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  • Writer's pictureDavid R. Goyes

Criminology and Boxes


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"A life does not fit in a box, but a box can help us understand life"—Or at least, that is what the history of criminology has taught us.

In a 2022 interview with the Criminology Academy Podcast, John Laub, one of the most prominent life-course criminologists in the world, explained how his research direction took an unexpected turn upon stumbling on some boxes:

"I went to the [Harvard] Law School Library and asked the archivist, 'What do you have on the Gluecks?'"

Laub knew that Harvard sociologists Sheldon and Eleanor Gluecks, a married couple known for their groundbreaking research on juvenile delinquency, had filled 50 carton boxes with files on the biological characteristics, family life, school performance, and work experience of 1,000 youngsters from an economically impoverished neighborhood in Boston. Five hundred of those youngsters had repeatedly been in trouble with the law, the other half had never faced a judge. Based on those boxes, the Gluecks wrote Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, a book cited over four thousand times and considered a landmark in criminology.

Laub, who had just published Criminology in the Making: An Oral History, reckoned that locating the Gluecks' boxes would allow him to expand his study of how criminology is done and shaped. So, he insisted:

"I tried to describe it as best I could. I'm not sure she still understood what I was asking. She said, 'Maybe this is what you're looking for.' And she took me to the basement of the Harvard Law School Library, to a storage area. It turned out that there were boxes with the Gluecks' original data from their four longitudinal studies.

One day a week, I went down and basically said, 'This is the contents of box one, box two, box three, so on, and so forth.' I called my good friend from grad school, Rob Sampson, and said, 'I found the Gluecks data; I think we could do a paper.' I remember this distinctly. I said, 'A quick and dirty paper.'"

The "quick and dirty" paper became Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life and Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives. Delinquent Boys to Age 70, books that earned John Laub and Robert Sampson the 2011 Stockholm Prize in Criminology.


***

Sveinung Sandberg and I have been working on the project CRIMLA: Crime in Latin America since December 2022. In this project, led by Sandberg and in which also participates Martin di Marco, a team of researchers has interviewed more than 350 persons incarcerated in Latin American prisons. Until today, we had not filled any physical boxes. All the interviews were digitally stored in a safe repository for sensitive data. But today, 12 April 2024, and with Torbjørn Skardhamar as a central ally, we started filling boxes with information about the life trajectory—from childhood to adolescence to life in prison—of over four thousand people incarcerated in Colombia.



***

Boxes leave a trail from preparation, to transport, to filling out, to archiving. What matters, of course, is not the short-term trail or the boxes in themselves. What matters is the content of the boxes, their use, and the long-term trail they leave. Criminology has significantly spun around boxes because they have told us something about life and engagement with criminalized acts.

What new will come of the boxes that started piling up today in Colombia? Hopefully, through good use, they can impact global criminology. They may do so in the way the Gluecks' boxes did. Perhaps, a new-generation-scholar will stumble upon the CRIMLA boxes and give them a prolonged life.


To read blogs about the CRIMLA-project fieldwork process, visit https://www.drgoyes.com/crimla.

For the CRIMLA-project design, ethical protocols, and instruments, visit https://www.crimeinlatinamerica.com/
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