In This Article History of Criminology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Pre-Professional Criminology
  • Continental Sociology
  • Early Biology
  • Chicago School/Social Disorganization
  • Anomie/Strain
  • Subcultural and Learning Theory
  • Control Theory
  • Labeling Theory
  • Deterrence/Rational Choice
  • Marxist Criminology
  • Feminist Criminology and Extensions of Marxist Theory
  • Critical Criminology
  • Miscellaneous Seminal Works

Criminology History of Criminology
Brendan D. Dooley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0197


A comprehensive survey of criminology, in all its variants, manifestations, and historical antecedents, has yet to be written. Several reasons can be adduced why the effort has yet to be undertaken. The first results from a professional orientation shared by all scientific endeavors. The most immediate imperative of science is to begin accumulating knowledge of the phenomena it wishes to comprehend. This mandate produces a professional orientation toward expertise. The premium placed on the esoteric over the general requires the scholarly community to direct the profession toward the dissection of smaller aspects of the larger, more complicated subject matter. It is presumed that documenting its own history is a secondary concern better left to historians. An additional impediment is an artifact of the field’s canon being fed by contributions from a wide spectrum of disciplines through the years, from political science, psychology, and biology to moral philosophy and economics and everything beyond. These peculiarities of an undisciplined emerging discipline present challenges for any historian attempting to determine the working identity of the study of crime and its control. Combining the multiple strands and facets of the field is a challenge not to be dismissed lightly; nevertheless, offering an outline of the field’s development is certainly not an impossible task. The bibliographic format, and the larger bibliographic effort of which this article is but a small part, offers an ideal opportunity to attempt a compilation of criminology’s history. The approach followed here will mimic that of an introductory criminology text, with a few modifications. Each theoretical school will be represented in the sequence in which it appears in the historical record, roughly considered, as seen in the publication of foundational works. The theoretical school that supersedes the earlier contributions will then be introduced. There are only two minor departures from the textbook-like formula. First, the article begins with a section dedicated to introducing a body of work that is about the field of criminology. Increasing attention has been given of late to chronicling its history. Second, a section is included that considers pre-professional criminology. These writings address the question of crime and its control prior to the field cohering around a professional identity. Because the article endeavors to provide a history capturing the seminal works in its canon readers interested in learning of recent theoretical developments beginning in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., career criminal research, life-course theory, self-control/general theory of crime, bio-social criminology) are encouraged to consult entries dealing with these topics found elsewhere in the Oxford Bibliographies Online collection. [Please note that many of the works cited here were originally published at much earlier dates.]

General Overviews

Several notable scholars have voiced a desire to see more effort at archiving and discussing the history of the field. These exhortations have been made with greater frequency of late and they have garnered some response. Admittedly, a definitive account that traces the history of the field from its beginnings to the present day is as yet unavailable. However, a number of histories have chronicled aspects of the field’s past. These histories are often rendered via recollections of the work done by early scholars in the field. Mannheim 1972 (first edition released in 1960) set a trend as an edited volume of biographical accounts of numerous eminent historical figures from Bentham and Beccaria to Bonger. Rock 1994 is a compilation of very early European criminology. The edited volume includes writings from leading figures highlighted in the section Continental Sociology, such as André-Michel Guerry and Lambert Quetelet, in addition to a number of lesser-known contributors. The chapters were written by experts writing within the traditions begun by the respective luminaries. The edited volume approach was repeated half a century later in The Origins of American Criminology (Cullen, et al. 2011). The book compiles recollections from contemporary criminologists. Similarly, Laub 1983 constitutes an early effort using an oral history approach to capture firsthand accounts from major scholars. That effort has been followed by an ongoing project cataloging video recordings with major figures both in the United States and abroad. The Oral History Criminology Project is hosted by the American Society of Criminology (ASC). The video collection of more than seventy scholars are available free of charge through the ASC website listed in the citation. A survey of mainstream criminology, as told through the writings of many current figures responding to the question: What is Criminology? has been published recently (Bosworth and Hoyle 2011). This volume has a philosophical orientation, pondering the question of the field’s identity. Wetzell 2000 examines criminology in Germany from the advent of the 20th century through the collapse of the Nazi regime and serves as a cautionary tale in terms of the field’s proximity to policy. This international framework is considered in Becker and Wetzell 2006.

  • Becker, Peter, and Richard F. Wetzell, eds. 2006. Criminals and their scientists: The history of criminology in international perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Criminology has manifested itself in numerous ways across time and space. This edited volume includes contributions from authors from across the globe to illustrate how criminality is framed, from criminal psychiatry in Australia to social hygiene in France. Lombroso’s work in Italy and criminology in Germany are also explained.

  • Bosworth, Mary, and Carolyn Hoyle, eds. 2011. What is criminology? New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The thirty-four chapters of the book are listed under six major headings. The work outlines the various branches within the field across a few axes: conceptual, methodological, and political. The latter half of the book outlines the sources of several limitations to future development: disciplinary, geographic, and academic.

  • Cullen, Francis T., Cheryl Lero Jonson, Andrew J. Myer, and Freda Adler, eds. 2011. The origins of American criminology: Advances in criminological theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    The volume includes contributions from many leading figures, some writing on the development of their ideas and careers. Two major themes are covered. The first provides an overview of older schools and institutions—Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia. Newer themes includes reflections on developmental theories and the control tradition.

  • Laub, John H. 1983. Criminology in the making: An oral history. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    The book includes edited interviews with nine of the 20th century’s most recognizable figures in the field—Donald Cressey, Thorsten Sellin, Albert Cohen, among others. Laub’s interviews with these men consider in depth the development of major ideas, research projects, and interactions within the scholarly community.

  • Mannheim, Herman, ed. 1972. Pioneers in criminology. 2d ed. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith.

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    The book contains a veritable roster of the preeminent scholars who informed the development of the field that later became known as criminology. Lengthy entries on careers of scholars such as Durkheim, Alexander Maconochie, Gabriel Tarde, Lombroso, and numerous others; entries authored by an expert on the life’s work of the scholars.

  • Oral History Criminology Project. Columbus, OH: American Society of Criminology.

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    Video archive that is actively being expanded. Currently there are more than seventy hour-long recordings with many leading scholars from the United States and abroad available for viewing, free of charge. Scholars offer commentary on their own work and the development of their careers.

  • Rock, Paul, ed. 1994. History of criminology. Aldershot, UK: Dartmouth.

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    Five-part book dedicated to tracking the development of criminology from its origins in moral statistics in the 20th century when it grew into an academic pursuit. The work elaborates on the European contribution to the foundations of criminology. An abbreviated list of highlighted work includes those of Burt, Defoe, Sir Romilly, and Colquhoun.

  • Wetzell, Richard F. 2000. Inventing the criminal: A history of German criminology, 1880–1945. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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    An exhaustive account of the historical record involving the intersection of biology, sociology, and law in Germany leading up to and including the Nazi regime. The work highlights tensions between biology and sociology on the eugenic agenda, against the criminal backdrop of the Holocaust.

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