What is Criminology? Development and History of the Field

What makes someone become a criminal? Is it solely an individual choice? What role does a person’s environment play in their criminal behavior? How should former criminals be re-introduced into our society?

These are just some of the questions that have obsessed criminologists for centuries. Although you may be focused on exciting careers on the front lines of criminal justice, it’s important to learn that criminology is an intriguing field of academic study with a unique and rich historical development.

Criminology is a highly interdisciplinary field, which most heavily leans on sociology, but also incorporates psychology, biology, anthropology, law, and other fields.

Today, the field is defined as “the scientific study of the causation, correction, and prevention of crime.” Since crime is such a complex topic, there are many different avenues of investigation. As such, there are many different specializations a person can pursue, such as an economic crime management degree or a criminal justice degree.

Criminology has changed a great deal over time, and there have been several radical shifts in the ways people have understood both crime and criminals. There are a few major schools of thought in criminology which I will introduce here.

Classical School

The first example of a an academic approach to crime occurred in the late 18th century, which has come to be known as the Classical School of criminology.

It was entirely philosophical, rather than scientific, and the major figures included Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Their motivation was the criminal justice systems of the time, which were very unequal in their application of the law, frequently succumbed to corruption, and often used torture and the death penalty without much justification..

This classical school approach assumed that people were rational beings who sought pleasure and avoided pain. Therefore, punishments for crimes should be standardized and should ensure that the pain suffered by the criminal would be greater than any pleasure that may have been gained by committing the crime. This way, they thought, humans would have no incentive to commit crimes at all!

While the philosophy did have positive effects, the biggest problem with this school of thought was that the standardized punishments didn’t leave any room for individual circumstances. For example, children and the mentally ill were punished just the same as all other criminals.

Positivist School

As a result, a new school of thought, the positivist school, argued that punishments should fit the criminal, not the crime. The big name here was Italian Cesare Lombroso, who incorporated aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution, medicine and biology. His was the first application of a scientific approach to criminology. Lombroso conducted experiments and concluded that criminals shared particular bodily characteristics, including features in the brain and skeleton.

Although his rather bold biological hypotheses have since been rejected, the positivist school did have an important influence. For one, Lombroso recognized that there were multiple causes that lead people to become criminals, as he acknowledged that environmental factors were also at play. In addition, he represented a significant methodological innovation, as he pioneered the case-study approach to researching criminology.

20th Century Approaches to Criminology – Sociological

In the 20th century, the sociological approach to criminology became dominant, with most criminology research relating to the social factors that relate to crime. There are two major approaches used today, each with a variety of individual paradigms within them.

First, Social-structural approaches to criminology examine the way in which social situations and structures influence or relate to criminal behavior.

An example of this is the ecological school, which seeks to explain crime’s relationship to social and environmental change at a large macro setting, such as a particular major city.

Also included under the social-structural umbrella is conflict theory, which has its roots in Marxism and argues that crime is the result of conflict between different classes in a capitalist society. Laws are made by the group that has power, in order to control those who are powerless.

The second major category is Social-Process approaches to Criminology. Social-process criminology theories attempt to explain how people become criminals. They’re basically saying that not everyone exposed to the same social-structural conditions become criminals, so criminal behavior is something that is learned.

An example of this approach is control theory, which identifies the key characteristics, including attachment to others and a “belief in moral validity of rules,” which lead to law-abiding behavior. Lack of these characteristics, then, means that someone is at risk of becoming a criminal.

Criminology – A Sub-Discipline of Sociology?

Today, sociology is a huge part of criminology, but it alone does not completely explain crime, as biological, psychological, and other factors also contribute. But can we consider criminology to be a subdivision of sociology? It kind of depends on who you ask.

Recently, because they are so popular, more and more criminology programs are being formed as standalone departments, which often leads to tensions between them and the sociology department.

In 2010, the American Sociological Association actually assigned a special task force to study the relationship between criminology and sociology. Their report concludes that criminology requires an extensive knowledge of sociology, and many of the current programs do not provide that.

Many practicing criminologists heavily criticized the ASA report, and it looks like this conflict will continue for the foreseeable future.

Methodology of Criminology: Research Methods

As a result of all this complexity, approaches to research in criminology are incredibly diverse.

Quantitative methods are typically most common, in which the researcher explores the relationship between some independent variable(s) and the dependent variable, which is criminal behavior.

But instead of trying to explain or define crime, these researchers are actually investigating one of two things: criminality or crime rate. Criminality is the amount and frequency of crime committed by a particular group in society. Crime rate is the amount of crime in a particular city, state or country.

The actual methods used are often survey research, experimental research, cross-sectional research, longitudinal research, time series research.

Qualitative methods are also a big part of criminology research. These include participant observation, intensive interviewing, focus groups, and case studies.


•”Criminology.” Gale Encyclopedia of American Law. Ed. Donna Batten. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2010. 306-309. Gale Virtual Reference Library. 2 Oct. 2011.
•Grant, Anita. Criminology Resource Guide. Ohio University Libraries.  http://libguides.library.ohiou.edu/criminology. 2 Oct. 2011
•Jaschick, Scott. “Sociology vs. Criminology.” Inside Higher Ed. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/18/discipline. 2 Oct. 2011.
•Miller, J. Mitchell “Criminology as Social Science: Paradigmatic Resiliency and Shift in the 21st Century.” 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. 2009. SAGE Publications. 2 Oct. 2011.
•Wellford, Charles F. “History and Evolution of Criminology.” 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. 2009. SAGE Publications. 2 Oct. 2011.


  1. I’m a Junior in highschool and I’ve really been thinking about what I want to do with my future. From taking AP and Honors classes in school, I’ve been noticing that criminology is the way to go. It’s just something I’m totally into and I love it!

  2. I love the way criminology actually helps individuals better themselves, when getting the help they need. I am about to start school and would love to take criminology or forensic science. is that a good career for a female in her mid 20’s? is the job market competitive?

    • Hi Navil, thanks for your comment. I agree; it’s a great path to help out those who need a hand up. I think it would definitely be a good career for you; both men and women work in just about all aspects and being young is definitely an advantage. The job market depends on the type of position you’d hope for, and of course also the area where you might be applying. Being somewhat flexible and allowing yourself to apply for jobs in a wider area always increased your chances of landing something good. Best of luck!

    • Yah trust ur dream

  3. Yakz Joshua says:

    At first my dream was Law.But going further,A special class of inspiration was what i felt not just judging criminals in a court room,But being knowlegable from the start of the causes,and reflez actions and behaviours as the case may be. I think our societies would be a better place with such persons with such knowledge.Criminology is dinamic in any society.

  4. DAVID kYUEN says:

    from the day i started thinking of my future, i use to think of studying criminology and international relations unknowingly, i must start from sociology. thank God today i am an undergraduate student of Benue State University Makurdi, Nigerian

    • I never thought of i being a university student in the faculty of art and social science studying criminology. I keep my dream alive and am now undergraduate of kisii university of kenya without paying any fees, thank God far he has taken my life to be..

  5. Trust it.and goes 4 ur dream


  1. […] now, you probably have a good general idea of what criminology is, and you might also have an understanding of forensic science. In a nutshell, forensics entails […]

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