Criminology as Social Science

VI. Theoretical Praxis and the Future of Criminology

Although much of the criminological theory construction during the 1950s through the 1970s was basic research (the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake), criminologists came to observe that, once constructed and established, theoretical perspectives yield consequences, both intended and unintended, for criminals, victims, policymakers, and the general public. The idea of theoretical praxis (Shover, 1977) concerns not only the historical and cultural relativity but also, more importantly, the real-world impact of theories. Theories, once established, not only explain crime but also can significantly influence the behavior of both criminals and agents of social control.

The emergence of academic criminal justice during the 1970s has profoundly impacted criminology in both contrasting and complimentary ways. Given that criminology was primarily a specialty area within sociology and that the bulk of social control and deviance research therein (e.g., theory construction and testing) was pure, no academic discipline was postured to address crime per se, a very real and pressing concern during the late 1960s and 1970s—a period of great social unrest characterized by a failing economy, civil rights controversies, and the Vietnam conflict. Through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration Act, Congress sought to professionalize the criminal justice system with graduates of newly created “police science” and “penology” baccalaureate programs that were springing up around the nation. Established by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and abolished in 1982, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration Act was a U.S. federal agency within the U.S. Justice Department that administered federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies. Funding was provided for research, state planning agencies, local crime initiatives, and educational programs— the primary catalyst for what we know as criminal justice programs today (Morn, 1995).

Experientially based and rooted more so in public administration than social science, criminal justice programs originally focused on preparing students for practitioner and administrative careers in the prongs of the criminal justice system (policing, courts, and corrections) and were quickly dubbed a “professional” field—a somewhat pejorative term based on the atheoretical and thus unscientific nature of criminal justice. It is illogical to attempt to solve problems, social or otherwise, that have not been thoroughly defined or understood. Relatedly, the anti-crime suggestions offered by early criminal justice scientists were often based on what had proven successful in the past, with little or no concern for the scientific axioms discussed earlier. On the other hand, the most comprehensive knowledge base on crime is of little practical utility for social betterment without a real-world-applicable context.

For several decades, there has been tension between criminology and criminal justice that has witnessed the emergence of both criminology and criminal justice as independent fields of study. The future of criminology will no doubt remain rooted in theory construction and testing, but it is also obvious that increased attention will be devoted to developing best practices for policy based on these models. In this sense, criminology will likely continue to evolve from its theoretical origins, but in a manner more mindful of public policy. Whether criminology and criminal justice merge into a master discipline is doubtful, but theory will remain vital, for several reasons. It provides a scientific orientation to the phenomenon of crime, in which observations of facts are specified and classified as causes and effects. It grounds several styles of inquiry in the logic of systematic analysis. More important, the relationships between causes and effects can be identified, thus composing a knowledge base to guide decision making and planning concerning how to best address the problems presented by crime. Criminological theorizing is increasingly generating practice and policy implications and, as such, bolsters and is an integral part of applied research. Even the pure theorists, who may have no particular interest in addressing a specific crime or delinquency issue, may generate the knowledge necessary for others to modify the criminal justice system’s efforts. There is, then, a connection between theory and policy reflected in the increasing multidisciplinarity of contemporary criminology that is likely to be a major force in the future of the discipline.

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