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Criminology: What is It?

Learn About the Study of Crime, Its Causes and Its Consequences

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Criminology is the study of crime and its causes Copyright 2011 Tim Roufa

Tim Roufa

Criminology is most often associated with the study of the law enforcement and criminal justice system. A person looking for a career in criminal justice will very likely first seek to earn a criminology degree. While criminal justice and criminology are certainly related fields, they are by no means interchangeable, as so many people tend to believe. What exactly, then, is criminology?

Etymology of Criminology

The word "criminology" itself tells us that it is essentially the study of crime. Criminology is derived from the Latin crimen, which means accusation, and the transliterated Greek logia, which has come to denote "the study of." The field goes far deeper than studying crimes themselves, though.

What is Criminology?

Criminology is a branch of sociology and has, in effect, been studied in one way or another for thousands of years. It has only been relatively recently, though, that it has been recognized as a scientific discipline in its own right.

Criminologists

Criminologists look at a broad range of topics related to crime. They are dedicated to studying not only the causes of crime, but the social impact as well.

In essence, criminologists look at every conceivable aspect of deviant behavior. This includes the impacts of crime on individual victims and their families, society at large, and even criminals themselves. Some of the specific areas that criminology focuses on include:

  • Frequency of crimes
  • Location of crimes
  • Causes of crimes
  • Types of crimes
  • Social and individual consequences of crimes
  • Social reactions to crime
  • Individual reactions to crime
  • Governmental reactions to crime

Schools of Though Within Criminology

The end goal of criminology, of course, is to determine the root causes of criminal behavior and to develop effective and humane means of preventing it. This has lead to several schools of thought within the discipline, each of which looks at different factors involved in deviant behavior and each coming to different conclusions about how best to approach the issues.

The three primary schools of thought within criminology are the Classical School, the Positivist School and the Chicago School.

Classical School

The Classical School of criminology is perhaps the oldest and best known. Championed by Italian attorney Cesare Beccaria, it embraces concepts and theories of crime that most people would, at first blush, tend to agree with. In essence, the classical school suggests four basic ideas:

  • Individuals have a free will to make choices and to act on their own accord
  • People will generally seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they will rationally calculate the cost versus the benefit when choosing to commit an act.
  • Punishment can be used to deter crime, and the severity of the punishment must be proportional to the crime itself.
  • The swiftness and the certainty of the punishment is the most important factor in deterring crime.

Positivist School

The Positivist School suggests that there are other factors at work in deviant behavior besides simple pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. Positivism supposes external and internal factors that may be beyond the control of the individual. This includes biological, psychological and environmental causes.

The positivist school was the first to apply the scientific method to the study of human behavior. This served to advance the field of criminology as an accepted and respected scientific discipline.

One of the earliest and best known proponents of positivist though, Cesare Lombroso, looked at physiological features of criminals such as the shape of their skulls and the height of their cheekbones to suggest that biology may precondition certain people to tend toward criminal behavior.

Chicago School

Also known as the Ecological School, the Chicago School was first developed during the 1920's in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. This school of thought advanced the idea that human behavior was, at least partially, determined by social structure. It takes into account psychological and environmental factors in seeking to determine the causes of deviant behavior.

The Chicago School applies the theory of evolution to criminology, particularly the notion that human beings adapt to their environment. It suggests that poverty leads to a breakdown in the social structure, which in turn hampers the ability of a society to deal effectively with crime while at the same time perpetuating circumstances that lead to the perceived need to commit crimes to begin with.

Criminology Improves Society

The field of criminology has lead to improvements across our criminal justice system, including our response to crime and our treatment of both victims and criminals. It continues to help us better understand the real costs of crime for all involved and for society as a whole.

Criminology has lead to even more specialized areas of study, including environmental criminology. It has also brought advancements in police tactics and practices, such as community-oriented policing and more focused patrols through predictive policing.

Careers in Criminology

Careers in criminology are as plentiful as they are varied. Earning a degree in the field can open doors to academic pursuits or advanced studies in areas such as forensic psychology, or provide a solid foundation for a criminal justice career. Either way, criminology is both a fascinating and rewarding field, full of intrigue and opportunity.

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