How criminal justice has grown as an academic field |Interview with Dr. Paul Rock

We met with Dr. Paul Rock to discuss the evolution of criminology and its roots in sociology, the psychiatry of deviant behavior, and much more. Enjoy!

How criminal justice has grown as an academic field |Interview with Dr. Paul Rock

Leading criminologist Dr. Paul Rock explains how the academic field of criminology evolved from sociology, and how its focus varied by country. He also delves into the recent history of criminal justice, politics, economics, and the psychiatry of deviant behavior and unpacks their synergism. Emeritus Professor of Social Institutions at the London School of Economics, Dr. Rock talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview Transcript


00:01 Paul Rock: How is it that people find themselves evolving into this identity called deviant or criminal?

00:14 Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. And today, we have, coming from the United Kingdom, a criminologist by the name of Professor Paul Rock. Professor Rock, it’s great to see you today. Can you just tell us a little bit about how criminology changed from being what it was before to during your younger years? It changed to be more of a branch of sociology, or it was infused with more sociology. What did it look like before, and what did it mean to take on that aspect of sociology?

00:52 Paul Rock: I think it depends where you are. If you’re in Germany, I think that criminology would have a strongly legalistic bent, if you’re in South America, it might well have a kinda medico-legal bent. The UK and much of the US, I think, would give it sociological frame. So it... There are, as it were, national variations. Criminology started amongst a group of people who had practical everyday dealings with crime, criminals, treatment, and so on. It was inevitable because the academic population of criminologists was very, very small. It was inevitable, that it should be practitioners who were of major importance in starting the field. So that in the UK, for example, we have a very strong psychoanalytic orientation, a very strong psychiatric orientation. It was in the hands of administrators and policymakers and others and I’ve been looking recently for another purpose of the evolution of the prime journal in my country. The British Journal of Criminology started out as the British Journal of Delinquency and it’s quite... It was founded by something called the Institute for Study and Treatment of Delinquency in The Portman Clinic both of which were heavily psychoanalytic in their framing. It took time before criminology became an academic pursuit in its own right.

02:39 Paul Rock: The first appointment was a psychoanalyst called Hamblin Smith in 1935, and then there were the refugees from Germany who were very important. Hermann Mannheim, who was a Jewish, a Prussian judge, a formidable intellectual who came to the London School of Economics in, I think, 1935 as a refugee, Leon Radzinowicz, who was also Jewish, Polish, studied under important criminologists in Italy and set up criminology in Cambridge, and Grünhut, who went to Oxford. So there is this kind of trio of refugees who imported into the UK a predominantly European cast version of criminology as a very eclectic discipline. And it grew rather slowly. I think what led to its... What catalyzed it was a perceived crisis in the late 1950s and then in the 1960s about a rise in crime. And there was talk about so-called delinquent generations who had grown up during the war and who had missing fathers and dysfunctional families and were bent on delinquency. It was thought that young people, young men, in particular, were becoming much, much more criminal than their predecessors had been. I mean, what now, in retrospect, looks like very modest increases in very modest numbers of crime shook... It shook policymakers, journalists and others.

04:41 Paul Rock: It led to funding... Dual funding. One was setting up an Institute of Criminology in Cambridge, which is still flourishing, and I noticed that one of the people who is listed is Larry Sherman, who just retired, who was the Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge. The other was a body set up within the Home Office, which was the Criminal Justice Ministry, to look at crime and the treatment of offenders and so on. So there was that kind of spurt at the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, and then the other thing was the enormous expansion of universities. Universities grew, again, very modestly by American standards, but quite formidably by British standards from... Can’t remember the figures... Something like 40 to 60 in the space of about 15 years.

05:40 Paul Rock: The number of students swelled, and there was an appetite for new courses, including sociology and criminology, and there was a hiring of staff, so there was a kind of rupture, there was suddenly on the scene a large number of new courses which had to be entrusted to young staff who were recruited en masse, and they were young Turks, if you like, who... There was a kind of generational rift between them and what was dismissed in a rather lordly fashion as administrative criminology, as positivism, and as being kind of dull and dedicated to the service of the state.

06:23 Paul Rock: And that younger generation, those young Turks, kind of, as it were, institutionalized themselves in what was called the Young... At National Deviancy Symposium in 1968 at one of the new universities, the University of York. And they tried to incorporate sociology because that’s what their background was. They were entranced by a lot of the new radical movements, remember 1968 was the year of the great events in Paris and so on. There was the emergence of prisoners’ unions in the UK on a modest scale, but also in America. There was [07:11] ____ Jackson, for example, who organized prisoners. There was Soledad Brothers. There was a whole idea of the radicalization of prisons and prisoners.

07:21 Paul Rock: Psychiatry was in flux under the influence of people like Ronald Laing and the idea of what was called the dialectics of liberation. I didn’t find all that stuff enormously persuasive myself, but it had a kind of catalytic impact, there was a ferment of ideas and there was a spate of new books, new publications, and it was very exciting, and it was a peer group educated population rather than taking, as it were, very much instruction from the older generation for whom I now feel rather sorry, because we were rather cavalier in talking about them. We exchanged references. We talked about ideas as graduate students and then as young lecturers. We embraced people who came over from the States who told us that they had heard about a kind of ferment in the UK, and thought it sounded rather inviting and interesting and they wanted to explore it.

08:36 Paul Rock: So to name names, which probably won’t mean a great deal, there was a man called Troy Duster, who was a very interesting African-American criminologist who went to Berkeley and then he became involved in scandals involving race and genetics and so on. He wrote a book called The Legislation of Morality, which I think was very fine. Howie Becker came, who was at Northwestern at the time. Robert Scott came from Princeton, Peter Manning came from Michigan State. Aaron Cicourel, who took me under his wing briefly, came over. He was setting up the university in... UCSD, University of California San Diego. And my first trip to the States was in ’72 when I taught summer school there. I met an extraordinary faculty, again, the names may not mean much, but they certainly were significant to me. A man called Fred Davis, a man called Jack Douglas, Joe Gusfield. And this was as impressive a coterie of scholars in one discipline, in one place as you would find anywhere in the world.

09:52 Paul Rock: So it was a very, very exciting time. And as I said, we tended to be a little bit contemptuous, a bit mean about our older generation, we thought we could do it ourselves. And Stan Cohen, who was one of the vanguard, talked about a number of the things that distinguished it, concerned with meaning. And the meaning of the deviant act to the deviant, the rule breaker, the criminal, police, the judge and the way in which they intersected [10:28] ____ the process concerned with, as it were, restoring some degree of balance so that we didn’t simply accept authority definitions of situations, but explored them and interrogated them. Organized skepticism, which was one of the characteristics. And it went on. There were books published under the editorship of Stan Cohen, which laid out a manifesto for all that was going on. And eventually he was to have a worldwide impact. I think he spent a lot of time at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

11:14 Paul Rock: He was lionized over in the States. He was lionized in, not lionized, but he went for a while to Hebrew University in Jerusalem and so on. Jock Young was another person, who with Paul Walton and Ian Taylor, wrote a kind of manifesto for a new criminology under that title, which had a strong infusion of Marxism and was affected by Alvin Gouldner, who was one of the kinda angry middle-aged men of the time. I think he was at the University of Amsterdam, but he was an American. So it went on. It was a very, very febrile time and it was... What was it Wordsworth said? Something about "to be young was very, very bliss," I don’t know, but when he visited France during the French Revolution. It had that kind of feeling about it, really.

12:14 Jed Macosko: Absolutely amazing. Now, it sounds like the big shift was from the older generation of scholars that said "criminals are deviants. Criminals need to be psychoanalyzed because their minds are messed up," to "criminals have sociological problems and they need to be rehabilitated in a sort of a social environment," versus psychoanalyzed and have their repressed ideas, sort of the Freud picture, to a more Marxist view, or at least a view of how they’d been shaped by their society. Is that a fair...

12:56 Paul Rock: I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

12:58 Jed Macosko: Okay, well, explain. Go ahead.

13:00 Paul Rock: It starts with the kind of liberal establishment in the major government departments who were, on the one hand, fundamentally pessimistic about the state’s ability to affect crime rates. The number of crimes which were reported was only about a fraction of those that were experienced. About 40% of crimes are reported, a very small proportion of those are actually recorded, and a very small proportion of those that are recorded led to some sort of outcome in the courts. And so you got attrition working its way through. There was conviction because the last thing I did, I was very fortunate, I was asked by the government to write what’s called an official history of criminal justice, so I looked at government papers and interviewed officials and others who’d been in place at the time. The general feeling was that there wasn’t much we could do about crime, we could manage it a little bit, but not much more.

14:08 Paul Rock: The prime onus for changing behavior rested on the family, rested on the church, rested on a whole host of informal controls, which the state had very little leverage over, and when the state came in it was often too late. The best you could do is go for humane conditions. So you did... If you imprison people, you did as little harm to them as possible. And there might be things you could tinker with, you could experiment with, you could introduce parole, you could introduce the idea of community penalties, you could... And the like, but the general, besetting feeling was pessimism. And psychoanalysis had had its day by the late ’60s. I’d looked at the rather sad history of a therapeutic prison for women, Holloway, which had been set up as a virtual hospital, and you entered it, as it were, at one end and you went through a diagnostic continuum in which you as a woman were diagnosed and your problems were assessed and you went through a variety of regimes and emerged at the other end, as it were, crime-free.

15:38 Paul Rock: And it was so... It was set up with such a degree of optimism that it was thought that in time it could be handed back to the community as a proper hospital, because you wouldn’t need a prison anymore, because the problem of crime amongst women would have been settled. By the time it opened in mid-’70s, all that had dissipated, there was no longer any confidence in the ability of a prison to change inmates. So that’s on the one hand, the psychoanalytic also had its day, it waned, I think dramatically, and other forms of psychiatry, other forms of intervention superseded it. On the other hand, I think there were splits amongst the young Turks that I’ve talked about. On the one hand there were those who thought themselves full on as having a kinda quasi revolutionary potential. The prisoner who was most heavily oppressed and who suffered the pains of and the deprivations of capitalism at its very worst was prime material for revolt.

16:53 Paul Rock: And there were a number, if you remember, a number of prison uprisings at the time, Attica, for example. It all seemed frankly to be nonsense to me, but there were people who pinned their hopes on that, not only in the UK, but people like Thomas Mathiesen, for example, talked about... Who was a very distinguished Norwegian criminologist, talked about matters like that. What I think we were trying to... A lot of us were trying to do is restore meaning and try to understand, not necessarily to change, the thing that’s... Another American criminologist of great distinction... Who was it? Came to the UK... Michael David Matza, talked about his correctionalism. He took it that his job as a criminologist was not to try to change people, but to be what he called appreciative. And by appreciative he meant using an interpretive faculty, what the Germans call verstehen, in order to understand the life world from within of why it is that people behave as they do.

18:03 Paul Rock: And he wrote a seminal book called Becoming Deviant, in which he tried to unpick step-by-step the way in which people could and did transgress. And that seemed to me a very interesting project, it didn’t necessarily have any political or therapeutic connotations for a lot of us.

18:25 Jed Macosko: So in other words, the Turks sort of divided into one camp that was looking for uprising and maybe seeing it through a Marxist lens, and the other group was just more trying to get inside the mind of a criminal to understand how he or she became that way. Is that what you’re saying?

18:43 Paul Rock: It was sort of an intellectual project, saying in effect, if we apply the kind of sociology that has been deployed to great effect in the study of education and the study of medicine and so on, and just try to say how is it that people find themselves evolving into this identity called deviant or criminal, then we will have kind of furthered our understanding considerably. And there was a classic phrase, which I cannot always recall word for word, by Howie Becker, on page nine of his book called Outsiders. And he said, in effect, that people become deviant because others, as it were, define their actions as deviant, and then act upon them as deviant. And it’s part, as it were, of a series of transactions between police, judges, victims, although victims were not talked about at that time, which is a massive omission, and [19:52] ____, and talked about the way in which little by little, step-by-step, the deviant identity was formed.

20:03 Paul Rock: And I think that was really quite interesting, and it kind of seemed to follow very naturally out of my own doctorate, which was on debt-collection, which was an organized career. The radical group wasn’t necessarily Marxist. I mean, Stan Cohen said, when people talk about revolution, what I see in the back in my mind is people coming at dawn and leading out people with placards attached and saying, I’m a counter-revolutionary, I’m being shot. So he was more anarchist than Marxist. And I think there was a growing disillusionment with the Marxist project at that time.

20:49 Paul Rock: I should add, I mean, for what it’s worth, that there was also in the UK at the time an enormously influential and inspirational group of social historians who were Marxists, who talked about crime and regarded crime as kind of proto-revolutionary. Eric Hobsbawm was one, who talked about, what was it called, bandits, and he regarded bandits as having a kind of revolutionary potential. Edward Thompson, who was a very bourgeois Marxist, ’cause he was E. P. Thompson, and he was the Palmer of Palmer Square, ’cause his mother was a very wealthy American lady, who owned property in Princeton. Edward Thompson wrote a book called Whigs and Hunters, which was a very fine analysis of the way in which there was resistance to encroachment on common rights of poaching and garnering and the like, of collecting fire-wood and so on, that these rights were diminished as estates were enlarged, and a wealthy aristocracy started enclosing property, land, and destroying villages and so on.

22:04 Paul Rock: And the Waltham Black Act is the center of that, which was against people blacking themselves out and going poaching at night. And the range of penalties that were attached to them was enormous. It was a very big movement. Christopher Hill looked at the 17th century and looked at the Diggers and the Anabaptists and so on, as people who were against the established order. Again, it was kind of proto-revolutionary. So there was this kind of span of people offering up analyses of crime almost as a form of class conflict. And again, it was naivety there. I mean, it was very important, particularly in the Oxford when I was there in the ’60s, there was a charismatic, Raphael Samuel, who organized something called the History Workshop, which was about what was called history from below, rescuing what was called the poor from what Thompson called the massive condescension of posterity, try to restore voices to those who had been voiceless. It’s all quite interesting. So there’s this fusion going on.

23:34 Jed Macosko: A huge change in how criminology was approached, and it was in your lifetime.

23:39 Paul Rock: Yes, indeed.

23:39 Jed Macosko: So we’re really lucky that you came to speak to us today. Thank you so much, Professor Rock, for sharing your thoughts on how things all unfolded in the past.

23:49 Jed Macosko: A great pleasure, I was honored to be invited. Thank you.

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