Criminology | Section 1.3

Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Criminology and Science

What is Criminology?

A good general definition comes from the American Society of Criminology’s description of the organization:

. . . knowledge concerning the etiology, prevention, control and treatment of crime and delinquency.  This includes the measurement and detection of crime, legislation and practice of criminal law, as well as the law enforcement, judicial and correctional systems.

In this broad sense, criminology could also be called criminal justice theory.  In a narrower sense, several academic disciplines look at it differently, usually with a specific focus on the theories and methods of the specific discipline.  The most common specific definition of criminology comes to us from sociology.

This text will take a broader definition that encompasses more than the view of one specific discipline.

The basis of all criminology, regardless of discipline, is the use of a systematic way of thinking.  Systematic thinking occurred long before modern sociology, and those early thinkers thought about crime.  This means that some very early thinkers (e.g., Aristotle, Plato, Cicero) must be taken into account if a complete picture is to be drawn.

Our Definition:  The study of various ways of systematically thinking about the description, prediction, explanation, and control of crime.

What is Theory?

The single most important aspect of criminology is theory.  In its most general sense, a theory is an explanation of a relationship between two or more things.  In this sense, theories are vital to us; we use them every day in order to function.

If a person notices that a burner on a stove is glowing a dull red and warns someone else not to touch it because it is hot, that person has expressed a theory.  This is a very simple theory that expresses a relationship between high heat and the burner giving off light.

Of course, theories can be much more complex than this example.  The number and types of relationships the theory specifies determine the complexity of a theory.

Many students regard “theory” as something cooked up by professors to make life miserable.  This is not the case.  In fact, human beings require theories to live.  Life would be dangerous indeed if people had to touch glowing stove burners every time to determine that they are hot.

We operate using theories all the time without even thinking of them as theories.  People in our society accept the theory that cold-water faucets are on the right, that other drivers will stop at stop signs, and that doors are ways to enter buildings.  Daily life would slowly stop if we couldn’t make these generalizations.

It is the nature of humanity to generalize.  Another way, then, of looking at theory is as a special type of generalization.  A problem that arises out of the natural tendency of people to generalize is the tendency of overgeneralization.

Overgeneralization is the basis for many social problems in our society.  People commonly treat others unfairly because of overgeneralizations.  The less people know about something, the more they are likely to overgeneralize.

Not all professors are absent-minded.  Not all men like to watch football.  Overgeneralizations like these are easy to spot; most people will have encountered at least a few men who do not watch football and conclude that the generalization is unfair.

Not as obviously unfair and potentially more harmful are overgeneralizations made about people of other races, religions, and national origins.

Types of Theories

A common distinction between types of theories uses the terms abstract and concrete.  A concrete theory is one that explains observable, verifiable facts, such as in the hot stove example.  Humans can observe the red light, and can use measuring tools, such as a thermometer, to identify precisely the amount of heat present.

Abstract theories are not directly verifiable because they involve concepts that researchers cannot directly measure.  Humans use abstract concepts all the time.  Things like joy, sadness, and love cannot be seen, but most people accept that they are there.  Researchers cannot directly measure ideas such as justice, integrity, and love.

Common Sense versus Scientific Theory

Day-to-day theories are mostly based on “common sense.”  The critical element of here is the term common.  History teaches us that just because knowledge is common to many people does not mean that it is true.

At one time, it was believed that the earth was flat and was the center of the universe.  People once believed that surgeons could cure illnesses by “bleeding” the patient, often accomplished by using leeches. Happily, these widely held beliefs are not a matter of common sense anymore.

What beliefs are commonly held today that are untrue?  The problem is that we have no way of knowing—except for systematic inquiry.  To our modern way of thinking, systematic inquiry is generally either philosophical or scientific.  This text follows the modern trend in criminal justice research and concentrates on the scientific method (after our discussion of philosophy).

Fred Kerlinger (1992, pp. 4-7) describes five important differences between common sense theory and scientific theory:

  1. “Common sense” theory is developed based on “conceptual schemes” that may be “fanciful” and not subject to evaluation. Scientific theory is based on evidence that can be observed and measured.
  2. Scientists verify their theories in ways believed to be objective. People often validate common sense theories by selecting examples that fit the theory.  They maintain their stereotypes by ignoring examples that do not fit.
  3. Control is important in science. In this context, control refers to the efforts of scientists to rule out other explanations for a phenomenon that their theory does not take into account.  For example, a nonscientist who believes that children become delinquent because of drugs will not likely consider delinquency in children who do not use drugs.
  4. The nonscientist is likely to seize on a chance occurrence and immediately develop a cause and effect theory to explain a relationship that is not there. A “lucky shirt” is an example of this sort of unscientific logic.
  5. Scientists, unlike most nonscientists (and Philosophers), rule out “metaphysical explanations” for events. Metaphysical explanations are explanations for something that cannot be tested, which usually means that the proposed cause cannot be observed. If someone proposes that serial killers kill because they are possessed by demons, then they have offered a metaphysical explanation.

This last statement is often controversial because it is misunderstood.  While it is true that scientists reject metaphysical arguments as unscientific, it does not mean that they do not agree with them or think them to be untrue—all the scientists are saying is that they cannot or do not know how to test it.

If a scientist cannot test a theory by observation, it is not a scientific theory.

The Limits of Science

The basic idea of science is to establish a method of knowing things that is independent of people’s opinions about them.  This is why scientists do not attempt to answer many important questions, such as “what is justice?”  The question is no doubt important but is not a question that science can answer.

People trying to answer this question can never entirely separate it from their personal opinions and beliefs, so it is more properly answered by philosophy or theology (religion).  It is important that social scientific theories, unlike metaphysical theories and theology, tell us the way things are, not the way things ought to be.  That is, science is useless for answering moral or religious questions.  For example, science can help us understand whether the death penalty deters violent crime, but it cannot inform us as to whether executions are right or moral.

Methods of Knowing

Kerlinger (1992) also distinguishes the method of science from other methods of knowing by describing three methods of knowing that are not scientific.

The first is the method of tenacity.  This is where people hold to their beliefs simply because they believe them to be true.

The second method of knowing is the method of authority.  This is where people believe what they believe because an important authority (e.g., the Bible, the surgeon general, a professor) said so.  This method is not necessarily unsound and is used by scientists all the time.  It becomes unsound (from a scientific perspective) when there is no willingness to question the authority.  Think about where we would be today if Einstein blindly accepted the work of Newton as absolute fact and never questioned it.

The third alternative to the scientific method is the method of intuition.  By this method, people believe what they believe because it “stands to reason.”  This is essentially the method of the philosopher and explains why there is no general agreement among philosophers on important philosophical questions.

Well-meaning, honest people can consider a problem in a perfectly rational way and still reach different conclusions.  When scientists disagree about theory, the arguments usually center on the lack of evidence, the quality of evidence, or the interpretation of evidence.

By this point, it should be obvious that the term theory means something different to scientists than it does to the average person.  Scientific theory is usually based on evidence, unlike the unsupported speculation of nonscientists.  It is important to note that, while scientific theories are generally based on facts, scientists seldom regard a theory as “proven.”

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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