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Introduction to Criminological Theory

Published onJan 03, 2023
Introduction to Criminological Theory

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  • This Release (#1) was created on Jan 03, 2023 ()
  • The latest Release (#4) was created on Jan 11, 2024 ().

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the course policies and procedures as outlined in the syllabus

  2. Identify the course components

  3. Define what is (not) theory

  4. Describe what makes a theory scientific

  5. Know what makes theory better

  6. Define what is criminological theory

  7. Describe the various levels of criminological theories

  8. Know that criminology is interdisciplinary

  9. Know that criminology is a field

  10. Know that criminology is developmental

Read Review Introduction



Overview and Reading Quiz. Introduction to Course



In this overview, we will go over the following topics:

  • What theory is

  • What scientific theory is (not)

  • What makes theory better

  • What criminological theory is

  • Criminology is an interdisciplinary field

  • Course sections

  • What this course does not do

  • Development of criminology

  • Readings

  • Theorist videos

  • Discussion posts

  • What to do after this overview

What Theory Is

Discussing what theory is can be complicated and confusing. In part, that’s because people have different definitions of “theory.” Debates over what theory is are important. But they are not important to this course because they would be more confusing to you than useful. In this course, the word “theory” simply refers to a statement, or idea, about how something affects something else.

Any time a person makes a statement about how something affects something else, they have produced a theory. You probably make theories all the time. For example, “My boy- or girlfriend did ‘something’ because of ‘something.’” Or, “‘Something’ happened during class because of ‘something.’” Of course, those are very simple ideas, but the point you need to grasp is that a theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Another reason that theory can be complicated and confusing is there are many aspects of it with different names. For this class, though, if you see any of the following words, just think of them as synonymous with “theory” as defined above: “perspective,” “model,” “explanation,” “prediction,” “principle,” “proposition,” “hypothesis.” Again, the differences between these are important, but will be ignored in this class because they would be more confusing than useful.

What Scientific Theory Is (Not)

Whether a theory is scientific depends on its relationship to empirical phenomena and the scientific method. “Empirical” means something that can be heard, seen, touched, smelled, or tasted. Put simply, scientific theories make statements about how something that is empirical affects something else that is empirical. In truth, criminological theories rarely entirely focus on empirical phenomena, which is a problem, but let’s forget about that because, again, it will be more confusing than useful.

The reason it is important to focus on empirical things is because they can be “observed” and, therefore, theories of them can be “tested” and thereby falsified or given support. To be clear, however, scientific theories are not “facts.” Instead, think of them as informed speculation. Theories are like rules: they are meant to be broken. Indeed, part of what makes theories “scientific” is that they can be shown to be wrong because they deal with empirical (i.e., observable) phenomena, unlike religious and philosophical theories.

This paragraph is very important because we’ll be continually talking about “independent variables” and “dependent variables” throughout this course: A few lines above, you read: “scientific theories make statements about how something that is empirical affects something else that is empirical.” In other words, what that means is that scientific theories make statements about how “independent variable(s)” change a “dependent variable.” For example, a theory we all know is that consuming more calories (an independent variable) leads to more weight (a dependent variable), but weight is decreased by running more (another independent variable).

You’ll read more about all this in the Wikipedia entry on “Scientific Theory.”

What Makes Theory Better

Whether a theory is “valid” – meaning “correct” or “right” – is one way that people judge how good it is. However, there are other ways to evaluate theory. For example, is the statement simple or complicated? Does it apply to a lot of communities, people, and situations, or only a few? Is it truly a new idea or essentially a rip-off of a prior one? Does it offer practical ideas for how to solve problems – such as how to reduce crime – or not? Thus, what makes one theory better than another is not simply whether it is valid, but also if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Throughout this course, you should not simply ask yourself, “Do I think ‘this’ theory is valid?” Rather, you should also be asking yourself: "Is it (too) simple or (too) complicated? Is it (too) specific or (too) general? Is it useful or useless? Is it too focused on being useful and, thus, potentially biased? Is it original or unoriginal?"

What Criminological Theory Is

Discussing what a “criminological theory” is can be complicated and confusing, also. Like the word theory, people have different meanings and words for “criminological” and its synonym “criminology.” In this class, “criminological theory” and “criminology” only refer to statements about what affects crime. In other words, crime is the dependent variable. What criminological theories do is specify the independent variables that affect crime.

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about the types of communities, individuals, and situations most likely to have or commit crime.

“Community-level” theories make statements about why some communities have more crime or criminals than others. For example, why is there more crime in a particular neighborhood, city, state, region of the U.S., or country than others? Also, why is there more or less crime over time in any given community?

“Individual-level” theories make statements about why some people commit more crime. For example, why do you commit more or less crime than me? And, why do you or I commit more or less crime over time?

“Situational-level” theories make statements about why some interactions or small geographic areas are more associated with crime. For example, why are robbers more likely to rob strangers than friends? Why do some bars have more crime than others? And why does any given bar have more crime at some hours, days, or times of the year?

Criminology is an Interdisciplinary Field

What makes one criminological theory different from another is how they answer those questions. Some theories are very different, but others are more similar. The reason for differences and similarities across theories reflects how criminology is an “interdisciplinary field.”

This too can get a bit complicated and confusing, but, basically, a “discipline” is a major branch of knowledge. Disciplines include economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on. A “field” is a more specific area of study, such as crime. Thus, to say “criminology is an interdisciplinary field” means that multiple disciplines are used to study crime.

Course Sections

After this introductory period, the course has seven sections. These sections reflect major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

Section 1 is an overview of and introduction to criminological theories. Section 2 is about how economic factors affect crime. Section 3 does the same, but also touches on ecology. Section 4 is about biological influences on crime. Sections 5 through 8 blend sociology and psychology, with the first and last of those (i.e., 5 and 8)  having biological and anthropological influences, too.

Criminology is an Interdisciplinary Field

Before going further, it may be useful to specify what will not be done in this course. Because criminology strictly refers (in this course) to the study of crime, we will not examine theories of law, policing, courts, or corrections; in other words, we will not treat these things as dependent variables. However, some criminological theories treat law, policing, courts, or corrections as independent variables that affect crime, so those things will become relevant when examining those theories.

Nor will we examine every criminological theory, or even close to that. There are hundreds if not thousands of such theories. Instead, then, we will only cover some of the most popular theories, though that does not necessarily mean they are the best. For this introductory section, you’ll gain a broad overview of criminological theory by reading a Wikipedia entry on “Criminology” and also a couple articles, mentioned below.

Development of Criminology

To better understand what you’ll be doing in this course, we should take a step back and discuss the “development of criminology.” What does it mean to say that criminology “develops”? Because theories are not facts, they change. A useful analogy is to think of theories as like people who are part of a lineage. Like people, theories are born, develop, grow old, and die. And like people, all theories have parents, and some have children.

That analogy is important for another reason: namely, it emphasizes that theories are developed by people, or “theorists.” Why does this matter? Because by making it personal, it is easier to remember who did what and to see how ideas are different or similar. For instance, you may know how different types of music are related, such as how jazz led to rock and roll as well as how they compare to rap, and associate different individuals with each of these. Likewise, I know the key traits of different theories, their connections, and the individuals associated with them. You should be able to do the same by the end of this course.

You’ll learn about the development of criminology by watching overview lectures like this one, by reading older and newer “works” (meaning scholarly articles and book excerpts), and watching Theorist Videos (more is said about those later). For this introductory section, you’ll gain a broad overview of criminology’s development by reading two articles: Jeffrey’s “The Historical Development of Criminology” and Dooley’s “The Emergence of Contemporary Criminology”.


In Jeffrey’s “The Historical Development of Criminology”, you’ll read about some of criminology’s “pioneers,” meaning scholars who made a big impact on the field’s beginning and subsequent development. Think of them as the great-grandparents of criminology. Early in the course, you’ll read some of their works, such as those of Bentham and Lombroso. You’ll also learn about some of the key developments and “schools of thought” in the history of criminology.

Sometimes, theories are referred to as “classic.” In this course, to say a theory is classic simply means it is old(er), though note that the word “classicAL” is used in other ways among criminologists, too (you’ll see another way in the Wikipedia entry on “Criminology”).

Newer theories are referred to as “contemporary.” As time goes on, what used to be contemporary theory becomes classic. In this course, for example, you’ll read works of Foucault, Shaw, McKay, Hirschi, Elias, Wolfgang, Sutherland, and Merton. Think of them as the grandparents of criminology, as they did criminology in the early- and mid-20th century.

In Dooley’s “The Emergence of Contemporary Criminology”, you’ll read about some of criminology’s foremost contemporary theorists. These are the scholars making the biggest impact on the field at present. Think of them as parents of what goes on today in criminology. Over the span of this course, you’ll read works of Clarke, Gould, Raine, Sampson, Laub, Gottfredson, Pinker, Anderson, Akers, Rosenfeld, Messner, and Agnew.

Maybe now is the best time to mention that you’ll be quizzed over all the readings, including those for this introductory section.

Wikipedia. Scientific Theory. (Open access here.)

Wikipedia. Criminology. (Open access here.)

Jeffrey, Clarence Ray. 1959. The Historical Development of Criminology. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 50:3-19. (Open access here.)

Wolfgang, Marvin E. 1963. Criminology and the Criminologist. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 54:155-162. (Open access here.)

Dooley, Brendan. 2016. The Emergence of Contemporary Criminology: An Oral History of Its Development as an Independent Profession. Crime, Law & Social Change 66:339-357. (Paywalled here but open access here.)

Theorist Videos

Another reason you’ll read Dooley’s article is it introduces you to a major part of the course: Theorist Videos. These videos were collected as part of the “Oral History of Criminology Project,” which is directed by Dooley (for more information, see You’ll watch – and be quizzed over – a Theorist Video for each of the major theoretical perspectives covered in this course. Some of these are more entertaining than others, but each is interesting. By watching each video, you’ll gain a greater sense of how criminology developed, and also come to better appreciate that criminology is personal.

In each Theorist Video, a “parent” is interviewed by Dooley or someone else. During these conversations, the parents discuss their ideas, where their ideas came from, and where the ideas may be going. As explained on the project’s website, “[It] is an ongoing effort to preserve the accounts of prominent scholars of their role in shaping the evolution of the field. Through the use of taped interviews, an enduring record—an “oral history”—is established of how personal, social, historical and professional influences intersected to give rise to criminology’s landmark ideas and initiatives.”

Discussion Posts

The best test of whether someone really understands a theory is whether they can apply it to the real world. Think of different theories as different sets of eyeglasses, such as those with different lens colors and different prescriptions. When wearing one pair or the other, you see the world differently even though the same things are within sight. Thus, when looking at data on crime, a rational choice theorist may see something different than does a biological theorist, for instance. Neither is necessarily wrong. Rather, what they see reflects the theoretical perspective that they look at the world with.

To see if you really understand criminological theories, you’ll complete a Discussion Post for each of the major theoretical perspectives covered in this course. The syllabus has more details on what exactly you’ll be doing.

What Now?

Now that you have reviewed this overview lecture, you should do the following: Complete the study guide material, which covers material in this introductory overview and in the syllabus. Once you complete the study guide and mostly memorize the material, you’ll be ready to complete the associated quiz. After that, you should do the four readings listed in the course outline. While doing so, you’ll also want to complete the study guide for those readings. After you have memorized that material, you’ll be ready to take the reading quiz. And after all that, take another breather before moving on to the course’s next section.

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