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date: 26 February 2021

(p. ix) Preface

(p. ix) Preface

Volumes reviewing criminological theory typically follow a conventional format. Diverse writings are neatly packaged into “schools of thought,” which are given clear labels and conveyed a chapter at a time (e.g., control theory in one chapter and strain theory in another). This approach to communicating crime explanations has a critical function: it imposes order on an intellectual domain that otherwise might seem messy, if not a touch chaotic. Complex ideas are thus reduced to their core principles, and loosely coupled frameworks that share similar orientations are linked together.

Achieving such clarity and parsimony undoubtedly facilitates learning. Readers are presented with an easily grasped narrative that tells about theoretical schools—what is unique to each perspective and then how each differs from the others. But socially constructing criminological theory in this conventional way also has a major disadvantage: it truncates the richness of inquiry that characterizes crime theorizing and does not prompt budding criminologists to probe where the future of the discipline might lie.

In contrast, our Handbook takes a different approach to theory and thus asks readers to embark on a road less traveled across the criminological landscape. The volume is organized not around schools of thought but around themes that shape much thinking about and research on crime. This more unconventional approach seeks to show that criminological theory is not static—falling into the same cookie-cutter schools of thought—but dynamic. In fact, most prominent scholars do not spend their time commenting upon and/or retesting theoretical propositions that have existed for many years. Rather, they move into more novel areas—areas often located in the interstitial junctures between more traditional theories.

Phrased differently, this Handbook presents a series of essays that captures not the past of criminology but where theoretical explanation is headed. As a result, the volume is replete with new ideas, discussions of substantive topics with salient theoretical implications, and reviews and interpretations of literatures that illuminate promising avenues along which theory and research should evolve. Each chapter can be read on its own—as furnishing an important analysis of a given theoretical issue. But if readers will take the full excursion across all the chapters, as we as editors have been fortunate to have done, the reward will be substantial. Such an adventure will leave travelers with a unique and deep understanding of criminology at its cutting edge.

The Handbook is divided into four sections, each corresponding to a major theme now shaping theory and research in contemporary criminology. Section I (p. x) thus carries the title of “Individual and Society.” Perhaps the most stirring criminological controversy is whether participation in crime is due primarily to social location or to individual traits. As a field, criminology has been in the virtual complete embrace of sociology for much of its development. Theories that attributed criminal conduct to individual biological defects or mental pathology were dismissed as biased toward women, the poor, and people of color. By acquitting the social order of any role in crime causation, these trait theories justified repressive crime control policies, such as life-long incarceration, extirpation (an antiseptic word for the death penalty), and eugenics (so as to halt the intergenerational transmission of criminogenic traits). No wonder that sociological theories, which focused on exposure to unjust living conditions, struck criminologists—many schooled in the progressive era of the 1960s—as more believable.

In the second decade of the 2000s, however, the context has changed dramatically. Most relevant, advances in brain imaging, behavioral genetics, and the measurement of individual differences across the life course have led to a revitalization of interest in how individual differences shape offending. It is now indisputable that children do not enter the world as biological equals. Some have had their brain development compromised, some have not; some sport difficult temperaments, some do not; some are burdened with low IQs, some are not; and so on. These biological disadvantages are not linked ineluctably to future criminality. But they do place youngsters at risk for antisocial conduct and for social experiences (e.g., school failure) that will, in combination, push them toward a life in crime.

Section I thus probes the implications of the unavoidable conclusion that individual differences matter. The chapters lay a solid foundation about what we know about the risk factors that make crime a more likely outcome. They lead us to reconsider cherished views, such as the notion that poor parenting is a strong correlate of offending. This is not to say that social factors are unimportant. But the challenge now is to discern how social factors interact with individual traits. This theoretical and empirical inquiry promises to illuminate how children become entrenched in a criminal trajectory and then, at some point, jump off this life course—whether while still young or not until they move well into adulthood. This orientation also asks us to theorize more carefully about the different types of pathways that lead youngsters into different kinds of criminal careers.

By no means does this suggest that more traditional perspectives are unimportant. But even here, the thinking continues to unfold. Most relevant, for older theories to matter, they must become more specific and draw closer to offenders. Only in this way can they begin to detail the precise stressful life-events, learning mechanisms, and controls that lead offenders, especially those growing up in high-crime areas, to engage in persistent criminal conduct.

Section II, entitled “Contexts of Offending,” explores how criminologists are now identifying the contexts that shape entry into and the nature of criminal behavior. These contexts extend from the intimate (e.g., friends and fellow gang members) to the organization of communities. Context has effects on the micro level and on the macro level. But perhaps what is most exciting is the discussion over whether context matters through structural factors or through culture.

(p. xi) Recent decades have witnessed the ascendancy of structural factors in criminological contextual analysis. The debate here has largely been between explanations emphasizing the crime-motivating effects of structural disadvantage—such as poverty, inequality, concentrated disadvantage, and invidious forms of capitalism and the market economy—and those emphasizing the crime-controlling effects of social bonds, strong networks, and collective efficacy within communities. Recently, however, there has been a revitalization of efforts to show that culture matters. Cultural values supportive of crime may be nourished by structural disadvantage and structural disorganization, but such “codes” have an independent effect in shaping criminal conduct—whether in the inner cities or in the suburbs. In a sense, culture is an important conduit through which context leads to crime; it is what constitutes the cognitions that direct human action. Accordingly, the role culture plays in producing crime is likely to occupy increasing attention in the time ahead.

Section III, labeled “Choice and Opportunity,” reveals an important movement in criminology to move inquiry closer to the criminal event. Traditionally, theorists concentrated their attention on explaining why some individuals acquired a stronger propensity to offend. It was assumed that across time and across social space, those more motivated to break the law would do so at a higher level. However accurate this prediction generally was, it left unexplored how the actual decision to offend is accomplished—whether by predators in the city street or by white-collar executives in corporate suites. Most salient, the propensity perspective neglected the situational contingencies—for example, the immediate need for cash to “go party,” the spiking of emotions, the appeals of those close by, or the capacity to neutralize moral qualms—that prompted a criminal violation.

Opportunity is another factor that lies in the foreground of crime but was neglected by propensity-oriented criminology. It seems almost commonsensical to observe that a crime cannot be committed unless the opportunity for the specific act exists. But a group of scholars, who often call what they do “environmental criminology” and more recently “crime science,” have transformed the obvious into the profound; they have theorized opportunity.

These insights began with routine activity theory, which divided the concept of opportunity into two independent components. The first component was termed an “attractive target,” such as an affluent person walking alone on a dark street, or a computer that could be easily carried away in a burglary (as opposed to a refrigerator). The second component was “capable guardianship,” such as a police officer who watches over a dangerous street corner or an alarm system that makes a residence secure. “Motivated offenders,” those driven by criminal propensity, also were needed for a crime to occur. But, again, such propensity could be thwarted if no attractive targets were within an offender’s reach or if available targets were well guarded.

Notably, this focus on opportunity has led to fresh criminological insights. Thus, scholars are now probing how motivated offenders search for opportunities, how opportunities for crime (so-called hot spots) are concentrated in certain places but not others, and how larger contextual factors (such as neighborhood disorganization) (p. xii) help to determine the emergence and persistence of criminal opportunities. Furthermore, this approach also contains important practical guidance for how to decrease crime events: reduce criminal opportunities.

Efforts to diminish crime by focusing on motivated offenders run up against the stubborn reality that they are, well, motivated! Curing such criminogenic propensity is possible only if offenders are convicted and placed into effective correctional rehabilitation programs. Even if successful, such efforts pertain only to the small fraction of offenders under correctional supervision. By contrast, opportunity reduction focuses not on the motivated offender but on manipulating features of the crime event that are within reach: make targets less attractive and provide more effective guardianship. Interventions of this genre are commonly termed “situational crime prevention.”

Section IV, called “Theories of Power and Punishment,” is largely concerned with how efforts to reduce crime through coercive or punitive methods most often backfire. In society, some harms—such as powerful actors introducing toxic elements into the ecosystem, as “green criminology” shows us—are often not well understood or treated as criminal acts. By contrast, the most stringent legal sanctions are disproportionately applied to those at the bottom echelon of the social order. It is thus unsurprising to learn that the society of captives is one of the few domains where the disadvantaged are in the distinct majority.

But again, do such harsh interventions work—do they enhance public safety? As the chapters in this section show, the answer is that, most often, they do not. Part of the difficulty is that coercion, being nasty rather supportive to others, tends to have iatrogenic effects, producing rather than diminishing risk factors for crime. Another part of the difficulty is that a key link in the chain between criminal justice sanctions and criminal behavior—how offenders perceive the certainty and severity of punishment—is highly complex. Potential offenders can misread their risk of being sanctioned or perhaps have their fear of being sanctioned defeated by impulsive urges or by the encouragement of wayward peers.

The most critical issue, however, is whether imposing a prison sentence teaches offenders that crime does not pay. For the first time in nearly 40 years, state prison populations have begun to decline, if for no other reason than that the prevailing financial crisis has made locking up tens of thousands of lawbreakers a luxury that few state treasuries can afford. We may, in fact, be at a tipping point where faith in imprisonment as the linchpin to crime control is waning. The existing research thus may prove important in contributing to such penal agnosticism. Thus, on a micro level, there is increasing evidence that imprisonment has a null or slightly criminogenic effect on reoffending. And on a macro level, it is arguable that incapacitation effects achieved from mass incarceration may be eroded by the social disruption that occurs when large numbers of minority males are cycled out of their community, into prison, back into their community, on again to prison—and so on.

Let us conclude by offering gratitude where it is richly deserved. We start with Michael Tonry. Michael not only extended an invitation to edit this volume but also gently nudged us to do something fresh—to ask ourselves what we would like to (p. xiii) know about contemporary criminological theory. He is thus responsible for our crafting a Handbook that does not rehash traditional schools of thought but conveys ideas that lie at the discipline’s cutting edge.

A work that includes 35 chapters requires an enormous amount of document management, proofreading for stylistic consistency, and communication with authors. In this regard, we must thank Michael Holiday, our graduate assistant at the University of Cincinnati, for his exemplary service. We also would be remiss if we did not note the wonderful support we have received from Michael Tonry’s staff at the University of Minnesota, especially Peju Solarin and Su Smallen, and from James Cook and his staff at Oxford University Press.

Finally, we wish to dedicate this volume to the most important mentors in our lives. Thus, for their love and encouragement, we thank our parents—Justine and Francis Cullen, and Norma and Jerry Wilcox. And for their intellectual guidance and generosity, we thank our academic parents—Richard Cloward by Frank Cullen and Kenneth Land by Pam Wilcox.

Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox

Cincinnati, Ohio

August 1, 2011 (p. xiv)