Criminology William Chambliss
Alison S. Burke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0274


William “Bill” Chambliss is best known for his pioneering work in critical criminology, conflict theory, and state crime. Many of his seminal works focus on lawmaking, corruption, power discrepancies, and inequality. Chambliss was a professor of sociology at George Washington University for more than twenty years and in his impressive career, published more than twenty books and well over a dozen articles relating to conflict criminology and social problems. He received numerous awards, including two Lifetime Achievement Awards and the prestigious Edwin H. Sutherland Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to theory or research in criminology, law, or justice, both from the American Society of Criminology. He also received the Bruce Smith Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments as an educator, he was inducted into the George Washington University Chapter of Golden Key International Honor Society and the National Honor Society for Outstanding Teachers. Chambliss’s primary contribution to criminology was to advance knowledge about who makes laws, how and why they are enforced, and who benefits from them. This is explored in relation to power structures, political economy, and social class and is exemplified in his fifty years of research on organized crime, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, and gang members.

Early Life

Bill Chambliss experienced a transient childhood, full of poverty and challenges. This upbringing helped mold him into the pathbreaking scholar he became and significantly influenced his views on labeling theory, power dichotomies, and social justice. He was raised by a single mother who moved the family every six months or so depending on whatever work she could find. As Burke 2012 discusses, the family was exceptionally poor, but even without wealth, the children were raised to respect themselves and be grateful for what they had. Chambliss drifted through school with little interest but thanks to serendipitous misfortune which hijacked a trip to Alaska his junior year of high school, he ended up working on a farm outside of Walla Walla, Washington, alongside trustees from the Washington State Penitentiary. The friendships he made that summer and the education he received about the people and politics involved in the prison system ignited his love and interest in criminology. After graduating from high school, Chambliss enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, he could not afford more than one year of tuition, so in 1951 he moved across the country and enrolled in a less expensive university—UCLA. While at UCLA, he studied under Donald Cressey, who had been Edwin Sutherland’s graduate student at Indiana University and was an early advocate of differential association theory. Chambliss graduated in 1955, got married, and was drafted into the army and sent to Korea. He spent eighteen months in the counter intelligence corps in South Korea, and Chambliss 2005, Chambliss 2004, and Ferrell and Hamm 2016 explain that this experience gave him a different perspective on institutionalized crime, power, and governments, and helped shape his research interest in state crime. Korea enhanced his zeal to go to graduate school. He attended Indiana University where he was fortunate to study under outstanding academics, such as Alfred Lindesmith (who is best known for his drug war policies which are elucidated in Lindesmith 1965), Sheldon Stryker (who is renowned for his work with symbolic interactionism and identity theory), and Albert Cohen (best known for his subculture theory in relation to delinquent gangs). Stryker worked with Chambliss on his dissertation, Chambliss 1965, which was about the selection of friends. Taking lessons he learned from Lindesmith about the value of personal contacts in relation to grounded theory, he would apply these tactics in his work throughout this life. And although his dissertation did not have anything directly to do with crime, it tied into Sutherland’s Differential Association theory. Chambliss earned his Ph.D. in 1962.

  • Burke, Alison S. 2012. William J. Chambliss. In The encyclopedia of theoretical criminology. Hoboken, NJ, and Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

    Relying mostly on personal communications with Bill Chambliss, this encyclopedia entry provides a concise summary of his life and notable works.

  • Chambliss, W. J. 1965. The selection of friends. Social Forces 43.3: 370–380.

    DOI: 10.2307/2574767

    Chambliss proposes a theory of friendship that emphasizes the interaction process when selecting friends. He suggests that people will select friends with whom they have encounters which are validating, successful, and effective. While the article does not specifically test friendship selection among deviant subgroups, Chambliss concludes that this can be applied to criminal networks as well as non-criminal networks.

  • Chambliss, W. J. 2004. On the symbiosis between criminal law and criminal behavior. Criminology 42.2: 241–252.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00519.x

    A personal account of Chambliss’s life and career. Explores the symbiosis between criminal enterprises, legitimate business, law enforcement, politicians, and the economic system. There is interdependence between crime and criminal law. The analysis of the cause of crime leads to the fact that the government has defined certain acts as criminal. It looks at this perspective in the 17th century in the relationship between England and the American colonies.

  • Chambliss, W. J. 2005. Personal journeys in sociology. Michigan Sociological Review 19.1: 4–17.

    A personal narrative of Chambliss’s life and the events that shaped his interest in criminology. He discusses Enron and corporate crime and notes that while America emphasizes petty crime, these are the crimes that are the most costly, yet “swept under the rug “(p. 15). Corruption and bribery need more attention, while highlighting issues that increase our fear of crime needlessly.

  • Ferrell, J., and M. S. Hamm. 2016. Theses on Chambliss: Roughneck and saint. Critical Criminology 24.2: 165–180.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10612-015-9310-7

    Recounts the life and works of Bill Chambliss within a Marxist paradigm. Discusses his life on the streets and personal experiences that shaped his views of the political economy, corruption, and power differentials.

  • Lindesmith, A. R. 1965. The addict and the law. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Looks at the criminality of drug use and America’s drug control policies. He concludes that drug laws (specifically anti-opium laws) arose because of political power struggles, bureaucracy, and government attempts to profit monetarily from the trade.

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