James Q. Wilson: A Modern Day Renaissance Man

Caricature of James Q. Wilson which appeared in American Interest in 2006.

James Q. Wilson passed away today at the age of 80 after a battle with leukemia. It’s hard to image a more influential scholar in contemporary criminal justice/criminology than James Q. Wilson. I am quite confident that had he never published much of his works that I would have never begun my own intellectual path. I’m quite confident that Professor Wilson influenced many scholars, whether they agreed with many of his premises or not. He opened dialogue to understanding the complexity of crime and opened our eyes to things that many had not even considered before. Rare is a man who can offer such insight, and I am truly saddened that the world shall no longer read new words penned by one of the most profound scholars of our lifetime.

Professor Wilson had an impressive career. Professor Wilson received his B.A. from the University of Redlands and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. He was the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard from 1961 to 1987. From 1987 to 1997, he was the James Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy at the UCLA Anderson School of Management at UCLA. From 1998 to 2009, he was the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. Professor Wilson authored many scholarly articles, opinion pieces, and several books during his impressive life.

The first book that I read by Professor Wilson was his The Moral Sense which he wrote in 1993. I read the book as I was just entering Methodist College in 1998. I literally picked the book at random from a bookshelf at a bookstore in the Political Science area. I had no idea what I was about to read, but I had hoped that it would assist me as I began studying for the first time in quite a few years. I had spent most of 1997 in Bosnia while I was in the Army, and I often thought about the Balkan war and how a once unified nation could go to war and how some people – some of whom were once neighbors – could commit such atrocities as genocide. The Moral Sense actually provided some insight to me regarding how humans could be so cruel to one another, while at the same time accounting for why we value social cohesion. In particular, I recall his chapter on self-control and how a lack of self-control could lead to a plethora of personal and social ills. His arguments weren’t just scientific but also entailed a careful blend of philosophy which made the book quite readable for me and many others who may not have had the background that he had in asking the question of whether humans have a shared sense of morality. It literally opened my thoughts to a broader range of ideas that I had never considered.

In my later studies, I read several other books written by Professor Wilson, including Varieties of Police Behavior, Crime and Human Nature, and Bureaucracy. Personally, I believe no one since Max Weber has written so eloquently on the topic of Bureaucracy, and I find myself always referring back to the book in my lectures. But of course, the most influential piece penned by Professor Wilson was co-authored with George Kelling in Atlantic Monthly in 1982, “Broken Windows”. Many readers initially thought that Wilson and Kelling were simply advocating increasing foot patrols by police officers. In fact, that is somewhat correct as foot patrols would have been a more efficient tool to identify the real problem for communities: disorder. In fact, it is this paragraph that is perhaps the most influential to what became known as “The Broken Windows Thesis”:

“…at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in run-down ones…”

The point that Wilson and Kelling would make is simply that if disorder is left unchecked, it sends a message to the social world that deviant behavior is tolerated in the area. That is, signs of disorder beget criminal behavior. This was a profound suggestion for police departments who grappled with a mandate to control crime and who had no real tools or theoretical underpinnings to get at the source to control crime. In fact, Wilson and Kelling closed their article with the following:

“Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness, so the police – and the rest of us – ought to recognize the importance of maintaining intact communities without broken windows.”

In 2006, Wilson and Kelling reflected on the influence of their seminal article, commenting on critiques of their thesis as well as extolling successes which were based on the application of their ideas. They commented: “The broken windows idea does two things, one indisputably good and the other probably effective: It encourages the police to take public order seriously, something that the overwhelming majority of people ardently desire, and it raises the possibility that more order will mean less crime” (p. 172).

I’ve written a bit on Broken Windows and I have developed my main critique concerning a lack of cultural issues with any application of the thesis. However, I don’t think anyone should dismiss the main idea of the thesis (identifying disorder and returning it to order). What ultimately has been taken as a “conservative” approach to crime fighting isn’t really all that conservative or liberal; in fact, I think it is an honest approach to finding ways to make our communities safer.

James Q. Wilson has been considered a conservative scholar, and I think the point is fair given some of his opinion pieces. However, Professor Wilson always remained grounded to truth and approached his scholarship with pragmatism, an approach that I quickly culled and am always trying to develop. His intellectual sojourn on crime and bureaucracy cannot be replicated by one of the rare men I can call a true renaissance man.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows.” The Atlantic Monthly, 249(3): 29-38
Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 2006. “A Quarter Century of Broken Windows.” American Interest, 2(1): 168-172.


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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