Identification Practices and Techniques

Identification Practices and Techniques—The Invention of Biometry in the Nineteenth Century

Daniel Messner

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Fingerprint examination, in: Eichberg, Franz (1915): Anleitung zur Vergleichung von Fingerabdrücken. Wien, p. 16.

The aim of this dissertation project was to explore the negotiation and implementation of identification practices at the end of the nineteenth century. Daniel Messner focused on the situation in Vienna and placed it in a European and global context, and therefore examined the implementation of the identification techniques photography, anthropometry, and dactyloscopy (fingerprinting) in the years 1870–1914.

The expansion of police and security agencies in the second half of the nineteenth century led not only to new forms of individual identification but also to new institutions specialized in the recognition of delinquents. Those registration offices (»Erkennungsdienste«) were important parts in the formation of criminal police in the European metropolises like Vienna, Berlin, London, or Paris. Furthermore the criminal police established specific identification practices which spread within a short time in the early twentieth century, especially in Europe and North and South America. A new epistemic culture evolves with the formation of modern biometry, like fingerprinting. Due to their policing origins biometric identification techniques imply a promise of security and therefore are until today powerful tools. In registration offices strategies for producing truth become apparent. These strategies are part of fragmented processes in the production of knowledge within an institutional setting. Many different fields of knowledge had some influence on biometry: scientific knowledge for example based on anthropology and statistics, but also bibliographical practices of classifying and sorting or administration knowledge in registering and governing.

Research on the history of identification techniques has shown that the most acute problem facing nineteenth-century police and penal bureaucracies was not recording information, but ordering it. Daniel Messner's main interest focused on the question of how biometry was invented as an archiving strategy for classifying and retrieving information. He therefore studied the practices of collecting, classifying, and archiving information on a local level at the Viennese police department in the context of international networks of security agencies.

Biometric databases are, in a way, administrative attempts at restoring and preserving social order in the context of nationalism and mobility. Therefore, the field of biometric identification techniques is a worthwhile laboratory where one can study the co-production of technology and society. In a historical perspective Daniel Messner aimed to show how social ideas and imaginations of security and technology are part of data collections and their practices. In doing so, this research sought to contribute to an ongoing debate around privacy issues, individual and collective identities, and public and private surveillance.

Further information can be read in German on the Coding History website.

  • MEßNER, Daniel (2014): Negotiation and Implementation. The Introduction of New Identification Techniques in Austria and Germany at the End of the 19th Century, in: Livio Antonielli (Ed.): Procedure, metodi, strumenti per l’identificazione delle persone e per il controllo del territorio. Rubbettino: Soveria Mannelli, pp. 155–183.