The function of theory is to provide puzzles for research (Lewis Coser)

    To understand criminal justice, it is necessary to understand crime.  Most policy-making in criminal justice is based on criminological theory, whether the people making those policies know it or not.  In fact, most of the failed policies (what doesn't work) in criminal justice are due to misinterpretation, partial implementation, or ignorance of criminological theory.  Much time and money could be saved if only policymakers had a thorough understanding of criminological theory.  At one time, criminological theory was rather pure and abstract, with few practical implications, but that is not the case anymore.  For example, almost all criminologists today use a legalistic rather than normative definition of crime. A legalistic definition of crime takes as its starting point the statutory definitions contained in the penal code, legal statutes or ordinances.  A crime is a crime because the law says so.  Sure, there are concerns about overcriminalization (too many laws) and undercriminalization (not enough laws), but at least on the surface, a legalistic approach seems practical.  It is also advantageous to a normative definition, which sees crime as a violation of norms (social standards of how humans ought to think and behave), although there are times when criminology can shed light on norms and norm violators.

    Every criminological theory contains a set of assumptions (about human nature, social structure, and the principles of causation, to name a few), a description of the phenomena to be explained (facts a theory must fit), and an explanation, or prediction, of that phenomenon.  The assumptions are also called meta-theoretical issues, and deal with debates like those over free will v. determinism or consensus v. conflict.  The description is a statistical profile, figure, diagram, or table of numbers representing the patterns, trends, and correlates of the type of crime taken as an exemplar (most appropriate example) of all crime.  The explanation is a set of variables (things that can be tweaked or changed) arranged in some kind of causal order so that they have statistical and meaningful significance.  Criminological theories are primarily concerned with etiology (the study of causes or reasons for crime), but occasionally have important things to say about actors in the criminal justice system, such as police, attorneys, correctional personnel, and victims.

    There are basically thirteen (13) identifiable types of criminological theory, only three (3) of which are considered "mainstream" or conventional criminology (strain, learning, control).  The oldest theory (biochemistry) goes back to 1876 and the last four theories (left realism, peacemaking, feminist, postmodern) have only developed in the past twenty-five years.  The following table illustrates, with more information about each theory below the table:




1. Biochemistry heredity, vitamin deficiency, allergy, tumor, toxins, brain dysfunction, hormonal imbalance isolation, treatment
2. Psychology low intelligence, psychopathy, stress treatment, counseling
3. Ecology disorganized neighborhoods community empowerment
4. Strain economic goal blockage increased opportunities
5. Learning imitation, reinforcement schedules more effective negative reinforcement, more use of positive reinforcement
6. Control socialization, low self-control child-rearing, social bonds
7. Labeling shunning, identity immersion nonintervention, reintegration
8. Conflict power differentials, competition increased equality
9. Radical class struggle, capitalism praxis, socialism
10. Left Realism predatory relationships more effective police protection
11. Peacemaking inner suffering and turmoil spiritual rejuvenation
12. Feminist gender inequity, patriarchy end sex discrimination
13. Postmodern hierarchical privileges and language more informal social control

   1. Biochemistry is known by many names: biological, constitutional (having to do with the structure of the body's morphology), genetic, and anthropological criminology.  The oldest field is criminal anthropology, founded by the father of modern criminology, Cesare Lombroso, in 1876.  He was one of the first exponents of the positivist approach to explaining crime, positivism meaning a search for the causes of crime using scientific method, as opposed to the classical approach, which relies upon free will as the main cause of crime.  Historically, theories of the biochemistry type have tried to establish the biological inferiority of criminals, but modern biocriminology simply says that heredity and body organ dysfunctions produce a predisposition toward crime.

    2. Psychological criminology has been around since 1914, and attempts to explain the consistent finding that there is an eight-point IQ difference between criminals and noncriminals.  That gap isn't enough to notice, but it might make them more impulsive and foolhardy, and even smart people with high IQs are vulnerable to folly.  Other psychocriminologists focus on personality disorders, like the psychopaths, sociopaths, and antisocial personalities.  

    3. Ecological criminology was the first sociological criminology, developed during the 1920s at the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.  Hence, it is also called Chicago School sociology.  Ecology is the study of relationships between an organism and its environment, and this type of theory explains crime by the disorganized eco-areas where people live rather than by the kind of people who live there.  

    4. Strain, sometimes called by the French word anomie, is a 1938 American version of French sociology, invented by the father of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).  This type of theory sees crime as the normal result of an "American dream" in which people set their aspirations (for wealth, education, occupation, any status symbol) too high, and inevitably discover strain, or goal blockages, along the way.  The only two things to do are reduce aspirations or increase opportunities.

    5. Learning theories tend to follow the lead of Edwin Sutherland's theory of differential association, developed in 1947, although ideas about imitation or modeling go back to 1890.  Often oversimplified as "peer group" theories, learning is much more than that, and involves the analysis of what is positively and negatively rewarding (reinforcing) for individuals.

    6. Control theories in criminology are all about social control.  Only those called containment or low-self control theories have to do with individual psychology.  Control theory has pretty much dominated the criminological landscape since 1969.  It focuses upon a person's relationships to their agents of socialization, such as parents, teachers, preachers, coaches, scout leaders, or police officers.  It studies how effective bonding with such authority figures translates into bonding with society, hence keeping people out of trouble with the law.

    7. Labeling theory was a child of the 1960s and 1970s which saw criminals as underdogs who initially did something out of the ordinary, and then got swept up in a huge, government-sponsored labeling or shunning reaction.  It argues that anyone facing such an overwhelming, negative labeling social reaction will eventually become more like the label because that is the only way out for their identify formation.  It points out that sometimes its best to do nothing (for minor offending), and that there are few reintegrative rituals designed to help people fit back into their communities.

    8. Conflict theory holds that society is based on conflict between competing interest groups; for example, rich against poor, management against labor, whites against minorities, men against women, adults against children, etc.  These kind of dog-eat-dog theories also have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and are characterized by the study of power and powerlessness.  

    9. Radical theories, also from the 1960s and 1970s, typically involve Marxist (referring to Karl Marx 1818-1883) critiques of capitalist society which allows things to exist like millions of billionaires and millionaires while the vast majority of people live in poverty or just get by.  Such fundamental economic disparities reflect basic contradictions in the way work is organized into demoralizing, brutalizing, and oppressive conditions.  Crime is seen as a reflection of class struggle, a kind of primitive rebellion with criminals behaving as rebels without a clue. Only through praxis (informed action based on theoretical understanding) will the new socialist society be formed and crime will go away. 

    10. Left realism is a mid-1980s British development that focuses upon the reasons why people of the working class prey upon one another, that is, victimize other poor people of their own race and kind.  It wants the police to have more power in protecting poor people, but on the other hand, doesn't want the police to be invasive or intrusive.  

    11.  Peacemaking criminology came about during the 1990s as the study of how "wars" on crime only make matters worse.  It suggests that the solution to crime is to create more caring, mutually dependent communities and strive for inner rebirth or spiritual rejuvenation (inner peace).  

    12. Feminist criminology matured in the 1990s, although feminist ideas have been around for decades.  The central concept is patriarchy, or male domination, as the main cause of crime.  Feminists also tend to call for more attention to female points of view.

    13. Postmodern criminology matured in the 1990s, although postmodernism itself (as a rejection of scientific rationality to the pursuit of knowledge) was born in the late 1960s.  It tends to focus upon how stereotypical words, thoughts, and conceptions limit our understanding, and how crime develops from feelings of being disconnected and dehumanized.  It advocates replacing our current legal system with informal social controls such as group and neighborhood tribunals.


    What is criminology?  In a classic definition, the father of American criminology, Edwin Sutherland (Sutherland & Cressey, 1960, Principles of Criminology, 6th ed., Philadelphia: Lippencott, p. 3) said: 

Criminology includes the scientific study of making laws, breaking laws, and reacting toward the breaking of laws.

    Note that the three (3) areas in Sutherland's definition (making, breaking, and reacting) form the foundation of specialty areas in criminology.  Those who specialize in the study of making laws are criminologists with a legal bent (many have law degrees), and they refer to their area of study as the criminology of criminal law, or in the case of criminologists with sociology degrees, the sociology of law.  An example would be the conflict criminologist, William Chambliss, who in 1964 wrote a famous treatise on the law of vagrancy to argue for a ruling class domination theory of crime.  Theories in this specialty area are sometimes called theories of criminalization, not theories of crime.  They involve the study of why some acts, but not others, come to the attention of authorities, and why some acts, but not others, come to be formally penalized by the state as crimes.

    The second area of specialization (breaking laws) is what most people think of when they think of criminology, and it is generally referred to as the area of criminogenesis, etiology (the study of causes), or crime causation.  This area is the most interdisciplinary one in criminology, and pretty much, anyone with an interest in studying the criminal mind is welcome, regardless of whether their degree is in anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, or sociology (although sociology dominated criminology for most of the twentieth century).  It is important to note that this specialty area is NOT concerned with fighting crime or catching criminals more effectively.  It is concerned with scientific theory and method for uncovering truth.  Any insights gained from studying the criminal mind are supposed to be useful in understanding human nature and the society we live in.  There is some disagreement about this, however, with so-called clinical, applied, and praxis (theory in action) criminology, as well as the field of criminal justice, advocating better management, investigation, social change, and systems, respectively.   

    The third area (reacting to lawbreaking) is the most sociological of the three, and specialists here tend to refer to themselves as societal reaction theorists, social response theorists, normative theorists, relativity of crime researchers, or less commonly as criminologists of criminal justice.  The authors of your textbook for this course represent this specialty area.  Societal reaction theorists study things like media glamorization of crime or the moral boundaries by which communities tolerate or do not tolerate crime in their midst.  Social response theorists are interested in the justifications and consequences of different styles of reacting to crime (e.g., lock-em-up strategies versus mediation).   Normative theorists are interested in the determinants of norms (expectations for behavior), since norm violations are often the root source of both deviance and crime.  Relativity of crime specialists are interested in whether there is a consensus of public opinion about the seriousness of various criminal acts.  Criminologists of criminal justice are often indistinguishable from criminal justice specialists (criminal justice being a separate, but related discipline) in that they study things like society's carrying capacity (rates of imprisonment and how many prisoners prisons can hold) or police strength (as an indicator of repressive social control). The three parts of Sutherland's definition are sometimes abbreviated as the study of lawmaking, lawbreaking, and reactions.


    Regardless of specialty area, all criminologists strive toward good theory.  What is theory?  As any dictionary definition makes clear, a theory is any system of ideas arranged in rational order that produce general principles which increase our understanding and explanations.  The general principles in a theory are derived from, and representative, of particular facts, but those principles are not dependant upon the particular thing to be explained (Kaplan 1964).  This means that theories have a life of their own in the ever-increasing generalities they provide.  Theories are like children. Someone gives birth to them, and they go out into the world and no longer belong to anyone.  Some of them become ideologies (get used for political purposes) and others become endless puzzles that scientists work on for centuries.

    Ideally, theory should: (1) focus attention on a particular phenomenon; (2) fit the known facts about a particular phenomenon; (3) contribute to scientific paradigms; (4) provide a way it can be tested or falsified; (5) establish boundaries and domains by which laws and truth statements can be generalized; and (6) enable propositions which can be added or compared to those of other theories.  In addition, theories should shed light on some of the more fundamental issues in metaphysics --  the problem of action, and the problem of order.  Briefly, the fundamental problem of action has to do with motivation, whether behavior is motivated selfishly and rationally or whether it is motivated emotionally, unconsciously, or in non-rational fashion.  The term "action" is used to distinguish behavior motivated by some purpose, or instrumentally, in other words.  The fundamental problem of order is the basic quest of sociology when sociologists ask "How is society possible", and involves how collective systems, structures, and patterns are linked, if at all, to individual choices, decisions, and freedom.  Criminology has an extensive set of fundamental issues it is concerned with, as follows:

Rational v. Irrational The problem of action, the metaphysics of motivation
Macro v. Micro The problem of order, the metaphysics of societal possibility
Structure v. Process Time or temporality; whether behavior is best explained by a snapshot observation or over a length of time
Consensus v. Conflict Conceptions of society; whether people agree or disagree on the seriousness of crime and/or the building blocks of society 
Free will v. Determinism Also known as the Classical v. Positivist debate (see below)
Optimism v. Pessimism Concerns about whether crime control can be effective or not

    Every theory has at least 2-3 meta-theoretical levels above it.  The fundamental issues are usually addressed at the APPROACH level, and are often called the assumptions, or starting points, of a theory, although the term "assumptions" more strictly refers to the background or domain boundaries one can draw generalizations about.  Above the approach level is the PERSPECTIVE level, the largest unit of agreement within a scientific community, and in fact, the names for the scientific disciplines.  Perspectives are sometimes called paradigms or viewpoints, although some people use the term paradigm to refer to untestable ideologies such as: (1) rational choice; (2) pathogenesis; (3) labeling; (4) critique for the sake of critique; and (5) theoretical integration.       

   Theory is the foundation of criminology and of criminal justice, and we study theory to know why we are doing what we do (Bohm 1985).  Theory without research is not science.  All research must be based on theory.  People who are uninterested in theory choose to move blindly through life, or in the case of criminal justice, intervene in people's lives with only vague notions about why they are doing what they are doing.

    The most important task of theory is explanation, which is also called prediction.  An explanation is a sensible way of relating the facts about some particular phenomenon to the intellectual atmosphere of a people at a particular time or place.  Any group of like-minded, receptive people at a particular time and place is called a school of thought.  Explanations are always tied to context (inter-subjective reliability) and concepts (the intellectual words and phrases in use at any given time).  What makes a person a "theorist" is their creative ability at wordsmithing, the ability to describe something that everyone knows is there, but no one has come along before to say it exactly like that.  The theorist's creativity is based on what are called constructs (images, ideas, or new words in the theorist's head), and the art of theory construction is the translation of constructs into concepts.  The notion that concepts always deal with something observable or something that can be experimented upon is called empiricism.


    Criminology has no monopoly on explanation. Everyone makes explanations all the time.  There are popular ones, spiritual ones, natural ones, unscientific ones.  What makes a theory scientific is that it focuses on causal relationships between variables.  What is a cause?  Causes are sequential changes in the properties of one thing brought about by sequential, determinant changes in the properties of another thing.  Causes are distinguished from primitive terms like factors.  Causes get down into the qualities or properties of particulars.  We call these properties variables, and they represent not the totality of an object, but various aspects or subsets of an object we suspect are involved in its efficient operation.  In other words, we find causes where we find things that move about, which may only be present in varying degrees.

    A variable is some subset of a phenomenon that you can have more or less of, as opposed to a constant, which you either have or don't have.  That's why they're called variables, because they vary.  There are no such things as theories about constants.  Everything in science is about variables.  The cause of something is called the independent variable (you have more or less of what makes you want to commit crime), and the effect of something is called the dependent variable (you engage in crime on a more or less regular basis). This IV-DV relationship is important for two reasons: (1) concomitant variation is the basis for almost all the statistical methods in mathematics; and (2) by focusing upon a relationship of some kind, theories are inherently predictive.  That makes prediction of something an important part of criminology, however:

    Finally, theories can be verified, falsified, or integrated.  Verification is the process of testing theories, bit by bit, piece by piece.  It's the incremental process of science, moving slowly, going over each and every word the theorist had to say and constructing an hypothesis about it, designing an experiment to test it, carrying out research on it, and reporting the statistical results. It's the most common procedure for handling theories in criminology, and involves two additional approaches: specification and elaboration.  Specification is any effort to figure out the details of a theory (especially its dependent variable side, or the effect), how the variables work together; usually associated with a belief that many, competing theories are better than integrated efforts. Elaboration is any effort to figure out the implications of a theory, what other variables might be added to the theory (especially on the independent variable side, or the cause); often associated with the belief that theory competition is better than theoretical integration  Falsification is when the researcher does some of their own thinking, and devises a negative test case or some hypothetical situation which would test exactly what the opposite of what the theory is saying.  It is intended to disprove or prove the theory, or at least some bit of it.  It's not done much in criminology; first of all, because theorists rarely provide any leads for constructing falsification statements; and second of all, because the theorist can always say it wasn't a fair test, or that wasn't what they meant.  Integration doesn't often involve any research at all, although it can with causal modeling and other advanced statistical techniques.  Instead, it's usually when the researcher (or another theorist) combines the similarities or differences between two different theories to construct a bigger theory.


    This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. What constitutes crime varies from culture to culture, and from time to time.  Criminals have been various things to different people throughout time -- heroes, villains, fools, revolutionaries, deviants, scumbags.  Criminologists try to be scientifically objective and open-minded, however, rather than succumb to popular definitions.  It's an important part of what makes criminology a science (other than its research and research methods).  Some people regard the definitional problem as the most important task in criminology.  Here's a list of some of the most common definitional approaches:


    Criminology is an older, larger field of study than criminal justice.  Criminology adheres to the natural science model, trying to be like Biology, Chemistry, or Physics.  Criminal justice adheres to the social science model, and is more receptive to disciplines like business, the arts, and humanities.  Criminology borrows heavily from philosophy, psychology and sociology.  Criminal justice borrows heavily from administrative public policy and lay sciences (like police science or investigative science).  Criminology has many theories, some of which conflict with one another.  Criminal justice has very few theories.  

    Many criminologists are hard-core, Vienna-school (measurable concepts only), logical positivists (Williams 1984). The most hard-core "numbers crunchers", or quantitative criminologists, dominate the top journals.  Even qualitative researchers are starting to use computers with software programs like NUDist and so forth.  Criminologists conduct research incrementally, by data mining, and by working on puzzles that have been in existence for decades.  Criminal justice research operates by serendipity, and by going on "fishing expeditions" for topics to study.

    Academic criminology is essentially a discursive discipline based on talk between its practitioners.  Academic criminal justice is essentially ideological fractionalization.  Both fields suffer from the Wozzle Effect (where unique terms lose their unique meaning) and Obliteration By Incorporation (where unique contributors are lost), aka the Matthew Effect.  Criminal justice is ascending vis--vis criminology because of its system focus and financial support.  Theories in criminology may devolve into "theories of the system" that emphasize pragmatic efficiency, reification of social control, and political falsifiability.  Now, more than ever, we need to increase our criminological IQ.

A TimeLine of Criminological Theory
Canadian Comprehensive Criminology

Criminology Mega-Site

Philosophical Issues and Criminological Theory
Prof. Hamlin's Notes on Deviance Theory

Prof. Keel's Theories of Deviance

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Last updated: Nov. 20, 2011
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O'Connor, T.  (2011). "Crime Theory Overview," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from accessed on Nov. 20, 2011.