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What Is Critical Criminology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Critical criminology is an analysis of crime and social attitudes about criminals from a cultural context, looking at what kinds of acts society considers crimes and how it deals with them. This discipline dates to the 1970s, and there are a number of approaches to critical criminology, including feminist, Marxist, and conflict theory-based analyses of crime and society. Colleges and universities with criminology programs may offer training in this field, depending on the focus within the program.

Criminology in general is the study of crime, the origins of criminal activity, and methods for delivering justice. Critical criminologists note that definitions of crime and bad behavior are not universal, and they explore the individual cultural reasoning behind justice systems and definitions of criminality. Many are interested in the role of oppression in political and social thinking about crime, noting that certain classes of people may be considered criminal or suspect; many nations, for example, have historically criminalized homosexuality.

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Man with hands on his hips

In critical criminology, researchers examine the justice system and legal framework of a country and also evaluate social attitudes and trends. This allows for a deeper understanding that can contextualize crime. Research on deviance among youth, for example, may be enriched by looking at race, class, and gender differences in terms of youth deviance and the way society views young people. Minority experiences can also be important; for example, an act some people may consider criminal could also be viewed as a legitimate rebellious response to oppressive social structures.

Numerous scholarly journals cover various topics in critical criminology, and members of this field attend annual conferences and other events to exchange information and ideas. They can work as consultants with government agencies on the development of new policy and may also work in fields like social work and policing. The perspective of a critical criminologist can be useful for activities ranging from profiling offenders to developing diversion programs to reduce recidivism.

Critics of critical criminology may suggest that this field suffers from bias, particularly in a liberal direction. The rejection of absolute and firm definitions of criminality in favor of looking at crimes in a social context is not favored by all criminologists. Within the field there is also significant divergence and debate, and people may have varying perspectives on topics of interest. Critics may present this conflict as evidence that the field lacks scientific rigor or fails to provide supporting evidence for theories and claims.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is critical criminology?

Criminology's critical approach challenges conventional conceptions of crime and justice. It emphasizes power relations, social inequality, and the state's role in preserving and perpetuating these disparities. Criminologists with a critical perspective strive to comprehend the underlying causes of crime, such as economic and social disparities, and to create alternative approaches to crime control and justice.

What distinguishes critical criminology from conventional criminology?

Critical criminology is distinguished from conventional criminology by its emphasis on social and political environment. Critical criminology views crime as a consequence of social and economic institutions, whereas traditional criminology focuses on individual criminal conduct and the efficiency of criminal justice measures. Criminologists who have a critical perspective also dispute the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and its role in maintaining social inequality.

What are the fundamental concepts of critical criminology?

Social harm, state crime, and restorative justice are a few of the core principles in critical criminology. Social harm refers to the larger social and economic effects of illegal conduct, such as environmental damage, economic exploitation, and violations of human rights. State crime refers to illegal or damaging activities carried out by governments or state institutions, including police brutality and war crimes. Restorative justice is an alternative approach to criminal justice that focuses on rebuilding relationships between offenders, victims, and the community.

What relevance does critical criminology have to modern issues?

Contemporary themes such as mass incarceration, police brutality, and social injustice are pertinent to critical criminology. It provides a framework for understanding these difficulties within the context of broader social and economic institutions and for proposing alternative strategies for tackling them. Criminologists with a critical perspective have participated in social justice movements and campaigned for legislative changes aimed at reducing inequality and achieving social justice.

What criticisms have been made of critical criminology?

Opponents of critical criminology assert that it lacks empirical support and places an excessive amount of emphasis on ideology rather than evidence. Some further claim that it is excessively political and fails to take individual agency and criminal behavior accountability into consideration. Nonetheless, proponents of critical criminology say that it presents a necessary critique of traditional criminology and the criminal justice system, and that its emphasis on social and economic structures is crucial for comprehending and effectively addressing crime and justice issues.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


Yes, critical criminology is nice as a theory, but its application is not so easy. It doesn't rely on science at all. But proving crime, catching criminals and prosecuting them relies on evidence and scientific analysis.

I can't imagine a criminal system that has no room for science. I think this would lead to more injustice than what critical criminology claims for there to be now. It would be a bit chaotic, in fact.

What do you think? Should criminology be run based on social and cultural concepts or science?


When I first heard about this term, I was a little bit mislead and confused about what it meant. After reading some more about it though, I realize that it is a very different and unique theory of criminology.

The reason is that it doesn't just analyze the criminology and culture, it also wants to create more justice in the system by empowering those who have no say in it. In fact, some say that it is a Marxist-Socialist approach to crime.

Critical criminologists believe that the upper classes always decide what is a crime and how it will be punished. They use the justice system to control the lower classes and prevent them from gaining power. They feel that many justice systems are unfair for that reason.

That's why critical criminologists concentrate on different areas like postmodern structures and capitalism and their effects/relationships with crime and justice systems.


I do understand the critics' point of view about critical criminology. But it is also a fact that the criminal system of a country is shaped by that society, its culture and social norms whether we'd like to accept it or not.

I read a book recently about Afghanistan and there was a great example there about this subject. It talked about how Afghans did not recognize the acts we would immediately label as corruption as such. Gift giving is a societal norm in Afghanistan and it can be given to government employees and others in return for service and help.

But if we look at this cultural aspect through the eyes of Western culture and norms, we will see it as bribery and corruption.

This is precisely why we should not ignore critical criminology theory.

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