The Prison Novel: A Case for Literary Analysis in Criminology

Samantha S. Kwan, University of Maryland

The quest for understanding in the field of criminology has historically been an interdisciplinary endeavor. In recent years, this interdisciplinary dialogue has shifted towards, for example, biology, biochemistry, and psychology. Despite this welcome interdisciplinary contribution, criminology has failed to create a meaningful dialogue with a major intellectual field: literature. There are various reasons for this but it most likely stems from the modern aim to "scientize, systematize, and professionalize"--aims that necessarily draw criminology towards the sciences rather than the arts. The paper makes a case for literary analysis in criminology and, specifically, calls for the qualitative analysis of the prison novel. Three main reasons are posited. First, conceptualized as an instance of case study and life history, the prison novel provides a subjective and descriptive understanding of prison life that complements current quantitative studies. Second, the study of the prison novel fosters a much-needed humanism in the field. Finally, this study also helps establish a new epistemology that can inform penal inquiry and penal reform. The paper also examines two problematic issues of literary analysis--veracity and interpretation---suggesting that these can be addressed by relying on the study of hemeneutics and test analysis.

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Updated 05/20/2006