Criminology is a field of study that approaches crime from a scientific standpoint. Those pursing research in this area focus on crime, how and why it occurs, and its resulting consequences. With the popularity of television shows like Law and Order and CSI, more people are becoming interested in the discipline. Those interested in pursuing a career in this field must study the behavioral sciences, which take from the fields of sociology, psychology, and law.
An undergraduate course of study consists of classes in a wide range of subjects, and may include law, specifically constitutional and criminal law. In psychology, a potential criminologist may study basic as well as abnormal behavior. Sociology will also be studied, along with statistics and criminal theory.
Criminology can be a subjective field. While professionals in this discipline are scientists, they also have personal beliefs that can influence what type of criminologist they are or what specialty they decide to pursue. There are two major schools of thought in the field: the classical school and the positivist school.
The classical school asserts that free will exists for people to make choices. Pioneers of the school, including Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, believed that people are basically hedonistic and that deterrence will only work if, when people weigh the costs against the benefits of an action, the price is stronger than the benefits. This school of thought assumes that people will use rational thought to make decisions, although some argue that irrationality exists in the general population.
Proponents of the the positivist school believe that there are biological, social, and psychological factors that contribute to the choice to commit a crime. Essentially, there is not much of a choice to be made if a person is already predisposed to criminal behavior by factors beyond his or her control. Early influences of the positivist school include Cesare Lombroso, a 19th century doctor who worked in prisons in Italy. He took a phrenological approach to studying criminals by using measurements of a person's face or skull to predict personality and disposition.
Subsequent pioneers in the field considered genetic, psychological, nutritional, socialization, and environmental factors. The nature versus nurture argument is often raised in the positivist school. Other influential scientists in the field include Hans Eysenck, B.F. Skinner, and Albert Bandura.
Over the development of criminology as a field, several theories of crime have been postulated. The Strain Theory, proposed by Robert Merton, holds that the culture of a society, in particular the US, immerses its citizens in the hopes of achieving the “American Dream,” which includes prosperity, personal success, and happiness. While some may achieve all or part of this dream, others cannot, due to either failure or a lack of opportunities. Those who cannot obtain the dream through legal means may choose illegal methods to achieve it. Others reject the dream altogether and choose to live alternative lifestyles that may include criminal behavior.
Control theories examine why some people remain law abiding citizens while others do not. T. Hirschi believed that there are four characteristics that keep people on the straight and narrow: forming attachments to others, having a firm moral center that one associates with rules, being an achiever, and involving oneself in mainstream, conventional pursuits. People with these characteristics tend to have high self control, rather than the low self control that many criminals exhibit. Criminology students may also study subcultural theories, which examine subcultures that exist outside of mainstream culture, including who belongs to them and why.
Where a criminologist ends up is mostly determined by his or her education and interests in the field. He or she can decide to specialize in a particular area that focuses on specific age groups, types of crimes, crime prevention, criminal investigations, litigation, corrections, profiling, or private or government research. An undergraduate degree in criminology can lead to an entry level position, while an advanced degree may earn a criminologist a more high profile position with a private or government agency, or a teaching or research position with a university.
The opportunities to practice as a criminologist are wide and varied. They can include collecting and researching crime data, contributing to criminal investigations and prosecutions, working with law enforcement agencies to develop crime prevention programs, teaching, and work in the correctional system. Many criminologists go on to become police officers, FBI agents, or medical examiners. Those interested in the field may want to focus on the particular aspect of the study of crime and criminal behavior that interests them most, then to pursue an education that focuses on that aspect in order to obtain a job in that specialty.