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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Do we know enough now?

Academics need to engage with policy makers and the public to implement what we already know about the causes of crime and the implications of law and order policies.

Barry GodfreyBarry Godfrey is Professor of Social Justice and has published over twenty books on the history of crime. He is currently editing a Special Edition of the Howard League Journal on the impact of crime history.

 

 

There have been thousands of studies of criminal behavior and of society’s attempts to control it over the last two centuries. Academics think that even more research will enlarge, challenge, and refine our knowledge, and indeed it will. However, because – or perhaps despite of – the vast number of academics now involved in the criminological enterprise, there is considerable agreement about the causes and consequences of crime and punishment.

Historians of crime would find a similar consensus. The vast majority agree that crime is a social and historical construct; that institutions of control are shaped by their histories; that class, gender, and race all conditioned treatment in, and by, the criminal justice system (and still do); that economic inequalities were broadly linked to crime (and still are); and that society has long relied on ineffective nineteenth century forms of punishment (and still does).

I accept that these conclusions lack nuance. Different viewpoints, theoretical perspectives, and empirical wrangles are important, but I would suggest that any differences are dwarfed by the general agreement. Internal liturgical debates are important to us, but not to the general public and are confusing for policy makers (who often find our debates exclusionary, irrelevant, and frankly, bewildering). I am coming around to their point of view. At the very least, we should concede that our research is sometime incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’ and is not user-friendly to anyone who might transform it into practice or policy. Given that we have a common(ish) platform of academic understanding about crime, I would join others to argue that the greatest challenge for academics is for us to use our research to create a strong, meaningful, and persuasive dialogue which influences policy makers to improve the criminal justice system, and to engender more positive public attitudes towards offenders and ex-offenders.

In 2002 Paul Wiles noted that there was a growing gap between academic and public debate, lamenting that we have ‘lost the knack of engaging’. Sociology seems to do much better – according to Michael Burawoy in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association.  Later, in 2010, Uggen and Inderbitzen encouraged criminologists to follow the sociological lead in order to bring together “empirically sound research and comprehensible messages to diverse publics”. This meets the zeitgeist. The ‘impact agenda’ of various research exercises in the UK and elsewhere is of course a half-hearted and largely ‘half-arsed’ attempt to measure our worth in terms and criteria not of our choosing, but it has undoubtedly encouraged a greater level of engagement between academia and policymakers/practitioners. We are also in the business of making sure that our research ‘does something’ to improve policy and practice whether we like it or not. If we fail to engage with the policy realm, then are we at best academic parvenus, at worst a costly (remembering that most of our research is publicly funded) irrelevance?

Having influence over policy and practice is not easy to arrive by, of course. There are unforeseen consequences, and even the predictable outcomes are complex. Policy makers have different agendas, often serve political interests which are antipathetic to our own and require simplicity where we privilege complexity. For every example of the policy realm successfully using our research, there is a disaster story; yet for every disaster story, there is an example of our research being successfully used.

Teaching crime history and criminology may be the biggest impact any of us will have. Our lectures later become the common-sense attitudes towards crime that thousands of students take with them as they graduate from universities every year. However, we also know that sharper and more direct relationships with partners outside of the university can lead to more immediate positive impacts on society. Changing attitudes amongst the student body, hoping that our teaching will cause them to be more pro-social in the future, is a long game. To address the multiple crises society faces today, we need something quicker. We need to press our case. I am not, by any means, suggesting that we stop doing research. That would be perverse given the advantages and opportunities afforded by the second data revolution and the conjunction of readily available digitized crime records, the development of visual methods, and the number and increasing diversity of crime historians nationally and internationally. It would also, I suspect, go against the fundamental essence of being a researcher: research is what we like to do. However, we now have a broad consensus about the causes and consequences of crime, and the shaping of that consensus seems to demand action.  None of us are happy that there are still so many biases in the system, that Victorian penology still predominates, and that class and race still determine outcomes in the criminal justice process. So, is it now time to devote our efforts, not to collecting more and more evidence, but to use what we already know to influence others, and to bring about the change that we, and society, needs?

Contact

Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool

Email: Barry.Godfrey@Liverpool.ac.uk

Copyright free images courtesy of author

Race and the Death Penalty: The Hanging of Hassen Mohamed, 1923

This article explores the case of Hassen Mohamed, a marine fireman hanged for murdering his fiancée, a white woman named Jane Nagi, in 1923

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LSeal1

Lizzie Seal, University of Sussex

 

I am principal investigator on a Leverhulme funded project entitled ‘Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in Twentieth-Century England and Wales, 1900-65’ (RPG-2016-352). Research Fellow Alexa Neale and I are collecting the archival records (predominantly case files) for all cases of black and other minority ethnic people sentenced to death in twentieth-century England and Wales prior to the abolition of capital punishment for murder in 1965. You can read more about our research questions and the aims of the project here in this blog post by Alexa https://raceanddeathpenalty.wordpress.com/about

We have encountered many fascinating cases so far, which shed light on the kinds of racialised discourses produced by the criminal justice system, the everyday lives of the condemned, their victims and witnesses to the case, and understandings of what the death penalty was for. Here, I shall discuss the case of Hassen Mohamed, who was hanged in Durham for murdering his fiancée Jane Nagi (also known as Jennie) in 1923. According to the Home Office file, Hassen was from Aden in what is now Yemen but at the time was a province of British India. He worked as a marine fireman and lived in a seaman’s boarding house in South Shields. Jennie was a young woman from Jarrow who was widowed having previously been married to a man described as an Arab. She and Hassen were engaged, having ‘kept company’ for nine months, and were shortly to marry.

According to the depositions and trial transcript, on the 12 March Jennie had been drinking during the day and was very drunk by the afternoon. She was at Simon Ali’s coffee shop in the ‘Arab colony’ in South Shields. Hassen came to the shop and wanted Jennie to leave with him but she refused and reportedly told him that she was finished with him. He left for around three or four minutes, returned and shot Jennie dead in the presence of three people. After he was arrested and taken to the police station, he reportedly said ‘Me fire one shot. Me sorry. Me keep that girl for 8 weeks, and she has been drunk’ (Testimony of Sergeant Gray, Trial Transcript, TNA/HO144/3009).[i] Hassen’s defence was that the revolver went off accidentally as he was bundled out of the coffee shop and that someone else was holding it at the time. This contradicted what he had said to the police and the testimony of eye witnesses. He was found guilty and hanged at HMP Durham on 8 August.

What can be learned from this case? As with most of our cases, it provides a fascinating glimpse of Britain’s multicultural history: in this example, the Arab community in South Shields, which was centred around boarding houses, cafes and restaurants. One significant issue to arise from the case file material and press coverage is contemporary attitudes towards ‘interracial’ relationships. The Brief for the Prosecution notes that there was a large population of Arabs in South Shields and that ‘it is sad to relate many white girls mix with Arabs’ (HO144/3009). Local newspapers reported that a ‘young Englishwoman’s acquaintance with an Arab was brought to a sensational termination’ when she was shot dead by ‘her coloured lover’ (Shields Daily Gazette, 13 March 1923). The same paper quoted the Deputy Coroner as describing the case as ‘very sordid’ and also stating:

I have come into contact with a number of cases in which white women have married coloured men […] it seems a great pity that white women should marry men of a different nationality […] steps should be taken to prevent these unions if possible (Shields Gazette, 16 March 1923)

Such attitudes reveal much about the constitution of ‘Englishness’ as whiteness and the extent to which respectable citizenship was racialised. We are starting to draw on concepts such as affective citizenship and racialised emotional regimes to explore how intimate relationships between individuals were, or were not, endorsed and recognised and how this related to how citizens were encouraged to feel about themselves and others.

Another intriguing aspect of the Hassen Mohamed case is the discussion that it sparked in relation to capital punishment. Following his hanging at Durham, the coroner was widely reported as having ‘made some injudicious remarks about capital punishment’ as the Evening Standard (10 August 1923) put it. The News of the World related that he ‘condemned in no unmeasured terms’ disputed the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent (12 August 1923). The coroner argued that ‘the murderer should be treated as dangerous to the community, like a ferocious wild animal’ but that they should also have the chance to make peace with their maker. Taking a life was ‘barbarous’ and flogging followed by life imprisonment should be used instead. The Manchester Guardian published an anti-capital punishment editorial following the coroner’s comments (15 August 1923).

This attention to the utility and advisability of the death penalty in 1923 is fascinating as it precedes the strengthening of the abolitionist campaign in the 1930s. These articles demonstrate that capital punishment was an issue that was debated in the press, although not to the extent that it was in the 1940s and 50s. The coroner’s views are also intriguing in themselves; he found execution barbarous but was not opposed to the bodily punishment of flogging. This does not neatly fit our understandings of views on punishment and pain inflicted on the body but reveals complexity in how people felt about this.

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Our project is currently at the data collection stage and we have thousands upon thousands of pages of case file material to read, take notes on and analyse. We are beginning to find patterns and to identify useful concepts for our analysis but we still have a long way to go.

Follow our Twitter account https://twitter.com/RaceandPenalty for updates on the project and visit our blog https://raceanddeathpenalty.wordpress.com/

[i] This account of what Hassen supposedly said should be treated with caution. We have found that the recorded speech in depositions and statements of most people who were not white and did not have English as their first language is represented in this way, with the explanation of actions in the first person always beginning with ‘Me’. This is constant across people from a wide range of countries with a wide variety of first languages and perhaps reflects conventions in how their speech was recorded by the police more than it does how they actually spoke.

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