What We Do in Criminology

One of the two areas of expertise in my degree (sociology) is criminology. That is the main expertise I bring to bear on my teaching at the university where I am tenured. As you might imagine, quite a few psychology majors enroll in criminology. When it comes to producing a term paper, I often find myself having to explain the differences between criminal psychology, especially neuropsychology (brain science), and sociology.

I have a degree in psychology (bachelors) and have studied criminal psychology. Questions about brains and personality disorders are fascinating ones. My mother is a clinical psychologist and we have terrific conversations, but I am not leaning on her to make any claim to expertise! I would never say that biology and genetics aren’t relevant in some way. They just aren’t the questions that criminologists generally pursue—unless we are being critical of them while circumscribing our field of inquiry.

Criminology is a subfield of sociology, and sociology is a science, but it is not biology (nor is biology physics, and so on). The concepts of sociology are abstractions derived from qualitatively different domain of emergent reality than that of terrain of brain science (except the sociological production of knowledge about brain science, of course). While an argument can be made that psychology is closer to biology because they both potentially concern the nervous system, for sociologists, biology takes the practitioner far afield of his expertise with respect to evaluating student work. Put another way, although I am a Darwinian and knowledgeable about biology and physical anthropology (this was my minor), and write about the subjects on my blog, I am most qualified to evaluate student work and review work by my colleagues in the field of sociology. Criminology is properly a disciplinary-based course; in this regard, I stay in my lane.

That certainly narrows the range of topics students can write about in criminology, which I explain to them when we begin the proposal process for the term paper. One of the confusions that happens at that point is, given that the self is a fascinating subject (after all, it is persons who commit crime), why would I be cutting off topics concerning persons. This question assumes that the self or the person is only or mainly a biological phenomenon. That assumption is wrong.

Self is in fact largely a sociological phenomenon. However much our biology influences us (and surely it does), we are also products of socialization. We know from experience that children who are ill-socialized, or who do not have the same advantages as other children, suffer difficulties across the life-course. We aren’t born with a language. We acquire one. We aren’t born with a religion. We acquire one. And so forth and so on.

I ask this question of my students who raise concerns over the appearance that I am dismissing biological and genetic factors in explaining human behavior: I am sure you would agree that the 15-point difference between black and white IQ is due to social factors and not biological ones. We may hedge and say mostly social factors. We may even say that social factors play some role. My point is still made. They do play a role. Or consider the fact that black men are more than six times more likely to murder than white men. The answer to that question surely must lie in sociology and not biology, no? Maybe it’s culture. Maybe economics. Maybe neighborhood and family structure. Likely all these and more. Is it because there are biological races with different cognitive capacities and criminal tendencies? Western society has been down that road before. It does not end well. It is also not supported by any evidence I am aware of.

I hope they see the problem. But in case they don’t, I have a bonus example. Whereas a brain tumor may (partly) explain why Charles Whitman stabbed to death his mother and then climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas and shot to death 14 people and wounded another 31, it gets us nowhere near explaining why the rate of murder in the United States is so much higher than it is in other advanced industrialized democracies. Most murderers don’t have brain tumors. Or brain lesions. Or personality disorders. Most criminals are biologically the same and you and I.

As sociologists, the core of criminologists do is explain social facts. We study aggregates and patterns. We also study people. When we study people, the gold standard is within-subject change across the life-course in light of a myriad of variables. Labor force attachment. Income and occupation. Educational attainment. Neighborhood conditions. Martial status. Substance use. Law abidingness. Trauma. Perhaps some of the variables we will look at involve the nervous system and personality disorders. But most of the variables will concern social structures, forces, relations, interactions, and experiences. Yet, even those variables concerning the attributes of attitudes, feelings, and opinions are viewed in the light of the social context. We will even avoid chalking up unexplained variance (our error terms) to “human nature.”

So, one may very well study the self as emergent from and in the context of sociologically interesting processes, as do the labeling theorists and social learning theorists we study in criminology. While a criminologist may touch on biological/genetic factors here and there, the main focus is on sociological factors—class, culture, politics, racism, sexism, etc. These are social and historical questions. We are qualified to value student papers working from these bases.

I understand why people are interested in questions perhaps better addressed in the field of criminal psychology. I find those interesting questions, too. The depraved serial killer with an irresistible impulse to remove his victims’ eyes and replace them with dolls’ eyes is indeed titillating. In the hands of a good director, this might result in a very scary horror film. “Stop me before I kill again!” True crime stories have a long record of success. It’s just not what we do in criminology.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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