Measuring Prejudice: Race Sciences of the 18-19th Centuries

Alphonse Bertillon

    This justification was supported twofold when people such as Alphonse Bertillon begin to take and publish photos like the ones he did in his guide to measuring people for identification, because at the time, cameras were still relatively new, and not everybody knew the images could have been altered. All they knew was what they saw, that a photographer with a camera, some sort of scientist, and seemingly willing subjects were taking part in studies during which the subjects were measured and photographed in order to “prove” the connection between facial phenotypes and people’s character. He developed the modern mugshot during his time with the Parisian police in the late 19th century, and had an innocent man convicted by inventing and conducting a test to prove that the man had in fact written the incriminating letter that had already been proven to have been falsified in order to frame him. Clearly this is a man who believes he can make science work for him, and this is no different in his work for the police. Ultimately, it was declared that his work was without scientific background, but it was too late for most, who had already been convinced by Bertillon’s work that certain features were premonitions of certain identities and tendencies. 

    The effects of works like these have had on the portrayal of individuals in media is long-lasting, as we are still yet to see our way out of it. Every day we are exposed to images that harken back to these 19th century publications, of which the two mentioned above are but a couple examples, by no means encompassing the vast amount of literature and studies done in this area. Hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes in the past and become more aware of the way images depict people of any race, not strictly minorities, or strictly the underrepresented, but of every single individual human being on this earth. With eyes opened to the pseudoscience of physiognomy, maybe it is possible that in the future we can all strive for the search of true knowledge, the facts and truths of humankind, as opposed to postulating for one’s own benefit.

    Education against this sort of pseudoscience is the best prevention. With the invention of the internet, and it’s widespread accessibility, more and more people are becoming scientifically literate and will hopefully be able to perceive the apparent illogical trains of thought brought up in these terrifying 19th century books. Put forth to the public as veritable science, this was a misguidance of the people and libelous slander aimed at any desired community.


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