Crime and Science

To examine and understand one of the most important core criticisms of the legal definition of crime, we must focus our attention on the criminal law as different from a scientific concept and measure. We have explored some of the initial issues related to the intersection of the criminal-law definition of crime and science in our discussion of the objectivity of the criminal-law definition of crime in Chapter 3. In this chapter, we turn our attention to relevant philosophy and practice of science concerns. We begin by exploring the way scientists identify and create definitions for the phenomena they study. Next, we explore the idea that criminology is one of the only disciplines that allows the object of study to be defined outside of the discipline. Third, we explore the ways in which the scientific definition of phenomena aspires to be constant, while the criminal-l aw definition of crime is one of that includes constant change.

Conceptual and Operational Definitions of Crime

In order to explore the issues related to science as a practice, we must start at the beginning of science, which means focusing on science’s core principles, practices, and assumptions. All science begins with a clear and precise conceptual definition of variables that are studied (Newman 1998). Why? In order to engage in deductive scientific research, researchers must know where and what to study. As a result, observations must be focused and directed. It is certainly true that scientific discoveries are sometimes made accidentally, but this is not necessarily a good plan for advancing knowledge.

Conceptualization is the way that scientists give definition to abstract constructs. Issues related to conceptualization are discussed across a variety of disciplines and subfields (e.g., anthropology and the conceptualization of “space,” see Levinson 1998; on the conceptualization of poverty in social welfare, see Vu 2010; on conceptualization and grounded theory, see Glaser 2008; on conceptualization and science education, see Braaten and Windschitl 2011; on what makes a good social science concept, see Gerring 1999). Abstract concepts are those concepts that are not yet applicable to the concrete or physical world. Thus criminologists should begin studying “crime” by thinking about the abstract definition of crime. As Blalock (1972, 13) notes, “a concept is defined in terms of other concepts which are supposedly already understood.” It is important to think about the abstract definition of crime before we consider actual measurement issues. Thus the first question criminologists should consider asking must be a priori to the definition of criminal behavior as defined by the law—that is, if there were no criminal law to define criminal acts for criminologists, how would we define crime so that it can be operationalized in a way that is useful to researchers across both time and space? When approaching the study of crime this way, it is easy to see the mistake we make when using the criminal law to define the crime in the abstract. Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary also gives us some direction in this instance. While the first definition in the dictionary is “an illegal act” and therefore presents us with a very concrete definition of crime tied to time and place (as well as demonstrates the problems of circular reasoning we discussed in Chapter 3), the second definition is “an action or activity considered to be evil, shameful, or wrong.” While this conceptual definition of crime is simple (and not a tautology), it may also be bound to time and space because notions of “evil, shameful, and wrong” are likely to change considerably over time. Thus it would have significant implications for the measurement of criminal behavior over time. As a result, we will need to return to the construction of a new definition of crime in more detail later this book (Chapter 7).

Most research-methods texts note that once a conceptual definition of crime is determined, that definition must be operationalized. Operationalization refers to the process of defining exactly how the concept will be measured. Importantly, Newman (1998, 161) points out that researchers “should not get locked into a single measure or type of measure [of a concept and that we should] be creative.” As a result, concepts and their operationalization tend to be extremely important to the practice of science, and philosophers of science spend significant time exploring these issues (e.g., related to applications to science, Campbell 1920; Campbell and Jeffries 1938). When, for example, new research impacts knowledge in a field, this requires that the concepts of that discipline be revised to reflect that new knowledge. Thus concepts are refined over time. These concerns are well known and reflected in major works in the philosophy of science, including discussion of scientific paradigms generally (Kuhn 1996) or in specific fields (Desselle et al. 2003; Reid et al. 2003). This kind of revision, however, is infrequent within criminology and the study of criminal behavior has not changed since the inception of the discipline—with the exception of new theories without the elimination of any existing explanations. Prior to the study of criminology, however, writers widely understood the problems inherent in the definition of crime. For example, in 1922, Clarence Darrow clearly points out in the preface of his book Crime: Its Causes and Treatment, “I am aware that scientifically the words ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’ should not be used.” Despite these methodological issues and warnings by early scholars to reject the state’s definition of crime, the field of criminology is now often simply described as the “scientific study of crime and its causes.”

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