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What Is Criminology? - Definition, History & Theories

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  • 0:00 Definition of Criminology
  • 0:50 History and Theories
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Earl Crowe

Earl has over 20 years of lecturing experience and has a master's degree in criminal justice.

The study of criminology has evolved over the past 250 years, although you can still go to prison for stealing a slice of pizza in some states. Learn more about the study of criminology and the various theories it embraces.

Definition of Criminology

Criminology is the scientific study of crime, including its causes, responses by law enforcement, and methods of prevention. It is a sub-group of sociology, which is the scientific study of social behavior. There are many fields of study that are used in the field of criminology, including biology, statistics, psychology, psychiatry, economics, and anthropology.

Just as criminology is a sub-group of sociology, criminology itself has several sub-groups, including:

  • Penology: the study of prisons and prison systems
  • Biocriminology: the study of the biological basis of criminal behavior
  • Feminist criminology: the study of women and crime
  • Criminalistics: the study of crime detection

History and Theories

There are many different theories of criminology that have developed throughout the past 250 years or so, and while some have fallen out of popularity, others are still thought relevant today. The creation of criminology as a field of study can be tracked as far back as the 18th century, when two social theorists, Cesare Beccaria in Italy and Jeremy Bentham in England, each pushed the idea that the punishment should be so severe that the criminal would decide that the pleasure of the criminal act would not be worth the pain of the punishment. This was known as the classical school of criminology.

As recently as 1995, a judge in California sentenced a man to prison for 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza. The judge stated that his hands were tied because of the three strikes law, and the law would not allow the judge to look at the specific crime. This example follows the classical school of criminology that was developed over 200 years ago.

During the early 19th century, criminologists started to argue that the classical school of criminology does not differentiate between varying degrees of crimes. These criminologists were known as the positivists. The positivists believed that the punishment should fit the criminal, not the crime.

Cesare Lombroso, Italian physician and psychiatrist, was a leader of the positivist theory. He believed that criminals were born, not made, and that crime was a matter of nature, not nurture. He conducted extensive studies on cadavers of executed criminals, coming up with the argument that certain facial features, such as very large jawbones and strong canine teeth, were obvious signs that an individual was or would be a criminal. However, this theory became less popular for moral reasons and in favor of later theories focusing on environmental factors that contribute to criminal behavior.

During the late 19th century, criminologists began to incorporate biology and statistics into their field of study. Genetics was used to determine whether criminal behavior could be linked from one family member to another, and statistics was used to study population and crime. In 1946, the Society for the Advancement of Criminology was created, which later became the American Society of Criminology, a scholarly and scientific organization aimed at studying prevention and causes of crime and treatment of criminals.

During the 20th century, two more theories in criminology were developed. These theories are social-structural criminology, and social-process criminology. Social-structural criminology studies how criminal behavior is affected by structures and/or social situations. The idea behind this theory is that crime is a product of the deficiencies in social structure.

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