Critical Criminology Essay

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Critical criminology is a highly complex area of the criminological corpus. It encompasses a range of different approaches, all of which have different emphasizes and nuances that they have been categorized under various headings, including Marxist criminology, radical criminology, left-realism, feminist criminology, sociological criminology or the sociology of deviance, peacemaking criminology, and cultural criminology, to name but a few. There is no single way of marking out a clear path through these various critical positions. However, for the sake of clarity, a key distinguishing feature of critical forms of criminology is that they reject utterly and completely the notion that a disinterested and value-free criminology is possible and, indeed, they by and large embrace the fact that their work is value loaded, for they stand in complete opposition to unequal political, economic, and social structures and relationships. Critical forms of criminology are therefore politically engaged and focus attention on the role played by broader sociostructural factors, such socioeconomic and gender based inequalities, rather than viewpoints that emphasize social bonds and social-psychological developmental factors, in shaping how a person responds to being labeled a criminal and seeks to manage a “spoiled identity.” This is because underpinning the various critical criminology positions is a shared point of view that rejects the emphasis placed by situational crime prevention perspectives and rational-choice models of crime and criminality on the individual social actor as the source and cause of crime and criminality. Rather, although by and large they accept that people do indeed choose to engage in deviance and crime, critical criminological viewpoints emphasize the role played by prevailing social circumstances and conditions in shaping the actions of both lawmakers and lawbreakers.

Mid-Twentieth-Century Theories

Until the 1960s, mainstream criminological thinking was heavily influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim, who adopted a functionalist position regarding how societies operate and who therefore saw that crime was useful for society. One of the key features of Durkheim’s work was that he liked to emphasize order and consensus in society and how group bonds form in and through shared norms and values. Therefore, Durkheim focused on deviance and crime as something whose function was to help maintain a sense of common feeling among societies’ members by enabling the mass of people—that is, lawful citizens—to identify with each other and create common social ties and bonds through differentiating themselves from the law breakers. Labeling theory, which emerged from the Chicago School of the sociology of deviance in the 1960s, by and large shares this approach as it emphasizes how the societal reaction to acts of crime creates consensus among groups of people that certain individuals are deviant.

However, first emerging in the 1960s and 1970s under the banner of Marxist and then feminist criminology, critical forms of criminology, in contrast to labeling theory and functionalist viewpoints, adopted a conflict perspective. That is, it sees society as being shaped by conflicts among people who have competing self and group interests. Even though at any one time a society may seem to agree on basic values and goals, such as the individual’s right to pursue love, happiness, and a rewarding career and family life, the existence of scarce resources and the tendency for them to be allocated unequally means that someone (or some group) is benefiting at the expense of someone else. Indeed, critical criminologists tend to argue that the key groups at a disadvantage in Western nation-states (and some would say worldwide as well) are women, ethnic minorities, and the poor and socially excluded. People on the losing end may not recognize or admit that their interests are in conflict with the interests of others, when in fact they are. Indeed it is argued that conflict is ubiquitous and historic, and furthermore consists of a struggle over three related things: money, power, and influence. Those who have more of these resources try to keep things the way they are; those who have less of them favor change so that they get a bigger share. The groups with wealth, power, and influence are favored in the conflict precisely because those resources put them in a dominant position.

For critical criminologists, it is the “haves” rather than the “have nots” who make the rules, control the content and flow of ideas and information, and design and impose penalties for nonconformity. Sometimes the struggle for resources is blatant and bloody, but more often than not it is subtle and restrained. Various factors are pointed out as contributing to this. An important idea first put forward in the 1970s by Marxist criminology was the notion of “false consciousness.” This is the view that the dominant group is able to promote beliefs and values that support the existing social order to such an extent that the disadvantaged groups actually believe their interests are served by the prevailing social conditions, when in fact they are not.

Consider how people are often told that if they behave and do not get into trouble with the police (or at least not too much trouble), get a good education, and get their first job, that they will eventually work their way up the career ladder. This in turn should enable an individual to have the lifestyle he or she wants, with the ability to vacation, purchase a car, afford a home, and so on. Whether or not one finds this an attractive proposition, for Marxist criminologists what people are being convinced of is nothing more than a gilded cage of one’s own making. People are being trained and prepared for a life as a cog in a machine that cares little for them and, indeed, is being manipulated by a system that will extract the surplus value of their labor and turn it into a profit for various shareholders. What is more, the companies being labored under are so interconnected and globalized that they sell the surplus value they extract from workers back to the public in the form of consumerist goods and gadgets, which in reality people do not need but think they cannot survive without because of convincing advertising.

Later Study on Criminology

As the 1970s and 1980s progressed, critical scholars of criminology began to systematically examine how different forms of oppression, inequality, and conflict affect people in everyday life, as well as in the sphere of crime and law. Researchers were particularly interested in how structural inequalities evident in a society’s class, race, and gender structures affect participation in crime, how crime is defined, and the making and enforcement of laws. To do this, researchers examined crime relative to social, economic, and political structures and forms of inequality, as found in a given society at a particular point in history. For example, in the United States critical criminologists of a Marxist viewpoint like Richard Quinney argued that most crime is a rational response to the structure of American social and cultural life and its associated key regulatory and bureaucratic institutions, which he believed emphasized free market economics.

Crime, in other words, is a means of survival in a society within which survival is never guaranteed due to the structural inequalities that permeate through it as a result of an underpinning emphasis upon free market competition as the basis for the American way of life. For Quinney, any analysis of the U.S. criminal justice and legal systems must take into account how their fundamentally capitalist economic structures developed and are organized to protect the interests of certain groups who benefit most from this state of affairs. This point led him to conclude that crime is a social construct and criminologists must therefore not simply look at the lawbreakers but the lawmakers and law keepers too.

It is important to note that when critical criminologists speak about race, class, and gender, they use the terms differently from other criminologists, including, classical criminologists, psychological and biological criminologists, labeling theorists, and Durkheimian-inspired sociological criminologists. For these other criminologists, key concepts such as race, class, and gender tend to be interpreted as characteristics of individuals and are used to identify subjects of study, such as the “middle class” or “female victims.” But for critical criminologists, race, class, and gender are both identities and structures. As structures, race, class, and gender contain culturally and historically specific rules that define (1) the types of power a group possesses, (2) a group’s social and economic positions within society, and (3) the opportunities for success people from these groups typically possess. As identities, race, class, and gender tell something about the social expectations concerning the behavior of people from different groups, and the ways in which people act to construct themselves—that is, their sense of personal identity in relation to their gender, class, or race.

Thus, “middle class” defines a location in the American social structure, which in turn defines the types of power persons can access and wield, their opportunities or pathways to success, and the forms of oppressive conditions that they control or that control them. But being “middle class” also defines behavioral expectations and one expects middle-class people to behave in particular ways. One identifies middle-class people by what job they might have, what their income is likely to be, how they dress, where they went to school, and so on. In short, the starting point for critical criminology is that a person’s structural location carries with it different forms of access and opportunities and different behavioral expectations. From this viewpoint, these differences are evidence of inequality, and these inequalities help explain the probability that people located in different structural locations will engage in crime or will be labeled criminals.

This leads to a key point about critical forms of criminology concerning notions of free will and determinism in relation to the choice of the individual to engage in crime. Namely, early forms of critical criminology, such as Marxist criminology, tended to be overly structurally deterministic in that they emphasized how economic factors can drive social change, and as a result tended to presume that one’s class determines one’s life chances and who they are. Clearly such a position can be criticized for being overly reductionist as not every sphere of human relations is reducible to economic factors. As a result, critical positions that emerged from the 1990s onward, such as cultural criminology and peacemaking criminology, emphasized agency and individual freedom. This shift in emphasis is seen as necessary to ensure that critical criminology does not lose sight of the fact that not every person who is subject to a socially determined factor, such as poverty or racial inequality, chooses to commit crime.


Indeed, most contemporary critical criminological viewpoints recognize what can be termed “the duality of structure,” meaning that they focus on the fact that people clearly are a product of their social environment, which constrains and shapes their behavior, how they think, and the available opportunities in a given social situation. This can be seen in the common patterns of human behavior and shared life experiences that operate on a day-to-day level. However, people do nevertheless possess agency and free will, and furthermore, certain structures in society can actually act to enhance agency.

For example, consider certain institutional bureaucratic structures that seek to protect the individual from intimidation on behalf of more powerful social groups or forces, such as equal opportunity or human rights legislation. Structure, in other words, is not necessarily a bad thing, and contemporary critical criminology reminds people to recognize the importance of both the positive and negative aspects of structure and agency when studying crime and deviance.


  1. Hogg, R. Critical Criminology: Issues, Debates, Challenges. London: Willan Publishing, 2002. Quinney, R. Class, State, and Crime. New York: Longman, 1977.
  2. Thalia, A. The Critical Criminology Companion. Annandale, Australia: Hawkins Press, 2008.

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