Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age

By Bernard E. Harcourt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Ernest W. Burgess
and Parole Prediction

The actuarial impulse was strong in the 1920s, especially at the University of Chicago in both the departments of sociology and law. There was a thirst for prediction—a strong desire to place the study of social and legal behavior on scientific footing. A certain euphoria surrounded the prediction project, reflecting a shared sense of progress, of science, of modernity. One after another, in measured tones, professors and researchers preached the mantra of prediction. Doctoral students seemed mesmerized. George Vold, a sociology PhD student at the University of Chicago, captured well, in reasoned and deliberate cadence, the sentiment of the times: “The principle of predicting future human conduct… seems sound and worthwhile. Insurance companies have built up large business enterprises on this principle of predicting the future from the past. The present study, in common with those of Burgess and of the Gluecks, seems to establish the validity of that general principle for other phases of human conduct as well.”1

One of the leading masterminds behind this turn to prediction, Ernest W. Burgess, expressed the sensibility and aspirations of the older generation when he declared, “[T]here can be no doubt of the feasibility of determining the factors governing the success or the failure of the man on parole.”2Burgess, at the time, was emerging from the shadow of his preeminent colleague and coauthor, Robert Park, and from the Chicago ecological paradigm. Drawing on sociology's new statistical rigor, Burgess helped refocus the study of sociology on the individual and was a leading figure in the structural transformation that took place in the discipline during the 1930s and 1940s. As Andrew Abbott and James Sparrow suggest,

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