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Modernization and Crime

The Long-term European View

Social historians in recent decades have produced rich evidence regarding the relationship between modernization and crime in Europe since the Middle Ages (Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.). Long-term European history has indeed been characterized by numerous modernizing shifts: the building of modern nation-states, urbanization and industrialization, functional differentiation, rationalization, and the emergence of capitalist economies and of autonomous spheres of politics, economics, religion, and science. In general, this period was marked by major declines of violent crime and less unambiguous increases in property crime. While national statistics are obviously not available except for more recent periods, careful archival research in different localities provides a rather convincing picture.

Consider homicide: the rate of homicide in thirteenth-century England was at around twenty per 100,000 population. It declined to fifteen by 1600, between eight and two depending on location in the late 1600s, and further to 0.9 by the period 1780–1802 (see James A. Sharpe in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.). Rates of homicide for Sweden declined from thirty-three per 100,000 during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, to sixteen during the first half of the eighteenth century, to 1.5 in the nineteenth century. The capital Stockholm experienced a decline from forty-three per 100,000 in the Middle Ages to below one in the second half of the eighteenth and, after an upturn to three in the nineteenth century, again declined to 0.6 in the first half of the twentieth century (Johnson and Monkkonen, eds., p. 9). The period of clearest decreases in violence coincided with a program of major reforms under King Gustav Adolf (1611–1632), including the foundation of many towns, the modernization of administration, and the systematic registration of Swedes by the clergy. Property crimes, however, showed an upward trend during this period (Eva Oesterberg in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds.; for similar trends for Amsterdam, see Pieter Spierenburg in the same volume).

Johnson and Monkkonen, in an introductory chapter to the above-cited collection, summarize the overall findings by these and other social historians. First, violent crime declined since the Middle Ages, especially between the 1600s and 1700s, until quite recently. Second, control emanated from the courts of the aristocracy. Third, urban centers tended to be more protected from violence than the countryside. And fourth, areas with less developed states tended to be more violent. These findings are consistent with sociological analyses of medium-term processes in nineteenth-century Europe. Using sophisticated statistical techniques, A. R. Gillis, for example, studies the effects of intensifying state surveillance through policing in France between 1865 and 1913. He concludes that the growth of policing deterred major property crimes while it increased charges for minor types of crime. Declines in major violent crime were better explained by urbanization than by intensified policing.

Social historians thus object to everyday beliefs and raise skepticism against arguments and findings by most sociologists and criminologists who, in a short-term view, associate violent and property crime with modernization. Instead they consider their findings to be in sync with the civilization theory developed during the 1930s by sociologist Norbert Elias. This theory would predict exactly what the cited historians have found, a dramatic decline in violence: European history since the Middle Ages has been characterized by peoples' growing capability of self-control, including constraint from violence, especially in the public sphere. This individual level change is, Elias argues, due to two conditions. First, the emerging modern nation-states claim the monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Violence as a means of dispute resolution thus becomes increasingly illegitimate and subject to penal law. Second, with urbanization and the growing division of labor, people are embedded in ever more complex social configurations. The use of brute force in the relationships that constitute these configurations is no longer suited to advance an individual's interests. More sophisticated action strategies are required. The result of these new constraints on individuals is growing self-control or civilization.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawModernization and Crime - Definitions: Complex Phenomena, The Long-term European View, Rapid Modernization In The Twentieth Century