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Epistemology of Criminology

January 27, 2009

An epistemological study is “a study or theory of the grounds and nature of knowledge with reference to limits and validity” (Merriam-Webster).  The readings this week complement a thread examining the history of the developing study of criminology as a science.  By way of introduction, Swaaningen provides a history that has been dictated by external factors such as politics, media and even select academic fields such as law, psychology and sociology as well as economics.  In this article, the history is exemplified by a case study of the Dutch model.  In turn a proposal is made that incorporates the certain elements from the labeling model of the 1970’s with the need for independence in academic study and revised, up-to-date research methodology that will enable study of current trend crime of the 21st Century.

            Rafter, in the article Somotyping, traces the history of criminology upon a case study of Sheldon’s Body Type Study for Correlating Delinquency and draws upon similarities to show how historical perspectives shape criminology not so much because of being true or false, probable or improbable, but by how it is presented and constructed over time through use of different audiences (Rafter 2007:826).

            Walters, in New Modes, provides a recent history of the commoditization of criminological research in the academic environment. 


The central thought contained in this article is that the ‘role’ or ‘focus’ of the study of criminology has often been controlled by external forces (262, 269).  Ironically, Swaaningen writes much like a politician seeking to sell a product.  At times, the writing style seems a bit unprofessional and not substantiated by factual data but rather by feelings (251, 256, 257, 264).  Nonetheless, this Dutch study makes the point that external groups (249-50) have often orchestrated the method, purpose and parameters of study of criminology.

            The examination of the historical development gives a concise look at the development of criminology since the 1830’s in Belgium to the early developments in 1880’s Netherlands (252).  Particular eras of decline and ascention in the field of criminology are focused upon.  These eras are the 1970’s which sponsor a desire to improve humanity and are strongly driven by sociological tone (254-58).  The first professional journal in criminology in 1959, the Netherlands Journal for Criminology (253), and the 1960’s movement toward greater research methodology influence this period.  Following the 1960’s influence from Herman Bianchi led the study and educational endeavors for criminology, influenced by labeling theory, stigmatization, and criminalization, as well as Mertonian theories of anomie and strain (255).  During these decades criminology suffered from the dictates of funding as well as failure to establish professions that required a degree in criminology.  Hence, periodically criminology continued to wax, wane, and shift from one department to another, principally law, or the social sciences.  When funding was slack so was research.

            Partly because of little attention and position in the educational realm research methodology became sloppy, free spirited and opinionated (257, 264).  This in part was revitalized in the 1980’s (257).  Students were discouraged because no jobs called for their skills, educators and researchers were underfunded and felt their subject area failed to have sufficient academic recognition.  As a result, it is premised that history reflects that criminology’s scientific development is controlled by external forces such as externally defined importance of sponsored research and Law schools, and crime administrators (258).

            A new philosophy to “solve crime” rather than to build a better world advanced the study of criminology beginning in the 1990’s.  Parliament began to appoint more criminologists to commissions and the media began to give greater coverage to their statements.  Hence, law and media become external factors (258).  On the down side, much attention has been given to the “statement” rather than the research.  This mediatisation of crime and disorder is both positive and negative in effect.  It is good because focus is on crime and need to study, but bad because the focus is the statement made rather than critical review of the data.  Criminologists have been made into solvers of problems (which is the role of law enforcement) rather than those who study criminology.

            New types of crime bring the need to review the past attempts at criminology, to salvage what is good and combine it with new methodology so that the new crime can be better studied, analyzed and predicted (259, 261, 263-4).  Hence, with a new research focus speared by the University of Leyden and greater independence of study criminologists may move to answer the questions regarding the new myriad of crimes being introduced (260).  Combining the 1970’s desire to seek independence and create a holistic environment with greater academic freedom with an academic challenge to study deviance, social control and focus upon theory, research methods and techniques unique to criminology will lead to a better understanding and academic place for criminology (265).  This will free criminology from being a dependent sub-stratum of other disciplines and enable it to study the evolving crime in the world today.  In part, the establishment of criminology as a unique study will enable it to be freed from being funded as a “step-child”.  These unique characteristics are summarized on page 265 and 266.  The conclusion is that the policy decisions of the past have dictated funding and direction of study.  Serious academics in the field of criminology must control of their study and focus. 

Critically speaking, while these are noteworthy aspirations it seems that regardless all disciplines are somewhat at the disposal of outside funding.  At the heart of the educational system is the non-profit brick wall.  Until academia becomes a for profit institution or at least certain organizations within education do there will be little freedom from external funding constraints.  The desire for independence is admirable and needed, but in order to succeed needs more than mere words of inspiration.


Rafter’s thoughts make for an interesting article explaining the need to critically analyze scientific theory not simply by scientific methodology and technique, but also using other criterion.  Social sciences including criminology are not in a vacuum of their own.  They exist in historical context of the world that is ever changing.  In Somatotyping, Rafter details the work of William Sheldon in his study of the human body (biology) as a means to predict delinquency and criminal conduct.  He asks four questions in attempting to analyze the discreditation of Sheldon (807).  As Swaaningen and Walters, he connects the historical context to the development of criminology.  Diverging from Swaaningen, Rafter relates how one individual although discredited by fellow academia may gather followers and manage for many years to influence a field of study.  Sheldon although critiqued and discredited for lack of proper statistical analysis and measurement error, failure to use random sampling and his improper defining of delinquents managed to secure prominent sponsors who funded his research (815, 817-20).  As a result, he continued to influence a select segment of readers with his value system.  Critically speaking it may be this that has in some ways discredited a professional field of study in criminology.   Sometimes, singular events of illegitimacy lead to stigmatizing an entire field of study.   In essence, Sheldon used the public desire to cure “social ills” as a bait to gather a following of educated people of influence and financial means (820, 824).  Perhaps of greatest importance does Rafter pose the answer to the fourth question as to why his delinquency correlation continues to create interest.  In short, the nature of science it to “validate” the findings of others and hence there is a scientific desire within some researchers to seek a better understanding of Sheldons antimodernist analysis (825).  Perhaps a better word would be that science attempts to continue to test or verify findings rather than validate.


Similar to both Swaaningen and Rafter, Walters seeks to use history as a means to trace criminology and point out how criminology has come to the current state.  Swaaningen focused upon external politics and institutional concerns as pivotal in funding and directing focus of academic study.  Rafter used the narrowly focused qualitative analysis of Sheldon’s manipulation of wealthy and although educated, but ignorant (as to his discipline) sponsors to fund his work.  In both instances, external forces greatly influenced the state of the work being studied.  Walters takes a different approach and questions whether external forces may commoditize criminology.  Critically speaking, are we all in some degree commoditized by how others view the need of our ability or whether they desire our being?  His quote of Toffler, “The litmus test for assessing quality must be content, and not volume, popularity, political versatility or pragmatic relevance” is relevant (5).  Accordingly, how much of what we propose to society is accepted because it is factual and supported by positive analysis, and how much is simply accepted because it “feels good”?  Again, Toffler’s statement on the culture of music is relevant to this analogy (6).  As Walters puts it so well, is growth of criminological scholarship necessarily a sign of a discipline in a healthy state (6)?

            New modes of governance have come to affect criminological scholarship.  Economics and business models of accountability, risk management and profit margin drive some of this.  Since the mid 1980’s economics have played a large role in redefining academic research in general and criminological research has not evaded this phenomena (6, 11, 14).

            The production of crime control knowledge has become modified.  An example of this is a modified liberal mode of government.  In this case, government becomes a partner in a venture with research.  Government’s role has evolved to one of managing crime rather that solving crime.  Perhaps technology played a role in causing this change of focus.  However, the point is that crime is now approached from the standpoint of a business analysis.  Crime is an ill-effect and must be managed as any other risk.  Hence, the risk management model of business is applied to crime.  Those researching crime no longer focus on crime as an object to be analyzed, but rather the focus is on “management” of phenomena known as crime (7).  In other words, objectives and goals of research change.  The researcher becomes a tool of management.  Several predictions may be made, including crime is no longer an object of science, the researcher no longer creates the design of the research, but rather the party financing the research (researchers become hired brokers), greater focus is on fiscal accountability and time management, and politics and policy define research.  With control from external benefactors who finance research comes dictates regarding confidentiality and freedom of academic expression.  The quote from O’Malley is quite well used at page 9.  This restriction of academic freedom leads to lack of independence in the researcher’s decisions, influence, and control and is a result of coercion, profit schemes and so on.  The bottom line is that researchers need to maintain control of research and academic freedom to share research in order not to stifle academic scholarship (10). 

            The change in the role of government trickles down to affect many academic areas.  Technological advancement allows for greater contact and review by government.  The financial relationship becomes one of contract in law and thereby binds the researcher to follow procedure and restrict confidential information that may be in contradiction to codes of ethics regarding research, and may ultimately lead to conflict or strain (my addition) for the researcher.

            In the university setting this contract translates to make the university subject to external control and leads it to implement managerial-economic principles which may sound feasible in the business setting, but may stifle research which in its own right may not always be profitable.  With economic woes facing universities, they are often enticed to these relationships and may pressure faculty into these relationships.  Some faculty may actually seek these contracts and commoditize their research.  Some may leave academia, become entrepreneurs, and privately enter these contracts.  As government and private institutions seek to contract research in criminology in particular effects may be pressure to attract funding, minimal levels of annual publication, minimal levels of annual research, increased competition for funding and the creation of an air of secrecy that stifles sharing of findings (13-14).  It is easy to see why some criminologists may become private researchers.  The answer is money.  In short, whether research is through the institution or private contract the down side is that critical review of each other’s work is limited.  Confidentiality forms may prohibit peer-review, bias may be more prevalent because of the need to “stay on the good side” of the funder.  Secrecy may lead to much unneeded duplication and even competition rather than promoting the genuine search for knowledge (16).  In addition, the environment has tended to lead to a limiting of the critical process.  Publication that is not politically on point may be refused both at the peer review level and in texts (20).      


 Whether commoditized, solicited by favoritism or at the behest of political tides the criminological study may be victimized by economics.  The proponent may be outside interests or the researcher.  In short, in each of these instances to some degree criminological scholarship has been commoditized by the wax and wane of external economic factors.  This is not to say that criminology is a unique situation, rather like many other academic areas there is need to avoid research disproportionately driven by profit.     




Merriam-Webster Online. 2009.  Epistemolocical. Merriam-Webster.  Retrieved January 25, 2009 (

Rafter, Nicole. 2007. Somatotyping, Antimodernism, and the Production of Criminological Knowledge. Criminology. Vol 45 4, 805-833.

Swaaningen, Rene van.  2006. In Search of Criminology’s Epistemological Threshold. Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Vol 7 249-270.

Walters, Reece. 2003.  New Modes of Governance and the Commodification of Criminological Knowledge. Social Legal Studies. Vol 12:1, 5-26.

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