January 24, 2017

What is Criminology?

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Through a blend of psychology, social science and criminal justice and defense, criminology examines the nature of crimes, criminals and crime prevention methods and analyzes how they impact individuals and society as a whole.

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The Evolution of Criminology

The field is multi-faceted and diverse, with subdivisions focusing on penology, feminist criminology, criminalistics, and bio-criminology.

The field draws from an array of disciplines, including economics, statistics, biology, psychiatry, psychology and anthropology in which to study and explain the causes, impact and prevention of criminal behavior.

During the past century, criminology burgeoned and took shape under the influence of several sociologists and their various approaches to the subject.

The field of criminology is multi-faceted and diverse, with subdivisions focusing on penology, feminist criminology, criminalistics, and bio-criminology. 

The sociological approach became the most influential during the 20th century, according to’s legal dictionary. This school of thought is concerned with how social structures and environments relate to and influence incidents of crime, as well as law enforcement and corrections.

Two sub-social-structural approaches to criminology, which both share roots in Marxist theories, are Conflict and Critical.

The first theory claims it is a dualistic fallacy to divide societies into criminals and non-criminals and suggests how the general population reacts to individuals who deviate from social norms determines illegal behavior.

The other theory, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, takes a broader approach, focusing less on individuals and more on how the inherent bias found in capitalist systems makes crime inevitable.

In contrast, social-process approaches criminal behavior as something that is learned, not caused by exposure to social-structural conditions.

Prominent sociologists who studied and put forth ideas on the different methods include Edwin H. Sutherland, Walter C. Reckless and Travis Hirschi.

The Study of Criminology

While studying, students in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs research and complete coursework on numerous topics. Topics include:

  • The biological basis of criminal behavior, or bio-criminology
  • Criminal theory
  • The criminal justice system
  • Different types of crime (including personal crime, statutory crime and property crime)
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Social deviance
  • Juvenile justice
  • Public policy
  • Corrections

In addition to academic study through a degree program, exploring the field involves hands-on experience through criminal justice-related internships and on-the-job training. Even after obtaining a job in the field, criminologist candidates continue learning as assistants and subordinates.

It may take a couple of years before they move into an official criminologist role.

The Criminologist

Professional Criminologists work through local, state and federal law enforcement agencies; private companies; and research departments at universities and colleges worldwide.

Even after obtaining a job in the field, criminologist candidates continue learning as assistants and subordinates. 

Criminologists work on analyzing data and conducting research to help determine why a person committed a crime, with the ultimate goal being to find trends that help predict and deter future criminal behavior.

Not only are they concerned with isolated incidents, but they also examine different potential influences – including education, socioeconomic status, age and ethnicity – on criminal activity among various demographics and social groups.

Additionally, criminologists research the success rates of various law enforcement and corrections methods and strategies. Their findings help inform legislators, lawyers, law enforcement officials, corrections personnel and prosecutors as they develop future facilities, procedures and policies.

The Role of the Criminologist in an Investigation

On the job, criminologists spend the majority of their time in the office or laboratory to collect, analyze and log data pertinent to individual criminal investigations.

They occasionally may visit crime scenes with law enforcement officers, field agents or other members of the investigations team, but that is a less significant part of the job.

The Tools of the Criminologist

Besides historical research and academic theories on behavioral science, criminologists rely on other tools during their work.

Some of these tools include:

  • Electronic and physical databases
  • Graphs, charts and other infographics
  • Statistics, available through Uniform Crime Reports
  • Court and agency records
  • Criminal profiling resources

Criminologists use these various qualitative and quantitative tools to generate psychological analyses and profiles and detect demographical patterns of behavior.

Those interested in studying criminology have numerous resources to further their research and learn more about the field. 

Theoretical Criminology and British Journal of Criminology are academic, peer-reviewed journals available online and in print. Criminology organizations are also an effective way to connect with experts, find education opportunities and learn more about the field.

Some prominent organizations include the American Society of Criminology; the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences; the European Society of Criminology; and the American Correction Association.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs sponsors a website for the Bureau of Justice Assistance that provides criminal justice professionals with resources.

For more useful organizations, publications and websites, visit the Oxford Research Encyclopedias’ page on criminology and criminal justice.