What is Criminology?

Criminology is the scientific study of the causes and prevention of criminal behavior, studying crime as a social phenomenon. The scope of criminology includes perspectives on making laws, breaking laws, and societal reactions to laws being broken.

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Criminology studies crime and deviance, often within the context of other social issues, such as education, racism, poverty, and gender. As such, study within this social science is broad.

For example, the American Society of Criminology (ASC) identifies the following criminology divisions:

  • Division on Corrections and Sentencing
  • Division on Critical Criminology
  • Division of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology
  • Division of Experimental Criminology
  • Division of International Criminology
  • Division on People of Color and Crime
  • Division of Policing
  • Division of Victimology
  • Division of Women and Crime

The ASC is also currently implementing a new division, the Division on Terrorism and Bias Crimes.

Criminology encompasses the sociological, psychological, and biological components of crime. It is a social science that embraces sociology, the scientific study of social behavior. However, the practice of criminology includes many fields of study, such as:

  • Statistics
  • Biology
  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Psychiatry
  • Economics
  • Criminal justice


Who are Criminologists?

Criminologists study and evaluate the nature of crimes and the offenders of those crimes. They seek to define criminal behavior and the social and interpersonal decisions related to criminalized deviant behavior. Understanding the role of criminologists goes a long way in understanding what forensic psychology is all about.

Their work includes:


Research is a major component of a criminologist’s job. These social scientists conduct extensive research on crimes, the lives of criminals, and aspects of why crimes occur. Because of the wide scope of crime, research in criminology may focus on any number of issues that affect criminal behavior, such as:

  • Education
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Socio-economic status
  • Behavior
  • Social status
  • Environmental factors

Research in criminology often includes profiling criminals to find similarities in—and motivations for—criminal behavior. Criminologists study data about crimes, arrests, and convictions, with a major focus on finding patterns among criminals and trends in crime. The ultimate goal of criminologists is to find ways to predict, deter, and prevent future crimes and criminal behavior.


The research of criminologists lends itself to the development of theories about why people commit crimes. Once research is complete, criminologists compile all related statistics and data and search for patterns and trends in criminal behavior. Their exhaustive examination of the research leads to the development of theories, which allows them and others to gain a better understanding of crime and the individuals who perpetrate it.

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The act of theorizing by criminologists may lead to everything from changes in law enforcement tactics to law reform.

Compiling Information

The collection of information and the compilation of reports allow criminologists to disseminate their research findings to others. The American Society of Criminology notes that the reports of criminologists are often published in criminology journals and related publications.

Criminologists often rely on the past work of other criminologists to build upon their own research.

Thanks to the published research of criminologists, real-life problems can be addressed: crime prevention programs initiated, policies reformed, and laws modified or adopted.

Criminology Specializations: Jobs in Criminology

A wide variety of specializations exists within criminology. For example, criminologists may focus their practice on certain types of crime, such as:

  • Armed robbery
  • Murder
  • Prostitution
  • Rape
  • Serial crimes

Criminologists may also focus their work on different aspects of the criminal system, such as:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Crime prevention
  • Criminal litigation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Corrections

Criminologists may also apply their knowledge and training to a variety of subspecialties, such as:

  • Victims’ rights
  • Juvenile justice system
  • White collar crime
  • DNA evidence
  • Government policy initiatives
  • Community-based initiatives

Job Settings for Criminologists

Because of the research-intensive nature of this profession, criminologists most often work in university settings, where they conduct research and teach courses like:

  • Juvenile justice
  • Police administration and policy
  • Models of criminal behavior
  • Victimology
  • Theoretical criminology

Criminologists may also enter the public policy arena, where they are involved in community programs and policy projects with criminal justice agencies. Still others work as policy advisors for state and federal agencies.

Criminologists may also work in a number of other professional settings, such as:

  • Diversion programming
  • Criminal investigation
  • Insurance fraud investigation
  • Fraud investigation and planning
  • Forensics
  • Medical investigation
  • Private investigation

At the federal government level, criminologists lend their criminology expertise to agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security, while at the state level they work for agencies like the State Highway Patrol, the Department of Public Safety, and Children and Youth Services.

How to Become a Criminologist

Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminology – A four-year bachelor’s degree is usually the minimum requirement for work in this field, although criminologist jobs require graduate and even doctoral degrees. A bachelor’s degree in criminology (BA or BS) provides an overview of the methodology of social research used to study forms of crime and deviance. Many of the courses provide study on the use of analytic tools to collect and study data on crime and delinquency.

A criminology undergraduate degree typically provides an interdisciplinary focus on theory and applied criminological research, with an emphasis on both the social and behavioral sciences.

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Some of the recommended college courses at the undergraduate level include:

  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Criminal law
  • Constitutional law
  • Criminal theory
  • Government

Typical major courses in a bachelor’s degree in criminology include:

  • Criminology
  • Evidence-based crime and justice policy
  • Criminal justice
  • Crime and human development (or developmental psychology)
  • Biosocial criminology
  • Law and criminal justice

Master’s Degrees in Criminology – Master’s degrees in criminology, usually structured as Master of Science (MS) degrees, aim to prepare students to apply criminological research in both public and nonprofit organizations. Master’s degrees prepare students to enter the field or continue on with education at the doctoral level.

These programs often include the completion of a research project and the following courses:

  • Criminal justice data analytics
  • Quantitative methods
  • Seminars in criminology/criminal justice
  • Research methods
  • Evidence-based crime prevention

Doctoral Work in Criminology – Doctoral studies (PhD) in criminology are highly interdisciplinary, combining traditional concepts with research, concepts, and theories from a wide variety of academic disciplines. The majority of students who complete doctoral degrees in criminology go on to pursue academic and policy work.

Earning Potential for Careers in Criminology

Although specific salary information for criminologists is not readily available, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average, annual salary for a sociologist, as of May 2014, was $78,810, with the top 10 percent earning more than $127,890.

The BLS also reported the top-paying industries for sociologists during the same period:

  • Federal executive branch: $98,500
  • Scientific research and development services: $87,490
  • Local government: $70,620
  • State government: $66,210
  • Colleges, universities, and professionals schools: $60,940

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