- Writing the History of Crime by Paul Knepper
This short but ambitious book, latest in Bloomsbury’s Writing History series, surveys not only crime but popular and official reactions to it, from ballads to prisons, starting in the eighteenth century and continuing into the present. Although focused mainly on academic historians in Britain and America, Knepper reaches with apparent ease across to Europe, with occasional forays into Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
The book’s organization is as simple as its subject is vast. After a brief introduction and then a chapter on “Legal History” tracing the origin of the genre, the next six chapters are organized around a series of “challenges” to prior approaches: “Statistics, Trends, and Techniques,” mostly borrowed from sociology; “Evolution and Psychoanalysis”; “The British Marxist Historians”; “The City and Its Criminals”; “Foucault’s Project”; and “Women, Gender, and Crime.” Knepper finishes with a nearly anticlimactic (British) “Empire and Colonialism,” most of its findings already anticipated.
Each chapter begins with the pioneering studies of historians and others who challenged existing models, followed in roughly chronological order by responses, whether positive/negative or fundamental/ corrective. Knepper weighs gently into these conversations as they proceed, before ending each chapter with a generally balanced and commonsensical “conclusion.”
Knepper’s persuasiveness will depend on the topics, some of which inspire passionate opinions. The use of statistics, despite continuing questions about sources, is clearly here to stay. The conversation about crime and urbanization is by now only a little more controversial; empirical research on several continents has long discredited the older sociological theory that criminal disorder was as an inevitable consequence of population growth. But arguments about the remaining subjects are more spirited, and even though both psychoanalysis and Marxism have lost some of their earlier appeal, feminism and gender surely have not. The chapter about Michel Foucault is sui generis: The enigmatic Frenchman seems to flummox Knepper as much as he does the rest of us, as he mirrors his subject with several apparent hedges and self-contradictions.
If any theme may be said to run throughout the book, it is loss of confidence. Whatever their views about the incidence of crime, Whiggish Victorian historians in their official responses were sure that they were [End Page 224] both describing and inspiring institutional progress. The same faith was at least partly shared by positivist sociologists early in the twentieth century. Yet, although some more recent observers still hold to this optimism, most have become far more skeptical, divided even as to what “progress” might mean.
That much of the book should be as useful to students of historiography in general as to students of crime in particular is all the more impressive because Knepper is not a historian but a criminologist by trade. Moreover, his research is remarkable. Whereas most of the other books in the Bloomsbury Writing History series involve edited contributions by a number of specialists, Knepper summarizes, or at least references, hundreds of different sources, from several disciplines, by himself.
Brevity can be the soul of wit, and there is no lack here—a case in point, Foucault has “left historians bewitched, bothered, and bewildered” (147). But compression has its price; given so many authors and arguments squeezed into little more than 200 pages of text, the book has to dismiss many of them in only a sentence or two. The result—this impressive book—is worth it.