Introducing criminology

Introducing criminology

What is criminology?

No criminologist round the world would today see criminology as a single discipline. It is a multi-disciplinary subject area, at its best inter-disciplinary and even trans-disciplinary. However, it has today achieved many of the hallmarks of a discipline, such as a canon of key textbooks, several well known schools and research centres, a history of big debates, a body of common terms and concepts, and at least a postgraduate presence in most universities in the advanced world. Let's just say it is an umbrella term under which scholars who study crime and justice in the rain gather to talk and study.

It is also a highly contested field, with many heated debates under that umbrella. There are some criminologists who still see this subject area as centred on the study of the criminal mind, but most today would say that the criminal mind does not exist or is a very bad way of understanding what does exist. Do bankers and multinational ccorporations, or corrupt politicians, have criminal minds? Do they come from bad or poor backgrounds even? Maybe they fell into bad company. How come research indicates that the mind of the typical convicted offender seems to be much the same as the man or woman in the street? For most criminologists, many members of the human race are capable of all kinds of activities, good and evil. The question today has become: which ones get stigmatized as criminal? Or what today is normal? And, if we cannot manage a civilized society without norms, who makes them or how do they emerge? Are these norms and laws the standards of the majority? In all societies? In all periods of history? Or do they vary with culture, subculture, youth culture, popular culture, regional or national culture, or oppositional culture? What social pathologies do we really want to censure?

Our BA Criminology here at UCC is not a 'technocratic' criminology degree, as a matter of conscious policy. We take the contestability and ambiguity of the core of our discipline as fundamental, so we question what should be criminalized and why, how should we deal with confirmed offenders, with punishment, treatment, employment or care? We are not teaching you to be a CSI, or a police officer, or a journalist, or an administrator, or a policy-maker. For that you will need further vocational qualifications. Our degree is academic and proudly so. It combines a core social science-based education with a wide variety of humanities, arts and language options, focussed on crime, deviance, social divisions, punishment and order. We explore the causes of crime, but we also consider social justice. 

Is criminology a unified science?

No. Criminology is divided into two main camps, with many different sub-types within those two. It divides largely according to whether it operates as an independent university field of enquiry or as an arm of the State geared to the social control of difficult, deviant and dissident populations (what is often described as 'police science'). Studying the game or catching the villains? Here at UCC we will be studying the game, globally, open-mindedly and historically. As for science, we will raise in Year One the basic question of how any area of social study whose fundamental categories derive from politicians', élite and media evaluations can claim to be scientific. Crime is not a neutral category and we will explore that fact in depth over all three years, perhaps in the spirit of the founding fathers of sociology searching for a science of morals.

Colin Sumner, edited August 2016.