Making Historical Sense of Responsibility

Susanna L. Blumenthal


This review essay centers on the relationship between history and theory in Nicola Lacey’s In Search of Criminal Responsibility. Placing Lacey’s work in the context of recent methodological debates within the field of legal history, it is argued that her emphasis on the contingency of responsibility is in significant tension with the causal story the book tells and the broader normative aims it seeks to further. Questions are also raised about the criteria of accountability that Lacey insists must govern the relationship between social phenomena and their theoretical conceptualization, with particular attention drawn to her own schema, which does not fully capture the religious and psychological stakes of everyday adjudication about the subject of responsibility. It is suggested by way of conclusion that the historical roots of contemporary problems such as over-criminalization and mass incarceration are best located in the liberal legal model of the responsible self rather than any particular configuration of responsibility-attribution.

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