Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: What’s the Difference?

When you’re investigating careers in crime-related fields, you might be a little confused about the difference between criminology and criminal justice, which might seem like complete synonyms.

In reality, there is a difference between the two fields, although they are very closely related.

Criminal justice is study of the real-world systems that deal with crime, including the police, courts, and prisons. Criminology, on the other hand, is concerned with the causes of criminal behavior and society’s responses and reactions to crime. (Read our article which explains what Criminology is in great detail)

The disciplines often affect each other, as criminology research has historically played a reforming role in relation to laws and the criminal justice system. Similarly, changes and major decisions within the criminal justice system can yield new paths of investigation for criminology research.

Over time, criminology has changed profoundly as criminal justice systems have evolved. In fact, it was the unequal criminal justice systems of the 18th century that lead to the formation of criminology as an area of study!

Despite these distinctions, you will often hear these terms used interchangeably. In fact, even some professional organizations and important publications do not make a clear distinction between the two fields. (example: Criminology and Criminal Justice Journal)

In many criminology degree programs, you will take some classes that focus more on criminal justice, and vice versa.

In general, both discipline are equally valuable in terms of gaining employment, and each will require some knowledge and study of the other. If you have an anticipated organization for which you would like to work, take a good look at its employment website to see if they require a specific major. Similarly, if you are only interested in attending certain schools, take a close look at the course offerings and the mission philosophy of the program (either criminology or criminal justice) to see if it aligns well with your own interests.


  1. i really loved this post it got me hooked on the career pursuit of criminology not criminal justice because i mean i like the other one better

  2. I understand what it says but it made it a bit confusing because I want to become a criminal psychologist …. I know I have to study psychology and criminal justice. but should I study criminology as well ??

    • Criminal psychology in most cases is closely related to forensic psychology. The most important area to focus on is psychology, usually at the master’s or PhD level. No, you shouldn’t need criminology specifically but your psychology work should of course be closely related to the area in which you wish to find a career.

      Different universities will call their programs slightly different names, so the best thing you can do is look at the coursework and areas of interest of the instructors. Also, I’d look up some job postings and see what they list for education requirements. Usually, they won’t say you must have a degree with one specific name, but instead will give you a range of options spanning psychology, criminal justice or criminology, with some other requirements as well. It will be much different if you wish to work in a local law enforcement office, a private practice, or the federal government.

      But great question! This is something we will write up as a complete post soon.

  3. so if i study criminology, i will study criminal justice as well? i would like to know about the career after studying in either criminology or criminal justice. is it the same?

  4. Mpho bryce says:

    Guys im in SA form germiston Gauteng province i honestly love to study criminology with all my heart i have completed my matric these year but on a gap year lesson,so i just want to know which part of criminology is most required in our country because i dont want to be alone in class any1 who can help sent me info on

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