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What is criminology?

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What is criminology?


What is criminology, and what do criminologists do? Criminology is a discipline concerned with the ‘scientific study of criminal behaviour.’ It emerged in Europe out of eighteenth and nineteenth century concerns with the treatment and punishment of criminals. The French physician and anthropologist Paul Topinard is credited with first using the term ‘criminology’ in the 1870s. The word ‘criminology’ first appeared in English in 1890. The new field of criminology was defined by a common problem, crime, rather than by a common approach to the topic or a common method of study. Criminology encompasses at least five main areas in relation to crime. First, the sociology of law or how social conditions affect the way laws are made, unmade and enforced. Second, theories of what causes crime, sometimes known as ‘criminogenesis’. Third, research on how societies respond to crime, especially through formal institutions, such as the police, court system and the prison service. Fourth, ‘penology’ which is the study of the treatment and punishment of criminals. Fifth, ‘victimology’ which is the study of the nature and needs of the victims of crime. Researchers from various backgrounds have pursued criminological research, including lawyers, doctors, statisticians, psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists. Attempts to explain crime and deviance are generally framed in terms of the researcher’s academic discipline, such as law, genetics, psychology, psychiatry, statistics or sociology. Three broad disciplinary perspectives on the causes of criminal behaviour can be identified: the biological, psychological and sociological. It should be added, though, that there are often attempts at integrating the insights from these different theoretical perspectives. Biological approaches generally focus on genetic, constitutional or hereditary factors which might predispose some people toward crime. Psychological approaches generally focus on law-breaking as a response to cognitive, personality or mental health defects in individuals. Sociological approaches generally focus on the way that social factors affect the learning, motivation, opportunity and social support for crime, as well as questioning the definitions of crime and deviance which prevail in a society at a particular time. Today, sociologists make up a large proportion of the people working in criminology. The methods selected will depend on the research questions posed or the hypotheses to be tested. Research might have a quantitative focus on explaining differences or changes in crime rates. Or it may have a more qualitative focus in understanding the situations and subjective experiences of accused criminals, victims of crime, or people who work in the criminal justice system. One of the unique properties of crime is that it is generally hidden from public view. Qualitative research, involving observation or fieldwork can be particularly valuable in revealing otherwise unknown dimensions of criminal activity. Sociologists have developed a variety of criminological theories which are important in explaining the causes, nature and consequences of crime and deviance. They are also important in explaining how crime and deviance are understood by those involved and affected by them, and what kinds of social responses are set in train when deviance is identified. Such theories can also provide a basis for changes in policy, law and practice in relation to crime and deviance. For example, understanding that male homosexual behaviour is not harmful between consenting adults was central to the argument for decriminalising that behaviour. Similarly, understanding how violence is more likely to occur between prisoners in overcrowded prison cells, as opposed to cells with fewer prisoners, can potentially lead to different policies on prison resourcing and accommodation. Some sociologists have been interested in developing very general theories that might explain most or all types of crime or deviance. There have been attempts, for example, to link rates of illegal activities to a society’s general economic conditions. However, this has produced only inconsistent results, and many sociologists are sceptical of this approach. They think it’s like trying to develop a general theory of disease, when the concept of disease refers to a wide variety of specific bodily pathologies with different causes, trajectories and effects. The alternative is to be more concerned with developing ‘middle-range’ theories of specific types of crime or deviance. Middle-range theories have an explanatory scope that lies between very abstract general theories about society, and very specific theories which have only a limited or local application in explaining a particular case or incidence of deviance. Laurence Cohen and Marcus Felson, for example, developed a middle-range theory of ‘predatory’ property crime in the United States in the 1970s. .’ Their study focused on the convergence of three elements in time and space for this type of crime to occur: a supply of motivated and capable criminal offenders, such as burglars; a supply of suitable targets, such as houses; and an absence of able guardians who could protect vulnerable properties. Cohen and Felson found that the property crimes they studied were certainly carried out by people with criminal motives, but that the incidence of this crime also depended on the number of opportunities there were to rob people or burgle their homes. They found that the number of burglaries varied from one community to another. This was influenced by the degree to which local residents watched over houses in their neighbourhood or took other crime-control steps. Cohen and Felson also highlighted the way that criminal opportunities for this type of crime had increased in the United States in preceding decades. This was because more single parents and couples in families were being employed during the day. It underpinned initiatives like ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, and was the precursor to the more general concept of ‘designing out’ crime – reducing criminal activity by re-engineering physical and social settings so that such activity is simple made either difficult or impossible.

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1 thought on “What is criminology?”

  1. Kombiah Durai says:

    keep calm…keep criminology

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