Was Early Twentieth-Century Criminology a Science of the 'Other'? A Re-evaluation of Austro-German Criminological Debates

Author: Vyleta, Daniel Mark

Source: Cultural and Social History, 1 October 2006, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 406-423(18)


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In the course of the last decade or two, there has been a growing historiographic consensus that the early twentieth-century science of criminology in Germany and elsewhere in Europe is best understood as a body of knowledge that aimed to identify and classify criminals independent of their criminal acts. The aim of this science, then, was to construct – and frequently eliminate – the criminal as 'other'. As such, scholars have broadly endorsed the Foucauldian narrative that initiated interest in the history of criminology, despite frequent quibbles with Foucault's methodology and empirical legwork. Recent scholarship has investigated the nature and chronology of the shift from criminal anthropology to criminal psychology, the interaction of criminological/penological theory with prison practice, and the interaction of criminology with broader medical and social knowledges, from degeneration theory to social statistics. The results of this research tend to strengthen the above-described consensus, unsurprisingly perhaps given that they draw on it as their implicit theoretical foundation.

My paper seeks to challenge this vision of criminology as a science centring solely upon the deviance of the criminal. It does so by drawing attention to the work of Hans Gross, an Austro-German criminologist and criminalist, and the debates raging in the Archiv für Kriminalanthropologie und Kriminalistik, a criminological journal edited by Gross. I will argue that Gross has been unjustly sidelined as a narrow-minded, practice-orientated reactionary whose ideas concerned investigative technique only and had no theoretical impact on criminology. I will show that Gross's critique of criminological methodology was founded on sophisticated theoretical doubts which induced him to turn away from the assumption of criminal deviance as the starting point of a science concerned with criminality. His ideas both reflected and fed a much wider debate within criminology and its attendant disciplines concerned with quasi-pathological phenomena among the general population, thus blurring any line that would delineate criminal and non-criminal. At the same time, implicitly, Gross and his followers erected a sharp line of demarcation that separated the unreliable, proto-degenerate masses on the one hand from trained, educated, and rational experts on the other.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/1478003806cs079oa

Affiliations: European College of Liberal Arts, Berlin, and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Publication date: October 1, 2006

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