Criminology Offense Specialization/Expertise
Kimberly Kempf-Leonard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0104


The notion of a career in crime, similar to an upward trajectory along a legitimate occupational pathway, was introduced and gained popularity nearly a century ago. Characteristics of careers in crime, such as enhanced skill, specialization, and professionalism, were easily accepted. Popular fiction, media portrayals, and a large number of qualitative case studies helped firmly to establish the common image of crime specialists. However, this view has been challenged by a large number of quantitative studies comparing the offending patterns of many offenders, all of which find that switching between types of crime is what happens most often among repeat offenders. Most recently, researchers have scrutinized the ways in which crime specialization is measured, trying to reconcile the popular image of professional crime experts with the empirical evidence, in which they seldom are observed. Perhaps scientific studies have been asking the wrong question? An emerging body of works suggests that if the comparison is adjusted, there is evidence that specialization in some offenses does exist. The principal research finding is that studies do point to a small but significant likelihood of specialization, but most recurrent offending is versatile, switching between various offense types and more “cafeteria-style.” To understand the context of this overall finding, research on crime specialization can be placed within two separate initiatives. The first is the qualitative life history case-study approach that gave rise to the popular notion of professional crime experts in many fields of property and violent crime. The second is a large body of quantitative research that compares specialists and generalists, showing that versatile offending far exceeds any specialized expertise.

General Overviews

Beginning with arguments from Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983 and Gottfredson and Hirschi 1986 , specialization in crime was nearly dismissed by scholars after the mid-1980s, based on these comparisons. Such a dismissal would have been premature and in error, because even though general offending prevails, the evidence shows quite clearly that some specialization does exist. As summarized in Sullivan 2009 , recently scholars have focused on improving the precision of measurement, with a variety of new strategies to define specialization. One offense type for which there is a lot of current attention regarding specialization is sexual predator offending. The next step in understanding crime specialization and expertise is to move beyond simple comparisons and to pursue distinct traits and qualities of specialists that could be used for more effective efforts at crime prevention and intervention, including developing ways to redirect potential offenders with such traits to more legitimate activities.

  • Gottfredson, Michael, and Travis Hirschi. 1986. The true value of lambda would appear to be zero: An essay on career criminals, criminal careers, selective incapacitation, cohort studies, and related topics. Criminology 24:213–233.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1986.tb01494.x

    In this second paper, the authors continue their rebuttal of the criminal career paradigm, during which crime specialization would develop, and the longitudinal data that are required to support such research, theory testing, and policy development.

  • Hirschi, Travis, and Michael Gottfredson. 1983. Age and the explanation of crime. American Journal of Sociology 89:552–584.

    DOI: 10.1086/227905

    This article advances a series of arguments about age and crime, particularly that the highly reliable age-crime curve makes age an implausible explanatory variable for offending. Among other elements of career criminal trajectories, these authors dismiss crime specialists.

  • Sullivan, C. J. 2009. Crime specialization. In 21st century criminology: A reference handbook. Edited by J. M. Miller, 658–665. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This encyclopedia entry provides a brief overview of how crime specialization is treated in theories of crime, as well as major findings and methods and techniques of analysis used to assess specialization.

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