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Comparative sociology · Cultural sociology
Economic sociology · Industrial sociology
Political sociology · Rural sociology
Sociology of deviance · Sociology of education
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Conflict theory · Critical theory
Positivism · Social constructionism

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Demography · Social movements
Social psychology · Sociobiology

Criminology is the scientific study of crime as an individual and social phenomenon. Criminological research areas in particular comprise the incidence and forms of crime as well as its causes and consequences. They also include social and governmental regulations and reactions to crime. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field in the social sciences, drawing especially on the research of sociologists and psychologists, as well as on writings in law.

Attempts to understand what causes individuals to commit criminal acts is an important step in preventing crime and ensuring the safety and well-being of all members of society. The reasons for criminal behavior also determine the nature of punishment or other consequences, including efforts at rehabilitation that society should impose on those who commit a crime. Understanding the origin of crime, therefore, is essential in building a society in which all people can experience happiness.

Schools of thought

In 1885, Italian law professor Raffaele Garofalo coined the term "criminology" (in Italian, criminologia) to refer to the study of crime and criminal behavior. The French anthropologist Paul Topinard used it for the first time in French (criminologie) in 1887. Over time, several schools of thought have developed. The main thematic distinction has been between the: Classical School associated with Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, among others, who have argued that:

  • People have free will to choose how to act.
  • Deterrence is based upon the utilitarian ontological notion of the human being a "hedonist" who seeks pleasure and avoids pain, and a "rational calculator" weighing up the costs and benefits of the consequences of each action. Thus, it ignores the possibility of irrationality and unconscious drives as motivational factors.
  • Punishment (of sufficient severity) can deter people from crime, as the costs (penalties) outweigh benefits.

and the Positivist School which presumes that criminal behavior is caused by biological, psychological, or social determining factors that predispose some people towards crime. Cesare Lombroso, an Italian prison doctor working in the late nineteenth century and sometimes regarded as the "father" of criminology, was one of the largest contributors to biological positivism, which alleged that physiological traits such as the measurements of one's cheek bones or hairline, or a cleft palate, considered to be throwbacks to Neanderthal man, were indicative of "atavistic" criminal tendencies. This approach, influenced by the earlier theory of phrenology and by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, has been superseded, but more modern research examines genetic characteristics and the chemistry of nutrition to determine whether there is an effect on violent behavior. Hans Eysenck (1964, 1977), a British psychologist, claimed that personality traits such as "Extraversion" and "Neuroticism" made a person more likely to commit criminal acts. Sociological positivism (the father of which is considered to be Emile Durkheim) postulates that societal factors such as poverty, membership of subcultures, or low levels of education can predispose people to crime.

Classical school

The Classical School in criminology is usually a reference to the eighteenth century work during the Enlightenment by the utilitarian and social contract philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria. Their interests lay in the system of criminal justice and penology and, indirectly through the proposition that "man is a calculating animal," in the causes of criminal behavior.


In this context, the most relevant idea was known as the "felicitation principle," namely that whatever is done should aim to give the greatest happiness to the largest possible number of people in society. Jeremy Bentham argued that there had been "punishment creep" in that the severity of punishments had slowly increased so that the death penalty was then imposed for more than two hundred offences. It had therefore become counter-productive because it produced an incentive to kill any possible witnesses to every crime to reduce the risk of arrest. Bentham posited that man is a calculating animal who will weigh potential gains against the pain likely to be imposed. If the pain outweighs the gain, he will be deterred and this produces maximal social utility. Therefore, in a rational system, the punishment system must be graduated so that the punishment more closely matches the crime.

Punishment is not viewed as retribution or revenge because that is morally deficient: the hangman is paying the murder the compliment of imitation. However, the concept is problematic because it depends on two critical assumptions:

  • if deterrence is going to work, the potential offender must always act rationally, whereas much crime is a spontaneous reaction to a situation or opportunity; and
  • if the system graduates a scale of punishment according to the seriousness of the offence, it is assuming that the more serious the harm likely to be caused, the more the criminal has to gain.

In this context, note Bentham's proposal for a prison design called the "panopticon" which, apart from its surveillance system, included the right of the prison manager to use the prisoners as contract labor.


In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published Dei Deliti e Delle Pene ("On Crimes and Punishments") arguing for the need to reform the criminal justice system by referring not to the harm caused to the victim, but to the harm caused to society. In this, he posited that the greatest deterrent was the certainty of detection: the more swift and certain the punishment, the more effective it would be. It would also allow a less serious punishment to be effective if shame and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing was a guaranteed response to society's judgment. Thus, the prevention of crime would be achieved through a proportional system that was clear and simple to understand, and if the entire nation united in their own defense.

Beccaria's approach influenced the codification movement which set sentencing tariffs to ensure equality of treatment among offenders. Later, it was acknowledged that not all offenders are alike and greater sentencing discretion was allowed to judges. Thus, punishment works at two levels. Because it punishes individuals, it operates as a specific deterrence to those convicted not to re-offend. But the publicity surrounding the trial and the judgment of society represented by the decision of a jury of peers, offers a general example to the public of the consequences of committing a crime. If they are afraid of similarly swift justice, they will not offend.

Positivist school

In criminology, the Positivist School has attempted to find scientific objectivity for the measurement and quantification of criminal behavior. As the scientific method became the major paradigm in the search for all knowledge, the Classical School's social philosophy was replaced by the quest for scientific laws that would be discovered by experts. It is divided into Biological, Psychological, and Social Positivism.

Biological positivism

Historically, as medicine became interested in the problem of crime, developments in physiognomy (Johann Kaspar Lavater and Franz Joseph Gall) and the science of phrenology, which linked attributes of the mind to the shape of the brain as reveal through the skull, occurred. These theories were popular because they claimed that society and any failures of its government were not the causes of crime. The problem lay in the propensities of individual offenders who were biologically distinguishable from law-abiding citizens.

This theme was amplified by the Italian School through the writings of Cesare Lombroso (L'Uomo Delinquente, The Criminal Man) which identified physical characteristics associated with degeneracy, demonstrating that criminals were "atavistic" throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary form. Charles Goring (1913) failed to corroborate these characteristics, but did find criminals to be shorter, lighter, and less intelligent. Thus, Goring found criminality to be "normal" rather than "pathological," whereas Hooton found evidence of biological inferiority. William Sheldon identified three basic body or somatotypes (endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs), and introduced a scale to measure where each individual was placed. He concluded that delinquents tended to mesomorphy.

Modern research might link physical size and athleticism and aggression because physically stronger people have the capacity to use violence with less chance of being hurt in any retaliation. Otherwise, such early research is no longer considered valid. The development of genetics has produced another potential inherent cause of criminality, with chromosome and other genetic factors variously identified as significant to select heredity rather than environment as the cause of crime. However, family, twin, and adoption studies have produced no conclusive empirical evidence to prefer either cause.

There are a number of reputable studies that demonstrate a link between lower intelligence and criminality. But the evidence is equivocal, because studies among the prison population simply test those criminals actually caught, which might be because they failed to plan the crimes properly or because they were unable to resist interrogation techniques and admitted their crimes. If their intelligence is poor, they are also less likely to be deterred.

Testosterone and adrenaline have been associated with aggression and violence, and the arousal and excited state associated with them. The excessive consumption of alcohol can lower blood sugar levels and lead to aggressiveness, and the use of chemicals in foods and drinks has been associated with hyper-activity and some criminal behavior.

Psychological positivism

Sigmund Freud divided the human personality into the id, the primitive biological drives, the superego, the internalized values, and the ego, memory, perception, and cognition. He proposed that criminal behavior is either the result of mental illness or a weak conscience. John Bowlby proposed an attachment theory in which maternal deprivation was a factor that might lead to delinquency. This has been discounted in favor of general privation (Michael Rutter 1981) or "broken homes" (Glueck (1950) in which absentee or uncaring parents tend to produce badly behaved children.

Hans Eysenck (1987) stated that, "… certain types of personality may be more prone to react with anti-social or criminal behavior to environmental factors of one kind or another." He proposed three dimensions of personality: introversion/extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. For these purposes, personality is the settled framework of reference within which a person addresses the current situation and decides how to behave. Some traits will be dominant at times and then in a balanced relationship to other traits, but each person's traits will be reasonably stable and predictable (Marshall 1990 and Seidman 1994). Hence, once conditioned into a criminal lifestyle, the relevant personality traits are likely to persist until a countervailing conditioning force re-establishes normal social inhibitions. Some forms of criminal behavior such as sexual offences, have been medicalized with treatment offered alongside punishment.

Social positivism

In general terms, Positivism rejected the Classical Theory's reliance on free will and sought to identify positive causes that determined the propensity for criminal behavior. Rather than biological or psychological causes, social positivism identified "society" as the cause. Hence, environmental criminology and other sub-schools study the spatial distribution of crimes and offenders.

Adolphe Quetelet, who discovered that crimes rates are relatively constant, and the Chicago School which, under the leadership of Robert E. Park, viewed the city as a form of superorganism, zoned into areas engaged in a continuous process of invasion, dominance, and succession. Meanwhile, Emile Durkheim identified society as a social phenomenon, external to individuals, with crime a normal part of a healthy society. Deviancy was nothing more than "boundary setting," pushing to determine the current limits of morality and acceptability.

Environmental criminology

Environmental criminology focuses on criminal patterns within particular built environments and analyzes the impacts of these external variables on people’s cognitive behavior. It can be considered a part of the Positivist School in that it applies the scientific method to examine the society that causes crime.

Environmental criminology is the study of crime, criminality, and victimization as they relate, first, to particular places, and secondly, to the way that individuals and organizations shape their activities spatially, and in so doing are in turn influenced by place-based or spatial factors. The study of the spatial patterning of crime and criminality has a long and continuous criminological history, and entered a new phase with the use of computerized crime mapping systems by the police and researchers.

The criminal event has five dimensions: space, time, law, offender, and target or victim. These five components are a necessary and sufficient condition, for without one, the other four, even together, will not constitute a criminal incident (Brantingham & Brantingham 1991). Despite the obvious multi-faceted nature of crime, scholars and practitioners often attempt to study them separately. For instance, lawyers and political scientists focus on the legal dimension; sociologists, psychologists, and civil rights groups generally look to the offenders and victims, while geographers concentrate upon the location of the event. Environmental criminologists examine the place and the time when the crime happened. They are interested in land usage, traffic patterns, and street design, and the daily activities and movements of victims and offenders. Environmental criminologists often use maps to look for crime patterns, using metric topology (Verma & Lodha 2002).

It is no accident that environmental criminology was born in the nineteenth century, the century par excellence of industrialization and urbanization in most Western societies. Crime seemed, to many observers, to be integrally and obviously linked to these developments in modern society. Whilst there is strong empirical support for a higher crime rate in cities, especially large cities (Cressey 1964 ch 3, Braithwaite 1989 ch 3) research has not always shown a direct or simple temporal link between urbanization and crime (Gillis 1996). Furthermore, a significant group of scholars have argued that the social transformations of the late twentieth century have already projected us from "modern" to "late modern" societies, a transformation that may have as profound an influence on social life as the original arrival of industrialization and urbanization.

Environmental criminology would be of little interest, either to scholars or those concerned with criminal policy, if the geographical distribution of offences, or of victimization or offender residence, were random. In fact this is very far from being the case, and the geographical concentration of crime and criminality parallels other skews in criminological data (for example, the fact that a relatively small number of persistent offenders commit a very disproportionate amount of crimes).

Feminist school

The Feminist School of criminology developed in the late 1960s and into the 1970s as a reaction against the gender distortions and stereotyping within traditional criminology. It was closely associated with the emergence of the "Second Wave" of feminism and it speaks with multiple viewpoints developed from different feminist writers. Politically, there is a range from Marxist and Socialist to Liberal feminism addressing the "gender ratio" problem (why women are less likely than men to commit crime) or the generalizability problem ("adding" women to male knowledge, whereby the findings from research on men are generalized to women).

Marxist criminology

Karl Marx argued that the law is the mechanism by which one social class, usually referred to as the "ruling class," keeps all the other classes in a disadvantaged position. Thus, this school uses a Marxist lens through which to consider the criminalization process, and by which to explain why some acts are defined as deviant whereas others are not. It is therefore interested in political, state, and state-corporate crime.

Marxist criminology or Conflict criminology parallels the work of functionalism, which focuses on what produces stability and continuity in society, but, unlike the functionalists, it adopts a predefined political philosophy. It focuses on why things change, identifying the disruptive forces in industrialized societies, and describing how society is divided by power, wealth, prestige, and the perceptions of the world. "The shape and character of the legal system in complex societies can be understood as deriving form the conflicts inherent in the structure of these societies which are stratified economically and politically" (Chambliss 1971, p3). It is concerned with the causal relationships between society and crime, namely to establish a critical understanding of how the immediate and structural social environment gives rise to crime and criminogenic conditions.

This approach claims that crime is inevitable in capitalist societies, as invariably certain groups will become marginalized and unequal. In seeking equality, members of these groups may often turn to crime in order to gain the material wealth that apparently brings equality in capitalist economic states.

Postmodernist school

The Postmodernist School applies postmodernism to the study of crime and criminals, and understands "criminality" as a product of the power to limit the behavior of those individuals excluded from power, but who try to overcome social inequality and behave in ways which the power structure prohibits. It focuses on the identity of the human subject, multiculturalism, feminism, and human relationships to deal with the concepts of "difference" and "otherness" without essentialism or reductionism, but its contributions are not always appreciated (Carrington 1998).

Postmodernists have shifted attention from Marxist concerns of economic and social oppression to linguistic production, arguing that criminal law is a language to create dominance relationships. For example, the language of courts (the so-called "legalese") expresses and institutionalizes the domination of the individual, whether accused or accuser, criminal or victim, by social institutions. According to postmodernist criminology, the discourse of criminal law is dominant, exclusive and rejecting, less diverse, and culturally not pluralistic, exaggerating narrowly defined rules for the exclusion of others.

Types and definitions of crime

Main article: Crime

Both the Positivist and Classical Schools take a consensus view of crime—that a crime is an act that violates the basic values and beliefs of society. Those values and beliefs are manifested as laws that society agrees upon. However, there are two types of laws:

  • Natural laws are rooted in core values shared by many cultures. Natural laws protect against harm to persons (such as murder, rape, assault) or property (theft, fraud, arson), and form the basis of common law systems.
  • Statutes are enacted by legislatures and reflect current cultural norms, albeit that some laws may be controversial, such as laws that prohibit marijuana use and gambling. Marxist Criminology, Conflict Criminology, and Critical Criminology claim that most relationships between state and citizen are non-consensual and, as such, criminal law is not necessarily representative of public beliefs and wishes: it is exercised in the interests of the ruling or dominant class. The more right wing criminologies tend to posit that there is a consensual social contract between state and citizen.

Therefore, definitions of crimes vary from place to place, in accordance with the cultural norms and mores.

Theories of crime

There are many theories, including strain theory developed by sociologist Robert K. Merton, symbolic interactionism, control theories, and subcultural theories, which draw on a variety of philosophical, psychological, and sociological positions.

Strain theory

Based on the work of American sociologist Robert K. Merton, this theory suggests that mainstream culture, especially in the United States, is saturated with dreams of opportunity, freedom, and prosperity; as Merton put it, the American Dream. Most people buy into this dream and it becomes a powerful cultural and psychological motivation. However, for most people it remains just a dream, unattainable in real life.

To describe the effect on people caused by this dichotomy between what society expected of its citizens, and what those citizens could actually achieve, Merton used the term anomie, originally coined by Emile Durkheim. However, Merton developed Durkheim's idea in a slightly different direction, regarding the situation as producing "strain" that can be dealt with in a number of ways. He observed that if the social structure of opportunities is unequal and prevents the majority from realizing the dream, some of them will turn to illegitimate means (crime) in order to realize it. Others will retreat or drop out into deviant subcultures, becoming gang members, homeless drunks, drug abusers, and so forth.

Symbolic interactionism

Drawing on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and George Herbert Mead, subcultural theory and conflict theory, the school of symbolic interactionism focused on the relationship between the powerful state, media, and conservative ruling elite on the one hand, and the less powerful groups on the other. The powerful groups had the ability to become the "significant other" in the less powerful groups' processes of generating meaning. The former could to some extent impose their meanings on the latter, and therefore they were able to "label" minor delinquent youngsters as criminal. These youngsters would often take on board the label, indulge in crime more readily and become actors in the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of the powerful groups.

Control theories

Another approach is made by the so called "control theories." Instead of looking for factors that make people become criminal, such theories try to explain why people do NOT become criminal. Hirschi (2001) identified four main characteristics: "attachment to others," "belief in moral validity of rules," "commitment to achievement," and "involvement in conventional activities." The more a person features those characteristics, the less are the chances that he or she becomes deviant (or criminal). If, on the other hand, those factors are not present in a person, it is more likely that he or she might come to commit crimes.

Hirschi followed up on his own theory with the "theory of low self-control." According to that theory a person is more likely to become criminal, if he or she has low self control. In a simple example, suppose someone wants to have a yacht, but does not have the means to buy one. If the person cannot control themself, he or she might try to obtain the yacht (or the means for it) in an illegal way; whereas someone with high self-control will be able to either wait or deny themself that desire.

British and American subcultural theory

Following on from the Chicago School and Strain Theory, and also drawing on Edwin H. Sutherland's idea of "differential association," subcultural theorists focused on small cultural groups fragmenting away from the mainstream to form their own values and meanings about life. Some of these groups, especially from poorer areas where opportunities were scarce, might adopt criminal values and meanings. British subcultural theorists focused more heavily on the issue of class, where some criminal activities were seen as 'imaginary solutions' to the problem of belonging to a subordinate class.

Educational programs

A large number of undergraduate and postgraduate criminology degree programs have developed around the world. The popularity of such degrees may be partly affected by criminal and police television dramas that capture people's imaginations. However, the deeper cause is the growing awareness as to the continuing importance of issues relating to law, rules, compliance, politics, terrorism, security, forensic science, the media, deviance, and punishment.

Criminologists come from a variety of backgrounds including economics, sociology, history, and psychology. Criminologists work in many branches of public life including police departments, departments of justice, the FBI, and other crime-fighting organizations. As a field, criminology holds much potential for the benefit of humankind. Understanding the roots of crime is an important step in preventing it.

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