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Criminology: Modern Controversies

Models Of Criminology And Ideology, Sociology Of Law And Crime Control, Explanations Of Crime—social Distribution And Causation

Controversy among criminologists and between criminologists and others is endemic. It could hardly be otherwise. Problems of definition, once merely legally technical regarding behavior defined as crime, are joined by both ideological and postmodern concerns with what crime, criminality, and criminology are about. Because crime is by definition behavior that is so specified in the criminal law, criminology involves study of, and controversy concerning, how and why behaviors become "criminalized." Because the purpose of criminal laws is to control behavior so defined, the efficacy—and necessarily the fairness and moral status—of prescribed penalties is subject to challenge and debate in many circles.

These concerns intersect with controversy concerning the stance of criminology vis-à-vis social policy. They intersect, also, with theoretical and empirical issues of mainstream criminology, regarding, for example, the scope of the criminal law and of criminological inquiry, empirically and theoretically, and the extent to which the focus of inquiry should be on particular crimes, patterns of crime (e.g., careers), the broader field of deviance or, indeed, on all human behavior. General theories that attempt to explain deviance, such as Robert K. Merton's classic "Social Structure and Anomie" (1938) and, more recently, Charles Tittle's Control Balance theory (1995), imply theoretical explanations for all human behavior. Control theories tend to regard behavior that is not deviant as residual, to be explained by processes and forces that are left undefined.

Because human behavior is ever-changing in response to social change, the search for general etiological principles is both extraordinarily complex and changing. New technologies, evolving social structures, and cultural adaptations constantly pose new questions, and modify social distributions of crime and etiological processes.

This entry focuses primarily on issues—some persisting, some emergent—related to elements of Edwin Sutherland's classic definition of criminology. Criminology, wrote Sutherland, is "the body of knowledge regarding . . . crime as a social phenomenon," including "the processes of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws" (p. 3). The inclusiveness of Sutherland's vision notwithstanding, controversy continues concerning the scope and purposes of criminology.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law