Understanding Criminology

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Throughout history thinkers and rulers have written about crime and criminals and the

control of crime. Yet the term “criminology” is little more than a century old, and the subject has been of scientific interest for only two centuries.

What is Criminology?

  • Criminology is a science, an empirical science. More particularly , it is one of the social, or behavioural, sciences. It has been defined in various ways by its scholars. The definition provided in 1934 by Edwin H. Sutherland, one of the founding scholars of American criminology, is widely accepted:

Criminology is the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon. It includes within its scope the process of making laws, of breaking laws, and of reacting toward the breaking of laws… The objective of criminology is the development of a body of general and verified principles and of other types of knowledge regarding this process of law, crime and treatment or prevention

In simple terms, criminology is the study of delinquency and crime as social phenomenon. In its current use, the term refers to the study of the process of law-making, of breaking the law and of the societal response to delinquent and criminal acts.

  • The definition suggests that the field of criminology is narrowly focused on crime yet broad

in scope. By stating as the objective of criminology “the development of a body of general and verified principles,” Sutherland mandates that criminologists, like all other scientists, collect information for study and analysis in accordance with the research methods of modern science.

  • Criminology is a discipline composed of the accumulated knowledge of many other

disciplines, but criminologists consider theirs a separate science.

  • In Sutherland’s definition – “making laws,” breaking laws,” and “reacting toward the breaking of laws,” the following can be briefly observed:

Making of laws

  • When different legal Codes from Early legal systems up to date are looked at closely, we find out that the development of criminal laws generally followed the same pattern among all people everywhere.
  • All Codes began with the recognition of some acts as wrong. All cultures regarded some law violations as minor and subject to private compensation. And all, according to the earliest records, considered some wrongs to be so serious that material compensation was not considered sufficient as a punishment or effective as a deterrent.


  • The Breaking of laws
  • Sutherland’s definition of criminology includes the task of investigating and explaining the process of breaking laws. This may seem simple if viewed from a purely legal perspective.
  • Sutherland, in saying that criminologists have to study the process of lawbreaking, had much more in mind than determining whether or not someone has violated the criminal law. He was referring to the process of breaking laws. That process encompasses a series of events, perhaps starting at birth or even earlier, which result in the commission of crime by some individual and not by others.
  • Many disciplines contribute to understanding the process of breaking laws or other norms, but as yet there is no consensus on why people become criminals.


  • Society’s reaction to the breaking of laws
  • Criminologists’ interest in understanding the process of breaking a law or a social norm is tied to understanding society’s reaction to deviance. The study of lawbreaking demonstrates that society has always tried to control or prevent norm breaking.
  • Researchers on society’s reaction to the breaking of laws is more recent than research on the causes of crime.
  • Today criminologists analyze the methods and procedures society uses in reacting to crime; the evaluate the success of failure of such methods; and on the basis of their research, they propose more effective and humane ways of controlling crime.