Criminology (from Latin crīmen, “accusation”; and Greek -λογία, -logia) is the scientific study of the nature, extent, management, causes, control, consequences, and prevention of criminal behavior, both on the individual and social levels. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field in the behavioral sciences, drawing especially upon the research of sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social anthropologists, as well as scholars of law.

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

Etymology of Criminology

“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 study of crime.

What Is Criminology?

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, it has only been relatively recently 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 focuses on 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. It has lead to several schools of thought within the discipline, each of which looks at different factors involved in deviant behavior and each coming 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 to tend toward criminal behavior. It, of course, has 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, for instance, 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 that drives crime within it.

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, some of them incompatible with others, such as “broken

The term criminology was coined in 1885 by Italian law professor Raffaele Garofalo as criminologia. Later, French anthropologist Paul Topinard used the analogous French term criminologie.

In the mid-18th century criminology arose as social philosophers gave thought to crime and concepts of law. Over time, several schools of thought have developed. There were three main schools of thought in early criminological theory spanning the period from the mid-18th century to the mid-twentieth century: Classical, Positive, and Chicago. These schools of thought were superseded by several contemporary paradigms of criminology, such as the sub-culture, control, strain, labeling, critical criminology, cultural criminology, postmodern criminology, feminist criminology.

Therefore, definitions of crimes will vary from place to place, in accordance to the cultural norms and mores, but may be broadly classified as blue-collar crime, corporate crime, organized crime, political crime, public order crime, state crime, state-corporate crime, and white-collar crime. However, there have been moves in contemporary criminological theory to move away from liberal pluralism, culturalism and postmodernism by introducing the universal term ‘harm’ into the criminological debate as a replacement for the legal term ‘crime’.

Rational choice theory is based on the utilitarian, classical school philosophies of Cesare Beccaria, which were popularized by Jeremy Bentham. They argued that punishment, if certain, swift, and proportionate to the crime, was a deterrent for crime, with risks outweighing possible benefits to the offender. In Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments, 1763–1764), Beccaria advocated a rational penology. Beccaria conceived of punishment as the necessary application of the law for a crime; thus, the judge was simply to conform his sentence to the law. Beccaria also distinguished between crime and sin, and advocated against the death penalty, as well as torture and inhumane treatments as he did not consider them as rational deterrents.

This philosophy was replaced by the Positivist and Chicago Schools and was not revived until the 1970s with the writings of James Q. Wilson, Gary Becker’s 1965 article titled “Crime and Punishment” and George Stigler’s 1970 article “The Optimum Enforcement of Laws”. Rational choice theory argues that criminals, like other people, weigh costs/risks and benefits when deciding whether to commit crime and think in economic terms. They will also try to minimize risks of crime by considering the time, place, and other situational factors.