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Conjectures, Refutations, and (Elusive) Resolution: An Exercise in the Sociology of Knowledge within Criminology

Published onJun 01, 2017
Conjectures, Refutations, and (Elusive) Resolution: An Exercise in the Sociology of Knowledge within Criminology


An analysis of in-depth discussions (oral histories) with 17 leading criminologists on the seminal debates in which they each participated showcases the benefits of intellectual debate. Over the last half-century, the field’s understanding of crime and its control has experienced genuine gains through a vigorous exchange of conjectures and refutations. It stands to benefit from more of these. However, there is a tension between professional and scientific concerns that limits the expansion of this process. The insistence on open ended inquiry in advancing professional ends dulls the interest and opportunity for debating first principles. As a result, the field is populated by numerous unresolved theoretical disputes. In attempting to settle the dilemma posed by competing interests, a compromise that works to satisfy the concerns of both science and the profession is offered. Crafting an appreciation for where the limits of collective knowledge are found would serve to outline an agenda for discovery while stimulating debate.


The academic enterprise of criminology and criminal justice has reached a point in its maturation where it is contemplating its own identity in much the same way the sociology of sociology movement once did (Freidrichs, 1970; Gouldner, 1970; Ritzer, 1975).1 There have been repeated calls of late to make the history of the field relevant to contemporary scholarship (Bursik, 2009; Laub, 2004). There has also been a reconsideration of the benefits to be gained from a proliferation of the field’s theory, largely through a renewed push toward integrating perspectives (Agnew, 2011). The sociology of criminology (Savelsberg, Cleveland, & King, 2004) and of knowledge can assist in promoting a resolution to these budding concerns. If the field is interested in working toward more enduring resolutions to its debates, an exploration of its scientific practice will be necessary.

What follows is an analysis composed from recollections (i.e., oral histories—Laub, 1983) offered by seventeen leading criminologists. The reader  is invited to focus not so much on the content of the arguments highlighted in these histories but rather on the structure of the exchanges. While others have worked to tidy up the field’s abundance of theory through promoting integration (Agnew, 2005; Elliott, Ageton, & Canter, 1979), a winner-take-all strategy (Hirschi, 1979), or pruning illogical theoretical propositions (Bruinsma, 2016), the approach offered below is agnostic on the matter.2  Here  an alternative path is mapped through an elaboration of how disputes came into being, the thrust and parry of the exchanges which transpired, and the resolutions settled upon.

The primary point of emphasis here is to elaborate  upon  the  beneficial role that intellectual exchange plays in the etiology and advancement of thinking on the origins of crime and its control. In sum, the theme that emerges from the analysis attests to the pivotal importance that debate has played in sharpening the field’s perspective through the years. Rather than muting the discussion of controversial or contested subject matter, criminology and criminal justice ought to seek ways to encourage and structure these intellectual exchanges. There are several professional and scholarly advantages that the field stands to gain from if it can successfully capitalize upon the reactions of its scholars toward divisive topics.

Background literature

The evolution of science through the ages has been most famously depicted as one in which fleeting moments of revolutionary advance happen amid the grind of mundane “normal science” (Kuhn, 1970). This depiction has challenged the prevailing understanding that rational science works in an orderly, linear progression of constant, incremental advance. In contrast to the earlier textbook description, in Kuhn’s version science is characterized as a series of sporadic eruptions defined by breakthroughs which are followed by elongated periods of calm.

The sociology of knowledge, of which Kuhn’s work (1970) stands as a canonical contribution, has acquired a reputation as suffering from physics envy (or redux; Ball, 2004). Despite this tendency there are clear applications of its perspective to the social sciences and humanities (Collins, 1998). Karl Popper, whose classic work on the philosophy of science, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), relied heavily on examples drawn from physics, writes elsewhere that the progress of science is greased upon the wheels of conjectures and refutations (Popper, 1963). Randall Collins (1998) affirms this conclusion with his sweeping historical overview of the development of numerous schools of thought through the ages. The adversarial process of finely honed debate has proven advantageous for promoting ideas. The agendas that populate a given research environment play a vital role in collecting like-minded scholars around thematic sub-specialties that are studied (see, Hull, 1988). The respective groups work diligently to recruit adherents and refine their instruments to defeat their opponents’ contentions.

Emergent perspectives are often forged through blows delivered by contested claims in a process referred to as boundary work (Gieryn, 1999). The communities that play host to these debates make collective decisions on what the parameters of debate are, in terms of the appropriate topics around which debate ought to center, the criteria of proof, and the methods of reciprocating exchange. The passion with which responses are proffered and rejoined grant indication as to which ideas are fundamental to a community’s identity and which are at the periphery (Nisbet, 1976). The former ideas constitute the core, while the latter represent the frontier (Cole, 1992). These are all sociologically defined characteristics of a scientific community that have a direct bearing on the science which is produced.

Criminology’s identity as a multi-disciplinary field permit a threading    of the varied lines drawn from the sociology of knowledge. There are a few scholars working at documenting the evolution of the field (Laub, 2004) and its schools (Koehler, 2015; Rafter, 2008). A few efforts have been undertaken to document the field and its operation through the collection of oral contributions (Laub, 1983; Oral History Criminology Project,; Savelsberg & Flood, 2011). Other writings have outlined the trends in published research (Savelsberg & Sampson, 2002; Dooley & Rydberg, 2014). What follows is an inquiry into the development of the field through a recounting of a few of its defining debates (see Laub and Sampson, 1991), resolution, and recurring issues (Bernard, 1990) as told by its primary disputants.

Attention will be drawn towards the architectural elements of the disputes—the structure, points of contention, process, and denouement. The latter term is intended to indicate the varied states at which debate is often left: compromise, détente, accommodation, and inchoate resolution. These observations are offered while referencing internal (professional  norms  and expectations) and external influences (political and historical developments) that shaped the study of crime and its control. In this regard, it is an effort at “taking stock” (Cullen, Wright, & Blevins, 2006) for the field at large through chronicling various intellectual contributions, then evaluating how they have weathered the criticism encountered.


The present research employed a purposive (i.e., non-random) sample. This was done in order to meet the two primary criteria imposed by the research aim. First, the research question required locating contributors who have participated directly in the animating debates that marked the advance of the study of criminal justice and criminology. The intention is to gather a fine-grained account for the back and forth of a few—but far from most or all—of the seminal arguments the field has confronted over the past half century.3 The research focus is not intended to capture the zeitgeist of the field in its entirety over that period; the question before us here is narrow in comparison. Therefore, drawing a random sample was deemed unnecessary. The present effort is an attempt to chronicle several of the animating exchanges with a measure of depth, in a quasi-case-study approach. The methodology trades the promise of characterizing a consensus of a generation of scholars for a deeper elaboration of the defining debates of the historical period.

Second, the intention with the solicitation of the sampled members of the group was to capture contributors who represent a cross-section of the primary theoretical currents within mainstream criminology, inclusive of critical criminology. Twenty-five scholars were approached with an invitation to participate, of which seventeen contributed (Table 1).4 As Table 1 indicates the sample includes experts from a diversity of intellectual traditions under that broader heading. Obligations imposed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) prevent the disclosure of the identity of the scholars and the respective agendas of those who declined. Despite the non-participation of a few of those invited, social disorganization, anomie/strain, differential association/social learning, deterrence, control, critical/radical, developmental, methodology, policing, routine activities, and victimology perspectives are all represented.

A wide reading within the history of criminological theory served to assist in the generation of a rough and ready list of scholars to sample. A subjective sense of a scholar’s stature from a single author is not entirely satisfactory in terms of validating their inclusion however. A measure of scholarly impact, more specifically in the citation counts, is what matters in a more objective sense. Ten of the seventeen interviewees rank among the top 33 scholars in the field according to a ranking published in a year proximate to the date of interview (Cohn & Farrington, 2007). Those results affirm a sample whose work has been widely and repeatedly cited, demonstrating their esteem within the criminological community and beyond.

Each was solicited through an email describing the project and outlining IRB related matters, such as the broad content to be explored in the interview. The sample averaged 1973 for a date of doctorate. The dates ranged from 1951 (Short) to 1989 (Lauritsen), producing an average of approximately thirty-five years of experience prior to the interview. Thirteen of the seventeen earned a doctorate in sociology, two in criminal justice, one each in psychology and economics/public policy/sociology. Defined by current (or most recent) department affiliation, the group is more balanced – nine in criminology or criminal justice and eight in sociology.

Table 1. Respondent PhD year and research concentrations


PhD year

Notable contributions5

Freda Adler


Feminist criminology, international/comparative

Robert Agnew


General strain theory

Ronald L. Akers


Social learning theory

Robert J. Bursik Jr.


Social disorganization

William Chambliss


Critical criminology, legality

Francis T. Cullen


Strain/anomie theory, corrections, white-collar crime

Jack P. Gibbs



John Hagan


International/comparative, critical criminology, race, gender and crime

John H. Laub


Life-course criminology, oral history

Janet Lauritsen


Victimology, social disorganization

Steven F. Messner


Institutional anomie theory, homicide

Wayne Osgood


Methodology, peer influence

Robert J. Sampson


Social disorganization, life-course criminology

Joachim J. Savelsberg


Sociology of criminology, legality

Lawrence W. Sherman


Policing, Experimental criminology

James F. Short, Jr.


Social disorganization, gangs

Charles R. Tittle


Theory testing, Control-balance theory

Prior to conducting the interview, a copies of curriculum vitae were collected from each of the participants. Reading substantive portions of their overall scholarship gleaned from the vitae allowed for an informed interview to be conducted. The preparation in discussing major debates required the reading of two types of literature beyond the respondent’s own work. The first is that which granted a sense of the overall contemporary history of the field; the second consisted of the critiques offered of the participant’s work authored by a few notable critics.

The interviews range from twenty-eight minutes to an hour and fifty-two minutes in duration, averaging approximately an hour and fifteen minutes in length. Seven of the interviews were conducted face to face, either in the respondents’ offices or at the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology. The remainder was collected through recorded phone calls. Following the recordings the author transcribed the interviews.

The interviews relied on a semi-structured format to explore the tangle of debate against the backdrop of the field’s maturation. As such, there was no script for asking precisely worded questions to each and every member of the sample. However, there was consistency in terms of the thematic items explored in the loosely structured interview. Any one of the following themes could have resulted in a contribution which speaks to the matter of debate in the field: internal and external threats to the field’s continuing expansion, evolution and change of the field, origin of their own ideas, aftermath of particular contributions, subjective assessments of the success or lack thereof with specific contributions, reflection on the resilience of their initial argument in the intervening years, relationship of their own agenda  to the dominant currents in the field, and thoughts on the consensus or lack thereof within the field on theory and methodology.



Debate is begun when one party manages to incite a reaction from those interested in defending a perspective. The profession of science works to establish some observable consistency in elaborating a general comprehension of a phenomenon in a step-by-step progression. Nevertheless, members of the community will dissent periodically. These conjectures occasionally problematize the working order through questioning underlying assumptions. The verdict on which conjectures merit a response versus those which can safely be sidestepped is left to the scientific community.

The evidence accumulated in the interviews suggests that criminologists seek to spark interest in a topic using one of several approaches. First are those who ask entirely new questions. These are attempts to draw attention to newer subject matter or to repackage traditional topics in a new way. Second, others depart from the community through addressing different questions entirely, raising the prospect of approaching the subject matter with an axiomatically different perspective. Third, there are those who offer challenges to the working order that raise little more than an indifferent response from their peers. Not all threats to the field’s working assumptions are determined to be equally meritorious of a response after all.

The first type of conjecture outlined is that of expanding the field’s research agenda. An example is drawn from Freda Adler, whose foundational book in feminist criminology elicited firm reactions from the field’s members when published in 1975. In her estimation, the straightforward application of an emerging approach (opportunity theory) in accounting for observations she was collecting in her interviews with female offenders was unproblematic. The book pointed to a growth of female involvement in crime. Reaction was leveled against it because of its perceived negative implications for the women’s liberation movement, then in its infancy. When asked about the source of resistance to her work Adler replied.

Well, the major issue when I came out with Sisters in Crime [Adler, 1975], because I had written drug books before and nobody said anything, nobody probably read them, I had people who wouldn’t speak to me. In the American Society of Criminology, I had people who were angry that I was going to move the feminist movement backward if I said that as women moved up Merton’s ladder they were going to have an opportunity to commit different types of crimes. That was going to take women and push them right back down again.

The content of the book was assigned a significance that drew the work and its author beyond the confines of criminology into the fray of the culture wars. This historical instance demonstrates how forces greater than a given author’s input can determine the meaning of scholarship.

When I wrote Sisters in Crime, remember, I was the first female professor of criminal justice. When I wrote Sisters in Crime it was apolitical. But it was picked up by feminists at the time. I spent three years doing talk shows starting with Barbara Walters and Johnny Carson. Three years I spent on talk shows defending my thesis. So it was an academic book. McGraw-Hill put it into trade and it became highly publicized. I debated Karin DeCrow and another big feminist. It got very political. That’s what they wanted on TV.

By virtue of its unintentionally touching on cultural sensitivities, the work managed to earn a hearing in the popular media. Ultimately the measure of notoriety her critics gave the work would evolve from a liability to a genuine asset, despite the discomfort that may have accrued to the author in the short term.

The second approach highlighted in the oral histories was that of recasting an existing dilemma. These are issues that have reached a stalemate or, as in the case below, a compromise. The way forward in invigorating a moribund agenda can be found in looking at the matter from a fresh perspective. In response to an invitation offer a retelling and post hoc review of an important debate to which he was a party Francis Cullen provided an account in Reaffirming Rehabilitation (1982). In the book, he and a coauthor forecast a few negative implications from the emerging consensus that rehabilitation programming in corrections had proven to be a failure (Martinson, 1974).

My book, Reaffirming Rehabilitation, which I wrote with Karen Gilbert [Cullen and Gilbert, 1982], conveyed this and a number of other warnings about the dangers of rejecting treatment. The book was contrary to what most criminologists thought. It came out in 1982, and most criminologists thought that rehabilitation didn’t work and that it was a benevolent ideology that was corrupted by class and racial interests. My view was that rehabilitation probably was corrupted, but not nearly as badly as what we were going to get without it. And so that statement, that book, really brought a lot of notice to me. And also the fact that I called it Reaffirming Rehabilitation was a fortuitous event. If I would have called it Crisis in Corrections, no one would have paid any attention to it. But the title of Reaffirming Rehabilitation meant that if some scholar needed a reference to some idiot who still supported rehabilitation, he or she would pick that volume off the shelf and cite it.

At that point in time conservatives and liberals came to agree that discretion should be stripped from judicial authorities to eliminate sentencing disparities and permit lengthier prison stays. The choice of a title was deliberately provocative, unambiguously setting the work against the prevailing thinking. The reforms suggested by the larger body of the community failed to produce the positive outcomes projected, thereby vindicating Cullen and Gilbert’s claims.

A similar tack on reopening a seemingly settled matter is evident in Jack Gibbs retelling of his work in reviving deterrence research in the mid to late 1970s (Gibbs, 1975). In remarking upon the supposition that criminology never retires any of its theories forevermore, he offers the “perfect illustration”.

Rather than look at the death penalty, which had dominated research prior to that, I looked at the certainty and severity of imprisonment. I thought the findings were rather impressive. It appeared amongst states the greater the certainty of prison, the lower the homicide rate. The greater the severity of sentences for homicide, the lower the homicide rate. But the immediate point, Brendan, is this: prior to my sort of renewing—that sounds all too grandiose I know—prior to my renewing the question about crime, punishment, and deterrence, deterrence research had been dead. The findings on capital punishment all but buried the question. The line of reasoning was very curious. It seemed to be something like this, “Well if something as severe as capital punishment does not deter how could anything else deter?” I think that question was wrong because that ignored the certainty of capital punishment.

The revival of the deterrence doctrine (his preferred term) was part a larger shift in the field as the labeling perspective fell out of favor (Gove, 1975) and control theory came to dominate criminology of the 1980s.

Another way in which to raise conjecture is to draw attention to another matter entirely. Critically oriented criminology works to debate first principles. In this sense it is at variance with most empirical criminology on a paradigmatic level; its theory and methodology differ. What defines legal versus illicit behavior is typically already addressed when mainstream criminologists work to outline the problem of criminality. Before engaging data driven claims, critical criminology asserts the priority of skeptically assessing what justifies the law and how these codes are being enforced. The late William Chambliss, one of the field’s pioneers of the sociology of law, speaks of the approach as being fundamentally removed from the orbit of the dominant movements in the field.

I don’t see any way that conflict theory is going to replace conventional criminology because of political and structural reasons in the discipline. However, I think conflict theory offers an alternative way of looking at it, which is basically looking at crime as a political phenomenon and trying to understand how the laws are made that make some acts crime while others are not and how the laws are enforced and what effects these have on different groups of people that are victims of law enforcement. So that’s a very different way of focusing the field. Conflict theory does occasionally try and answer questions about why individuals commit crime, but for the most part those are very tangential to the general conflict  perspective. So I think the conflict perspective has a great deal to offer, in part because it does not ask the questions that conventional criminology asks. It tries to explain the political and economic forces that lead to the way crime and criminals are treated rather than why people commit crime. That’s a very different paradigm. It’s not in any way competing with the conventional social psychological paradigm. The only paradigm that conflict theory really competes with on the structural level is the social disorganization paradigm of Sampson and those guys.

In an important regard, conflict theory represents a direct conjecture against the working order of the field. Yet it also an articulation of a viable alternative agenda.

The third classification of conjecture is unrequited criticism. This invites the question of why some concerns generate controversy but not others. Janet Lauritsen (1998) offers a few thoughts in the aftermath of one of her contributions that threatened the validity of the methodology used to advance longitudinal research. The findings she published, although relevant to a growing research enterprise, failed to elicit a response; the field marched on without pausing to react.

One was early on, in which I found that it was difficult to use longitudinal, individual-level data to study growth curves in delinquency and victimization because the data lacked reliability over time [Lauritsen, 1998]. I thought at the time that graduate students and other researchers would want to see if that was true in other data sets, especially some of the other individual-level, longitudinal studies. How good are our data for studying delinquency and victimization trajectories over time? Unfortunately, that question has not been studied much I have not seen many replications with other datasets. Maybe it has been done and the findings are buried in technical reports somewhere. I think it is an important enough issue  to have been addressed and published elsewhere. However, I was told by someone working in another discipline (a biologist) that whenever you publish something that appears critical of a dataset or methodological approach you should not expect much response because few researchers want to criticize what they have spent years working on. Nobody wants to know whether their own data might be flawed because they have made large personal investments in it.

The conundrum the field faced here is over what it could provide by way of  a reasonable fix to correct an identified flaw in survey design. Upending the work of dozens of scholars and millions of dollars of investment was impractical considering there was no solution in the offing. Thus, the matter was tabled until some future point when a realistic correction could be introduced.


Refutations mark those instances in which scholars elect to assume a muckraking stance through challenging hallowed truths. Here is where scholars assume an iconoclastic stance with their peers in the community   in questioning the validity of assumptions upon which a consensus has been constructed. Offering refutations is problematizing in its purest form. The interviewees pointed to two types of debates, empirical and theoretical. These examples help illustrate the contrasts in opinion because the battle lines between the antagonists are so sharp.

When asked to reflect on his proudest accomplishments over the course of his career, Charles Tittle first points to the following example of pressing heterodox views from time to time.

For instance, the social class/crime relationship [Tittle, Villemez, & Smith, 1978], which right away when I first encountered it I was suspicious of it. I didn’t think the research literature was particularly strong. Yet everybody just about said, “Well this is so well established it basically doesn’t need to be questioned anymore.” Of course, I didn’t agree with that. So   I made efforts to do a systematic review of the literature to see if that was the case and concluded that it didn’t seem to be the case. The evidence wasn’t strong enough for us to rule out other possibilities besides the conventional approach. I’ve sort of done that with two or three things including conventional notions about policy, this, that, and the other.

The debate which followed had him on the receiving end of a tart remark offered by a sociologist of considerable influence (Peter Rossi), that his questioning the socio-economic status and crime link was tantamount to espousing a flat-earth theory.

His critique of the role of a scientist in pressing policy implications from research represents another set of ideas that put him at odds with a substantive portion of the profession. A pronounced objection of his (see Tittle, 2004) is to the application of these purported findings. The divergence in opinions regarding the role of science in promoting policy solutions is one that is embedded in ideology.

And that put me in opposition to a large body of criminologists who were convinced that we did know a lot, and not only did we know it but we ought to be implementing it, telling people what to do. This all struck me at the very least as arrogant but at the most dishonest. It’s flying ideology under the guise of science.

The field is deeply divided over the matter of public sociology/criminology. The position outlined above vehemently objects to the field pressing knowledge claims into policy. With this division of labor, the tasks of scientists and policy makers are to be compartmentalized into mutually exclusive identities. However, many others press back against this argument with equal might (Belknap, 2015; Petersilia, 1991).

One of the points of consistency across the sample was that of an unflinching belief that the data will dictate the outcome of debate. Each attested to following the data to their conclusion, regardless of what it might eventually indicate. When asked to provide an example of where one of his contributions raised criticism Wayne Osgood (1998) points to an objection raised with his evaluation of how peer networking was traditionally measured in the field’s research.

From 1980 to ’86 my main job was on a study of kids in training school and particularly on peer group influence. Out of what I was doing I got pretty convinced that it was really off the mark if you just asked kids how bad their friends are because it doesn’t match up worth a damn with what you’ll find if you ask their friends too. A piece I coauthored not too long ago [Haynie and Osgood, 2005] got very strong reactions from some reviewers about pushing that point. So I pushed harder.

The fact that his findings were rebuffed in some measure signaled that he ought to redouble his efforts at articulating a critique. What the paper’s reviewers were communicating indicated that the findings being critiqued may have been vulnerable.

There were several mentions of instances in which empirical matters and methodology have an unambiguous bearing on theoretical debates (e.g., peer networks and differential association). Another example can be drawn from one of the animating debates that consumed the better part of the 1990s, the back and forth between low self-control (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) and life-course criminology (Sampson & Laub, 1995). Robert Sampson characterizes the exchange as follows.

I think we both put forth perspectives that were a little bit more—how shall we say? If you take sort of a purist level and you’re pushing the logic of the theory, we pushed the logic of life-course theory pretty far.

The contrast in the respective frameworks, he adds, produced further separation within the control theory tradition, namely over method.

But I think it also lead to debates about method, particularly a concern that we had that methods were driving a lot of the substantive agenda in criminology particularly in the life-course. That was over methods for analyzing longitudinal data.

Because of the debate being as comprehensive as it was, the disagreement has meaningful claim to being characterized as paradigmatic.

Decades prior to that exchange there was an episode that was considerably more acerbic in tone. The pugilism between Marxist inspired and mainstream criminology reached its most dramatic expression in the February 1979 edition of Criminology which was dedicated to offering the former perspective a hearing. Enthusiasts and critics alike contributed to the installment. It was there that Ronald Akers (1979) offered a few written remarks, some of which may have been informed by a prior exchange. Earlier in his career his reformulation of Sutherland’s differential association (Burgess & Akers, 1966) theory was subjected critical critique.

We had these British sociologists, Jock Young, Ian Taylor, people like that who thought that criminology was so ill informed about theory that it should just give up trying to explain criminal behavior. You could never do that. What you had to do was explain the exploitative and corrupt capitalist system that accounted for all this stuff. So they were very critical of what we did. In fact, they called us “theoretically illiterate.”

For the omission of any structural variables and failure to point to the inequality that capitalism fosters, the project lacked in legitimacy, at least in reference to the new criminology (Taylor, Walton & Young, 1973). Criminological theories insist on measuring their success at explanation against differing criteria. According to leading critical criminologists differential association-reinforcement theory was devastatingly lacking in essential areas.

There were other considerations raised in refuting the incorporation of behaviorist mechanisms into Sutherland’s symbolic interactionist-based model. In its bare outline, the criticism states that the two approaches are antithetical to one another. Akers explains the source of the critique in the following.

We got a lot of resistance from our colleagues at Washington, including people like Bill Chambliss, who, again, was a good friend of mine. We taught a course together. Bill kept pointing out, “Look. You can’t use Skinnerian psychology. It’s tautological. You can’t test it. It’s not a theory.” Skinner had this idea that you don’t even have to think about mental concepts or cognitive concepts. All you have to have is behavioral input and behavioral output. You can’t combine that with something like Sutherland, which has a symbolic interactionist base to it. It’s based on cognitive processes and so on. You can’t talk about definitions favorable and unfavorable without talking about cognitive processes.

Elsewhere in the interview and in other forums (e.g., Oral History Criminology Project, 1997), Akers states he eventually conceded the validity of these criticisms. In fact, pondering them led to further efforts at incorporating structural influences on behavior, and creating a remedy to the tautology buried in the working formulation of the theory.


The interviewees mapped several avenues on which these diversions from routine science traveled in reaching an eventual settlement. The first method requires additional evidence to be procured and then evaluated in rendering a verdict on the claims offered. Second, debates often ordain a new set of criteria that claims are to be measured against as the older metric is replaced. Third, there are instances cited where a détente is reached by a new approach successfully embedding itself in the field. Criminology demonstrates a robust capacity to be an accommodating field of inquiry.

The first manner of resolution can be roughly summarized as “making work.” Studies must be assembled and publications generated to verify or dismiss provocative claims. Charles Tittle (2004), when asked as to whether any of his more audacious claims against the field’s orthodoxy successfully surmounted the resistance they encountered, replied.

Well, I don’t know if I overcame it. The honest answer is it made work for people; responding to what I had said, my critiques, my analyses and so on. It provokes other people; it makes work for them. So everybody can succeed in our business if they can come up with an idea or a theory that is simple enough that a lot of people can use it, do research on it and get published. In other words, making work for them. I had a conversation one time with Travis Hirschi about this. This is pretty much the way he sees it too. That’s the way he’s made his career.

Similarly, Freda Adler (1975) remarked that the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration’s granting of hundreds of thousands of dollars to those interested in investigating her prognosis of more female criminals and criminal justice professionals opened doors for many. The antagonism seen in the conjectures and refutations presents ample opportunity for professionals seeking to secure grants and publications to advance their careers.

Wayne Osgood illustrates how this kind of process works in elaborating upon how his criticisms of peer networks generated research and a resolution. The interviewer-author offered a supposition that the Adolescent Health data might now serve as a final arbiter in the debate, given the relative wealth of its data on that point.

I think I will. That really brought this to the fore. Now there’s a really good dataset that had that. Now there’s a lot more peer network stuff going on. I think the evidence is pretty straightforward to me on that point. I think there’s enough new stuff going on with network type stuff. If you know who people’s friends are and you’re asking them about their friends and you have data from their friends, it just opens up more kinds of interesting questions. I think that’s going to overwhelm the folks who don’t like it.

In a manner consistent with that of “stealing from our friends” (Osgood, 1998), he grants that his effort was echoed by research happening beyond the confines of criminology and criminal justice. The open borders of the field helped to marshal additional evidence substantiating his position.

I think I’ve kind of played a part in that for this topic, but there are about five, maybe up to seven, papers that people had written in sub-specialties like substance abuse or sexual behavior or something for a more public health audience. They all said, “Look at all these data for how these measures compare. People really shouldn’t do research using this other measure.”

The second strategy for resolving an issue in the science of crime and its control is to generate a new perspective on the matter; innovative methodology can often assist with the project. Experimental criminology takes its cue from the medical model of research. Experimentalists work toward randomization and separating treatment and control groups when evaluating various interventions, a rather demanding set of criteria vis-à-vis conventional methods. Lawrence Sherman, one of the experimental criminology’s most vocal proponents, drew attention to a major structural limitation when questioned as to what is limiting the influence of this movement’s methodology on the field overall.

I think the major impediment to experimental method in academic life is the way in which it departs from the lone scholar model. In social science, as in humanities, I think the predominant mode of working continues to be an autonomous crafts-person who is in control of their data collection or analysis, the research design, specification of the research question, writing it up and getting it published without having to do such political and organizational things as building coalitions, obtaining resources, hiring staff, getting organizational partners who are actually handling cases in a human services context to vary the way they do their job to assess causation of different policies.

The investment required by the alternative model is cost prohibitive for most. This characteristic works to reduce its potential to conclusively resolve many ongoing debates because its presence is limited.

There are advantages to settling upon a method with which to resolve a debate, especially a deeply divisive one. Francis Cullen offered a few reflections on the transformation of the debate over the merits of rehabilitation. Martinson’s broadside against correctional practice—Nothing Works! (Martinson, 1974)—came to dominate the corrections research. His meta-analysis managed to set the ground rules for the subsequent rejoinders. According to Cullen,

But there was an important ironic and long-term effect of Martinson’s work. It changed the terms of the debate from a critique over state discretionary power to the empirical issue of whether one could show that rehabilitation reduced recidivism. That is, Martinson succeeded in framing the debate as an effectiveness issue. Those who attacked rehabilitation said, “See. It doesn’t work.” Once you put things in those terms, then the validity of rehabilitation rests on this question: Is it effective or not?

The advantage of accepting the altered criteria of debate is that empirical questions began to draw more attention, to the exclusion of the ideologically freighted questions. Normative questions concerning the relative moral merits of applying state power to enforce various correctional strategies are not amenable to solving in the same way that evaluating efficacy in reducing recidivism is. The latter is an empirical claim, not a philosophical one.

The third way forward involves acquiescence in the face of a new approach. The eventual acceptance of a wayward theory, even one as resistant to being co-opted as Critical Criminology, can be achieved if the perspective is deemed to introduce additional utility. Chambliss traces the progression of critical criminology along those lines.

Whereas thirty/forty years ago when I started writing from that point of view, and people like Turk, Quinney, and others were writing from that point of view, it was pilloried as not legitimate, as being political, as being Marxian, as being pro-Soviet Union. It was pilloried as being completely out of the mainstream. So the arguments were very, very vicious. Today its importance has been usurped in a way because now people say, “Oh yeah, that’s a legitimate perspective. It just asks different questions and has a different point of view.” It, in a sense, has become more legitimate, not less legitimate. But I agree with what you said that it’s more marginalized in that people pay less attention to it. It’s now just become one more perspective amongst all these different ones.

The quote betrays an almost wistful tone for the earlier intellectual fireworks. What the critical paradigm may lack for in terms of antagonizing mainstream criminology it compensates for with its adoption into the family.

The internecine battle within the control camp eventually played itself out in a compromise as well. The field moved past the matter when an awareness set in that the debaters were, in the main, in agreement terms of the major points. According to Sampson’s reading of the dispute, criminology perceived the self-control and life-course theorists to be debating on matters that were largely specific to control theory. The sharpened arguments he mentioned earlier were being gradually blunted and a reconciliation of sorts was forged.

The fact of the matter is that Crime in the Making [Sampson  & Laub, 1995] was still a theory of informal social control. It’s still a social control theory. Looking back, but even at the time, I think what we were trying to do was to say that, “Look, both self-control and social control are important.” We gave credence to changes in informal social control throughout the life course. In other words, age graded informal social control … At the time we thought that that wasn’t consistent with the general theory of crime. Now since then some people have argued, “Well self-control and social control are more compatible.” And that debate is still going on.

The indication of the debate lightly simmering, if no longer smoldering, gives an indication to a matter that typifies the field of criminology. There are few, if any (e.g., phrenology), theories that have been laid to rest eternally. We turn our attention now to a brief exploration as to why perspectives are seldom falsified with finality.

Recurring Memes

Like any other science, natural and social alike, criminology frequently faces its share of intractable questions. Theory, methods, and data exhaust themselves on occasion. When that occurs the community pivots to engage less demanding, more solvable matters. The question then becomes: What is to be done with the existing approaches? The typical response has been to shelve the application of the theory for an indeterminate period. When the theories eventually reemerge they each rely on a veritable muscle memory when setting to work once more. The essence of these theories is maintained but they are reconfigured when confronting emergent realities. The core of what endures is—and here a term appropriated from biology is offered—a meme (Dawkins, 1976). Cultural memes are essentially a toolkit (Swidler, 1986) for how groups, including those comprised of scientists, address persistent social problems with an institutionalized response.

Two interpretations are granted in explaining the metamorphosis of criminological theory through the years. The optimists view the enduring evanescence (i.e., the continuing appearance-disappearance cycle) of theory as a virtue. This value results from the fact that the field’s ideas can be adapted and pressed into service as the historical context continues to change. Furthermore, the interdisciplinary ethos of the field actively resists relegating itself to a singular approach.

The pessimists mark that attitude as confusion on stilts, the direct result of an under-articulated set of theoretical propositions. Critics of how the field conducts its science allege that until rules are established which can  assist the field’s membership in converging on an ordered exploration of the social world, the profession will persist in endlessly recycling its ideas. Optimists dismiss that attitude as being absurdly stringent. Besides, the continuing adaptability of various theories is a definitive virtue of the science of the field. It permits continuing exploration and elaboration of theories that address the peculiarities of an ever-changing social context. When the facts change, theory ought to adapt as well, or it risks irrelevance.

Arguing from an optimistic point of reference Freda Adler provided the most enthusiastic feedback on the state of the field. Her faith is grounded in an appreciation for the modern tradition tracing its origins back to Greek antiquity. In defending the continuing reinvigoration of inactive theory, she draws an analogy to one of humanity’s greatest memes, language.

Well they reappear because it’s like when you want to make up a new word you can’t get rid of the old alphabet: because they were tried and tested. There are parts of them that are okay and they’re changed a little. We kept the grit. We keep that and we get more sophisticated. Even techniques get more sophisticated. As we get more sophisticated, then we refine the methods. They’re getting finer. It isn’t that we revert back to social disorganization. My God, you can find those ideas back in Plato and Aristotle. We’re not going to get rid of that. They are going to come up but they’re going to come up in new contexts, and they’re going to be refined. That is the beauty of our theoretical revision.

Thinking on the context in which Sisters in Crime was published, Adler makes the case that it represented a simple extension of opportunity theory, popularized in the 1950s and ‘60s. The wholesale expansion of post war the economic expansion provided greater opportunity for both licit and illicit enterprises.

As the socio-political environment shifts, so do the theories that play a part in explaining the events of the day. While Adler poses her work as an effort capitalizing on intellectual movements within the field, there are other ways in which context directs science. John Hagan remarks that despite the reluctance of the field to engage particular theories, historical events have a way of forcing the field to reemploy them on occasion.

There was a period when what people like Chambliss and Austin Turk and Quinney were doing had a big audience. We went through a period in the ‘80s and even the ‘90s when that really got pushed into the background. We had a focus that was much more developmental, nation specific almost, and   I guess you could say in the English-speaking democracies. There was a period of growing success for the field professionally and a period of growing sophistication methodologically, with important things happening in terms of theory, in terms of life course understandings and so on with crime. But it was also a period when we lost our focus on the state and the role of power. Our attention to inequality became very circumscribed in terms of where people were doing research. I think as a nation that we rediscovered some of these issues in the context of the genocide that was occurring in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. We tried to ignore it for a while and ultimately couldn’t. We got involved and our country played an important role both in military terms in intervening in that conflict and also in terms of playing a major role  in the development of the international criminal tribunals. So we’ve had some changes back and forth.

A process of repetition is outlined where, despite the distractions of alternative subject matter or an outright neglect of the role of state power, critical criminology remains relevant. Theory in all its varied manifestations is habitually served as a time-tested framing device.

Theory is the medium of exchange for ideas within the field, making it an ideal space to contest the meaning of any given term. The drawback is that it provides space for seemingly interminable inquiry. Although the debates at a glance look to be little more than purely abstract philosophical exercises well removed from the day-to-day proceedings, these battles have a firm bearing on science. Ronald Akers (1979) offers an example of how the operationalization of control theory indicates whether it is a part of criminology or not, a question of significant weight.

To me the proof of that is name me a single test, including Hirschi’s own test [Hirschi, 1969], and anybody else in this multitude of studies of control theory, name me a single one that has not had conforming behavior defined as simply the absence of criminal behavior. So if your dependent variable is crime or no crime that’s the same dependent variable that all the other theories have. To me it’s not criminology if you’re not trying to explain crime. His argument is, “Well, no. You only explain crime by default. You try to explain why people conform and they conform because they’re controlled away from committing criminal behavior.” Well, okay. How’s that any different from anybody else’s explanation?

Although it is often overlooked as technical minutia the way in which terms are measured and tested is nearly always an open question.

Among others, Jack Gibbs has lobbied for the adoption of formal theory construction (Gibbs, 1985) to help the field lift itself out of the dilemma. This approach requires an exhaustive specification of variables and explanatory structure. When asked for his diagnosis on the source of the failure of the field to resolve matters definitively, he replied:

Lack of consensus on appropriate criteria for assessing theories. There’s something that I think I should make clear. There’s a curious phenomenon in sociology and criminology that theories are evaluated in terms of the perspective that supposedly gave rise to the theory. That’s very curious; you’d think it’d be the other way around, that perspectives would be judged by the theories that it generates. Now, it’s the other way around. You judge theory in terms of perspective that supposedly generated it. I think that’s crucial in the question of why these trends, why the short life? Because once the interest in theories declined then interest in perspectives declined.

The flaw, as he sees it, is in using an endogenous approach to evaluating theory. Measuring the truth of a theory by its own internal logic is a subjective assessment. Gibbs rejects the discursive infrastructure of debate where contenders to the criminological throne joust against one another; the last left standing to assume authority. According to the logic of the pessimistic view, it is better for the competitors to agree to a set of rules to inform the contest before proceeding.

Conclusions and discussion

The working order of criminology is one which provides the profession maximum opportunity to flourish. There are incentives to create ad infinitum; pruning is a secondary consideration. Empirical evidence is continually collected, permitting discovery of previously unknown facts, publication, and grant gathering. The discursive method has served to expand the scope of the field’s inquiry and increase the collegiality of debate. These all represent advantages.

In addition, the results also indicate that avoiding and minimizing debate represents a missed opportunity. The matter of determining to what degree advances in the profession are tied to the progress of science presents itself here. The field demonstrates a reluctance to reward research that falsifies ideas (Dooley, 2016a). The acrimony involved with questioning “settled” debate can only impede the collection of additional knowledge. Some suggest that criminology’s lack of an “intellectual core” (Savelsberg & Sampson, 2002) may be at the root of its lack of coherence. A more definitive sense of identity would help in structuring the various debates.

There are two negative cases in the oral histories that confirm this observation. When asked whether any of his published work generated resistance, Joachim Savelsberg offered the following.

So, within a field like criminology in America, you have so many different—I’m not sure “factions” is the right word— orientations, types of interests. I’ve never found that whatever contribution I’ve tried to make was outright rejected by everyone. I always found there were people, some people, who really wanted to pick up on those ideas. That doesn’t mean that everybody did, or that there weren’t some people who rejected them or tried to block them or tried to disregard them. I’m sure there were.

When asked for an explanation of why that might be the case, it was offered that the field can be  defined as one  of convenience, at least in contrast to  his home in sociology. Criminology and criminal justice is constituted of researchers drawn from any number of intellectual traditions. An overemphasis on theory would invite too much opportunity for unnecessarily complicating matters across these disciplinary divisions. In response there exists a working order that concentrates greater attention on the empirical and policy-related aspects of research.

The second case in point comes from Janet Lauritsen’s (1998) earlier example of having highlighted a methodological shortcoming in longitudinal studies. In her estimation, the crux of that contribution is mostly relegated to coverage in textbooks. When the field was forced to decide on the matter of halting millions of dollars of grants on which publications and careers were being furthered in the name of adhering to strict scientific protocol, it opted to look past the issue.

Plausible solutions to the dilemma of choosing between professional expectations that demand attention and science-qua-science ought to accept the former concern as non-negotiable and work within those constraints. Many of the interviewees expressed resentment, sometimes bordering on repugnance, toward the idea of scientific orthodoxy (see also, Dooley, 2010), as they felt it implied the professing of allegiance to a unifying paradigm. Any solutions being generated that would interfere with obtaining grants, publishing, and the remaining markers of signaling professional advance were viewed with deep skepticism and considered impractical. Imposing a theoretical orthodoxy would be met with resistance.

To summarize, criminology has gained through the years through the intellectual volleys on a number of methodological and theoretical matters. There are a few inhibitions to a full embrace of an adversarial approach however. The barriers are found primarily in the organization of the profession. Solving the dilemma will require a compromise which will provide room for debate, yet appreciate the collective need for the signifiers of professional advance (i.e., publications, grants, etc.).

Three possible strategies for achieving a successful reorganization within these parameters are presented. The intention is not to enumerate an exhaustive or exclusive list. Rather, the point is to demonstrate the types of research agendas that could prove suitable in generating fruitful conjectures, refutations, and resolutions.

The first suggestion is to encourage journal editors to continue arranging special topic debates on occasion. As a profession, criminology is committed to encouraging participation from a wide assortment of intellectual traditions and methodology (Dooley, 2016b). The two-fold advantage is that disciplinary influences will continue to generate points of debate and promote innovation. Part of that inclusion involves appreciating ideological diversity on a trajectory that ranges from radical to conservative (Wright & Delisi, 2015). The problem of crime is unlikely to be resolved by a solitary approach. If a single criminological paradigm is to emerge from its eclectic collection of perspectives, it will likely mirror the elongated progression of economics arising as a social science from its roots in moral philosophy.6

The second recommendation is to open debate on the assumption of crime control as a public good. There are a host of advantages that could result. Reevaluating the public goods framework holds the potential to permit a rapprochement between mainstream and critical criminology. The latter perspective is derived from a Marxist understanding of public and private goods are, after all, allocated (i.e., economics). Assigning the reduction of crime to the state has produced great benefits (Elias, 1994). The state-centric approach is not without its limits, however, as state-sponsored crime research has pointed out (Rummel, 1997).

There are several approaches drawn from economics which could prove useful to the creation of such a line of inquiry. New Institutional Economics (NIE) is an example of one such effort that explores the decision-making processes institutionalized by various communities, including those governed by non-state actors. Just as with allocating rights to water use (Ostrom, 1990), the problem of controlling crime represents a tragedy of the commons (i.e. a free-rider problem with the exploitation of a “free” public good). Nuance and delicate negotiation often must be paired with a blend of state and informal sanctions/monitoring if social order is going to be maintained. Sophisticated responses are required given that there are genuine limits to state power in areas ranging from the management of ungoverned pasture land (Ellickson, 1991), settling the early West (Anderson and Hill, 2004), and limiting violence in “total institutions” like prisons (Skarbek, 2014).

The positive analysis of economics provides additional benefits for the study of crime as well. The normative assessment of what constitutes a “crime” and the policies its control requires introduces a measure of difficulty. For example, opinion varies on whether one scholar’s version of crime in fact constitutes self-help (Black, 1983). The label applied to any action tends to be contingent upon its context (Cooney, 2009). What would be useful to consider is offering a more instrumental approach when discussing violence (Tedeshci & Felson, 1994). Although the thought of conscientiously assuming a normatively neutral position on these matters is likely to prove a contested proposition, it may help to consider the potential that a normatively free inquiry can grant in advancing science (Black, 2013). Downplaying debate over inherently philosophical matters until figuring out how the riddle is to be confronted fits within the field’s operating demeanor.

NIE, as opposed to its more familiar mainstream counterpart, emphasizes the value of investigating history (see especially, cliometrics) and the qualitative aspects of human interaction. An inclusion of this branch of scholarship heeds the call for criminology to evaluate its history (Koehler, 2015; Rafter, 2010). Lengthy historical accounts have linked institutions like capitalism (North, Wallis, & Weingast, 2009) and manners (Elias, 1994) to bring about more genteel forms of cooperation. The state and its interaction with informal modes of shaping behavior (Fukayama, 2011) is a prevailing theme consistent with NIE. Macro-historical investigations are almost required in comprehending the subtle shifts in collectively discovered responses to wayward behavior.

Third and lastly, the intellectual horizon criminology should consider drawing from in the promotion of debate draws on an implication from the sociology of knowledge. The existence of a sociology of non-knowledge (or ignorance) is inferred from the concept that knowledge is socially constructed (Smithson, 1985). The field of agnotology works to make the process explicit in its case studies of how the science wars (e.g., smoking/cancer research and global warming/climate change skepticism) pit scientific findings against research to the contrary. Science and “anti-science,” if you will, plays an influential role in convincing the public of the validity of a particular policy position (Mirowski, 2011). There are spoils to be gained by organized constituencies in exploiting the limits of voter attention and knowledge (Somin, 2013) by producing a fog of obfuscation. A policy-related concern as emotionally laden as crime is susceptible to the creation of various moral panics to exploit rationally ignorant voters (Caplan, 2011) in advancing their preferred political agendas. Here is where science, politics, and policy intersect. Identifying the sources from which ignorance derives and reacting with a strategy to generate knowledge in response to that will assist practitioner and scholar alike. Separating out knowledge from ignorance opens opportunities for debate, intellectual growth, and professional advance. A definitive part of that process requires an evaluation of what determines facts that are known from observations which have yet to be satisfactorily established.

Openly contemplating why known-unknowns are not understood serves as the first step in generating a strategy to improve knowledge. Publishing the results of failed investigations and policies is integral to overcoming the file-drawer problem and establishing transparency. The International Journal of Negative and Null Results, Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine, and New Negatives in Plant Sciences7 are at the forefront of a movement in the natural sciences in acknowledging the term “null-findings” as a non-sequitur. Evidence of limited knowledge is knowledge in and of itself (Schultz, 2011). The creation of additional journal space to highlight null-finding research fits within the working mentality of the profession. Journal outlets dedicating themselves to these pursuits serve notice to the field of the importance of solving these concerns, contributing to the making of reliable and relevant work.

The present research has its limitations, which merits at least a brief acknowledgement. The sample size is small and, admittedly, unrepresentative. Future research might seek to redress this shortcoming through gathering a random sample. Such a strategy would undoubtedly produce a sample with a more demographically diverse set of respondents. As the field has expanded, the research interests of its members has shifted considerably. As a result, the trajectory and focus of debate has undoubtedly been altered.


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Dr. Brendan Dooley is currently with Mount St. Mary’s University and is focused on the status and development of criminology as a science. He graduated with his PhD from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2010.

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