The History of Criminology

How the Study of Crime Led to Modern Criminology

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While modern criminology has at its roots many of the philosophies espoused by Aristotle and his mentor, Plato, the ideas that set the stage for its rapid development can be found in the same concepts that brought about the American and French revolutions.   

The idea of the social contract, which late Renaissance and revolutionary period writers understood to describe the role and function of government, brought about resistance towards the abuses by the ruling authorities of the time.

Modern Criminology and the Secular Society

The kings and queens of those times claimed their totalitarian authority on the will of God, claiming to have been placed in power by God and therefore acting within His will. Crimes against persons, property, and state were all viewed as crimes against God and as sins. 

Monarchs claimed to be both of head of state and head of church. Punishment was often swift and cruel, with little regard for the criminal.

As the notion of separation of church and state began to take root, ideas about crime and punishment took a more secular and humanistic form.  Modern-day criminology developed out of the study of sociology.

At its core, modern criminologists seek to learn the root causes of crime and to determine how best to address it and to prevent it. Early criminologists advocated a rational approach to dealing with crime, pushing against the abuses by governmental authorities.


A Call for Reason in Modern Criminology

The Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, in his book On Crime and Punishment, advocated for a fixed scale of crime and corresponding punishment based on the severity of the crime. He suggested that the more severe the crime, the more severe the punishment should be.

Beccaria believed that the role of judges should be limited to determining guilt or innocence, and that they should issue punishments based on the guidelines set out by the legislatures. Excessive punishments and abusive judges would be eliminated.

Beccaria also believed that preventing crime was more important than punishing it. Therefore, punishment of crime should serve to scare others away from committing those crimes.

The thought was that the assurance of swift justice would convince someone otherwise likely to commit a crime to think first about the potential consequences.

The Link Between Demographics and Crime

Criminology developed further as sociologists tried to learn the root causes of crime. They studied both the environment and the individual. 

With the first publication of national crime statistics in France in 1827, Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet looked at similarities between demographics and crime rates. He compared areas where a higher rate of crime occurred, as well as the age and gender of those who committed crimes.

He found that the highest numbers of crime were committed by under-educated, poor, younger males. He also found that more crimes were committed in wealthier, more affluent geographical areas.


However, the highest rates of crime occurred in those wealthy areas that were physically closest to poorer regions, suggesting that poor individuals would go to wealthier areas to commit crimes.

This demonstrated that crime occurred largely as a result of opportunity and showed a strong correlation between economic status, age, education, and crime.

The Link Between Biology, Psychology, and Crime

In the late 19th century, Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso studied cause of crime based on individual biological and psychological characteristics. Most notably, he suggested that most career criminals were not as evolved as other members of society.

Lombrosso discovered certain physical attributes shared among criminals that lead him to believe there was a biological and hereditary element that contributed to an individual’s potential to commit a crime.


Modern Criminology

These two lines of thinking, biological and environmental, have evolved to complement each other, recognizing both internal and external factors that contribute to the causes of crime.

The two schools of thought formed what is today considered the discipline of modern criminology. Criminologists now study societal, psychological and biological factors. They make policy recommendations to governments, courts and police organizations to assist in preventing crimes.  

As these theories were being developed, the evolution of the modern police force and of our criminal justice system was occurring as well. 

The purpose of police was refined to prevent and detect crimes, as opposed to simply react to crimes already committed. The criminal justice system now serves to punish criminals for the purpose of deterring future crimes.

Career Potentials in Criminology

Criminology has emerged as a highly diversified field, which contains elements of sociology, biology, and psychology. 

Careers for those who study criminology include police officers, researchers, crime scene and forensic lab technicians, lawyers, judges, security professionals, and psychologists

The field of criminology continues to grow, and you can find career opportunities in almost any area of interest you may have.