduction of a
professional and permanent Police (in the early 19th century) excited
considerable consternation and resistance. Many at the time felt that a
professional Police was unnecessary or even something likely to seriously
undermine civil liberties. Why therefore was a professional police force
introduced and how did it gradually gain common acceptance throughout
Help us in finding the answers
Comparing past and present can help us to clarify arguments and throw new
light on current debates. For example:
1. the effectiveness of punishments:
Many people argue that tougher punishments deter crime. Somehow this
seems obvious to them. But in the Middle Ages and right down to the
beginning of the nineteenth century many punishment sentences very tough indeed
and people could be hung for all manner of thefts and non-fatal violence.
But it was
said, during the eighteenth century, that the place most likely to get your pocket
picked was in the crowd at a public hanging of pickpockets. Why? because
although the penalties were severe the chances of being caught were minimal.
Thus if we want to deter crime, it might be
better to spend more time improving the efficiency of the police in
detecting crime than on devising tougher
sentences and building more prisons.
2. rising crime:
Crime rates until recently were steadily rising since the 1960s quite irrespective of
overall levels of
poverty, education etc. Yet crime was falling during the nineteenth century,
particularly during the period 1850-1900 even though people were poorer. During the
economic depression of the 1930s there was a fairly low crime rate by
today's standards despite heavy unemployment and destitution. Studying more
closely what was happening during the second half of the nineteenth century, or
the 1930s, might provide some clues as to why crime is so high today. For
example during the second half of the nineteenth century
living standards were low but for substantial sections of the working
class they were rising:. Today they are higher but for many people in
poor areas of our cities they are falling.
people were being drawn into steady work as industrialisation expanded.
Today many people are being expelled from
work or failing to enter the labour market further than badly paid dead end and
part time jobs.
urban working class communities were becoming more stable. There was less turnover of
population in an area, people worked in the same industries and knew their neighbours well. Today in many high crime areas
there is a high rate of population turnover, communities are isolated
and fragmented and few people interact with their neighbours.
road and railway building was knocking down the old slums - the
criminal 'rookeries' which were safe hiding places for criminals of all
sorts. Today many run down areas and 'sink estates' are neglected by social services, by
employers, and by police and criminal justice agencies.
During the 1930s, even with high
unemployment traditional working class communities,
which had grown during the nineteenth century around particular
docks or coal mines, held together. Unemployment was a general
for the working class as a whole and there was much more solidarity and
mutual aid. Where everyone is in the 'same
boat' the type of personal frustration and marginalisation which
leads to crime was,
while not absent, less than in many of todays fragmented communities.
That is to say, the sense of relative deprivation was lower.
3. the control of crime:
Are the police an impartial force
dedicated to the service of all sections of society? Before giving a
definitive yes or no, it might be useful to
look at the origins and development of the police. Who set up the
'new police' during the nineteenth century and why? Why were they
resisted for a long time
both by the middle classes and, in particular,
in working class areas. What can this tell us about relations between
and sections of poor communities today.
The development of the modern Criminal
Justice System has meant that the
power to respond to crime has been gradually taken out of the hands of
ordinary people and concentrated in certain institutions of the state -
professional police, lawyers, judges, courts, prisons. The nineteenth
century saw the spread of police forces and magistrates courts into the
working class communities. The idea of 'taking the law into your own
hands' is now
regarded as a recipe for anarchy. But in earlier periods people might
responded: 'where else
should the law be but in our hands!'
Why did these changes take place? were all these changes have been for
good? Wouldn't it be better if ordinary people retained the right to
to violence and to deliver punishment? In recent years some of the
of the modern criminal justice system have led to an increased interest
and development of local mediation and 'restorative justice' schemes
and an increased use of private security. What
can we learn from the past about the conditions in which such
4. changing definitions of crime:
History teaches us that definitions of crime change. Blasphemy or
witchcraft are no longer criminal offences. This change is a continual
feature. Until the 1960s homosexual acts between consenting adults in
private were criminalised. These changes are sometimes a matter of changes
in cultural attitudes but they often have a political and economic dimension
as well. For example, during the eighteenth century many poor people suddenly found that things
they have done for generations were now regarded - by the powerful who make
the laws - as crime. The common
people found their rights to hunt game or collect dead wood on common land, became criminal offences. This
alerts us to the question of who makes the laws, who defines crime, whose
interests are reflected in the criminal law? How are unpopular laws enforced? This of course has all sorts of
comparisons for today.
It is of course not only the poor who commit crime. The emergence
of the modern commercial company during the nineteenth century gave rise to modern forms of financial
other forms of 'white collar' and workplace crime. The
prosecution and policing of such crime was quite
haphazard and ineffective. Today it is claimed that white collar crime
is less tolerated
than in the past. Why? What's changed? Do the authorities
business crime more seriously than they did during the nineteenth
century? A similar set of questions can be raised concerning what has
changed in the treatment of family violence.
Now, all these explanations can be argued about. I'm not trying to
give the definitive answers here. Rather the point is to illustrate that by comparing present and
past we are helped to ask the right questions. Past and present are intertwined. Comparing one with the
other helps us understand both better.
The social relations of crime control
There is one final aspect of the study of
history which is of crucial importance to criminologists. When we look
at the present system of crime control we are not just looking at the
working of institutions such as the police, prosecution and courts etc.
From a legal perspective this might be sufficient. But the
criminologist, especially the sociologically inspired criminologist,
understands that behind the effective working of criminal justice
processes -- or the lack of it -- stand important relations of power
and interaction between the state, the public and its various
communities, the victim and the criminal offender. In my 2002 book, Crime and Modernity I call these relations the 'social relations of crime control'.
Before proceeding further, go and read the first chapter of my book which describes these relations.
Now you have done this, you can
understand some of the questions we might try and answer when we study
the history of crime and punishment:
How did the state and its criminal
justice agencies achieve sufficient power to enforce its laws and
procedures in all areas of the country: how were the old 'rookeries' of
the early cities, or the rural areas which were largely free from state
intervention, brought under control. These areas, as we shall study
later, were essential hide-outs and sanctuaries for old style bandits,
smugglers, highwaymen and pirates. How, in short, did the state become
the most powerful agency in society: more powerful than most criminal
organisations or gangs?
How did communities come to accept the
police and the courts as legitimate institutions to whom conflicts
and criminal victimisation should be handed over. Why did people lose
interest in settling disputes or crimes themselves. Indeed, have they
entirely done so? Occaisionally we here of outbreaks of 'vigilante'
action but see such action as a threat to law and order.
As we have already mentioned, at certain
historical periods activities which are defined as offences in the
criminal law are not necessarily regarded so by the communities within
which they take place. We shall look at examples of this in some of the
lectures which follow. We might ask how, historically, these types of
ambiguities have either been eliminated or effectively relegated to
marginal areas of activity which don't undermine the legitimacy of the
criminal justice system as a whole. We might also ask whether this
situation is now changing.
Conclusion: why study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
You might respond: that's all very well,
but why study the nineteenth
century? It's now 2006 for heavens sake! Shouldn't we spend rather our
precious time studying a period nearer to our own: the 1930s or 1950s
example? That question deserves an answer. The first point to be
made is that during the period 1750 - 1900 we can see the modern system
of criminal justice and crime control being put in place. We can see
the social and political conditions that produced it. As Barry Godrey
and Paul Lawrence (2005) put it:
during this period the 'modern world' was shaped. The dynamic
development of new forms of industrial production, the rise of the
great urban towns and cities and unprecedented population growth all
changed the appearance of the British Isles. They also created new
social conditions and problems that policy makers attempted to
ameliorate, control or eradicate. The period witnessed the end of
capital punishment and the transportation to convicts overseas, and the
rise of a system of mass imprisonment which is now culminating in the
highest number of people ever imprisoned in this country and the larges
prison population in Europe. It saw the beginning of public uniformed
policing, the first mass-media moral panics about violent crime (from
the 'garotters' to Jack the Ripper) and changes to the court
system which ensured the rapid processing of offenders. During this
period the systematic recording of levels of crime was begun by the
Home Office (an organisation which itself grew impressively from six
clerks in 1817) to a vast bureaucracy in the twentieth century).
Perhaps, most importantly, this period witnessed the beginnings of the
'science' of criminology, and when 'crime' moved from being considered
an accepted part of life -- like the weather -- to a subject which
today commands the highest political and press attention (3)
Study the diagram below. I've represented the period since the middle
of the eighteenth century as a sort of cycle.
Looking at the curve you can see that to some extent the period 1750-1900
is the mirror image of the present period, roughly defined as 1970-now.
During the first period the modern criminal justice system was being put in
place, industrial society and the urban environment was being consolidated
and expanded, and crime rates were, after 1850, falling.
During the present period these processes are to a
considerable extent in reverse. The criminal justice agencies are, many
would argue, in crisis, industrial society is facing profound problems of
fragmentation, growing inequalities and political disaffection and crime
rates have, until very recently, been steadily rising.
By comparison the period in between: the first
half of the twentieth century, is less interesting in many ways. The system
was working, crime rates were fairly low and there was a relative consensus
around criminal justice. Remember however that this was the period of two
enormous global wars. The First World War (also known as the Great War) of
1914-18 and the Second World War of 1939-45. In both these great
conflagrations millions of people lost their lives and vast areas of Europe
were laid waste by bombing and warfare. So don't think of the first half of
the twentieth century as one in which not much happened! Indeed the period
was one of major social and political catastrophe. It is simply that as far
as criminal justice and ordinary criminality were concerned, the period was
If you want to read a general overview of this great cycle illustrated in
the diagram, I've written a book about it entitled Crime and Modernity.
If you go to the front page of this website (the one with my mugshot on it)
you can read about my book.
So we now embark on our study of the period of
formation of the modern system. But let's begin with a look at what preceded
it. The periods known to historians as the Middle Ages and the Early Modern
period. Let's also remind ourself that we are not professional historians
and we are going to take a very basic and elementary glimpse at these period
from the limited standpoint of how they dealt with crime and conflict
Godfrey, Barry and Paul Lawrence (2005) Crime and Justice 1750-1950. Cullompton: Willan Publishing