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Somatotyping, Antimodernism, and the Production of Criminological Knowledge

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 45 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2007 Pages: 805-834
Nicole Rafter
Date Published
November 2007
30 pages
The study analyzed the work of William H. Sheldon, a psychologist, physician, and advocate of the study of body types.
The study revealed the story of how William H. Sheldon determined that a correlation existed between mesomorphy (a stocky, muscular body build) and delinquency; he traced criminality to a body type he associated with biological inferiority and Dionysian revelry. His finding that actual delinquents excelled in general strength and athletic ability contradicted his eugenical claims. He tried to prove that delinquents carried poor protoplasm in order to enlist science in his project of eugenic renewal. It reviews what Sheldon actually said about the causes of crime; identifies his goals in searching for a relationship between body shape and criminality; explains how he found audiences for his biological theory at a time when sociological approaches dominated criminology; and attempts to understand the current criminological ambivalence about the scientific status of Sheldon’s work, despite being discredited decades earlier. The tripartite structure of Sheldon’s thought attracted three different audiences: methodologists, social scientists, and supporters drawn by his campaign to restore a world fractured by modernism to its former wholeness and harmony; it encouraged the supporters to fund his research without reference to the critiques of the social scientists. Sheldon’s mesomorphy-delinquency correlation continues to be taken seriously because of the retrospective validation of his findings by other researchers, and the continuing appeal of Sheldon’s anti-modernist analysis. Somatotyping was part of a broader anti-modernist reaction within international scientific communities against the dislocations of twentieth-century life. To understand the origins, acceptance, and maintenance of criminological ideas, through historical perspective and figures of the past, it is imperative to know how truth and falsity have been constructed over time, and how the ideas of earlier criminologists were shaped by their personal and social contexts. References