Critical Criminology: Definition & False Beliefs

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  • 0:04 The Common Criminal
  • 1:24 Conflict Criminology
  • 2:05 Marxism
  • 3:09 Feminist Criminology
  • 3:52 Criticism of Critical…
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Social scientists have long theorized about why people commit crimes. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the prominent theories that come under the aegis of critical criminology.

The Common Criminal

Penniless Penny slipped into the bodega. She felt a twinge of guilt, having known the owners for years. But within minutes she stuffed her bag with prepaid cell phones, then grabbed some smokes and a bottle of vodka before disappearing into the dark shadows of the alley behind the store. Across town, White Collar Wilson lit up a cigar and poured himself a well-earned brandy. Having just watched the funds transfer into his account after 20,000 shares of fake stock moved into his unfortunate clients' portfolios, it was time to celebrate.

Why did they commit these crimes? Need? Greed? Is it worth studying to find out? Criminology, the study of crime causation, looks at the root causes of crime with the hope of producing policies that reduce it.

Under the umbrella of criminology theories rests critical criminology. It not only rejects traditional theories of crime causation, but challenges conventional understandings of crime and punishment by uncovering false beliefs and perspectives. Its chosen paradigm is the inequalities of capitalist society. Critical criminologists are confident that once those falsehoods are exposed, the true root of crime will be discovered: social injustice created by economic and social inequality.

Let's take a look at some of the most important theories within critical criminology.

Conflict Criminology

Conflict criminology looks at crime as the result of social or economic conflict within a capitalist society. A capitalist society is a free market system where people are free to accumulate and keep wealth. Conflict criminology argues that the accumulation of wealth breeds inequality, conflict, and eventually crime. When an imbalance exists in economic or social institutions, those on top focus less on the injustice and human costs of hoarded wealth and more on deploying their power to maintain the status quo. Those with power and wealth use their influence to define crime in ways that criminalize others who wish to attain a higher social or economic position.


Most conflict theories ultimately share common underpinnings with Marxism, a social and political theory inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. Marx, who was a philosopher and political theorist, believed capitalism was the root cause of modern social and economic inequality, and that those who hold wealth and power struggle with those who want to take those from them. Though Marx did not specifically present a formal explanation of criminal behavior, it doesn't take much effort to extrapolate a Marxist paradigm on crime from his ideas.

For Marx, those at the top of a society, who he calls the bourgeoisie, or the ownership class, were inherently guilty of the crime of exploiting the working class. This is done naturally within a capitalist system or any non-egalitarian society. The state and the law itself ultimately serve the interests of the ownership class; revolution is thus a morally justified, necessary form of counter-violence. This conflict between the ownership class and the exploited class creates crime due to need and moral outrage.

Feminist Criminology

Feminist criminology puts gender at the center of any discussion on crime. Traditionally, criminology has looked at crime and punishment as strictly masculine phenomena, and its studies, theories and policies focused exclusively on men. There are four distinct branches of feminist thought on criminology:

  1. Liberal feminists focus on social inequality and seek equal opportunities for women.
  2. Marxist feminists look at class structure and capitalism as responsible for women's oppression.
  3. Socialist feminists suggest that political and economic structures in society are the source of inequality.
  4. Radical feminists focus on patriarchal domination of women and the need to replace this perspective with a female-centered viewpoint.

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