Criminology Essay

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Edwin Sutherland defined criminology as the study of law making, law breaking and the response to law breaking. The American Society of Criminology calls it the study related to the measurement, etiology, consequences, prevention, control, and treatment of crime and delinquency. It is noteworthy that the term criminology is often used with ”Criminal Justice.” ”Criminology” is concerned with law breaking where the greater emphasis is on the nature, extent and causes of crime. ”Criminal Justice” is concerned with the response to law breaking and therefore the emphasis is on policing, courts and corrections. These two areas often overlap as one cannot be studied in isolation from the other. In recent years, criminology as a field of study has developed greatly with numerous universities having separate departments of criminology distinct from sociology, anthropology, political science etc.

The timeline detailing the development of criminological thought starts from Classical Criminology (from the 1700s) to Positivist Criminology (from the1800s) moving to the period of Formative Sociology (from the 1900s) and Sociological developments thereafter. There is some overlap in these timelines and some of these theories continue to gain and recede in popularity during different times.

Classical criminology emerged in response to the cruel and arbitrary social controls during the European Holy Inquisition. The philosophy developed by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham related to human nature and how/why it can be controlled by the state. It was argued that criminal behaviors can be deterred by punishment that was certain, severe and swift. These were the founding principles on which eighteenth-century reforms were based.

The Positivists rejected the idea that ”crime can be committed by anyone” and instead suggested that criminals were ”atavistic” or less developed individuals and therefore biologically pre disposed to crime due to physical or mental shortcomings. Cesare Lombroso with his theory of ”born criminal” is regarded as the founder of this movement. The development of Positivist thought marked the shift from ”punishment” to theorizing that the offender does not control his behavior and that scientific method can be applied to the study of criminals.

The period from 1900 to the 1950s can be considered the formative years for the development of sociological perspectives related to criminology. This period is marked by the developments in the Chicago School of the social disorganization perspectives and ecological theories of crime (social structure theories). It is also marked by the concept of Differential Association (social process theories) as proposed by Edwin Sutherland and the Strain theory proposed by Robert Merton.

Coming from the Chicago School, Edwin Sutherland proposed the Differential Association theory suggesting a social learning approach to understand why people commit crime. He proposed that criminal behavior is learned by interaction with others. This learning occurs within intimate personal groups and includes techniques for committing the crime and the motives and rationalizations for committing it as well.

Durkheim first introduced the concept of “Anomie” or (deregulation) in his book Suicide published in 1897. Merton developed this concept further in his ”Strain” theory. Merton argues that crime occurs when there is a gap between cultural aspirations for economic success and structural impossibilities in achieving these goals. This gap between means and ends results in anomie or ”cultural-chaos.”

Recent developments in criminological thought are related to the development of the conflict perspectives and other multi-factor theories. The conflict perspective can be traced to Marxist ideology that inequality between social classes results in conditions that make the rich richer and poor poorer. The root cause of crime according to the conflict perspective is the constant struggle for power, control and material wealth. Because those in power make the laws, the laws tend to favor the wealthy and therefore the poor tend to commit crime.

This perspective includes multiple areas of conflict such as racism, sexism, globalism etc that can also be considered to contribute to crime.

Among the multi-factor theories are the life course and latent trait theories. These two theories differ primarily in the discussion related to the onset and persistence of crime. Life course theories reflect the view that criminality is a multi-dynamic process influenced by a variety of characteristics, traits and experiences. They believe that behavior changes for the better or worse are possible at any time in the life course. On the contrary the latent trait theories reflect the view that criminal behavior is controlled by a master trait present in a person at birth or soon after. This trait does not change throughout the life course of a person.


  1. Beccaria, C. (1963) [1764] On Crimes and Punishments, trans. H. Paolucci. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, IN.
  2. Becker, H. S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press, New York.
  3. Lombroso-Ferrero, G. (1972) [1911] The Criminal Man. Patterson Smith, Patterson, NJ.
  4. Merton, R. K. (1938) Socia structure and anomie. American Sociological Review 3: 672—82.
  5. Sutherland, E. H., Cressey, D. R., & Luckenbill, D. F. (1992) Principles ofCriminology, 11th edn. General Hall, Dix Hills, NY.

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