Criminology as Social Science

III. The Origins and Scientific Maturation of Criminology

Historical concern with crime is traceable to ancient Babylonia and the Code of Hammurabi, as well as biblical times, as evidenced by Old Testament dictates on restitution and the proportionality of punishment. Whereas such early edicts on infraction and punishment informed understanding of social control and justice, the origins of contemporary criminology stem from the Enlightenment period of the late 18th century, particularly the social and intellectual reforms then underway in western Europe. Philosophers from this period, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke, observed the superiority of reasoning based on direct experience and observation over subscription to faith and superstition that characterized collective opinion throughout the feudal era. Prior to this shift toward logic, crime was addressed informally within and between families whose recognition of justice was largely equated with realization of revenge (Larson, 1984).

The family-revenge model of justice, as observed in multigenerational feuds between Scottish clans, presented social-order maintenance and governing problems for feudal lords whose solutions were trial by battle and then trial by ordeal. Under trial by battle, either the victim or a member of the victim’s family would fight the offender or a member of his or her family; under trial by ordeal, the accused was subjected to some “test” that would indicate guilt or innocence, such as running through a gauntlet or being repeatedly dunked in water while bound by rope. Both approaches were vested in the spiritual notion of divine intervention. In battle, God would grant victory to the innocent side and likewise protect the falsely accused during trial by ordeal, as in the biblical report of protection afforded the prophet Daniel in the lions’ den (J. M. Miller, Schreck, & Tewksbury, 2008).

Obviously, these methods failed to effect justice relative to a person’s true guilt or innocence, instead yielding outcomes specific to a person’s fighting ability, the capability to withstand various kinds of torture, or simply luck. The idea of being controlled by an evil spirit or that one’s criminal behavior is attributable to the influence of the devil or some other “dark” force has long been a basis by which people have attempted to account for the unexplainable. Examples from early U.S. history include the Salem witch trials, wherein crime and deviance problems that could not be solved through actual facts and inquiry were attributed to witchcraft and demonic possession. The origins, for example, of “correctional” institutions in Philadelphia by Quakers who believed that isolation, labor, and Bible reading would result in repentance, reflect an early spiritually based form of rehabilitation. The term penitentiary, in fact, refers to institutions where society’s crime problems were addressed through religious conversion and illustrates belief in spirituality as a source of and solution to crime. Although the Enlightenment period introduced a novel logic alternative to spiritual explanations, spirituality continued to affect interpretations of both crime causation and systems of justice for several centuries and is still relevant to current crime policy, as indicated by faith-based prevention and rehabilitation programming (Allen, 2003).

Although the Enlightenment period did not completely end the belief that spirituality affects crime, the momentum of experience-based reasoning led to a general view of social life and human behavior that served as a forerunner to criminology. One of the primary concepts from this era that was important for the development of criminology is the idea of the social contract. First introduced by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the social contract involves the sacrifice of some personal freedom through internalization of law and endorsement of formal social control in exchange for protection and the benefit of all. For example, it is likely that either alone or with the aid of a friend you could forcibly take personal property, such as a wallet, purse, or textbook, from someone on an almost daily basis. Similarly, there is likely an individual or group that could forcibly take your property. Despite these obvious realities, everyone generally enjoys freedom of movement with peace and safety. By sacrificing your ability to take what you might from others, you are protected from similar victimization. This trade-off of loss of potential gain through limiting free will in exchange for law and order is an oversimplified example of the social contract (J. M. Miller et al., 2008).

As a result of the Enlightenment period, then, superstitionand spirituality-based orientations to crime were uprooted by innovative ways of thinking that emphasized relationships between criminal behavior and punishment. This newer approach, exemplified in the writings of the Italian Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and the Englishman Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), is known as the classical school of criminology, a perspective around which criminology would solidify and develop (Bierne, 1993). Notionally grounded in the concepts of deterrence and the dimensions of punishment (certainty, severity, and celerity), the classical school is significant for the development of criminological thought in at least two respects. First, crime was no longer believed to be a function of religion, superstition, or myth—views that largely placed the problem of crime beyond human control. Second, crime was seen as the result of free will. Viewing crime as a function of free will—in essence, as decision making—meant that it could now be explained as an outcome of rational choice. The ideation of rational thought (a calculation of gains vs. risks) suggests that crime is logically related to the elements impacting the decision to offend, such as the amount and relative value of criminal proceeds and the likelihood of detection, arrest, and conviction. The principles of the classical school, revised by legal reformers (neoclassicists) and now referred to as rational choice theory, continue to influence both the study of criminal behavior and the nature of formal social control as the criminal justice system continues in the attempt to achieve deterrence as one of its primary objectives (Paternoster & Brame, 1997).

Paradigm (i.e., model or school of thought) shifts are common to the history of all academic disciplines, and criminology is no exception. A new philosophy began emerging in Europe during the 19th century that first emphasized the application of the scientific method. This perspective, known as positivism, stressed the identification of patterns and consistencies in observable facts (Bryant, 1985). It was believed that, by examining known patterns, causes of behavior could be determined that would enable predictions about outcomes when certain conditions exist. For example, one can ascertain a pattern of comparatively high criminality in the lower socioeconomic class. Given the absence of other intervening factors, one can predict a rise in lower class criminality if a sharp increase in unemployment affects unskilled laborers. Regardless of whether this relationship is true, this line of thinking differs from the classical school’s attention to free-will decision making, positing crime instead as a manifestation of factors external to and often beyond the control of individuals. Criminology did not move straight from a free-will orientation to endorsement of external influences; in between these perspectives was an era dominated by determinism.

Determinism takes the position that human behavior is caused by factors specific to the individual, such as biological and psychological traits. Perhaps the most famous figure associated with determinism in the context of criminality is Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), whose “criminal type” illustrated in his influential work Criminal Man (1863) suggests that some people, such as convicted murderer and notorious contract killer, who has been featured in several HBO documentaries, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski (1935–2006), are simply born criminals. Lombroso’s work, furthered by his student Raffaele Garofalo (1851–1934), was essential to viewing crime in a newer, more scientific light. As criminology continued to develop, determinism became more broadly viewed, with the inclusion of environmental and community criminogenic influences. In the evolution of American criminology, positivism began replacing the classical approach to crime during the 1920s, largely due to the rise of the Chicago School, a movement resulting from a series of seminal studies conducted by staff of the University of Chicago sociology department. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the Chicago School demonstrated that crime is largely a function of ecology, in particular the social disorganization that characterizes much of urban life.

The social ecological approach to crime is less concerned with the ways in which criminals and noncriminals differ in terms of intelligence, physical characteristics, or personality and more attentive to economic disadvantage, community cohesion, collective efficacy, and social stability. The Chicago School crime studies of Shaw and McKay (1942), Merton (1938), and Sutherland (1939) grounded U.S. criminology in sociology and established a dominant paradigm, or model of inquiry, oriented toward specifying environmental and community-level causes of crime and delinquency (e.g., Kornhauser, 1978). American criminology since its inception, then, has been conceptualized in theoretical terms—a perspective that has very much shaped its maturation. Although theory is vital to criminology in terms of justifying scientific status, confirmation of hypotheses (i.e., empirical proof) is also necessary and, as discussed in the next section, engaged through an intellectual process of theory–methods symmetry.

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