Thursday, 13 February 2020

Historical criminology, theory building and the importance of social ontology

A (short) reply to Yeomans, Churchill and Lawrence by Thomas Guiney, Oxford Brookes University


In a recent thematic edition of Criminology & Criminal Justice (September 2019), Henry Yeomans, David Churchill and Paul Lawrence embark upon a welcome theoretical ground-clearing exercise intended to both demarcate, and elaborate upon, the emerging field of historical criminology.

A detailed review of these contributions is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, in a follow-up comment piece for the British Society of Criminology, the authors helpfully distil their position down to three cross-cutting propositions with regards to the value of historical research in criminology:

First, that criminology is preoccupied with the present and new developments.
Second, that the past is frequently presented in overly reductive terms in order to establish the novelty of the present.
Third, that a long-term perspective can yield new insights on contemporary crime and justice.

When taken as a whole the authors express hope that the thematic edition 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.’

In this short reply, I want to suggest that while the authors make a very significant contribution to the first plank of this important project, they do not entirely succeed in their aspiration to promote a more fully historical criminology. 

By focusing almost exclusively on epistemological concerns – of definition, measurement and classification – the authors side-step a series of current debates in social ontology which animate, and give texture to, history, time and temporality in criminological perspective.

As I have argued elsewhere, the positions we occupy within the structure and agency debate, the relative merits of materialism and idealism or the extent to which a distinction can, and should, be made between the ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ of things continue to do much of the conceptual heavy lifting within accounts of crime and criminal justice (Guiney, 2018).

By downplaying these areas of contestation in the pursuit of a cleaner inter-disciplinary exchange, my worry is that we risk inadvertently collapsing historical criminology into history. That we lose sight of what is distinctive and complimentary about the criminological scholarship.

This would be a misstep in my view. As Sewell has argued theory building ‘has a strikingly less central place in history than in the social science disciplines’ (Sewell, 2006: 3) and criminology – a ‘rendezvous discipline’ with a longstanding tradition of theoretical exchange and methodological innovation – can greatly enrich both the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of crime and criminal justice. 

While we may agree that a ‘three-dimensional criminology’ should attend to the linkages between questions, forms and functions (Yeomans, 2019: 467), these analytical choices surely present a series of parallel ontological considerations. Agent-centred accounts of political elites and grass-roots activism may be well calibrated to the rhythm(s) of everyday life, but institutional norms and social structures often come into focus when societal change is located within a broader historical perspective.

There may be very good reasons to reject a ‘stadial’ view of history, which reduces social change to a series of transitions from one settled stage of human development to another (Churchill, 2019: 478). But does this not demand some critical engagement with the forces which mediate the continuities and dislocations of a pluralized conception of historical temporality? Should historical criminologists focus their analytical gaze upon the genius of those who seem able to bend history to their will, or seek out the invisible hand of shifting material interests?

If long time-frame analysis over several centuries is ‘the only robust means by which to evaluate the potential of the past to help explain the present’ (Lawrence, 2019: 494) does this not imply that historians have access to a deeper, or more complete view of reality, than those who live through such events? If so, what is the nature of this reality and what general laws govern the long sweep of history – a civilizing process? Historical materialism? A whiggish belief in progress?

These lines of enquiry go largely unexplored. Yes, history matters. But a confident, reflexive and fully historical criminology is also one that embraces theory building and the inherent contradictions of social ontology.



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