Criminology Marvin Wolfgang
N. A. Weihe, Edna Erez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0304


Few contemporary criminologists have made more of an impact in the field of criminology than Marvin Eugene Wolfgang. He was born in 1924, and after his mother died during his infancy, Wolfgang’s paternal grandparents raised him in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Wolfgang lived and worked in Pennsylvania until his death in 1998. His intellectual interest in criminology began after serving time in the military while stationed in Italy during World War II. He left the army in 1945 to attend university, and was the first person in his family to do so. Wolfgang earned a bachelor’s degree at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College in 1948 and began teaching in the political science and sociology department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, while also attending graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Marvin Wolfgang’s professional career spanned decades and was punctuated by a myriad of accomplishments, accolades, awards, and tributes. The bulk of Wolfgang’s criminological research revolved around the sociological aspects of violence and criminality. He was an expert in the field of criminal justice, and, based on his own empirical research, he openly expressed opposition to the death penalty and support for gun control. Race played a prominent role in Wolfgang’s analyses, and his findings exposed the diminished social and economic status of Blacks as well as the implicit role white culture plays in maintaining the conditions necessary for violence and crime. He worked diligently throughout his career to further legitimize and advance the social science of criminology. His research was instrumental for carving out an independent science of crime from the discipline of sociology. He accomplished this task by innovating and applying scientific research and methods in the criminal justice system. He had a keen interest in understanding the drivers of violent crime and sought to improve institutional and social outcomes inside and outside prison walls. Wolfgang’s research was instrumental for revealing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and in society at large. He embraced a sociological approach for understanding social problems and government responses that led to violence, crime, and punishment. Marvin Wolfgang was a vocal critic of the status quo criminal justice system and was sought after by the federal government for his expertise in quantitative design and analysis. He was admired worldwide for his expertise and allegiance to the scientific method. His scholarship is prolific, diverse, and salient. Despite his fame, most people still found Wolfgang approachable. He was well respected by his many peers around the world, as well as a beloved professor to his many students. His contributions to the discipline of criminology and criminal justice are innumerable, substantial, and are relevant for the 21st century and beyond.


Before his death in 1998, Cohn and Farrington 1994 identified Wolfgang as “the most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world.” He first served as a professor of sociology and later became a professor of criminology and law as well as the director of the Sellin Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania until his death in April 1998. From 1964 to 1990, Wolfgang also served as advisor to the Criminology section of the prestigious Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology published by the Northwestern Pritzker Law School. “A Tribute to Marvin E. Wolfgang” paid tribute to him and his accomplishments eight years before his untimely death, which the New York Times obituary, Kaufman 1998, announced to the world. In addition, he held positions as the associate secretary general of the International Society of Criminology, the president of the American Society of Criminology, a consultant to the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, and was a member of the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Panel on Social Indicators. Furthermore, he was research director on the Presidential Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1968. He also received a Fulbright Research Grant, and he received the Guggenheim Fellowship twice. He received the Hans von Hentig Award of the World Society of Victimology in 1988, and the following year was recipient of the Edwin Sutherland Award of the American Society of Criminology. He also earned the James Fowler Rusling Prize, Gaylord H. Patterson Prize, Charles Mortimer Prize, and the August Vollmer Research Award. Silverman, et al. 2002, a book of essays honoring him, tells how Wolfgang earned the first Wolfgang Award for Distinguished Achievement in Criminology at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology (where it is still awarded each year), a notably prestigious achievement, which has become known as the “Nobel Prize of Criminology.” Adler, et al. 1998, a commemorative article, recounts the honorary doctorates Wolfgang received from the City University of New York (CUNY) and Academia Mexicana de Derecho Internacional, as well as the Beccaria Medal of Gold. Works by Wolfgang students, including Mukherjee 1998 and Silverman 2004, attest to his influence in their lives and careers. Wilson 1999, written by the political scientist James Q. Wilson, credits Wolfgang with saving the field of criminology “from becoming a branch of economics or sociology” (p. 30).

  • Adler, F., G. G. Mueller, and W. S. Lauter. 1998. In memoriam: Marvin Wolfgang, 1924–1998. International Annals of Criminology 175:175–178.

    The authors of this short dedication, which was part of a special session of the Seoul Congress dedicated to Marvin Wolfgang, enumerated five of his major scholarly activities. They stressed appreciation for his humanity, his friendship, and his ability to inspire others.

  • Cohn, E. G., and D. P. Farrington. 1994. Who are the most influential criminologists in the English-speaking world? British Journal of Criminology 34.2: 204–225.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a048403

    In this article, researchers utilize citation analysis to examine peer-reviewed articles published in four major criminological journals (one from each of the following countries: United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand) during 1986–1990. Results indicate Marvin E. Wolfgang ranked number one in a field of notable criminologists, outranking such luminaries, for example, as Gottfredson, Wilson, Blumstein, and Sellin. Wolfgang’s most cited publications were Wolfgang, et al. 1972 and Sellin and Wolfgang 1964 (both cited under Crime and Delinquency).

  • Kaufman, M. T. 1998. Marvin E. Wolfgang, 73 dies; Leading figure in criminology. New York Times, 18 April 1998.

    This New York Times obituary announced Wolfgang’s death to the world. It provided a condensed overview of his personal life and primary scholarly achievements. Kaufman noted (and explained) two significant terms coined by Wolfgang: “victim-precipitated homicide” and “spouse abuse” (p. 52).

  • Mukherjee, S. 1998. Professor Marvin E. Wolfgang, 1924–1998. Current Issues in Criminal Justice 10.1: 107–108.

    DOI: 10.1080/10345329.1998.12036119

    This personal tribute is a glowing review of Wolfgang’s professional achievements by a former student-turned-PhD, who noted how Wolfgang influenced the first (and globally diverse) graduate cohort in the newly established Master of Criminology program within the University of Pennsylvania’s Sociology Department in 1962.

  • Silverman, R. A. 2004. Marvin Eugene Wolfgang, 14 November 1924–12 April 1998. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 148.4: 547–554.

    In this tribute, Silverman noted how “Marvin attached a great deal of importance to international connections” (p. 549), and listed a number of countries around the world with which he had scholarly interactions. The author explained some of Wolfgang’s positions, including his opposition to the death penalty and support for gun control, and wrote fondly of Wolfgang’s legacy: “his students” (p. 553).

  • Silverman, R. A., T. P. Thornberry, B. Cohen, and B. Krisberg, eds. 2002. Crime and justice at the millennium: Essays by and in honor of Marvin E. Wolfgang. Boston: Kluwer Academic.

    This book contains selected essays by Marvin Wolfgang, and examines research conducted by others around the world who were influenced by his work. Each chapter represents a topic of his criminological research, including patterns of violent behavior, criminal homicide, longitudinal studies, victims of crime, policing, juveniles, and prisons.

  • A tribute to Marvin E. Wolfgang. 1991. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 82.1: vii–viii.

    The editors of the journal paid tribute to Wolfgang by devoting an entire symposium to him, citing his many accomplishments, including publications and positions he held throughout his esteemed criminological career.

  • Wilson, J. Q. 1999. The lives they lived: Marvin E. Wolfgang; Charting the devious mind. New York Times Magazine, 3 January 1999, Section 6, p. 30.

    This New York Times article gives the lay reader a snapshot of Wolfgang’s impact on the epistemology of crime. Wilson wrote briefly about Wolfgang’s focus on the individual and how he fostered a discussion about crime etiology beyond just social causes. He noted the significance of Wolfgang’s early research, which revealed the IQ scores of serious offenders.

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