Crime and Criminal Behaviour

Criminology can be defined as the multidisciplinary study of crime. As the definition suggests, many disciplines are involved in the collection of knowledge about crime, including psychology, sociology, psychiatry, anthropology, biology, neurology, political science and economics. 1 Over the years criminology has been dominated by three disciplines – sociology, psychology and biology. Criminology needs all the help it can get in its struggle to understand, explain and prevent criminal behaviour and an integration of the data, theory and general viewpoints of each discipline is crucial.

3 While interest in crime has always been high, understanding of why it occurs and what to do about it has always been a problem. Public officials, politicians and ‘experts’ offer simple and incomplete solutions for obliterating crime, whereas academe invariably offers abstract interpretations and suggestions that often have little practical value. As in most areas of human behaviour, there is no shortage of experts but there are very few effective solutions.

2 Criminologists develop theories and conduct research to understand and explain criminal behaviour. A theory attempts to make sense out of many disparate observations (or facts) by stating a general principal that connects, integrates and explains them. A good theory is extremely valuable in that it extends our knowledge beyond the facts in front of us (the raw data), enabling us to predict how others might behave at another time and in another place.

3 Criminological theories based on biology, psychology were both, at one stage dominant in the field, however the vast majority of current criminological text employs sociological theory and research. Biological and psychological explanations will be examined in the following essay; however there will be a focus on sociological theory. 5 Criminology not only progresses by the development of coherent and comprehensive theories about crime and its causes but also by the systematic collection and analysis of observations about the social world in relation to those theories.

6 Generally, data is generated by different forms of data collection and examined by different forms of data analysis. The variety of data is, in part a reflection of the diversity of problems addressed and the overabundance of aspects of such problems which are exposed for investigation by different theoretical approaches. 8 Any given instance of criminological research represents a particular constellation between problem, theory and method, and the data which is used is the outcomes of that constellation.

This essay will also look at the research procedure and its three phases: the research question or problem, the research and information gathering method, and interpreting the results from the gathered information. The objectives of criminological research are sometimes said to be threefold: descriptive, causal, and normative. The descriptive aspect consists of the collection of relevant and reliable facts, together with their interpretation. The collection does not begin as a random and meaningless running after whatever phenomena happen to rouse the researcher’s interest.

Rather it is preceded by some hypothesis or “hunch,” an assumption about what the researcher expects to find. The hypothesis “organizes” his inquiry. As the collection of facts proceeds, he may find either that his hypothesis is correct or that it requires revision or abandonment and thus the development of a new hypothesis to guide further research. 7 The history of criminology reflects this perennial revision and renewal of inquiry, this continuous process of abandoning seemingly well-established theories in favour of new ones.

Lombroso’s theory of the “born criminal,” the theory that all crime (or at least all economic crime) is due to poverty, and the theory that all juvenile delinquents come from broken homes had all to be drastically revised. The causal aspect involves relating the effects of one body of facts on another. Although regarded nowadays with some suspicion or indifference (even in the natural sciences), the search for causes is not being dispensed with altogether.

So long as one does not jump to causal conclusions when arriving at statistical correlations or does not pressure “facts” into some proof of a popular theory, theories of causation can be useful in planning for the alleviation of crime and criminality. 5 The normative aspect, however, is more decidedly suspect. Research aimed at formulating so-called laws governing criminological phenomena has been thus far futile and does not look promising. What is sometimes regarded as a “law” has in reality been a mere trend.

To diagnose statistical trends may be useful so long as their possible ephemeral nature is recognized, but trends are not laws, and there is thus but little scope for the normative approach in criminology. In common with other disciplines, criminology must face such distinctions as between pure and applied research and between statistical and intuitive ways of thinking, but what is almost unique to criminological research is its intense involvement with society and its difficulty in achieving “detachment.

” Not only do society’s biases toward crime and punishment influence a criminologist’s choice and execution of research but also he is dependent on the willing cooperation of governmental departments and other public authorities to secure essential raw material or data. 9 There are only a few limited areas—such as adolescent delinquency and gang activities—in which research can be pursued privately without resort to official help.

Seen in the light of the previous remarks on the history of criminology, the development of criminological research can be divided into three stages: the prescientific, lacking any theoretical basis and largely identifiable with the work of the classical school; the semiscientific, possessing theories and hypotheses but without scientifically sound techniques and largely characteristic of the efforts of the positivist school; and the scientific, hopefully trying to repair earlier deficiencies and developing or improving the techniques described below.

Often serving as the initial step in any research and regarded by some researchers, perhaps incorrectly, as the one and only reliable technique, the collection and interpretation of statistics for social and criminological purposes began in Europe early in the 19th century. The manner and extent of data collection today differ considerably from country to country or, in federal unions like the United States, even from state to state or province to province.

They differ in how often data are collected and published, in what items are given importance, in the choice between complete listings and sample surveys, in the ratio between governmental and private research, and so forth. Such far-reaching differences, together with the differences in law and its administration and in popular views and habits, have made it so far impossible to devise a meaningful system of international criminal statistics.

Generally, however, there is increasingly less tendency to collect any and all data, regardless of reliability or practical value, and to concentrate on limited, reliable data involving matters of agreed upon importance. Also called the individual “case history,” the case study concentrates on the career or life of one individual or group of individuals and is the method used primarily, though not exclusively, by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts. If well done, such histories can give deep insights into the personalities and motives of criminals, but the method does have shortcomings.

4 Although the volume of case histories has grown large, their reliability is sometimes suspect—partly because of a criminal’s natural reluctance to expose himself completely and partly because of the nature of the publication of case histories. Their publication is comparatively rare; professional ethics often forbid the exposure of details given confidentially, and those studies actually published may be too few to be typical and may even on occasion be designedly selective because of an investigator’s wish to prove a theory.

The typological method involves classifying offenses, criminals, criminal associations, criminal areas, or whatever according to some criteria of relatedness or similarity. Thus there have been attempts to dichotomize criminals as either “normal” or “abnormal,” “habitual” or “professional,” or to form a continuum of criminals from the “insane” at one extreme through various career criminals, petty offenders, and white-collar criminals to “organized” or “professional” criminals at the other extreme.

5 The typological method is less impersonal and heterogeneous than the statistical method and less individual or specific than the case study. Developed mainly in Germany and Austria and more recently in the United States, the method has been disputed; psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have especially questioned its value, primarily because it attempts to reduce complex phenomena to simple terms and tends to ignore important individual differences. Nevertheless, employed with restraint, the method is indispensable as a bridge between the two extremes, and it is in fact often used unknowingly by both statisticians and case students.

A controlled experiment involves taking two closely related situations or groups, subjecting one of them to a specific change and comparing the subsequent characteristics of both. In the past, so-called experiments by judicial, penal, and reformatory institutions were not really controlled or even experimental in the scientific sense, for public agencies, at least in theory, are bound by the idea of justice to give equal treatment to equals, not one kind of treatment to one group and another kind to another group.

Thus, generally speaking, most controlled experiments must be left to universities and other private bodies, and indeed the need for strict control and variable treatment has been recently accepted in such researches as Harvard University’s Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study, which sought the effects of counselling on “pre-delinquent” boys. 6 Criminological prediction—not unlike actuarial prediction used by insurance companies—is intended to forecast, usually in percentages, the future conduct of persons under certain conditions.

Based on statistics or case histories or both, the predictions attempt to indicate probabilities—how any specific individuals or groups are likely to be affected by certain conditions or treatments. Thus, for example, various categories of criminals are listed as likely to be recidivistic. The techniques involved in constructing prediction tables are too complicated to be discussed in brief; they have been developed and refined in the past 40 years mainly by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of Harvard University and also by several other authors in various countries.

Statistical prediction by itself can never be conclusive; it must be subjected to rigorous validation for any individual or group, and even then it can merely show certain probabilities, which should be used in penal decisions only with the greatest caution and along with the lessons of experience derived from other sources. 6 Nevertheless, the method can be valuable in supplementing the inevitably limited personal experience of judges and administrators, and indeed in recent decades prediction research has probably nowhere in the social sciences been more popular and urgent than in criminology.

Action research, which is often contrasted with experimental research, consists of drawing upon the observations of field workers and other persons directly involved with delinquents, potential delinquents, or prisoners. Thus, for example, have social workers attempted to help slum children and adolescents with their problems and at the same time studied their delinquent behaviour, related it to their environment, and evaluated the results of the youth clubs or other services offered.

7 The chief values of action research are that it aims at practical results through collaboration with fieldworkers, tries to build a bridge between theoretical and practical work, and may well dispense with formal hypotheses and simply aim at preventive tactics. 7 Sociological research involves various methods—general surveys and personal interviews, as well as statistical, case-study, typological, experimental, and predictive techniques—and thus the purpose of classifying sociological research separately is chiefly to signal its focus or fields of interest.

Mainly, criminology derives benefits from three fields of sociological study: (1) social institutions, involving such things as different conceptions of, or attitudes toward, property held by various societies or groups or the different effects of mass media on crime; (2) social groups, involving such things as the influence of juvenile gangs or criminal subcultures on individual criminal behaviour or the influence of prejudice on certain racial, national, or religious minorities; and (3) ecology, involving the study of different geographical areas and their rates and kinds of crime.

8 The study of crime, called criminology, is a multidisciplinary enterprise with various disciplines (for example sociology, psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, genetics, biopsychology, economics, political science, history) examining the different levels of explanation from different perspectives. The vast majority of current criminological texts focus on sociological theories and research on crime. 2 Criminologists develop theories and conduct research in an attempt to explain criminal behaviour.

Theories organize individual observations and facts and puts them into a context that gives them special meaning and relationship to one another. Theories may arise from many sources, including a criminologist’s personal observations or hunches, empirical findings from prior studies or even extensions of another theory, but there is no one grand criminological theory that will explain criminal behaviour which will in turn be able to prevent it. The variety of method in criminological research is partly due to the wide range of theories that are existent.

Much criminological research shows a close and often mutual exchange between theory and method, with theory suggesting lines of research action and data obtained from research that indicate ways in which the theory needs refinement or even abandonment. 10 Adequate theory, well executed research and effective application of knowledge to the crime problem requires and understanding of the many levels of events that influence a person’s life course – from the individual to the family, peers, schools, neighbourhoods, community, culture and of course, society as a whole.

Though it is not likely that we will ever live in a society completely devoid of crime, criminology attempts to find reasons and explanations for criminal behaviour and then applies these theories to solving and preventing crime.


1. Garland, David. “The Criminal and His Science: A Critical Account of the Formation of Criminology at the End of the Nineteenth Century. ” The British Journal of Criminology 25 (1985): 109–37. 2. Eugene McLaughlin Sage Dictionary of Criminology SAGE Publications Ltd. 2005 3. Roger Hopkins Burke An Introduction to Criminological Theory Willan Publishing, 2005

4. Mark Simpson Study Skills For Criminology SAGE Publications Ltd 2005 5. Downes, D. (1999). Sociology Issues and Debates. London: Macmillan. 6. C. Coleman Introducing Criminology Willan Publishing. 2001 7. Sandra Walklate Understanding Criminology: Current Theoretical Debates Open University Press. 2003 8. Hester, S. , & Egline, p. (1992). Sociology of Crime. London: Routledge. 9. Jupp, V. (1989). Methods of Criminological Research. London: Routledge. 10. Sandra Walklate Criminology: The Basics Taylor & Francis Books Ltd,