Comparative and Historical Analysis

Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina

Derek M.D. Silva
King’s University College at Western University

Published in The Encyclopedia of Research Methods in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume I, edited by J.C. Barnes and David R. Forde, pp. 365-369. Wiley-Blackwell, 2021. 

Also available online via publisher John Wiley & Sons and in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu, and Derek M.D. Silva. 2021. “Comparative and Historical Analysis.” Pp. 365-369 in The Encyclopedia of Research Methods in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Volume I, edited by J.C. Barnes and David R. Forde. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Criminologists and criminal justice scholars have elaborate experience in exploring issues of crime and/or deviance from an explicitly comparative and/or historical perspective. Despite the relative success and predominance of cross-sectional methodologies and statistical observations in crime and criminal justice research, much research that analyzes crime, as a legal category, and deviance, as an unspecified norm violation, and various dimensions of crime control continues has also been developed from an explicitly historical or comparative viewpoint.

Seeking to uncover aspects of social life that are either spatially and/or historically remote from a given localized and/or contemporary setting, comparative and historical analysis involves various technical challenges and that should be addressed on the basis of important epistemological considerations. This essay first reviews some of the main general characteristics of comparative and historical methodology in criminology and criminal justice. Important questions and problems of research design are addressed first before and overview is provided of some of the main areas of research in which the comparative and historical methodology has been applied in criminology and criminal justice.

Methodology and Technique 

The methodology of comparative and historical analysis refers to social-scientific research that extend localized and/or cross-sectional investigations beyond the researcher’s immediate spatial and temporal context. Comparative and historical analysis focuses on broadening the scope of research to disparate social settings and, as such, also involves epistemological questions regarding the relationship between theory and method.

In the contemporary social sciences, comparative and historical analysis has from an epistemological viewpoint mostly been enabled by the introduction of conflict-theoretical perspectives (Adams, Clemens, & Orloff, 2005). In sociology, this turn was particularly influenced by the conflict theoretical wave that gradually invaded the discipline from the 1970s onwards, founded on the historical materialism of Karl Marx. In criminology and criminal justice, this development partly also benefitted from the work of Michel Foucault (1977) and other conflict perspectives that more explicitly paid attention to the study of crime and crime control from a historical viewpoint.

At least three broad strategies of research can be identified to adequately connect theoretical perspectives with specific questions of research in comparative and historical work on crime and criminal justice (Skocpol and Somers 1980). First, theories of crime and criminal justice can be investigated in multiple settings differentiated by space or time to reveal a more general pattern of behavior. Second, cases can be contrasted to reveal their unique dimensions in concrete settings. And, third, cases can be compared on the basis of the principle that observed differences and similarities are to be interpreted or explained within a theoretical framework.

From the viewpoint of research technique, the methodology of comparative and historical analysis is guided by specific considerations related to data collection and analysis (Lange, 2013). Historical methods involve explorations that can only be conducted by examining the traces of history that are presently still available. Comparative data are identified as representations of events that have taken place in multiple social contexts. In the case of comparative data, language issues are of central concern, although some form of interpretation and translation is also involved in analyses of historical data.

Sources in comparative and historical analysis can be collected from an assortment of primary and secondary documents in libraries, archives, and online repositories. Primary documents are direct manifestations of the phenomena of interest (e.g., arrest records), while secondary sources are narratives related to the phenomena under investigation (e.g., newspaper articles about crime). Availability and accessibility of these sources are inevitable issues.

The procedure of collecting and analyzing data in comparative and historical analysis involves at least the following four components (Pitt, 1972; Lange, 2013): 1) the identification and selection of sources (e.g., public records, media reports, and, increasingly, materials available on the internet); 2) registration and classification of sources in a matter that is useful for research needs; 3) critique and confrontation to ensure that the sources under investigation are accurate in reflecting social realities that by definition are remote in space or time; and 4) analysis based on the range of social research techniques of analysis currently available.

Empirical Research Studies

Comparative Criminology and Criminal Justice

The vast majority of criminological studies employing a comparative and historical analysis are comparative studies of crime rather than of deviance (Van Dijk, 2007). Most typically, these works will rely on official government reports of crime statistics, thereby presenting tremendous challenges of comparison as the employed legal categorizations of crime across two or more countries can vary considerably. It is therefore almost by definition problematic to present the homicide rates of two countries, or even within-country jurisdictions, over a particular period of time in one two-column table, as has been done numerous studies on Uniform Crime Reports in the United States.

Most work on comparative aspects of criminal justice offers descriptions of the basic characteristics of criminal justice systems across geospatial locations (Pakes, 2015; Reichel, 2012). These studies are not always systematic in describing criminal justice systems along comparable dimensions of some theoretical relevance. Instead, listings of various nations’ criminal justice systems are all too often provided without much consideration given to principles of selection of, or comparison among, the countries that are included.

Comparative studies that focus on some specific aspect of criminal justice (such as policing or punishment) tend to be of a more valuable scholarly nature by explicating relevant dimensions of juxtaposition (e.g., Deflem, 2014, Mawby, 1990; Kethineni, 2010). This is unsurprising given the fact that social-scientific theories on criminal justice are much more developed with respect to specific institutions, such as police and prisons, rather than the broad dimensions of entire criminal justice systems.

Recent and not so recent developments of globalization have brought about an increase in comparative and historical studies of crime that are focused on international developments (Nelken, 2011). This work specifically addresses the diffusion of criminal justice styles and selected components thereof as well as the importation and exportation of forms of international criminal justice approaches. Among the arguably most studied relevant themes in recent decades have been international police cooperation and other forms of cross-border police work (Casey, 2010; Deflem, 2002).

Histories of Crime and Criminal Justice

Looking at the historical research that has been devoted to aspects of crime and criminal justice, much consideration has gone to the manner in which crime is socially constructed, and how crime and deviance need to be conceptually differentiated from one another on the basis of the formal, legal treatment of normative violations. Among the most groundbreaking studies in this respect is William Chambliss’ (1964) historical study of vagrancy laws. Similar observations can be made about historical studies that have investigated other crimes over long periods of time, such as criminalization in the middle ages (Sharpe, 1999), the development crime in modernity (Emsley, 2010), and the history of banditry (Hobsbawm, 1969).

The difference between crime (as legally defined norm violations) and deviance (as a less formal category of violations of social norms) has only rarely been the explicit focus of historical research. Among the most influential of such works is Kai Erikson’s (1966) research of deviant behavior in 17th-century colonial Massachusetts and its treatment in such infamous incidents as the Salem witch trials. This distinctly scholarly and sociological treatment of deviant behavior demonstrates the value of a societal-reaction perspective in accounting for the difference and relation between deviance and crime.

Unlike most comparative studies of criminal justice, historical studies have to some extent been advanced in terms of broad analyses of entire criminal justice systems (Beattie, 2001; Taylor, 1998), sometimes with an added comparative focus (Emsley, 2007). Typically, these studies explore the basic characteristics of criminal justice systems over time on the basis of changing internal legal principles, although some studies also treat the history of criminal justice within one nation or otherwise single jurisdiction. Seeking to make sense of observed regularities and differences, several social-science theories have been relied upon to explain certain historical trends and characteristics of criminal justice institutions, such as police and punishment, as well as related international developments of criminal justice systems (Beattie, 2012; Deflem, 2002; Merriman, 2006; Walker, 1977).


Comparative and historical analysis in criminology and criminal justice presents exciting opportunities for research. The methodology of comparative and historical research is well established in the social sciences and has been usefully relied upon in innovative empirical inquiries on various aspects and dimensions of crime and criminal justice systems. Considering the relatively inconsistent application of the method, a number of challenges remain, not least of which the search for properly grounded comparative and historical work in relevant criminological and criminal justice theories. Moreover, the value of comparative and historical analysis can especially be revealed by contributing to analyzing the cultural contexts that are necessary for an adequate interpretation of crime and criminal justice systems and institutions (Nelken, 2010).

In the current era of globalization, comparative and historical research may be especially useful for comparatively uncovering the nationally and otherwise localized influencing factors and effects of international processes and structures of crime, deviance, and criminal justice. From a historical perspective, moreover, such international developments should be examined in terms of their origins in earlier temporal periods. The problematic nature of issues concerning crime and deviance, such as in cases of genocide (Brannigan, 2013), as well the actions they invoke by various agents and institutions of criminal justice, such as the problems brought about by mass-incarceration worldwide (Deflem, 2014), clearly justifies the continued need for comparative and historical methods in criminology and criminal justice.


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See related writings on crime and criminal justice.