Criminology has a fairly modest place in recent British history. Skimming through writings on postwar Britain, you’ll find a footnote here or there, perhaps a mention of Sir Leon Radzinowicz and the establishment of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology in 1959. The odd phrase or concept has become common currency―‘moral panic’ comes to mind―but the discipline has usually been more of a spectator than a participant. What criminology is for, whether it’s an intellectual or policy failure, and how we should measure its success, are open questions, and have been since its earlier days.2016 marks the 50th year of criminology as a department at Oxford, though its origins lie further back. The Centre for Criminology has an exciting year of events planned for its anniversary, which began with LSE Professors Paul Rock, David Downes, and Tim Newburn recounting for us the story of crime, criminology, and criminal justice in 1966. They have been asked to write the official history of criminal justice from 1959 to 1997, and it certainly feels like an official history. We were presented with a world of ministers, committees, and commissions, driven by enlightened paternalism, latent utilitarianism, and faith in social engineering. What might have been articulated more fully in these insightful accounts was a sense of social and political change, occurring in a world that was being rebuilt and redefined. To a contemporary observer, the relative optimism of the period, along with the minor significance of electoral politics and mass media, is striking and in need of exposition. In other words, we entered the world of Yes, Minister not The Thick of It.
In 1966, what needed explaining was the problem of crime amidst plenty. The postwar world saw an economic boom unimaginable in prior decades, which ought to have brought social stability and harmony. Or so it was thought. What actually occurred was increasing crime, in tandem with a host of other upheavals in social and civic life. Public concern was typically based on shocking individual episodes of criminality such as the Moors murders, rather than sober reflection on the exact quantity and severity of crime rates. Nevertheless, crime rates defied explanation. What could account for a delinquent generation of affluent teenagers, personified by The Teddy Boys?
There were two dominant stories, according to Professor Rock. The first was moral, focusing on family breakdown, faulty socialization, and a lack of discipline. Bad outcomes, it was assumed, have bad causes. The obvious solution was a strong re-assertion of traditional values through reformatory institutions such as borstals and informal methods of discipline in the home and school such as corporal punishment. The second explanation presented itself as more scientific, stressing that crime was the product of complex, multifactorial processes. An array of typologies and correlations quickly emerged in journals such as The British Journal of Delinquency, first published in 1950, ten years later renamed The British Journal of Criminology. This story was recognisably criminological, though hardly prone to earthshattering insights. Indeed, despite its increasing research pedigree, scholars were often aware of the limited usefulness of their knowledge about the causes of crime. Barbara Wootton, one of the subject’s few high profile female voices, suggested that criminology was at its best when discrediting theories and exploding myths, rather than producing explanations of its own.What are we to take away from this foray into the state of criminology in 1966? Having trawled through reams of government papers, Professor Downes and Professor Newburn both noted that very little cabinet time was devoted to criminal justice. Much to their disappointment, the archives conceal no smoking gun―none of which is to suggest the irrelevance of the past. Professor Newburn was keen to stress the power wielded by individual ministers and other key stakeholders, hinting at the importance of contingency and unanticipated events on the course of policy-making and criminal justice history. We should also remember that the time and place of particular actors and ideas are often more important than their validity. No matter how robust or plausible a criminological finding, many shrewd policy-makers retained a sense that crime is a fundamentally intractable social problem that is more realistically managed than eradicated.
As important and appealing as historical change is, particularly when speaking of the often romanticised 1960s, in some ways the more compelling and tricky story is that of continuity. The 1960s police, for example, resisted major organisational reform despite considerable social unrest, public criticism, and scandal. Although the prisons introduced a new security classification system following the 1966 Mountbatten Report, Professor Downes argued that there was a continuing optimism about the reformatory potential of penal institutions no matter their apparent inadequacies. Reading a fuller account of how these institutions weathered political storms, and how they adapted to them, is an appealing prospect.
Criminology is in need of quality historical overviews of its recent past, and Professors Rock, Downes, and Newburn are well positioned to provide such an account. Given the increasingly refined and specialised discipline of contemporary criminology, we might be led to believe that with better quality data and methods, our most profound observations will be about the here and now, or the near future. This seminar was an important reminder that we cannot know our subject at present or any time soon if we lose sight of its recent, and more distant, past.
You can listen to a recording of this 50th anniversary lecture here.