Critical criminology and the social sciences
Critical criminology and the social sciences

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Critical criminology and the social sciences

1.4 Criminology

In the following video, Dr Lynne Copson introduces the discipline of criminology.

Activity 4

Spend some time watching the video, and then try to summarise the defining characteristic(s) of criminology in the text box below.

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Transcript: Video 4

Unlike other disciplines, like psychology, law or sociology, criminology is not always thought of as being a distinct discipline in its own right. Rather, it is often described as a rendezvous subject. That is, a field of study that provides a meeting point for lots of different disciplinary perspectives around issues relating to crime, criminalization, and justice. These perspectives could include those drawn from psychology, law, or sociology, but might also include approaches from economics, politics, geography, and social policy, to name just a few. Often, these perspectives might offer quite different and sometimes contrasting views about the nature of crime and responses to it. Indeed, criminology is often a highly contested field of study marked by competing and sometimes conflicting views of what exactly criminologists should be studying. For some criminologists, the focus of criminology should be on exploring those activities and behaviours that are formally defined as crimes via the criminal law and the operations of the criminal justice system, including but not limited to the police, courts, and prison services. For other criminologists, it is seen as problematic to limit the focus of criminology to only those activities and behaviours that have been formally sanctioned in law. They point out that the definition of what is or is not criminal may change it over time or cross culturally. So that things that are crimes at some point may cease to be crimes in other times and places. They also highlight that there are many activities and behaviours that are not criminalised in law but that might still be considered problematic, and therefore could be something that criminologists should be interested in trying to understand. This could include, for example, deviant behaviour that is not criminalised, such as, for example, the use of so-called legal highs or events that are similar to many crimes in terms of causing people harm but are not necessarily criminalised or responded to via legal mechanisms, such as workplace deaths, homelessness, or pollution. Many of these criminologists, who are sometimes known broadly as critical criminologists, might also question the current criminal justice institutions and practises and whether they achieve justice. Perspectives on the limitations of the existing criminal justice system can range from those who argue that we need to radically reform criminal justice systems to reduce and respond to broader social inequalities to those who argue it should be abolished entirely.
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Criminology is a rendezvous subject that acts as a meeting point for different disciplinary perspectives, including (but not limited to) sociology, psychology and law. As criminologists come from different disciplinary backgrounds, this can often mean they have very different views about the nature of crime and responses to it.

Some criminologists think that the focus of criminology should be restricted to the study of behaviours formally defined as ‘crimes’ by the criminal law. Others, however, argue that confining criminology in this way is overly restrictive, as it precludes the study of other forms of serious harm, such as workplace deaths, homelessness and pollution, which may not be formally defined as ‘crime’.


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