The study of crime and criminals is the province of the field of criminology. As the late Edwin Sutherland wrote in his classic work Principles of Criminology (1939, 1): “Criminology is the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon. It includes within its scope the processes of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws.” Although Sutherland's definition of criminology is commonly accepted and widely quoted, it is not quite accurate because it declares that the study of crime is solely focused on social factors. In fact, the study of crime by criminologists has encompassed several fields of knowledge that are not primarily social in nature.
It is also necessary to add that criminology has been generally defined as the scientific study of crime and criminals. Thus, not all those who comment on crime and criminals (such as forensic experts, lawyers, judges, and those who work in the criminal justice system) are criminologists. This distinction of a scientific approach to the subject is, however, not as simple as it seems. There are scholars who consider themselves criminologists and yet do not embrace a scientific method of study. Instead, they generally practice a methodology that studies crime and criminals from a dynamic, historical perspective. Further, these scholars usually focus on the “making of laws” and “reaction to the breaking of laws” rather than on the actual behavior of the lawbreaker.
As a final note on the definition of criminology, the terms crime and criminal are not as clear as they might seem. Much debate has surrounded what constitutes crime and criminals. Some have argued that the definition of crime is fully a legal matter; that is, if something is prohibited by law it is then and only then a crime. Others answer that because the laws are not really concerned with behavior itself, a legal definition does not provide a clearcut focus for behavioral distinctions. The act of taking a life, for example, is not necessarily murder because states perform executions and nations go to war. They suggest that a social definition more tuned to deviance, in all of its forms, is a better approach. Yet other scholars point out that if a crime or deviant act is not noticed, then for all intents and purposes the act might as well not have occurred and the individual involved is not deemed criminal or deviant. Thus, the legal or social definitions of crime and criminals capture only those acts and persons to whom we react. This problem makes it quite difficult to talk of criminals and “noncriminals” and obscures the subject matter of the field.
Criminology is generally understood to be an offspring of the discipline of sociology. While this is arguably the case, such a statement slights both the history of criminology and the various disciplines that comprise the breadth of the field. At one time or another, the disciplines of philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, medicine, biology, genetics, endocrinology, neurochemistry, political science, economics, social work, jurisprudence, geography, urban planning, architecture, and statistics have all played prominent roles in the development of criminological theory and research. Since the 1930s, however, sociology departments have been the primary source of academic training for most criminologists and there have been very few free-standing academic departments of criminology in the United States. Nevertheless, in spite of this sociological focus, it should be recognized that criminology is characterized by a relative integration of materials from several disciplines. The advent and rise, through the last four decades, of the multidisciplinary field of criminal justice has challenged sociology as the training ground for criminology.
Within the general discipline of criminology lie several interest areas. In their more general forms they are allied with such fields as philosophy of law, sociology of law, sociology of deviance, penology/ corrections, police science, administration, and demography. It is possible, then, to identify oneself as a criminologist and yet spend an entire career working within a relatively small area of the field, such as policing.
Criminology, as a generic form of study relating to crime and criminals, can be traced far back into history. It is only recently, however, that a systematic study developed. Perhaps the best estimate of the “birth” of criminology lies with the rise of the European Classical Period in the eighteenth century. The real thrust of the period was not so much the study of the criminal, but the system of justice itself. With relatively capricious and arbitrary law in effect, the writers of the day criticized the system of justice and proposed massive reform. Referred to as the Classical School of criminology, the ideas of these reformers became the basis for today's criminal law and justice systems, and originated the modern concept of deterrence.
In the nineteenth century the study of crime and criminals began in earnest. Scholars began mapping the distribution of crimes in what were the first real studies using so-called social statistics. Other scholars engaged in the study of head shapes and produced some of the first scientific studies of criminals. The generally accepted beginning of scientific criminology, however, occurred in the 1870s with the work of an Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso.
Drawing on the positive science methods of the day (thus the generic name “the Positive School”), Lombroso's work on the relationship between physical features, personality, and criminals led to theories of a “born” criminal and spurred both genetic and hereditary studies. It was during this period that the term criminology itself came into popular usage. Followed by others, this work was extended into the arena of social and environmental factors. With the rise of sociology as a discipline in the 1890s, scientific criminology expanded under a number of fronts.
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw an assortment of criminological explanations rise, most notably the social varieties, the emotional/psychoanalytic, and the combined product of then-new intelligence testing and heredity research. By the 1920s, sociological studies were in full swing and the Sociology Department of the University of Chicago began to dominate criminology. The major explanations of criminality became tied to the transmission of values from one person to another, especially in areas that were culturally different and socially disorganized. In addition, statistical studies that placed crime and delinquency in particular areas of the city became popular.
By the 1940s criminology had become concerned with the effect of social conditions on people in general and began an examination of the relationship among social structure, social class, and crime. Commonly known as “structural functionalist” theories, their focus was on differing rates of criminality or delinquency among groups of people in society. This approach held sway until the 1960s, when criminology, along with the rest of society, became concerned with civil rights and liberal political issues. The focus shifted away from the criminal and toward the way in which the criminal justice system reacted to and processed people.
Following the federal government's crusade and “war” against crime during the late 1960s and early 1970s, which culminated with the creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA; now the National Institute of Justice), criminology became much more concerned with studying the criminal justice system itself. Under the aegis of LEAA funding, criminologists examined the operation of the police, the courts, and correctional systems with an eye to evaluating their effectiveness.
Where the criminal was concerned, explanations of behavior favored an assumption that people made rational choices and that crime was simply a rational choice decision.
Along with the rise of academic criminology in the United States came the field of police science. Actually, police science departments preceded criminology departments in the colleges and universities. While often difficult to distinguish from each other, police science departments usually focus more on the technical aspects of policing: administration, management, crime analysis, and the “doing” of law enforcement. Criminology, when it deals with the police province, more often uses a “system in action” focus. Thus, criminological approaches to the problem of policing are apt to be sociological in nature and to focus on informal structures and relationships.
Because it is difficult to separate early criminology from early police science, one may argue that some of the first scientific contributions could have come from either source. Nonetheless, a review of the first three decades of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology suggests that much of contemporary policing was developed from research of the early twentieth century. Articles include training, personnel selection, psychological testing, use of technology, fingerprinting, and so forth. Obviously, too, the various techniques of crime analysis have their origins in early work on crime statistics and geographic mapping.
During the 1960s and 1970s the criminological work of Egon Bittner, Albert Reiss, Jerome Skolnick, and Peter Manning found its way into police training and community relations work. Similarly, the work of political scientist James Q. Wilson, who some view as a criminologist, had an effect on police administration practices. The products of civil disobedience research and victimization studies changed police selection processes and created an emphasis on education.
George Kelling and colleagues' Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment caused police departments nationwide to restructure their patrol procedures. Several response time studies suggested that immediate response to all citizen calls was not necessary and that response time was not as critical to making an arrest as was thought. Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk's research on response to spousal assault calls (Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment) led to changes in response and arrest policies for disturbance calls. Studies by RAND Corporation and the Police Executive Research Foundation on detective work and crime solving resulted in patrol officers being given more responsibility in the investigative process and in new ways to screen cases. A criminological theory, the routine activities approach, precipitated a new analytical approach to locating crime, known as hot spots. Finally, Herman Goldstein's work on problem-oriented policing influenced many police departments to give up traditional policing for variations on community policing. This latter influence gained momentum from Wilson and Kelling's “broken-windows” essay and is now the dominant approach to policing.
In short, criminology is not focused on the police by any means, but it has had a profound effect, which ranges from the Classical School's reform of criminal justice operation and philosophy to the techniques and crime control styles in use by police departments today. Indeed, of all the components of today's criminal justice system, it is the police who rely most heavily on criminological research to make substantial changes in basic structure and methods of operating.
See also Bittner, Egon; Broken-Windows Policing; Community-Oriented Policing: Effects and Impacts; Crime Analysis; Crime Mapping; Criminal Careers; Fingerprinting; Hot Spots; Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment; Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment; Police Reform: 1950–1970; Problem-Oriented Policing; Reiss, Albert J., Jr.; Vollmer, August; Wilson, James Q.
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