The Uses of Historical Criminology

Here the authors explore how historical research can enrich criminology and criminal justice.

DChurchillDavid Churchill is Associate Professor in Criminal Justice in the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, School of Law, University of Leeds. His research focuses on policing, security and crime control in modern Britain.

 

HYeomansHenry Yeomans is Associate Professor in Criminology at the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, School of Law, University of Leeds. His research focuses on the regulation of alcohol and drinking in historical perspective.

PLawrence

 

Paul Lawrence is Asa Briggs Professor of History, and Head of History, at The Open University. His research focuses on the history of crime, policing and justice from c.1750.

 

Over the past several years, the term ‘historical criminology’ has slowly and quietly entered the criminological lexicon. Its arrival, without fanfare, signals at least interest in engaging with historical themes and problems in criminological research. But it might also gesture towards a fuller integration of historical approaches and ways of thinking into criminology. If so, it would seem to evoke promising new directions for criminological scholarship: broadening its chronological frame of reference; historicizing its core topical concerns; infusing previously marginal disciplinary perspectives. Yet the potential of historical criminology remains underdeveloped. Explicit discussion of the issues it might raise has been confined hitherto largely to reflective essays derived from specific research projects (Bosworth, 2001; Cox, 2011), or to broader surveys of the relationship between crime history and criminology as fields of enquiry (Godfrey et al., 2008; Lawrence, 2012). At present, there is a lack of broader theoretical and conceptual work on what it might mean to do criminology in an historical way (though see Garland, 2014; Churchill et al., 2018; Churchill, 2018).

In a recent thematic issue of Criminology & Criminal Justice, we have attempted to reach beyond existing work and develop original theoretical insights on the uses of historical research in criminology. This issue arises from an international conference hosted by the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies, University of Leeds, in 2015, which brought together criminologists, historians and socio-legal scholars to address connections between past, present and future across criminal justice topics. This event highlighted the wealth of inventive historical work taking place across disciplines, but also the challenges of establishing fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue around historical criminology without a secure theoretical underpinning. Our three papers result from sustained, critical engagement with these issues at the conference and in subsequent discussions over the intervening years. With reference to the conference itself, we would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who participated in the event, including Adam Crawford, Francis Dodsworth, Markus Dubber, Louise Jackson, Paul Knepper, Stuart Lister, Clifford Stott, Chris Williams and Sarah Wilson.

Our papers focus on three distinct (yet overlapping) values of historical research in criminology: to explain, characterise or contextualise contemporary formations of crime and justice. But in doing that, we develop several common lines of argument, which cut across the separate papers. First, we suggest that historical research must contribute to understanding crime and criminal justice in contemporary society. Criminology as a field is preoccupied with the present and with new developments, and we take this as our starting point, recognising that most criminologists will find history of interest insofar as it helps make sense of present concerns. Second, we contest the notion that the past should serve simply as a foil against which to establish what is new in the present. Given the ‘epochalist’ framing of much prominent work in contemporary social science (Savage, 2009), we are especially concerned to argue that historical approaches might break down (rather than to reinforce) the sense of separation between past and present. Third, we stress the advantages of going beyond the approach of much existing historical research, which uses focused study of a delimited period to provide a fresh perspective on contemporary problems. While recognising the value of such studies, we stress the virtues of long-term, diachronic research which links past and present in a continuous chain. Such a long-term perspective, we argue, is vital in using historical research to explain (Lawrence, Yeomans) or to characterize (Churchill) contemporary crime and justice. Finally, our papers (especially those by Churchill and Lawrence) emphasize the need for collaboration across disciplines to fully realise the potential contribution of historical criminology. In-depth interdisciplinary engagement, through teams spanning history and the social sciences, is perhaps the most viable means of using long-term historical research to make meaningful and lasting interventions in contemporary criminological debates.

The history of crime and criminal justice is a thriving area, and such work seems increasingly to find an audience within criminology. Furthermore, new networks and fora – notably the British Society of Criminology Historical Criminology Network, founded last year – seek to bring together established and emerging scholars interested in historical criminology. Such initiatives, in turn, are posing broader questions about the nature, purposes and future directions of historical research in criminology. We hope this thematic issue of Criminology & Criminal Justice will provide some foundations for more sustained engagement with historical approaches, perspectives and data in criminology, and thus help pave the way toward a more fully historical criminology.

 

References

Bosworth M (2001) The past as a foreign country? Some methodological implications of doing historical criminology. The British Journal of Criminology 41(3): 431-442.

Churchill D (2018) What is ‘historical criminology’? Thinking historically about crime and justice. British Society of Criminology Newsletter 82: 8-11.

Churchill D, Crawford A and Barker A (2018) Thinking forward through the past: prospecting for urban order in (Victorian) public parks. Theoretical Criminology 22(4): 523-544.

Cox P (2011) History and global criminology: (re)inventing delinquency in Vietnam. The British Journal of Criminology 52(1): 17-31.

Garland D (2014) What is a ‘history of the present’? On Foucault’s genealogies and their critical preconditions. Punishment & Society 16(4): 365-384.

Godfrey BS, Williams CA and Lawrence P (2008) History & Crime. London: SAGE.

Lawrence P (2012) History, criminology and the ‘use’ of the past. Theoretical Criminology 16(3): 313-328.

Savage M (2009) Against epochalism: an analysis of conceptions of change in British sociology. Cultural Sociology 3(2): 217-238.

 

Contact

David Churchill, University of Leeds

d.churchill@leeds.ac.uk

@dchurchill01

Paul Lawrence, The Open University

paul.lawrence@open.ac.uk

Henry Yeomans, University of Leeds

h.p.yeomans@leeds.ac.uk

@yeomans_henry

 

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