The Development of Criminology in Latin America

By Olmo, Rosa del | Social Justice, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Development of Criminology in Latin America

Olmo, Rosa del, Social Justice


Criminology in Latin America today, as elsewhere has lost the importance it acquired in other times. To understand where it stands, and its various perspectives, it is necessary to review the origins of criminology in Latin America. An attempt to write its history calls for a review of the development of criminology as a "science," as well as of its acceptance, spread, and implementation. As this article clearly demonstrates, criminology was not created in Latin America, but was imported through a series of particular processes and adapted to local situations while becoming institutionalized with an inter-American dimension. The same is true of recent schools of critical criminology.

In this respect, there is no agreement on the origins of the modern study of crime. It all depends on the scientific paradigm chosen. The realm of works dedicated to the discussion of crime based on observations of the conditions in various European countries has led several contemporary authors to maintain that the scientific study of crime predated the Positivist School of Criminology. William Chambliss, for example, argues that "criminology began in the period of history known as the Enlightenment" (Chambliss, 1988: 169). Others assume an extreme position. Richard Quinney, for example, states that:

there is a myth in criminology that Lombroso is the founder of scientific criminology.... The Lombrosian School of Criminology must be regarded as an anomaly to criminology, an orientation that has actually detained the progress of sociological criminology (Quinney, 1970: 57).

Despite the importance of this topic for the question of what constitutes science, for this article on the development of criminology in Latin America the point of departure is the positivist science known first as criminal anthropology and later as criminology, which was founded in Italy by Cesare Lombroso, a doctor of medicine.

The Birth and Acceptance of Positivist Criminology

Fundamental to the birth and acceptance of positivist criminology in the 19th century was the growing importance both of science in general and of scientific discourse to the task of reordering the world. The solution of growing social problems through the application of science was considered the best way to maintain order and guarantee progress. Hence the development of positivism and its method of experimental observation, which was borrowed from the natural sciences, for the study of man and society. Social problems, such as crime, would be considered as neutral objects governed by universal laws. The positivist method, and particularly the development of anthropology and psychiatry, were essential elements in the reformulation of the crime problem in the name of the new science. The causes of crime would now be studied in the individual criminal so as to neutralize them with adequate legal measures. The sciences of man entered into an association with the law. Criminal anthropology was born, but it had to be an independent science because criminal man had particular traits. His behavior was a direct challenge to order and progress. He was doubly dangerous: his limitations were not only moral, but also morphological. He belonged to an inferior species, a "different race" and that is why he committed crime. Determinism marked the new "science."

Yet that was insufficient to justify the birth of criminal anthropology since no science is born spontaneously. Its acceptance and development are related to the needs of the times. Thus, its appearance first in Italy, its growing importance in the rest of Europe, and its export to Latin America resulted from the intersection of multiple aspects, some of which can be summarized as follows:

1. The sociopolitical characteristics of Italy and the North-South conflict to achieve uniformity;

2. Changes in capitalism and its need to expand since commodity and capital stocks exceeded that which could be maintained within national frontiers, as well as a change in liberal ideology from free will to determinism to rationalize social inequalities. …

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