Criminology as Social Science

V. Criminology as Social Science

Numerous causal explanations that constitute theoretical criminology have been developed and tested; similarly, various research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, are regularly applied in the analysis of crime phenomena. Criminology thus offers, and is defined by, theory–methods symmetry to the practice of social inquiry. Characterizing theory as scientific means that inferential claims about relationships (the observed correlations) can be falsified. Research entails gathering data according to the operationalization process so that the theory is framed for systematic observation of cause and effect. The analysis and conclusions concerning the existence, nature, and implications of relationships are then compared with the conceptual logic of the theory itself.When observations are inconsistent with the basic premises of a theory, that theory is falsified. Observations that are consistent with a theory’s statements about the relationship between cause-and-effect statements are customarily deemed more credible, but this does not mean the theory is necessarily true, because alternative theories might explain the same relationships.

Criminologists especially seek the answers to a wide range of research questions that focus on causality: Will increasing the severity of punishment lower the amount of crime in society? Do fines levied against the parents of truant children increase levels of parental responsibility and ultimately result in less truancy? Does a substance abuse treatment program in a correctional setting impact prisoners’ rate of recidivism and drug relapse? These and similar questions reflect the desire to specify causal relationships that in turn may yield implications for criminal justice practice. Causation, in the context of scientific theorizing, requires demonstration of four main elements: (1) logical basis, (2) temporal order, (3) correlation, and (4) a lack of spuriousness. These are discussed in turn in the following paragraphs.

Scientific theory, just like any type of accurate explanation, requires sound reasoning. There must be a logical basis for believing that a causal relationship exists between observable phenomena. Criminologists are not concerned with offenders’ hair or eye color when attempting to account for their behavior, for example, because there simply is no logical connection between these physical traits and criminal behavior. A second necessary element for scientific theory construction is temporal order—that is, the time sequence of cause-and-effect elements. In short, causal factors must precede outcomes, as in the relationship between religious involvement and morality crime. Faith-based initiatives are vested in the belief that religious-based programs will better social conditions, including a reduction in crime. If offenders participate in religious programs (the independent variable) and subscribe to the convictions of religious doctrine condemning behavior such as gambling, commercial sex, and recreational substance use and abuse, then a reduction in their commission of these vice crimes (the dependent variable) would appear to be a causal relationship, because the religious programming both preceded and logically prompted the decreased involvement in the specified behaviors.

Correlation, as described earlier, is a third required element of a scientific theory. Correlation, again, indicates the presence of a relationship between observable phenomena and the nature of the relationship in terms of direction and strength. The last essential element for scientific theory development involves the condition of spuriousness. Most subcultures, for example, tend to be characterized by poverty, which confuses the causal relationship between subculture and crime in that it may be poverty that causes crime, and subcultures simply emerge within impoverished groups. Alternatively, it could be that cultural values encourage behavior manifested in both poverty and crime. Thus, the relationship among subculture, poverty, and crime is spurious, because cause and effect cannot be determined. Theorists, then, must frame relationship statements that reflect an absence of spuriousness. By adhering to these four axioms, criminologists increase the likelihood or probability that relationship statements are accurate.

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