History of Criminology

IV. The Development of Criminological Theories of Crime

For almost two centuries after Beccaria’s (1764/1963) work, criminologists did not pay consistent and organized attention to the criminal justice system; instead, the tradition of criminology begun by Lombroso—the search for the causes of crime—was the focus of criminology until the last half of the 20th century. This period of search for the causes of crime passed through four distinct phases of theoretical development: (1) single-factor reductionism, (2) systemic reductionism, (3) multidisciplinary theories, and (4) interdisciplinary theory. Today, interdisciplinary theory stands as the dominant model for explaining crime (and other human behaviors). Criminology today rests on two foundations: (1) the interdisciplinary explanation of crime and (2) the analysis of the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Both of these fundamental aspects of criminology are informed by (as Beccaria [1764/1963], Lombroso [1876], and Sutherland [1939] had called for) by the application of scientific methods.

A. Single-Factor Reductionism

In its initial formulation, Lombroso (1876) argued that all crime could be explained by one factor: a failure of evolution. No other variable or dimension needed to be considered to understand the range of crimes and/or the types of criminals. The theory was parsimonious to the extreme; this single factor could explain crime. Soon, others began to identify other single-factor explanations for crime: Mental illness (or, as it was called then, “feeblemindedness”; Dugdale, 1877), bad families, the loss of faith or religion, and other explanations were offered not as parts of a comprehensive explanation but as the explanation of crime—with all influences reduced to this one factor. This approach quickly collapsed as the study of persons who committed crime began to identify a wide range of characteristics that appeared to distinguish criminals from noncriminals. This led to the next two approaches to developing theories of criminal behavior: (1) systemic reductionism and (2) multidisciplinary approaches. Although they occurred simultaneously, the greater influence was made by systemic reductionism, for reasons now discussed.

B. Systemic Reductionism

As noted earlier, there was a period of over 50 years between the time when criminology emerged as a field of study and when it was institutionalized in universities and with its own professional organizations. During this period, in the United States, criminology was contained in almost all instances in sociology departments. As such, during this period the explanation of crime causation was constrained by the sociological system of knowledge. Systemic reductionism (i.e., explaining a phenomenon from a singular knowledge system or discipline perspective) expanded beyond sociology, but it was the sociological perspective that dominated criminological theory for many years and even today is the dominant theoretical perspective. The importance of systemic reductionism can be seen in many criminological textbooks that organize the discussion of crime causation into a series of sections— sociological explanations, psychological explanations, and biological explanations—each presented as if these systems of knowledge were unrelated to each other and each providing competing ways of explaining crime.

Why did this capture of the study of crime by sociology, which all the early thinkers recognized as having a multitude of explanations, occur? Most likely it occurred because of the way sociology developed at the University of Chicago, the birthplace of American sociology. Here, sociology (the Chicago School) was the study of urban development and the problems associated with such development. It made perfect sense to locate the study of crime in such a field of study and, once located, it is not surprising that the theories that came to dominate criminology were sociological in nature. The biology and psychology of crime were greatly minimized, and instead crime was seen as a function of community, family, school, and the other socializing institutions. The explanation of crime became the explanation of crime rate differences within the city, across class levels, and between recent immigrants and less recent immigrants. Criminals were disproportionately found in poverty and in homes and friendships that saw criminal behavior as a reasonable response to their social location. As Dennis Wrong (1961) observed near the end of this period of theory in criminology, the sociological systemic reductionism presented an “oversocialized conception” of human behavior that largely ignored personality and biology.

This is not to suggest that this period made no contributions to understanding crime. The focus on variation in crime rates introduced issues of critical importance to understanding crime. The development of theories such as differential association (Sutherland, 1934, which offered a social learning explanation), anomie (Merton, 1938, which explained crime concentrations in the lower class as a result of a cultural condition), culture conflict (Sellin, 1934, which suggested that crime clustered in groups going through a transition from one culture to another), social disorganization (Shaw & McKay, 1942, which explained crime in poor areas as a result of the relative absence of family and community controls on behavior), and labeling (Schur, 1971, which argued for the criminogenic effect of designating people as criminals) have proven to be valuable in the development of more comprehensive theories of crime and theory-based crime interventions. All of these approaches persist today in only slightly modified forms or as the parts of more complex explanations. The essential element in sociological systemic reductionism is that crime is clustered in the lower class, and therefore there is something in this social situation that accounts for the higher rates of crime. According to systemic reductionism, the individual offender was considered a reflection of his or her social situation.