Charles F Wellford. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publication.
This chapter discusses the origins and development of the discipline of criminology and addresses the questions of where criminology is today and where it is going. In large part, criminology is a history of the ideas that have informed the evolution of criminology and that stand as the intellectual foundation of one of the fastest growing academic disciplines of the last 40 years.
No history of criminology can ignore the political forces that impact any attempt to address a set of behaviors that stir so much public concern. Although all science is subject to such influences, it is important to recognize that the object of criminological study, more than most social phenomena, produces public images of crime and criminals and ways to respond to them that can constrain and influence their study. Therefore, a history of criminology must also consider the external influences that have affected its development. As these issues are addressed, the internal dynamics of the discipline as well as the external forces that have sometimes changed the course of criminology and its focus are examined.
Any intellectual history is, in part, informed by where we understand ourselves to be today. Today, criminology finds itself defined by three major themes: (1) the steady movement toward a more rigorous science, (2) a commitment to rigorously tested theories of crime and criminal behavior, and (3) the establishment of a demand for evidence-based crime control and justice assurance policies and practices. This was perhaps best expressed by Edwin Sutherland (1934), who defined criminology as the study of the making of law, the breaking of law, and the reaction of society to lawbreaking. However, this is not always how criminology understood its scope. So let us return to one beginning before we consider the beginning that is now defined as the foundation for our field.
Two Points of Departure for the Beginning of Criminology
The Classical School of Criminology
In 1764, an obscure Italian lawyer published a book that was soon to remove his obscurity and become one of the most influential legal treatises of the 18th century. The author was Cesare Beccaria, and the book was Essays on Crime and Punishment (hereinafter referred to as Essays; Beccaria, 1764/1963). Influenced by the Enlightenment philosophers, Beccaria sought to reform the criminal justice system to make it more humane and fair. He argued for punishments other than corporal punishment and death by embedding punishment in an enlightened legal system. Within 10 years of its publication, the book was translated into all European languages, and Beccaria was celebrated as a profound new legal thinker; the work also influenced the governments of numerous countries, including England and the United States. As early as 1775, John Adams referenced Essays in his justification for accepting the unpopular and politically dangerous task of defending the British soldiers who fired on the citizens of Boston who charged the arms depot atop Bunker Hill. Adams (quoted in McCullough, 2001), in explaining this decision, quoted the following from Beccaria:
If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and the invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessing and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.
Essays challenged the traditional notion that the foundation of the legal system was religion and that the cause of crime was falling from grace (the devil). Instead, Beccaria (1764/1973) offered the notion that crime was a result of choice (the operation of free will) and that crime was selected when the rewards of crime exceeded the pains resulting from the commission of crime. It is obvious that Beccaria, influenced by the moral calculus of Jeremy Bentham (1789), saw crime as a choice, not a compulsion. From this central idea he built a system of justice that specified that punishments should fit the crime (just enough punishment to offset the pleasure of the crime); that punishment was most effective when it was swift and sure but not overly severe; that confessions could not be coerced; and that the death penalty was not warranted, because it was not reversible in the case of error, and no one would agree to the state taking his life if he had a choice. In a series of interrelated chapters, Beccaria described a system of justice that soon became the model for democracies around the world.
As a legal philosopher, Beccaria subscribed to the idea that government exists at the will of the people and that, as such, the laws should restrict freedom only to the degree necessary to guarantee order and freedom. With this foundation, societies establish governments and laws to expand freedom, not to ensure the interests of one group above another. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution were greatly influenced by Beccaria; the sections of the Bill of Rights that address crime and justice in particular reflect his principles and guidelines.
Beccaria also argued that the setting of punishments (the balancing of pleasure and pain) should be done with “geometric precision,” suggesting that the emerging ideas of science and the scientific method should be used to structure the justice system. Although he was not educated in science, his work reflected the growing role of science in all aspects of social life. The science of criminal justice was fully anticipated in his approach to structuring a fair system of laws and justice. Finally, Beccaria knew how dangerous it was to write a treatise that challenged the conventional wisdom that law came from God and that rulers were God’s representatives on earth. As he sought to mitigate the subversiveness of his arguments, Beccaria noted that he was not challenging the church or church law but was simply offering a model for reform of criminal law and justice that was consistent with teachings of the church and the interests of the state. Beccaria clearly understood the tensions between a science of crime and justice and a system of laws and justice that reflected interests and power. Although he called for the former, he recognized the danger in doing so and sought to avoid the pain that others had suffered who challenged the positions of those in power.
So, some refer to Beccaria as the father of the classical school of criminology, the first school of criminological thought. Notice, however, that this approach to defining criminology has as its primary focus the criminal justice system. The theory of criminal behavior in this school is free will, and the definition of crime is behaviors prohibited by the state and punished by the state. Readers will see a very different set of assumptions and foci when the discussion turns to the creation of criminology as an academic field of study. This approach pays little attention to the criminal justice system and focuses almost exclusively on the causes of crime.
The Causes of Crime
In 1876, another Italian, this time a physician, published a book that was to transform how we think about criminals. Cesare Lombroso wrote Criminal Man, in which he reported on his observations of criminals while working as a doctor at a local prison. In the first edition of this work (only 252 pages in length), he observed that criminals had physical characteristics that more closely resembled animals lower in the evolutionary chain than man. Writing just 17 years after Darwin’s (1859) On the Origin of Species, which introduced the notion of evolution into scientific and popular thinking, Lombroso explained crime as the behavior of humans who where “throwbacks” to earlier developmental forms. Their physical appearance signaled their inferior intellectual and moral development. Crime was a product of this inferior development. For 30 years, the biological causes of crime heavily influenced thinking about crime causation.3 The most forceful rejection of this particular approach to crime causation came with the publication of a large-scale empirical test of it, The English Convict (Goring, 1913/1972). The author, Charles Goring, using the emerging statistical techniques that now form the basis of social science empirical research, tested convicts and nonconvicts and demonstrated that the physical differences that Lombroso described did not differentiate between these groups. In fact, by the time this work was published, Lombroso had published the fifth edition of his book, with each edition getting longer and noting other possible explanations of crime (the fifth edition had grown to 1,903 pages and listed hundreds of causes of crime).
Criminology Emerges as a Named Field of Study
The 1800s saw the emergence and growth of the science and the establishment of separate disciplines and research areas. Prior to this time, all sciences were included in faculties of philosophy. It was in the early 1800s that sociology was named and textbooks began to emerge (Spencer, 1874; Ward, 1883), and in 1905, the American Society of Sociology was formed. National organizations promoting medicine (1847), history (1884), chemistry (1875), physics (1899), psychology (1892), and economics (1885) emerged in the later part of the 19th century as these new sciences became part of universities and public discourse. Criminology had a longer period of formation. In 1885, Raffaele Garofalo (a student of Lombroso) published Criminology, in which he used the word criminology to refer to the science of explaining crime (Garofalo, 1885/1968). A series of books written in the late 1800s established criminology as a field of study, but, unlike other social sciences, this did not become reflected in the structure of disciplines in universities; neither did national or international organizations emerge to promote this field of social science. It would not be until the 1940s that these signs of a new science of crime and justice would emerge (the American Society of Criminology was founded as an association of police professors in 1941, and the first American School of Criminology was opened in 1950 at the University of California, Berkeley). What happened during this 50-year period between the time criminology was recognized as a field of study and it became organized professionally and in universities? The answer to this question requires us to explore how explanations of crime developed after Lombroso and how Beccaria became central to the new field of criminology.
The Development of Criminological Theories of Crime
For almost two centuries after Beccaria’s (1764/1963) work, criminologists did not pay consistent and organized attention to the criminal justice system; instead, the tradition of criminology begun by Lombroso—the search for the causes of crime—was the focus of criminology until the last half of the 20th century. This period of search for the causes of crime passed through four distinct phases of theoretical development: (1) single-factor reductionism, (2) systemic reductionism, (3) multidisciplinary theories, and (4) interdisciplinary theory. Today, interdisciplinary theory stands as the dominant model for explaining crime (and other human behaviors). Criminology today rests on two foundations: (1) the interdisciplinary explanation of crime and (2) the analysis of the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Both of these fundamental aspects of criminology are informed by (as Beccaria [1764/1963], Lombroso , and Sutherland  had called for) by the application of scientific methods.
In its initial formulation, Lombroso (1876) argued that all crime could be explained by one factor: a failure of evolution. No other variable or dimension needed to be considered to understand the range of crimes and/or the types of criminals. The theory was parsimonious to the extreme; this single factor could explain crime. Soon, others began to identify other single-factor explanations for crime: Mental illness (or, as it was called then, “feeblemindedness”; Dugdale, 1877), bad families, the loss of faith or religion, and other explanations were offered not as parts of a comprehensive explanation but as the explanation of crime—with all influences reduced to this one factor. This approach quickly collapsed as the study of persons who committed crime began to identify a wide range of characteristics that appeared to distinguish criminals from noncriminals. This led to the next two approaches to developing theories of criminal behavior: (1) systemic reductionism and (2) multidisciplinary approaches. Although they occurred simultaneously, the greater influence was made by systemic reductionism, for reasons now discussed.
As noted earlier, there was a period of over 50 years between the time when criminology emerged as a field of study and when it was institutionalized in universities and with its own professional organizations. During this period, in the United States, criminology was contained in almost all instances in sociology departments. As such, during this period the explanation of crime causation was constrained by the sociological system of knowledge. Systemic reductionism (i.e., explaining a phenomenon from a singular knowledge system or discipline perspective) expanded beyond sociology, but it was the sociological perspective that dominated criminological theory for many years and even today is the dominant theoretical perspective. The importance of systemic reductionism can be seen in many criminological textbooks that organize the discussion of crime causation into a series of sections—sociological explanations, psychological explanations, and biological explanations—each presented as if these systems of knowledge were unrelated to each other and each providing competing ways of explaining crime.
Why did this capture of the study of crime by sociology, which all the early thinkers recognized as having a multitude of explanations, occur? Most likely it occurred because of the way sociology developed at the University of Chicago, the birthplace of American sociology. Here, sociology (the Chicago School) was the study of urban development and the problems associated with such development. It made perfect sense to locate the study of crime in such a field of study and, once located, it is not surprising that the theories that came to dominate criminology were sociological in nature. The biology and psychology of crime were greatly minimized, and instead crime was seen as a function of community, family, school, and the other socializing institutions. The explanation of crime became the explanation of crime rate differences within the city, across class levels, and between recent immigrants and less recent immigrants. Criminals were disproportionately found in poverty and in homes and friendships that saw criminal behavior as a reasonable response to their social location. As Dennis Wrong (1961) observed near the end of this period of theory in criminology, the sociological systemic reductionism presented an “oversocialized conception” of human behavior that largely ignored personality and biology.
This is not to suggest that this period made no contributions to understanding crime. The focus on variation in crime rates introduced issues of critical importance to understanding crime. The development of theories such as differential association (Sutherland, 1934, which offered a social learning explanation), anomie (Merton, 1938, which explained crime concentrations in the lower class as a result of a cultural condition), culture conflict (Sellin, 1934, which suggested that crime clustered in groups going through a transition from one culture to another), social disorganization (Shaw & McKay, 1942, which explained crime in poor areas as a result of the relative absence of family and community controls on behavior), and labeling (Schur, 1971, which argued for the criminogenic effect of designating people as criminals) have proven to be valuable in the development of more comprehensive theories of crime and theory-based crime interventions. All of these approaches persist today in only slightly modified forms or as the parts of more complex explanations. The essential element in sociological systemic reductionism is that crime is clustered in the lower class, and therefore there is something in this social situation that accounts for the higher rates of crime. According to systemic reductionism, the individual offender was considered a reflection of his or her social situation.
Of course, sociologists were not the only ones interested in the causes of crime. While sociology was dominating the study of crime in universities, psychologists, biologists, and others were considering how their disciplines or theoretical perspectives would explain such behavior. Furthermore, it became clear that these other perspectives offered reasonable approaches as well as some research that demonstrated that the approach had some level of empirical support. Gradually, a model of crime explanation emerged that is still with us today, especially in standard criminological texts: the multidisciplinary explanationof criminal behavior. This approach argues that people become criminals because of a set of explanations drawn from all of the social and behavioral sciences, including biology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and sociology. Only by using all of these perspectives can one understand criminal behavior. This can be seen in contemporary criminological texts that have separate chapters on each of these approaches to explaining crime. Of course, multidisciplinary approaches are not theories at all, but instead are the search for the set of causal variables that explain the greatest amount of variation in the occurrence of criminal behavior.
The most prominent practitioners of multidisciplinary criminology were Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. In a series of longitudinal studies they sought to find the factors that “unraveled” juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior.
Sheldon Glueck was a lawyer with little advanced education in the social and behavioral sciences. Although Eleanor had that education, it was Sheldon who formulated their approach to research and theory. Working in a law school setting, they pursued an empirically based way to predict and explain criminal law violations of juveniles and adults. The Gluecks made a particularly clear statement of their position and their rejection of systemic reductionism:
It is common knowledge that the great majority of children growing up in urban slums do not become delinquents despite the depravations of a vicious environment, despite the fact that they and their parents have not had access to fruitful economic opportunities, despite the fact that they are swimming around in the same antisocial subculture in which delinquents and gang members are said to thrive. Why? (Glueck & Glueck, 1968, p. 25)
The Gluecks’s position was that the then-dominant sociological approach could not explain the empirical reality that most of the individuals who grow up in high-crime areas are not criminal. Their focus was on explaining why a few in those areas became, and in some cases remained for many years, offenders while others did not. To answer this question, they sought to find out what distinguished the law violator from the non-law violator when both came from the same deprived social conditions. To do this they studied similarly socially situated individuals, looking for shared characteristics that distinguished them. Drawing on what they considered the best possible sources of explanation, they considered biological factors (e.g., body type), psychological differences, family structure, parent behavior differences, and school factors to predict and understand the occurrence of delinquent and criminal behaviors. In all of their works the Gluecks sought to identify the specific set of factors that accounted for the fact that individuals faced with the same difficult social conditions would behave differently.
Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck sought to move the study of criminal behavior out of the sole domain of sociology and make it at least multidisciplinary. They did this by showing the empirical relationship between criminal behavior and a number of factors drawn from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. However, their work did not produce a coherent theory of crime that went beyond their empirical results—it did produce a widely used (for a time) scale to predict delinquency and focus prevention and intervention efforts, and it did force criminologists to begin to recognize that disciplines other than sociology would be needed to develop a comprehensive explanation of the criminal behavior of individuals.
Criminology as a separate field of study emerges when the model underlying the explanation of criminal behavior becomes interdisciplinary. Only then does an intellectual justification for a separate field of study in universities exist that is compelling enough to support such a development. Today, the leading journal in criminology—the Journal of the American Society of Criminology—has as its subtitle An Interdisciplinary Journal; a clear statement of the importance of this perspective to criminology.
What, however, is meant by interdisciplinary theory? Most obviously, this approach assumes that more than one discipline is needed to explain criminal behavior. Any approach to explanation that is built on one discipline is by definition incomplete. However, if we have only explanations based on the accumulation of variables from different disciplines, then we have what the Gluecks proposed: multidisciplinary explanations. So, an interdisciplinary theory goes beyond the assembly of contributions of different disciplines and integrates the contributions of these different disciplines into a coherent theory of criminal behavior. This approach emphasizes bringing perspectives together, not the competition of perspectives to see which one is “right.”
Interdisciplinary theory assumes there is a role for biological, psychological, social, and cultural explanations but that the relationships among these perspectives is as important and that no perspective can totally explain the influence of another perspective. Thus, interdisciplinary theory can be expected not only to contain elements of all of the explanatory perspectives but also to go beyond that to identify how each level of explanation influences, but does not eliminate, each other level of explanation. For example, the question is not whether nature or nurture causes crime but rather how they interact to account for individual variations in criminal behavior. It is not a question of why does poverty seem to be associated with higher crime rates but rather how do individual development and poverty interact to explain why some people are delinquent and others are not. Each dimension of explanation is to a degree irreducible, and each is related to and influences the other.
One of the most influential theories in criminology today is developmental or life course theories.7 These are good examples of how interdisciplinary theory is emerging as the dominant paradigm in the field. Robert Sampson (2001) suggested that this approach to theory is “best introduced by considering the questions it asks,” which he identifies as including the following:
- Why and when do most juveniles stop offending? • What factors explain desistance from crime and delinquency?
- Are some delinquents destined to become persistent criminals in adulthood?
- Is there, in fact, such a thing as a life-course-persistent offender?
- What explains the stability of offending?
One of the early contributors to this approach, Terrie Moffitt (2001), addressed these questions by hypothesizing that there were two patterns of antisocial behavior: (1) life course persistent, in which the offender started early and maintained his or her involvement in antisocial behavior throughout the life course, and (2) adolescent limited, in which the offender’s antisocial behavior emerges and ends during that period of the life course. Moffitt observed that the persistent pattern results from “childhood neuropsychological problems interacting cumulatively with their criminogenic environments producing a pathological personality” (p. 92), whereas the adolescent limited pattern is the result of “a contemporary maturity gap [that] encourages teens to mimic antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive” (p. 93). Biology, psychology, and social levels of explanation clearly are evident even in this summary statement of her work. This is characteristic of efforts to answer the questions posed by Sampson (2001) and is a central characteristic of life course theory. For this reason, this approach offers a framework for criminology to move closer to an interdisciplinary theory of criminal behavior that will more fully justify the emergence of the field as a new discipline in the social and behavioral sciences.
Criminology Emerges as a Separate Field of Study
The emergence of criminology as a separate academic and research field is an issue discussed earlier in this chapter. This occurred at two universities: the University of California at Berkeley and Michigan State University. Neither focused on what had occupied criminologists for over 60 years: the explanation of criminal behavior; instead, both emerged to address the issue of the need for better educated police officers.
The effort at the University of California was led by the now-legendary figure in American policing, August Vollmer. Albert Morris (1975), in his history of the American Society of Criminology, described Vollmer as follows:
Probably the most widely known and most innovative police chief in American police history, August Vollmer (1876-1955) had been Marshal of Berkeley (1905-1909), the first Police Chief of Berkeley (1909-1932), and Professor of Police Administration at the University of California at Berkeley (1932-1937), and was widely sought as a consultant in police administration. He was physically an imposing person (6′4″ tall and weighing about 190 lbs.) who always seemed to be in top physical condition. He was a broadly informed and creative man with a contagious enthusiasm for making police work a profession, with a highly trained core of persons who had college degrees and who could teach at the college level. As early as 1916, Vollmer, in collaboration with law professor Alexander Marsden Kidd, developed a summer session program in criminology at the Berkeley campus in which courses were given from 1916 to 1931, with the exception of the 1927 session. (p. 32)
Vollmer taught courses at Berkeley, helped form a major offered in political science at Berkeley in the middle 1930s, joined the faculty in 1932, and led the development of first School of Criminology in the United States founded at Berkeley in 1950. For Vollmer, the primary purpose of his efforts was to educate police officers who could lead the professionalization of policing. It was Vollmer who in 1941 convened a meeting at his home that led to the creation of the National Association of College Police Training Officials, which later became the Society for the Advancement of Criminology and is today the American Society of Criminology. The purpose of the organization and the academic programs that participated in its founding was stated as follows (Morris, 1975):
- To associate officials engaged in professional police training at the college level
- To standardize the various police training curricula
- To standardize, insofar as possible, the subject matter of similar courses in the various schools
- To keep abreast of recent developments and to foster research
- To disseminate information
- To elevate standards of police service
- To stimulate the formation of police training schools in colleges throughout the nation
As an academic enterprise at Berkeley, criminology began with a focus on the criminal justice system and, more specifically, the training of police.
The story at Michigan State University was similar. Founded in 1935, the School of Criminal Justice is the program with the longest history of continuous degree granting in the field. Led by the efforts of LeMoyne Snyder (a doctor and son of a former president of Michigan State) and in cooperation with the Michigan State Patrol, the university approved a new department and major in 1935 that was to educate current and potential police officers in administration and law. As stated in 1935 (Brandstetter, 1989), the new dean of the program summarized it as follows:
The graduates of the course be, first of all, well-trained college men with fundamental training in English and the sciences—both physical and social. That over-specialization be avoided in the first three years of training. That students be given instruction in criminal law and evidence. That the third year of training be given to a general survey in police science and administration. That after approximately three years of training at the college, intensive training at the State Police—along special lines for which his earlier training has fitted him. That four years of military science be required so the student may become trained in military discipline. (Brandstetter, 1989)
Educated police were the goal of the program. The professionalization of policing was the ultimate goal of the effort. As an academic enterprise, criminology emerged with a much closer connection to the goals of Beccaria than it did to the goals of Lombroso. The tension between training and education is clear in both programs, but the focus on education in the Michigan State program set the standard for all academic programs that followed.
While the professional organization for criminology was changing from a focus on policing, the new field of criminology was also changing. When the program at Florida State University was formed in the 1950s, it covered causes of crime, policing, corrections, and criminal law, with an emphasis on science and research as a comprehensive criminology program that would serve as a model for others throughout the country. In 1957, the professional organization changed its name again to the American Society of Criminology, to reflect the growing breadth of the field and the organization.
So, criminology began at two state universities in the 1930s, and by the 1950s was emerging at other, predominantly public, universities. In 20 years, it has changed from police education to a new field that includes the two great traditions of criminology: (1) a concern with the causes of crime and the improvement of the criminal justice system and (2) a reliance on science as the method to understand causes and identify improvements. Still, the field had not yet fully found its identity. Note that Berkeley’s program is a School of Criminology, Michigan State’s is a School of Criminal Justice, and Florida State’s also is a School of Criminology. In the 1970s and 1980s, the model program was at Albany University, the School of Criminal Justice, whereas in the 1990s and 2000s, the most prominent program has been the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Although the names differ, a look at their programs, research, careers of graduates, and faculty reveals much similarity. Why, then, do the programs have different names?
In the 1960s, crime became a focus of national attention and federal legislation and funding. The goal was to reduce crime through more effective criminal justice. For some people in the political world, criminology was associated with causation (“root causes”), treatment of offenders, and being “soft” on crime. This position was enhanced when the School of Criminology at the University of California at Berkeley became a center for radical, left criminology and was closed by the university. As the field grew, in part fueled by the growing national interest in crime and federal funding, criminal justice became a more acceptable name than criminology. However, as the field matured and the role of criminology became clearer, the use of the name criminology and criminal justice emerged as a clear statement that the field addressed both foundations of the field—causes of crime and criminal justice improvements. Now Beccaria and Lombroso could be seen as the founders of a field that lived up to Sutherland’s (1939) definition of a body that scientifically studied the making of law, the breaking of law, and society’s reaction to lawbreaking. Today, even a brief perusal of the program of the meetings of the American Society of Criminology reveals that the field encompasses just about every aspect of crime and justice but always with a concern for the scientific rigor of the enterprise.
The Making of Law
Although Beccaria had a clearly formulated theory of lawmaking, we have not seen much concern with this topic in this account of the development of criminology. Whereas the theory of law has not been a focus of criminology, the making of law has been. Criminology in all of its primary forms is concerned with lawbreaking. However, we know that criminal law is not a scientific concept; instead, it is a legal or political creation. No other science is like criminology in that its basic object of study is defined external to the field of study. Legislatures do not define elements of the atom, groups, interactions, or economic behavior, but they do define crime and those definitions vary through time and space. To some people this means that a science of criminology is not possible; to others, it simply defines another set of issues for criminology to address, including “What is crime?” Three distinct approaches to answering this question are found in the history of criminology: (1) legalistic, (2) sociological, and (3) social legal.
During most of the time that the field of criminology was being developed, people assumed that crime was behavior that had been judged to be a violation of the criminal law—the legalistic approach. This was perhaps most clearly expressed by Paul Tappan (1947) when he observed that “Crime is an intentional act in violation of the criminal law (statutory and case law), committed without defense or excuse, and penalized by the state as a felony or misdemeanor” (p. 12). Related to this approach to defining crime is the position that the criminal is only known when a “duly constituted authority of the state” (Tappan, 1947) determines that the person has violated the law. Only when convicted is a person a criminal. Thus, any behavior that was prohibited by statute and judged to have occurred by a duly constituted authority was deemed a crime and the object of criminological study. Obviously, in this approach crime is empirically easy to measure but suffers from the relativity of the criminal law and the operation of the criminal justice system. Explanations of crime would have to be relative to the legal system and historical period and could not have the standing of scientific (i.e., universal) explanations.
During the period when sociology dominated criminology, another approach was suggested that was thought to avoid the political and relative nature of criminal law—the sociological approach. Most clearly articulated by Thorsten Sellin (1938), the approach suggests that criminology should broaden its scope and consider all conduct norm violations. Sellin observed that “confinement to the study of crime and criminals and the acceptance of categories of specific forms of crime and criminal as laid down in law renders criminological research invalid from the point of view of science” (p. 4). He suggested that instead criminologists should seek to understand any variation from normative behavior. Although this approach avoided the political nature of law, it introduced an even more relative dependent variable for the field and all but eliminated the connection between studies of causation and crime prevention and control. Needless to say, this approach has not been widely followed in criminology.
The social legal approach offers a way to avoid the problems of the other two approaches to defining crime and the object of criminological study. It begins with the observation that some behaviors must be controlled by the state if society is to function and exist. Killing, sexually and otherwise assaulting, and stealing between citizens must be controlled if a society is to exist. Edwin Lemert (1972) observed the following:
Human interaction always occurs within limits: biological, psychological, ecological, technological, and organizational. These explain why certain general kinds of behavior are more likely to be deemed undesirable than others. Practically all societies in varying degrees and ways disapprove of incest, adultery, promiscuity, cruelty to children, laziness, disrespect for parents and elders, murder, rape, theft, lying and cheating … certain kinds of actions are likely to judged deleterious in any context … It is not so much that these violate rules, it is that they destroy, downgrade, or jeopardize values universal in nature. (p. 5)
Thus, criminal laws can be divided into at least two categories: (1) those that seek to control behaviors that must be controlled if the society is to exist (e.g., homicide) and (2) those whose regulation reflects the values and political decisions at a certain place and time (e.g., drug offenses). Criminologists are not terribly concerned with the origins of the former, but they are very much interested in understanding why other behaviors are criminalized and whether criminalizing these behaviors contributes to more or less crime. Connected to social legal approach to the definition of crime is the contention that the best way to measure crime and criminals is by direct observation or questioning. You do not rely on the criminal justice system to measure the level of crime (e.g., from reports to police) but instead ask the public directly about their experiences with crime (e.g., victimization studies). Similarly, you do not determine who is criminal by the operation of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest or conviction) but instead by seeking direct evidence of the behavior (e.g., self-report studies). This is particularly important to the task of studying the differential application of the law to segments of the population. What is labeled here the social legal approach to law and crime is the dominant view in criminology today, although much criminological research violates this perspective and accepts the easier means of measurement: official data.
The Future of Criminology and Criminal Justice
During the past 40 years, criminology has emerged as one of the most dynamic social sciences and certainly the fastest growing. Today, it stands on clear foundations of commitment to scientific rigor, interdisciplinary theory of crime, and improving the operation and “justness” of the criminal justice system. It stands firmly on the shoulders of many individuals, most importantly Beccaria and Lombroso. Although federal funding for criminological research has diminished in recent years, there is every reason to believe that it will increase as the role of criminology in preventing and controlling crime through theory and evidence-based approaches becomes more widely known and appreciated.
Few major initiatives in criminal law and criminal justice during this period have been developed without significant criminological involvement. Hot-spots policing, problem-oriented policing, crime mapping and analysis, sentencing guidelines, specialized courts, sex offender programming, effective models of rehabilitation, reentry programs, problems of eyewitness identifications, procedures for police lineups and interrogations, the role of DNA in courts and policing—the list goes on and on. The point is that criminology is making a difference. As long as it continues to be rigorous in methods, interdisciplinary in approach, and guided by a commitment to justice, it will flourish and continue its emergence as a vital scientific enterprise.