Special Problems In New Face Criminology

Throughout the history of criminology, a recurrent question has been “what is wrong with criminological theory?” The persistent (and necessary, we would add) raising of this question has led to a rather wide range of literature critically analyzing the state of theory, that spans the various developmental periods for the discipline. A review of this literature identified three predominant and persistent critical themes: criminological theories are not scientific enough; theory in criminology is too narrow and too empirical; and, criminology is too tied to criminal justice.

  1. Criminological Theories Are Not Scientific Enough: Gibbs [1]concluded that “…criminological theories will remain defective until criminologists adopt formal theory construction” [2]meaning using the standard logic and methods of science. Expressing the same sentiment, Gottfredson [3]called for “…increased attention to some fundamental tenets of scientific theory building” [4]and McCord [5]noted that we have “…paid too little attention to the requirements of legitimacy for theories not cast in the mold of logical positivism” [6]Braithwaite[7] observed that “criminology as a science has failed to put us in a position to say sensible empirically informed (emphasis added) things ….”
  2. Criminology Is Too Narrow and Too Empirical

Above, it was established that there is a long-standing concern in criminology over the discipline not being “scientific” enough and an accompanying advocacy for moving toward a more empirical orientation. There are some, however, who have argue just the opposite, that criminology and criminal justice have become mired in very narrow and incomplete views of the world and approaches to addressing the problem of crime in our society.[8] This myopic vision of the world is often attributed, at least in large part, to an over-reliance on scientific methodology, as it has been traditionally defined.

For at least the last 30 years, the dominant interpretation of the main problem with criminological theory (and the discipline more generally) is that we have been unable and/or unwilling to fully and consistently apply the methods of science and formal theory construction. [9]This inability/unwillingness has resulted in a dearth of adequate data and subsequently has manifested as a failure to develop functional and valid criminological theories. Williams [10] using Mills [11]as a model, identifies the “lack of criminological imagination” as one of the three factors that have been instrumental in narrowing the discipline. He further observes that this lack of imagination “…can be largely traced to the increasing ‘empirical scientism’ of the social sciences” This heavy reliance on narrow empiricism creates a “tautological position,” in which knowledge comes to be equated primarily (if not exclusively) with that which is measured. Williams [12]laments that we in criminology “…have followed the ‘hard’ sciences into an alley where we are more concerned with measurement itself” than with the substance of that being measured. He warns against the danger of allowing the methodological tools to overshadow their own purpose.

Nils Christie [13] attributes the “triviality of our findings” to “over socialization to expectations created by science” Williams [14]offers a similar observation when he characterizes many in the social sciences as “treetop fliers.”

Williams [15]says that it is the first problem, the inability to find all of the data, that ironically “…brings about the reification of scientism”. The failure of empiricism to provide all of the data (i.e., more complete understanding) is not, as it should be, interpreted as a limitation of the methods. Rather, a vicious cycle is put into motion. Scientism harbors and promotes the belief that, when we cannot adequately measure something, one of three things must be occurring.  Either more specificity is needed (i.e., the phenomenon needs to be broken down into smaller parts), or the measuring instruments have failed, both of which push for heightened emphasis on the scientific enterprise[16]. Or, third, it is determined that things which cannot be (empirically) measured must not actually be real[17]. Rather than raising questions about the limitations of our vision and approaches to gathering information, all three interpretations serve to more firmly entrench the narrow empirical mind-set. It is hard to topple a belief structure that so effectively explains away its own failures.

In short, from this perspective, the main obstacles to the development of valid criminological theory (and more effective crime policy) are the facts that criminology is  characterized by an “overweening emphasis on quantitative, statistical analysis and the strong tendency toward disciplinary reductionism”.[18]

Criminology is Too Tied to the CJS

The third theme relating to the problems with criminology is that it has become too closely associated with criminal justice. This factor also can be related to the issue of narrowness. Some believe that this partnership has had a limiting impact on the discipline, diverting attention and energy away from other appropriate and necessary subject matter.

Donald Cressey[19]  published an article in which he assessed predictions that he had made, ten years prior, about the future of criminology. He stated that what he had not foreseen was that “…criminology would become more and more concerned with increasing the efficiency of a punitive legal apparatus and less and less concerned with trying to discover the processes generating the criminals to be punished and the laws and personnel doing the punishing”. [20]Cressey expressed dismay that criminology appeared to be favoring policy making over attempts to explain crime and law making, and he rather unceremoniously characterized the typical criminologist at the time as a “…technical assistant to politicians bent on repressing crime, rather than a scientist seeking valid propositions…”

In “The Demise of the Criminological Imagination,” Williams[21] picked up on this same theme, identifying three main factors that were adversely affecting the discipline. The over reliance on empiricism, was discussed above, but also listed was the rise of the academic discipline of criminal justice. Williams attributes this rise to infusions of large sums of money (i.e., the Law Enforcement Assistance Act) to colleges and universities to address the crime problem, which resulted from increasing concerns over crime during the 1960s. These funds were used to develop departments of criminal justice. The primary focus of these departments became changing the crime control system to make it more efficient and effective, which was somewhat counter to the more basic theoretical interests that had typified criminology to this point.  At the risk of sounding crass, to put it succinctly, it appears that criminology followed the money. As a result, “…the new discipline of criminal justice…‘usurped’ the topic of crime from criminology”[22].

This commingling of traditional criminology with the new and more applied discipline of criminal justice created fissures and fractures within the discipline. To some, it now seemed that criminology was struggling to be all things to all people, leading to the observation that the discipline no longer knew its own limits[23]. This state of affairs has prompted the characterization of criminology as “a fragmented field of inquiry”[24] Furthermore, it is claimed that the response to this fragmentation has been that most criminologists have, for better or worse, identified with criminal justice.[25]

Radzinowicz expresses concern over this situation because he believes that the more we concentrate on training justice personnel, the more we put our academic standards at risk of serious compromise.

It is apparent that some in the discipline are still concerned about the state of affairs that alarmed Cressey 25 years ago, when he observed that “the tragedy is in the tendency for modern criminologists to drop the search for causes and to join the politicians….these criminologists (which he numbered in the “hundreds”) seem satisfied with a technological criminology whose main concern is for showing policy makers how to repress criminals and criminal justice workers more efficiently”. It is true that there have been reactions (e.g., radical/analytical theories, feminist theory, peacemaking) within the discipline against a concentration on crime control. However, while these perspectives have gained some attention, they have not altered the status

The final two identified problems will be discussed together because they represent two ends of the spectrum of criticism and concern in the discipline. The specific expressions of both of these areas of concern were somewhat diverse, but some basic themes did emerge. For “not scientific enough,” the crux of the disquiet seemed to relate to insufficient empirical tests/research and measurement/specification/data set problems. The “too narrow” complaint most often targeted things like an over-reliance on quantitative methods and data and/or a bias against qualitative methods.

Both of these areas of complaint have a substantial history in the discipline. Both were described, in some detail, above, and it seems unnecessary to cover the same ground again. The fact that two such diametrically opposed critical observations long have been and continue to be expressed harkens back to the question raised at the beginning of this section, “what should we be?” The persistence of this question and the consistent failure to arrive at a satisfactory answer clearly indicates that criminology as a discipline is still struggling to find its true identity; it is still developing and evolving.

[1] 1987

[2] p. 821

[3] (1989)

[4] p. 1

[5] 1989

[6] p. 139

[7] 1990

[8] Pepinsky & Quinney, 1991; Martin, 1993, 2000; Williams, 1999; Gibbs, Giever & Pober, 2000

[9] Gibbs, 1972, 1985, 1987; Tittle, 1985;  McCord, 1989, 1990, 1992; Leavitt, 1999).

[10] 1984.

[11] 1959

[12] p. 97

[13] (1997)

[14] 1984

[15] (1984)

[16] Williams, 1984

[17] Wilber, 1980

[18] Williams, 1999, p. 75

[19] 1978.

[20]  p. 174

[21] 1984

[22] Williams, 1984, p. 100

[23] Nelken, 1994

[24] Ericson & Carriere, 1994, p. 89

[25] Ericson & Carriere, 1994; Nelken, 1994

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