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Thinking about Theory
The question that is the title of this first chapter leaves us with three words to define. They seem easy, but philosophers and other brainy folks have been thinking and writing about them all for a couple of thousand years.
The word crime has been given many fancy definitions over the years. Lawyers look at it differently from political scientists. Political scientists look at it differently than sociologists. When it comes down to the criminal justice system in America, the most useful way to look at it is a behavior that an elite body of old, rich, white men don’t want you to do. This means Congress. (Or whatever your state calls it lawmaking group). All of the states and the federal government have a small group that makes laws.
A major issue in criminological theory is the tremendous range of human behaviors that can be regarded as criminal. Remembered that a crime is simply a behavior that persons in power chose to prohibit or command. For this reason, individual criminal acts may have very little in common.
The common thread of being illegal does not mean that the behaviors are alike in any other meaningful way. This is why an increasing number of criminologists advocate limiting criminological theories to specific acts or a range of closely related acts.
Different people often define the word theory differently. Students look at it as a bunch of useless junk created by college professors to make life hard. Lawyers and other nonscientist thinkers may define it simply as an explanation of how things work. Scientific types (psychologists, criminologists, and most other –ists) use the word theory with the word “scientific” mentally added to the front of it. Therefore, when you ask a criminologist about theories, they will not mention things that are better considered as philosophy or metaphysical explanations. Metaphysical means an explanation of how things work not based on observation.
A scientific theory must be an empirical theory. The word empirical means based on observation. In other words, you have to be able to see what is going on and measure it.
In this book, we will look at both philosophical theories and scientific theories. My scientific friends will not like the philosophical part. They will claim that these notions are outdated and without evidence. As true as this statement may be, the fact remains that our system of government is based more on political philosophy than on empirical theory. Our system of laws is based on political philosophy more than on any empirical theory. To understand where we are, we have to understand where we came from. This means that we need to know about the great political philosophers and what they thought about such issues as the nature of man, the nature of the state, and what justice is.
We hope that the above discussion has convinced you that theories are useful tools to help us understand the world we live in. Criminology, then, is a useful set of tools designed to help us understand the workings of the criminal justice system and the actors in the system.
Modification History File Created: 08/04/2018 Last Modified: 08/04/2018
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