Criminology is a very interesting field today. It is commonly defined as the scientific study of the causation, correction and prevention of crime, and since crime is a complex and multifaceted topic, there are many different ways to approach the discipline.
It actually has a very interesting history, and has changed radically over time as society has altered its perception of both crime and criminals. There have been a few different main schools of thought over the past couple of centuries, which I will recap here in this article.
1. The Classical School
The first time that criminology became a serious topic of academic study dates back to the eighteenth century. But instead of being scientific, as it is today, the earliest version of criminology was completely philosophical in nature. This is now known as the Classical School.
The classical school of criminology was mainly the work of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham in Europe. They were motivated to take up this cause because of the criminal justice systems of their time. These systems were often cruel, unfair and corrupt: they often ordered the death penalty arbitrarily and applied the law very unequally among the population.
At its essence, the classical school took the view that human beings were completely rational and wanted pleasure and to avoid pain. So Bentham and Beccaria proposed that the punishment from criminal activity must be made standard, and that the pain must be larger than the positive results that they might have enjoyed from the crime. This way, since criminals would weight their options rationally, they would be deterred from committing any crimes.
The biggest problem with the classical school was the fact that criminals do not always weight their options rationally. Also, the standardized punishments that were proposed did not give any consideration for special circumstances, such as children or mentally disabled persons who commit crimes.
2. The Positivist School
After the classical school, the next major chapter in the history of criminology was known as the Positivist School, headed by the Italian Cesare Lombroso. This represented the first time that the scientific method was applied to the field of criminology, and Lombroso drew from Darwin, as well as the fields of biology and medicine. Lombroso's research suggested that criminals could be predicted by examining certain cerebral and skeletal features. While these findings have been fiercly rejected by following researchers, the Positivist School nevertheless has had a strong influence on criminology as a field. Lombroso was the first person to recognize that crime is a complex process and that there are multiple causes--he recognized that environmental factors played a role in addition to biology--and he also represented the first time a case-study was used in criminology research.
3. Sociological Approaches to Criminology
Following the Positivist Approach, the general trend in the 20th century was to move to a sociological approach to criminology. This means that most research focuses on the social factors that relate to crime and criminal behavior.
Today, there are two major approaches within the sociological framework: social-structural and social-process. The former focuses on the ways in which social situations and structures influence criminal behavior, while the latter researches how individual people choose to become criminals. It is not the case that one approach is "right" and the other "wrong," but rather the two work together to present a complete picture of crime and its causes. And sociology is not the only relevant discipline, as biology and psychology also still play strong roles in specialized criminology research. As the field continues to grow, there are more and more opportunities for criminology careers, ranging from academic positions to jobs in policy and research. Since crime is not going anywhere anytime soon, criminology will remain an important field of study for a very long time to come.