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date: 29 June 2022

(p. xi) Foreword

(p. xi) Foreword

Edwin Sutherland long ago characterized criminology’s subject as the making, the breaking, and the enforcement of criminal laws. That may be the best definition anyone will ever offer, and for sure it is the most succinct. However, its emphasis on law “breaking” risks putting too much focus on individuals’ wrongful acts, and not enough on the circumstances in which they occur.

Individuals do break laws, but they do it more often in some times, places, and circumstances than in others. This has been known since the earliest systematic efforts to document and explain crime patterns were made by French statisticians early in the nineteenth century. They showed that crimes occurred not randomly but in patterns that are now commonly recognized: more often in some cities and regions than in others; more in urban than in rural areas; more on some days, at some times of day, and in some seasons than in others. Those early statisticians attempted to find out whether the differences could be explained by demographic characteristics of populations. They could not. Something made crime more likely in some times and places than in others. Context, of course, isn’t the only explanation for why crimes occur. Emotion, self-control, alcohol, and greed self-evidently matter, among many other things, in individual cases. Explanations of crime need to attend not only to the characteristics of offenders but also to the contexts in which crimes occur.

Continuous efforts have been made since the middle of the nineteenth century to investigate the influence on lawbreaking of individuals’ personal characteristics. Relative attention to biological, psychological, and social factors has varied over time, but the importance of individual differences has never fallen from view.

Interest in contextual influences has, to the contrary, waxed and waned. One high point, probably known at least by name to any scholar involved in crime research in the past century, was work by “Chicago school” sociologists in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s that sought to understand changes and continuities over time in crime patterns in Chicago neighborhoods. There have been low points, including in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and for several decades in the middle of the twentieth.

Interest in contextual influences has roared back since the 1970s, generating new theories, research designs, research questions, and crime prevention strategies. New specialties including geographical, areal, ecological, and environmental Criminology, and the criminology of place have emerged, merged, divided, and evolved. The contextual focus, depending on what is being studied, has included communities, neighborhoods, police precincts, census districts, blocks, streets, street segments, intersections, and addresses. The resulting literature is huge, diverse, sophisticated, and mostly quantitative.

(p. xii) The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Criminology takes stock. The introduction, by itself worth the price of admission, provides a wide-ranging overview of historical and contemporary efforts to document, understand, and explain community and contextual influences. Taken as a whole, the Handbook’s 39 articles provide the most ambitious, comprehensive, and imaginative source of knowledge about its subject in existence. The book is likely for many years to retain that status. Authors come from many countries and diverse disciplines. They include many senior scholars who as youngsters brought the study of community and other contextual influences on crime back to life in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of the less senior folk who are now doing the most exciting cutting-edge work.

Michael Tonry

December 2016