The Global Production and Circulation of Knowledge of Punishment and Social Control: An Entangled History of Techniques of Confinement and Criminal Identification, c. 1830 – 1930

Research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (June 2013 to May 2017)

Head of the project

PhD candidates

During the 19th and the early 20th century, imprisonment came to be the most important form of punishment and social control across the globe. However, the prison as an institution as well as knowledge about imprisonment and prison regimes did not simply diffuse from Europe to other parts of the world. A wide range of actors, including governments, administrative personnel, colonial governors, prison workforce, prison reformers and scientists were part of wide-ranging networks within which knowledge of imprisonment circulated and was transferred multidirectionally. This knowledge, then, was adapted and modified in national, colonial and post-colonial spaces, and brought, in altered form, into cross-border circulation again. While imprisonment was being globalised, its practices were subject to local influences and transformations.

The project’s aim is to reconstruct and analyse these circulations of knowledge about punishment and social control, taking into account both the global proliferation of imprisonment as well as its local appropriations. Based on the approaches of entangled and global history, the project reconstructs knowledge transfers and analyses their significance for the development of penal regimes in local contexts in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. Thereby, the project wants to contribute to an improved understanding of the global context and the wide-ranging interconnectedness in which societies thought about crime and deviance and implemented punishment.

The project proceeds on the assumption that the prison itself was one of the most important places where knowledge about criminality and punishment was produced. Therefore the project combines analytically the history of knowledge about confinement with the history of penal practices. Central research questions concern: the networks of knowledge circulation (its structure and integration), the circulating knowledge (its contents and there transformations), social groups participating in the discourses and practices of punishment (the changes of ideas about punishment and their manifestations in penal systems), general trends in the development of the ‘cultures of confinement’ (especially with respect to the rehabilitative and repressive aspects of punishment).

Focusing on prisons in the United States, Great Britain, British India, Argentina, Germany and French Guinea the project studies different European, colonial and post-colonial contexts as socially, culturally and politically differentiated and therefore contested spaces of reception, translation and production of knowledge about imprisonment. Spanning from the 1830s to the 1920s, the project covers the crucial phases of the development of the modern prison in its globalisation as dominant form of punishment.