Our guide to criminology
Jane McGuire

Our guide to criminology

First published date March 25 2015 Amended date May 01 2015

Ever wondered what leads some individuals to commit crime or wondered why prison numbers are rising in the UK? In simple terms, criminology is the scientific study of crime and criminals. This incorporates lots of disciplines, including psychology, history, law, sociology and psychiatry.  In order to develop theories on crime, a criminologist will study victims (victimology), review prisons (penology), study the biological basis of criminal behaviour (bio criminology) and use psychological analysis to interpret crime scenes and perpetrators. Sounds like something you might be interested in? Have a read of this and take a look at the criminology courses listed on our site.


The history of criminology

There have been many different theories of criminology developed over the past 250 years. Although we cannot pretend to be experts, take a brief look back at four theories –

- Classical school of criminology: Developed in the 18th century by two social theorists Cesare Beccaria in Italy and Jeremy Bentham in England, according to the classic theory of criminology, punishment should be so severe a criminal will decide the pleasure of the illegal act is not worth the pain of the punishment.

- Positivist theory: In the 19th century, a new theory of criminology began to emerge, which was the study of crime based on external factors. The famous positive criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed criminals are born not made and that crime is a matter of nature, rather than nurture.

- Social-structural criminology – In the 20th century, criminologists started to theorise on how criminal behaviour can be affected by structures and social situations. The idea behind the social-structural theory is that all crime is a product of the deficiencies in society.

- Modern criminology – Although many different theories still exist and are still being developed, modern criminology focuses on the criminal justice system. The purpose of the modern police force is to prevent and detect crime, rather than just reacting to those already committed.


What does a criminologist do?

A criminologist’s job will not be as glamorous as it appears on films such as ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Their job is not to ‘get into the mind of the killer’ but understand why he killed. A criminologist will study crime, criminals and the justice system, to theorise and determine patterns that may lead to criminal activity. Saying this, they might be required to interview criminals to try and learn more about their mindset when committing the crime in question. 

Most criminologists will work for a law enforcement agency, a government organisation or an educational institution. Criminologists can also work with police officers and for criminology firms.

A criminologist will conduct research and develop theories on crime. They will also study specific cases and look for similarities, patterns and trends in criminal behaviour. Also, sometimes a criminologist will be asked to attend a crime scene to get a better understanding of exactly what happened.


How do I get there?

In order to get a job as a criminologist, you will need a degree. This doesn’t have to be in criminology, but a subject where you have developed critical thinking, as well as analytical and communication skills – for example, a sociology or psychology degree. In order to get a job as a criminologist, a lot of graduates then go on to do a masters and a PhD in criminology, psychology or sociology. 

You will also need to get some good work experience under your belt, doing an internship or working as a research assistant to get some skills to add to your CV.


What will I learn on a course?

Although you will need to have a degree if you are looking to find a career in criminology, there are a number of courses to give you an introduction. On a part time or evening course you will study the history of crime, as well as discussing contemporary issues. Other courses will be more specialised, studying the psychology of murder or crime and punishment in London. Whichever course you choose, this is a great way to get some background knowledge in the subject.


5 interesting facts

1. Most serial killers are white males between the ages of 20-35 years.

2. Male prisoners outnumber female prisoners by more than 21 to one.

3. Almost half of all knife crime in the UK takes place in London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

4. The prison system in England and Wales as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994.

5. Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending – according to stats released by the Prison Reform Trust, 47% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. 

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