The State of the Field of Criminology: A Brief Essay

The State of the Field of Criminology:

A Brief Essay*

by Chris W. Eskridge
University of Nebraska




This article suggests that while crime and deviance are subject to the dynamics of global socio-economic-political events, the field of criminology can have a marked, positive impact in this realm. To achieve this end, there is a need to advance interdisciplinary criminology/justice education worldwide, to embraces systematic, evidence based program and policy evaluation, and to become effective political as well as scientific criminologists.  Criminology is not a mature science at this point, and we are not certain how to systematically respond to the crime problem.  We lack accurate diagnostic instruments, a definitive body of knowledge, an understanding of cause and effect, and we do not possess a series of generally consistent treatment modalities.  In this context, criminologists are somewhat akin to physicians of the 18th century.


The State of the Field of Criminology:

A Brief Essay


While I believe crime and deviance to be important matters to study, it is impossible to divorce them from contemporary social and political events.  Placed within such a framework, quite frankly our field of study verges on the inconsequential.  Events are in the saddle and ride mankind, wrote Abraham Lincoln.  A frighteningly all to possible detonation of a weapon of mass destruction within a major urban center, a devastating natural disaster, or a significant disruption of the world=s oil supply, among other possible catastrophic events, would obviously have a much greater influence on the longitudinal global crime and deviance factor than any crime prevention model I or any other criminologist could propose. 


One obvious global concern at present is that we seem to be sliding toward a clash of civilizations.  While the current American presidential administration seems to have toned down of late, basic attitudes are clearly unchanged, and are surely reflective of the views of other religious zealots worldwide.  Fundamentalists of many faiths are convinced of their unilateral legitimacy and have projected themselves in a war against evil.  In such a battle, ration and reason have no standing, and we need only consult the history of medieval Europe to visualize the result of this kind of thinking.  It is in the best interests of contemporary civilization to see to it that voices of moderation are amplified, and as they are, the caustic cocktail of fundamentalism and fanaticism will give way to tolerance and stability.  Academic criminology has a role in this global mix, and has great potential to impact positively on social justice in a world-wide context.



It is useful at times to pause and examine, to assess where we are and to consider where it is that we need to go.  Academic criminology has perhaps a greater need than most disciplines to engage in such introspection, given its rather convoluted history.  We trace our intellectual roots to those who would classify themselves as philosophers (Beccaria), physicians (Lombroso), lawyers (Blackstone), sociologists (Durkheim), psychologists (Garafalo), practitioner politicians (Vollmer).  And yet like the proverbial elephant in Aesop=s fable, criminology is all of these, and yet none of these in their entirety.  At the dawn of the 21st century, criminology has morphed into something different, something quite unique that tends to incorporate virtually all other disciplines in some fashion or another.  It is the purpose of this essay to examine the state of the field of criminology, and to propose a model for its future growth and development.


Reduction of Crime

I would suggest initially that I ascribe to the principles laid out by Emile Durkheim a century ago (Durkheim, 1971).  I ascribe specifically to his constantly dictum - there will always be behavior that society defines as deviant, unacceptable, criminal.  In an aggregate, longitudinal context, we cannot reduce the extent of crime.  It is omnipresent.  Occasionally I hear a politician speak to the need of embarking upon one policy or another so as to Aeliminate@ crime.  We cannot eliminate crime anymore than a physician can eliminate death.  And like a physician, criminologists and justice officials can develop preventative and curative responses that can impact positively upon the problems at hand. 


Let me draw another analogy.  A financial planner takes personal economic portfolios, identifies various investment instruments that meet individual situations and needs, and incorporates them into each portfolio in personally unique ways so as to maximize returns.  Our jobs as criminologists and justice professionals is much the same, but in the inverse.  Within the distinctive socio-economic portfolio of each individual community or nation, we need to be about the business of identifying and incorporating various preventative and curative programs and responses that will minimize the impact of crime and deviance.  This is what criminology is about.  Not about eliminating crime in the aggregate, but rather minimizing the impact of crime; reducing the severity of the nature of crime.  From an aggregate, longitudinal context, the extent of crime may remain constant, but the seriousness of the nature of crime can be reduced. 


For example, it is quite apparent to this author that if handgun controls were instituted in the United States, there would be fewer murders (1).  Fewer murders you might ask?  That is a reduction in crime.  To the contrary, the scenarios would play out like this....two people would get into an argument, but since there is no gun available, they would grab a knife or club.  They could still kill, but a knife or club have a decidedly lower killing capability quotient, and the victim would be more likely to live.  Result - murder down, aggravated assault up, extent of crime the same, nature of seriousness decreased.  This is what modern criminology should be about; finding programs and policies and procedures that can reduce the severity of the nature of crime.


Reducing the Severity of Crime

How do we reduce the severity of crime?  A comprehensive United States Congress sponsored study concluded that we simply do not know (Sherman et al, 1997).  Some programs and policies seem successful, others are clearly dismal failures, but we are not sure why, on either count.  We have not been able to crack the cause and effect barrier with any degree of surety.  But what we have concluded, is that there is a procedural model that we now must embrace which will put us on the path to eventually be able to better answer those questions.  That model has three components:

1. Embrace a cross-national model and expand academic criminology/justice education programs into universities throughout the


            2. Embrace an interdisciplinary perspective in academic criminology/justice education.

            3. Incorporate systematic, evidence based evaluation into the fabric of the field. 


Cross National Academic Criminology/Justice Education

We need to embrace a cross national model, and seek to enhance the level of growth and development of academic criminology/justice education in universities throughout the world.   It is my proposition that in time this strategic plan will, among other benefits, reduce the scope and extent of crime and corruption in every nation.  This in turn will yield an enhanced opportunity for all, and particularly the developing nations, to secure external investment, realize increased economic stability, and eventually participate to a greater degree in the global economy (see, Eskridge, 2003).


This notion is of some significance, for we will not even begin to adequately address the world=s crime problems until the developing and transitional nations are able to participate in the market economy as full partners.  They are not full partners at present, but developing justice programs can, among other things that need to be done, can help them move in that direction.


Let me couple these initial observations with another that is to some extent a blinding flash of the obvious -- the Western concept of the rule of law, democratic traditions, the professional development of and the communal legitimization of institutions of public order have not been firmly established in most transitional and developing nations.  Due in large part to this factor, these nations have particularly struggled to adequately address their crime and corruption problem, which in turn has contributed to their difficulty in becoming fully integrated into the Western world=s market economy, and ultimately to their disproportionate contribution to the crime problem worldwide.  The problem is that social democracy and contemporary capitalism cannot be easily grafted onto many traditional societies.  It is my proposition that justice education can help reverse this trend.

Specifically, there are three positive impacts that will accrue for nations that embrace academic criminology/justice education:

      1.   Over time, graduates from university justice education programs will gradually begin to fill justice system positions within their respective countries, which will slowly and steadily help to further professionalize justice operations within each country.

      2.   Most who take university classes in criminology/criminal justice will not seek employment in the justice system per se, but will move on to careers in other areas, ie., business, engineering, nursing, etc.  They become the body politic, and their exposure to the principles and concepts outlined in their criminology/justice education classes will have increased their understanding as to the proper role and function of the justice system and its personnel.  Subsequently this more attuned and aware general populous will hold justice system personnel to a higher standard.  The synergy of this proposal is that the justice system personnel who are going to be held more accountable by the more attuned public, will have had the academic background to draw upon which will give them more tools to be able to respond positively.

  1. Justice officials will also be able to respond more positively to increased public demand due to perhaps the most important aspect of all; by embracing justice education, nations will benefits from an enhanced research capability.  The faculty and students of the university justice programs will engage in research activities that will produce a more complete knowledge base and shed further light on ways and means of improving justice system practices, programs and policies.  Armed with these new tools and a more refined knowledge based, justice system personnel will be in a better position to perform their duties in accordance with heightened public demand.


In sum, criminology/justice education will, over time, produce thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of informed citizens who will hold justice officials more accountable, who will demand a higher standard of performance.  In addition, academic criminology/justice education will produce thousands of justice officials with the academic background to be able to respond professionally, and who can turn to locally developed and locally relevant research undertaken by local university criminologists (students and faculty) to help them.


While justice education certainly has a place in the developed countries, its greatest impact would clearly be in the developing and transitional nations, and its adoption in those settings would help nudge these regions of the world further along the road towards the rule of law.  Transitional and developing nations typically have weak rule of law traditions and skeletal legal infrastructures.  Justice education can assist in changing that.


There have been some positive developments with respect to the international growth of academic criminology and justice education in the past decade.  Courses and degree programs are now offered in many countries throughout the world.  In addition, professional societies of criminology are emerging all across the globe.  A recent joint meeting of the world=s societies and associations of criminology attracted some 30 different organizations with representatives from nearly 50 nations.  Academic criminology, which for many years has been rooted in American institutions, is now beginning to truly spread its wings.  As a result, as Smith (2004:10) has noted, new ideas in this field are no longer coming primarily from the United States...truly a positive development and suggests a maturation of the field.


An Interdisciplinary Academic Model

We need to continue to embrace an interdisciplinary perspective within academic criminology and justice education.  The hard sciences and medicine were two of the great success stories of the 20th Century.   Conspicuously absent in this great leap, however, were the social and behavioral sciences.  In a recent newspaper column, Allan Bloom (see Bloom, 1987) criticized the academic social and behavioral sciences for being scholastically stagnant.  He argues that there have been no new ground-breaking perspectives, no new paradigms, no theories of value or impact proffered for decades.  Compared with the hard sciences and medicine, the traditional disciplines of sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, history, political science are comatose, if not all-together dead.  The primary reason he argues, is intellectual incest; an unwillingness to engage in cross-disciplinary and cross-national fertilization and exchange.

There is, unarguably, some merit to his point.  Ph.D.'s in the social sciences do tend to anoint their own.  Sociologists train sociologists, psychologists teach psychologists, political scientists prepare political scientists, and the result is inevitably some measure of academic atrophy in these fields.  In an essay appearing in the January/February l997 edition of ACJS Today, Robert Engvall echoed some of these latter sentiments, noting how faculty tend to hire younger versions of themselves, which invariably leads to a parochial, closed academic environment.   


While there are a few social science research think tanks, there is nothing in the social and behavioral sciences that even comes close to paralleling NASA, the Center for Disease Control, or the Mayo Clinic.  Cross-disciplinary consultations are the rule of the day in the hard sciences and medicine.  The old barriers in the hard sciences are being torn down daily, with stupefying results.  The social and behavioral sciences have not kept pace with the rate of development and progress in the hard sciences.  There have, however, been some contributions of merit coming from the soft sciences in this past century.  The social sciences are not as stone-cold dead as Bloom surmises, but his basic causal premise is well taken.  There is a lack of significant inter-disciplinary exchange and cross-fertilization in the academic world of the social and behavioral sciences, and this is inhibiting growth and development in these fields of study.    


I would suggest that much of the reason behind the rather rapid rise of criminal justice as a field of study in the United States has been its cross-disciplinary diversity.  A marginal field of study in the l960s and l970s, criminal justice exploded onto the academic scene in the l990s in part due to the emergence of crime as a fundamental matter on the mind of the body politic, but also in large part due to academic diversity, and to its multi-disciplinary character.   It is not unusual to see criminal justice faculty members degrees in history, psychology, sociology, public administration, law, political science, urban studies, as well as criminology and criminal justice.


There is a need to continue to cling to the multi-disciplinary model that has fueled this rather abrupt contemporary rise of justice education in the world of academe (2), and extend our reach to include colleagues from all nations.  Such a proposal has two distinct advantages:

     1.    Students will have their educational experience enhanced due to this academic cross-breeding.  They will interact with both faculty and students from other disciplines and see things from a broader perspective.  The very nature of education suggests the need to break out, to examine and explore from new perspectives and new horizons.  A narrowly focused degree in the social science/liberal arts tradition is an oxymoron.  My experience is that the superior criminal justice students frequently indicate a desire to take courses outside of the major, not because of problems with the criminal justice program, but out of a desire to enhance the breadth of their educational experience.     

    2.     This will serve to increase the nature and scope of the interaction between faculty members from different fields of study, with a resulting increase in productivity as a result of this cross-fertilization.  It will also strengthen ties between academic departments on campus.  There is, in fact, a need to break down the walls of disciplinary sterility that infect so many academic institutions, and this proposal will go far to achieve that end.  A side effect will be multi-departmental grant proposals, and a general aura of collaborative research and writing.  As noted, the hard sciences have already moved in this direction, particularly the medical field; a single author piece in a medical journal is as passe as a prescription for laudanum.  The social sciences, with their archaic traditions of "lone wolf writers" are clearly out of step with the times.  No one individual can possibly be expected to absorb and assimilate all relevant material in the vast and exploding entity we call the Abody of knowledge.@  An interdisciplinary justice education program recognizes this reality, and it serves as an aggressive and robust response to the realities of modern social science.   


We in criminology, must emulate the progressive hard science research centers and reach out to all fields and disciplines, and to colleagues from all nations, and collectively seek to address crime and justice issues.


Evidence Based Criminology

What do we know about reducing the severity of crime?  What works, specifically what operational programs and policies reduce the severity of crime in a relatively consistent and uniform fashion?  Do the answers to those questions vary from one community to another; from one neighborhood to another?  What specific programs and policies can improve our cities and our neighborhoods in a justice and equity context?  As has already been noted in this essay and by others (see generally Latessa, Cullen and Gendreau, 2002; Austin, 2003), we are not certain; we lack specificity, we lack causal understanding, and what we do implement has generally not been systematically evaluated.


We criminologists are somewhat akin to physicians of the 18th century.  We have a few ideas, we are making progress, but we have yet to attain the status of a mature, evidence based and evidence driven science.  We lack consistent, proven diagnostic instruments, we lack a definitive body of knowledge, we lack generally consistent treatment modalities.  Indeed, we have no criminological thermometers, no criminological CAT scans, no criminological penicillin, no criminological vaccines.  We are using relatively crude instruments, as did the physicians of the 1700s, and largely respond to the crime problem using crude, homespun, untested remedies, as did the physicians of the 18th century.  We cannot mock the physicians of that era.  They did the best they could with the knowledge and tools they had at that time; Louis Pasteur had yet to be born.  Once he entered the laboratory, his discoveries propelled the fields of bio-chemistry and medicine forward at warp speed.  Medicine, of course, is still developing and does not possess all the answers.  But it does have numerous proven diagnostic instruments, a solid body of knowledge, a cause and effect/epistemological understanding, and a wide variety of effective, disease specific and patient specific treatment modalities. 


The latter points warrants some further review.  There are a wide variety of treatment modalities available today.  There are different treatment modalities for different diseases, and patients with the same disease often receive different treatment modalities, geared for individual need.  In other words, there are both intra-disease and inter-disease treatment modalities.  


Academic criminology needs to develop the same kind of specificity we see in medicine, but at present, we are hampered in this quest due to the fact that we have little systemic epistemological understanding.  For example, numerous studies have concluded that the effects of arrest on intimate partner violence is associated with less repeat offending, yet as the victim ages, the violence from the perpetrators gets worse if the police intervene.  Why?  We have no idea.  We can provide case-study reasoning, but we have no systematic, evidence-based explanation. 


As a consequence, justice policies and programs that are adopted are generally implemented due more to political consideration rather than scientific merit.  In the final analysis, academic criminology is generally polluted by political criminology, for public policy tends to be a pinch of science (and often bad science at that), and a pound of ideology.  I would suggest that much of what passes for knowledge in criminology today is myth; it is not backed with systematic evaluation.  That which is implemented (or shunned) is not based on sound inquiry, but generally on the omnipresent query of all politicians, Ais this a politically palatable program or policy.@  It may be unsupported by systematic evaluation, but if it is politically appealing it will be embraced.  If it is not politically appealing, merit notwithstanding, the program stands little chance of implementation. 


My field, our field, the would-be science of criminology, is polluted by power and politics, which often renders carefully crafted evaluations useless in a pragmatic context.   We can speak of scientific criminology, but it has a Siamese twin, political criminology.  It is incumbent upon us as criminologists to not only engage in the science of criminology, but to also engage in political criminology if we ever expect to see our findings have any practical value (see, Austin, 2003).


Scientific and Political Criminology

Let me address both of these ideas...that we are somewhat behind, akin to physicians in the 1700s, and that politics pollutes this field, with a couple of stories.  In 1799, the former American president George Washington lay in bed with a bad case of strep throat.  The finest physicians of the day concluded that he needed to be bled, a common treatment modality of the day.   Bleeding, among other impacts, contributes to dehydration.  Ironically, Washington died not due to strep throat per se, but primarily due to the complications brought on by the bleeding induced dehydration.  We know today that when a patient contracts a case of strep throat, they need to be hydrated, not de-hydrated.  Yet the physicians of the day, using the popular mode of treatment, did exactly the opposite of what they needed to do. 


Had Washington=s health improved, the physicians likely would have suggested it was due to the bleeding, and perhaps touted his case as yet another example of the value of that treatment modality.   But of course, such treatment is de-habilitating, and any improvement in Washington=s health subsequent to the bleeding would have been despite, not because of the treatment received.  A systematic analysis would have revealed this to be the case of course, but, there were few systematic analyses undertaken within the field of medicine prior to the 1800s, and as a consequence the field was relatively stagnant, awaiting the breakthroughs that would come from Louis Pasteur and other evidence based researchers. 


It is interesting to note that regardless of the disease, the physicians of that day generally resorted basically to two treatment methods - bleeding and laudanum, that had never been systematically tested and generally made people worse.  This is not much unlike political criminologists in America today - steal a car, go to prison; commit an assault, go to prison; use drugs, go to prison.  We now have more than two million behind bars in the United States, and yet we know that imprisonment generally makes people worse.  Imprisonment is a failed program, a policy that does not work, but it is politically popular and thus continually utilized, much to the detriment of individuals and society at large.  Gun by-back programs have likewise proven to be inefficient, but they are very popular so they are embraced.  The DARE program is another that has been  empirically invalidated, but quite popular so it continues.  By in large, the crime prevention programs that we utilize in the United States have not been systematically evaluated.  Quite an interesting state of affairs.  Imagine a pharmaceutical firm introducing a new drug into the market that has not been adequately tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Yet American criminological literature is filled with accounts of such programs.   We need a criminological FDA.  No program should be implemented until it has been adequately tested, until it has been subjected to repeated, thorough, systematic quantitative evaluation. 


We should also consider the fact that there are programs that have been shown via systematic evaluation to be viable, but are not politically palatable.  This situation is not limited to criminology.  Consider, for example, the case of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, sent by the United States government to the southern American states in 1913 in an attempt to discover the cause and cure for pellagra, a disease that was ravaging that area of our nation.  He discovered that the disease was due to a lack of niacin in the diet.  Dr. Goldberger, a Jew, then began to relay his findings to the southern community populous and leadership.  It was summarily rejected, due in part to the fact that he was a Jew, in part due to the fact that he was from the north, and in part because of general xenophobic fear of change.  He was eventually recalled by the federal government due to the animosity spreading throughout the south on this matter.  He died, definitively knowing he had found the cause and cure of pellagra, but infinitely frustrated in that he had been unable to reach the body politic with the finding.  


This account highlights the need of scientific criminologists to recognize that there are actually two fields that need to be surmounted if impact is to be achieved....scientific criminology and political criminology.   As quantitatively sound as it is, removing handguns from the American public is just not going to happen, despite the fact that such a policy would definitively result in few murders.  As quantitatively sounds as it is, the horribly unbalanced social inequality quotient is not going to be addressed in America, despite the fact that this is clearly a precipitating factor when it comes to crime issues.  There is no political capital for seriously addressing either notion in the United States.  They are not politically palatable themes.  There are political truths and there are scientific truths.  Our role as criminologists and justice professionals is not only to uncover scientific truths, but to also engage in activities that create an environment where those scientific truths can be implemented. 


Finally, we should recognize that there are some programs that do seem to work (impact positively on crime and streamline justice system operations) and that at least now are somewhat politically acceptable: Project Head Start, community policing, the ADAM project, neighborhood justice centers/dispute resolution centers, hot-spot or ROP patrolling,  These and other programs and ideas seem to work well in a generally uniform fashion across various jurisdictions and regions in the United States, but it remains to be seen if they are transferable to other countries and cultures.  Only by engaging in systematic evaluation in those unique environments will we know for sure.



I have tried to highlight four main points in this essay:

  1. We cannot eliminate crime, but we can reduce its severity and thus minimize its negative impact.
  2. To reduce the severity of crime, we must adopt a model that:

a. advances academic criminology/justice education on a global scale,

               particularly in the transitional and developing nations, and

b. embraces an interdisciplinary perspective, and

c. incorporates systematic, evidence based program and policy evaluation.

  1. We are not a mature science at this point, and we are not certain how to systematically reduce the severity of crime.  We have some ideas and are making progress, but we are not there yet.  We lack instruments, a definitive body of knowledge, an understanding of cause and effect, a series of generally consistent treatment modalities.  In this context, we are somewhat akin to physicians of the 18th century.
  2. Since political criminology often rears its head and supercedes scientific criminology, to reduce the severity of crime, we must become effective political as well as scientific criminologists.


I would again temper this discussion with the thought that the model I propose (widespread interdisciplinary justice education, systematic evaluation, political efficacy) emerges as quite inconsequential when examined in the context of the complex and dynamic socio-economic-political world.  As noted at the outset of this essay, any number of Armageddon-like events (world-wide famine, detonation of weapons of mass destruction in urban areas, significant reduction in access to energy resources, etc.), would obviously have a much greater influence on the global crime and deviance factor than any model I may propose.  Yet, as criminologists, we can, in our own way, and in our own sphere, offer much.  "The chief duty of society is justice," wrote the American statesman Alexander Hamilton some 200 years ago.  By clinging to this proposed model, we can improve the environments in which we live, and as a result, justice and equity will be more frequent visitors to our homes, our neighborhoods, our nations, and our world.  




1.  There are some who claim that greater access to guns will lead to less crime (see generally John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; Gary Kleck, ACrime Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force,@ Social Problems, Vol 35, 1988, pp. 1-21).  This argument has yet to be empirically substantiated in my estimation, and the available empirical evidence suggests quite the opposite impact; greater access to guns increases the severity of the nature of crime within a community.  I would further suggest that the handgun debate, as well as a number of other contemporary social issues for that matter (ie., stem cell research, abortion, capital punishment), has morphed into a theology, rendering reasonable discussion of the evidence virtually impossible.


2.  One particular arena that readily lends itself to multi-disciplinary integration is life-course criminology.  With a focus on longitudinal individual development and the particular movement toward and away from crime, we see an intersection of such fields as genetics, biology, sociology, psychology, economics, etc., etc.





Austin, James 2003. AWhy Criminology is Irrelevant,@ Criminology & Public Policy, Vol 2 (3), July, pp. 557 - 564.


Bloom, Alan 1987.  The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon and Schuster.


Durkheim, Emile 1971. ACrime As Normal Phenomenon,@ in Leon Radzinowicz and Marvin Wolfgang, The Criminal In Society: Crime and Justice, Volume 1, New York: Basic Books, pp. 391-394.


Engvall, Robert 1997. AMinimum Standards for Criminal Justice Higher Education: A Commentary,@ ACJS Today, January/February, pp.1, 3, 24.


Eskridge, Chris W. 2003. ACriminal Justice Education and its Potential Impact on the Socio-Political-Economic Climate of Central European Nations: A Short Essay,@ Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Vol 14 (1), Spring, 105 - 118.


Latessa, Edward, Francis Cullen and Paul Gendreau 2002. ABeyond Correctional Quackery: Professionalism and the Possibility of Effective Treatment,@ Federal Probation, Vol 66 (2), September 2002, pp. 43-49.


Sherman, Larry, et. al. 1997. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn=t, What=s Promising, Washington, D.C.:  Office of Justice Programs.


Smith, David 2004. ACriminology and the Wider Europe,@ European Journal of Criminology, Vol 1(2), January 2004, preface editorial, pp. 5-15.


Sperber, Kimberly Gentry, Martha Henderson-Hurley and Dena Hanley 2005. ABridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice, Federal Probation, June, pp. 3 - 6.


*An earlier version of this manuscript appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol 21 (4), November 2005, pp. 1 - 13.  A Spanish translation appeared in Capitulo Criminologico, Vol 32 (4), Octubre-Diciembre 2004, pp. 415 - 432.