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The historicist objection to historical criminology

Published onJun 03, 2022
The historicist objection to historical criminology

 A central question surrounding the historical study of crime today concerns whether studying crime historically has a valuable contribution to make to the reform of criminal justice in the present or whether its scope should remain limited to providing a more satisfactory understanding of past crime-related phenomena. This paper problematises such a question by critically discussing the relationship between the history of crime and criminal justice policy. While it seems intuitive to suggest that historical works in criminology can positively effect change in the field of criminal justice, the historical study of crime, punishment and criminal justice presents historical criminologists with a key methodological challenge that has not yet received sufficient scrutiny by historical criminologists; that of overcoming historicism. The paper starts by showing that the dominant influence of historicism on Western historiography up until the middle of the twentieth century prevented the flourishing of historical works in criminology. It then suggests that, in the second half of the twentieth century, a number of historical works on crime started to move away from the historicist conception of history as spectator theory of the past thanks to the popularisation of present-centred historiographies such as Foucault’s history of the present. Lastly, the paper reviews some recent writings at the intersection of history and criminology to show that overcoming historicism in the historical study of crime is possible but also that there are limits to history’s capacity to contribute to present-day debates about topics of criminological relevance.

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