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Republican Monsters: The Cultural Construction of American Positivist Criminology, 1767-1920

  • Burton, Chase Smith
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2019
eScholarship - University of California
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This dissertation examines the history of and cultural influences on positivist criminology in the United States. From Benjamin Rush to the present day, the U.S. has produced an extensive corpus of empirical and theoretical studies that seeks to discern an objective, scientifically-grounded basis for criminal behavior. American positivist criminology has drawn on numerous subfields and theories, including rational choice / economic theory, biology, and psychology, but in all cases, maintains that a purely scientific explanation of offending is possible. This study proceeds from the perspective that divisions between scientific and non-scientific thought are untenable. Drawing on scholarship in literary criticism and sociology, I argue that positivist criminology confronts an inherent contradiction in purporting to develop a purely scientific account of phenomena that are defined by the moral and cultural sentiments of a society. I thus hypothesize that positivist criminology is in fact reliant on the irrational and fictive cultural tropes and images of crime that it claims to exorcize. The dissertation proceeds by reviewing the literature on the history of criminology, developing a set of functional types or tropes for character analysis, and then examining four separate periods in the development of scientific criminology: eighteenth century studies of rational action, nineteenth century studies of defective reasoning, early twentieth century studies of race and crime, and the development of scientifically informed criminalistics programs. Each of these cases captures a different period and focus in the development of scientific criminology. In threading continuity between these cases, I show how criminological positivism is consistently reliant on culturally informed tropes and characters to render itself sensible and coherent.

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