IV. Conclusion: Theoretical and Disciplinary Integrity
In 1998,Marenin and Worrall asserted that “criminal justice is an academic discipline in practice but not yet in theory” (p. 465). Scholars in the field have not placed high value on this endeavor for two primary reasons. The first has already been discussed: Crime theory suffices. The second is more difficult to overcome: Although exploring the why of crime has prima facie importance, our field has neither articulated nor acknowledged what value theorizing criminal justice provides. Some people assume, in fact, that studying criminal justice is inherently and necessarily atheoretical because it concentrates on practice. The notion that practice can somehow be severed from theory has been thoroughly debunked in most other major fields of study (Carr & Stephens, 1986; Fay, 1977; Habermas, 1972). Theory and practice are implied in one another; no policy analysis, implementation, strategic plan, or practitioner action is devoid of theory. To deny the integral role theory plays in all these instances is to remain ignorant of its influence.
In a sense, then, theorizing criminal justice is an inherently critical endeavor providing important insights into the systems irrationalities, missteps, and disconcerting implications. Numerous criminal justice issues guide our analysis: the criminal justice apparatus’s steep growth in size, power, and punitiveness; controversial new initiatives in the wars on terrorism and drugs; and disparities in the treatment of minorities, women, and the poor. Each of these objects of study necessitates a scholarly scrutiny of immediate causes as well as their larger theoretical context (cultural, political, economic, and sociological forces). Of course, the level at which this scrutiny is carried out will vary, ranging from a critique of a single administrative practice to perhaps a wholesale critique of the criminal justice growth complex (see Table 40.1, “Growth Complex” column). Theoretically based scrutiny focused on criminal justice and crime control should not be misconstrued as inappropriately critical. It is simply approaching criminal justice as a research problem— similar to the way crime is studied.
Theorizing criminal justice phenomena should also not be viewed as an endeavor intended exclusively for practical change. Numerous scholars in the field find the study of society’s reaction to crime intellectually stimulating in and of itself—much like a biologist studies the animal kingdom or an astronomer studies the solar system (see Kraska & Neuman, 2008). The study of humans and organizations attempting to control wrongdoing (and sometimes engaging in wrongdoing while trying to control it) yields intriguing insights about the nature of society, the political landscape, and cutting-edge cultural trends. In short, how we react to crime tells us a lot about ourselves and where our society might be headed.
Theories are repositories for substantive thought; impossible-to-avoid filters for thinking through history and major contemporary issues and trends; the foundational material through which innovative solutions to problems are developed; and the backdrop for all research in the field, whether policy based, descriptive, or theoretical. Numerous contemporary scholars are beginning to study criminal justice using more modern conceptions of systems theory, social constructionism, Foucauldian theory, feminist theory, and late modernism. The time appears right for scholars in the field to begin placing a higher value on developing a theoretical infrastructure about criminal justice. Criminal justice theory should become a normalized presence in the criminal justice and criminology degree programs, its textbooks, and its doctoral training. Nothing less than our disciplinary integrity is at stake.
Read more about Criminology Theories.
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