History of Criminology

C. Multidisciplinary Approaches

Of course, sociologists were not the only ones interested in the causes of crime.While sociology was dominating the study of crime in universities, psychologists, biologists, and others were considering how their disciplines or theoretical perspectives would explain such behavior. Furthermore, it became clear that these other perspectives offered reasonable approaches as well as some research that demonstrated that the approach had some level of empirical support. Gradually, a model of crime explanation emerged that is still with us today, especially in standard criminological texts: the multidisciplinary explanation of criminal behavior. This approach argues that people become criminals because of a set of explanations drawn from all of the social and behavioral sciences, including biology, psychology, anthropology, economics, and sociology. Only by using all of these perspectives can one understand criminal behavior. This can be seen in contemporary criminological texts that have separate chapters on each of these approaches to explaining crime. Of course, multidisciplinary approaches are not theories at all, but instead are the search for the set of causal variables that explain the greatest amount of variation in the occurrence of criminal behavior.

The most prominent practitioners of multidisciplinary criminology were Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. In a series of longitudinal studies they sought to find the factors that “unraveled” juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior. Sheldon Glueck was a lawyer with little advanced education in the social and behavioral sciences. Although Eleanor had that education, it was Sheldon who formulated their approach to research and theory.Working in a law school setting, they pursued an empirically based way to predict and explain criminal law violations of juveniles and adults. The Gluecks made a particularly clear statement of their position and their rejection of systemic reductionism:

It is common knowledge that the great majority of children growing up in urban slums do not become delinquents despite the depravations of a vicious environment, despite the fact that they and their parents have not had access to fruitful economic opportunities, despite the fact that they are swimming around in the same antisocial subculture in which delinquents and gang members are said to thrive. Why? (Glueck & Glueck, 1968, p. 25)

The Gluecks’s position was that the then-dominant sociological approach could not explain the empirical reality that most of the individuals who grow up in high-crime areas are not criminal. Their focus was on explaining why a few in those areas became, and in some cases remained for many years, offenders while others did not. To answer this question, they sought to find out what distinguished the law violator from the non–law violator when both came from the same deprived social conditions. To do this they studied similarly socially situated individuals, looking for shared characteristics that distinguished them. Drawing on what they considered the best possible sources of explanation, they considered biological factors (e.g., body type), psychological differences, family structure, parent behavior differences, and school factors to predict and understand the occurrence of delinquent and criminal behaviors. In all of their works the Gluecks sought to identify the specific set of factors that accounted for the fact that individuals faced with the same difficult social conditions would behave differently.

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck sought to move the study of criminal behavior out of the sole domain of sociology and make it at least multidisciplinary. They did this by showing the empirical relationship between criminal behavior and a number of factors drawn from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. However, their work did not produce a coherent theory of crime that went beyond their empirical results—it did produce a widely used (for a time) scale to predict delinquency and focus prevention and intervention efforts, and it did force criminologists to begin to recognize that disciplines other than sociology would be needed to develop a comprehensive explanation of the criminal behavior of individuals.