Criminology, relevance and explanation

There are two issues I want to comment on here, both of which come out of a conversation I had recently. One is the ‘relevance’ of qualifications in criminology and the other is the nature of criminological explanation.

Relevance

If you’re reading this, the likelihood is you’re doing a criminology programme, or thinking about taking one. This means you’ll have thought about questions like ‘why do I want to do criminology?’ and ‘will it have any vocational use?’.

Why anyone wants to study criminology is a matter for them. I got involved in the 1980s, before most undergraduate criminology degree courses had started. My own degree is in sociology and I worked with people whose qualifications were in, among other things, psychology, history, law, geography, social policy, anthropology, languages, business studies and a few other things besides.

At that time the view within academia was that criminology was only really suitable for teaching either as a module or two within another degree (e.g. the psychology of offending, the history of law enforcement, social control in different cultures) or at a masters level, where people who possessed an academic ‘discipline’ could focus in on a particular set of social issues.

All this changed in the 1980s and 1990s, and criminology and criminal justice studies undergraduate degrees became common. The thing about these degrees – and the thing you need to remember if you take one – is that they are ‘syncretic’ degrees that will borrow a lot of material from other more established academic disciplines.

That doesn’t disparage or invalidate criminology as a subject of study, because there are plenty of syncretic degrees out there; you’d face the same issues if you wanted to take environmental sciences, water management, media studies and so on. What it does mean is that you have to accept you’ll need to dip into a bunch of different disciplines, each with their own history, and try to make sense of them.

People took undergraduate degrees in criminology and criminal justice because, often, they figured they were ‘relevant’ to what they wanted to do after graduation – work in law enforcement, for example. But that was always a questionable assumption. Criminal justice agencies typically have their own recruitment programmes, provide their own in-house training and send people to programmes run by specialist organisations and consortia when they’ve achieved some level of seniority.

A criminology degree is useful in so far as it offers a greater understanding of offending, victimisation, criminal justice and so on – and for that matter a more acute understanding of what it is and isn’t possible to explain, because mostly it works at the level of explaining crime rates rather than the actions of individuals. However, this contextual knowledge can be more frustrating than useful if you’re in a position where your own actions are determined by organisational rules and procedures, while potential solutions to policy problems may lie entirely outside your own organisation.

It’s worth noting that the UCAS (UK universities’ combined application system) criminology web page refers to careers in the police, prisons, probation, law, the civil service and related private-sector employers. However, and perhaps strangely, once you’ve done your degree and look at a site like prospects.ac.uk, the main graduate employment advice website in the UK, it doesn’t even mention employment in crime-related areas on the first page of its website entry for criminology. Instead it says:

You develop core transferable skills which are attractive to a variety of employers. These include research skills, written and oral communication, time management and planning, working to deadlines, IT skills and the ability to work productively both in a group and autonomously.

(OK, if you go to page 2 of the entry it does list a bunch of careers in policing, community work and so forth – but the structure of ‘transferable skills on the first page, criminal justice jobs on the second’ doesn’t exactly make these career options into headline news.)

So the best possible motive for studying criminology is probably the old-fashioned one, not because it’s ‘relevant’ to some future career choice but because it interests you. After all, the current view is that most of us will have have at least two or three careers in the course of our working lives.

Explanation

What kinds of things do you need to know, what kinds of knowledge are you likely to have to get to grips with, if you study criminology?

The answer you’re most likely to get is ‘it depends’. And here’s why.

Scientific enquiry of most types revolves around the related ideas of an explanandum and an explanans.

The explanandum (a term carried over from Latin) is the thing that needs to be explained. The explanans (same derivation) is the explanation.

So far as criminology is concerned, crime is the explanandum. So what about the explanans? What are the factors and theories we’re going to rely on in order to explain why people commit crime, or whatever?

They’re likely to be the same kinds of things that might explain why people do anything at all: why they buy (or don’t buy) fast food, why they enjoy (or don’t enjoy) sports or music or dancing or driving fast or drugs or sex, and a million other things that people do. They’re likely to revolve around culture and politics and economics and people’s perceptions of their place in the world, their opportunities, their probems, and so on; and they’re likely to be influenced by their upbringing, their education, their income, the people around them, and a whole lot of other stuff that’s going on in their lives.

So a criminologist needs to understand crime, the thing to be explained, very well. But she or he also needs to understand all these other things, the explanatory factors, in at least as much detail.

So: what kinds of things do you need to know, what kinds of knowledge are you likely to have to get to grips with, if you study criminology? It depends on what you see as relevant explanatory factors. And, broadly speaking, you need to know everything about how those factors work and how they affect people’s lives and choices.

In my time as a researcher I wound up looking at all kinds of social issues, from the everyday lives of homeless people to the impact of economic growth on developing economies. And I had to put at least as much effort into understanding these things, as explanatory factors, as I did into understanding the crime patterns I was interested in and wanted to explain. If you want to explain crime, be prepared to spend a lot of time working with the factors that explain it and the academic disciplines that address those factors.

Obvious points? Yes they are. But despite being obvious, they can easily be forgotten!

About Jon Vagg

Jon writes educational and training materials, and some general nonfiction. At night he turns into a ghoul who writes horror stories, dark fantasy and science fiction.
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