A brief History of Criminology

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Criminology is the scientific study of crime and criminals, and the way that society deals with and responds to the problem. It's a social science which can encompass and incorporate many disciplines, including psychological studies, law, history and anthropology. Since ancient times, prominent thinkers have considered the way crime affects socety, so it stretches back into the mists of time in an informal capacity.

Contemporary definitions of criminology may vary in the detail, but experts are agreed that it involves applying scientific methods and procedures to the study of crime and its causes and consequences. The criminologist may need to draw on aspects of social and behavioural sciences, as well as various aspects of psychological and legal knowledge.

Modern criminology has its roots in the 18th century Enlightenment. Prominent thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Voltaire examined the political and legal systems which were in place and found them wanting. They reasoned that adults were rational human beings and chose to commit crime because of external pressures. This contrasted with earlier schools of thought which attributed criminal behaviour to supernatural causes such as demonic possession, or heredity - in other words 'bad blood.'

In the 19th century, people in Europe began to produce 'crime maps' based on government statistics. Their work indicated that, while crime generally arose from situations - for example, there was more theft in prosperous areas, simply because there was more to steal - criminal behaviour was a failing of individuals. 

English journalist Henry Mayhew's work on documenting crime and interviewing residents, crime victims and criminals was at the heart of the development of criminology as a social science. Mayhew (1812 - 1887) was one of the first people to offer the opinion that habitual offenders - career criminals in modern parlance - were at the heart of the crime problem. Many modern criminologists still share that viewpoint.

Italian Cesare Lombroso (1835 - 1909) is universally acknowledged as the 'Father of scientific criminology.' Many of his theories - particularly those relating to the atavistic criminal - in other words, a criminal who had regressed to savagery and could be identified by certain physical defects - have since been ridiculed. However, he was the first person to apply uniform scientific methodology to criminology, and opinion on the validity of his work is now under revision.

Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theories also impacted on criminology. The idea that behavioural problems such as criminality resulted from emotional roots rather than Lombroso's idea of the 'born criminal' added another layer to the science of criminology, and provided the original foundations for modern criminal profilers.

Criminology in the USA grew from research by the University of Chicago in the 1920's. Their studies found that crime was generated by existing social conditions and learned behaviour from interacting with other criminals, rather than genetic or ethnic considerations. Edwin Sutherland (1883 - 1950) called this the 'Differential Association Theory,' which states that criminal behaviour is learned. He also coined the term 'white collar crime,' which is non-violent crime committed by outwardly respectable people in the course of their occupation.

By the 1960's, both British and American criminologists were blaming capitalism for major crime  problems. This essentially Marxist theory held that disadvantaged people felt they had nothing to lose and quite a lot to gain from criminal activity, and that criminal behaviour arose from inequalities in society.

In the last 20 or 30 years, data collection and availability have improved exponentially due to technological advances. Surveys and questionnaires have provided insight into the minds of both criminals and victims, and a wealth of detail is instantly available at the click of a mouse. This means that criminology will continue to grow and develop from its 18th and 19th century origins.

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