Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. (Alfred Kroeber)

    Anthropological criminology is more precisely referred to by its historical name, criminal anthropology, which was a leading field in American criminology from 1881 to 1911, although worldwide it has a longer history.  Some of the names associated with this field in the 1800s include Jacob Fries, Cesare Lombroso, Alphonese Bertillon, and Hans Gross, to name a few.  Jacob Fries (1773-1843) was a philosopher in the field of theoretical anthropology who published a handbook on criminal anthropology in 1820 and was the first to suggest that the nature of a crime can be related to the personality of the offender - a major assumption of profiling; Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) was an Italian physician who was the leading figure of positivist criminology and is sometimes known as the father of criminology; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was a French law enforcement officer who created "anthropometry" - a kind of mugshot system for identifying captured criminals long before fingerprinting was invented; and Hans Gross (1847-1915) was an Austrian professor who is regarded as the founder of criminalistics, criminal psychology, investigative psychology, and applied criminology).  Almost all forms of criminal anthropology held that the worst criminals were atavists -- genetic throwbacks to an earlier stage of human evolution -- or at least criminals who were anatomically or physically different from law-abiding individuals.  It should be obvious that criminal anthropology was heavily influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), originator of the famous theory of evolution.  There are many misconceptions about the theory of evolution.  No scientific Darwinist ever stated that one species or group of people were morally superior to another.  This claim was made by an unrelated group of people called the Social Darwinists (Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, to name a few) who believed in eugenics by "culling the herd" of poor people and minority groups.  Criminal anthropology only held that if it could be proven criminals were different in their physiological characteristics, it stands to reason that they might be different in their psychological characteristics also.

    This lecture is divided into two parts: Part A: old, discredited ideas in criminal anthropology like physiognomy and phrenology; and Part B: promising, new theories in anthropological criminology like symbolism, fundamentalism, imitation, and evil.


    First the discredited ideas -- between 1750 and 1850, two popular fields of scientific practice consisted of the PHYSIOGNOMISTS and PHRENOLOGISTS who tried to prove that there were links between the propensity to engage in criminal behavior and unusual aspects of physical appearance (mostly the face, ears, or eyes) and the shape of the skull (bumps on the head being an indicator of dominant brain areas).  The physiognomists studied facial appearance and the phrenologists studied bumps on the head.  Both fields of study were quite influential at the time, and are lumped together in history books as part of criminal anthropology, early biological perspectives, the legacy of demonology (ugliness as the mark of evil), or in the 20th century, known as constitutionalism (the study of human physique, or constitution of the body). The search for a constitutionally determined "criminal man" continued up until about 1950 when it was finally discredited.

    Physiognomy is the making of judgments about people's character from the appearance of their faces or countenance.  Its founder was J. Baptiste della Porte (1535-1615) who studied cadavers, and associated small ears, bushy eyebrows, small noses, and large lips with criminal offenders.  Johan Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) was another physiognomist who associated "shifty-eyed" people who had weak chins and arrogant noses with criminal behavior.  No serious criminologist today gives much credence to physiognomy.

    Phrenology is the study of the external characteristics of a person's skull as an indicator of his or her personality, abilities, or general propensities.  Some bumps on the skull indicate lower brain functions (like combativeness).  Other bumps represent higher functions and propensities (like morality).  Crime occurs when the bumps indicate that the lower propensities are winning out over the higher propensities.  Phrenologists believed that with mental exercise, a criminal might be reformed.  The most eminent phrenologists were Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and his pupil, John Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832). The phrenologists turned out to be not all that off in where they thought certain brain functions (35 of them showing up on bumps) were located.  The destructiveness center, for example, which is located right behind the ear above Darwin's point, is pronounced in 17% of criminals.  Other bumps, in the back of the head, turned out to be pronouncements of the Amygdala and Hippocampus, where tumors have been known to be associated with criminal behavior (as in the case of Texas sniper, Charles Whitman).  The general rule is that any abnormality in the back of the head is bad ("back is bad").  The association between other bumps (on the head) and moral (or intellectual) functions were badly mistaken by phrenologists (such as Gall), but in his defense, research methods had not been well-developed by 1835.  Sometimes, a sociobiology-oriented textbook will argue that Gall was the first criminologist, but this is hotly disputed.  Harrison (2012) notes that phrenology and craniotomy emerged from an English military history of the taking of skulls (not just scalps) from the fiercest warriors fought in war. 

    Criminal anthropology is the name usually thought of in regards to the work of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) and his followers who performed autopsies on criminals and found they had characteristics similar to primitive humans, monkeys, and chimpanzees. Some of the anomalies (differences or defects) found among criminals included head width, height, degree of receding forehead, head circumference, head symmetry, and so on.  Lombroso had his Goring (1870-1919), a British scientist dedicated to disproving Lombroso.  While Goring found height and weight differences, he concluded there was no such thing as a "born criminal" based on physical inferiority, and that, in fact, the statistical correlations between Lombroso's indicators were greater among law-abiding people.  The idea of degeneracy lived on, however, and criminal anthropology in the U.S. was spearheaded by a diffuse group of Social Darwinists called degenerationists who were active between 1881 and 1911 (e.g. MacDonald's Criminology, Benedikt's Anatomical Studies upon Brains of Criminals, Talbot's Degeneracy, Lydston's The Diseases of Society, and Parsons' Responsibility for Crime; Fink's Causes of Crime, and Haller's Eugenics.)  In 1911, Maurice Parmelee (whom some regard as an early founder, if not the founder, of American criminology) began rejecting anthropological theories, and ever since, sociological criminology has gone to great lengths to discredit any criminal anthropological ideas.  Fortunately for sociology, this was easy, because criminal anthropologists (like Cesare Lombroso and Ernst Kretschmer) didn't really develop any theories -- only typologies and profiles. 

    Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), the father of modern criminology, and chief historical figure in the Italian positivist movement has the following works associated with his name:

    For many years, Lombroso's text on the female criminal would have great influence.  It described the female offender as worse than male offenders, contending that they had more masculine than feminine characteristics.  Lombroso also popularized the notion of a "born criminal" which represents an extreme statement of biological determinism which had great influence well into the 20th Century (and for the founding of criminology) even though much of this thinking is now outdated except for the recurring idea that criminals have particular physiognomic defects or deformities that at the very least disadvantage them when appearing in court.  According to Lombroso, the born criminal would have 18 key indicators, but the indicators would be spread among the population and other types were possible, such as insane criminals and criminaloids (a kind of fuzzy, in-between category). Most students are familiar with his checklist of physiognomic indicators, as follows:

    Constitutionalism, or body-type theories, became popular in the 1920s mostly on account of the work of German psychiatrist Ernest Kretschmer (1888-1964), and in the 1930s mostly on account of the work of Ernest Hooton (1887-1954), a popular Harvard lecturer on physical anthropology and comparative anatomy.  Kretschmer is also sometimes discussed in the history of profiling because his ideas were an attempt to relate body types to mental illnesses.  Hooton is more familiar to Americans and studied thousands of criminals and noncriminals from eight different states, concluding that criminals are inferior to civilians in all physical respects.  There were racist and sexist overtones to his work because he would say things like the Negroid forehead was a perfect example of a criminal forehead and that women could be classified by the spread of their butt cheeks.  He got away with this stuff because he always said it in a humorous or witty fashion. 

    In the 1940s, the work of William Sheldon (1899-1977) followed on the heels of Hooton and shifted attention away from adults to the physiques of juvenile delinquents. Sheldon produced an "Index of Delinquency" based on three-way photographs which was used in many states to determine if a child in trouble should be institutionalized or not, and later as a way to classify prison inmates upon reception. Sheldon's approach is sometimes called somatotype theory. Sheldon's methods and results were given considerable support by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck in the 1950s who found that narrow faces, wider chests, larger waists, and bigger forearms were associated with 60% of delinquents and only 30% of nondelinquents.  The Gluecks would go on to study practically every known theory or idea in criminology so much that their approach became known as "eclectic" or multiple factor theory -- the notion that "everything causes crime." 

    Sheldon's classification of physique and temperament (somatotype theory) is as follows:

    Each person possesses the characteristics of all three types. Sheldon therefore used three numbers, between 1 and 7, to indicate the extent to which the three types were evident in each person.  A person whose somatotype is 7-1-4, for example, would have many endomorphic characteristics, very little mesomorphic characteristics, and an average number of ectomorphic characteristics. He found that the average institutionalized delinquent was a 3-5-2 somatotype. The Gluecks (always eclectic, or multiple factor, theorists) found that the average adult criminal was a 2-6-3 somatotype, and that 60% of delinquents were mesomorphs.  Mesomorphy being associated with criminal behavior flew in the face of fitness gurus, like Charles Atlas, who were trying to shape up America.  Body-type or constitutionalist theories in criminology have proven to be of little value in predicting criminal behavior.

    Demonology is another bit of rubbish which sometimes pops up in the field of criminology.  One reason is that the study of criminals has attracted many who are "on Satan's trail" such as the Catholic Church's leading exorcists: Gabriel Amorth and Jose Antonio Fortea.  Another reason is because much of Christian religion and scripture is about spiritual warfare which requires belief in demons or at least demonic powers or evil schemes (although most Christians prefer the word "deliverance" to focus more on people-saving than demon-busting).  A good example of a demon-busting Charismatic Christian church is Kimberly Daniels Ministry in Jacksonville, Florida.  Unfortunately, evil isn't something that can be studied and measured scientifically.  And, if it could, it would only rarely involve demonic possession, if at all.  The Catholic Church, however, doesn't undertake an exorcism lightly.  The procedure requires approval of the local bishop, usually after medical or psychiatric tests show no rational explanation for the 4 signature symptoms, which include signs of superhuman strength, fits and extreme aversion to holy symbols, knowledge of a language they do not know, and/or "voices" speaking thru them, or the extrusion (often thru vomiting or skin) of foreign objects such as nails or glass.  The Catholic church, by no means, has a monopoly on exorcism.  Pastor Tom Brown's Charismatic Evangelical Word of Life Church in El Paso, TX relies upon it, although they prefer to call it deliverance.

A Close-Up Look at Demonology

     Although there's no connection between anthropology and demonology, for lack of a better place, the topic is usually discussed here.  Widely regarded as pseudoscientific, demonology is regarded as having had a bad influence on criminology.  More than one scholar (Stitt 2003) has pointed out that both criminology and theology seem to be concerned with combating evil.  Demons can be defined either under an Old Testament version as "fallen angels" or under a New Testament version as "malignant spirits." Many of them, for which names are known, are involved with various temptations toward lust, mischief, and crime. If these notions were to be taken seriously, the key research question would be whether demons work by temptation or possession.  The more scientific question in criminology is whether evil is too absurd a notion for serious consideration (Lyman 1973), but the word sometimes appears in modern discussions of some offenders, particularly psychopathic or sociopathic offenders.
     Asmodeus was believed to be the most active demon, and he could take male or female form to fill people with an insatiable lust and desire for adultery, buggery, and child molestation. Belphegor, identified in the Jewish Kaballah, operated much the same way, but concentrated on breaking up romances and about-to-happen marriages. Beelzebub (not to be confused with Satan or Lucifer) was believed to be associated with murder, cannibalism, and anything to do with dead bodies (because of the flies he attracted). His favorite sin was gluttony whereas Lucifer's was pride. Sammael, the bat-winged demon, was also associated with the joy of taking life, or murder. Rakshasas, the vampire demon known mostly in India, also was associated with murderlust, reanimation of dead bodies, and perverting the holy. Amon, the wolf demon, is in charge of hate, anger, feuds, and sustained controversies between friends and foes. All together, there are 72 demons listed in the Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous 17th century grimoire also known as the Lemegeton.
     Traditional demonology, like all animist beliefs, holds that demons inhabit household objects and certain geographic areas like coves, islands, mountains, and rivers.  Most societies have their primitive religions based on either animism or totemism (also called naturism).  Animism believes in multiple sources of the life force while totemism believes in a single source, although care should be taken to not confuse these ideas with polytheism and monotheism. Modern demonology is less concerned with identifying the locations of specific demons and more concerned with eliminating the influence of demons or devilish urges in humans themselves.   Bloom (1997), for example, is representative of the modern approach which holds that demons are holed up in every single one of us.  According to Bloom, the desire to brutalize, murder, pillage and destroy, and to revel in the weeping of our enemy's women is hard-wired into our makeup.


    In contemporary times, ideas about physical appearance still occasionally show up in criminology, however. All the constitutionalists studied TATOOS, for example.  They were never really able to make anything of it; they were just there for the study, and lots of criminals had them.  Tattoo removal (as well as plastic surgery) has found its way into a few correctional rehabilitation programs and serves a useful purpose in gang de-initiation (Kurtzberg et. al.. 1978).  There's also a whole subspecialty field that, for lack of a better term, might be called the field of "physical attractiveness" studies (Cavior & Howard 1973; Agnew 1984) which suggests that ugliness really has got something to do with becoming a criminal, or at least how badly you get treated in court. 

    There's no necessary relationship between criminal anthropology and eugenics (the idea that a nation can save its stock by preventing reproduction of the unfit - negative eugenics -- and/or simultaneously encourage the fit to produce more offspring -- positive eugenics).  A small number of criminal anthropologists support the idea of eugenics; another, larger group strongly rejects it.  Almost all criminologists today would be appalled at the idea of eugenics theory, yet it remains in the background of criminology as the field tries to develop agenda-free knowledge, but at one time (during the 1930s, eugenics was taken quite seriously). 

    Physiognomy, or at least some bits of it, will sometimes find its way into social psychology and forensic psychology, primarily in studies of attractiveness and beauty, and in studies of jury lenience depending upon the physical look of the defendant.  This literature is not well-organized, and only appears to be of sporadic interest to researchers.

    Twin studies by modern geneticists have looked at physical similarities and differences.  Some research supports the idea that identical twins are more similar in their (criminal) behavior than fraternal twins.  However, it is safer to say that no definitive conclusions can be drawn from twin studies at this time. Adoption studies is another promising area of research, but again, strong causal statements are rare in the whole area of heredity-crime linkages.

    The XYY chromosome syndrome became popular during the 1960s.  People with this condition tend to be tall supermales who often exhibit aggression and violence.  Some researchers have found that XYY types are more likely to have a criminal record.  Other observers note that the prison populations are filled with fairly short people, a pattern noticed early on by physiognomists, who also took an interest in height.

    Galvanic skin response (the rate at which electricity travels across the surface of the skin) is also a characteristic of mesomorphic criminality to some extent.  Many criminals have slower GSR rates, which means they are somewhat more impervious to pain or at least might have a different neuromusculatory system.


    It's difficult to describe a field as vast as anthropology or to even begin listing all the inroads into criminology.  When I majored in this as an undergraduate, the choices were either physical or cultural anthropology, and those are about the only choices you get at the undergraduate level, and if you express an interest in crime or criminals, they tend to either talk you out of it or steer you towards physical anthropology which studies bones (presumably so you'll make a good crime scene investigator).  The area of physical anthropology is a small field.  The area of cultural or sociocultural anthropology is a much larger field (see Benedict 1934 or Garbarino 1977) with lots of subfields like symbolic anthropology (Douglas 1966), social anthropology, and all sorts of hard-to-classify areas and figures like Girard (1979).  In this section, I'll try to explain some of the more popular contemporary anthropologists and why their ideas are so popular.

    SYMBOLISM -- Mary Douglas' book Purity and Danger is probably one of the top ten most influential books ever written in the last 500 years.  It is about the subject of ritual, and rituals are the ways societies and people mark out their boundaries.  There are many kinds of rituals: for purification, reconciliation, renewal, purity, passage, and mourning, for example.  Douglas is concerned with purity rituals, which relate to the feeling of safety from dangers such as crime.  You might understand the idea as the notion that there are "lucky charms" which protect you from danger, and there are plenty of theological examples as well (the Ark of the Covenant; the Holy Grail), etc.  Each person also has their "bubble space" for self-protection, which is a kind of purity ritual.  The existence of an angry person in one's space is considered dangerous, and everything on the margins (of society; one's environment) is also considered strange or dangerous.  When people do wrong things, they are also polluting the purity of the environment, and pollution rules are not as equivocal as moral rules.  Pollution rites contain hard-and-fast rules for purification.  A pollution rule might call for the immediate execution of a transgressor, for example, while a moral code might give them the benefit of the doubt.  Some cultures, like Muslim cultures, emphasize hard-and-fast pollution rites ("instant justice") for purification purposes.  In such cultures, people see criminals as contaminating the world (like dirt).  The closest thing in modern criminology to these ideas is an area of study known as ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967), which might agree with Douglas that our criminal justice system is just a formal expression our underlying, inborn, ritualistic responses and a continuation of our lost, cultural practices. 

    FUNDAMENTALISM -- Paul Ricoeur's book, Reflections on the Just is a companion piece to his other book called Oneself as Another. In it, he develops what may be called a "fundamental anthropology" which focuses upon the affective or emotional sense of justice that we all feel as an object of desire.  This goal of justice, says Ricoeur, has nothing to do with evil, vengeance, or any compensation for a slight, but instead is aimed at the primary goal of peace.  Peace is the final destination of justice.  Peace is achieved thru self-esteem and self-respect, and people who are just are people who have a expanded concept of the "other" which consists, in part, of the notion of a neutral third party who can (if called upon, hypothetically) mediate our disputes over the subject of rights.  Ricoeur goes on to say that every culture develops a meaningful conception of such a third party, and for most people, it's a conception of "everything and everyone."  Those who commit crime are those who don't have this conception and transgress the "me/you" relationship.  They selfishly pursue justice only for themselves by adding violence to violence, and suffering to suffering.  There is also something that Ricoeur calls a "just distance" between the me and the you which has to do with the subjective sense of time or moment of justice.  This idea of a "moment of justice" is interesting, but is an undeveloped idea.  Ricoeur says our judicial system fails to reflect this just moment because we are too caught up in prolonging the sensation of vengeance.  So apparently, the moment of justice has something to do with abandoning the moment of vengeance and embracing other, more peaceful, judicial practices such as actually "hearing" what defendants have to say.  Anthropologically, Ricoeur may be comparing the justice process to the grief process or the healing process.  The closest thing to these ideas in the field today is peacemaking criminology, which would agree with Ricoeur that verdicts which establish peace are needed.     

    IMITATION -- Rene Girard's book is about mimetic desire which comes from the word mimesis, meaning imitation. Much of his work hasn't been translated yet from the French, but it's obvious that the main inroad into criminology is with learning theory (Anderson 2003).  If you've ever wondered why violence begets violence, then you should read this book.  It stands as a classic example of how extensively the imitation concept can be put to use.  Imitation (sometimes called contagion) is the oldest social learning theory, and derives mainly from the work of Tarde (1843-1904), a sociologist who once said crime begins as fashion and later becomes custom.  Various modern forms of imitation theory exist, from the Werther Effect (copycat suicides) to Social Proof and all sorts of syndromes or phenomena where people "conform"  like Sherif (1935) said into believing and acting upon their perception of what "surrounding others" are doing.  One of the things which has made crowd psychology so popular these days is the Internet because what is called an "information cascade" easily replaces the old-fashioned methods of rumor transmission.

    EVIL -- Finally, the study of evil remains a persistent theme in criminology.  Stitt's (2003) article is remarkably short and incisive on this point, but Lemert (1997) also says that even though there is no prototypical evil, it still exists, as a product of emergent interactionist and definitional processes.  An interest in evil has, of course, always attracted labeling theorists (like Lemert), going back to Tannenbaum's "dramatization of evil" (Tannenbaum 1938).  This is because evil is not conceptualized as a "cause" of crime, but an "amplifier" of it.  Make no mistake, labeling theorists see rules and social control as the true cause, but evil as a combination of the sensual thrill offenders get from committing crime and the escalatory nature of a bad reputation they get from others is the true evil.  It is fair to say that social scientists as well as human beings in general will continue to have a need for a language, rhetoric, and even a belief in evil.  Whether or not true evil is a construction or prototype will likely remain an anthropological question.  Anthropologists such as Evans-Pritchard (1968) and Kluckhohn (1944) conceived of prototypical evil as "a planned assault...a witch act with malice aforethought...hatred, jealousy, envy, backbiting, and slander;...a person who hates another desires to bewitch them." 


    Anthropological criminology is about  the human condition, our human nature, our human impulses, our human bodies, and how we always seem to be creating rules and regulations in our communities that reflect those basic things.  People are diverse, and it is important to study how they get along, with all their different appearances, different languages, and different ways of life.  Anthropology is heavily involved in the study of symbol systems that different cultures have.  It would be dangerous to "weaponize" those symbol systems, or otherwise "use" them in the fight against crime (or struggle against terrorism).  Frankly, it is dangerous to meddle in these fields without an extensive set of ethical safeguards and scientific protocols.  Anthropology's methods and skills are especially in demand during wartime, but sending teams of anthropologists overseas, like sending journalists, can be construed as spying (Boas 1919).  Anthropological collaboration with the military is a serious ethical issue (Wax 2003), but anthropologists have done it for a long time, since World War II (Price 2008), since the Cold War, since Project Camelot, and especially since 1995 when Felix Moos, a University of Kansas anthropologist defended it in the interest of national defense and security, claiming the AAA code of ethics needed revision. Moos (2005) strongly argued that anthropologists “should be permitted -indeed, should feel a duty- to conduct classified research that might help the U.S. government understand global conflicts” (Glenn 2005), and he suggested training college students as analysts for intelligence agencies.  Project Minerva, launched in 2008, is the latest effort to put anthropology to work, but the project has been hotly debated and resisted by anthropologists (Gonzalez 2009; Network of Concerned Anthropologists 2009; Kelly, Jauregui, Mitchell & Walton 2010).

    As far as application to the criminal justice process goes, anthropology is on safer ground.  It needs to disinherit itself from a lot of old, discredited ideas and stop working around the margins of the criminological discipline.  What this author thinks is the real shame, however, is the American surplus of multi-discipline departments at so many institutions of higher learning; e.g., departments of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, etc.  One would think that in such departments, there would be a lot of collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas going on, but unfortunately, this is NOT the case.  An "administrative bias" toward efficiency in management usually forces these separate disciplines together, and the scientists in them don't really do any collaboration on anything other than office politics.  It's a sad state of affairs when academic disciplines are marginalized by academic institutions themselves.

Cecil Greek's Lecture Notes on Demonic Theory
Frank Boas' The Instability of Human Types
Madison Grant's The Competition of Races
Mary Douglas Fan Page
Physical Attractiveness and Criminal Behavior
Rene Girard and the Mimetic Desire

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Last updated: Mar. 08, 2013
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