Habit, the criminal body and the body politic in England, c. 1700-1800

Dodsworth, Francis (2013). Habit, the criminal body and the body politic in England, c. 1700-1800. Body & Society, 19(2-3) pp. 83–106.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X12474476


This article explores the role that ‘habit’ played in discourses on crime in the eighteenth century, a subject which forms an important part of the history of ‘the social’. It seeks to bridge the division between ‘liberal’ positions which see crime as a product of social circumstance and the conservative position which stresses the role of will and individual responsibility, by drawing attention to the role habit played in uniting these conceptions in the eighteenth century. It argues that the Lockean idea that the mind was a tabula rasa, and that the character was thereby formed through impression and habit, was used as a device to explain the ways in which certain individuals rather than others happened to fall into a life of crime, a temptation to which all were susceptible. This allowed commentators to define individuals as responsible for their actions, which accepting the significance of environmental factors in their transgressions. Further, the notion that the character was formed through habit enabled reformers to promote the idea that crime could be combated through mechanisms of prevention and reformation, which targeted both the individual criminal and which sought more generally to reduce the likelihood of crime.

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