Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Global Governance and Human Security

First Advisor

J. Samuel Barkin

Second Advisor

Andrea Leverentz

Third Advisor

Cynthia Enloe


Criminal backgrounds and criminal background checking are a ubiquitous element in American life, leading to extensive critiques of the negative social and economic consequences of the expanding use, scope and availability of background checking and the long reach of the criminal record.

Despite an extensive body of research on the use, impact, and extent of criminal records in the United States, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the historical origins of criminal background checking in the United States. This dissertation aims to fill that gap by analyzing the emergence of criminal record keeping and expanded use in the period between the end of the American Civil War and the 1960s.

Using theories and methods adapted from International Political Sociology and the work of Michel Foucault, I examine the emergence and spread of discourses and practices related to the compilation and use of criminal records in the United States between. Drawing on primary source material from specialist periodicals and newspaper articles from the New York Times, I investigate how shifting discourses and practices around criminal records interacted with dominant stuctures and ethics of perception of criminality.

I find that calls for the increased and systematic collection of criminal records focused on managing 'risky mobility' and disciplining institutions involved in the management of crime. The introduction and expansion of criminal record keeping and background checking proceeded in halting, contradictory and conflicting ways as members of various professional groups involved in the management of criminality, each with distinct ideas about the purpose and impact of criminal record keeping deployed dueling practices and discourses in pursuit of the improved management of crime and criminals.

The results of this research have significant implications for both the study of incarceration and for security studies. In the field of incarceration and penality, findings from qualitative research on discourse and practice suggest that criminal record keeping and background checking practices developed haltingly and unevenly over time, due in large part to public skepticism and conflicting discourses and practices from various institutional groups. These processes were deeply linked with anxieties about "risky mobility" and about institutional legitimacy. While race was not mentioned in elite discourses about the need for criminal record keeping, there were clearly appeals to racial anxiety in the development of criminal record keeping systems. The research also suggests that key concepts from International Political Sociology, particularly 'governmentality of unease,' 'banopticon' and security as a 'field effect,' are applicable historically, rather than solely in the neoliberal era.


Free and open access to this Campus Access Dissertation is made available to the UMass Boston community by ScholarWorks at UMass Boston. Those not on campus and those without a UMass Boston campus username and password may gain access to this dissertation through resources like Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global or through Interlibrary Loan. If you have a UMass Boston campus username and password and would like to download this work from off-campus, click on the "Off-Campus UMass Boston Users" link above.