Book review: Controlling Crime, Controlling Society

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a review published in Contemporary Sociology 39(1):65-66 (2009).

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. Review of Controlling Crime, Controlling Society: Thinking About Crime in Europe and America, by Dario Melossi. Contemporary Sociology 39(1):65-66.

The field of criminology is a difficult thing. For one, it presently refers to that odd constellation of approaches that is often called a new multi-disciplinary field, even though it has great difficulties to have its claims of solidarity accepted as anything more than that. Additionally, as a sociological subfield, criminology has lost much of its luster in the discipline for reasons that not only relate to the misunderstandings from those who do not belong to the specialty. But criminology is popular as well, especially in our teaching. These ambivalent conditions are most puzzling in the light of the centrality of crime, deviance, and control in society. Under these circumstances, it remains imperative for sociologists to develop a criminological specialty.

The knowledge of an academic discipline is differentiated from everyday knowledge, perhaps most importantly, by the systematic quest to examine its own conditions. By that standard, Dario Melossi has done criminology the biggest service imaginable in writing this fine book. For this work presents an amazing and, as far as I can tell, unique inquiry into the history and systematics of criminology. Aided by his own intellectual journey from Italy to the USA and back (Melossi was born and raised in Italy, and received his Ph.D. in the U.S. where he also taught until his return to Italy), Melossi is ideally placed to analyze the development of criminology in Europe and the United States and reveal the important cultural, political, and intellectual differences and interconnections between the two continents.

Melossi analyzes the development of criminological thinking from the Classical and the Positivist traditions towards the development of competing criminological theories in the consensus, labeling, and critical traditions and the present-day obsession with mass incarceration. What is most striking is how authentically sociological Melossi narrates these developments. Criminological theories are not merely explained as systems of ideas but are also placed in their broader societal contexts. As a conceptual guide, Melossi relies on the twin notions of the state and social control, which he sees as critical in the development of criminological thought in Europe and the United States, respectively.

Briefly reviewing the chapters, Melossi relates the thought of the Classical School to ideas on social contract, introducing Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham to unveil the ideas of Cesare Beccaria. The positivist ideas of the likes of the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet and the Italians Cesare Lombroso and Enrico Ferri are discussed against the backdrop of urbanization and the advance of the sciences. The latter movement also enabled the work of Emile Durkheim, whose perspective of crime is here dutifully treated within the background of his broad oeuvre on integration, democracy, and law.

Coming to America, a shift takes places towards the Protestant traditions of the new republic and its progressive turn towards social control by the end of the 19th century. From then on, we can witness the now well-known development of the criminological schools of thought which today are seen primarily as competing theories. The Chicago School is approached from the viewpoint of its geography as well as in connection with pragmatist notions of democracy. The perspective also enabled the development of Edwin Sutherland’s differential-association theory and, in contrast, the structural approaches of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Again in opposition, we have the emergence of the labeling approach and its extension to a critically informed criminology, first on the basis of Marx, then Michel Foucault, and subsequently marching on in a hybrid of directions, including feminism. The critical traditions are arguably also best suited to dissect the most recent shifts in criminology, with a host of neo-classical theories competing for domination in an era of hyper-control.

Dario Melossi’s book is truly an exhilarating piece of work. It shows that it is not only possible but also more than becoming for sociology at large to revisit the foundations and contours of the specialty area focused on the study of crime, deviance, and control. Even should this intellectual pursuit not stop the balkanization of sociology, it cannot be rationally denied that there is a criminological tradition in which thinking about criminological thinking is as real as the continued praxis of empirical criminological studies that are subservient to the needs of a criminal justice system rather than reflecting thereupon. I am hopeful that this splendid book will be widely read. The writing is profound yet accessible, its reading only hindered somewhat by an excessive use of quotation marks (to denote the so-called status of criminals, others, and so on). Yet, I am also cautious that this book will be read more by criminologists than by sociologists and more so in Europe than in America. Especially given the level of undergraduate instruction in the United States, this book may as a teaching tool be reserved for graduate seminars. Be that as it may, Melossi has shown that a self-reflective criminology is possible. That fact alone should give pause to those sociologists who too hastily lament the state of criminology without knowledge of the relevant facts.

See other writings on social control and criminal justice.