Criminology Active Offender Research
Scott Jacques
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0066


Before criminology became obsessed with quantitative research, many of the field’s insights about crime came from offenders’ “own stories,” although this work typically used accounts from incarcerated or former offenders. In this way, active offender research was born out of criminology’s infancy. The criminological lexicon holds that active offender research involves (1) in-depth communication and observations, especially of the qualitative kind, (2) with un-incarcerated persons (3) who have not—in their own minds—terminated their criminal career. As it is known today, the term “active offender research” is perhaps too broad, as persons may continue to offend even within institutional walls; the difference between “active” and “inactive” depends on temporal narrowness (e.g., no person is offending in every moment); and self-administered surveys may sample active offenders as they collect information from current lawbreakers. Putting aside these definitional discrepancies, this body of work—as defined above—is unique and important. Compared to institutionalized criminals, active ones are more aware of current trends in crime and social control, are better able to remember why and how they offend, are more willing to speak the whole truth, and are more likely to represent populations not subjected to discriminatory law enforcement. For these reasons and others it is important to conduct research with active offenders. This bibliography does not organize or summarize all of it but instead focuses on method and kinds of crimes and offenders.

Introductory Works

Two classics of offender-based research are The Jack-Roller (Shaw 1966) and The Professional Thief (Sutherland 1937); the former principally focuses on the life-course of a criminal whereas the latter keys in on criminal culture. Cromwell 2010 is a useful book for those who wish to orient themselves or students to the present state of active offender research. This article directs readers toward works on this method and, in turn, findings from this type of research on burglars, robbers, retaliators, gang members, drug markets, and how offenders prevent law enforcement. This article does not examine every single crime type, such as fraud (see, e.g., Blumberg 1989, a study of retail market defrauders); prostitution (see, e.g., ethnographies of Murphy and Venkatesh 2006 and those contained in the edited volume Ratner 1993); or smuggling, including the contribution of Zhang 2008. However, for each crime type that is discussed, note that all of the work is based on active offender research as defined above.

  • Blumberg, Paul. 1989. The predatory society: Deception in the American marketplace. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Based on descriptions provided by students employed in the retail sector at businesses like grocery and clothing stores, Blumberg explores fraud in the marketplace. Special focus is given to the techniques and considerations of defrauding customers.

  • Cromwell, Paul, ed. 2010. In their own words: Criminals on crime. 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This edited volume neatly organizes a wealth of offender-based studies, although not all of them are of the active offender sort. Topics include criminal lifestyles and decision making and crimes of theft, violence, entrepreneurship, and gang involvement.

  • Murphy, Alexandra K., and Sudhir A. Venkatesh. 2006. Vice careers: The changing contours of sex work in New York City. Qualitative Sociology 29:129–154.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11133-006-9012-2

    Based on in-depth fieldwork in New York City with sex workers, the authors examine the effect of prostitutes moving indoors on their conception of this illegal labor and the length of their criminal careers.

  • Ratner, Mitchell S., ed. 1993. Crack pipe as pimp: An ethnographic investigation of sex-for-crack exchanges. New York: Lexington Books.

    Not for the faint of heart, this edited volume includes a series of ethnographic studies on prostitution’s relationship with crack-cocaine. Chapters come from work done in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Newark, and San Francisco.

  • Shaw, Clifford R. 1966. The jack-roller: A delinquent boy’s own story. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This autobiography strings together elements of social disorganization, strain, and social bonds to show the influences on the onset and evolution of one delinquent’s criminal career. Noteworthy is a methodological chapter that outlines the importance of qualitative work with offenders for developing criminological understanding.

  • Sutherland, Edwin Hardin. 1937. The professional thief. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An offender known as “Chic Conwell” describes his life as a criminal. He provides insights into crime that only criminals know, such as how they go about learning and executing their craft, as well as outlining the ethics of offenders.

  • Zhang, Sheldon X. 2008. Chinese human smuggling organization: Families, social networks, and cultural imperatives. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Fieldwork and interviews with more than one hundred human smugglers are used to explore the causes and consequences of Chinese smuggling. Special attention is paid to the role of networks and culture in organizing this cross-Pacific crime.

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