- 1 Understanding crime and criminology
- 2 Crime and punishment in history
- 3 Crime data and crime trends
- 4 Crime and the media
- 5 The politics of crime and its control
In this chapter we begin the study of criminology. What is this subject, what are its origins and what is its focus? Having considered these questions we move on to look at what is meant by the term ‘crime’. Although it might be tempting to think that the term is straightforward, and indeed that is how a lot of people talk and think, as we will see, there is a range of ways in which crime can be understood. It is, for example, both a legal concept (we have criminal laws which indicate which acts are illegal) and a socially constructed one (who becomes labelled ‘criminal’ and under what circumstances?). We examine these and other ideas. The chapter concludes by looking briefly at the history of criminology in Britain, its institutional origins and its recent expansion.
This is a question that is deceptively simple in appearance, but really quite tricky to answer with great certainty. It is tricky partly because, as we will see, criminology is a mixture of different disciplines, differing objects of study and some dispute over where, precisely, its boundaries actually lie and should lie. Importantly, however, the fact that we begin with this question assumes that you are new to this subject. Indeed, that is the underlying assumption. This book is designed as an introduction for students who are studying criminology. I have endeavoured not to make too many assumptions about pre-existing knowledge of the subject and, wherever possible, I will hope to begin from basics and work progressively toward more complex ideas or arguments.
Criminology is a strange beast. With origins in applied medico-legal science, psychiatry, a scientifically oriented psychology and in nineteenth-century social reform movements, for much of the second half of the twentieth century British criminology was dominated by sociology or at least a predominantly sociological approach to criminology. Times are changing again, however, and a new strand of technical and highly policy-oriented ‘scientific’ criminology has been emerging more recently. During the course of this book you will meet all these variants and should learn how to assess their competing claims.
In a masterly analysis of the emergence and development of criminology in Britain, David Garland (2002: 8) introduced the subject in the following way:
I take criminology to be a specific genre of discourse and inquiry about crime – a genre that has developed in the modern period and that can be distinguished from other ways of talking and thinking about criminal conduct. Thus, for example, criminology’s claim to be an empirically-grounded, scientific undertaking sets it apart from moral and legal discourses, while its focus upon crime differentiates it from other social scientific genres, such as the sociology of deviance and control, whose objects of study are broader and not defined by the criminal law. Since the middle years of the twentieth century, criminology has also been increasingly marked off from other discourses by the trappings of a distinctive identity, with its own journals, professional associations, professorships, and institutes.
In this history, Garland argues that modern criminology is the product of two initially separate streams of work:
- • The 'governmental project' - empirical studies of the administration of justice; the working of prisons, police and the measurement of crime.
- • The 'Lombrosian project' - studies which sought to examine the characteristics of 'criminals' and 'non-criminals' with a view to being able to distinguish the groups, thereby developing an understanding of the causes of crime.
During the twentieth century, he suggests, these gradually merged and changed to form the basis for what we recognise these days as criminology.
The term criminology
seems first to have been used by Paul Topinard, a Frenchman studying the body types of criminals, though the invention of the term itself is generally credited to an Italian academic lawyer, Raffaele Garofalo. Both are associated with the second stream of work identified above – which Garland names after the Italian scholar, Cesare
Lombroso (see Chapter 6
). This work, in various forms, was concerned with attempts to identify physical and other characteristics that set criminals apart. Such work varied from the measurement of physical characteristics such as head shape and the shape and size of the jaw and cheekbones, through to work that focused more upon the environmental conditions that produced criminality. Though, by and large, crude attempts to identify and measure characteristics that distinguish criminals from others have largely disappeared, Garland’s argument is that one very significant stream of criminology has continued to be concerned with identifying the individual, social and environmental factors that are associated with offending.
Thortsen Sellin, an American criminologist writing in the 1930s, once observed that the ‘criminologist does not exist who is an expert in all the disciplines which converge in the study of crime’ (Sellin, 1970: 6). As a criminology student you will quickly discover just how many disciplinary approaches are utilised in studying crime and criminal justice. In this book you will come across work by psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers, historians, geographers and others, all working within the subject of criminology. That they do so is one of criminology’s great strengths.
Different disciplines have been dominant at different points in the history of criminology, and there are differing orientations to be found within criminology in different countries. Nevertheless, as you will see as this book progresses, criminology is influenced by, and draws upon, psychology, sociology, legal theory, history and other subjects besides. This raises a number of issues. It means that not only will you find a number of different approaches being taken to the subject matter, but that sometimes these approaches will appear rather at odds with each other. This is one of the great challenges within criminology and, though it can occasionally seem daunting, it is one of the characteristics which I think makes the discipline attractive. Linked with this is the question of whether it is appropriate to use the word discipline at all. Criminology, as I have suggested, draws from disciplines such as psychology and sociology, and there has been quite some debate about whether criminology can lay claim to such status itself (I tend to think not).
This is not an argument we can resolve here. The British criminologist David Downes once described criminology as a ‘rendezvous subject’. He did so precisely to capture the fact that it is an area of study that brings together scholars from a variety of disciplinary origins, who meet in the territory called crime, and this seems to me a more than satisfactory way of thinking about it. Indeed, we do not need to spend a lot of time discussing the various positions that have been taken in relation to it. It is enough for current purposes that we are alerted to this issue and that we bear it in mind as we cover some of the terrain that comes under the heading criminology.
There is a further distinction that we must briefly consider, and it concerns criminology on the one hand and criminal justice on the other. Although the study of the administrative responses to crime is generally seen as being a central part of the criminological enterprise, sometimes the two are separated, particularly in the United States. In America there is something of a divide between those who think of themselves as doing criminology and those who study criminal justice. In fact, the distinction is anything but clear. Criminological work tends to be more theoretically informed than criminal justice studies and also more concerned with crime and its causes. Both, however, have clear concerns with the criminal justice and penal systems. In discussing this distinction, Lacey (2002: 265) suggests that criminology ‘concerns itself with social and individual antecedents of crime and with the nature of crime as a social phenomenon’, whereas criminal justice studies ‘deal with the specifically institutional aspects of the social construction of crime’ such as policing, prosecution, punishment and so on. We will consider what is meant by the social construction of crime in more detail below. Before we do so, let us look once more at the parameters of criminology.
Even the very short discussion so far should have alerted you to the fact that criminology is a complex subject which has a number of historical roots and, as we will see, a number of quite different approaches in its contemporary guise. On this basis, coming up with a definition of our subject matter is almost not only a difficult task but, quite probably, an impossible one. However, in order to bring a tiny bit more certainty to this rather uncertain terrain, I will borrow an approach to our subject matter first offered by one of the towering figures of twentieth-century criminology.
Edwin Sutherland – someone who you will get to meet regularly throughout this book – defined
criminology as the study of the making of laws, the breaking of laws, and of society’s reaction to the breaking of laws. Whilst this is by no means a comprehensive definition of criminology – criminologists may be interested, for example, in various forms of behaviour that do not involve the breaking of laws but, nevertheless, bring forth some form of social sanction – it does help point us in the direction of what are arguably the three great tributaries that make up the subject:
- • The study of crime.
- • The study of those who commit crime.
- • The study of the criminal justice and penal systems.
Sutherland (1937) went on to argue that the ‘objective of criminology is the development of a body of general and verified principles and of other types of knowledge regarding the process of law, crime, and treatment or prevention’. Now, having indicated that this is the general approach that informs much of what follows in this book, I want to pause and look briefly at work that is critical of the very enterprise that is criminology. I do so, not because I think the criticisms that are made are sufficient to make us abandon this project (as you can tell because there are another 1,000-odd pages to go before the end of the book), but because they should make us think very carefully about the assumptions that underpin criminology and should make us question the limitations of this particular enterprise.
The critique is associated with what we will come to think of as ‘critical criminology’ and can be found in various forms since at least the 1970s (see also Chapter 13
). Hillyard and Tombs (2004), for example, argue for a change of focus away from ‘crime’ and toward ‘social harm’ (see also Dorling et al.
, 2005; Davies et al.
, 2014). They do so on the basis of four major lines of criticism:
- • Crime has no ontological reality - The category 'crime' has no reality beyond the application of the term to particular acts. The acts themselves are not intrinsically criminal. Thus, to kill someone during peacetime may well be treated as murder; to do so on a battlefield will most likely not. We return to this below.
- • Criminology perpe...