In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Criminology

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • Defining Crime and Critical Criminology

Criminology Critical Criminology
Michael J. Lynch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 February 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0064


Like orthodox criminology, critical criminology has developed numerous specialties, and thus it is no longer possible to describe a generic critical criminology, or to succinctly summarize this view. For this reason, this entry excludes coverage of portions of critical criminology such as critical race/racial bias, feminist criminology, violence against women, postmodern/semiotic/constitutive criminology, cultural criminology, convict criminology, and environmental justice and environmental/green criminology. Despite growing specialization, the field of critical criminology is united in its emphasis on addressing power differentials, hierarchies, and inequalities as explanations of crime, as these impact the distribution of crime over time and place, and in relation to definitions of crime and justice and processes of doing justice, as these impact the making and enforcing of laws. These power differentials also mold intermediary cultures and their relations to crime and justice. In addition, a number of critical criminology perspectives attempt to promote economic, social, and political equity to diminish the production of crime and disparities in the making and enforcement of law. Some seek to do so by empowering victims and marginalized groups, and it is this commitment to the powerless and marginalized that distinguishes critical from orthodox criminology. The bibliographic material that follows is organized to best reflect the limited segment of critical criminology that can adequately be addressed here.

Historical Background

The critical criminology movement began in the early 1970s (Taylor, et al. 1974), with studies focused primarily on political-economic and class analysis (Michalowski 1985; Reiman and Leighton 2009; Shelden 2001), and it exhibited a decidedly Marxist orientation (Quinney 1980; Lynch and Michalowski 2006; Balkan, et al. 1980). Known by a number of names—left, socialist, radical, critical, Marxist, the new criminology (Bohm 1982)—the “criminologies of the left” were gathered under the title “critical criminology” in the late 1980s to recognize the variety of emerging perspectives (Michalowski 1996). Today, a host of perspectives are associated with critical criminology: radical, political-economic, left-realist, postmodern and semiotic, newsmaking, cultural, critical race, feminist, constitutive, restorative-justice, Marxist, anarchist, convict, and peacemaking (see Defining Crime and Critical Criminology). These approaches span several topics that distinguish critical criminology and orthodox criminological research, including social justice; corporate, state, and state-corporate crime (Box 1984); and environmental justice.

  • Balkan, Sheila, Ronald J. Berger, and Janet Schmidt. 1980. Crime and deviance in America: A critical approach. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Though dated, this is perhaps one of the best and most overlooked textbooks on Marxist criminology, providing an exceptional introduction to the topic.

  • Bohm, Robert M. 1982. Radical criminology: An explication. Criminology 19.4: 565–589.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1982.tb00439.x

    Lays out the important similarities and differences between radical criminologists, and addresses deficiencies and inaccuracies in the orthodox criminological critique of radical criminology.

  • Box, Steven. 1984. Power, crime, and mystification. London and New York: Tavistock.

    A wide-ranging analysis of the applications of Marxist criminology that explores the creation of law and corporate crime. In its day, one of the best books of its type, and it still holds up despite the dated empirical examples.

  • Lynch, Michael J., and Raymond J. Michalowski. 2006. A primer in radical criminology: Critical perspectives on crime, power, and identity. 4th ed. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

    Provides an in-depth examination of contemporary radical criminology, emphasizing economic explanations. Chapters 1 through 4 examine this theoretical orientation, while the remaining chapters include applications to various topics: theories of crime (chapters 5, 6, and 7), environmental crime (chapter 8), state crime and terrorism (chapter 9), policing (chapter 10), courts (chapter 11), correction and punishment (chapter 12), and future issues (chapter 13). Originally published in 1986.

  • Michalowski, Raymond J. 1985. Order, law, and crime: An introduction to criminology. New York: Random House.

    One of the most extensive and useful examinations of radical criminology, written at the height of the popularity of this approach. Section 1 explores how social orders define and respond to crime. Section 2 applies these insights to the United States and the United Kingdom. Section 3 examines criminal justice institutions in the United States.

  • Michalowski, Raymond J. 1996. Critical criminology and the critique of domination: The story of an intellectual movement. Critical Criminology 7:9–16.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02461091

    The history of critical criminology is bound together with the critique of domination this perspective supplies. This article employs this relationship to traces the history of critical criminology in North America.

  • Quinney, Richard. 1980. Class, state, and crime: On the theory and practice of criminal justice. 2d ed. New York: Longman.

    A classic work that defines many of the issues that critical criminology addresses, written by one of its most influential contributors. An excellent starting point for understanding early radicalism within criminology.

  • Reiman, Jeffrey, and Paul Leighton. 2009. The rich get richer and the poor get prison. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    One of the best-known and most widely read radical analyses of the problem of crime, criminal justice, and imprisonment in relation to class conflict and ideology. An excellent starting point for understanding critical criminology, especially its radical variant derived from Marxism. Originally published in 1979 (New York: Wiley). In all editions prior to the 9th, Jeffrey Reiman was the sole author.

  • Shelden, Randall G. 2001. Controlling the dangerous classes: A critical introduction to the history of criminal justice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A good introduction to class analysis of the history of criminal justice. Proposes that historical documents, which are written from the perspective of the powerful or wealthy, illustrate the long-term tendency of criminal justice processes to focus on the lower class, which comes to be defined as dangerous.

  • Taylor, Ian, Paul Walton, and Jock Young. 1974. The new criminology: For a social theory of deviance. New York: Harper and Row.

    This book is often credited with establishing the field of critical criminology. A book that must be read to understand the origins and development of critical criminology. It develops extensive critiques of mainstream theories and offers radical alternatives to those explanations.

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