Thomas Mathiesen – A Scholar Activist in his own words

This tribute to Thomas Mathiesen, who died recently, was published in the June 2021 Newsletter of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control. The Newsletter, which also includes tributes from Vincenzo Ruggiero, Isa Koch, Andrea Beckmann, Phil Scraton, Beppe Mosconi, Tony Bunyan and Katja Franko is available here –

Thomas Mathiesen, who died recently, had a long association with the European Group, attending its founding 1973 conference in Florence, and both participated in and inspired subsequent conferences. Thomas leaves behind an important body of critical sociological and abolitionist writing but in this short tribute the focus is on Cadenza, his ‘professional autobiography’. Thomas wrote this book at the suggestion of Per Jørgen Ystehede, a colleague of Thomas and subsequently secretary of the European Group. Cadenza was originally written in Norwegian, and when Per approached EG Press to ask about the possibility of publishing the book, we were unable to undertake this in Norwegian. Undeterred, Thomas and his son, Snorre Smári Mathiesen, then translated the book into English. We were then able to publish in 2017. Below are a few passages from Cadenza in which Thomas speaks about his life as a scholar activist. Commentary is in italics.

In Cadenza, Thomas talks extensively about his values, research methods and the ethics of his scholarship. In the introduction he sets this out clearly:

This book has a perspective from below as its hallmark. It comes from the time of a science as opposition, and tries to recreate it … it is the perspective of the prisoner, not the guard; it is the perspective of the patient, not the nurse or doctor; it is the perspective of the insurgent, not of the police; it is the perspective of the child, not the grownup; it is the perspective of the student, not of the teacher; it is the perspective of the indicted, not of the judge.

The importance of this position is emphasised:

a perspective from below is fairly rare in criminology and sociology of law, and for that reason needs fortification.

Throughout his career Thomas saw himself as an active participant in the social struggles he researched. In particular:

The most important struggle which I have taken part in, was no doubt the movement called KROM – The Norwegian Association for Penal Reform.

Cadenza provides a comprehensive account of KROM, from its foundation in 1968 to the book’s publication in 2017. For those of us involved in social movements the history of KROM offers important lessons in building and sustaining an organisation.

Of particular importance has been KROM and Thomas’s commitment to the participation of prisoners.

From the start KROM clung steadfastly to the principle of having prisoners and ex- prisoners participate in our activities … it led to a kind of “amalgamation” in the debates we engaged ourselves in, between those with “practical experience” on the one hand and the “theoretically oriented” people on the other. On the public scenes we sought contact with, we were neither people with practical experience (who could easily be defined out), nor theoretically oriented (who could also be defined out). When a prisoner or ex-prisoner said something, he would be followed up by a researcher substantiating his claims, or vice versa.

… Prisoners’ participation led to a maintenance of knowledge about prisons and prison life in KROM. As time goes on, such knowledge is easily washed away, especially with researchers and other academics with theoretical interests. The professional home mentioned earlier is important, but can at the same time tip the balance in too strong a theoretical direction. By the maintenance of prison knowledge, prisoners’ participation counteracts this.

… prisoners’ participation also increases our knowledge of prison life at the bottom … new knowledge about changes in what is usually called “the criminal care” system (“kriminalomsorgen”), quickly comes around, and prisoners can tell how prison life is actually developing. In addition, the increased knowledge at the same time contains important elements of theory. Increase of knowledge has the same effect as the maintenance of knowledge. At times, we simply beat the authorities through our know- how of their prisons.

Another key factor (one which is also a characteristic of the European Group) has been the focus on an annual gathering of participants rather than the building of an organisational structure.

A main goal at the conferences has been to allow prisoners, ex-prisoners and other criticizing the penal system from outside the system an opportunity to express publicly their opinions. Usually their opinions are silenced by the system. The voice from the system has been framed in a special, polished, bureaucratic form which gives an impression of balance. The voice at the KROM conferences, on the other hand, has partly been inelegant, people’s usual style of speech has made itself clear and even had the upper hand, and made the tone of the whole conference into something different from the balanced form.

Central to this has been a consistent resistance to the lure of funding

Money is tempting, especially when tasks are given to others by employing them to do the work (for example by arranging conferences, which has become a whole business). We have not ceded to this temptation.

At its heart it is KROM’s ethos that sustains it

a development in the direction of a moral community has occurred in KROM … You notice it when people speak with each other, for example at intermissions at conferences. It is important to move on, to new turns at old sayings and ideas. This opens the borders for new theory and new practice. At the same time, it is equally important to keep old principles high. It is important to do the two things, to move ahead and be a mountain, at the same time. It is quite difficult to describe this, but at its best there is no separation between theory and practice.

KROM’s home in its early years was in The Institute for Sociology of Law, Thomas’s academic base, which in the 1960s and 1970s was located “the Villa” (pictured in Cadenza). It was clearly a remarkable space, open and accessible in a way that is almost unimaginable today. This is illustrated by Thomas’s account of the establishment of the Action Group for Vagrants:

The group’s founding meeting was held in the living room of our villa. Never have I witnessed such an assembly of openly intoxicated people, at a Research Institute or anywhere else, gathered for a political conversation. Though incredibly jumbled at first, the debate eventually became more structured as we approached the essential demands. From this experience came the recognition that discussion with even the most downtrodden of people is possible, as long as conditions are properly facilitated. Indeed, our villa was aptly suited for this; thanks to its frail appearance, any smudge or spillage mattered none – while the academic context of the Institute gave the meeting a streak of seriousness at the same time. Contact with vagrants on an individual basis also evolved. The office personnel in the house were frequently visited by people connected to the group – and so was my own office, thanks to the spread of a (quite truthful) rumor that I would give a few coins to vagrants dropping by. I eventually had to put a halt to this practice as the lines of vagrants escalated, however – after all I was not a qualified social worker. But the presence of vagrants in the house made its mark in many regards. Aud Korbøl writes: “One morning at eight the entire building [of Fuglehauggt. 6] smelled of fish. Hjalmar, an old sailor and vagrant, had forgotten about the stove on the kitchen oven – he was sound asleep beneath a desk. He had been handed some fish while at the docks, and had no other place to cook it. Hjalmar probably belonged to the Action Group for Vagrants” […] “The doors were open,” she adds

Never before or since have had I happened upon such an open research center. It would hardly be too bold to claim that our villa was a unique place for social research. Today most institutes are more or less locked areas – usually requiring cards and codes for entrance, and often using guards.

From its establishment Thomas was an active participant in the European Group. He attended the founding conference and gives this account:

This conference took place in 1973, and I did not learn much from the very intensive Marxism which was presented by the American delegation there. Tony Platt was the leader of the delegation. A sensation among at least some of the Europeans present seemed to be that now the Americans again would come again with their colonization – now the Europeans were to learn from Marx. Wasn’t he really a European? It seemed a bit confusing, and slightly offensive. I remember very well the then university lecturer (later professor of women’s law) Tove Stang Dahl from Norway, who took the floor and criticized the Americans rather severely for coming to Europe and for being teachers of Marxism for Europeans! It made a strong impression, and it was indeed a teaching lesson in itself. The Norwegian association KROM was a kind of role model for the other European participants – we had brought along a very articulate and clever ex-prisoner who gave a lengthy speech to the assembly, simultaneously translated into English by me, and there was considerable enthusiasm around the several prison organizations which were in the making. I also experienced the Americans as being rather embarrassed by the criticism…

On one of the days of the conference, on September 11, the socialist leader in Chile, president Salvador Allende, was killed in a coup d’etat led by General Pinochet. The news of this was a great shock to everybody at the European Group conference and Italians in Florence, and hours after the news of the coup was known, people (Communists) in the thousands were marching in the streets of the city …

They have a number of people as sympathizers and members, and have actually created a “school” of their own with advanced ethical principles and teachings. Every year since 1973 they have organized a professional critical conference. They have been and are “anti-positivists”, which opposed and opposes the professional meetings of the time, not the least in England …

Much of the book focuses on Mathiesen’s engagement with the disciplines of sociology and criminology. For the historian of twentieth century sociology the book is a treasure trove. Much of this is by its very nature quite dry, but it includes many amusing anecdotes. This includes an account of an ‘encounter’ between Sir Leon Radzinowicz and the NDC.

A group of idealistic researchers, as far as I know including the young “Crown Prince”, Stanley Cohen, stood up to the old “King”, Leon Radzinowicz, the Wolfson Chair of Criminology at Cambridge. The group as a whole actually came for a visit to Norway, probably at Nils Christie’s initiative, who no doubt wished to support the young men against the old man “Sir Leon”. The meeting took place at a hotel nearby Oslo. I was there. Fairly late one evening “Sir Leon” had gone to bed to sleep, while the young generation had continued the party, over time becoming more boisterous and more inspired by the drinks they had consumed. In the end one of them – I do not remember who – made a bold exclamation to the effect that this was the time for a revolt. The English visitors were to march as a group to “Sir Leon’s” bedroom – which was located far away from the dining room of the hotel in order not to disturb “the old man”. So, they did. The Norwegians, including myself, followed at a respectful distance. But the closer the group came to “Sir Leon’s” bedroom, the more hesitant the march became. Finally, everyone stopped completely at Radzinowicz’s door. No one knocked at the door. After a brief discussion, the whole group was dissolved. People went quietly back to the dining room – and continued to drink. “Sir Leon” continued his sleep, undisturbed, and the revolt of the young was nipped in the bud. “Sir Leon’s” prestige was enormous, so enormous that a closed door was more than enough to temper them.

Towards the end of the book Thomas reflected on the current state of sociology in Norway:

What about the fate of a science of opposition in Norwegian sociology today? I frankly don’t know. Opposition is not in tune with the times in Norwegian sociology. Much of what is produced is well written, but it appears to me to be firmly located within the sociological establishment. It seems as if the sociologists have quit writing and quit talking to others, and that they rather write and talk to each other. Sociology is therefore no longer a science of opposition.

And on criminology

In the past I took part in publishing a whole book on criminology as a science of opposition rather than a science of governmentality. It seems like a long time ago now.

And on the sociology of law

But what do we learn from the reading, and from what the great men and the few women have said about society and law? Does it tell you about the poverty of the Scandinavian countries, which perhaps has another form and is greater than what you think in the relatively wealthy countries concerned? Norway has fairly recently (before 1970) had a system of forced labour which through the years brought thousands of homeless men for long terms of over one or two years at a time behind walls. Today, large youthful population groups spend time in prison because of our strict drug legislation. Does the reading tell you about the fear and anxiety which pops up when migration increases in the countries concerned, a fear and anxiety of “strangers” which perhaps has existed for a long time? Is it actually a form of Scandinavian racism? Do we understand that Norway, Sweden and Denmark are actually class-divided societies, or at least societies characterized by important stratification barriers? Do we understand that the stratification barriers have important repercussions in social life? One of several repercussions is corruption. Are we made aware of it in our own societies?

There are large sections of Cadenza from which it has not been possible to include excerpts: on the Second World War; Thomas’s family history; his time in the United States; the many sociologists with whom he worked and who influenced him; his PhD studies (published as The Defence of the Weak); a sociological account of the birth of his children, his major books and many campaigns against state power. To access those you will need to read the book!

Thomas concludes the book:

… there is still a series of tasks relevant for KROM, nationally and internationally. We still exist, and will do so in the future. We are a forceful organization despite the fact that the future is bleak, nationally with the Progressive Party and internationally with the brutal and unpredictable right winger Trump and others. But a bleak future actually calls for more work, not less, and for more opposition, not less. Like the stance which the pioneers of criminology and sociology of law long ago so eloquently taught us.

Cadenza is available on Amazon for £12 – click on the image below

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