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Dislodging the Standard Narrative of Criminology’s History
The Berkeley Chapter1
‘Europe’, wrote Susanne Karstedt last year in the pages of this newsletter, ‘is the birthplace of modern criminology.’2 A standard narrative of criminology’s history might read as follows: Lombroso (setting aside all the misgivings the field harbours about him) was the first to apply the tools of science to the prediction of criminal behaviour. The field of ‘criminology’, then in only incipient form, focussed on the geographic distribution of crime in the study of ‘moral statistics’ and the persistent offending behaviours of the/his Criminal Man. If nothing else, Lombroso’s timing was certainly impeccable. The Progressive Era, during which he published L’Uomo Delinquente,3 was characterised by a fascination with yoking organs of state control to the rational-legal policy innovations that scholarly expertise promised. It was by relying on science, so the prevailing mythos developed, that government would prevent the upheavals of the previous order.4
Following on the heels of Lombroso’s contribution, it wasn’t long before criminology emerged as a distinctive subfield, albeit nested within traditionally established disciplines. In Europe, criminology took root first in departments of law under the auspices of Max Grünhut and Leon Radzinowicz; in the United States, it did so in departments of sociology under the auspices of Thorsten Sellin and the Gluecks on the East Coast, and of Edwin Sutherland and the Chicago scholars in the Midwest. By the time the turmoil of the post-war period settled, so the standard narrative continues, criminology and criminal justice had become institutionalised in dedicated university departments on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of those departments of criminology advanced the express purpose of developing knowledge about patterns of offending and victimisation that could inform and guide prudent justice policy.5
The standard narrative is consistent with Karstedt’s account: criminology was born in Europe in the late nineteenth century, and it proliferated internationally shortly thereafter, although under the aegis of more firmly established departments like sociology and law. Then, by the late twentieth century, departments of criminology were welcome on university campuses, where they enjoyed healthy institutional support and produced scholarship essential to the refinement of justice policy.
But that standard narrative is unsatisfying in an important respect. It problematically smoothes over a key ripple in criminology’s history. Work by Lombroso and his fellow Italian positivists Garofalo and Ferri conspicuously differed from the work to which most modern criminologists owe their mid-twentieth century genealogy (such as, for example, Shaw, McKay, Sutherland, and Radzinowicz, to name only a few). Those differences are not just disciplinary. The ‘jump’ from Lombrosian phrenology to freshwater urban sociology, saltwater psychiatry or British jurisprudence is a massive one: the Lombrosian tradition from which modern criminology claims ancestry was also epistemically different from what followed immediately thereafter. Where Lombroso positioned the refinement of criminal justice policy through science as the heart of the criminological enterprise, early twentieth century European and American criminology had a more complicated approach to scholarship’s role in guiding policy.6 The technocratic thread re-surfaced in mainstream criminology only after the Second World War, where it eventually developed into what we now associate with the regnant trope of ‘evidence-based criminology’.
That jump leaves criminologists today with a conundrum. Why does the standard narrative of criminology’s history trace a line of descent from the urban sociologists and the jurisprudes of the mid-twentieth century, when one of modern criminology’s staple features—its technocratic commitments—may actually trace its lineage much more directly to the Italian positivists of yesteryear?
One possible answer is that we may have overlooked an important chapter in criminology’s history. As it happens, at the same time that the aforementioned scholars in departments of criminal law, sociology, and psychiatry produced work on crime, scholars even farther to the West—in Berkeley, California—plied their trade in the very first department to bear the name ‘criminology’ above its entryway.
In the early twentieth century, just as the Progressive Era drew to a close, the inaugural Chief of the Berkeley Police Department—an imposing man named August Vollmer—fancied himself the champion of a new approach to the administration of criminal justice. In 1916, he hoped to harness the scientific prowess of the neighbouring University of California to the practice of policing by establishing a School of Criminology that would inject modern scientific techniques into police training curricula. Vollmer, a shrewd opportunist, tapped into the same zeitgeist that spurred Lombroso three decades earlier: the new ‘police science’ (a term he coined) was central to the ambition to professionalise the practise of criminal justice administration. By inaugurating a summer session at Berkeley in 1916, which then expanded into a full-fledged regular session in 1931, Vollmer positioned himself at the vanguard of law enforcement modernisation. The curriculum emphasised instruction in the mechanics of police work by assigning readings in toxicology, psychiatry, elementary criminal law, and microbiology. Thus, Vollmer—who had already introduced handwriting analysis and fingerprinting in his police department—ensured that the natural sciences were a central focus of the new police education model.
In outlining his vision, Vollmer was explicit from the outset about the proposed function of this professional, and not academic, unit:
The school as planned is in reality a part or branch of the Police Department, is in direct control of the Department, and is intended for the benefit of the men in the service of the Department. Thus far no provisions have been made to admit men not in the service.7
The continuity between Vollmer’s brand and Lombroso’s scholarship from four decades earlier was therefore not just disciplinary; it was also ideological. Like Lombroso before Vollmer, and unlike Vollmer’s contemporaries to whom we conventionally credit the continuation of criminology, the style of instruction at Berkeley was first and foremost in the service of refining techniques of criminal justice.
From 1950 onwards, criminology at Berkeley charted a peculiar trajectory. Despite an uneasy beginning plagued by institutional uncertainty about the calibre of scholarship that was being produced at Berkeley, a new School of Criminology opened its doors on campus. From its humble beginning as a summer session up until the School’s eventual closure in 1976, graduates of the School regularly secured positions in leading offices of law enforcement throughout the United States and beyond, where they exported the model of criminology that Vollmer first made famous: in both policing and corrections, the operations of criminal justice and the study of crime were susceptible to advanced scientific measurement and prediction.
Criminology at Berkeley never really crystallised beyond the narrow technocratic mould that Vollmer first envisioned in the early twentieth century. Still, for more than thirty years after it first began offering instruction, the School of Criminology enjoyed robust institutional support from the law enforcement and correctional communities into which it was placing its graduates. Nonetheless, despite spurring the professionalisation of criminology and of criminal justice, University administrators contested the School’s legitimacy on campus throughout the duration of its existence. More precisely, those administrators repeatedly queried what role criminology ought to play in an elite university.
From the late 1950s onward, the School responded to campus-wide befuddlement about the propriety of its professional law enforcement training by shoring up its scholarly profile. What had been a narrowly technocratic research agenda expanded to accommodate more academic and less vocational pursuits. Research adjusted to accommodate both the applied as well as the basic. Faculty continued to produce studies that explored the mechanical refinement of police operations, but new professors also joined the School’s ranks, and these additions complemented the more historically-embedded research profile with a new style of criminological scholarship that sought to problematise the role of the state.
It’s difficult to overstate how odd, fragile, and impressive the School of Criminology was for the brief moments that these antagonistic research agendas cohabited under the same roof. From the 1960s through to the mid-1970s, the School of Criminology at Berkeley was responsible for producing more than technocratically-minded graduates and research that served law enforcement and corrections. Down the corridor, professors in the same department were co-teaching lectures with members of the Black Panther Party; they were staging high-profile conferences that were outspoken in their denunciation of then-Governor Reagan’s law enforcement practices; they were protesting local police control; and they were producing scholarship that situated Berkeley at the epicentre of a new tradition in scholarship under the banner of ‘radical criminology’.
The intellectual strands of scholarship represented within the School weren’t always harmonious. Each professed a different set of epistemic premises about the nature and goals of criminological scholarship, and they derived their legitimacy from different sources, depending on the institutional field they defined for the knowledge they produced. The result was a tense environment in which scholars from each tradition routinely contested the other’s vision of the proper role of the criminologist. The fissures that emerged in those disputes arguably remain cracked to this day. Criminologists continually bemoan the divide between basic and applied research; between academic and vocational scholarship; and between criminology and criminal justice. All of these now-familiar schisms have a precedent that traces its origins not to the august departments of sociology or law in European and American universities; rather, they emerged at Berkeley in the world’s first department of criminology.
The School ultimately suffered an ignominious end. Before Reagan ascended to the Oval Office, he installed his then-Solicitor General Ed Meese to the governing Board of Regents of the University of California, with instructions to close down the School of Criminology. To Reagan, the faculty had become a tiresome nuisance: from the radicals, he had endured too many decades of wearisome protest; as for the technocrats, it was no longer apparent what function they served on an elite campus that they couldn’t satisfactorily accomplish at one of the state college campuses that were designed for vocational instruction. Meese was successful, and the School closed its doors in 1976. While compliant tenured faculty were shortly thereafter comfortably displaced to the School of Law, which bore none of the trappings of its earlier criminological counterpart, untenured radical faculty struggled to secure employment. Mainstream criminology, for its part, assured radical criminology’s excommunication only three years later in the only special issue that the field’s flagship journal, Criminology, has ever assembled. Five essays by grandees of the discipline excoriated radical criminology for, among other things, ‘masquerading as science’.8
The infamy into which radical criminology descended in the 1970s may account for Berkeley’s absence from the standard narrative of criminology’s history. Perhaps a yet more conspicuous absence, however, is the fact that it was at Berkeley—not the vaunted departments where criminal lawyers or sociologists of crime rose to prominence after the Italian classical positivists had faded into memory—where scholars not only embraced the label of ‘criminology’, but also viewed their scholarship as hand-in-glove with the refinement of institutions of state control. It’s these continuities that may merit re-positioning Berkeley more centrally in the standard narrative than conventional wisdom might suggest.
The tumultuous rise and fall of criminology at Berkeley, then, is not merely a parochial story about one department’s tribulations. Rather, in between the half century from when Vollmer first imagined criminological scholarship as part and parcel of the project to professionalise policing, up until when Reagan sought to silence it, the Berkeley story enables a different version of criminology’s history. That different history invites us to consider anew why criminology adopts some of the features it does; what are its sources of legitimacy; what are its normative and epistemic commitments; and what is it criminologists do, and why?
Perhaps, by excavating the Berkeley chapter, we can go some length toward repairing the problem that the late Nicole Rafter identified, that in establishing a sense of criminological tradition, ‘Where we need words, we have silence. Where we need traditions, we have forgetfulness…What we need is a history—or rather, histories—of our science.’9
Johann Koehler is a PhD Student at the University of California, Berkeley, and the recipient of the Young Criminologist Award.
1 It was deeply touching and a sincere honour to receive the european society of Criminology’s young Criminologist award for 2016. the article that formed the basis for the award, which appeared in the november 2015 issue of the journal Criminology, was entitled ‘development and fracture of a discipline: Legacies of the school of Criminology at berkeley’ (Criminology, 53(4): 513–544). I am especially grateful that the award jury recognised the berkeley story’s implications for an international audience; in this essay, I therefore present some of the ndings from that article. I thank Chase burton, ashley rubin, and tobias smith for suggestions that greatly improved this essay.
2 Karstedt, Susanne. 2015. ‘A Short History of the Present (and the Past).’ Criminology in Europe: Newsletter of the European Society of Criminology, 14(3): 4–6. p.4.
3 Lombroso, Cesare. 1876. L’Uomo Delinquente. Milan: Ulrico Hoepli.
4 Wiebe, Robert H. 1967. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Hill and Wang and Willrich, Michael. 2003. City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago. New York: Cambridge University Press.
5 See, for example, Walston, Catharine. 2009. Challenging Crime: A Portrait of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. London: Third Millenium.
6 Laub, John H, and Robert J. Sampson. 1991. ‘The Sutherland-Glueck Debate: On The Sociology of Criminological Knowledge.’ American Journal of Sociology, 96(6): 1402–40.
7 Vollmer, August, and Albert Schneider. 1916. “The school for police as planned at Berkeley.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 7: 877–98. p.880.
8 Toby, Jackson. 1979. “the new criminology is the old sentimentality.” Criminology, 16: 516–526. p.516.
9 Rafter, Nicole. 2010. “Silence and memory in criminology: The American Society of Criminology 2009 Sutherland Address.” Criminology, 48(2): 339–55. p.340-41, emphasis added).