In memory of professor Thomas Mathiesen (1933-2021)

Thomas Mathiesen (1933-2021)

Thomas Mathiesen. Photo: UiO

Thomas Mathiesen (1933-2021)
Getting an overview of and taking in the career of Thomas Mathiesen is a daunting experience for any scholar and any citizen with a basic sense of civic responsibility. He studied sociology at the University of Wisconsin 1953-55, defended his famous doctoral thesis The Defences of the Weak at the University of Oslo in 1965, established the Norwegian Association for Criminal Reform (KROM) in 1968, became a professor in sociology of law in 1972 and a honorary professor at Lund’s university in 2003, produced countless books and articles on a wide variety of topics, obtained numerous prizes and had his books translated into for example Swedish, Danish, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Serbian and Chinese.

First and foremost, throughout his career Mathiesen remained an open-minded, intellectually curious, hardworking scholar with a keen interest not only in research and academic theories but also in their practical implementation in the world around him. He was well and truly a researcher who always seemed to have an eye for practice and a drive to reform the institutions of our societies. Not only his continuous display of civic engagement bears witness to this; the way in which he undertook and executed his academic scholarly projects also reveals this quality. In my opinion, a number of elements in Mathiesen’s work are central in that regard, and offer an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our own work.

Firstly, Mathiesen was not afraid of asking the big questions and more interestingly, he was not afraid of trying to answer them. Despite, or perhaps rather because of, the huge growth of universities, scholars and fields of research within academia we arguably face a rising risk of an anomic isolation of countless ever-more specialized disciplines and sub-fields, that loose contact with each other and proceed down an increasingly narrow path of research. This requires people like Mathiesen with an interest in and the capability and the boldness to make the attempt to answer some of the big sociological and societal questions that confront us. Prison on Trial (1990 and 1988 in Norwegian) is a good example. Answering just one of the sub-questions posed in that book (do prisons rehabilitate prisoners, achieve general prevention, create justice etc.) would likely cause most scholars to politely back away from such an undertaking.

Secondly, and this relates to my first point, Mathiesen was always building bridges between different disciplines. For example, in his work on prisons and punishment he, unlike many others, maintained focus on the legal context despite his sociological approach. This is evident already in The Defences of the Weak (1965), where he showed a keen interest in the rules and the bureaucracy of the prison, and in Prison on Trial, where one could say that he chose to take the legal foundation of this institution of punishment seriously and evaluate it on its own merits from a sociological standpoint. And in his Norwegian textbook on the sociology of law (Retten i samfunnet) he further demonstrated how the prison could be placed in a societal context and analyzed as a legal institution. In that sense, Mathiesen brought law to sociology and sociology to law to the great benefit of both disciplines.

Finally, Mathiesen always seemed open and eager to engage in dialogue with all the relevant institutions, people, and stakeholders within the areas he studied. This approach is illustrated by the yearly KROM conferences where prisoners, scholars, lawyers, and the Norwegian correctional service meet and exchange views. This combination of openness and engagement was also very apparent in Thomas’ personality and the way he met people face to face with respect and interest. In that sense, too, he will remain an inspiration to all of us.

By Peter Scharff Smith
Professor in the Sociology of Law
The Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, Oslo University