What Is Criminology?

The history and development of the study of crime

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Criminology is the study of the law enforcement and criminal justice system. A person looking for a career in criminal justice will likely first seek to earn a criminology degree. While criminal justice and criminology are certainly related fields, they are not identical. What is criminology, and what is the history of the field?

Criminology: Etymology and Definition

"Criminology" is derived from the Latin crimen, which means accusation, and the transliterated Greek logia, which has come to denote "the study of." Therefore the term literally means "the study of crime." 

Criminology is a branch of sociology and has, in effect, been studied in one way or another for thousands of years. Despite its long history, though, it has only been in recent years that criminology has been recognized as a scientific discipline in its own right.


Criminologists look at a broad range of topics related to crime. They are dedicated to studying not only the causes of crime but the social impact as well.

In essence, criminologists look at every conceivable aspect of deviant behavior. It includes the impacts of crime on individual victims and their families, society at large, and even criminals themselves. Some of the specific areas that criminology covers include:

  • Frequency of crimes
  • Location of crimes
  • Causes of crimes
  • Types of crimes
  • Social and individual consequences of crimes
  • Social reactions to crime
  • Individual reactions to crime
  • Governmental reactions to crime

Schools of Thought

The end goal of criminology, of course, is to determine the root causes of criminal behavior and to develop effective and humane means for preventing it. These goals have produced several schools of thought within the discipline, each of which looks at different factors involved in deviant behavior and comes to different conclusions about how best to approach the issues.

The three primary schools of thought within criminology are the classical school, the positivist school, and the Chicago school.

Classical School

The classical school of criminology, championed by Italian attorney Cesare Beccaria, embraces concepts and theories of crime based on these four basic ideas:

  • Individuals have free will to make choices and to act on their own accord
  • People will generally seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they will rationally calculate the cost versus the benefit when choosing to commit an act
  • Punishment can be used to deter crime, and the severity of the punishment must be proportional to the crime itself
  • The swiftness and the certainty of the punishment is the most important factor in deterring crime

Positivist School

The positivist school suggests that there are other factors at work in deviant behavior besides simple pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. Positivism supposes external and internal factors that may be beyond the control of the individual. It includes biological, psychological, social, and environmental causes.

The positivist school was the first to apply the scientific method to the study of human behavior. It served to advance the field of criminology as an accepted and respected scientific discipline.

One of the earliest and best-known proponents of positivist thought, Cesare Lombroso, looked at physiological features of criminals such as the shape of their skulls and the height of their cheekbones to suggest that biology may precondition certain people toward criminal behavior. These ideas, of course, have long been discredited, but the positivist school's belief that a study of crime must include the environment in which the crime occurs remains relevant. 

Chicago School

Also known as the ecological school, the Chicago school was first developed during the 1920s in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. This school of thought advanced the idea that human behavior was, at least partially, determined by social structure. It takes into account psychological and environmental factors in seeking to determine the causes of deviant behavior.

The Chicago school notes that human beings adapt to their environments. A destructive social environment, such as growing up in poverty, leads to a breakdown in the social structure. This environment both hampers the ability of a society to deal effectively with the crime that results and fosters a criminal mentality in the community subject to the destructive conditions.

Criminology Improves Society

The field of criminology has led to improvements across our criminal justice system, including our response to crime and our treatment of both victims and criminals. It continues to help us better understand the real costs of crime for all involved and society as a whole.

Criminology has led to even more specialized areas of study, including environmental criminology. It has also brought advancements in police tactics and practices, such as "broken windows" policing, community-oriented policing, and predictive policing.

Careers in Criminology

Careers in criminology are plentiful and varied. Earning a degree in the field can open doors to academic pursuits or advanced studies in areas such as forensic psychology, or provide a solid foundation for a criminal justice career. Either way, criminology can be a fascinating and rewarding field.