Critical criminology is an umbrella term for a variety of criminological theories and perspectives that challenge core assumptions of mainstream (or conventional) criminology in some substantial way and provide alternative approaches to understanding crime and its control. Mainstream criminology is sometimes referred to by critical criminologists as establishment, administrative, managerial, correctional, or positivistic criminology. Its focus is regarded as excessively narrow and predominantly directed toward individual offenders, street crime, and social engineering on behalf of the state. The critical criminological perspectives reject the claims of scientific objectivity made on behalf of mainstream criminology as well as the privileged status of the scientific method. Although some critical criminologists apply an empirical approach with the use of quantitative analysis, much critical criminology adopts an interpretive and qualitative approach to the understanding of social reality in the realm of crime and its control. The unequal distribution of power or of material resources within contemporary societies provides a unifying point of departure for all strains of critical criminology.
Critical criminologists tend to advocate some level of direct engagement with the range of social injustices so vividly exposed by their analysis and the application of theory to action, or praxis. All the different strains of critical criminology hold forth the possibility of effecting fundamental reforms or transformations within society that promote greater equality and a higher quality of life for the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised, not just the privileged members of society, and a more humane, authentic society for all. The dominant forms of social control—from policing practices to penal policies—are a common target of criticism as central to perpetuating injustices, as profoundly biased, and as counterproductive in terms of achieving positive changes in individuals as well as social conditions.
Crime and its control are major preoccupations of people everywhere. Public perceptions of crime and its control are in many respects distorted by media representations and the agendas of the governing elites. The immense significance of critical criminology, then, lies in its capacity to expose the conventional myths about crime and its control and to provide an alternative basis for understanding these tremendously consequential dimensions of our social existence.
The historical origins of critical criminology, its principal contemporary strains, and some of its major substantive concerns are identified in the paragraphs that follow. In addition, some speculation is offered regarding the future prospects of critical criminology.