Criminology as Social Science

II. Defining Criminology

The terms criminology and criminologist are used rather broadly and interchangeably by the news media and in everyday popular culture expression. Criminologists are, in fact, social scientists, but frequently and erroneously they are confused with other crime-related scientific and investigative roles (e.g., forensics scientist/medical examiner, psychological criminal profiler, and ballistics specialists). Much of the confusion and definitional misunderstanding of what criminology is stems from the different functions the individuals in these roles serve. Although each role is important in the fight against crime, some are not scientific at all and certainly not social science in practice or purpose. Although a surging social science today, criminology matured through an evolutionary process of shifts in primary focus, from philosophy to crime prevention/ legal reform and then, ultimately, science.

The term criminology is attributed to the Frenchman Paul Topinard (1830–1911), who first used it during an 1889 anthropological study of criminality as a function of body types, a line of inquiry later made famous byWilliam Sheldon’s (1940) famous and controversial somatotype theory. Sheldon’s politically incorrect biological thesis, that criminal propensity is predictable according to body shape and size classifications (endomorphs, mesomorphs, ectomorphs), is still debated in popular culture outlets such as the New York Times (Nagourney, 2008) and the social science arena (Maddan,Walker, & Miller, 2008). Although criminology may have originated around physiological foci, most early philosophers of crime were concerned with the functioning of the justice systems of the 18th and 19th centuries and much-needed legal reform.

Over time, criminology has increasingly come to be understood as the study of the causes, dispersion, and nature of crime, with theoretical criminology (i.e., the relating of crime to a plethora of individual, familial, community, and environmental factors known as correlates of crime) dominating the field (Vold, Bernard, & Snipes, 2002). The rise of theoretical criminology between the 1940s and today has proven both scientifically rewarding and limiting. On the reward side is a wide range of empirically valid theories that, however, are often criticized for lack of real-world utility. Nonetheless, theoretical criminology is the cornerstone of academic criminology, both historically and today, and is the core of a young discipline that is evolving toward greater pragmatism in terms of applied criminology. An applied criminology suggests that strategies and initiatives intended to prevent and lessen crime are informed by scientifically established theoretical insights that are predictably capable of enhancing best practices within and around the criminal justice system.

The foremost pioneer of contemporary, and particularly American, criminology, Edwin Sutherland, offered what has proven to be a lasting definition, which is most often used to describe the field, in his seminal book Principles of Criminology (1939). According to Sutherland, criminology can be defined as follows:

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. These processes are three aspects of a somewhat unified sequence of interactions. (p. 1)

It is interesting to note that whereas criminology is typically considered the study of the causes and nature of crime, and is often contrasted with criminal justice, which is concerned with the response to the problem of crime, Sutherland’s famous definition clearly emphasized the significance of both. Consequently, criminology today is viewed somewhat dichotomously, with theoretical or sociological criminology denoting a focus on crime causation or the etiology of crime and applied criminology denoting work that is prevention, enforcement, or treatment oriented.

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