Criminology Definition and History

Forensic criminologist in protective suit taking photos on a crime scene.
Forensic criminologist in protective suit taking photos on a crime scene. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Criminology is the study of crime and criminals, including the causes, prevention, correction, and impact of crime on society. Since it emerged in the late 1800s as part of a movement for prison reform, criminology has evolved into a multidisciplinary effort to identify the root causes of crime and develop effective methods for preventing it, punishing its perpetrators, and mitigating its effect on victims.

Key Takeaways: Criminology

  • Criminology is the scientific study of crime and criminals.
  • It involves research to identify the factors that motivate certain persons to commit crimes, the impact of crime on society, the punishment of crime, and the development of ways to prevent it.
  • People involved in criminology are called criminologists and work in law enforcement, government, private research, and academic settings.
  • Since its beginnings in the 1800s, criminology has evolved into an ongoing effort to help law enforcement and the criminal justice system respond to the changing societal factors contributing to criminal behavior.
  • Criminology has helped develop several effective modern crime prevention practices such as community-oriented and predictive policing. 

Criminology Definition

Criminology encompasses a wider analysis of criminal behavior, as opposed to the general term crime, which refers to specific acts, such as robbery, and how those acts are punished. Criminology also attempts to account for fluctuations in crime rates due to changes in society and law enforcement practices. Increasingly, criminologists working in law enforcement employ advanced tools of scientific forensics, such as fingerprint study, toxicology, and DNA analysis to detect, prevent, and more often than not, solve crimes.

Modern criminology seeks a deeper understanding of the psychological and sociological influences that make certain people more likely than others to commit crimes.

From a psychological perspective, criminologists attempt to explain how deviant personality traits—such as a constant need for the gratification of desires—might trigger criminal behavior. In doing so, they study the processes by which people acquire such traits and how their criminal response to them can be restrained. Often, these processes are attributed to the interaction of genetic predisposition and repeated social experiences.

Many theories of criminology have come from the study of deviant behavioral sociological factors. These theories suggest that criminality is a natural response to certain types of social experiences.


Early criminology attempts to connect physical characteristics to criminal behavior.
Early criminology attempts to connect physical characteristics to criminal behavior. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The study of criminology began in Europe during the late 1700s when concerns arose over the cruelty, unfairness, and inefficiency of the prison and criminal court system. Highlighting this early so-called classical school of criminology, several humanitarians such as Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria and British lawyer Sir Samuel Romilly sought to reform the legal and correctional systems rather than the causes of the crime itself. Their primary goals were to reduce the use of capital punishment, humanize prisons, and compel judges to follow the principles of due process of law

In the early 1800s, the first annual statistical reports on crime were published in France. Among the first to analyze these statistics, Belgian mathematician and sociologist Adolphe Quetelet discovered certain repeating patterns in them. These patterns included items such as the types of crimes committed, the number of people accused of crimes, how many of them were convicted, and the distribution of criminal offenders by age and gender. From his studies, Quetelet concluded that “there must be an order to those things which…are reproduced with astonishing constancy, and always in the same way.” Quetelet would later argue that societal factors were the root cause of criminal behavior.

Cesare Lombroso

Portrait of Cesare Lombroso
Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), Italian physician and criminologist. Bettmann / Getty Images

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian physician Cesare Lombroso, known as the father of modern criminology, began studying the characteristics of criminals in hopes of learning why they committed crimes. As the first person in history to apply scientific methods in crime analysis, Lombroso initially concluded that criminality was inherited and that criminals shared certain physical characteristics. He suggested that persons with certain skeletal and neurological abnormalities such as close-set eyes and brain tumors were “born criminals” who, as biological throwbacks, had failed to evolve normally. Like American biologist Charles Davenport’s 1900s theory of eugenics suggesting that genetically inherited characteristics such as race could be used to predict criminal behavior, Lombroso’s theories were controversial and eventually largely discredited by social scientists. However, like Quetelet before him, Lombroso’s research had attempted to identify the causes of crime—now the goal of modern criminology.

Modern Criminology

Criminologists use digital facial recognition to identify criminal suspects.
Criminologists use digital facial recognition to identify criminal suspects. Photolibrary / Getty Images Plus

Modern criminology in the United States evolved from 1900 to 2000 in three phases. The period from 1900 to 1930, the so-called “Golden Age of Research,” was characterized by the multiple-factor approach, the belief that crime is caused by a multitude of factors that cannot readily be explained in general terms. During the “Golden Age of Theory” from 1930 to 1960, the study of criminology was dominated by Robert K. Merton’s “strain theory,” stating that the pressure to achieve socially accepted goals—the American Dream—triggered most criminal behavior. The final period from 1960 to 2000, brought extensive, real-world testing of predominant criminological theories using generally empirical methods. It was the research conducted during this last phase that brought about the fact-based theories on crime and criminals applied today.

FBI criminologist examines fingerprints.
FBI criminologist examines fingerprints. Bettmann / Getty Images

The formal teaching of criminology as a distinct discipline, separate from criminal law and justice, began in 1920 when sociologist Maurice Parmelee wrote the first American textbook on criminology, titled simply Criminology. In 1950, famed former Berkeley, California, chief of police August Vollmer founded America’s first school of criminology specifically to train students to be criminologists on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Modern criminology encompasses the study of the nature of crime and criminals, the causes of crime, the effectiveness of criminal laws, and the functions of law enforcement agencies and correctional institutions. Drawing on both the natural and social sciences, criminology attempts to separate pure from applied research and statistical from intuitive approaches to problem-solving. 

Today, criminologists working in law enforcement, government, private research companies, and academia, apply cutting-edge science and technology to better understand the nature, causes, and effects of crime. Working with local, state, and federal legislative bodies, criminologists help create policy dealing with crime and punishment. Most visible in law enforcement, criminologists have helped develop and apply techniques of modern policing and crime prevention such as community-oriented policing and predictive policing.

Criminological Theories 

The focus of modern criminology is criminal behavior and the contributing biological and sociological factors that cause rising crime rates. Just as society has changed over criminology’s four century-long history, so too have its theories. 

Biological Theories of Crime

The earliest effort to identify the causes of criminal behavior, the biological theories of crime state that certain human biological characteristics, such as genetics, mental disorders, or physical condition, determine whether or not an individual will have a tendency to commit criminal acts.

Classical Theory: Emerging during the Age of Enlightenment, classical criminology focused more on the fair and humane punishment of crime than on its causes. Classical theorists believed that humans exercised free will in making decisions and that as “calculating animals,” would naturally avoid behaviors that caused them pain. They thus believed that the threat of punishment would deter most people from committing crimes.

Positivist Theory: Positivist criminology was the first study of the causes of crime. Conceived by Cesare Lombroso in the early 1900s, positivist theory rejected the classical theory’s premise that people make rational choices to commit crimes. Instead, positive theorists believed that certain biological, psychological, or sociological abnormalities are the causes of crime.

General Theory: Closely related to his positivist theory, Cesare Lombroso’s general theory of crime introduced the concept of criminal atavism. In the early stages of criminology, the concept of atavism—an evolutionary throwback—postulated that criminals shared physical features similar to those of apes and early humans, and as “modern savages” were more likely to act in ways contrary to the rules of modern civilized society.

Sociological Theories of Crime

A majority of criminological theories have been developed since 1900 through sociological research. These theories assert that individuals who are otherwise biologically and psychologically normal will naturally respond to certain social pressures and circumstances with criminal behavior.

Cultural Transmission Theory: Arising in the early 1900s, the cultural transmission theory contended that criminal behavior is transmitted from generation to generation—a “like father, like son” concept. The theory suggested that certain shared cultural beliefs and values in some urban areas spawn traditions of criminal behavior that persist from one generation to another.

Strain Theory: First developed by Robert K. Merton in 1938, strain theory stated that certain societal strains increase the likelihood of crime. The theory held that the emotions of frustration and anger arising from dealing with these strains create pressure to take corrective action, often in the form of crime. For example, people undergoing chronic unemployment may be tempted to commit theft or drug dealing to obtain money.

Social Disorganization Theory: Developed after the end of World War II, the social disorganization theory asserted that the sociological characteristics of peoples’ home neighborhoods contribute substantially to the likelihood that they will engage in criminal behavior. For example, the theory suggested that especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, young people are trained for their future careers as criminals while participating in subcultures that condone delinquency.

Labeling Theory: A product of the 1960s, the labeling theory asserted that an individual’s behavior may be determined or influenced by the terms commonly used to describe or classify them. Constantly calling a person a criminal, for instance, can cause them to be treated negatively, thus triggering their criminal behavior. Today, labeling theory is often equated to discriminatory racial profiling in law enforcement.

Routine Activities Theory: Developed in 1979, routine activities theory suggested that when motivated criminals encounter inviting unprotected victims or targets, crimes are likely to occur. It further suggested that some peoples’ routine of activities makes them more vulnerable to being viewed as suitable targets by a rationally calculating criminal. For example, routinely leaving parked cars unlocked invites theft or vandalism.

Broken Windows Theory: Closely related to the routine activities theory, the broken window theory stated that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder in urban areas create an environment that encourages further, ever more serious crimes. Introduced in 1982 as part of the community-oriented policing movement, the theory suggested that stepped-up enforcement of minor crimes such as vandalism, vagrancy, and public intoxication helps prevent more serious crimes in urban neighborhoods.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “The born criminal? Lombroso and the origins of modern criminology.” BBC History Magazine, February 14, 2019,
  • Beccaria, Cesare (1764). “On Crimes and Punishments, and Other Writings.” Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-40203-3.
  • Hayward, Keith J. and Young, Jock. “Cultural Criminology: An Invitation.” Theoretical Criminology, August 2004, ISBN 1446242102, 9781446242100
  • Akers, Ronald L. and Sellers, Christine S. “Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, Application.” Oxford University Press, 2013,
  • Lochner, Lance. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports.” American Economic Review, 2004,
  • Byrne, James and Hummer, Don. “An Examination of the Impact of Criminological Theory on Community Corrections Practice.” United States Courts,