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Shortcuts on this page: Terminology, Motives, Policies, Theories

    Criminology is an advanced, theoretical field of study.  It can be defined as the study of crime, the causes of crime (etiology), the meaning of crime in terms of law, and community reaction to crime.  Not too long ago, criminology separated from its mother discipline, sociology, and although there are some historical continuities, it has since developed habits and methods of thinking about crime and criminal behavior that are uniquely its own.  Also, a diverse variety of careers in criminology exist.

    Theory is a complex subject in its own right. Criminological theory is no exception; it also tends to be complex. Some definitions of terms might help to understand the field:

    Criminologists use words a certain way to indicate relationships between causes (independent variables) and effects (dependent variables). Here are some general guidelines that might help when reading some actual writing of a criminologist:


    Criminology has many Perspectives, Approaches, and Theories. A perspective is usually named after the scientific discipline it represents; e.g. biological, psychological, sociological, etc.  An approach is usually named after the founder of a school of thought (or one of their major concepts) like: morphological, Freudian, or social control.  A theory is almost always named after a person; e.g., Lombroso's, Healy's, or Sutherland's.  At its core, however, criminology (or more technically, the major subfield of etiology - the study of causes) - is all about MOTIVES, and I've assembled every motive ever thought of in one place for you -- right here, right now. See below:



Demonology (5,000 BC-1692 AD)

Demonic Influence

Astrology (3500 BC-1630 AD)

Zodiac/Planetary Influence

Theology (1215 BC-present)

God's will

Medicine (3000 BC -present)

Natural illness

Education (1642-present)

Academic underachievement/bad teachers

Psychiatry (1795-present)

Mental illness

Psychoanalysis (1895-present)

Subconscious guilt/defense mechanisms

Classical School of Criminology (1690--)

Free will/reason/hedonism

Positive School of Criminology (1840--)

Determinism/beyond control of individual

Phrenology (1770-1875)

Bumps on head

Cartography (1800-present)

Geographic location/climate

Mental Testing (1895-present)

Feeble-mindedness/retardation/low IQ

Osteopathy (1892-present)

Abnormalities of bones or joints

Chiropractics (1895-present)

Misalignment of spine/nerves

Imitation (1843-1905)

Mind on mind crowd influences

Economics (1818-present)

Poverty/economic need/consumerism

Case Study Approach (1909-present)

Emotional/social development

Social Work (1903-present)

Community/individual relations

Sociology (1908-present)

Social/environmental factors

Castration (1907-1947)

Secretion of androgen from testes

Ecology (1927-present)

Relation of person with environment

Transexualism (1937-1969)

Trapped in body of wrong sex

Psychosurgery (1935-1959)

Frontal lobe dysfunction/need lobotomy

Culture Conflict (1938-1980)

Conflict of customs from "old" country

Differential Association (1939-present)

Learning from bad companions

Anomie (1938-present)

State of normlessness/goal-means gap

Differential Opportunity (1961-present)

Absence of legitimate opportunities

Alienation (1938-1975)

Frustration/feeling cut off from others

Identity (1942-1980)

Hostile attitude/crisis/sense of sameness

Identification (1950-1955)

Making heroes out of legendary criminals

Containment (1961-1971)

Outer temptation/inner resistance balance

Prisonization (1940-1970)

Customs and folkways of prison culture

Gang Formation (1927-present)

Need for acceptance, status, belonging

Behavior Modification (1938-1959)

Reward/Punishment Programming

Social Defense (1947-1971)

Soft targets/absence of crime prevention

Guided Group Interaction (1958-1971)

Absence of self-responsibility/discussion

Interpersonal Maturity (1965-1983)

Unsocialized, subcultural responses

Sociometry (1958-1969)

One's place in group network system

Dysfunctional Families (1958-present)

Members "feed off" other's neurosis

White-collar Crime (1945-present)

Cutting corners/bordering on illegal

Control Theory (1961-present)

Weak social bonds/natural predispositions

Strain Theory (1954-present)

Anger, relative deprivation, inequality

Subcultures (1955-present)

Criminal values as normal within group

Labeling Theory (1963-1976)

Self-fulfilling prophecies/name-calling

Neutralization (1957-1990)

Self-talk, excuses before behavior

Drift (1964-1984)

Sense of limbo/living in two worlds

Reference Groups (1953-1978)

Imaginary support groups

Operant Conditioning (1953-1980)

Stimuli-to-stimuli contingencies

Reality Therapy (1965-1975)

Failure to face reality

Gestalt Therapy (1969-1975)

Perception of small part of "big picture"

Transactional Analysis (1961-1974)

No communication between inner parent-adult-child

Learning Disabilities (1952-1984)

School failure/relying on "crutch"

Biodynamics (1955-1962)

Lack of harmony with environment

Nutrition and Diet (1979-present)

Imbalances in mineral/vitamin content

Metabolism (1950-1970)

Imbalance in metabolic system

Biofeedback (1974-1981)

Involuntary reactions to stress

Biosocial Criminology (1977-1989)

Environment triggers inherited "markers"

The "New Criminology" (1973-1983)

Ruling class oppression

Conflict Criminology (1969-present)

Structural barriers to class interests

Critical Criminology (1973-present)

Segmented group formations

Radical Criminology (1976-present)

Inarticulation of theory/praxis

Left Realism (1984-present)

Working class prey on one another

Criminal Personality (1976-1980)

53 errors in thinking

Criminal Pathways Theory (1979-present)

Critical turning/tipping points in life events

Feminism (1980-present)

Patriarchial power structures

Low Self Control Theory (1993-present)

Impulsiveness, Sensation-seeking

General Strain Theory (1994-present)

Stress, Hassles, Interpersonal Relations

    Motives alone are usually not sufficient explanations by themselves. There may be facilitating or triggering factors like victim provocation and the presence of a gun.

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    Criminology has been extremely concerned with the issue of POLICY RELEVANCE. For most of the modern theories, I've tabulated the POLICY IMPLICATIONS. See below:

BIOLOGICAL THEORY: Treat the defect and protect society from the untreatable. Treatment to include drugs, psychosurgery, plastic surgery, genetic counseling, and eugenics for the untreatables. Protection to include experts as decision makers, individualized diagnosis, prediction, and indeterminate sentencing. Tendency to medicalize justice issues, and potential for misuse by government as form of social control.

PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY: Prediction, prevention, and therapeutic intervention. Intervention therapies to include psychoanalysis, group therapy, counseling, family therapy, drug treatment, and reconditioning. Psychoanalysis involves correcting childhood problems. Counseling involves resocializing and uncovering new behavioral options. Drug treatment is recommended for those with certain traits. Cognitive therapy involves learning new ways to think. Tendency to do better with sexual and violent crimes, but ignores situational factors and has some untestable assumptions.

DISORGANIZATION-ECOLOGICAL THEORY: Acculturation and assimilation along with community empowerment. Acculturation and assimilation to include helping immigrants and isolated subcultures feel like part of mainstream society. Sometimes requires moving people to new parts of town and urban renewal. Community empowerment to include strengthening grass-roots organizations, and integrating networks with wider political, social, and economic resources. Tendency to have social engineering and ethnocentric implications, and fails to explain insulation of some people from inner-city influences.

ANOMIE-STRAIN THEORY: Social change and equal opportunity. Some rehabilitation emphasis through coping with stress programs. Social change involves reorganizing socioeconomic roles available in society; bringing salaries in line with contribution to society, so that professional athletes don't make more than teachers, for example, and eliminate greed, jealousy, and excessive economic aspiration. Equal opportunity to include focus on entitlements of legitimate options through better educational system, improved management practices in workplace, creation of fulfilling jobs, welfare floors, War on Poverty, Head Start programs, and better aptitude-career planning. Tendency to be too much of a full plate for practical use, but has had some success when implemented in piecemeal fashion.

LEARNING THEORY: Rehabilitation through reeducation and resocialization. Segregate offenders and keep suggestible people away from bad influences. Resocialize through parental skills and peer evaluation training. Reeducate by replacing excuses and justifications for crime with reasons for following the law. Tendency to have better success at behavioral change, not cognitive change, but does not explain solitary offending nor middle-class deviation.

CONTROL THEORY: Prevention and rehabilitation through increased bonding. Bonding to include inculcating a desire not to hurt parents, teachers, friends, employers, police, and religious figures, establishing trust relationships, developing prospects for the future, and believing in the basic institutions of society. Tendency to have highest level of success of all criminological theories, especially when combined with work-retraining schemes, but difficult to put into practice when dealing with diverse ethnic and social class differences.

LABELING THEORY: Prevention through limiting social shaming reaction in others and replacing moral indignation with tolerance. Some rehabilitation emphasis in helping offenders be rehabilitated from the label. Prevention to include alternatives to prison programs involving diversion, client empowerment schemes, mediation and conciliation, victim-offender forgiveness ceremonies, restitution, and reparation. Tendency to have impractical policy implications, and doesn't explain explain serious offending well.

RADICAL-CONFLICT THEORY: Social change and redistribution of wealth. Some rehabilitation emphasis in empowering employees to see exploitation inherent in capitalist system. Social change to include decriminalization of consensual crimes and drug offenses, dismantling of bourgeois therapies, institutions, and Police State. Redistribution of wealth through employee ownership of corporations. Eventual move toward strict equality and socialist or communist society. Tendency to be trivialized as Marxist ideology, and does not explain high crime rates in more socialist countries.

FEMINIST THEORY: Social change and elimination of power. In general, seeks to replace gender-based power structures; i.e., patriarchy, with matriarchy, which focuses upon women's principles of care, nurturance, connectivity, community, and ethics. Elimination of power involves decentralized socialism providing equal access to the process of decision making. Tendency to ignore women as offender as well as unique qualities of persons of color, and retreats into diversity issue subsuming all differences as examples of women struggling to define themselves.

MIDDLE-CLASS THEORY: No strong policy implications, but implies reorganization of youthful outlets for fun and play so that "harmless" activities are taken more seriously, or that economic affluence should be regulated in some way.

INTEGRATED THEORY: No strong policy implications. It depends on which specific theories are integrated. Implications usually involve some aspect of each specific theory.


    The "classical school" (so-called because the divergent ideas of many scholars with similar ideas during this epoch were called that by history) was a social movement that existed during the late 1700s and the early 1800s.  The "classical" part of it is derived from the similarity in thinking between those scholars and early Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, etc.) which also put forth the importance of free will.  However, "free will" is NOT the only defining feature of something that is "classical", and in fact, there is a "neoclassical school" that is based on the idea of character (as a compromise between free will and determinism) and a rational choice school of thought which has similar but not the essential features of "classical,"  Rational choice is the idea that there are many more complex decision making variables in the reasoning process of offenders than the simple free will - deterrence model makes out.

    Classical criminology originated the concept of deterrence, although they didn't call it that at the time.  The concept of rationally preventing crime by punishment (what they meant by deterrence at the time) was considered a great humanitarian reform, superior in many ways to cruel and unusual medieval torture practices that existed.  It is best understood against the backdrop of what history calls the Enlightenment.  This broader movement (encompassing rationalism, naturalism, and humanitarianism) was the pinnacle of naturalism's rejection of all things spiritual, all things divine (such as divine right of kings, or in criminology, all explanations along the lines of the-devil-made-me-do-it).

    Some of the defining features of the classical school in criminology include:

    The leading figure of the classical school was CESARE BECCARIA (1738-1794). One could almost say he was the leader.  He pretty much synthesized the ideas of Montesquieu (branches of government), Helvetius (learning theories), Voltaire (justice theories), Bacon (naturalism, anti-spiritualism), Rousseau (social contract), Diderot (encyclopedic knowledge), and Hume (epistemology of proof).  BECCARIA in 1767 wrote the book called On Crimes and Punishment which made the following arguments:

    As you can see, BECCARIA synthesized a lot of different ideas going around at the time, and was indeed, the first one to apply Enlightenment thoughts to the problems of crime and crime control.  What attracts the attention of most thinkers is Beccaria's notion that punishment ought to be swift, certain, and severe (although he actually said the third one of these was proportional to the harm committed, and only later interpretations of his text turned it into "severe").   On another key point, it's important to note that the classical school wasn't all that concerned with criminals.  They rejected retribution-based punishment because it focused too much on individual criminals.  They were more concerned with crime, crime control, the reform of the criminal justice system, and the making of good laws. (You might want to read about Beccaria or read some excerpts of his writing)

    Someone who lived about the same time and can be considered part of the Classical School, JOHN HOWARD (1726-1790) made it his life's purpose to go into the prisons and clean them up, to make them more sanitary. (You may want to visit the John Howard Society's website or read some of John Howard's writings for more information.)   Between 1775 and 1790, John Howard made seven journeys across Europe in search of a humane prison system.  He conducted these investigations on his own and financed them himself.  In 1866, the Howard Association was formed, dedicated to most efficient means of penal treatment and crime prevention and a reformatory and radically preventive treatment of offenders.  Some of the issues that the Howard Association has dealt with over the years include:

    The next major figure we'll consider from the classical school is JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832).  Unlike Beccaria who was an Italian, Bentham was an Englishman.  Bentham's book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation made the following points:

    You might want to read a little bit about Bentham at the Bentham Project homepage.  For right now, I want to talk a little bit about UTILITARIANISM, and you'll probably detect a distinct Parsonian twist to it (Parsons was an influential sociologist during the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes called the "transition figure" between classical and contemporary sociology).  According to Parsons, an utilitarian person is an actor, not a knower (unlike the Cartesian man conception).  They have wants, needs, passions, interests, or goals, and these are what the personality system is organized around.  Society not only allows these goals to be accomplished or thwarted, but it can, if it wanted, shape the goals that people want, and therefore their personalities (kind of like Madison Avenue advertising telling you what you want to buy).  The trick is to set up the social system so that people don't even notice their wants are being shaped.  It's called "normative social control", and it's much more important to utilitarians that you keep the whole social system going for the most people most of the time in terms of the larger constellation of wants, rather than crackdown on a few criminals with abnormal wants.  This reflects something of the utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number, and it also explains why the classical school thinkers were more concerned with reforming the laws than with thinking about what makes individual criminals commit crime. It's also a form of laissez-faire economics quite suitable to capitalism.  If you set up the whole social system so there's some collective equivalent of individual self-interest (the government appears to be doing its business), then people will individually pursue their own best interests.  [end of lecture on utilitarianism]

    The so-called "neoclassical school" of thought emerged between 1880 and 1920 and is still with us today.  A 1974 book called We Are The Living Proof: A Justice Model might be considered a modern example of the neoclassical compromise. Living Proof argued for flat sentencing, just deserts (no rehabilitation), fixed legislation, reduced prison terms and goodtime, restricted judicial discretion, the abolishment of parole, voluntary rehabilitation, and a humane prison environment -- all reforms consistent with some classical school features and some positivist school features.  Neoclassical criminology tended to take different directions depending upon which country you're talking about, however.  Essentially, it was a series of compromises between classicists and positivists.  It stressed individual accountability and individualization of punishment. Its leading proponents were figures such as Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) and his pupil Raymond Saleilles (1898). The general features of neoclassicism include:

The "positivist school" was a social movement that existed during the mid 1800s and early 1900s.  The part of it that was "positive" was the forward-looking attitude toward social and personal betterment (the perfectibility of both society and human nature), kind of like what we mean when we use the phrase Positive Law (using law to change society).  The term "positivism" refers to a method of analysis based on the collection of observable scientific facts.  Its aim is to explain and (most importantly) predict the way facts occur in uniform patterns.  Positivism is the basis of most natural sciences, and positivist criminology is the application of positivist methods to the study of people.

    The positivist school is best seen as a reaction to the armchair philosophy and theorizing of the classical school.  Many scholars began seeing hedonism and utilitarianism, for example, as rather oversimplified philosophies.  The Rational Man model of human behavior was criticized.  Positivism is the search for other, multiple factors as the cause of human behavior.  It represents a distinct shift from a focus on law and crime control to the inner workings of the criminal mind and what makes it tick. 

    Some of the common, defining features of the positivist school in criminology include:

    Some say that positivist criminology was invented by an astronomer in Belgium named QUETELET during the 1820s who mixed meteorology, mathematics, biology, and early sociology into what was called "social physics" or the "social mechanics of crime."  In France, someone named GUERRY was doing the same thing with maps that Quetelet was doing in Belgium.  Guerry, however, was much more favorable to the idea that climate influenced crime, while Quetelet tended to favor biological explanations of criminal predispositions.  Also in France, sociological positivism emerged, under the leadership of someone named COMTE, often called the father of sociology (he invented the word sociology because he was embarrassed that a mere astronomer came up with the phrase social physics).  Whole societies were now able to be classified and social phenomenon could be predicted.  Comte especially liked the idea of one big super-religion, led by sociological experts, who guided government leaders in how to make the world a better place.  Most people believe the leading figure of positivist criminology (often called the father of criminology) was LOMBROSO (1835-1909).  He was influenced by Darwin (social selection), Lavater (facial features), and Gall (phrenology, or bumps on the head-the cranium being a true reflection of brain size).  Lombroso's book, On Criminal Man, was first put together in 1861, and made the following points:

Lombroso's Checklist of Physiognomic Indicators

Unusually short or tall height
Small head, but large face
Small and sloping forehead
Receding hairline
Wrinkles on forehead and face
Large sinus cavities or bumpy face
Large, protruding ears
Bumps on head, particularly the Destructiveness Center behind ear
Protuberances (bumps) on head
High check bones
Bushy eyebrows
Large eyesockets
Deep, beady eyes
Beaked nose (up or down) or flat nose
Strong jawline
Fleshy lips, but thin upper lip
Mighty incisors, abnormal teeth
Small or weak chin
Thin neck
Sloping shoulders, but large chest
Long arms
Pointy, webby, snubby fingers or toes
Tatoos on body

    You might want to read a little bit about Lombroso at this Body Politic site.  It's important you understand that positivist criminology is NOT simply about biology or Darwinism.  Lombroso only emphasized that part of it because he was trained in medicine.  You could just as easily have psychological positivism or sociological positivism, in fact, any discipline could be positivistic.  Let's take a look at a couple of Lombroso's pupils who became famous, and then examine some different branches of positivism.

    FERRI (1856-1929) was a pupil of Lombroso who is remembered mostly for his definitive attack on the concept of free will.  He argued that all crime is involuntary behavior.  Habitual criminals are mostly affected by the social environment, although there are biological and psychological factors too.  Ferri ended up working for the socialist (fascist) cause in Italy (under Mussolini) to dismantle the classical foundations of law and try to help improve the living conditions of the working class.

    GAROFALO (1852-1934) was another pupil of Lombroso who was actually influential on the American eugenics movement (1911-1930) which sterilized thousands of society's misfits and defectives, so they wouldn't reproduce.  Garofalo believed in survival of the fittest.  He was the one who popularized the phrase "society is an organic body and crime is the disease" (often called the social defense approach to criminological positivism) as well as began the concern for moral degeneration.  Criminals, you see, suffered from defects in their moral reasoning.  They had deficiencies in pity (revulsion at seeing another human being suffer) and probity (respect for property of others). 

    In Germany, phrenology emerged. Scholars like GALL and SPURZHEIM were regarded by a small few as the true founders of criminology.  They scientifically studied 35 different bumps on the head and successfully predicted crime in about 17% of their cases for people with bumps in certain areas.  However, phrenology never quite caught on in America except among fortune tellers.  Two main branches represent the lasting legacy of Lombroso.  These are shown below with the names of the most influential people associated with them:

(the study of body types)
(the study of personality/mind)
Goring (1913)
Kretschmer (1925)
Hooten (1939)
Sheldon (1949)
the Gluecks (1950)
Dugdale (1877;1912)
Goddard (1912;1927)
Freud (1920)
Alexander & Healy (1935)
Aichorn (1936)


    Below are the lecture notes I've used over the years in teaching criminology.  In some places, the writing is quite advanced and in the form of what it takes for someone to do further conceptualizing and/or theory testing.  In most cases, however, they are helpful, little guides to the unit theories in the field. 

1. Choice Theory  
2. Anthropological Theory  
3. Mental Deficiency Theory  
4. Biological Theory  
5. Psychological Theory  
6. Moral Development Theory
7. Psychopathy Theory
8. Antisocial Personality Theory
9. Poverty Theory  
10. Social Disorganization Theory  
11. Strain Theory  
12. Learning Theory  
13. Control Theory  
14. Labeling Theory
15. Conflict Theory
16. Feminist and Integrated Theories

Last updated: July 04, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T.  (2011). "The Criminology Mega-Site," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/criminology.htm accessed on July 04, 2011.