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Review of

Social Science and Social Pathology, by Barbara Wootton, assisted by Vera G. Seal and Rosalind Chambers. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1959. pp. 400. 35s.

Theoretical Criminology, by George B. Vold. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. pp. 334. 48s.

by Robert M. Young

Barbara Wootton has served as a magistrate in both adult and juvenile courts; she has also been head of a university department training social workers. The practical needs of these occupations have led her to enquire into "what is really known on the subject of criminality, its nature, its causes, and the ways in which it can best be handled" and to reflect about "socially unacceptable behaviour in general and the changing attitudes of the community toward the 'deviants' who indulge in this" It is difficult to believe that a book which promises so much could deal responsibly with so many issues of such scope and complexity. However, in their analysis of over 350 works from the literature, Lady Wootton and her assistants deliver the whole lot at a level of excellence that is as awe-inspiring as it is informative and thought provoking. Part I of the book offers a survey of the nature and extent of social pathology in England and Wales, followed by a review of evidence pertaining to contemporary hypotheses about its causes and to predictions about its occurrence. Part II deals with the impact of psychiatry on attitudes toward mental health and illness, criminal responsibility and the nature and goals of social work.

Part III consists of methodological and practical conclusions for social pathology and the social sciences in general. There are two appendices: the first lists sample cases at a London Juvenile Court; the second, by Rosalind Chambers, reviews the historical development of professionalism and specialisation among social workers.

The book was written for "the interested layman", and it is unlikely that he will find a more comprehensive treatment of the social issues of our times. She asks a lot of her reader, but his effort will be well repaid. This is especially true in the early chapters, where one finds hundred word sentences with many dependent clauses and a density of statistics that reaches twenty per page. These complexities of style diminish after Chapter III and disappear almost entirely by Chapter VII.

Her stylistic shortcomings are compensated for by the sense of urgency that permeates her careful analysis of the data. It is as though she turned to the literature for essential information to guide practical decisions; she has searched hard and practically in vain. Thus her writing has an under tone of (justifiable) righteous indignation. This mood has sharpened her analytic tools. She has a keen eye for circular reasoning, and her ability to ferret out tautologies would delight the most ardent positivist. Labels are never allowed to pose as explanations; bloated concepts and self-conceptions are quickly deflated. She is always sceptical and almost always cautious. No nonsense, no humbug, no iconolatry. Finally, she has the rare quality of seeing the significance of what is left unsaid and is as concerned with unasked questions as with the unanswered ones. Consequently, she seldom lets the matter stand at the point of ignorance but goes on to draw a positive methodological lesson from the failure of a given study to provide conclusive information.

The use of these tools shows us that delinquency has been essentially attributed to a breakdown or lack of respect for law and order (69), that mental illness has been defined as an illness which leads to commitment to a mental institution (244), that immaturity has been called a cause of crime because criminals have been found to be immature according to the criterion of committing crimes (161 ff.), and that we have theories which can accommodate any facts, however mutually contradictory (165). Lists of definitions of mental health and social casework are offered, and we are forced to the embarrassing conclusion that while the work may be continuing, no one seems quite able to agree on its nature and goals.

In her consideration of contemporary social pathology a number of supposed trends which are alarmingly proclaimed in the press are shown not to exist, and often the reverse trend is evidenced, e.g., the proportion of offences committed by those under 17 (which has fallen slightly since 1938), truancy (which is decreasing), vagrancy (which is almost negligible), and poverty (which exists, even in the welfare state). It seems a bit strange to see divorce, separation, illegitimacy, and motoring offences discussed in a work on criminology, but one soon realises that the novel insight of Lady Wootton sensibly defines the domain of social pathology as "all those actions on the prevention of which public money is spent, or the doers of which are punished or otherwise dealt with at public expense."

We are provided with complete information on what little is known about contemporary social pathology and a heavy dose of the vagaries of public statistics.

Chapters II-V provide detailed analyses of the known relations between social pathology and variables such as class, family characteristics, church attendance, employment, social activities, health, education, maternal separation, and age of offenders. These analyses are minutely detailed and brilliantly argued. One is impressed with the paucity of data, the complexities of standardisation and the difficulty of making comparisons. In no case do the available data clearly evaluate a given hypothesis or even provide unambiguous information. Vague definitions and criteria, inadequate data and controls, confusion of cause and effect and unreliable sources are the rule. It is in the realm of criminological prediction, as distinguished from a search for causes, that some hope emerges. Criminologists have had some success in predicting recidivism and may have some in predicting future delinquents. "It is from their success in prediction, more than from anything else that the social sciences derive their title to rank as genuinely scientific...." In her conclusions she generalises this into a goal: "The moral seems to be that it is in their role as the handmaidens to practical decisions that the social sciences can shine most brightly. Prediction may be a less ambitious goal than causation, but it is certainly more often within the reach of our present categories and techniques."

The heart of the book Chapters VII and VIII assesses the impact of medical, especially psychiatric, thinking on contemporary concepts of social pathology. The present writer has not seen a more lucid review of the issues involved and their implications. After indicating the tremendous humanising influence of psychiatric thinking she sets out to evaluate its assumptions: (1) mental health and illness are objective concepts which are separable from subjective tastes and value judgments; (2) mental illness can be diagnosed by criteria which are independent of anti-social behaviour; (3) certain socially unacceptable aberrations can be attributed to mental illness; (4) mental illness diminishes or abrogates moral and legal responsibility and gives the same protection against blame that physical illness does.

The difficulties of achieving, and the implications of failure to achieve, propositions 1 and 2 are cogently discussed. Her argument leads to one of the central concerns of the book: the danger of concealing moral judgments in the neutral language of the science of medicine. She points out that it is idle to ignore these issues in examining the criteria of diagnosis and the goals of treatment; she believes that it is high time they were explicitly discussed.

Her elegant critique of the concept of responsibility should temporarily settle the raging debate on this issue. Starting with the clear, precisely applicable, intellectualist McNaghten rule ("knowledge of right and wrong"), she shows that it failed to account for important emotional factors in behaviour. This led to concepts of "diminished responsibility" and "irresistible impulse." A large number of criteria for establishing diminished responsibility are then examined. Most founder because of their circularity, e.g., anti-social act proves diminished responsibility because those who commit anti-social acts are defined as irresponsible, or, an impulse must have been irresistible because it wasn't resisted. Those criteria which manage to avoid circularity tend to be unworkable. In all cases the psychopath, whose illness is diagnosed by anti-social behaviour, is unaccounted for. The same arguments are applied to criteria for establish ing mental deficiency and other forms of social inadequacy. She patiently leads us down the well worn and poorly lit paths into determinism and finally to determinism versus predictability, where we find doctors, lawyers and jurists debating the philosophy of science. At this point she prudently decides that it is not for the social scientist to decide these issues. The view towards which she argues is that it is practicable, inevitable and wise that the concept of responsibility be discarded entirely. "For once we allow any movement away from a rigid intellectual test of responsibility on McNaghten lines, our feet are set on a slippery slope which offers no real resting place short of the total abandonment of the whole concept of responsibility. All the intermediate positions... have shown themselves to be logically quite insecure." (249)

It is here that the full impact of medical thinking is felt. "The legal process for determining who has in fact committed certain actions would continue as at present; but once the facts have been established, the only question to be asked about delinquent persons would be: what is the most hopeful way of preventing such behaviour in future? In criminal procedure the age-old conflict between the claims of punishment and of reformation would thus be settled in favour of the latter." (251) Aside from the beneficial effects of the treatment orientation, she views its emerging dominance with mixed feelings, especially where deterrence is concerned.

The issues of sociology versus psychology and environmental versus individual approaches to delinquency constitute the remaining theme of the book. Since these can be appropriately discussed along with Professor Vold's similar views we can now turn to the conclusions which have not been presented above:

(1) Criminality itself is not a rational field of discourse; separate study of carefully refined categories is needed. All that criminals have in common is the way they are treated "by an outraged community".

(2) Our current "soft" data and criteria for their assessment must be replaced by "hard" ones. The most important achievement to date is the "insistence on a new standard of evidence" in research. (3) Our studies must be made comparable and better integrated, with more adequate controls: "'the maturity of an area of knowledge is reflected by the degree of standardisation of its nomenclature'".

(4) "Labels often masquerade as explanations and tautologies as meaningful statements." No labels "can have any meaning except in terms of criteria which are themselves independent of the behaviour which they are invoked to explain."

(5) "Up to now the chief effect of precise investigation into questions of social pathology has been to undermine the credibility of virtually all current myths," and this destruction of myths "is likely for some time to come to be the main preoccupation of the social sciences."

Social Science and Social Pathology is an iconoclastic work, and its success proves the value of this approach in clearing the way for the scientific diagnosis and treatment of society's ills.

Theoretical Criminology is "designed to serve as a text or supplement for advanced courses and seminars in criminological theory, social theory, and social conflict." According to the author it attempts to focus attention on the logic and implications of the "principal theories commonly utilized in accounting for the many known facts of criminality." Drawing widely from literature which varies in quality from original articles and secondary sources to articles in popular magazines, Professor Vold reviews theories of crime causation in three groups: (I) traditional (classical, neo classical and positivist), (2) individualist (physical types, hereditary and mental deficiences, and psychoanalytic), (3) group or cultural. It is a useful, readable and informative book for anyone who might wish to familiarise himself with the various hypotheses of criminological theory. As a review it is competent (as opposed to incompetent and to excellent); as a critical, scholarly review it is loosely reasoned, uneven, and strongly biased. Unlike Lady Wootton's book it does not ask a lot of its reader, and it repays in kind. The early chapters review a depressing array of dead-end attempts to correlate criminality with factors such as body shape, phrenology, family history, lip thickness and length of ear lobes and thumbs. Professor Vold is at his best when he demonstrates the ways in which criminological theories reflect the prevailing scientific and ethical values of a given period. The last half of the book consists of a review of theories centering on group or cultural influences, i.e., "culture conflict" hypotheses. The author is committed to the view that important features of the definition of criminality and important aspects of the criminal population cannot be explained by hypotheses based on individual psychology. He finds eclectic theories too particularistic. What remains is "culture conflict"; economic conditions, the values of subcultures, organised and white collar crimes are analysed from this viewpoint. The basic premise is Marxist: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness." Using as examples the oppressed lower classes, conscientious objectors and other ideological "criminals", union violence and the law breaking of professional classes and organised crime syndicates, he views many criminal acts as "primarily behaviour on the front-line fringes of direct contact between groups struggling for control of power in the political and cultural organisation of society." The individual criminals are the soldiers in the war. The task of criminological theory is the question of why control of behaviour is attempted through law and police methods. The present writer finds that Professor Vold's commitment to this view clouds his perception, leads to suspension of his critical faculty, to selection of data and to special pleading. Furthermore, as I read his statistics, culture conflict can at most account for only about 30 % of criminals, on his own estimate of the relative proportion of various types in the adult criminal population of a given state (and probably even less in Great Britain where union violence and crime syndicates are relatively unknown). The other 70 % are listed as "psychologically disturbed, unskilled, uneducated, low level of ability" and would seem to manifest some important individual psychological aberrations. Finally, the logic of his culture conflict view leads him to the apparently absurd question of whether criminologists are to side with the criminals or the general public: "It may then be a question of whether he wishes to work for, and to identify with, the criminal gang (they may be expected to bid for his services, and to pay well for work performed), or whether he accepts some general mandate or call to unselfish public service." (280) While one is pleased to note that Professor Vold favours the latter alternative, a view which leads to this question is difficult to take seriously. Whatever the peculiarities of Professor Vold's logic his work turns on the fundamental issue facing social science today: keeping the "social " in social science. It is noteworthy that both he and Lady Wootton tend toward polemicism on this issue. Neither seems prepared wholly to accept the fact that the issue need not be posed dichotomously as social versus psychological, environmental versus individual. For both psychoanalysis is the primary target. This leads Professor Vold to a rejection of psychological explanations of criminality; for Lady Wootton it is manifested in an aversion to the effects of psychodynamic thinking on social casework. She finds psychodynamically oriented social workers arrogant, insincere, nosey, and often beside the point. (279-80) She also sees these views as means of avoiding social action. (329) She reminds us that we tend to explain individuals' failures in psychological terms and their successes in social terms. It is important to acknowledge that there is a great danger in ignoring social factors in deviant behaviour and the need for social action. It is apparent that the trend toward psychologism has gone too far when a social worker can describe her exclusive concern as "psychological maladjustment rather than material need." One must grant these important and real reservations and acknowledge the fact that the biases of both Lady Wootton and Professor Vold are part of a needed reaction. However, one hopes that the culture conflict between the special interests of separate disciplines does not result in a psychological crippling and an emotionally based blindness to the multiple causes of social pathology and the multiple needs of the afflicted individual.

First published in Cambridge Opinion No. 23 Criminology. 1960, pp. 38-40.

Copyright: The Author

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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