Vol. 6, No. 3 (March,1996) pp. 62-64
PUNISHMENT AND SOCIAL CONTROL: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF SHELDON L. MESSINGER by Thomas G. Blomberg and Stanley Cohen (Editors) New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995. 318 pp. Cloth $46.95 (text adoption price on ten or more copies: $27.95)
Reviewed by Todd R. Clear, School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University
This FESTSCHRIFT is a collection of sixteen original essays published to mark the retirement of Sheldon L. Messinger. The topics covered are central to the study of formal social control theory and practice; the authors include some of the foremost contemporary critics of social control, writing on subjects for which they are well known.
That this is an impressive volume is due in large part to the stature of the contributors and the importance of their chosen topics. Among the writers and their topics are David Rothman on the modern history of justice reform, Gresham Sykes on imprisonment, Egon Bittner on policing, David Garland on penal postmodernism, David Matza on drug policy, Richard Berk and Richard Freeman on the measurement of crime, and Alfred Blumstein on punishment trends. The other contributors are as able and well-known. The result is a valuable and original set of essays that will be enjoyed by student and established scholar alike.
The versatility of this collection will recommend it as a supplemental text to undergraduate classes on various topics of crime control. The sophistication of many of the papers means the book will also serve the well as a graduate-level text. It is unusual to find a book with such broad usefulness, but this anthology accomplishes the difficult trifecta of coverage, creativity, and depth.
Some of the selections are closely related to previously published work. Gary T. Marx's assessment of undercover policing, Andrew von Hirsch's commentary on the future of proportionate sentencing, Alfred Blumstein's revisit to the stability of punishment hypothesis, and Jonathon Simon and Malcolm Feeley's critique of the new penology fit into this group. Each is an extension of previous work, offering palatable refinements to well-developed arguments. Scholars will find these selections reliable extensions, while students will be stimulated to ponder more thoroughly the contributions they augment.
In a volume of valuable essays, three stand out as remarkable, for quite different reasons: Garland's commentary on postmodernism, Berk and Freedman's exposition on crime measurement, and Gilbert Geis's account of the demise of the School of Criminology at Berkeley.
Garland writes with his usual easy confidence, putting into theoretically accessible order the hodge-podge of trends and programs that has been our modern penal experience. He links together with a critical eye the managerial frame of reference of correctional administration, the risk-management technologies of line practice, and the politicization of penal policy to argue for a POSTMODERN view of penality. He then criticizes the accuracy of this conclusion. One detects a hint of whimsical romanticism about the good old days of "rehabilitation"
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MODERNISM, a subtext that is not only curious, given his earlier writing, but also a bit annoying. (Compare it to Pat Carlen's complaint immediately following that penal policy about women uses repressive ideologies of "rehabilitation" to reconstruct the women into models acceptable to male hegemony.) Yet the treatise holds together, placing today's penal knowledge into a broader theoretical paradigm dominant in the social sciences and philosophy.
Berk and Freedman's essay on the statistical assumptions underlying the measurement of crime is a delightful exposition on selected analytic problems in the mathematics of crime. The paper discusses various statistical concerns: assumptions about the nature of the sampling population, spatial interdependence, dependence in sampling probabilities, correlated error terms, and aggregation biases. They are better at pointing out the problems than at suggesting solutions, but in a volume dedicated to ethereal considerations of social theory, this frank, grounded side-trip into the numerology of quantitative crime research is refreshing and noteworthy.
Geis's chronology of the demise of the Criminology School at Berkeley is at once gripping story-telling and shocking stuff. He describes the way the political activity of faculty at Berkeley became linked to the electoral politics in California and led eventually to the dismantlement of the School. By naming names, he gives substance to a distressing violation of academic freedom. The story -- which he admits may be disputed in some of its particulars by persons named in his story -- puts us all on notice as to the ease with which circumstances can conspire to overcome precious freedoms of the academy. Scholars can use being reminded of this fact, and students will be the wiser for knowing the tale.
What binds this varied collection together is its thematic interest in social control contradictions: policies devised as ways to protect the rights of individuals or communities result in their further subservience to the state; new programs conceived as alternatives to formal social control succeed in strengthening the apparatus of control; interventions developed to prevent crime become institutionalized despite their proven insignificance in this regard; crime measures designed to inform us inevitably reinforce biased understandings of crime and social control; the exercise of freedom contains the kernels of its own demise.
We are reminded that the study of social control systems is largely a meditation on the socio-political functions of contradiction. This is an important, enduring lesson, one ably brought to bear by these worthy advocates and scientists.
My only quibble is a nagging concern about the audience of such a volume. In the advertising notes, Professor Emeritus James Short (current President of the American Society of Criminology) says the book should be on the bookshelf of every politician and indeed every citizen. I am left to wonder, "Why?" For one thing, the language in most of the selections is technical, jargonistic, or both, with special usages of ordinary terms such as "modern" or "narrative," and the recurrent reliance on in-group terms such as
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"representation, "penality," and "discourse." Our penchant to speak in tongues to one another tends to create a side-show to the main event going on around us, and it ensures that any lessons we believe we may have to impart will remain closely guarded, as though a type of inviolable wealth to be hoarded.
It is also convenient. The fact that our unremitting criticism of the actions of the world can never make it into the action and language of the world protects us from accountability. Social control becomes something "they" do and "we" remark upon. So as much as I liked this volume, I am also tempted to wonder why it was necessary and whom it helped.
Aside from the fact that Sheldon L. Messinger deserves so richly these accolades.