Criminology and Psychoanalysis

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Criminology is the "scientific" study of criminal behavior. Part of its mandate is to look for the causes of criminality. A distinction is made between general criminology, which coordinates and compares results from different criminological "sciences," and clinical criminology, which is an interdisciplinary approach to the individual criminal (Pinatel, 1975). Criminalistics is the set of methods and scientific means used by law enforcement to search for criminals and establish their guilt.

It is customary to trace the origins of criminology to Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), trained in medicine at Pavia and Padua, a volunteer in the Piedmontese army for seven years. A physician of Jewish origin, Lombroso became famous with the publication of L 'Uomo Delinquente (Criminal man) in 1876. His countryman Enrico Ferri, a professor of law and sociology, was the author of Criminal Sociology (1917) and Raffaele Garofalo wrote Criminologia (1881), from which the term derives. Lombroso is notorious for his theory of "the born criminal," based on the search for an "atavistic" factor in criminality (in fact part of a larger naturalistic quest for the origins of crime that ranged from the occipital lobe to a supposed "criminal chromosome"). It is too often forgotten, however, that he founded the comparative approach to large numbers and introduced the study of criminals' writings. Historians of criminology put the true beginnings of the discipline almost a century before Lombroso. His genius lay in his ability to combine phrenology, anthropology, legal medicine and proto-psychiatry under the aegis of Darwinism (Mucchielli and Lantéri-Laura, 1994).

Sigmund Freud, who made no secret of his aversion to criminals, was silent about the work of his contemporaries in that area and singularly cautious when it came to applying psychoanalysis to criminology. In June 1906 he was invited to give a talk to Professor Löffler's students on the possible application of psychoanalysis to the "establishment of facts in legal proceedings" (1906c, p. 103). He directed his comments to future judges and lawyers, providing advice about the "interest in a new method of investigation, the aim of which is to compel the accused person himself to establish his own guilt or innocence by objective signs" (1906c, p. 103). This text has given rise to considerable misunderstandings, which have been discussed by François Sauvagnat (1992). Freud cautioned his audience about a considerable obstacle: the judge was likely to be misled by neurotics, who were liable to behave as if they were guilty. He gave free rein to his skepticism, taking but a few sentences to discuss the psychoanalytic method as having no practical application in legal matters given the risk of error entailed.

In "Criminals from a Sense of Guilt" (in 1916d, pp. 332-33), Freud goes a step further, based on his experience in treating subjects who had committed some minor offense during therapy: "He was suffering from an oppressive feeling of guilt, of which he did not know the origin, and after he had committed a misdeed this oppression was mitigated. His sense of guilt was at least attached to something" (p. 332). The origin of this obscure feeling of guilt was the Oedipus complex, with its implications of criminal intent: "killing the father and having sexual relations with the mother" (p. 333). Freud hypothesized that this could clarify our understanding of some criminals but he was careful to exclude those who did not have such feelings, those who were without moral inhibitions, and those who rationalized their struggle against society.

It would have been easy to make use of the Oedipus complex to account for criminal acts, especially partricide. In 1931, Freud was asked by Joseph Hupka, a professor of law at the University of Vienna, to provide testimony during a review of the trial of Philipp Halsmann, accused of having killed his father. In examining both possibilities, guilt or innocence, Freud steered a careful course between a defense of psychoanalysis and his ethical reservations concerning its use; he again exercised considerable caution, writing, "because it is always present, the Oedipus complex is not suited to provide a decision on the question of guilt" (1931d, p. 252).

Apropos of his rare allusions to the relationship between psychoanalysis and criminology, it must be said that Freud's prudence has proved salutary. It was subsequently evident that an overly hasty application of psychoanalysis can mechanically alter the role of fantasy, or generalize unconscious feelings of guilt, or even sustain the illusion that psychoanalysis might one day conquer the world of law.

Sándor Ferenczi must be mentioned here, not only for his hope of contributing to the development of a psychoanalysis of crime, but also for the richness of his theoretical and clinical ideas, which served as the foundations of a psychoanalytic understanding of victim-hood, especially in his accounts of identification with the aggressor and introjection of the aggressor, who "disappears as external reality and becomes intrapsychic."

Daniel Zagury

See also: Act, passage to the; Acting out/acting in; Aimée, case of; Alexander, Franz Gabriel; Cénac, Michel; Ellenberger, Henri Frédéric; Guilt, unconscious sense of; Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Lagache, Daniel; Law and psychoanalysis; Parricide/murder of the father; Schiff, Paul.


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Ferri, Enrico. (1967). Criminal sociology (Joseph I. Kelly and John Lisle, Trans.). New York: Agathon. (Original work published 1917)

Freud, Sigmund. (1906c). Psycho-analysis and the establishment of facts in legal proceedings. SE, 9: 97-114.

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Pinatel, J. (1975). Traité de droit pénal et de criminologie (Vol 3: Criminologie, 3rd ed). Paris: Dalloz.

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Sauvagnat, François (Ed.). (1992). Les coordonnées historiques de la distinction acting-out / passage à l'acte. In Le souci de l'être : Le soin en psychiatrie. Paris: GRAPP-Le Seuil.

Zagury, Daniel. (1996). Entre psychose et perversion narcissique, une clinique de l'horreur: les tueurs en série. L 'Évolution psychiatrique, 59 (1).

Further Reading

Goldberg, Arnold. (2003). Addendum to Freud's "Criminals from a sense of guilt." Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 72, 465-468.

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