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date: 29 March 2023

Critical Perspectives on Historical Criminologylocked

Critical Perspectives on Historical Criminologylocked

  • Alex TeppermanAlex TeppermanDepartment of Criminal Justice, The University of Winnipeg


In its current form, historical criminology is only a few decades old, though the questions and approaches that guide the field owe much to the same foundational theorists so central to the development of criminology, sociology, and social history. Broadly speaking, historical criminology focuses on the ways in which historical theories, methods, and perspectives fit into criminological practice, providing history-facing theories and methods to those scholars interested in long-term trajectories and explanations of present-day criminological concerns. Central to this approach is a distrust of the presentist view that contemporary phenomena are unprecedented or that they signify distinct breaks from past processes. Rather, historical criminology embraces the idea that scholars can find meaningful comparisons to events that may seem sui generis or unprecedented within the historical record, or that scholars may find value by simply better understanding the context of the present or recent past. These views position historical criminology within the broader purview of critical criminology by challenging positivistic or Whiggish impulses within criminal justice research that become far less stable when made to struggle with questions of contingency and path dependency. For more than a century, works with historical orientations have productively challenged criminologists to reimagine the present by offering scholars a view of what was and what might have been when it comes to issues relating to crime, deviance, law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

While historical criminologists often share similar inclinations, there also exist important philosophical disagreements within the field. For one, scholars have long deliberated over the question of how to meaningfully parse the differences between historical criminology, crime history, and historical sociology, and they have found little forward movement in this regard over recent decades. Scholars also struggle to market historical perspectives to criminologists, despite the clear value that historical methods and theories offer interdisciplinary “meeting place” fields such as criminology. In the future, historical criminologists may choose to grow their field by encouraging colleagues to grapple more deliberately with conceptions of time, era, and progress; to lean more aggressively into incorporating insights from history and history-adjacent disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology, folklore studies, and comparative literature into their own work; and by undertaking concerted advocacy efforts for the greater adoption of historical units, courses, and readings in both undergraduate and graduate criminology university courses.


  • Critical Criminology

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