Criminology (from Latin crīmen, "accusation" originally derived from the Ancient Greek verb "krino" "κρίνω", and Ancient Greek -λογία, -logy|-logia, from "logos" meaning: “word,” “reason,” or “plan”) is the scientific study of the nature, extent, management, causes, control, consequences, and prevention of criminal behavior, both on the individual and social levels. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field in both the behavioral and social sciences, drawing especially upon the research of sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, biologists, social anthropologists, as well as scholars of law.

The term criminology was coined in 1885 by Italian law professor Raffaele Garofalo as criminologia. Later, French anthropologist Paul Topinard used the analogous French term criminologie.[1]

Criminological Schools of thought

In the mid-18th century criminology arose as social philosophers gave thought to crime and concepts of law. Over time, several schools of thought have developed. There were three main schools of thought in early criminological theory spanning the period from the mid-18th century to the mid-twentieth century: Classical, Positive, and Chicago. These schools of thought were superseded by several contemporary paradigms of criminology, such as the sub-culture, control, strain, labeling, critical criminology, cultural criminology, postmodern criminology, feminist criminology and others discussed below.

Classical school

The Classical School arose in the mid-18th century and has its basis in utilitarian philosophy. Cesare Beccaria,[2] author of On Crimes and Punishments (1763–64), Jeremy Bentham (inventor of the panopticon), and other philosophers in this school argued:

  1. People have free will to choose how to act.
  2. The basis for deterrence is the idea humans are 'hedonists' who seek pleasure and avoid pain, and 'rational calculators' who weigh the costs and benefits of every action. It ignores the possibility of irrationality and unconscious drives as motivators.
  3. Punishment (of sufficient severity) can deter people from crime, as the costs (penalties) outweigh benefits, and severity of punishment should be proportionate to the crime.[2]
  4. The more swift and certain the punishment, the more effective as a deterrent to criminal behavior.

This school developed during a major reform in penology, when society began designing prisons for the sake of extreme punishment. This period also saw many legal reforms, the French Revolution, and the development of the legal system United States.

Positivist school

The Positivist school argues criminal behavior comes from internal and external factors out of the individual's control. Philosophers within this school applied the scientific method to study human behavior. Positivism comprises three segments: biological, psychological and social positivism.[3]

Italian school

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), an Italian sociologist working in the late 19th century, is often called "the father of criminology."[4] He was one of the key contributors to biological positivism and founded the Italian school of criminology.[5] Lombroso took a scientific approach, insisting on empirical evidence for studying crime.[6] He suggested physiological traits such as the measurements of cheek bones or hairline, or a cleft palate (the belief was this was a throwbacks to Neanderthals) could indicate "atavistic" criminal tendencies. This approach, whose influence came via the theory of phrenology and by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, has been superseded. Enrico Ferri, a student of Lombroso, believed social as well as biological factors played a role, and believed criminals should not be held responsible when factors causing their criminality were beyond their control. Criminologists have since rejected Lombroso's biological theories, with control groups not used in his studies.[7][8]

Sociological positivism

Sociological positivism suggests societal factors such as poverty, membership of subcultures, or low levels of education predispose people to crime. Adolphe Quetelet used data and statistical analysis to study the relationship between crime and sociological factors. He found age, gender, poverty, education, and alcohol consumption were important factors to crime.[9] Lance Lochner performed three different research experiments, each one proving education reduces crime.[10] Rawson W. Rawson used crime statistics to suggest a link between population density and crime rates, with crowded cities producing more crime.[11] Joseph Fletcher and John Glyde read papers to the Statistical Society of London on their studies of crime and its distribution.[12] Henry Mayhew used empirical methods and an ethnographic approach to address social questions and poverty, and gave his studies in London Labour and the London Poor.[13] Émile Durkheim viewed crime as an inevitable aspect of society, with uneven distribution of wealth and other differences among people.

Differential association (subcultural)

People learn crime through association. This theory was advocated by Edwin Sutherland.[14] These acts may condone criminal conduct, or justify crime under specific circumstances. Interacting with antisocial peers is a major cause. Reinforcing criminal behavior makes it chronic. Where there are criminal subcultures, many individuals learn crime, and crime rates swell in those areas.[15]

Chicago school

The Chicago school arose in the early twentieth century, through the work of Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, and other urban sociologists at the University of Chicago. In the 1920s, Park and Burgess identified five concentric zones that often exist as cities grow, including the "zone in transition", which was identified as most volatile and subject to disorder. In the 1940s, Henry McKay and Clifford R. Shaw focused on juvenile delinquents, finding that they were concentrated in the zone of transition.

Chicago School sociologists adopted a social ecology approach to studying cities and postulated that urban neighborhoods with high levels of poverty often experience breakdown in the social structure and institutions such as family and schools. This results in social disorganization, which reduces the ability of these institutions to control behavior and creates an environment ripe for deviant behavior.

Other researchers suggested an added social-psychological link. Edwin Sutherland suggested that people learn criminal behavior from older, more experienced criminals with whom they may associate.

Theoretical perspectives used in criminology include psychoanalysis, functionalism, interactionism, Marxism, econometrics, systems theory, postmodernism, genetics, neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

Social structure theories

This theory is applied to a variety of approaches within the bases of criminology in particular and in sociology more generally as a conflict theory or structural conflict perspective in sociology and sociology of crime. As this perspective is itself broad enough, embracing as it does a diversity of positions.[16]

Social disorganization (neighborhoods)

Social disorganization theory is based on the work of Henry McKay and Clifford R. Shaw of the Chicago School.[17] Social disorganization theory postulates that neighborhoods plagued with poverty and economic deprivation tend to experience high rates of population turnover.[18] This theory suggests that crime and deviance is valued within groups in society, ‘subcultures’ or ‘gangs’. These groups have different values to the majority norm values in society. These neighborhoods also tend to have high population heterogeneity.[18] With high turnover, informal social structure often fails to develop, which in turn makes it difficult to maintain social order in a community.

Social ecology

Since the 1950s, social ecology studies have built on the social disorganization theories. Many studies have found that crime rates are associated with poverty, disorder, high numbers of abandoned buildings, and other signs of community deterioration.[18][19] As working and middle-class people leave deteriorating neighborhoods, the most disadvantaged portions of the population may remain. William Julius Wilson suggested a poverty "concentration effect", which may cause neighborhoods to be isolated from the mainstream of society and become prone to violence.[20]

Strain theory (social strain theory)

Strain theory, also known as Mertonian Anomie, advanced by American sociologist Robert Merton, suggests that mainstream culture, especially in the United States, is saturated with dreams of opportunity, freedom, and prosperity—as Merton put it, the American Dream. Most people buy into this dream, and it becomes a powerful cultural and psychological motivation. Merton also used the term anomie, but it meant something slightly different for him than it did for Durkheim. Merton saw the term as meaning a dichotomy between what society expected of its citizens and what those citizens could actually achieve. Therefore, if the social structure of opportunities is unequal and prevents the majority from realizing the dream, some of those dejected will turn to illegitimate means (crime) in order to realize it. Others will retreat or drop out into deviant subcultures (such as gang members, or what he calls "hobos"). Robert Agnew developed this theory further to include types of strain which were not derived from financial constraints. This is known as "General Strain Theory".[21]

Subcultural theory

Following the Chicago school and Strain Theory, and also drawing on Edwin Sutherland's idea of differential association, subcultural theorists focused on small cultural groups fragmenting away from the mainstream to form their own values and meanings about life.

Albert K. Cohen tied anomie theory with Freud's reaction formation idea, suggesting that delinquency among lower class youths is a reaction against the social norms of the middle class.[22] Some youth, especially from poorer areas where opportunities are scarce, might adopt social norms specific to those places that may include "toughness" and disrespect for authority. Criminal acts may result when youths conform to norms of the deviant subculture.[23]

Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin suggested that delinquency can result from a differential opportunity for lower class youth.[24] Such youths may be tempted to take up criminal activities, choosing an illegitimate path that provides them more lucrative economic benefits than conventional, over legal options such as minimum wage-paying jobs available to them.[24]

British subcultural theorists focused more heavily on the issue of class, where some criminal activities were seen as "imaginary solutions" to the problem of belonging to a subordinate class. A further study by the Chicago school looked at gangs and the influence of the interaction of gang leaders under the observation of adults.

Sociologists such as Raymond D. Gastil have explored the impact of a Southern culture of honor on violent crime rates.[25]

Control theories

Another approach is made by the social bond or social control theory. Instead of looking for factors that make people become criminal, these theories try to explain why people do not become criminal. Travis Hirschi identified four main characteristics: "attachment to others", "belief in moral validity of rules", "commitment to achievement", and "involvement in conventional activities".[26] The more a person features those characteristics, the less likely (s)he is to become deviant (or criminal). On the other hand, if these factors are not present, a person is more likely to become a criminal. Hirschi expanded on this theory with the idea that a person with low self control is more likely to become criminal. As opposed to most criminology theories these do not look at why people commit crime but rather why they do not commit crime[27]

A simple example: Someone wants a big yacht but does not have the means to buy one. If the person cannot exert self-control, (s)he might try to get the yacht (or the means for it) in an illegal way, whereas someone with high self-control will (more likely) either wait or deny themselves of what want or seek an intelligent intermediate solution, such as joining a yacht club to use a yacht by group consolidation of resources without violating social norms. Social bonds, through peers, parents, and others can have a countering effect on one's low self-control. For families of low socio-economic status, a factor that distinguishes families with delinquent children from those who are not delinquent is the control exerted by parents or chaperonage.[28] In addition, theorists such as David Matza and Gresham Sykes argued that criminals are able to temporarily neutralize internal moral and social behavioral constraints through techniques of neutralization.

Social network analysis

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism draws on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and George Herbert Mead, as well as subcultural theory and conflict theory.[29] This school of thought focused on the relationship between the powerful state, media, and conservative ruling elite and other less powerful groups. The powerful groups had the ability to become the "significant other" in the less powerful groups' processes of generating meaning. The former could to some extent impose their meanings on the latter; therefore they were able to "label" minor delinquent youngsters as criminal. These youngsters would often take on board the label, indulge in crime more readily, and become actors in the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of the powerful groups. Later developments in this set of theories were by Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert, in the mid-20th century.[30] Stanley Cohen who developed the concept of "moral panic" describing societal reaction to spectacular, alarming social phenomena such as post-World War Two youth cultures (e.g. the Mods and Rockers in the UK in 1964, AIDS and football hooliganism).

Labelling theory

Labelling theory refers to an individual who is labelled in a particular way and who was studied in great detail by Howard Becker.[31] It arrives originally from sociology but is regularly used in criminological studies. It is said that when someone is given the label of a criminal they may reject or accept it and continue to commit crime. Even those who initially reject the label can eventually accept it as the label becomes more well known particularly among their peers. This stigma can become even more profound when the labels are about deviancy, and it is thought that this stigmatization can lead to deviancy amplification. Klein (1986) [32] conducted a test which showed that labelling theory affected some youth offenders but not others.

Individual theories

Traitor theories

At the other side of the spectrum, criminologist Lonnie Athens developed a theory about how a process of brutalization by parents or peers that usually occurs in childhood results in violent crimes in adulthood. Richard Rhodes' Why They Kill describes Athens' observations about domestic and societal violence in the criminals' backgrounds. Both Athens and Rhodes reject the genetic inheritance theories.[33]

Rational choice theory

Rational choice theory is based on the utilitarian, classical school philosophies of Cesare Beccaria, which were popularized by Jeremy Bentham. They argued that punishment, if certain, swift, and proportionate to the crime, was a deterrent for crime, with risks outweighing possible benefits to the offender. In Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments, 1763–1764), Beccaria advocated a rational penology. Beccaria conceived of punishment as the necessary application of the law for a crime; thus, the judge was simply to conform his sentence to the law. Beccaria also distinguished between crime and sin, and advocated against the death penalty, as well as torture and inhumane treatments as he did not consider them as rational deterrents.

This philosophy was replaced by the Positivist and Chicago Schools and was not revived until the 1970s with the writings of James Q. Wilson, Gary Becker's 1965 article titled "Crime and Punishment"[34] and George Stigler's 1970 article "The Optimum Enforcement of Laws".[35] Rational choice theory argues that criminals, like other people, weigh costs/risks and benefits when deciding whether to commit crime and think in economic terms.[36] They will also try to minimize risks of crime by considering the time, place, and other situational factors.[36]

Gary Becker, for example, acknowledged that many people operate under a high moral and ethical constraint but considered that criminals rationally see that the benefits of their crime outweigh the cost such as the probability of apprehension, conviction, punishment, as well as their current set of opportunities. From the public policy perspective, since the cost of increasing the fine is marginal to that of the cost of increasing surveillance, one can conclude that the best policy is to maximize the fine and minimize surveillance.

With this perspective, crime prevention or reduction measures can be devised that increase effort required to commit the crime, such as target hardening.[37] Rational choice theories also suggest that increasing risk of offending and likelihood of being caught, through added surveillance, police or security guard presence, added street lighting, and other measures, are effective in reducing crime.[37]

One of the main differences between this theory and Jeremy Bentham's rational choice theory, which had been abandoned in criminology, is that if Bentham considered it possible to completely annihilate crime (through the panopticon), Becker's theory acknowledged that a society could not eradicate crime beneath a certain level. For example, if 25% of a supermarket's products were stolen, it would be very easy to reduce this rate to 15%, quite easy to reduce it until 5%, difficult to reduce it under 3% and nearly impossible to reduce it to zero (a feat which would cost the supermarket so much in surveillance, etc., that it would outweigh the benefits). This reveals that the goals of utilitarianism and classical liberalism have to be tempered and reduced to more modest proposals to be practically applicable.

Such rational choice theories, linked to neoliberalism, have been at the basics of crime prevention through environmental design and underpin the Market Reduction Approach to theft [38] by Mike Sutton, which is a systematic toolkit for those seeking to focus attention on "crime facilitators" by tackling the markets for stolen goods [39] that provide motivation for thieves to supply them by theft.[40]

Routine activity theory

Routine activity theory, developed by Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen, draws upon control theories and explains crime in terms of crime opportunities that occur in everyday life.[41] A crime opportunity requires that elements converge in time and place including (1) a motivated offender, (2) suitable target or victim, and (3) lack of a capable guardian.[42] A guardian at a place, such as a street, could include security guards or even ordinary pedestrians who would witness the criminal act and possibly intervene or report it to police.[42] Routine activity theory was expanded by John Eck, who added a fourth element of "place manager" such as rental property managers who can take nuisance abatement measures.[43]

Biosocial theories

Biosocial criminology is an interdisciplinary field that aims to explain crime and antisocial behavior by exploring both biological factors and environmental factors. While contemporary criminology has been dominated by sociological theories, biosocial criminology also recognizes the potential contributions of fields such as genetics, neuropsychology, and evolutionary psychology.[44]

Aggressive behavior has been associated with abnormalities in three principal regulatory systems in the body serotonin systems, catecholamine systems, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Abnormalities in these systems also are known to be induced by stress, either severe, acute stress or chronic low-grade stress [45]

Marxist criminology

In 1968, young British sociologists formed the National Deviance Conference (NDC) group. The group was restricted to academics and consisted of 300 members. Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young - members of the NDC - rejected previous explanations of crime and deviance. Thus, they decided to pursue a new Marxist criminological approach.[46] In The New Criminology, they argued against the biological "positivism" perspective represented by Lombroso, Hans Eysenck and Gordon Trasler.[47]

According to the Marxist perspective on crime, "defiance is normal - the sense that men are now consciously involved…in assuring their human diversity." Thus Marxists criminologists argued in support of society in which the facts of human diversity, be it social or personal, would not be criminalized.[48] They, further, attributed the processes of crime-creation not to genetic or psychological facts, but rather to the material basis of a given society.[49]

Convict Criminology

Convict criminology is a school of thought in the realm of criminology. Convict criminologists have been directly affected by the Criminal Justice System, oftentimes having spent years inside the prison system. Researchers in the field of convict criminology such as Dr. John Irwin and Dr. Stephan Richards argue that traditional criminology can better be understood by those who lived in the walls of the prison industrial complex.[50] In the field of convict criminology there can also be found some accounts of autobiographical insights of re-entry, childhood, and prison. Leyva argues that prisonization oftentimes begins before prison, in the home, community, and schools.[51]

Queer Criminology

Queer Criminology is a field of study that focuses on LGBTQ+ individuals and their interactions with the criminal justice system. The goals of this field of study are as follows:

  • To better understand the history of LGBTQ+ individuals and the laws put against the community
  • Why LGBTQ+ citizens are incarcerated and if/why they are arrested at higher rates than heterosexual and cisgender individuals
  • How queer activists have both fought against oppressive laws that criminalized LGBTQ+ individuals
  • To conduct research and use it as a form of activism through education


The value of pursuing criminology from a queer theorist perspective is contested; some believe that it is not worth researching and not relevant to the field as a whole, and as a result is a subject that lacks a wide berth of research available. On the other hand, it could be argued that this subject is highly valuable in highlighting how LGBTQ+ individuals are affected by the criminal justice system. This research also has the opportunity to “queer” the curriculum of criminology in educational institutions by shifting the focus from controlling and monitoring LGBTQ+ communities to liberating and protecting them.[52]

Types and definitions of crime

Both the Positivist and Classical Schools take a consensus view of crime — that a crime is an act that violates the basic values and beliefs of society. Those values and beliefs are manifested as laws that society agrees upon. However, there are two types of laws:

  • Natural laws are rooted in core values shared by many cultures. Natural laws protect against harm to persons (e.g. murder, rape, assault) or property (theft, larceny, robbery), and form the basis of common law systems.
  • Statutes are enacted by legislatures and reflect current cultural mores, albeit that some laws may be controversial, e.g. laws that prohibit cannabis use and gambling. Marxist criminology, Conflict criminology and Critical Criminology claim that most relationships between state and citizen are non-consensual and, as such, criminal law is not necessarily representative of public beliefs and wishes: it is exercised in the interests of the ruling or dominant class. The more right wing criminologies tend to posit that there is a consensual social contract between State and citizen.

Therefore, definitions of crimes will vary from place to place, in accordance to the cultural norms and mores, but may be broadly classified as blue-collar crime, corporate crime, organized crime, political crime, public order crime, state crime, state-corporate crime, and white-collar crime.[53] However, there have been moves in contemporary criminological theory to move away from liberal pluralism, culturalism and postmodernism by introducing the universal term 'harm' into the criminological debate as a replacement for the legal term 'crime'.[54]


Areas of study in criminology include:

See also



  1. Deflem, Mathieu, ed. (2006). Sociological Theory and Criminological Research: Views from Europe and the United States. Elsevier. p. 279. ISBN 0-7623-1322-6.
  2. 1 2 Beccaria, Cesare (1764). On Crimes and Punishments, and Other Writings. Translated by Richard Davies. Cambridge University Press. p. 64. ISBN 0-521-40203-4.
  3. David, Christian Carsten. "Criminology - Crime." Cybercrime. Northamptonshire (UK), 5 June 1972. Web. 23 Feb. 2012. <>.
  4. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 27 December 2015. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  5. Siegel, Larry J. (2003). Criminology, 8th edition. Thomson-Wadsworth. p. 7.
  6. McLennan, Gregor; Jennie Pawson; Mike Fitzgerald (1980). Crime and Society: Readings in History and Theory. Routledge. p. 311. ISBN 0-415-02755-1.
  7. Siegel, Larry J. (2003). Criminology, 8th edition. Thomson-Wadsworth. p. 139.
  8. Compare: Siegel, Larry J. (2015-01-01). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies (12 ed.). Cengage Learning (published 2015). p. 135. ISBN 9781305446090. Retrieved 2015-05-29. The work of Lombroso and his contemproraries is regarded today as a historical curiosity, not scientific fact. Strict biological determinism is no longer taken seriously (later in his career even Lombroso recognized that not all criminals were biological throwbacks). Early biological determinism has been discredited because it is methodologically flawed: most studies did not use control groups from the general population to compare results, a violation of the scientific method.
  9. Beirne, Piers (March 1987). "Adolphe Quetelet and the Origins of Positivist Criminology". American Journal of Sociology. 92 (5): 1140–1169. doi:10.1086/228630.
  10. Lochner, Lance (2004). "The American Economic Review". The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports. 94: 155. doi:10.1257/000282804322970751.
  11. Hayward, Keith J. (2004). City Limits: Crime, Consumerism and the Urban Experience. Routledge. p. 89. ISBN 1-904385-03-6.
  12. Garland, David (2002). "Of Crimes and Criminals". In Maguire, Mike; Rod Morgan; Robert Reiner. The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. p. 21.
  13. "Henry Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor". Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. Archived from the original on 15 May 2008.
  14. Herman, Nancy (1995). Deviance: A Symbolic Interactionist Approach. Michigan: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 64–68. ISBN 978-1882289387.
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  19. Morenoff, Jeffrey; Robert Sampson; Stephen Raudenbush (2001). "Neighborhood Inequality, Collective Efficacy and the Spatial Dynamics of Urban Violence". Criminology. 39 (3): 517–60. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2001.tb00932.x.
  20. Siegel, Larry (2015). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies. Cengage Learning. p. 191. ISBN 1305446097.
  21. Merton, Robert (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press. ISBN 0-02-921130-1.
  22. Cohen, Albert (1955). Delinquent Boys. Free Press. ISBN 0-02-905770-1.
  23. Kornhauser, R. (1978). Social Sources of Delinquency. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-45113-5.
  24. 1 2 Cloward, Richard, Lloyd Ohlin (1960). Delinquency and Opportunity. Free Press. ISBN 0-02-905590-3.
  25. Raymond D. Gastil, "Homicide and a Regional Culture of Violence," American Sociological Review 36 (1971): 412-427.
  26. Hirschi, Travis (1969). Causes of Delinquency. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0-7658-0900-1.
  27. Gottfredson, Michael R., Hirschi, Travis (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press.
  28. Wilson, Harriet (1980). "Parental Supervision: A Neglected Aspect of Delinquency". British Journal of Criminology. 20.
  29. Mead, George Herbert (1934). Mind Self and Society. University of Chicago Press.
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  33. Rhodes, Richard (2000). Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. Vintage. ISBN 0-375-40249-7.
  34. Gary Becker, "Crime and Punishment", in Journal of Political Economy, vol. 76 (2), March–April 1968, p.196-217
  35. George Stigler, "The Optimum Enforcement of Laws", in Journal of Political Economy, vol.78 (3), May–June 1970, p. 526–536
  36. 1 2 Cornish, Derek; Ronald V. Clarke (1986). The Reasoning Criminal. Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-96272-7.
  37. 1 2 Clarke, Ronald V. (1992). Situational Crime Prevention. Harrow and Heston. ISBN 1-881798-68-2.
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