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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Quasi-Experiments
  • Experiments Informing Evidence-Based Crime Policy
  • Leading Experimental Criminologists
  • Campbell Collaboration Systematic Reviews
  • Ethics
  • Experimental Design and Implementation Considerations
  • Challenges in Experimental Criminology

Criminology Experimental Criminology
Lorraine Mazerolle, Sarah Bennett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0085


Experimental criminology is a family of research methods that involves the controlled study of cause and effect. Research designs fall into two broad classes: quasi-experimental and experimental. A research (or evaluation) design is experimental if subjects are randomly assigned to treatment groups and to control (comparison) groups. A research (or evaluation) design is quasi-experimental if subjects are not randomly assigned to the treatment or control conditions but rather if statistical controls are used to study cause and effect. In experimental criminology, samples of people, places, schools, prisons, police beats, or other units of analysis are typically assigned (either randomly or through statistical matching) to one of two groups: either a new, innovative treatment, or an alternate intervention condition (control). Any observed and measured differences between the two groups across a set of “outcome measures” (such as crime rates, self- reported delinquency, perceptions of disorder) can be attributed to the differences in the treatment and control conditions. Exponential growth in the field of experimental criminology began in the 1990s, leading to the establishment of a number of key entities (such as the Campbell Collaboration, the Academy of Experimental Criminology, the Journal of Experimental Criminology, and the Division of Experimental Criminology within the American Society of Criminology) that have significantly advanced the field of experimental criminology into the 21st century. These initiatives have extended the use of experiments (including randomized field experiments as well as quasi-experiments) to answer key questions about the causes and effects of crime and the ways criminal justice agencies might best prevent or control crime problems. The use of experimental methods is very important for building a solid evidence base for policymakers, and a number of advocacy organizations (such as the Coalition for Evidence- Based Policy) argue for the use of scientifically rigorous studies, such as randomized controlled trials, to identify criminal justice programs and practices capable of improving policy-relevant outcomes. Compiled with research assistants Elizabeth Eggins, Jacqueline Davis, Sarah-Ann Burger, and Renee Zahnow.

General Overviews

Evaluating the effectiveness of crime prevention and crime-control interventions and policies using experimental methods is rare in the field of criminology. The use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is far more prevalent in the medical sciences (see Oakley 2000) than in the field of criminology and criminal justice, where they are seldom the method of choice. Increased attention to the use of experimental methods in the development of evidence-based policies across the field of criminology began in the mid-1990s with the release of Sherman, et al. 1997, the seminal report “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising.” Soon after the release of this report, L. Sherman, D. P. Farrington, Joan McCord, D. Weisburd, and others created the Academy of Experimental Criminology, which is discussed in Weisburd, et al. 2007. The core members of the Academy of Experimental Criminology (AEC) then worked with other social scientists in areas of education and social welfare to create the Crime and Justice Coordinating Group of the Campbell Collaboration in 2000. International growth and recognition of experimental criminology led to the creation of the Journal of Experimental Criminology, which was launched in 2005. This section includes references to these seminal works and provides general resources that are significant in the field of experimental criminology. Cook and Campbell 1979 is a “classic” and foundational textbook on experimental methods. John Aldrich’s authoritative website on Sir Ronald Fisher (A Guide to R.A. Fischer) is a comprehensive resource detailing Fisher’s highly influential works on the scientific method, which underpins experimental criminology and its research methodologies. Piquero and Weisburd 2010 and Bachman and Schutt 2007 explore the application of general experimental methods to the field of crime and justice.

  • Aldrich, J. A Guide to R. A. Fisher.

    A useful website outlining major works and contributions made by Sir Ronald Fisher. Fisher’s theorizing regarding experimental methods to investigate cause and effect, and his idea that randomization controls the influence of extraneous variables (that is, factors potentially impacting reliable research outcomes and conclusions) are of particular importance in experimental criminology.

  • Bachman, R., and R. K. Schutt. 2007. The practice of research in criminology and criminal justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This introductory textbook focuses on describing contemporary research methods in criminology and criminal justice. Aimed at undergraduate criminology students, it provides a clear description of criminological research techniques. Each chapter includes a set of homework questions, Internet exercises, ethics exercises, and SPSS exercises.

  • Campbell Collaboration, Crime and Justice Coordinating Group.

    Website of the Campbell Collaboration’s Crime and Justice Coordinating Group. Provides information on the group (including their activities and updates) and access to all their systematic reviews. Refer to the Campbell Collaboration Systematic Reviews section for more information on this group and systematic reviews.

  • Cook, T. D., and D. T. Campbell. 1979. Quasi-experimentation: Design and analysis issues for field settings. Chicago: Rand McNally.

    While relatively old, this invaluable classic resource is widely cited in experimental criminology and provides a tool kit for anyone interested or engaged in fieldwork. Segments on causal inference, threats to validity, and obstacles to conducting randomized trials in “natural settings” are thoughtfully written.

  • Journal of Experimental Criminology.

    The Journal of Experimental Criminology (JEC) aims to advance the development of evidence-based crime and justice policy, the science of systematic reviews, and experimental methods in criminology and criminal justice. The JEC accomplishes these aims by promoting and publishing high-quality articles on experimental and quasi-experimental research.

  • Oakley, A. 2000. A historical perspective on the use of randomized trials in social science settings. Crime and Delinquency 46.3: 315–329.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128700046003004

    Oakley provides a historical account of the use of experimental research in social science with some comparison to medical research. Importantly, this paper highlights a hesitancy to use RCTs in social programs and interventions, as they often do not yield “significant” results and are therefore presumed to be inappropriate.

  • Piquero, A., and D. Weisburd, eds. 2010. Handbook of quantitative criminology. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-77650-7

    This is an authoritative handbook for students, researchers, and faculty covering methodological and statistical issues in criminology and criminal justice. Leading experts contribute to thirty-five sections, providing the most up-to-date, innovative approaches in research design, experimental methods, overcoming data limitations, and statistics.

  • Sherman, L., D. Gottfredson, D. MacKenzie, J. Eck, P. Reuter, and S. Bushway. 1997. Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising; A report to the United States Congress.

    The authors review over five hundred scientific evaluations of crime prevention programs, examining the availability and strength of the empirical evidence for the effect of different interventions on crime. This report was the catalyst for reforms across the field of criminology and a shift toward experimental methods in criminal justice research.

  • Weisburd, D., L. Mazerolle, and A. Petrosino. 2007. The Academy of Experimental Criminology: Advancing randomized trials in crime and justice. Criminologist Online 32.3: 1–7.

    A concise overview of the AEC’s 1999 establishment, with a particular focus on its advancement of RCTs in crime and justice research. The resource highlights how the AEC provides a dedicated forum to “create synergies” among experimental criminologists to facilitate communication around design, implementation, management, and outcomes of experimental research.

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