Criminology | Section 1.4

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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What Makes a Good Theory?

Since the scientific method has dominated modern criminology, most criminologists agree that a good theory must be empirically testable and that evidence gathered from research supports the theory.  This requirement is obvious from a scientific standpoint because empirical validation is the foundation of scientific inquiry.  Williams and McShane (2004, p. 4) suggest that there is essentially no difference between what is a good theory in the social sciences and what is a good theory in the natural sciences (e.g., physics and chemistry).  When a theory is supported by research evidence, it can be said to be empirically valid.

In addition, the hard sciences are amazing at explaining the physical world parsimoniously.  That is, they can do it with surprisingly few variables.  Human behavior is very, very complex.  That means that to understand a particular behavior, we have to look at lots and lots of variables.  Since we are using theories that try to isolate only the very important variables, we get it right some of the time and wrong some of the time.  That is, social scientists do not say what a person will do; they say what a person is likely (probable) to do.  Situations like these where we are not certain of the outcome but know something about the probability of it happening is called probabilistic.  Criminal justice theorists will say a person with certain characteristics is “likely to” or “will probably” or “tends to” commit crimes.

Quantitative versus Qualitative

The measurement and testing approach suggest a type of research known as quantitative research.  Quantitative comes from the same root as the term quantity and is talking about numbers.  A different approach is a qualitative evaluation.  The term qualitative suggests an interest in the quality of the theory.  Qualitative research focuses on the substance of a theory.

The first of the qualitative requirements of a good theory is that it be logical.  A logical theory is one in which concepts are clearly stated and propositions (A formal statement of truth) are rationally related.  This is often referred to as logical consistency in criminology texts.


Several authors have suggested that the scope of a theory is important.  For a theory to be good, it should explain a wide range of behavior (Akers, 2000).  This requirement is controversial, as previously discussed.  The basic counter-argument is that crime is a meaningless descriptor because it is so broad.  Thus, any general theory of crime is suspect.


Another common requirement of a scientific theory is that it be parsimonious.  The law of parsimony is the logical principle that theorists propose no more causes than are necessary to account for the observed facts.  Isaac Newton stated the rule: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”  The basic idea is to keep it as simple as possible without sacrificing accuracy.  When a guy named William of Occam stated this idea, lots of brainy types liked it and started calling it Occam’s Razor.


The single worst criterion for a good theory is simply popularity.  Just as with clothing and hairstyles, different theories enjoy a high degree of popularity at different times.  Just because a theory is enjoying “a lot of press” does not mean that it has any more validity than less written about theories.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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