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Un-disciplined: Tracing Criminology's Growing Divergence from Sociology

Published onAug 13, 2020
Un-disciplined: Tracing Criminology's Growing Divergence from Sociology


Several influential sociologists have questioned the wisdom of criminology’s departure from sociology. Omitted from these reflections are the rationale explaining the schism. The present work grants a historical account to fill that absence. Oral histories with 17 leading criminologists, 13 of whom trained as sociologists, have been collected and analyzed. Two domains are explored, professional/organizational and informal/intellectual. First, the departments evidence different hiring patterns, journal content preferences, and journal structures over the past half century. Secondly, there are contrasts regarding ideology; sociology trends leftward. Criminological research concentrates on a dependent variable; sociology links to a unifying orientation. There are concerns that the field’s training and research may be too narrow and that the lure of influencing policy could undermine its opportunity to offer critical commentary. Criminology’s focus on addressing crime as a practical concern serves some advantages. Although, many respondents were conflicted over the loss of an abiding identity. If the field fails to confront its preference for multi-theoretical, policy driven discussion it risks being pruned or subsumed without a more fixed sense of identity.  


Criminology and criminal justice[ii] (hereinafter, criminology) as a formal scholarly pursuit has experienced several defining moments in its life-course (Laub, 2004). Few are more important than its incubation and maturation within its early home of sociology. Although, as early as 1945 the field’s research came under the influence of history, demography, psychology, and psychiatry, as well as sociology (Wolfgang et al., 1978). The field remains multi-theoretical, a-paradigmatic to the present day (Cooper et al., 2010; Dooley, 2018). None of that is to deny the lasting impact of sociology on the formation of the field however. The separation has provided fodder for remarks and reflection by both parties (Akers, 1992). A handful of scholars have voiced reservations as to whether criminology has enough of a sense of its own identity to establish a sustained independence[iii].

What follows is a contribution to that collective appraisal of identity. Although several leading scholars have expressed anxieties over the separation (Wellford, 1991; Akers, 1992; Savelsberg and Sampson, 2002), the scholarship describing the specifics of the departure, the rationale for the divergence, and its long-term implications have been desultory. The present work is an effort toward connecting the disparate accounts into a coherent narrative. The content is dedicated to assembling and appraising remarks on the issue. The exploration draws on in-depth responses from a collection of 17 leading criminologists, 13 of whom formally trained as sociologists. These oral histories indicate a nuanced assessment of the merits of the separation into increasingly distinct spheres of inquiry. There are trade-offs to consider when arriving at a judgment as to whether these changes have been beneficial to either party and to advancing knowledge overall. The progression down the divergent paths appears to be a fait accompli. However, that inevitability does not preclude the offering of recommendations intended to ensure a sober and dispassionate honesty in (re)considering the ways in which criminology has built its science amid its continuing professional expansion.

The crux of the issue is whether the professional advance of the field in terms of acquiring the accoutrements of any reputable social science (e.g. graduate programs, validated research, respected institutional sponsors) constitutes genuine proof of intellectual advancement. Ideally, the latter ought to justify the former, rather than the reverse. Because the two characteristics are indeed separate, the analysis will divide them accordingly. The first focus explores the professional (i.e. bureaucratic and organizational) separation. The second centers on outlining the implications from the sociology/criminology schism in terms of the development of ideas within criminology. It is important because the field of criminology has come to steadfastly defend its interdisciplinarity, complete with its multiple theoretical perspectives.

Framing the Inquiry   

Criminology’s historical origins within sociology, such as it is, has largely been attributed to of one of its original theorists, the eminent sociologist Edwin H. Sutherland (Laub, 2006, see also Merton, 1938). It was he who crafted differential association, a sociological theory that remains a mainstay in the theoretical discourse. Paradoxically, his often-cited, expansive definition of the field is also responsible for its interdisciplinarity. Criminology, he stated, is the systematic study of, “the process of making laws, of breaking laws, and reacting toward the breaking of laws” (Sutherland and Cressey, 1960 p.3). The tripartite agenda, varied scope of inquiry, and porous professional boundaries all work to encourage contributions from an expansive range of research traditions. The first plank in the definition involves the application of political power, typically falling within the domain of political science and, to a lesser extent, the sociology of law. While the paradigm driven by critical criminology covers the first prong, most of mainstream criminology aims to respond to the matter of criminal motive elaborated in the second. That dialog is inclusive of dozens of approaches: sociology, economics, biology, and psychology, to name but a few disciplinary influences. Lastly, criminal justice has dedicated its energy to accounting for the administration of police, courts, and corrections.

Simultaneously, these three domains all fall under the purview of sociology, with its generalized interest in social groups and power structures in explaining how communities cohere. Sociology’s founding theorists—Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Max Weber—all wrote extensively on these matters. The canon produced by these pioneering intellects managed to root the observations in a paradigmatic (Kuhn, 1970) framework, with an emphasis on discovering the first principles of ordered communal living. Paradigmatic order attempts to achieve consensus on a few fundamental matters. These foundational assumptions, in turn, serve to inform the breadth of the scientific community’s theoretical approach.

Sociology in the early 20th Century worked to establish its boundaries against a few competing disciplines. By implication, the strategy had an influence on the study of crime. One of the early institutional homes of criminology was within the University of Chicago’s Sociology Department, with its concentration on urban life (Abbott, 1999). Prior to the founding of the department, the defining contributions to the topic of criminality drew from legal/political philosophy (Cesare Beccaria, 1995 [1764]) and biology (Lombroso, 2006 [1876]). The field eventually opted for positivism (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1990), but one of a particular stripe. A social-ecological approach permitted a biologically informed view, albeit on a macro level. The field’s scholars could therefore work to explain crime in a way that permitted growth beyond the abstract philosophizing of Beccaria’s deterrence model. The mechanism encouraged an active measurement of empirically defined social facts and group dynamics. Those observations were then coupled with a theoretical grounding in accounting for those patterns. Criminological inquiry (with its roots in police science and penology) was baptized within this progressive tradition but quickly came to associate itself with a new cast of institutional peers.

Much of the doubt over the benefits of the separation hinges on assessing the scholarly merits of an approach that has been the recipient of considerable favor by a major institutional benefactor, the state (Abbott, 2001). The Great Society programs of the Johnson administration provided two elementary platforms for the creation of the field: research and training. First, the comprehensive report compiled by many of the field’s pioneers, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society (President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967) served to catalyze the formal study of crime. In that volume, a panel of experts from an array of disciplinary traditions convened to offer an exhaustive account of the contemporary administration of justice. Second, the need to acquire yet more expertise and a mandate to hire more humane bureaucrats was acknowledged. Into that void stepped the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), a product of the Safe Streets Act of 1968. LEAA would last until 1982, spawning dozens of offices and multiple initiatives. One program alone, the Law Enforcement Education Program, is credited with educating 100,000 officers at 1,000 colleges and universities (US Department of Justice, 1996). 

With grant money to appeal for, a mixed group of scholars and practitioners (i.e. not exclusively comprised of sociologists) went to work establishing newer administration of justice departments to augment the existing infrastructure. In these centers the training of future practitioners and researchers (Feeley and Sarat, 1980) began in earnest. The stirring of that interest was initiated by sociology which offered 30 total courses nationwide on delinquency/criminology in 1901 (Oberschall, 1972). Since the founding of the first independent School of Criminology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1950 (Morris, 1975) criminology has continued to expanded. As of 2001 the field had established near 25 doctoral, well over 100 master’s level, and several hundred bachelor’s programs (Clear, 2001). The American Society of Criminology currently lists 37 doctoral degree granting institutions in the United States and an additional 6 abroad. The allocation of governmental resources sufficient to elevate a research interest into a separate departmental infrastructure did not come without a few complicating factors though.    

The work of Joachim Savelsberg and colleagues (Savelsberg, King & Cleveland, 2002; Savelsberg, Cleveland & King, 2004) has shown that the peer-reviewed research of criminology over the last half century relies on scientific methodology in arriving at its conclusions. However, the research agenda—the topics it devotes resources to exploring—bears a correlation to prevailing political perspectives over that time span (1951-1993). A point of divergence between perspectives was found in their data. Specifically, the research conducted by scholars affiliated with criminology programs tended to focus more on topics and theories advocated by state actors (e.g. drug crimes and punishment oriented explanations) than that which was produced in sociology departments (Savelsberg, King & Cleveland, 2002). Additionally, there are additive effects due to the rise in governmental funding for criminological research over the last half century. The authors diagnose the problem as follows, “the relationship between a changing ideological climate and criminological knowledge [are] almost fully explained through funding and programming effects.” (Savelsberg, King & Cleveland, 2002, p. 327). However, it is not as if sociology is innocent of ideological influence (Smith, 2014).

Some of this differential disposition between the respective academic orientations and the state (criminology/sympathetic, sociology/skeptical) can also be seen in another realm that has created separation: departmental hiring practices. Andrew Abbott, a leading sociologist of professions, offers the following evaluation of criminology as a field of convenience of sorts.

In the first place, interdisciplinarism has generally been problem driven, and problems. . . have their own life cycle. There is ample evidence that problem-oriented empirical work does not create enduring, self reproducing communities like disciplines except in areas with stable and strongly institutionalized external clienteles like criminology. Even there, the status differences seem to keep the disciplines in superior power. Criminology departments hire from sociology departments, but seldom vice versa (Abbott, 2001 p. 134).

The study of criminology has a stable benefactor to support its teaching and research but lacks respect from one of its first mentors.  

The strictures of adhering to a purely academic tone with the collection of Savelsberg’s research in the preceding were set aside in a later co-authored editorial preface entitled “Mutual Engagement: Criminology and Sociology?” (Savelsberg & Sampson, 2002). Two of the six critiques expressed there are particularly relevant here. Firstly, it was alleged that criminology lacks an intellectual core (i.e. “common assumptions, guiding insights, or an intellectual idea that animates” Savelsberg & Sampson, 2002, p. 101). Secondly, they argue that as the field separates itself from sociology it is vulnerable to extra-scholarly influences. The collection of concerns raised in the preceding help to frame the inquiry that follows.  


The present research employed a purposive (i.e. non-random) sample. This was done in order to meet the various criteria imposed by the research aim. One of the primary aims was to locate a group of scholars who trained in the era of the field’s formative stages, ideally in sociology. A secondary aim was to find scholars who had contributed to criminology’s development by virtue of their early work proving to have been instrumental to the shaping of the field’s trajectory. Focusing on atypical characteristics such as these in the sampling frame granted the prospect of gathering meaningful replies to a series of open-ended questions soliciting detail on the complex and somewhat conflicted nature of criminology’s older and newer identities. What the methodology lacks for in terms of generalizability it compensates with the depth of response.

The methodological approach applied herein is informed by earlier oral historical efforts within criminology (Oral History Criminology Project— and beyond (e.g. the Oral History Project housed at the University of Pennsylvania).  The oral history methodology has been used to chronicle broad historical narratives including first-hand accounts of those who witnessed the unfolding of the Great Depression (Terkel, 1970), World War II (Terkel, 1984), and the demise of Soviet communism (Alexievich, 2016). Closer to the ambit of criminology’s record, the approach has been applied to documenting the development of the early understanding of criminal behavior (Bennett, 1981), criminal careers (Shaw, 1930, 1931), criminological careers (Laub, 1983), and criminology generally (Savelsberg & Flood, 2011). The approach is well suited to gaining insights into the evolution of intellectual shifts by capturing extended narratives from first-hand witnesses and participants.

The sample was drawn as part of a larger overall project exploring the overall state of criminology’s paradigm (Dooley, 2010). What prompted the investigation was a sense that the field’s various agendas are uncoordinated and the practice of the social science is inchoate. Prolonged reflection on the contending theoretical perspectives resulted from an intense immersion in the field’s scholarship as part of graduate training, in what is commonly referenced as the comprehensive examination. Over that period, a notion of whom the field’s leading contributors came into focus. Upon completion of the exam, a dissertation was commenced which sought to diagnose the lack of a cogent identity. It was advised by several leading criminologists, three of whom are Fellows of the American Society of Criminology. A list of candidates deemed to have insights capable of enhancing the collective understanding of how the process of science operates in the field was then drawn up. The roster of potential candidates was then discussed with various advisors in an effort to ensure that the demands of the project would be satisfied and to ensure a fairness and general representativeness in covering the major theoretical traditions.

Twenty-five scholars were approached with an invitation to participate, of which seventeen contributed (Table 1). Each participant was informed that contributions were being granted with attribution. The sample averaged 1973 for a date of doctorate, producing an average of approximately thirty-five years of experience prior to the interview. Thirteen of the seventeen earned a doctorate in sociology, two in criminal justice, one each in psychology and economics/public policy/sociology. In terms of current (or most recent) department affiliation the group is more balanced; nine in criminology or criminal justice and eight in sociology, depending on how one counts blended departments. The results that follow ought to be read as a retelling of the public story of what accounts for the split between the former partners in scientific inquiry[iv].  

The reason for the guarded confidence and open admission of the limitations of the research is attributable to the decision to forgo with a random sample. An ancillary aim of the sampling frame was to capture a cross-section of the theoretical mainstream within the field by approaching representative scholars. However, the research faced the challenge of arriving at an objective list of the field’s leading historic contributors while lacking anything in the way of a definitive citations list. Most such efforts at tracking citations, the universally recognized metric of scholarly impact, are of a more recent vintage (Cohn & Farrington, 1994) and are prone to a limited presence in terms of a citation cycle (Cohn & Farrington, 1996).

Unfortunately, because it was a historically informed research aim several potential contributors who would have made ideal candidates (e.g. Robert Merton) were deceased at the time the study was under way. As with any sample, several of those who may have contributed and were approached exercised their prerogative in declining the invitation. The breakdown of the eight declines was as follows. Four dropped correspondence on either the mailed invitation (1) or the email overture (3). Three declined via email responses, generally citing personal reasons. One potential interviewee was approached on the author’s behalf by a respondent and communicated a demurral via that contact. In or to avoid any potential violation of an Institutional Review Board stipulation no further commentary can be offered on the identity of those who exercised a preference in declining. Despite the non-participation of a few of those invited, social disorganization, anomie/strain, differential association/social learning, deterrence, control, critical/radical, developmental, methodology, policing, routine activities, and victimology are all represented.

Irrespective of the obstacles described above a few of the inclinations of the author in sampling are verified in the citation counts nevertheless. Ten of the seventeen interviewees rank among the top 33 scholars in a relatively recent ranking of their citations within the criminology and criminal justice research (Cohn & Farrington, 2007). Furthermore, much of the early research output by the sample helped establish the academic reputation of the growing field.

Prior to conducting the interview a copy of curriculum vitae of each respondent was reviewed. The reading of a considerable portion of their overall scholarship allowed for an informed interview to be conducted, complete with questions that probe specific points. Items relevant to the interview contained in the vitae include educational background, professional appointments and affiliations, publication history, and rewards/acknowledgements. The interviews average one hour and a quarter, ranging from twenty-eight minutes to one hour and fifty-two minutes. Following the recordings, the author transcribed the interviews.  

Table 1: Interviewee Doctoral Identifiers and Department at Time of Interview


Ph.D. Year



Department Affiliation at Interview

Freda Adler


University of Pennsylvania



Robert Agnew


University of North Carolina



Ronald L. Akers


University of Kentucky


Sociology and Criminology & Law

Robert J. Bursik Jr.


University of Chicago


Criminology and Criminal Justice

William Chambliss


Indiana University



Francis T. Cullen


Columbia University

Sociology and Education

Criminal Justice

Jack P. Gibbs


University of Oregon



John Hagan


University of Alberta (Canada)



John H. Laub


State University of New York-Albany

Criminal Justice

Criminology and Criminal Justice

Janet Lauritsen


University of Illinois


Criminology and Criminal Justice

Steven F. Messner


Princeton University



Wayne Osgood


University of Colorado


Crime, Law and Justice (Sociology)

Robert J. Sampson


State University of New York-Albany

Criminal Justice


Joachim J. Savelsberg


University of Trier (Germany)

Economics/Public Policy/Sociology


Lawrence W. Sherman


Yale University


Criminology and Criminal Justice

James F. Short Jr.


University of Chicago



Charles R. Tittle


University of Texas



The interviews worked from a semi-structured protocol—more or less a collection of bullet pointed themes—which was segmented into three domains: intellectual roots, professional activities, and conjectures on the state of the field. The interviews worked toward achieving a conversational kind of delivery that permitted a natural progression rather than adhering to a survey-like, linear agenda of items. Nevertheless, there were several questions embedded into the recordings that have a direct bearing on the two broad questions currently under consideration:

What discipline were your degrees earned in?

How did training inform topical concerns—research questions/agenda/methodology?

o   Influences on development of ideas, both personal and impersonal—important mentors, intellectual influences? 

o   Literature that was integral to the field and how this changed or stayed the same—what were the major works/bodies of work that were regarded as essential in your training?

•         Editorial positions held

o   Positions held on criminology and sociology peer-review boards

o   Editorial and reviewer philosophy regarding content, resolving disputes

•         Departments worked in and how that may have altered research agenda—institutional pressures to publish in differing outlets, research questions to pursue

•         Collaboration with colleagues

o   How does this come together?

o   What determines the success of collaborative efforts?

o   Is there any difficulty in crossing disciplinary boundaries in conceptualizing work?

•         Assumptions the field is founded upon and their sustainability—are there any core elements criminology possesses and how do they differ from others?

•         The departure of criminology and criminal justice from its parent disciplines.

o   When did this occur and how does this effect its viability?

o   Is this a good or bad development?

There were a few common follow-up questions that were not scripted, such as what implications can be drawn from the division, what kinds of content they attempt to field in criminology versus sociology journals, and what recommendations can be offered in arriving at a solution to whatever negative outcomes might result from the separation.

The analytic framework was based on an earlier publication drawn from the same data (Dooley, 2016). The familiarity with the major points of emphasis of the oral histories afforded through repeated readings of the transcripts and a continuing study of the field generally (Dooley and Rydberg, 2014; Dooley, 2017) provided the basis for generating the two organizing themes granted here. A defining emphasis in sociology of knowledge (Kuhn, 1970; Collins, 2009) has underlined the importance of professional/institutional structures, as well as more informal, intellectual norms (weltanschauung). Both attributes demonstrate a bearing on the crafting of ideas. The specific topics that linked to the two overarching themes arose in reaction to any number of the questions listed above. Therefore, the excerpts that proved most apropos of the narrative are included when elaborating on the professional and intellectual un-disciplining of criminology from sociology.


The results are bifurcated to distinguish between the formal/bureaucratic and the intellectual realms of criminology. The former concentration provides respondent reactions to the issue of departmental identity. That segment prefaces an accounting of how publications are allocated to criminology versus sociology journals based on aspects of its content. The second concentration addresses itself to the matter of informal attitudes that prevail in the respective departments. This overview of the intellectual climate ponders the influence of ideology in the development of ideas. Sub-points of that overarching narrative account for criminology’s scope of inquiry, patterns of training its graduate students, and how its connection to policy makers (who also fund research) impact the origin of ideas in the field of criminology. 

I. Formal/Bureaucratic/Organizational Boundaries

Criminology and sociology exist within a university hierarchy. Therefore, each responds by creating a division of labor to meet larger scholarly-institutional demands. Delineating specific tasks among the pool of labor helps the collection of professionals to organize individual efforts towards meeting the ends of teaching and research. The varied ways in which these expectations are met can be found in a number of domains. Joachim Savelsberg, one of the foremost sociologists of criminology offers the following in remarking on the biases of sociology departments against hiring criminologists.

My speculation is that, as you know, criminology has partly consciously attempted to isolate itself or become independent from sociology and develop its own institutions, its own departments, its own journals, so on and so forth. The more criminology did that, the more reluctant sociology programs were to hire criminologists, or maybe only a couple, just to get enrollments up in certain courses for which there would be high demand.

The qualified observation provides indication of a purpose driven migration of criminology outward into a self-determined community of its own.

Jack Gibbs characterizes sociology as a discipline that may be atrophying because of an indifferent attitude toward the concerns raised in the latter portion of the quotation above. That disinterested affectation has redounded to criminology’s benefit. The field’s proximity to applied work grants it leverage on those matters, resulting in an advantage in cementing its favor with college administrators, thereby ensuring its sustainability.

I truly believe that the only reason sociology stays alive is it continues to enroll its courses fairly well. When that ends administrators are going to give sociologists warning, “Our support of you is coming to an end.” Observe the implication; whatever sociologists are doing will pass on to other more established fields. It may well be as you said, to other more—quote—scientific fields.

Elsewhere he traces sociology’s compromised position to its having made a stand in favor of maintaining intellectual conformity rather than deferring to pragmatic concerns. What results is a discipline that he argues is somewhat imperiled. There is an institutional trend toward fragmentation in higher education the departments must be attentive to.

Once sociology gave up social work it cut off all manner of employment opportunities. While I never cease shouting for science there are practical considerations that have to be recognized. For example, I think criminology offers more, if only because of its ties with criminal justice, more in the way of opening doors for employment.

The forecast provided on sociology is dim. The discipline’s research interests are segmented and, arguably, more vulnerable to being reassigned to other scientific disciplines.

Universities, and the departments of which they are comprised, are far from beholden to a singular focus on financial concerns however. In this regard, the insistence on maintaining academic integrity by sociology worked to preserve a measure of legitimacy for criminology as it worked within its shadow; at the outset criminology rode the coattails of sociology. Charles Tittle, a sociologically trained criminologist, explains the humble origins of the field in terms of its academic repute in a process of gaining incremental legitimacy. 

We used to call them “handcuffs and guns.” That created pressure in universities. Because the universities and colleges wanted those LEAA funds, they were willing to give those students what they wanted. Therefore, colleges and universities began to invent programs for criminal justice practitioners. The first Crim-J faculty we had at the university where I was at the time was a retired sheriff who came in to teach guns and handcuffs to these police officers. Soon another ex-police officer was hired. Before long, the CJ programs became very popular, with students flocking to them. There are different interpretations on why they flocked to them. The uncharitable one was that they were easy. The other one was that these are practical things that people are interested in. But anyway, the first Crim-J programs were not academic. The teachers were police, correctional people, and lawyers. Over time, of course, those people teaching CJ wanted academic legitimacy. They found themselves in awkward situations, competing with regular academics for promotion, pay raises, etc. On one hand were these academics who had studied for years for Ph.D.s and were deep into their scholarship and on the other hand were these new Crim-J people coming off the job talking about the arrest they made last night. It just didn’t fit. Eventually CJ programs began to hire a few people from sociology, economics, and other academic areas oriented toward issues to which practicing Crim-J people could relate.

As with many pioneering academic efforts, friction when attempting to balance the interests of practitioners pressed into service at the behest of administrators eager to boost student counts chafed against the those of formally trained academicians.

Criminology’s ascendancy provided fodder for resentments that propelled the separation of the field from sociology. In Janet Lauritsen’s retelling, the division did not revolve around purely academic matters. Rather, it was over by financial considerations on campus.

For example, when I came out [of graduate school in 1989] the big threat, the big fight between criminology and anyone was between criminology and sociology. This was basically an academic fight, not a substantive one. Because in academe, in academic environments, the development of new departments of criminology and criminal justice threatened sociology departments. As far as I can tell that fight is over. Criminology made its break.

Bursik pressed the matter of how bitter some of the split became with a few characteristically blunt and direct remarks on the matter.

But it’s interesting that whenever soc gets in trouble they call up the criminologists. They’ll trot out the fucking criminologists. Man, they’ll trot out Bill [William Julius] Wilson, Rob[ert] Sampson on a plate to justify their existence. They do. The last time they had huge funding problems, out came the criminologists. “See. We do relevant shit.” And then they’ll put us away.

A second leading indicator on which bureaucratic/organizational separation can be discerned is locating where the respective working groups elect to place their scholarship. Figure 1 (see methodological appendix for detail on the collection and coding of the 2,113 articles) depicts a dramatic exodus of criminology’s research into an independent peer-review structure over the last half century. 1966 marks the last year in which sociology journals presented near half of criminology’s peer reviewed output. From 1967 to 1992 this average drops to 19%. With the expansion of several specialty journals sampled from 1993 to 2008, the average drops to a sparse 7%. As a profession with its own self-sustaining journals, complete with its own network of reviewers and standards, criminology is now emancipated from its parent discipline.


The path followed in the peer-review journal market is remarkably similar to that of departmental hiring patterns. The evaluation of that development is just as mixed as it was with the altered hiring patterns. Ten of the respondents spoke to the matter of navigating the differential expectations of publishing in various outlets. Sociology’s journals tend to carry additional academic prestige, as seen in higher impact factors. That creates an incentive to publish top tier research there, as opposed to criminology and criminal justice journals. The practical matter is that sociological criminologists face pressures to publish in sociology journals if they are to advance a career in sociology departments.

Criminology programs are much less doctrinal on such matters. Nevertheless, several sociologically trained criminologists in the sample maintained a principled insistence on criminologists working to maintain a presence in sociology journals. The justification here is more of a matter of advancing reputation and appearances. However, that lofty expectation had to weighed against practical considerations like tenure requirements, emerging trends in scholarship, editorial expectations, and expanding journal space within criminology. 

As with the professionalization of the teaching ranks, the journal trends mimic the process of initial marginalization and subsequent maturation of an emergent field. Ronald Akers offers an account of that history as seen in editorial preferences tracing criminology’s emergence from a newly christened social science to its current independent status that captures pushes and pulls.

I think as the editors come in they came more and more to see, “Well, these don’t really measure up. This isn’t really sociology; it’s something else; it’s criminology; it’s cops and robbers. It’s really not good quality.” That was part of it. The other part of it was simply, and I saw this on my own for a long time I would send my stuff to general sociology journals but more and more when I got them back they wouldn’t even read it. They’d say, “As editor I think this is something more appropriate for Criminology, or more appropriate for Justice Quarterly.” They would say, “Send this to a criminology journal.” So part of it was the sense that this is not good enough quality. But most of it was, “Now you have other outlets.” In some ways I didn’t like that but in others it’s just kind of a natural reflection of the fact that not only did we have other outlets but they’re doggone good outlets. I’ll put the quality of Criminology up against ASR [American Sociological Review] any day of the week.

There is an insistence that the science of criminology is now every bit the peer of and germane to sociology. The conflicted psychology of criminology is one of wanting to be wanted, juxtaposed with a sense of pride in having established reputable journals of its own.

Charles Tittle is one such voice pressing for scholars to continue to attempt publishing in sociology journals, despite the obstacles. He emphasizes how criminological content is subject to being pushed out of those journals however.

But then when I write papers and send them off to ASR, I often get reviews back saying, “Oh, this is too narrowly focused. It doesn’t have enough implications for sociology generally.” I’m thinking, “Oh geez; that’s the worst criticism in the world for me.” It’s so painful.

The impact of a trend towards marginalizing these contributions would be to institute a de facto dismissal of criminologists from sociology departments. Lacking a presence in sociology journals works dramatically reduces the prospects of earning tenure and promotion.

Lawrence Sherman, who has served an instrumental role in creating a criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania, raises the matter of how journal expectations and tenure requirements are intertwined. The interrelation between the two can partially account for why sociology parted ways. He offers:

At one point, Penn State for example, said that people in criminology wouldn’t get promoted if they published in soc journals. I know of one Ph.D. in the ‘90s who refused to go to Penn State on those grounds. I don’t think that’s true at Penn State anymore. I don’t think it’s true in many places. I think criminology still has some work to do at Penn in relation to the larger more traditional disciplines. But we’re established and we’re perhaps the first Ivy League school to have a criminology department but I’d venture to say not the last.

Sociological journals may have imposed barriers on accepting criminological manuscripts but the field was simultaneously erecting an alternate journal structure of its own. At the point those reached maturity it could then impose its own demands on its scholars. Some of respective journal preferences had to do with the research topics that each demonstrates an affinity for exploring. Those tend to derive from disciplinary orientations.

Robert Sampson, who trained in Criminal Justice but now serves as Chairman of a Sociology Department (Harvard University), offers an account of how too much of a good thing—a myopia for (a particular brand of) science in order to promote journal reputation—can generate limitations. A now widely cited article on the development of criminology’s scientific orientation (Laub and Sampson, 1991) recounted a seminal debate between Edwin Sutherland and the Gluecks. Surprisingly, the veritable origin story of the field, as told through an analysis of the Sutherland-Glueck correspondence earned an outright rejection at the field’s flagship journal, Criminology, before its publication in a leading sociology journal.

It wasn’t a test of a theory. It was kind of viewed as speculative, whereas the American Journal of Sociology viewed it as asking a legitimate kind of question. I think criminology right now as a field is a bit conservative in terms of its working persona. I think it’s very much right now in a theory testing mode, normal science. You have to have a hypothesis, a dataset, and a test. Whereas the American Journal of Sociology, and sociology generally is much more about letting a thousand flowers bloom. There’s much more diversity in terms of methods, ethnography, different kinds of questions and so forth.

John Hagan affirmed Sampson’s judgment on the matter of criminology’s interest in testing propositions. “I always thought criminology, the topic of crime as being a testing ground for ideas that come out of other fields, in my case, particularly out of sociology.”

A common refrain of sociology serving as a wellspring of ideas for criminology emerged in the interviews. Robert Bursik, a former editor of Criminology, offered a few observations on the matter of sorting sociologist from criminologist submissions for publication. In doing so, he defended the analytic acumen of the criminologists but noted a deficiency in terms of the criminological imagination.

Most criminologists were—I hate to use this term—but they were in the box. “Here’s the standard description of control theory.” I kept waiting for somebody to do something cool like use social disorganization and apply it to white-collar crime, look at the organization as your neighborhood. That’d be kind of fucking fun. It was very limited.

When the same query was pressed with Savelsberg a similar pattern was noted with criminology demonstrating a tendency toward a more technocratic format. This attribute contrasted with his estimation of sociological contributions being customarily linked to larger animating constructs.

But if you push me and ask me to do so then I would say that there is on the average being more data driven, more technical orientation in some publications a very close policy driven, more in criminology journals than in sociology journals. When I said earlier that I expect criminology articles in general sociology journals to be more intellectually open to broader concepts in sociology that’s something that I also personally appreciate, that I’m personally interested in.

Much of his reflection dovetails with Tittle’s remarks above on sociology journal rejections indicating a lack of sufficient connectivity to sociology’s intellectual currents. The research content is a symptom of many factors that have a backstory in the criminology-sociology departmental and journal separation

II. The Intellectual Realm of Criminology

Just as there are formal divisions that serve to demarcate the boundaries of sociology and criminology there are tacit and informal differences as well. The gestalt of the two intellectual communities vary too. Criminology and criminal justice began to establish and internalize customs of their own. The collection of these group preferences has an influence on community identity and, in turn, the types of ideas they produce. One hallmark of the sociological understanding of group norms is that in many instances self-identity is established through contrasting individual characteristics against another. In what follows, attention will be drawn to four in particular: ideological orientation, the scope of inquiry, training practices, and connection to policy.

Nine of the interviewees referenced the influence of ideological concerns on some facet of the field’s science. Francis Cullen illustrated one such manifestation with a recollection of a faux pas. His primary appointment is in the Criminal Justice Department but he also holds a joint appointment in Sociology, where his wife serves as Chair. While lecturing in her class, he encountered a few perplexed looks. He attributed the reaction to opposing perspectives on the use of state power between them, criminal justice being receptive and sociology skeptical. Robert Sampson remarked similarly, observing that sociology evidences more of a “muckraking” tradition; also one in which the sociology of law (critically questioning the normativity of various laws) has made more in-roads there than in criminology. Lastly, Joachim Savelsberg offers a few guarded insights on the matter.

I would assume that most faculty in either type of program are more on the liberal side. But people in criminology/criminal justice programs are possibly a little more—how shall I put this?—they are a notch more conservative, much more believing that government is trying to do the right thing, and asking how can we help government do the right thing. Whereas in sociology departments, especially in the area of social control there is a more generalized mistrust of what government is trying to do. But that’s pure speculation.    

While Savelsberg has spent the entirety of his career in sociology departments William Chambliss has been in mixed and separated departments throughout his. His comments affirm the suspicions raised above.

In the past there were always these cop shops, very small, a few here and there, that would train cops. Then there was criminology studied in sociology, which was supposedly more academic and more disciplined and scientific. So what happened when we created criminal justice programs was that we tried to wed cop shops with sociology of crime. What the impact of that was to move cop shops a little bit away from training cops on how to have policemen in a car instead of one and move them more into a sociological paradigm. But it also had the tendency to move the sociology of crime more into cop shops. So in every place I’ve been where there’s a separate department of criminology, criminal justice, or even a separate major within sociology the tendency has been to make the study more conservative, to make the department more conservative: so it does have this cop shop training.

A conservative influence of early criminology, dedicated as it was to training police officers, appears to cut against the natural political leanings of sociology.

Ronald Akers provided some nuance to the conventional wisdom on the separation in noting that the relative stature of criminology and sociology has shifted over time. Sociology as an academic pursuit was as successful as contemporary criminology in the 1960s because of its promises to deliver positive social change. The discipline was actively advising the state on how to alleviate social problems. Failing to meet its own promises resulted in dwindling enrollments. Criminology’s outstripped sociology’s when his Presidential address to the Southern Sociological Society was delivered in the early 1990s (Akers, 1992).

The dilemma that the field of criminology faces with establishing the right balance between encouraging a critical analysis of governmental efforts to suppress crime and advocating particular responses is offered by Cullen in response to a question asking for a summary evaluation of the field.

One of the fundamental issues is this: Do we believe in scientific knowledge, in positivism, or not? Now half the field does; half the field doesn’t. For the half of the field that doesn’t, I would respond that they believe all the studies that support their biases and none that don’t. But more than this, they want to pull criminology into a position where its main thrust is to be oppositional to and critical of extent of the existing power structures in society. They want the field to embrace policies that attack injustices. Now, politically I agree with much of that thinking. But I also think that, as a recipe for our discipline, it would lead to complete irrelevance.

Elsewhere in the interview, he underlines his support of critical criminology, referencing it as a respected paradigm within the field. However, when the critique of positivist inquiry—because research that accepts the state’s definition of crime is immediately suspect—is pressed too far it stunts theoretical development by imposing restrictions on the scope of interdisciplinarity.  

The same note of ambivalence or internal conflict in resolving his subjective versus objective evaluations of the profession is apparent in Cullen’s remarks bearing on the prevailing political consensus in the field.

I think there are good things and bad things about criminology becoming its own discipline. Again, I’m a sociologist and I think sociologically. But a lot of what I call the professional ideology in our field comes from a leftist sociological view of the world. That is a view that I’m comfortable with politically. I vote that way, but I think it can obscure our criminological work. How can I put this? I vote leftist, but I’m a positivist. In the end, my belief in science—what it shows me about the world—trumps my ideological preferences. But at times, criminology has become a highly ideological field. And that leftist bias comes from sociology. I think it constrains the education of our students. For example, if I get up at an ASC meeting and I say, “I oppose capital punishment.” No one will say anything. But if I say “I’m for capital punishment”—which I’m not—but if I were to say that, I’d get booed.

The issue of ideology serves to dismiss core elements of science and reduce the diversity of policy proposals that tend to gain a hearing within the field’s discourse.

In addition to the political cant that may be applied to a given topic, there is the selection of the topic itself, which plays a determinative role in defining systematic inquiry. Drawing institutional/professional boundaries was discussed all of the participants in the sample, largely under the guise of the field’s paradigmatic status. It was left to each to determine how the matter of offering a succinct account of what the defining identifiers of the field are. The refrain from the respondents was one in which the scope of criminology is characterized as narrow in comparison to sociology. When asked about where he would draw the boundaries of criminology Robert Sampson offers a reprise of an earlier argument (Savelsberg and Sampson, 2002).

One of the things in the initial thesis that we had is that I still don’t think criminology is a discipline. That’s one of the things that we argued, in the classical sense. What we meant, or at least I mean, is usually a discipline has an animating idea in terms of its assumptions about the world, not just a topic. So, criminology is a topic; it’s about crime. But whether you agree with it or not sociology has an animating idea about social relationships, social interactions and emergent properties. If we had to say, we could go back to Durkheim if we wanted a canonical definition of the notion of what sociology’s about. Economics, of course, is about utility maximization. There’s a certain core idea to that. That has a consensus. Psychology and all the other disciplines are the same. Where economics is not just a subject matter; it’s a certain assumption about how the world works. The same with sociology. Criminology, by contrast, is about crime and criminal justice. But today, it can be psychological; it can be sociological; it can be biological.

In the following, Ronald Akers offers an account that affirms that there are canonical figures in sociology and that a discipline is defined by a shared understanding, or approach to unraveling a set of questions. Criminology does not subscribe to that organizational scheme. As a result he designates it as a field of study.

Sociology is defined by Merton, by Parsons, and by this structural theoretical approach. Political science is defined by, partly by just studying the government, but mainly by political theories of society. Criminology’s not defined by its theoretical distinctiveness; it’s defined by its dependent variable. It’s defined by it’s being a study of crime and criminal justice: law, crime, and criminal justice. That gives us some advantages. It makes for a more unified field of study than something like, say, family studies.

With the notable exception of Freda Adler, who adamantly argued for disciplinary status (in the sense of it having a paradigm) of criminology and criminal justice, the consensus affirmed the assessment above. Most respondents were indifferent concerning the gravity of the matter, regarding the implications as neither universally negative nor particularly advantageous.

That reaction was in response to an intimation delivered by the author in inquiring over whether the field had yet to develop a sufficiently robust sense of purpose to merit independence. Another negative case, that of William Chambliss, expresses this critique most forthrightly.

From my view criminology as a separate discipline shouldn’t exist. It’s like child development within psychology. There’s an attempt to create departments of child development. You can’t have a department of child development. That’s an issue within some kind of a discipline. The same thing holds for criminology. You can’t have a department of criminology or criminal justice. That’s not an academic discipline. It’s not a field of study in the sense that it grows out of a body, a historical body of knowledge. It’s always within some other field. It’s always within political science, psychology, anthropology, economics. It has to have in intellectual base. I don’t see any intellectual justification for independent departments that study specific types of things like child development or criminology or political behavior. These are subtopics within a discipline. It can be across disciplines. That’s perfectly legitimate. But it is within some disciplinary, intellectual tradition.

Adler’s intention was to insist that criminology has a right to self-determination, with the intellectual space to express those inclinations without being required to defer to sociology. The longer the field worked within sociology the more it risked having its influence muted and the sources of its inquiry artificially circumscribed. Adler continues:

I’m a sociologist. I’m a sociologist who thinks that there’s no future for criminology in sociology. There just isn’t, because we are little step-sisters. In any department of sociology you’ve got sociology of institutions, of families, of knowledge, and all the rest of it. Then you’ve got a little bit of criminology tucked away in the corner. That’s not what’s going to make us grow. And besides, they can do all their stuff and they don’t need biology and psychology but our discipline depends on it.

Lawrence Sherman, expresses the mixed reaction that the dominant portion of the sample typically offered. There is a definitive commitment to retaining and expanding criminology’s fiefdom, largely based on pragmatic claims. An independent structure ensures autonomy of purpose, resources, and recognition. However, there are some persistent qualms over the potential of becoming too self-absorbed, removed from sources of intellectual wellsprings.

So I think it is very important that we continue to shore up the institutional infrastructure of criminology, not to feather our own nest but rather to protect the freedom of students and faculty to study crime questions in any way that they want without having to prove that it’s good economics or it’s good sociology that it’s good psychology within those paradigms. Rather, the freedom to create our own paradigm is what we get when we have our own department, our own resources that are driven by our capacity to excel in our chosen field.

Carving out a separate institutional niche allows for a group of scholars pursuing answers to a set of crime related questions. Spontaneous organization ought to foster an emergent sense of commonality within that space. In his estimation, criminology’s working order reverses the traditional practice of sociology and related disciplines.

As I say, you unify the paradigm of criminology around a question and not around an answer. That’s very different from psychology and sociology, and even economics, which tend to be unified around an answer.

Sociology’s paradigmatic framework is seen to be the foundation for the solutions it tends to generate. Criminological inquiry is beholden to a set of questions and therefore its paradigmatic state is mostly aspirational at this stage (i.e. “you unify” indicates an intention).

Jack Gibbs elaborates on the how the tension between ideological disposition and paradigmatic commitments express themselves when asked to pin down the timeline of criminology’s escape from sociology. The adherence to a paradigm in sociology may have worked to alienate a group of researchers responding to pressures and incentives to craft practical solutions with theories that lacked the dexterity of grasping the task.

I think it was fueled in large part by Parsonian theory and functionalist theory and what have you. It drove most criminologists out of the field because it was so conservative in its ideology, if you will. It’s barren in regards to policy implications. So in any case the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was kind of an ideologically driven criminology by the way.

The mention of an aversion to “conservative” theory appears to reject the assessment that has been included throughout (i.e. criminology being more amenable to conservative ideology than sociology). Revisiting history will help account for the seeming inconsistency. At the point at which Gibbs was working to revive deterrence, radical theories were in their ascendancy (Quinney, 1970; Turk, 1969). Societal reaction theories and others of that sociological cast dominated the era, while punishment oriented explanations were pushed to the margins. In the comments above there is evidence of criminology in its formative years adopting theory from sociology. Simultaneously it was working to meet the practical demands of generating applied research in responding to the exigencies of the crime problem itself. It did this through invoking more middle-range theories as contrasted with the Grand Theory on which sociology was built.   

In addition to ideology and the two approaches differing on the matter of the scope of inquiry (e.g. sociology/paradigmatic and criminology/explaining dependent variable of crime) training modalities work to influence the ideas produced by a scholarly community. All of the sociologically trained respondents spoke to the value of what that training provided them. Many specified a broad base from which to explore the social world as its most enduring benefit. Steven Messner remarks upon the intellectual tradition he engaged while studying at Columbia and Princeton. 

Thinking of my training, it clearly was within a sociology department. Although there was also a heavy emphasis on social thought more generally and being familiar with classics in social thought. Well, of course like Marx and Weber. They’d be the sociologists. But also like Karl Polanyi. Even some of the enlightenment thinkers: John Stuart Mill, Condorcet, Hume. That sort of background was something that was encouraged at the time. Debates at the time about Grand Theory versus more middle range theory, those were very animating debates. So that’s what you learned with the classical sociological theorists and the contemporary ones.

Robert Bursik draws a larger implication from the value of sociological training in terms of generating ideas. Exposure to a veritable glossary of ur-ideas demands a sociological imagination, one in which ideas must be linked and made relevant to dominant themes.

But still, there’s no substitute for being forced to take something from a completely different area and being forced to see how that fits in with what you’re doing. You could be studying, Christ, who knows what, race and ethnicity or something way out there unrelated to crime and it’s up to you to see if it’s relevant at all. That’s why Hagan is so cool. He could find relevance in fucking anything. It’s not forced. I really admire John. Savelsberg’s pretty good at that too. So is Short. They take things that seemingly wouldn’t be related at all to this shit.

In a sociology program, after all, “You couldn’t be a Neal Young criminologist and play a one note guitar solo for forty-five minutes.”

His colleague at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Janet Lauritsen also trained as a sociologist and points to a few implications from working within a tighter frame of reference as criminology has been wont to do. Below she explains how an increasingly self-referential schedule of training can lead to myopia.

I am worried about the issue of narrow training, but I don’t really know if the loss of generalists will be a problem for the field in the long run. Given that information is more freely shared these days, given the technological advances, maybe it will not be a problem. I am worried that new students and Ph.D.s will not know that similar problems are being grappled with in other perspectives in related fields. Perhaps they will not be able to link, for example, macro-social conditions to criminology because they have not learned enough about macro-social phenomena. They do not seem to know much about stratification, or about institutions, or about the demographic features of the developing world. Those are the kinds of things that I am worried about, that lack of training.

What results is a field of inquiry that is, in the words of Robert Sampson, “siloed”. Experts explore ever-more esoteric topics, leaving the few remaining generalists to integrate the knowledge generated.

John Laub remarks of a similar phenomenon that is working to delimit the field’s scope. As time goes on, the connections that criminology maintains with parent disciplines begin to wither. Here he remarks on how that piecemeal transformation is taking place across the generations. When asked to contrast the typical training of 20 years ago in sociology to the author’s (degree granted in 2010 in Criminology & Criminal Justice) he laments the receding time horizon; the historical frame of reference is shrinking.

They’re narrow and the other thing that’s happening, at least in the sciences and I think it’s going to happen across the board, is that as we begin to move the way that you’re trained versus the way that I trained is very different. Whoever’s behind you even more so. There’s a lot of talk now amongst scientists about when one begins to rely on research sources largely through automated databases. You end up with a shorter time horizon. The more immediate stuff gets the most attention and you don’t go further back. One of the reasons I wanted to interview Travis Hirschi for The Craft of Criminology (Laub, 2002), along just wanting to interview him, was because I was experiencing the case where students were talking a lot more about the general theory of crime (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) than about Causes [of Delinquency] (Hirschi, 1969). I thought that was not a good thing.

Criminology is a younger enterprise overall. Vitiating itself from the developments within any given disciplinary framework is seen to feed a limited, self-referential pattern of citations and a presentist one at that.

Joachim Savelsberg locates that same tendency in a different source, search engines that scholars increasingly rely on to generate their literature reviews.

But then there are also counter-trends like the growing importance of electronic search engines, where the article becomes independent of the particular journal in which it was published. Surely the journal still plays a major role in selecting which articles which pop up in the Sociological Abstracts or Criminal Justice Abstract search I do. I know which are the prominent journals. If there are two-hundred articles, and I don’t have time to read two-hundred, I read those that are published in journals that are recognized. But, in general, I use my search engine. What pops up is everything that they cover. That might make the success of publications a little bit independent of the particular journal in which they appear.  

What results are references being cited that are unmoored from their disciplinary homes. In a sense, this works against the trends that others point to in fields of inquiry becoming more disparate over time. Of course, this is a scenario in which a topically defined field like criminology is likely more amenable to than a more paradigmatically organized endeavor such as sociology.

The commentary on training draws from responses to an inquiry asking them to contrast the training they experienced as students with that they now deliver as professors. All expressed a measure of regret over leaving some of the lineage of sociology behind, to one degree or another. Several regarded the trade-offs in favor of more specialized knowledge to be worth the loss. Overall, the respondents pointed to two common tactics graduate departments employ to dampen the impact of the loss of integrationist themes. The first tactic is to work to hire sociologically trained candidates (and those from home disciplines) for faculty positions. The other is to encourage students to search the literature generated in other disciplines. Below, Wayne Osgood explains the importance of the latter while putting a positive sheen on criminology training graduates within their own departments.

I think it makes us more boring. It didn’t used to be the case where you could go to grad school and learn nothing but criminology. Right? So the good part about that is there’s so much to learn about criminology now. So students can become really sophisticated about what we already do. The bad part is they don’t know anything else. So I wrote that piece in The Criminologist years ago [Osgood, 1998; commonly referenced as “Stealing from Our Friends”]. It was really about that: come on; it’s good if you know something else too. And really, our training at Penn State is built around that.

The caveat raised is that a lack of awareness of what other disciplines are doing suffers the prospect of duplicating earlier work or manufacturing uninformed research.

The final sub-topic under the theme of informal influences on the creation of ideas is criminology’s proximity to the policy realm, an issue raised by eleven of the respondents. Criminal justice bureaucrats require research to inform their administration. Many therefore solicit advice in achieving crime reductions, among other institutional goals. Working criminologists respond to those overtures (including funding opportunities) with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Charles Tittle explains how these pressures interact with adhering to a scientific ethos.

Criminology has had the reputation of being much more narrow than sociology generally, much more focused on solving a societal problem, and devoted to providing policy guidance to make society safer, and thereby to be less rigorous than other social sciences. Unfortunately, sociology and especially the criminology part of it has had a bad reputation. One of the reasons for that has been the penchant for sociologists-criminologists to pursue descriptive work without theoretical relevance and to try to make policy statements based on studies of the phenomenon without understanding the underlying processes that are going on.

Elsewhere he references this practice as “flying ideology under the guise of science”.

Those reservations were also voiced by James Short.

Criminology, the thing I worry most about criminology is that it is becoming too professionally applied, to the neglect of solid scholarly work. There is a distinction between basic, fundamental knowledge and their applications that we must not forget.

In the 1960s he raised the same admonition, in reaction to sociologists agitating for direct action. The more recent example he cites is over the folly of youth gang interventions that lack for a concerted attempt to account for the underlying processes that give life to those groups. Better for scientists to explain the matter in detail and let political actors determine what ought to be done to formulate a response. Although many in the field who promote public criminology, an adaptation of public sociology, disagree.  

Discussion and Conclusion

The evidence in the foregoing indicates convincingly that criminology has made a separation from sociology both professionally and in terms of the informal norms it has adopted. The former academic study still manages to draw inspiration from the latter in that an interdisciplinary approach relies on home disciplines in staffing their faculty, at least on occasion. In turn, these disciplinary scholars exert influence in the field through incorporating themes drawn from in their training when training future generations of scholars and in publishing research that is informed by those ideas. As the field has professionalized the presence of sociologists has been dwindling. The growing number of graduate programs has afforded criminology the opportunity to hire from within, thereby “coming of age” (Clear, 2001).

In many ways, criminology’s growing autonomy as a profession was inevitable. The state acting as a benefactor lent the study of crime and training of criminal justice actors a sense of purpose and a powerful institutional sponsor. The LEAA funding created incentives for universities to create departments. At that point, work toward acquiring the traditional hallmarks of academic legitimacy began. The construction of a knowledge base following the establishment of a profession reversed the typical progression, creating momentary tension and resentment from some quarters as non-degreed professionals filled the need. The matter of accreditation resolved itself as the years passed. As the field continues it is likely that the equivocation expressed by several of the interviewees, in terms of wanting to be validated by sociology departments and journals, will continue to recede. Criminology is an independent institutional actor, complete with its own departments and respected journal structure. Folding those departments back into various disciplinary homes would require considerable resources and academic capital, or a precipitous decline therein.

The upshot from this state of affairs is that criminology has become a problem-defined domain, while sociology works within in a paradigmatic framework. The two communities are tangibly different in terms of their academic mien. For better or worse, criminology is the offspring of the state. An exigency existed and an ad hoc group of scholars mobilized to provide a public good: formulating solutions to the crime problem. The field is little burdened by the academic-qua-academic expectations of its parent discipline; practicality and policy are what occupy its attention.

As with corporeal parentage, intellectual parentage is capable of empirical validation but also partially socially constructed. The sociological influence may have been oversold. Wolfgang et al. (1978) in an exhaustive coding of the totality of the existing research output found that just over 1 in 10 theoretical references in its research were explicitly tied to sociology. From its earliest institutional formation research in criminology has been interdisciplinary.

One of the lasting imprints sociology has made upon its former understudy is in its worldview. From its own inception sociology has evidenced a brand of ideology that measures its impact through what gains it can prod society into pursuing through seeking better designs on administration (Hayek, 1952v). It is argued that through a concerted effort of collecting and analyzing the right data social scientists (e.g. the intellegensia) can successfully arrange a healthier social order. According to this vision, all that is required is the allocation of sufficient political leverage and resources to those who will apply those insights to effectuate a just social order. There is a sense of mission that this imparts to a scientific community that, if unchecked, will articulate itself in its science (Smith, 2014).

Criminology lacks consensus as to how it ought to proceed in the absence of that motivating force; it is conflicted on the question. On one side of the ledger is the advantage of incorporating explanations from a multitude of sources, not just sociology alone. That intellectual diversity, as contrasted with sociology’s homogeneity, and its less rigidly defined training (Dooley, 2017) represent genuine benefits. On the other is a sense of hesitance with the lack of a singular, unifying framework. Sandwiched in between these positions is the contentious issue of ideology. Francis Cullen outlines the duality.

The best work in the field now comes from thinking outside of criminology. Like Sampson’s work is really urban sociology. What I’m trying to say is that, in some important ways, the development of criminology was stunted by its fidelity to sociology; and it’s preference for theory over data; in its preference for ideology over positivism. I think that has stunted us. Now if we become our own self-contained discipline, we may have the opposite problem. How do we get young scholars not to read just criminological theories, but to read the general social science literature?

The field has largely sidestepped an engagement with the question of ideology in order to focus in advancing the quest for more empirical evidence. At some undetermined point it will be forced to confront the issue, as ideology, like emotion, plays a pivotal role in thinking processes, individual and community alike (Haidt, 2012). Until that point is reached it will continue to rely on grafting ideas generated in other disciplines, exhorting young scholars to consult the work being done within home disciplines to fill the missing sense of identity.

One of the structural factors that require an acknowledgement regarding the give and take of ideologyvi is criminology’s proximity to policy. Although the research conducted in the field is closer to the state than sociology, the field does evidence a left leaning emphasis on a number of points from root causes to punishment preferences (Wright and Delisi, 2015). The discovery of is reflexively leads to ought for many in science. Detailing where science and advocacy interact will help in improving the delivery of both. The drawback is that these matters are fundamentally unresolvable. Rather than invite the prospect of arguing the field into irrelevancy the field has opted to table that exchange in favor of empirical assessment, not an entirely disagreeable compromise by Cullen’s estimation.

You have a target, a cause of crime, and then try and develop interventions capable of changing that risk factor. That’s where I would like to see criminology move towards. And to begin to understand those things in very detailed ways. Now that takes a lot of money. But someone once said that there’s a lot more money spent on dental research than on crime research. And the response—I think it came from Larry Sherman—was something along these lines: “Yeah, they can stop pain and fix teeth and we can’t fix much of anything.” So I think that we should try to build a discipline that is scientifically rigorous so as to save kids and older offenders through effective programs.

The defining point of divergence is that criminology has opted for the concrete over the (arguably) reified notions that are more prevalent within sociology.


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[i] Thank you to Sean E. Goodison for several helpful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. Figure 1 would not have been possible but for Joachim Savelsberg’s generous offer to use the data gathered under his direction.

[ii][ii] For the sake of brevity the omnibus term of criminology is used throughout, including the title, to be inclusive of criminology and criminal justice. Rather than risk creating confusion by stepping into the academic debate over precisely where the two converge and differ (Dooley & Rydberg, 2014) the matter is placed outside the bounds of the present endeavor. Additionally, for reasons that will be made explicit in the results section, the terms “field” and “discipline” are used to denote criminology and sociology, respectively throughout.

[iii] John Laub (2006) has raised the argument that the question of criminology’s central notion (“the soul of criminology” or “systematizing the concepts and problems of a given domain of inquiry in compact form” fn. 5) should be opened. Franklin Zimring offered a similar sentiment on criminology’s inchoate sense of self, “Indeed, one threshold question is whether the only organizing principle of the discipline is its diversity—perhaps we could consider a name change to the American Society of People Who Study Crime?” (Zimring, 2008, p. 257).

[iv] A reviewer raised a concern to which the methodology is particularly vulnerable. The attribution of quotes, as well as most of the sample being currently employed in a sociology department indicates there is likely to be great reluctance on the part of the respondents to disclose in a more forthcoming manner any resentments over criminology potentially being cast out rather than having departed on more amicable terms. Furthermore, the research was conducted in the course of a dissertation. That youth and near anonymity meant that the necessary rapport was probably insufficient in terms of gaining the confidence necessary to garner such evidence, if indeed it was present. In another venue doing similar work it often occurs that when the recording equipment is shut off participants are much more willing to unburden themselves of recollections that are not for public consumption, all of which is respected as confidential. The present research should be consumed bearing this notation in mind. The present research should be consumed bearing this notation in mind. Future research can seek to redress this limitation.

[v] The work indicates that although sociology was not funded by the state at its birth many of its founders had explicit ambitions to press their insights into the promotion of state planning.

[vi] Ideology is much like an accent in that one nearly always finds it in another rather than in oneself. Additionally, alleging it can be the last refuge of those arguing in bad faith to dismiss an opponent. Nevertheless, it is inherent with any argument, scientific or otherwise. When the need to intervene to alleviate human suffering, as it is with criminal justice, the imperative to advocate for solutions is all too powerful for many scientists to resist. This can even be witnessed in the natural sciences with the matter of global warming/climate change precipitating forceful arguments for dramatic policy changes to avoid catastrophe (Lomborg, 2003).

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