History of Criminology

D. Interdisciplinary Explanations

Criminology as a separate field of study emerges when the model underlying the explanation of criminal behavior becomes interdisciplinary. Only then does an intellectual justification for a separate field of study in universities exist that is compelling enough to support such a development. Today, the leading journal in criminology—the Journal of the American Society of Criminology—has as its subtitle An Interdisciplinary Journal; a clear statement of the importance of this perspective to criminology.

What, however, is meant by interdisciplinary theory? Most obviously, this approach assumes that more than one discipline is needed to explain criminal behavior. Any approach to explanation that is built on one discipline is by definition incomplete. However, if we have only explanations based on the accumulation of variables from different disciplines, then we have what the Gluecks proposed: multidisciplinary explanations. So, an interdisciplinary theory goes beyond the assembly of contributions of different disciplines and integrates the contributions of these different disciplines into a coherent theory of criminal behavior. This approach emphasizes bringing perspectives together, not the competition of perspectives to see which one is “right.”

Interdisciplinary theory assumes there is a role for biological, psychological, social, and cultural explanations but that the relationships among these perspectives is as important and that no perspective can totally explain the influence of another perspective. Thus, interdisciplinary theory can be expected not only to contain elements of all of the explanatory perspectives but also to go beyond that to identify how each level of explanation influences, but does not eliminate, each other level of explanation. For example, the question is not whether nature or nurture causes crime but rather how they interact to account for individual variations in criminal behavior. It is not a question of why does poverty seem to be associated with higher crime rates but rather how do individual development and poverty interact to explain why some people are delinquent and others are not. Each dimension of explanation is to a degree irreducible, and each is related to and influences the other.

One of the most influential theories in criminology today is developmental or life course theories. These are good examples of how interdisciplinary theory is emerging as the dominant paradigm in the field. Robert Sampson (2001) suggested that this approach to theory is “best introduced by considering the questions it asks,” which he identifies as including the following:

  • Why and when do most juveniles stop offending?
  • What factors explain desistance from crime and delinquency?
  • Are some delinquents destined to become persistent criminals in adulthood?
  • Is there, in fact, such a thing as a life–course-persistent offender?
  • What explains the stability of offending?

One of the early contributors to this approach, Terrie Moffitt (2001), addressed these questions by hypothesizing that there were two patterns of antisocial behavior: (1) life course persistent, in which the offender started early and maintained his or her involvement in antisocial behavior throughout the life course, and (2) adolescent limited, in which the offender’s antisocial behavior emerges and ends during that period of the life course.Moffitt observed that the persistent pattern results from “childhood neuropsychological problems interacting cumulatively with their criminogenic environments producing a pathological personality” (p. 92), whereas the adolescent limited pattern is the result of “a contemporary maturity gap [that] encourages teens to mimic antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive” (p. 93). Biology, psychology, and social levels of explanation clearly are evident even in this summary statement of her work. This is characteristic of efforts to answer the questions posed by Sampson (2001) and is a central characteristic of life course theory. For this reason, this approach offers a framework for criminology to move closer to an interdisciplinary theory of criminal behavior that will more fully justify the emergence of the field as a new discipline in the social and behavioral sciences.