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Oxford University Press - Online Resource Centres

Hale et al: Criminology 3e

Chapter 2: Chapter synopses

From the works of Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765 that represent the first attempt to fully elucidate the form and function of the English criminal law, to the pre 1970s domination by "Whiggish" notions of progress and the influences of positivism, crime has tended to be seen as an absolute. It was largely understood in terms of such things as theft and, to a lesser extent, violence. Crime was something perpetrated by 'criminals' on the law-abiding majority of the population. In the 1960s and 1970s movements were made towards a critical positivist approach with a particular emphasis on the value of quantitative methods in understanding crime. Since the 1980s, empiricism and quantitative methods have tended to be incorporated within a more "holistic" approach and a stronger engagement has been sought between historians of crime and criminologists, and to some extent with practitioners in the criminal justice system.

This chapter provides an overview of the major themes in the history of crime and punishment in England and Wales over the last two and a half centuries. The chapter discusses the usefulness of historical research in this field and the research methods that are employed by historians.  The chapter examines salient features of the history of crime, criminal justice and punishment, in particular debates around crime and class; changes in the criminal justice system; and methods of punishment.  It identifies aspects of criminal justice history which assists in our understanding of contemporary issues and debates.  The chapter also demonstrates the nature of crime and criminal justice and how it must be understood within the period?s specific political context. The focus on the chapter is mainly on developments in England and Wales.

The chapter concludes by arguing that crime and punishment remain fundamentally political and cultural matters. People as well as politicians have played surprising roles in both crime and punishment over the centuries.