Criminology as Social Science

IV. Theory: Methods Symmetry and Criminology’s Disciplinary Status

Science is the discovery of truths that comprise knowledge bases on particular topics. Determination of what is to be included or excluded in a knowledge base is a result of which ideas stand the test of scientific scrutiny, that is, which ideas are consistently observed in a systematic manner as factual according to real-world evidence. Accordingly, science is an outcome of theories (ideas) validated by research methods (empirical confirmation). Although leading criminological theories and many of the frequently employed research methods are treated in greater detail throughout the research papers in this category, the general nature of theory and its importance to criminology’s past, present, and future warrants a little more introductory discussion.

What exactly is theory? Perhaps the most concise definition of theory is simply “explanation.” Too often, theory is erroneously thought of as philosophy or logic that has little relevance for real-world situations. In reality, theory is a part of everyday life, an attempt to make sense and order of events that are otherwise unexplainable. Think, for example, about the following common scenario. After dating for a long time, a college couple’s relationship is abruptly ended by one of the parties. Surprised and disturbed by this sudden and unwanted change, the rejected person will usually contemplate, often at great length with the counsel of friends, the reasons or causes leading to the outcome. Even if knowing why will not change the situation, we still want to know the reasons—the sole or set of causal factors— perhaps because making sense of seemingly random events reassures us that the social world is not chaotic and arbitrary. On a more pragmatic level, knowing why things happen enables us to modify our behavior or change relevant circumstances for a more preferable outcome in the future. In the case of criminology, the more fully we understand crime, its causes, and the evolution of criminal careers, the more ostensibly enhanced is our ability to prevent victimization and reduce crime rates.

Developing explanations for everyday events, then, is a common practice that entails identifying and weighing the relevance of potential causes and effects, which is a form of theoretical construction. Although theory is useful and commonplace in everyday life, academics often refer to scientific theory. Simply put, scientific theories are a means of explaining natural occurrences through statements about the relationships between observable phenomena. Observable phenomena are specified as either a cause or an effect and then positioned in a temporally ordered relationship statement. The causes and effects are termed variables (a variable is simply something that varies and is not constant). These formal statements, which are presented as hypotheses, are formed to explain or predict how some observable factor, or a combination of factors, is related to the phenomena being examined (in the context of criminology, some aspect of crime or social control). These relationships, which form specific theories of crime, are developed according to the logic of variable analysis. This analytic strategy specifies causal elements as independent variables and effects as dependent variables.

In criminology, not surprisingly, crime itself is the foremost dependent variable. It is imperative to note that the strategy of variable analysis is not interested in explaining crime per se; that is, the objective is not to explain what crime is in a definitional, policy, or legal sense. Instead, the variable analysis process seeks to account for variation in crime. Most theories conceptualize crime as a generic dichotomy, that is, the separation of phenomena into one of two categories. When crime is the dependent variable in a theory, further scrutiny usually reveals that theorists are actually referring to either criminality or crime rate. Criminality refers to the extent and frequency of offending by a societal group, such as the young, minorities, illegal immigrants, the unemployed, or people from a certain region. Crime rate, on the other hand, refers to the level of crime in a location such as a city, county, or state. The focus on either criminality or crime rate is observable in the framing of different research questions: Why is there more homicide in Los Angeles than in San Antonio? Why are males more criminal than females?Again, the goal is not to explain or define the crime itself but rather to account for variability and fluctuation in criminality or crime rate across locales, social settings, groups, or over time.

After specifying causal and dependent variables, criminologists consider the nature of observed relationships to determine inference and possible implications. The information revealed from a theoretical proposition is interpreted by the condition of correlation: a covariance of factors or variables specified by the direction and strength of fluctuation in a dependent variable attributed to one or more independent variables. Directional correlation generally specifies either a positive or negative relationship. These terms do not mean the same thing as when used in everyday language. The expressions “My bank account is finally positive” and “She has a negative attitude” are value laden and indicate desirable and undesirable conditions. In the social sciences, a positive correlation more simply means that an independent variable and dependent variable fluctuate in the same direction, such as a group’s level of unemployment and involvement in criminal activity. A negative correlation indicates that independent and dependent variables covary in opposite directions, such as educational attainment and crime (with the obvious exception of white-collar offenses).

Consideration of the relationship between school grades and the status offense of truancy provides a clear illustration of directional correlation. Suppose a criminologist gathers data on both absences and grades from a large sample of randomly selected middle and high school students. If findings support the hypothesis that increased absences (the independent variable) bring about lower grades (the dependent variable), then a negative correlation exists, as would a decrease in absences be associated with academic improvement. In the latter scenario, the correlation, though negative in social science jargon, is the desirable outcome.

The strength of a correlation, on the other hand, specifies the degree of covariance between independent and dependent variables. For example, a gang prevention program delivered to an increased number of parents may effect only a minimal decrease in new gang affiliations. This relationship suggests an undesirable outcome, not because the correlation is negative but because the independent variable generated only little change in the dependent variable—perhaps because the parents of gang members are less likely to sincerely participate in an awareness program in the first place. The strength of a correlation is ascertained through statistical analysis, enabling the exact determination of covariance between variables as indicated by statistical significance parameters.

To analyze theoretical propositions, independent and dependent variables are transformed from a nominal or categorical to a measurable level, a conversion process known as operationalization. Operational definitions, then, enable empirical examination of cause-and-effect relationships by specifying measurable indicators for variables. How a variable is defined will affect the nature of a relationship and yield different (and possibly undesirable) implications for addressing crime. The following example of measuring recidivism demonstrates how important the measurement process is and how easily measurement error can occur.

Recidivism (repeat criminal offending) is one of the most common theoretically based dependent variables used in criminological research, especially as an effectiveness indicator for criminal justice prevention and enforcement programs. Depending on whether recidivism is being considered in a law enforcement, court, or correctional context (all three of which conduct deterrence and rehabilitation programs whose success is largely indicated by recidivism), the act of reoffending is likely to be operationally defined differently according to the immediate context. Repeat offenses are typically measured in law enforcement contexts as the rate of rearrest. Although it is seemingly natural and understandable that rearrest be used as a measure of police productivity, it falsely conveys the assumption that everyone who is rearrested will be convicted and thus potentially overestimates or exaggerates the perceived level of reoffending. Court-based operational definitions more accurately measure repeat offending as reconvictions, which is technically more consistent with legally determined official realities, but in correctional contexts reoffending is often calculated as reincarceration. Measuring reincarceration as an indicator of recidivism can also distort the true level of reoffending by not including convicted persons whose sanction did not include jail or prison time (J. M. Miller et al., 2008).

The strength and direction of correlations, then, serve the objective of determining causation, that is, whether the independent variable(s) prompt change in a dependent variable and, if so, in what manner. In order to have confidence in observed causal relationships, there must also be both specificity and accuracy in the measurement process, a methodological challenge in the study of a phenomenon that is inherently hidden, covert, and secretive.

Not all criminological research is engaged according to positivistic variable analysis toward the goal of establishing causal relations per statistical significance demonstration; instead, subjectivism exists as the foremost alternative philosophical paradigm in the social sciences. Subjectivists focus on discovery and description of the nature of criminal events; the social dynamics of group interaction in the specification and maintenance of criminal stereotypes and definitions; and the role of social forces, such as culture, that are not easily measured for variable analysis. Often referred to as fieldwork or ethnography, qualitative criminological research is vital to the overall criminological knowledge base because it enables scientific attention to realities that cannot be measured because they are unknown (e.g., the population of prostitutes in a city) or are unreachable by traditional overt criminological research methods such as surveys or official data analysis. Some qualitative criminologists, known as edge ethnographers, go so far in the research endeavor as to place themselves in active criminal settings so as to observe first hand the immediacy of crime (Ferrell & Hamm, 1998; J. M. Miller & Tewksbury, 2001).

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