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Ronald Cotton

Ronald Cotton

Ronald Cotton was exonerated in 1995, after spending over 10 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. His convictions were based largely on flawed eyewitness identification procedures used by police at the time.

In July 1984, an assailant broke into Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s apartment and sexually assaulted her; later that night, the assailant broke into another apartment and sexually assaulted a second woman.

The evidence at trial included a flashlight found in Cotton’s home that resembled one used by the assailant and rubber from Cotton’s shoe that was consistent with rubber found at one of the crime scenes, but overwhelmingly the evidence rested on the identification and the flawed eyewitness identification procedures used by police at the time.

In January 1985, Cotton was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of burglary. In a second trial, in November 1987, Cotton was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty-four years.

Post-conviction Investigation

Cotton was unsuccessful overturning his conviction in several appeals. But in the spring of 1995, his case was given a major break: the Burlington Police Department turned over all evidence, which included the assailant’s semen for DNA testing, to the defense.

The samples from one victim were tested and showed no match to Cotton. At the defense’s request, the results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database and the database showed a match with the convict who had earlier confessed to the crime to a fellow inmate in prison.

When the DNA test results were reported in May 1995, the district attorney and the defense motioned to dismiss all charges. On June 30, 1995, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. In July 1995, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned Cotton. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison.

Life After Exoneration

Soon after his release, Cotton got a job in the warehouse of LabCorp, the company that tested the DNA evidence that proved his innocence. He also married, had a child, and bought a piece of land to live on. He received $110,000 from the state for his wrongful conviction.

Thompson-Cannino and Cotton met for the first time after his exoneration. They are now good friends and travel around the country working to spread the word about wrongful convictions and reforms – especially for eyewitness identification procedures – that can prevent future injustice.

Time Served:

State: North Carolina

Charge: Rape, Burglary

Conviction: Rape (2 cts.), Burglary (2 cts.)

Sentence: Life plus 50 years

Incident Date: 06/29/1984

Conviction Date: 01/16/1985

Exoneration Date: 06/30/1995

Accused Pleaded Guilty: No

Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

Death Penalty Case: No

Race of Exoneree: African American

Race of Victim: Caucasian

Status: Exonerated by DNA

Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes

Forensic Science at Issue: Other

We've helped free more than 240 innocent people from prison. Support our work to strengthen and advance the innocence movement.


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Revisiting the Yorkshire Ripper Murders pp 1–20 Cite as

Introduction: The Yorkshire Ripper Case—Exploring Recent Crime History

  • Louise Wattis 4  
  • First Online: 29 December 2018

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Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology ((PSVV))

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the Sutcliffe murders before considering the criminological value of revisiting this infamous case involving the murder of thirteen women by Peter Sutcliffe. It is argued that exploring this case expands understandings of crime, history and place, violence against women, feminist history, struggles over the representation of prostitution/sex work, as well as a closer meditation on the figure of the victim as represented across a range of texts. In addition, the chapter also identifies the book’s methodological and theoretical approach as feminist cultural criminology, which stresses the importance of an engagement with history, academic criminology, cultural studies and popular criminology alongside the recognition of the role of gender in shaping violence and its representation.

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Wattis, L. (2018). Introduction: The Yorkshire Ripper Case—Exploring Recent Crime History. In: Revisiting the Yorkshire Ripper Murders. Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-01385-1_1

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Crime Rates in a Pandemic: the Largest Criminological Experiment in History

Ben stickle.

1 Department of Criminal Justice Administration, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37132 USA

Marcus Felson

2 Texas State University, San Marcos, TX USA

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has impacted the world in ways not seen in generations. Initial evidence suggests one of the effects is crime rates, which appear to have fallen drastically in many communities around the world. We argue that the principal reason for the change is the government ordered stay-at-home orders, which impacted the routine activities of entire populations. Because these orders impacted countries, states, and communities at different times and in different ways, a naturally occurring, quasi-randomized control experiment has unfolded, allowing the testing of criminological theories as never before. Using new and traditional data sources made available as a result of the pandemic criminologists are equipped to study crime in society as never before. We encourage researchers to study specific types of crime, in a temporal fashion (following the stay-at-home orders), and placed-based. The results will reveal not only why, where, when, and to what extent crime changed, but also how to influence future crime reduction.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is unquestionably one of the most significant world-wide events in recent history, impacting culture, government operations, crime, economics, politics, and social interactions for the foreseeable future. One unique aspect of this crisis is the governmental response of issuing legal stay-at-home orders to attempt to slow the spread of the virus. While these orders varied, both in degree and timing, between countries and states, they generally began with strong encouragement for persons to isolate themselves voluntarily. As the magnitude of the crisis grew, governments began legally mandating persons to stay-at-home to reduce the transmission rate of the virus. There were, of course, exceptions; workers who were deemed ‘essential,’ such as those in the fields of medicine, finance, public safety, food production, transportation, and in other miscellaneous industries did not have to abide by these orders to the degree to which the general public did.

Nevertheless, practically overnight, the entire country ceased or significantly reduced day-to-day travels, eliminating commutes from home to work, as well as leisure activities, shopping trips, social gatherings, the ability to dine out, and more. One poll in late March found that 90% of Americans, including essential workers, were ‘staying at home as much as possible’ (Washington Post-ABC, 2020 ). The ‘stay-at-home’ mandates brought about the most wide-reaching, significant, and sudden alteration of the lives of billions of people in human history. Across the United States and around the world, a positive byproduct (Fattah, 2020 ) of these unprecedented events is a dramatic drop in crime rates.

Initial Crime Data

Several researchers have made initial examinations into how crime rates have fluctuated in the advent of COVID-19. The results have been mixed, to say the least, especially when comparing broad categories of crime across different cities and with different methods and periods of study. However, these initial academic studies are intrinsically valuable and deserve to be mentioned here.

One of the earliest studies with perhaps the most striking results was by Shayegh and Malpede ( 2020 ), which identified an overall drop in crime in San Francisco of 43% and Oakland of about 50% following city issuance of some of the most restrictive and early stay-at-home orders in the US, beginning March 16th , 2020 and the two weeks after.

Surprisingly, significant results are also clearly seen when examining specific crimes against retailers in crime in Los Angeles. Pietrawska, Aurand, and Palmer ( 2020a ) found a 64% increase in retail burglary, while city-wide burglary rates were down 10%. Similarly, Pietrawska, Aurand, and Palmer ( 2020b ) identified a five-week change in crimes occurring at restaurants in Chicago, a 74% reduction, while city-wide crime declined 35%. Continuing their study of crime rates in the pandemic outside of a retail focus, Pietrawska, Aurand, and Palmer ( 2020c ) compared crimes against persons and crimes against property in four cities for ten weeks, finding sharp variations from week to week and within different crime types.

Another early study by Ashby ( 2020a ) of eight large US cities during the first few weeks of the crisis (January to March 23rd—before some states and areas implemented stay-at-home orders) found disparate impacts by crime type and location. For example, burglary declined in Austin, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Scan Francisco, but not in Louisville or Boston. Conversely, serious assaults in public declined in Austin, Los Angeles, and Louisville, but not other cities.

Felson, Jiang, and Xu ( 2020 ) examined burglary in Detroit during three periods, representing data before stay-at-home orders were in place and two periods under orders (March 10th to March 23rd and March 24th to March 31st). Their findings indicated an overall 32% decline in burglary, with the most substantial change in the third period. However, the decline was more significant in block groups of higher residential parcels than in mix-use land areas.

Campedelli et al. ( 2020 ) analyzed crime in Los Angeles in two time periods (the first ending March 16th and the second ending March 28th) using Bayesian structural time-series models to estimate what crime would have been if the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred. Comparing the actual crime data against the estimated ‘sans-pandemic’ data, the first model found an overall crime reduction of 5.6% during the pandemic. Likewise, the second model (ending March 28th) showed a 15% reduction. Specifically, researchers found that overall crime rates significantly decreased, particularly when referencing robbery (−24%), shoplifting (−14%), theft (−21%), and battery (−11%). However, burglary, domestic violence, stolen vehicles, and homicide remained statically unchanged.

While not explicitly measuring crime rates, studies of calls for police service can function as an indirect measure of crime in a given area. Early studies of calls for service during the pandemic present mixed results. Lum, Maupin, and Stoltz ( 2020 ) found that 57% of 1000 agencies surveyed in the United States and Canada reported a reduction in calls for service in March of 2020. Ashby ( 2020b ), on the other hand, found no discernible difference in forecasted calls for service in 10 large US cities between the first identified cases of COVID-19 in the US throughout early March. However, Ashby found that once stay-at-home orders were implemented, calls for service did decline, although not evenly across call types or cities. In another study of police calls for service, Mohler et al. ( 2020 ) examined calls in Los Angeles and Indianapolis between January and mid-April; they concluded there was some impact on police calls for service but not across all crime types or places.

Internationally, Swedish researchers Gerell, Kardell, and Kindgren ( 2020 ) examined crime during the five weeks after government restrictions on activities began, observing an 8.8% total drop in reported crime despite the country’s somewhat lax response (when compared to other countries’ policies on restricting the public’s movement). Specifically, the researchers found residential burglary fell by 23%, commercial burglary declined 12.7%, and instances of pick-pocketing were reduced by a staggering 61% —however, there was little change in robberies or narcotics crime. In Australia, Payne and Morgan ( 2020 ) studied crime in March, finding assaults, sexual violations, and domestic violence were not significantly different from what was predicted under ‘normal’ conditions at the lower end of the confidence interval. They cautioned against early conclusions based on this data as the government orders came only a few weeks into the study.

These initial reports indicate that crime rates have indeed changed, but unequally across different categories, types, places, and timeframes. Among crime researchers, the featured question of this pandemic will be, “Why have crime rates fallen so dramatically?” The corollary is, “What can be learned from this experience to leverage crime reduction in the future?” The data and opportunities before every criminologist will provide near-endless research opportunities at levels never before possible, and every effort should be made to capture data and promote the study of crime. This research note aims to identify and encourage these lines of inquiry, to urge researchers to dive deeply into the data made available from the pandemic, and to provide the impetus for not only discerning why crime fell but also for how to pragmatically utilize this knowledge after the world emerges from seclusion.

Crime in Lock-Down: Theoretical Implications

During the few hours before a legal stay-at-home order was implemented, and throughout the first few weeks that followed, it is essential to note what likely did ‘not’ change. As people around the world returned from frantic and stress-filled trips to stock up on food and other essentials and closed the door to their residence behind them, their biological and physiological conditions changed very little, nor did the labels attributed to them by society, friends, or family. Poverty and inequality did not disappear or increase immediately. It is unlikely that self-control dramatically increased either. There were, however, things that did change; society became more disorganized, and social influences and relationships were suddenly cut, diminished, or otherwise altered. Strain, stress, and anomie likely increased significantly as many became fearful for the future (both financially and physically) and estranged from family and friends whom they could not visit physically. Further, punitive responses to crime (i.e., deterrence) were slowed or ceased altogether as courts closed, police were encouraged to reduce contact with the public, and thousands of prisoners were released early.

With crime declining at such a significant pace and many of the often-attributed circumstances impacting crime staying consistent or in some cases increasing or decreasing in a direction opposite of what many believe drives crime, many criminological theories appear to be struggling to explain the abrupt and sweeping change. We believe the scope and nature of crime changes during the COVID-19 crisis will become a proving ground for the many theories that attempt to explain the etiology of criminal behavior. In the end, this naturally occurring experiment will advance our knowledge of crime and human behavior as no other event has ever done during the era in which criminological data were widely available.

As such, we argue that the single most salient aspect of the steep fall in crime rates during the COVID-19 pandemic are the legal stay-at-home orders (i.e., lock-down, shelter-in-place) implemented to slow the spread of the virus by promoting social distancing. Stay-at-home orders were issued by most states and legally required residence to stay within their homes except for authorized activities. Commonly, these activities included seeking health care, purchasing food and other necessary supplies, banking, and similar activities. The orders either outright closed or by de-facto closed broad swaths of the economy and impacted schools, private social gatherings, religious activities, travel, and more. In short, these orders disrupted the daily activities of entire populations and was the only variable that changed abruptly, just days before double-digit drops in crime around the world. As such, we believe, the Environmental Criminology suite of perspectives including; Rational Choice (Clarke & Felson, 1993 ) and Routine Activity (Cohen & Felson, 1979 ) will emerge as frontrunners in understanding the crime changes during COVID-19 and will provide insight how to influence crime in the future.

A Call to Examine Crime

Therefore, we offer a call for examining crime before, during, and after a government-imposed stay-at-home order, that coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we advocate for researchers to consider crime in the context of temporal shifts, in a place-based context, to use emerging data sources, and to study crime with specificity.

Crime Specificity

Criminologists tend to overgeneralize about crime while underestimating the enormous specificity in offender decision making (LeClerc, & Wortley, R. (Eds.)., 2013 ). Even within each crime type, the finer particulars of an offense should be studied to understand how crime patterns change and shift. Specificity is even more critical when researching crime in a pandemic as it allows for an understanding of nuanced changes, such as opportunity structure, that would otherwise be missed. For example, the changes in daily activities in the wake of the pandemic tend to decrease the population in non-residential parts of the metropolis, while increasing the population in residential zones.

For example, the broad category of ‘theft’ appears to be down across many cities in the US (Ashby, 2020a ). However, theft is likely not declining evenly across all categories. Consider theft in a retail context. The retail sector has experienced an 85% decline in foot traffic after the stay-at-home orders were implemented (Jahshan, 2020 ); many stores are closed, and thus the opportunity for shoplifting and employee theft are curtailed. Pietrawska et al. ( 2020a ), for example, identified a 24% decline in shoplifting in Los Angeles, compared to a city-wide decline of theft at only 5%. However, theft may persist (and even see an increase) within stores that remain open such as grocers, construction supplies, convenience stores, pharmacies, and other ‘essential’ retailers. These thefts may be the result of a change in offender behavior (i.e., shifting from targeting a specific store—now closed, to another that is open), due to panic buying (i.e., purchasing limits on essential products may result in theft), or impacted by reduced guardianship within the stores (e.g., short-staffed employees are more focused on service than crime prevention).

One of the most exciting illustrations of crime specificity has to do with pocket-picking the covert removal of a wallet from a pocket or purse in a crowded venue. This crime thrives on a crowd, perhaps more than any other form. As noted earlier, Swedish researchers (Gerell et al., 2020 ) found that pocket-picking decreased by 61% in Stockholm during the COVID-affected period when crowd-reduction was especially emphasized. These findings underscore the importance of linking specific changes in routines to specific types of crime.

Theft may also be moving outside of the physical retail structure and developing in areas where officially reported came data is not readily available. For example, before COVID-19 package theft (e.g., packages delivered outside a residence and stolen before the owner can retrieve them) was a growing concern, and few, if any, police agencies kept data on the problem (Stickle, Hicks, Stickle, & Hutchinson, 2020 ). However, with entire populations confined to their homes, shopping has shifted virtually, and delivery of products has risen 74% (ACI, 2020 ). As a result, the opportunity for theft of packages left unattended at a residence may be increasing (Stickle, 2020a ). While more person may be home, daily routine activities have also been interrupted, which impact guardianship. As a result, packages left unattended for extended periods or forgotten altogether (Stickle, 2020b ).

These are just a few examples of why examining specific crime types and situations is vital to criminology. It allows the researcher to identify nuanced changes that are important when developing future prevention techniques and to test theoretical tools. There are, no doubt, many factors that are impacting pandemic crime rates, and only by examining them with specificity can researchers achieve an enhanced understanding of crime.

Temporal Shift

Temporal understanding of crime is essential because the time of day, day of the week, months, seasons, and other time-related factors are commonly known to impact crime; in other words, crime is not evenly distributed across place or time (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1995 ). However, stay-at-home orders that have people living, working, eating, and finding entertainment at home as weekdays merge into weekends may cause time distinctions to blur when speaking of crime. The change in the population’s routine behavior, even at home, is already being seen in online browsing habits and television use; behavior has shifted to higher viewing rates on Mondays than on the traditional Saturday (Comcast, 2020 ). To address these unusual, pandemic-generated changes in routine activities, criminologists need to examine crime rates in a different temporal perspective and consider the context of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. However, there must be more specificity than a pre and post examination of crime trends, and measurements at the state and even community level are needed to ensure accuracy.

We propose the following seven important periods for identification and comparison of crime rate changes related to the crisis (Table ​ (Table1 1 ).

Summary of the changes in routine activities by period, February to May, 2020

These measures must be tailored to individual communities or states to coincide with routine activity trends and government orders. Period 1 should be of sufficient time to establish some base levels of crime rates. Period 2 is where the beginning of voluntary behavior changes is likely to be observable, somewhere around mid-February, and extending until the government ordered quarantines for the general population. During this time, as concern swept across the nation, many people chose to alter their lifestyles; schools closed, and other modifications in society likely began to impact crime slowly. For example, an early study of police calls for service by Mohler et al. ( 2020 ) found routine activities began to change 8 to 10 days before stay-at-home orders were enacted in Los Angeles, California, and Indianapolis, Indiana, as well as other cities and other nations.

Periods 3 and 4 are contingent on the length of the government-ordered closures. For example, if a state was under stay-at-home orders for 4 weeks, we recommend examining an early period (period 3) as well as a late period (period 4) of two weeks. Dividing the length of stay-at-home orders by half (or more if the order is longer than six weeks) will capture the changes in routine activity as the stay-at-home orders continue. Capturing this data in two or more periods is crucial as the longer the order continues, the more likely people will begin to violate the order, and crime rates may begin to change. For example, early reports in Sweden saw a slight decline in vandalism (−4%), followed by a sharp increase after five weeks into the restrictions. There is also likely some relationship between non-compliance and crime as Nivette et al. ( 2020 ) found non-compliance with stay-at-home orders was associated with delinquent behavior. While early reports have not identified the same trends in the US, news reports during the month of May (Koetsier, 2020 ) indicated that a large number of persons were emerging from homes before an official end to the stay-at-home orders. A rise in crime may be detected because it is possible that the longer the orders continue, the less effective they become.

Lastly, periods 5 and 6 are difficult to define as the situation is still unfolding at the time of this publication, as a complete rescinded stay-at-home order has not occurred to date. Moreover, it is also critical to consider that many individuals who live in an area where the stay-at-home orders have been partially revoked may still choose not to return to their daily lives (see a news report by Schaul et al., 2020 ). This is why it will be important to capture data starting at the point of a rescinded stay-at-home order and by measuring crime rates every few weeks after that for an extended period. These periods may coincide with the phased re-opening plan followed by many governments (see CDC, 2020 ) or within a timeframe for several weeks each, which may result in the need to add continued periods of crime data.

Criminologists do not have to rely on the assumption that people follow stay-at-home orders. For the first time, Mobility Trend Reports are being offered free (including in CSV format) by both Google ( 2020 ) and Apple ( 2020 ). These reports offer aggregated movement data based on anonymized cell phone location history at the national, state, and county levels. The data includes daily reports and includes inferred locations (i.e., retail, grocery, parks, transit, residential, workplace). With this data, it is possible to compare societal behavior within these recommended periods and gain a more accurate picture of where people were and importantly when they were there. Combined with the ability to measure compliance with movement restrictions, criminologists have the data to examine the routine activities of whole populations at a level never before possible while overlaying crime rates for both a temporal a place-based evaluation.


Studying crime based at a place is another critical part of understanding not only crime trends but also methods to disrupt crime (Eck & Weisburd, 2015 ). Under the current circumstances with people’s daily routine disrupted, this is even more important as people shift to more time within the home, the opportunities and places for offenders and victims to meet become limited. As a result, there is likely far less crime as people; both victims and offenders are not together in a place for the crime to occur.

To illustrate, consider workplace violence and crime. With a significant number of persons at home, rather than work, there is a reduced opportunity for offenders to assault co-workers. Similarly, there is less opportunity for a victim to have a phone stolen from the breakroom. It is important to remember that during the COVID-19 crisis, variables commonly related to many other criminological theories (i.e., poverty, stress, self-control) have not changed to such a degree to explain the sharp reduction in crime. Instead, the opportunity to be connected to a victim in time and place appears to be the most significant variable that has led to a marked reduction in the workplace and other place-based crimes.

However, in some regards, this place-based shift may result in increased crime rates in other areas (Roberts, 2020 ). For example, while digital, the internet can be classified as a ‘place’ or medium for victimization to occur (Machimbarrena et al., 2018 ). Under the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, people are spending significantly more time online. By late March, for example, cable internet usage, as reported by The Internet and Television Association ( 2020 ), surged more than 30% and continued to grow until mid-April, which appears to coincide with many of the stay-at-home orders. The increased time using the internet likely leads to more opportunities for cybercrimes to occur as the victim’s virtual presence has shifted dramatically (e.g., away from place-based crime at work or school and to place-based crime online). Additionally, offenders may have also been impacted by the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and have increased time to identify victims.

Shifting back to a physical place and crimes, it is also important to evaluate land usage and population density when considering crime trends. There are emerging trends in the new COVID-19 crime data suggesting crime differences in certain places (Ashby, 2020a ). For example, public places such as stores, restaurants, and entertainment areas are experiencing sharp decreases in some types of crime (Pietrawska et al., 2020a ), while crime in the home may be remaining consistent (Campbdelli, 2020; Payne & Morgan, 2020 ; Shayegh & Malpede, 2020 , and mix-land use may see relatively stable or slightly increasing crime rates (Felson et al., 2020 ). Here again, routine activities and rational choice perspectives may explain much of the crime in these places. For instance, entertainment businesses and districts, along with dine-in restaurants, were generally closed during the orders. Thus, with fewer offenders routinely in these places and fewer victims present, crime will naturally decline. However, a reasoning offender (Cornish & Clarke, 2014 ) may choose to target areas with fewer people (i.e., guardians) such as closed malls, business parks, and other places that may see an increase in property crimes. Additionally, mixed land usage, especially in population-dense areas, may allow an offender to travel in areas unnoticed easily and, therefore, present opportunities for crime (Felson et al., 2020 ).

Place, whether virtual or physical, is a crucial factor in crime. The COVID-19 crisis has re-shaped the places that persons routinely visit, increasing some—home and online, while decreasing others—work, retail, school, and entertainment. Highlighting the role that place has played in crime rates during the pandemic should influence how criminologists study crime in a post-pandemic world and lead to further crime reduction through place-based prevention techniques.


We have listed some initial findings on crime in the COVID-19 era and also described the need to study crime specifically, temporally, and place-based. Next, we will discuss data for measuring crime. One problem in criminology, as in other social science fields, is there are too many variables, too little variation, or an inability to control for specific variables. However, in the current pandemic, these problems decrease dramatically, and criminologists should take advantage of the favorable conditions and abundant data.

First, as described in the introduction, few variables changed during the first several weeks of the pandemic. The most substantial change has been the stay-at-home orders, which impacted the routine activities of entire populations. With so few variables changed, it should be easier to identify and measure significant and substantial changes in crime. Second, the variation in crime rates has been drastic. On the order of 10%, 20%, and even sometimes 60% transformation of crime patterns. These significant measurable changes allow researchers to see ‘past’ other variables that have little impact and focus on the significant variables impacting crime. Third, with entire populations affected by the pandemic, there is little need for controlling traditional variables such as age, gender, education, social status, and more. The impacted population is closer to the entire population rather than a ‘sample population,’ which means it is possible to move beyond inferential statistics and measure the actual change in the whole population.

Another challenge for criminologists is crime data. We encourage the use of four broad categories of data, including official police reports, victim and other self-report surveys, private or anecdotal data, and public data. Police data is an essential source during the pandemic. However, with many agencies experiencing workforce-related issues during the pandemic and purposely reducing the person-to-person contact to reduce the risk of virus spread, the official police data may underreport crime more than usual. Further, with more persons staying inside and not venturing out to school and work, other crimes, such as intimate partner violence and abuse of children, may not be captured through traditional reporting means. Therefore, it will be important that victim and self-report surveys continue to be used to help capture data that official reports do not (see Krohn, Thornberry, Gibson, & Baldwin, 2010 ).

Other sources of direct crime data and ancillary sources are often overlooked. Ancillary sources of data can take the form of calls to abuse hotlines, reports on consumer spending, internet traffic, police call for service, hospital mandatory reporting on specific injuries, and the Bureau of Labor Statics ( 2020 ) data on injuries resulting from violence at the workplace. Additionally, sources from private companies also provide insight into crime not always reported through official channels. For example, many retail organizations release data on crime within their stores, credit card companies release fraud statistics, and insurance organizations publish claims related to crime victimization. These sources may be particularly important as many areas where crime is occurring during the COVID-19 crisis are within private spaces, and obtaining non-police data is essential to understanding the crime shift. Lastly, other publicly available resources should be included in the analysis as well. Specifically, Mobility Trend Reports by Apple and Google, which provide detailed information on population location daily that the county level. This data set, never before publicly provided, should be used to overlay with other data (see Mohler et al., 2020 ).

Moving beyond the data to the methods, the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis has led to a naturally occurring quasi-random control trial. Because each state-issued stay-at-home order at different times, under different circumstances, and rescinded them at different dates, it is possible to compare crime across many population groups. For example, Kentucky issued an order on March 26th and entered phased re-opening on May 11th (47 days) while neighboring state Tennessee waited seven more days, issuing a stay-at-home order on March 31st, and began a phased re-opening on April 27th, fourteen days ahead of its neighbor. These states, which share many demographic similarities, are ideal for comparison.

In addition to the unequal start and stop dates for state-wide lock-downs, the activities limited by the orders varied as well; for instance, some states kept parks open while others closed them. Similarly, some states outlawed gatherings of 10 or more, while other states established different criteria. The response to alcohol also creates a valuable point in data analysis. Examples abound of states that relaxed laws on alcohol sales, such as Kentucky, which allowed for the first-time home delivery of alcohol and service of alcohol with food take-out orders during the crisis (Minton, 2020 ). On the other end of the spectrum, some states deemed alcohol ‘non-essential’ but changed course after public backlash. For example, Pennsylvania initially closed liquor stores and created a cascade of persons traveling outside the state seeking alcohol (Thomas, 2020 ). Conditions such as these either between states or even within states are plentiful and provide essential data points that allow for an excellent comparison of crime and related factors.

The Largest Criminological Experiment in History

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will impact history on a scale not seen since WWII. Provisional insights indicate that a substantial drop in crime is occurring around the world and within the US. However, these reports also indicate the changes are not even across time, place, or crime type. Therefore, we encourage criminologists to study this crisis through the use of new and existing sources of crime data, with a specificity of crime types, in a temporal fashion, and placed based.

Moreover, the leading feature of these crime changes will be that the government ordered stay-at-home mandates, which impacted the routine activities of entire populations. The variation in these orders by state and community regarding when the orders were implemented and rescinded and what restrictions were in place has provided a naturally occurring, quasi-randomized control experiment. For example, researchers can compare states and communities that released prisoners early, increased or reduced alcohol availability, began lock-downs early, crime in public places as opposed to residential and mixed land use, and operationalize many variables that were previously intangible or inarticulable.

The findings emerging from the COVID-19 crisis will impact criminological theories for the next several decades. We encourage researchers to embark on in-depth explorations of the data made available from the pandemic and to search for not only why, where, when, and to what extent crime fell, but also how to use this knowledge for practical applications after the world returns to ‘normal’ and concludes this experiment in crime reduction and extraordinary test of human determination and resiliency.


is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Administration at Middle Tennessee State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Justice Administration from the University of Louisville. Ben has nearly twenty years of law enforcement and private security experience. He has published several scholarly journal articles, book chapters, and a book. Ben’s research interests include policing, crime prevention, and property crime (metal theft & package theft).

originated the routine activity approach to crime rate analysis. He is an expert in how to think about crime in very tangible terms and how to reduce it using such thinking. His books include Crime and Nature (Sage, 2006) as well as Crime and Everyday Life, now in its sixth edition. His work is increasingly applied to crime reduction and to explain diverse crime problems, including gangs, drug sales, robberies, burglaries, fights, organized crime, and cybercrime.

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No funding was received for this research.

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The authors report no conflicts of interest.

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6 Chapter 6: Qualitative Research in Criminal Justice

Case study: exploring the culture of “urban scrounging” 1.

Research Purpose

To describe the culture of urban scrounging, or dumpster diving, and the items that can be found in dumpsters and trash piles.


This field study, conducted by Dr. Jeff Ferrell, currently a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University, began in 2002. In December of 2001, after resigning from an academic position in Arizona, Ferrell returned home to Fort Worth, Texas. An avid proponent for and participant in field research throughout his career, he decided to use the next eight months, prior to the 2002 academic year beginning, to explore a culture in which he had always been interested, the urban underground of “scrounging, recycling, and secondhand living” (p. 1). Using the neighborhoods of central Fort Worth as a backdrop, Ferrell embarked, often on his bicycle, into the fife of a dumpster diver. While he was not completely homeless at the time, he did his best to fully embrace the lifestyle of an urban scrounger and survive on what he found. For this study, Ferrell was not only learning how to survive off of the discarded possessions of others, he was systematically recording and describing the contents of the dumpsters and trash piles he found and kept. While in the field, Ferrell was also exploring scrounging as a means of economic survival and the social aspects of this underground existence. A broader theme of Ferrell’s research emerged as he encountered the number and vast array of items he found discarded in trash piles and dumpsters. This theme concerns the “hyperconsumption” and “collective wastefulness” (pp. 5–6) by American citizens and the environmental destruction created by the accumulating and discarding of so many material goods.

Results and Implications

Ferrell’s time spent among the trash piles and dumpsters of Fort Worth resulted in a variety of intriguing yet disturbing realizations regarding not only material excess but also social and personal change. While encounters with others were kept to a minimum, as they generally are for scroungers, Ferrell describes some of the people he met along the way and their conversations. Whether food, clothes, building materials, or scrap metal, the commonality was that scroungers could usually find what they were looking for among the trash heaps and alleyways. Throughout his book, Ferrell often focuses on the material items that he discovered while scrounging. He found so much, he was able to fill and decorate a home with perfectly good items that had been discarded by others, including the bicycle he now rides and a turquoise sink and bathtub. He found books and even old photographs and other mementos meant to document personal history. While discarded, these social artifacts tell the stories of society and often have the chance to find altered meaning when possessed by someone new.

Beyond the things found and people met, Ferrell discusses the boundary shift that has taken urban scrounging from deviant to criminal as lines are often blurred between public access and ownership. Not only do these urban scroungers face the stigma associated with their scrounging activities, those who dive in dumpsters and dig through trash piles can face criminal charges for trespassing. While this makes scrounging more challenging, due to basic survival or interest, the wealth of items and artifacts to be found are often worth the risk. Ultimately, Ferrell’s experiences as an urban scrounger provide not only a description of this subculture but also a critique on American consumption and wastefulness, a theme that becomes more important as Americans and others continue in economically tenuous times.

In This Chapter You Will Learn

To explain what it means for research to be qualitative

To describe the advantages of field research

To explain the challenges of field studies for researchers

To provide examples of field research in the social sciences

To discuss the case study approach


In Chapter 2, you read about the differences between quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Whereas methods that are quantitative in nature focus on numerical measurements of phenomena, qualitative methods are focused on developing a deeper understanding regarding groups of people, or subcultures, about which little is known. Using detailed description, findings from qualitative research are generally more sensitizing, providing the research community and the interested public information about these generally elusive groups and their behaviors. A debate rages between criminologists as to which type of research should be achieved and referenced more often. The truth is that both have something valuable to offer regarding the study of deviance, crime, and victimization.

Field Research

Qualitative methodologies involve the use of field research, where researchers are out among these groups collecting information rather than studying participant behavior through surveys or experiments that have been developed in artificial settings. Field research provides some of the most fascinating reading because the researcher is observing closely or acting as part of the group and is therefore able to describe in depth not only the subjects’ behaviors, but also consider the motivations that drive their behaviors. This chapter focuses on the use of qualitative methods in the social sciences, particularly the use of participant observation to study deviant, and sometimes criminal, behaviors. The many challenges as well as advantages of conducting this type of research will be discussed as will well-known examples of past field research and suggestions for conducting this type of research. First, however, it is important to understand what sets qualitative field research apart from the other methodologies discussed in this text.

The Study of Behavior

It is common for criminal justice researchers to rely on survey or interview methodologies to collect data. One advantage of doing so is being able to collect data from many respondents in a short period of time. Technology has created other advantages with survey methodology. For example, Internet surveys are a convenient, quick, and inexpensive way to reach respondents who may or may not reside nearby. Researchers often survey community residents and university students, but may also focus specifically on offender or victim samples. One significant limitation of using survey methodologies is that they rely on the truthfulness of the respondents. If researchers are interested in attitudes and behaviors that may be illegal or otherwise controversial, it could be that respondents will not be truthful in answering the questions placed before them. Survey research has focused on past or current drug use (see the Monitoring the Future Program), past victimization experiences (see the National Criminal Victimization Survey), and prison sexual assault victimization (see the Prison Rape Elimination Act data collection procedures conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), just to name a few. If a student uses marijuana but does not want anyone to know, they may choose to falsify their survey responses when asked about marijuana use. If a citizen or prison inmate has been sexually assaulted but is too ashamed or afraid to tell anyone, they may be untruthful when asked about such victimization experiences on a survey. The point is, although researchers attempt to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of a certain population through the use of surveys, there is one major drawback to consider: the disjunction between what people say and what they actually do. As mentioned previously, a student may be a drug user but not admit to it. Someone may be a gang member, but say they are not when asked directly about it. Someone may respond that they have never committed a crime or been victimized when in fact they have. In short, people sometimes lie and there are many potential reasons for doing so. Perhaps the offender or drug user has not yet been caught and does not want to be caught. Whatever the reason, this is a hazard of measuring attitudes and behaviors through the use of surveys. One way to overcome the issue of untruthfulness is to conduct research using various forms of actual participation or observation of the behaviors we want to study. By observing someone in their natural environment (or, “the field”), researchers have the ability to observe behaviors firsthand, rather than relying on survey responses. These research strategies are generally known as participant observation methods.

Types of Field Research: A Continuum

Participant observation strategies involve researchers studying groups or individuals in their natural setting. Think of participant observation as a student internship. Students may read about law enforcement in their textbooks and discuss law enforcement issues in class, but only through an internship with a law enforcement agency will a student have a chance to understand how things actually happen from firsthand observation. Field strategies were first developed for social science, and particularly crime, research in the 1920s by researchers working within the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology. The “Chicago School,” as this group of researchers is commonly known, focused on ethnographic research to study urban crime problems. Emerging from the field of anthropology, ethnographic research relies on field research methodologies to scientifically examine human culture in the natural environment. Significant theoretical developments within the field of criminology, such as social disorganization, which focused on the impact of culture and environment, were advanced at this time. For example, researchers such as Shaw and McKay, Thrasher, and others used field research to study the activities of subcultures, particularly youth gangs, as well as areas of the city that were most impacted by crime. These researchers were not interested in studying these problems from afar. Instead, they were interested in understanding social problems, including the impact of environmental disintegration, from the field.

There are various ways to conduct field research, and these can be placed on a continuum from most to least invasive and also from more qualitative to more quantitative. In attempting to understand phenomena from the standpoint of the actors, a researcher may participate fully in the behaviors of the group or may instead choose to observe from afar as activities unfold. The most invasive, and also most qualitative, form of participant observation is complete participation. The least invasive, and also most quantitative, is complete observation. In between these two are participant as observer and observer as participant. Each of these strategies will now be discussed in more detail.

Complete participation, sometimes referred to as disguised observation, is a method that involves the researcher becoming a full-fledged member of a particular group. For example, if a researcher is interested in understanding the culture of correctional officers, she may apply to be hired on as a correctional officer. Once hired on, the researcher will wear the uniform and obtain firsthand experience working in a prison environment. To study urban gangs, a researcher may attempt to be accepted as a member or associate of the gang. In complete participation, the true identity of the researcher is not known to the members of the group. Therefore, they are ultimately just like any other member of the group under study. Not only will the researcher have the ability to observe the group from the inside, he can also manipulate the direction of group activity through participation or through the use of confederates. This method is considered the most qualitative because, as a complete participant, the researcher will be fully sensitized to what it is like to be a member of the group under study, and will fully participate in the group’s activities. The researcher can then share the information he has gathered on the group’s inner workings, motivations, and activities from the perspective of a group member.

Researchers utilizing the participant as observer method will also participate in the activities of the group under study. The difference between the complete participant strategy and participant as observer strategy is that in the participant as observer method, the researcher reveals herself as a researcher to the group. Her presence as a researcher is known. Accordingly, the researcher does not overtly attempt to influence the direction of group activity. While she does participate, the researcher is more interested in observing the group’s activity and corresponding behaviors as they occur naturally. So, if a researcher wanted to examine life as a homeless person, she might go to where a group of homeless persons congregate. The researcher would introduce herself as such but, if safe, stay one or many days and nights out with the homeless she meets in order to conduct observations and participate in group activities.

The third participant observation strategy is observer as participant. As with the participant as observer method, researchers using the observer as participant method reveal themselves to the group as a researcher. Here again, their presence as a researcher is known. What makes this strategy different from the first two is that the researcher does not participate in the group’s activities. While he may interact with the participants, he does not participate. Instead, the researcher is there only to observe. An example of this method would be a researcher who conducts “ride-alongs” in order to study law enforcement behavior during traffic stops. The researcher will interact with the officers, but he will not participate or even exit the car during the traffic stops being observed.

The least invasive participant observation strategy is complete observation. As you will learn in Chapter 7, this is a totally unobtrusive method; the research subjects are not aware that they are being observed for purposes of research. Think of a law enforcement officer being on a stakeout. These officers generally sit in unmarked vehicles down the street as they observe the movements and activities of a certain person or group of people. Researchers who are complete observers work much the same way. While being the least invasive, complete observation is also the least qualitative. Studying an individual or group from afar means that there is no interaction with that individual. Without this interaction, researchers are unable to gain a more sensitized understanding of the motivations of the group. This strategy is considered to be more quantitative because researchers must rely on counts of activities or movements. For example, if you are a researcher interested in studying how many drivers run a stop sign on campus, you may sit near the intersection and observe driver behavior. In collecting the data, you will count how many drivers make a complete stop, how many come to a rolling stop, and how many run the stop sign altogether. Now, although you may have these counts, you will not know why drivers stopped or not. It could be that one driver had a sick passenger who he was rushing to the hospital and that is why he did not come to a complete stop. As with most quantitative research, as a complete observer, questions of “why?” often go unanswered.

FIGURE 6.1 | Differences among Participant Observation Methods

criminology case study summary

Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Research by Method

As with any particular research method, there are advantages and disadvantages to conducting field research. Some of these are specific to the type of field research a researcher decides to conduct. One general advantage to participant observation methods is that researchers are able to study “hard to reach” populations. A disadvantage is that these groups may be difficult to study for a number of reasons. It could be that the group is criminal in nature, such as a youth gang, a biker gang, or the Mafia. While perhaps not criminal, the individual or group may be involved in deviant behaviors that they are unwilling to discuss even with people they know. An additional disadvantage is that there could be administrative roadblocks to conducting such research. If a researcher wants to understand the correctional officer culture but the prison will not allow the researcher to conduct the study, she may have to get hired on and conduct the research as a full participant. Examples of research involving each of these situations will be discussed later in this chapter.

Another challenge for field researchers is the ability to maintain objectivity. In Chapter 2, the importance of objectivity for scientific research was discussed. If data gathered is subjective or biased in some way, research findings will be impacted by this subjectivity and will therefore not be reflective of reality. While objectivity would be easier to maintain from afar, the closer a researcher becomes to a group and its members, the easier it may be to lose objectivity. This is true particularly for complete participants. For researchers who participate as members of the group under study, it may become difficult not to begin to identify with the group. When this occurs, and the researcher loses sight of the research goals in favor of group membership, it is called “ going native. ” This is a hazard of field research in which the researcher spends a significant amount of time, perhaps years, within a group. The researcher may begin to see things from the group’s perspective and therefore not be able to objectively complete the intended study. To balance this possible hazard of complete participation is the advantage of not having reactivity. Because the research subjects do not know they are being observed, they will not act any differently than they would under normal circumstances. Researchers therefore avoid the Hawthorne Effect when conducting field research as a complete participant.

There is the possibility that a researcher who incorporates the participant as observer strategy may also go native. Although his presence as a researcher is known, he is interacting with the group and participating in group activities. Therefore, it is possible he may begin to lose objectivity due to an attachment to or identification with the group under study. Whereas complete participants can avoid the Hawthorne Effect, participants as observers do not have this luxury. Even though these researchers may be participating in group activities, because their presence as a researcher is known, it can be expected that the group may in some way alter their behavior because they are being observed. An additional disadvantage to this strategy is that it may take time for a researcher to be accepted by group members who are aware of the researcher’s presence. If certain group members are uncomfortable with the researcher’s presence, they may make it difficult for the researcher to interact with other members or join in group activities.

Researchers on the observing end of the participant observation continuum face some similar and some unique challenges. Those who conduct observer as participant field studies will also face reactivity, or the Hawthorne Effect, because their presence as a researcher is known to the group under study. As in the ride-along example discussed previously, if a patrol officer knows she is being observed, she may alter her behavior in such a way that the researcher is not observing a realistic traffic stop. Additionally, these researchers may face difficulties gaining access or being accepted into the group under study, especially since they are there only to observe and not to participate with the group. In this case, the researcher may be ostracized even further by the group because she is not acting as one of them.

Researchers acting as complete observers to gather data on an individual or group are not limited by reactivity. Because the research subjects are unaware they are being observed, the Hawthorne Effect will not impact study findings. The advantage is that this method is totally unobtrusive, or noninvasive. The main disadvantage here is that the researcher is too far away to truly understand the group and their behaviors. As mentioned previously, at this point, the research becomes quite quantitative because the researcher can only observe and count movements and interactions from afar. Lacking in context, these counts may not be as useful in understanding a group as findings would be from the use of another participant observation method.

Costs One of the more important factors to consider when determining whether field research is the best option is the demand such research may place on a researcher. If you remember from the opening case study, Ferrell spent months in the field to collect information on urban scrounging. Researchers may spend weeks, months, and even years participating with and/or observing study subjects. Due to this, they may experience financial, personal, and sometimes professional costs. Time away from family and friends can take a personal toll on researchers. If the researcher is funding his own research or otherwise not able to earn a salary while undergoing the field study, he may suffer financially. Finally, also due to time away and perhaps due to activities that may be considered unethical, fieldwork can have a negative impact on a researcher’s career. While these demands are very real, past researchers have found ways to successfully navigate the world of field research resulting in fascinating findings and ultimately coming out unscathed from the experience.

Gaining Access Gaining access to populations of interest is also a difficult task to accomplish as these populations are often small, clandestine groups who generally keep out of the public eye. Field research is unlike survey research in that there is not a readily available list of gang members or dumpster divers from which you can draw a random sample. Instead, researchers often rely on the snowball sampling technique. If you remember from Chapter 3, snowball sampling entails a researcher meeting one or a handful of group members and receiving introductions to other group members from the initial members. One member leads you to the next, who then leads you to the next.

When gathering information as an observer as participant, a researcher should be straightforward and announce her intentions to group members immediately. It may be best to give a detailed explanation of her presence and purpose to group leaders or other decision-makers. If this does not happen, when the group does find out a researcher is in their presence, they may feel the researcher was trying to hide something. If the identity of the researcher is known, it is important that the researcher be a researcher, and that she not pretend to be one of the group, as this may also cause problems. It may be disconcerting to group members if an outsider thinks she is closer to the group than members are willing to allow her to be.

While complete participant researchers may be introduced to one or more members, this does not mean that they will be readily accepted as part of the group. This is true even if they are acting as full participants. There are some things researchers can do to increase their chances of being accepted. First, researchers should learn the argot, or language, of the group under study. Study subjects may have a particular way of speaking to one another through the use of slang or other vernacular. If a researcher is familiar with this argot and is able to use it convincingly, he will seem less of an outsider. It is also important to time your approach. A researcher should be aware, as much as possible, about what is happening in the group before gaining access. If a researcher is studying drug dealers and there was just a big drug bust or if a researcher is studying gangs and there was recently a fight between two gangs, it may not be the best time to gain access as members of these groups may be immediately suspicious of people they do not know.

Researchers often must find a gatekeeper in order to join a group. Gatekeepers are those individuals who may or may not know about the researcher’s true identity, who will vouch for the researcher among the other group members and who will inform the researcher about group norms, territory, and the like. Gatekeepers may lobby to have a researcher become a part of the group or to be allowed access to the place where the group gathers. While this is helpful for the researcher, it can be dangerous for the gatekeeper, especially if something goes wrong. If the researcher is attempting to be a full participant but her identity as a researcher is exposed, the gatekeeper may be held responsible for allowing the researcher in. This may be the case even if the gatekeeper was not aware of the researcher’s true identity. If a researcher does not want to enter the group himself, he may find an indigenous observer, or a member of the group who is willing to collect information for him. The researcher may pay or otherwise remunerate this person for her efforts as she will be able to see and hear what the researcher could not. A similar problem may arise, however, if this person is caught. There may be negative consequences to pay if it is found out that she is revealing information about the group. Additionally, the researcher must be careful when analyzing the information provided as it may not be objective, or may not even be factual at all.

Maintaining Objectivity Once a researcher gains access, there is another issue she must face. This is the difficulty of remaining an outsider while becoming an insider. In short, the researcher must guard against going native. Objectivity is necessary for research to be scientific. If a researcher becomes too familiar with the group, she may lose objectivity and may even be able to identify with and/or empathize with the group under study. If this occurs, the research findings will be biased and not an objective reflection of the group, what drives the group, and the activities in which the group members participate. For these reasons, it is not suggested that a researcher conduct field research among a group of which he is a member. If a researcher has been a member of a social organization for many years and is friends, or at least acquaintances, with many of the members, it would be very difficult for her to objectively study the group. The researcher may consider the group and the group’s activities as normal and therefore miss out on interesting relationships and behaviors. This is also why external researchers are often brought in to evaluate agency programs. If employees of that program are tasked with evaluating it, they may—consciously or not—design the study in such a way that findings are sure to be positive. This may be because they feel that a negative evaluation will mean an end to the program and ultimately an end to their jobs. Having such a stake in the findings of research is sure to impact the objectivity of the person tasked with conducting the study. While bringing in external researchers may ensure objectivity, these researchers face their own challenges. Trulson, Marquart, and Mullings 3 offer some tips for breaking in to criminal justice agencies, specifically prisons, as an external researcher. The first two tips pertain to obtaining access through the use of a gatekeeper. The third tip focuses on the development and cultivation of relationships within the agency in order to maintain access. The remaining tips describe how a researcher can make a graceful exit once the research project is completed while still maintaining those relationships, as well as building new ones, for potential future research endeavors.

❑ Tip #1: Get a Contact

❑ Tip #2: Establish Yourself and Your Research

❑ Tip #3: Little Things Count

❑ Tip #4: Make Sense of Agency Data by Keeping Contact

❑ Tip #5: Deliver Competent Readable Reports on Time

❑ Tip #6: Request to Debrief the Agency

❑ Tip#7: Thank Everyone

❑ Tip #8: Deal with Adversity by Planning Ahead

❑ Tip #9: Inform the Agency of Data Use

❑ Tip #10: Maintain Trust by Staying in for the Long Haul (pp. 477–478)


Youth Violence and the Code of the Street

Research Study

Based on his ethnography of African American youth living in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, Elijah Anderson 2 developed a comprehensive theory regarding youth violence and the “code of the street.” Anderson explains that, stemming from a lack of resources, distrust in law enforcement, and an overall lack of hope, aggressive behavior is condoned by the informal street code as a way to resolve conflict and earn respect. Anderson’s detailed description and analysis of this street culture provided much needed awareness regarding the context of African American youth violence. Like other research discussed in this chapter, these populations could not be sent an Internet survey or be surveyed in a classroom. The only way for Anderson to gain this knowledge was to go out to the streets and observe and interact with the youth himself. To do this, he conducted four years of field research in both the inner city and the more suburban areas of Philadelphia. During this time, he conducted lengthy interviews with youth and acted as a direct observer of their activities. Anderson’s research is touted for bringing attention to and understanding of inner-city life. Not only does he describe the “code of the street,” but, in doing so, he provides answers to the problem of urban youth violence.

Documenting the Experience Researchers must also decide how best to document their experiences for later analysis. There is a Chinese Proverb that states, “the palest ink is better than the best memory.” Applied here, researchers are encouraged to document as much as they can, as giving a detailed account of things that have occurred from memory is difficult. When taking notes, it is important for researchers to be as specific as possible when describing individuals and their behaviors. It is also important for researchers not to ignore behaviors that may seem trivial at the time, as these may actually signify something much more meaningful.

Particularly as a complete participant, researchers are not going to have the ability to readily pull out their note pad and begin taking notes on things they have seen and heard. Even careful note taking can be dangerous for a researcher who is trying to hide his identity. If a researcher is found to be documenting what is happening within the group, this may breed distrust and group members may become suspicious of the researcher. This suspicion may cause the group members to act unnaturally around the researcher. Even if research subjects are aware of the researcher’s identity, having someone taking notes while they are having a casual conversation can be disconcerting. This may make subjects nervous and unwilling to participate in group activities while the researcher is present. Luckily, with the advance of technology, documentation does not have to include a pen and a piece of paper. Instead, researchers may opt for audio and/or visual recording devices. In one-party consent states, it is legal for one person to record a conversation they are having with another. Not all states are one-party consent states, however, so researchers must be careful not to break any laws with their plan for documentation.


Application of Field Research Methods in Undercover Investigations

Participant observation research not only informs criminal justice operations, but police and other investigative agencies use these methods as well. Think about an undercover investigation. While the purpose of going undercover for a law enforcement officer is to collect evidence against a suspect, the officer’s methods mirror those of an academic researcher who joins a group as a full participant. In the 1970s, FBI agent Joe Pistone 4 went undercover to obtain information about the Bonnano family, one of the major Sicilian organized crime families in New York at the time. Assuming the identity of Donnie Brasco, the jewel thief, Pistone infiltrated the Bonnano family for six years. Using many of the techniques discussed here—learning the argot and social mores of the group, finding a gatekeeper, documenting evidence through the use of recording devices—by the early 1980s, Pistone provided the FBI with enough evidence to put over 100 Mafioso in prison for the remainder of their lives. Many of you may recognize his alias, as Pistone’s experiences as an undercover agent were brought to the big screen with the release of Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp. Depp’s portrayal of Pistone showed not only his undercover persona but also the difficulties he had maintaining relationships with his loved ones. Now, more than 30 years later, people are still interested in Pistone’s experiences as Brasco. As recently as 2005, the National Geographic Channel premiered Inside the Mafia, a series focused on Pistone’s experiences as Brasco. While this is a more well-known example of an undercover operation, undercover work goes on all the time. Whether making drug busts, infiltrating gangs or other trafficking organizations, or conducting a sting operation on one of their own, investigators employ many of the same techniques as field researchers rely upon.

Ethical Dilemmas for Field Researchers

As you can tell, field research poses unique complications for researchers to consider prior to and while conducting their studies. Ethical issues posed by field research, particularly field research in which the researcher’s identity is not known to research subjects, include the use of deception, privacy invasion, and the lack of consent. How can a researcher obtain informed consent from research subjects if she doesn’t want anyone to know research is taking place? Is it ethical to include someone in a research study without his or her permission? When the first guidelines for human subjects research were handed down, they caused a huge roadblock for field researchers. Later, however, it was determined that social science poses less risk to human subjects, particularly those being observed in their natural setting. Because it was recognized that the risk for harm was significantly less, field researchers were allowed to conduct their studies without conditions involving informed consent. The debate remains, however, as to whether it is truly ethical to conduct research on individuals without them knowing. A related issue is confidentiality and anonymity. If researchers are living among study subjects, anonymity is impossible. One way field researchers protect their subjects in this regard is through the use of pseudonyms. A pseudonym is a false name given to someone whose identity needs to be kept secret. In writing up their study findings, researchers will use pseudonyms instead of the actual names of study subjects.

Beyond the ethical nature of the research itself, field studies may introduce other ethical dilemmas for the researcher. For example, what if the researcher, as a participating member of a group, is asked to participate in an illegal activity? This may be a nonviolent activity like vandalism or graffiti, or it may be an activity that is more sinister in nature. Researchers, as full participants, have to decide whether they would be willing to commit the crime in question. After all, if caught and arrests are made, “I was just doing research,” will not be a justification the researcher will be able to use for his participation. Even if not a full participant, a researcher may observe some activity that is unlawful. The researcher will then have to decide whether to report this activity or to keep quiet about it. If a researcher is called to testify, there could be consequences for not cooperating. Depending on what kind of group is being studied, these dilemmas may occur more or less frequently. It is important that researchers understand prior to entering the field that they may have to make difficult decisions that like the research itself, could have great costs to them personally and professionally.


Field Research Hits Prime Time

In 2009, CBS aired a new reality television series, Undercover Boss, 5 in which corporate executives go “undercover” to experience life as an employee of their company. Fully disguised, the executives are quickly thrown into the day-to-day operations of their workplaces. From the co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, to the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, to the mayor of Cincinnati, these executives conduct field research on camera to gain a better understanding of how their company, or city administration, runs from the bottom up. Often, they find hard-working, talented employees who are deserving of recognition, which is given as the episode comes to a close and the executive reveals himself and his undercover activities to his employees. Other times, they find employees that are not so good for business. Ultimately, the experience provides these executives with awareness they did not have prior to going undercover, and they hope to be able to utilize this knowledge to position their workplaces for continued success. Not only has this show benefited the companies and other workplaces profiled, with millions of viewers each week, it has certainly brought the adventures of field research into prime time.

Examples of Field Research in Criminal Justice

If you recall from Chapter 2, Humphreys’ Tea Room Trade is an example of field research. Humphreys participated to an extent, acting as a “watchqueen” so that he could observe the sexual activities taking place in public restrooms and other public places. Another study exploring clandestine sexual activity was conducted by Styles. 6 Styles was interested in the use of gay baths, places where men seeking to have sexual relationships with other men could have relatively private encounters. While Styles was a gay man attempting to study other gay men, at the outset his intention was to be a nonparticipant observer. Having a friend vouch for him, he easily gained access into the bath and began figuring out how to best observe the scene. After observing and conducting a few interviews, Styles was approached by another man for sexual activity. Although he was resolved to only observe, this time he gave in. From this point on, he began attending another bath and collecting information as a complete participant. Styles’ writing is informative, not only for the description regarding this group’s activity, but also for the discussion he provides about his travels through the world of field research, beginning as an observer and ending as a complete participant. His writing on insider versus outsider research resulted in four main reflections for readers to consider:

There are no privileged positions of knowledge when it comes to scrutinizing human group life;

All research is conditioned by value biases and factual preconceptions about the group being studied;

Fieldwork is a process of building up images from one’s biases, preconceptions, and new information, testing these images against one’s observations and the reports of informants, and accepting, modifying, or discarding these images on the basis of what one observes and what one has been told; and

Insider and outsider researchers will differ in the ways they go about building and testing their images of the group they study. (pp. 148–150)

Reviewing the literature, one finds that field researchers often choose sexual deviance as a topic for their field studies. Tewksbury and colleagues have researched gender differences in sex shop patrons 7 and places where men have been found to have anonymous sexual encounters 8 such as sex shop theaters. 9 Another interesting field study was conducted by Ronai and Ellis. 10 For this study, Ronai acted as a complete participant, drawing from her past as a table dancer and also gaining access as an exotic dancer in a Florida strip bar for the purpose of her master’s thesis research. Building on Ronai’s experiences and her interviews with fellow dancers, the researchers examined the interactional strategies used by dancers, both on the stage and on the floor, to ensure a night where the dancers were well paid for their services. In conducting these studies, these researchers were able to expose places where many are either unwilling or afraid to go, or perhaps afraid to admit they go.

In their study of women who belong to outlaw motorcycle gangs, Hopper and Moore 11 used participant observation methods as well as interviews to better understand the biker culture and where women fit into this culture. Moore provided access, as he was once a member and president of Satan’s Dead, an outlaw biker club in Mississippi. Like Styles, Hopper and Moore discuss the challenges of conducting research among the outlaw biker population. Having to observe quietly while bikers committed acts opposite to their personal values and not being able to ask many questions or give uninvited comments were just some of the hurdles the researchers had to overcome in order to conduct their study. The male bikers were, at the least, distrustful of the researchers, and the women bikers even more so. While these challenges existed, Hopper and Moore were able to ascertain quite a bit about the female experience as relates to their role in or among the outlaw biker culture.

Ferrell has been one of the most active field researchers of our time. He is considered a founder and remains a steadfast proponent of cultural criminology, 12 a subfield of criminology that examines the intersections of cultural activities and crime. Not only did he conduct the ethnography on urban scrounging discussed at the beginning of this chapter, he has spent more than a decade in the field studying subcultural groups who defy social norms. Crossing the United States, and the globe, Ferrell has explored the social and political motivations of urban graffiti artists, 13 anarchist bicycle group activists, and outlaw radio operators, 14 just to name a few. The research conducted by Ferrell, and others discussed here, has been described as edgework, or radical ethnography. This means that, as researchers, Ferrell and others have gone to the “edge,” or the extreme, to collect information on subjects of interest. Ferrell and Hamm 15 have put together a collection of readings based on edgework, as have Miller and Tewksbury. 16 While dangerous and wrought with ethical challenges, their research has shed light on societal groups who, whether by choice or not, often reside in the shadows.

Although ethnographers have spent years studying criminal and other deviant activities, field research has not been limited to those groups. Other researchers have sought to explore what it’s like to work in criminal justice from the inside. In the 1960s, Skolnick 17 conducted field research among police officers to better understand how elements of their occupation impacted their views and behaviors. He wrote extensively about the “working personality” of police officers as shaped by their occupational environment, including the danger and alienation they face from those they are sworn to protect, and the solidarity that builds from shared experiences. Beyond law enforcement, there have also been a variety of studies focused on the prison environment. When Ted Conover, 18 a journalist interested in writing from the correctional officer perspective, was denied permission from the New York Department of Correctional Services to do a report on correctional life, he instead applied and was hired on as an actual correctional officer. In Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Conover offers a compelling account of his journalistic field research, which resulted in a one-year stint as a corrections officer. From his time in training until his last days working in the galleries, Conover’s experiences provide the reader a look into the challenges faced by correctional officers, stemming not only from the inmates but the correctional staff as well.

Prior to Conover’s writing, Marquart was also interested in correctional work and strategies utilized by prison guards to ensure control over the inmate population. Specifically, in the 1980s, Marquart 19 examined correctional officials’ use of physical coercion and Marquart and Crouch 20 explored their use of inmate leaders as social control mechanisms. In order to conduct this field study, Marquart, with the warden’s permission, entered a prison unit in Texas and proceeded to work as a guard from June 1981 until January 1983. He was able to work in various posts within the institution so that he could observe how prison guards interacted with inmates. Marquart not only observed the prison’s daily routine, he examined institutional records, conducted interviews, and also developed close relationships with 20 prison guards and inmate leaders, or building tenders, whom he relied on for their insider knowledge of prison life and inmate control. Based on his fieldwork, Marquait shared his findings regarding the intimidation and physical coercion used by prison guards to discipline inmates. This fieldwork also provided a fascinating look into the building tender system that was utilized as a means of social control in the Texas prison system prior to that system being discontinued.

In the early 1990s, Schmid and Jones 21 used a unique strategy to study inmate adaptation from inside the prison walls. Jones, an offender serving a sentence in a prison located in the upper midwestern region of the United States, was given permission to enroll in a graduate sociology course focused on methods of research. This course was being offered by Schmid and led to collaborative work between the two men to study prison culture. They specifically focused on the experiences of first-time, short-term inmates. With Jones acting as the complete participant and Schmid acting as the complete observer, the pair began their research covertly. While they were aware of Jones’s meeting with Schmid for purposes of the research methods course in which he was enrolled, correctional authorities and other inmates perceived Jones to be just another inmate. In the 10 months that followed, Jones kept detailed notes regarding his daily experiences and his personal thoughts about and observations of prison life. Also included in his notes was information about his participation in prison activities and his communications with other similar, first-time, short-term inmates. Once his field notes were prepared, Jones would mail them to Schmid for review. Over the course of these letters, phone calls, and intermittent meetings, new observation strategies and themes began to develop based on the observations made by Jones. Upon his release from prison and their analyzing of the initial data, Jones and Schmid reentered the prison to conduct informed interviews with 20 first-time, short-term inmates. Using these data, Schmid and Jones began to write up their findings, which focused on inmate adaptations over time, identity transformations within the prison environment, 22 and conceptions of prison sexual assault, 23 among other topics. Schmid and Jones discussed how their roles as a complete observer and a complete participant allowed them the advantage of balancing scientific objectivity and intimacy with the group under study. The unfettered access Jones had to other inmates within the prison environment as a complete participant added to the unusual nature of this study yielding valuable insight into the prison experience for this particular subset of inmates.

Case Studies

Beyond field research, case studies provide an additional means of qualitative data. While more often conducted by researchers in other disciplines, such as psychology, or by journalists, criminologists also have a rich history of case study research. In conducting case studies, researchers use in-depth interviews and oral/life history, or autobiographical, approaches to thoroughly examine one or a few illustrative cases. This method often allows individuals, particularly offenders, to tell their own story, and information from these stories, or case studies, may then be extrapolated to the larger group. The advantage is a firsthand, descriptive account of a way of life that is little understood. Disadvantages relate to the ability to generalize from what may be an atypical case and also the bias that may enter as a researcher develops a working relationship with their subject. Most examples of case studies involving criminological subjects were conducted more than 20 years ago, which may be due to criminologists’ general inclination toward more quantitative research during this time period.

The earliest case studies focused on crime topics were conducted in the 1930s. Not only was the Chicago School interested in ethnographic research, these researchers were also among the first to conduct case studies on individuals involved in criminal activities. Shaw’s The Jack Roller (1930) 24 and Sutherland’s The Professional Thief (1937) 25 are not only the oldest but also the most well-known case studies related to delinquent and criminal figures. Focused on environmental influences on behavior, Shaw profiled an inner city delinquent male, “Stanley” the “jack roller,” who explained why he was involved in delinquent behavior, specifically the crime of mugging intoxicated men. Fifty years later, Snodgrass 26 updated Shaw’s work, following up with an elderly “Stanley” at age 70. Sutherland’s case study, resulting in the publication of The Professional Thief, was based on “Chic Conwell’s” account of his personal life and professional experience surviving off of what could be stolen or conned from others. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed numerous publications based on case studies. Researchers examined organized crime figures and families, 27 heroin addicts, 28 thieves, 29 and those who fence stolen property. 30 As with participant observation research, case studies have not been relegated to offenders only. In fact, more recently the case study approach has been applied to law enforcement and correctional agencies. 33 These studies have examined activities of the New York City Police Department, 34 the New Orleans Police Department’s response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 35 and Rhode Island’s prison system. 36

As with field research, the case study approach can provide a deeper understanding of individuals or groups of individuals, such as crime families, who live outside of the mainstream. Case studies inform us about the motivations for why individuals or groups behave the way they do and how those experiences or activities were either beneficial or detrimental for them. The same goes for agency research. One department or agency can learn from the experiences of another department or agency. With more recent research utilizing the case study approach, it could be that this methodology will be seen more often in the criminal justice literature.

Making Critical Choices as a Field Researcher

In conducting field studies, researchers often must make decisions that impact the viability of their research. Sometimes, researchers don’t make the best choices. In the 1990s, Dr. Ansley Hamid was an esteemed anthropologist, well-known for his field research focused on the drug subculture. 31 Based on his previous success as a researcher documenting the more significant trends in drug use and addiction, he, through his position as a university professor, was awarded a multimillion-dollar federal research grant to examine heroin use on the streets of New York. It was not long after the grant was awarded, however, that Hamid was accused of misusing the funds provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, even going so far as to use the funds to purchase heroin for his own use and the use of his research subjects. While the criminal charges were eventually dismissed, Hamid paid the ultimate professional price for his behavior, particularly his use of the drug, which was documented in his handwritten field notes. 32 As of 2003, the professor was no longer connected to John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. In fact, Hamid is no longer working in higher education at all due to the accusations and accompanying negative publicity. Instead, he owns a candle shop in a small Brooklyn neighborhood. He does not plan to stop researching and writing though. His book, Ganja Complex: Rastafari and Marijuana, was published in 2002. This case is a prime example of what can happen when researchers cross the boundary of objectivity. Hamid’s brief experience in the shoes of a heroin user led to his ultimate downfall as an objective and respected researcher.

Chapter Summary

Qualitative research strategies allow researchers to enter into groups and places that are often considered off limits to the general public. The methods and studies discussed here provide excellent examples of the use of field research to discover motivations for the development and patterns of behavior within these groups. These qualitative endeavors offer a unique look into the lives of those who may live or work on the fringes of modern society. As it would be nearly impossible to conduct research on these groups using methods such as experiments, surveys, and formal interviews, participant observation techniques extend the ability of researchers to study activities beyond the norm by participating with and observing subjects in their natural environment and later describing in detail their experiences in the field.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. What are the advantages to using a more qualitative research method?

2. Compare and contrast the four different participant observation strategies.

3. What must a researcher consider before conducting field research?

4. What did Styles learn about conducting research as an insider versus an outsider?

5. How has the case study approach been applied to criminal justice research?

case study: In-depth analysis of one or a few illustrative cases

complete observation: A participant observation method that involves the researcher observing an individual or group from afar

complete participation: A participant observation method that involves the researcher becoming a full-fledged member of a particular group; sometimes referred to as disguised observation

confederates: Individuals, who are part of the research team, used to speed up the events of interest when observations are being made

edgework: This refers to researchers going to the “edge,” or the extreme, to collect information on subjects of interest

ethnographic research: Relies on field research methodologies to scientifically examine human culture in the natural environment

field research: Research that involves researchers studying individuals or groups of individuals in their natural environment

gatekeeper: A person within the group under study whom the researcher can use to learn about and access the group

going native: A challenge to field research in which the researcher loses her identity as a researcher and begins to identify more with her role as a member of the group under study

Hawthorne Effect: Based on a study of worker productivity, this term refers to changes in behavior caused by being observed

indigenous observer: A person within the group under study who is willing to collect information about the group for compensation

journalistic field research: Field research conducted by journalists and used to write books or articles about a certain topic of interest

observer as participant: A participant observation strategy in which the researcher is known to the group and is only there to observe

oral/life history: Methods used to conduct case studies; similar to an autobiographical account

participant as observer: A participant observation strategy in which the researcher will participate with the group but his identity as a researcher is known

participant observation strategies: First used for social science in the 1920s, these are research methodologies that involve participation and/or observation with the group under study; there are four such strategies

pseudonym: A false name given to someone whose identity needs to be kept secret

reactivity: The problem of having research subjects change their natural behavior in reaction to being observed or otherwise included in a research study

1 Ferrell, J. (2006). Empire of scrounge: Inside the urban underground of dumpster diving, trash picking, and street scavenging. New York: New York University Press.

2 Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

3 Trulson, C., J. Marquait, & J. Mullings. (2004). “Breaking in: Gaining entry to prisons and other hard-to-access criminal justice organizations.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 15(2), 451–478.

4 Lovgren, S. (2005, June 10). “FBI Agent ‘Donnie Brasco’ recalls life in the Mafia.” Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/34063528 .html.

5 See series website, http://www.cbs.com/shows /undercover_boss/.

6 Styles, J. (1979). “Outsider/insider: Researching gay baths.” Urban Life, 8(2), 135–152.

7 McCleary, R., & R. Tewksbury. (2010). “Female patrons of porn.” Deviant Behavior, 31, 208–223.

8 Tewksbury, R. (2008). “Finding erotic oases: Locating the sites of men’s same-sex anonymous sexual encounters.” Journal of Homosexuality, 55(1), 1–19.

9 Douglas, B., & R. Tewksbury. (2008). “Theaters and sex: An examination of anonymous sexual encounters in an erotic oasis.” Deviant Behavior, 29(1), 1–17.

10 Ronai, C. R., & C. Ellis. (1989). “Turn-ons for money: Interactional strategies of the table dancer.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 18, 271–298.

11 Hopper, C. B., & J. Moore. (1990). “Women in outlaw motorcycle gangs.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 18(4), 363–387.

12 Ferrell, J., & C. Sanders (Eds.). (1995). Cultural criminology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

13 Ferrell, J. (1996). Crimes of style: Urban graffiti and the politics of criminality. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

14 Ferrell, J. (2002). Tearing down the streets: Adventures in urban anarchy. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan.

15 Ferrell, J., & M. Hamm (Eds.). (1998). Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research. Boston: Northeastern University Press

16 Miller, J., & R. Tewksbury (Eds.). (2001). Extreme methods: Innovative approaches to social science research. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

17 Skolnick, J. (1966). Justice without trial: Law enforcement in a democratic society. New York: Wiley & Sons.

18 Conover, T. (2000). Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. New York: Random House, Inc.

19 Marquart, J. (1986). “Prison guards and the use of physical coercion as a mechanism of prisoner control.” Criminology, 24(2), 347–366.

20 Marquart, J. & B. Crouch. (1984). “Coopting the kept: Using inmates for social control in a southern prison.” Justice Quarterly, 1(4), 491–509.

21 Schmid, T. J., & R. S. Jones. (1993). “Ambivalent actions: Prison adaptation strategies of first-time, short-term inmates.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 21(4), 439–463.

22 Schmid, T. J., & R. S. Jones. (1991). “Suspended identity: Identity transformation in a maximum security prison.” Symbolic Interaction, 14, 415–432.

23 Jones, R. S., & T. J. Schmid. (1989). “Inmates’ conceptions of prison sexual assault.” Prison Journal, 69, 53–61.

24 Shaw, C. (1930). The jack-roller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

25 Sutherland, E. (1937). The professional thief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

26 Snodgrass, J. (1982). The jack-roller at seventy: A fifty year follow-up. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

27 Abadinsky, H. (1983). The criminal elite: Professional and organized crime. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Anderson, A. (1979). The business of organized crime. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press.; Ianni, F., & E. Reuss-Ianni. (1972). A family business: kinship and social control in organized crime. New York: Russell Sage.

28 Agar, M. (1973). Ripping and running: A formal ethnography of urban heroin users. New York: Seminar Press.; Rettig, R., M. Torres, & G. Garrett. (1977). Manny: A criminal addict ’ s story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

29 Chambliss, W. (1972). Boxman: A professional thief ’ s journal, with Harry King. New York: Harper and Row.; King, H., & W. Chambliss. (1984). Harry King: A professional thief ’ s journal. New York: Wiley.

30 Klockars, C. (1974). The professional fence. New York: Free Press; Steffensmeier, D. (1986). The fence: In the shadow of two worlds. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

31 Forero, J. (1999, November, 1). “Charges unravel drug-use scholar’s career.” The New York Times Archives. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://www.nytimes .com/1999/11/01/nyregion/charges-unravel-drug-use-scholar-s-career.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm.

32 Smallwood, S. (2002, October 25). “Crossing the line: A heroin researcher partakes and pays the price.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://chronicle.com/article /Crossing-the-Line/2839.

33 Travis, L. III (1983). “The case study in criminal justice research: Applications to policy analysis.” Criminal Justice Review, 8, 46–51.

34 Eterno, J. (2003). Policing within the law: A case study of the New York City Police Department. Westport, CT: Praeger.

35 Wigginton, M. (2007). “The New Orleans police emergency response to Hurricane Katrina: A case study.” A Dissertation completed for the University of Southern Mississippi.

36 Carroll, L. (1998). Lawful order: A case study of correctional crisis and reform. New York: Garland.

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Article contents

Moral panics.

  • Chas Critcher Chas Critcher Department of Media and Communications, Sheffield Hallam University
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.155
  • Published online: 29 March 2017

The concept of moral panic was first developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s, principally by Stan Cohen, initially for the purpose of analyzing the definition of and social reaction to youth subcultures as a social problem. Cohen provided a “processual” model of how any new social problem would develop: who would promote it and why, whose support they would need for their definition to take hold, and the often-crucial role played by the mass media and institutions of social control. In the early 1990s, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda produced an “attributional” model that placed more emphasis on strict definition than cultural processes. The two models have subsequently been applied to a range of putative social problems which now can be recognized as falling into five principal clusters: street crime, drug and alcohol consumption, immigration, child abuse (including pedophilia), and media technologies. Most studies have been conducted in Anglophone and European countries, but gradually, the concept is increasing its geographical reach. As a consequence, we now know a good deal about how and why social problems come to be constructed as moral panics in democratic societies.

This approach has nevertheless been criticized for its casual use of language, denial of agency to those promoting and supporting moral panics, and an oversimplified and outdated view of mass media, among other things. As proponents and opponents of moral panic analysis continue to debate the essentials, the theoretical context has shifted dramatically. Moral panic has an uncertain relationship to many recent developments in sociological and criminological thought. It threatens to be overwhelmed or sidelined by new insights from theories of moral regulation or risk, conceptualizations of the culture of fear, or the social psychology of collective emotion. Yet as an interdisciplinary project, it continues, despite its many flaws, to demand sustained attention from analysts of social problem construction.

  • Culture of fear
  • moral panic
  • moral regulation
  • politics of emotion
  • social problem construction


The concept of moral panic can be found in several disciplines: sociology, media studies, and cultural studies, as well as criminology. It often polarizes opinion. An early review of the concept, influential in its resuscitation, has an unequivocal conclusion. According to Thompson ( 1998 ), p. 142), “It deserves to be recognized for what it truly is: a key sociological concept.” Yet more recently has come another, slightly despairing, view (Jewkes, 2015 , p. 103), to wit:

[I]t is difficult to explain why criminology—and its related fields—continue to place the moral panic thesis at the heart of studies of deviance and disorder when both sociology and media studies have more or less ignored it for decades.

Such reservations have not prevented the notion of moral panic spreading beyond academe into debates about social problems in society at large. So it is important to define exactly what this concept entails. A handy definition of moral panic is provided by the Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences , produced by Canada’s Open University:

Suggests a panic or overreaction to forms of deviance or wrong doing believed to be threats to the moral order. Moral panics are usually framed by the media and led by community leaders or groups intent on changing laws or practices. Sociologists are less interested in the validity of the claims made during moral panics than they are in the dynamics of social change and the organizational strategies of moral entrepreneurs. Moral panics gather converts because they touch on people’s fears and because they also use specific events or problems as symbols of what many feel to represent “all that is wrong with the nation”. (Drislane & Parkinson, 2016 )

This seems as good a place as any to start. This article 1 fills in the details about what moral panics entail, which topics or events they focus on, the agents strategic to their construction, and how they attract support from the public at large. The first section outlines the central tenets of the two main models of moral panics. The second section reviews what our accumulated knowledge of moral panics tells us about how and why they work. The third section details six substantial points of criticism leveled against moral panic analysis and the responses by their defenders. The fourth section explains the concept of moral regulation as a continuous societal process in which moral panics are sudden eruptions. The fifth section widens the focus of the discussion to identify those characteristics—risk consciousness, pervasive fear, and the politics of emotion—which may predispose late modern societies to increased levels and intensities of moral panics. Finally, the conclusion offers a further comment on the nomadic disciplinarily of this concept.

Original Models

Cohen’s processual model.

Stan Cohen published Moral Panics in paperback in 1973 . Based on his PhD thesis, it analyzed how British society reacted to seaside confrontations between members of two youth subcultures, mods and rockers, in the early 1960s. Cohen was interested how labeling deviants could amplify deviance, damage the identities of the labeled individuals, and invite them to embrace deviant identities and behavior. Cohen set out to test these ideas on mods and rockers but ended up in a rather different place. He had discovered a pattern of construction and reaction with wider purchase than mods and rockers—the moral panic (Cohen, 1973 , 2002 , p. 9):

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.

Cohen stressed that these stages overlap. Progression through them can be thwarted or diverted. That is why it has been called a “processual model” of moral panics (Critcher, 2003 , p. 13).

Cohen’s model is often mistakenly thought to focus mainly on mass media. However, he cast his net wider than that. He identified in moral panics four key agents: mass media, moral entrepreneurs, the control culture, and the public. The media are particularly important in the early (inventory) stage of social reaction, producing “processed or coded images” of deviance and the deviants (Cohen, 1973 , 2002 , pp. 44–48). Three processes are involved. The first is exaggeration and distortion of who did or said what; the second is prediction , the dire consequences of failure to act; and the third is symbolization , which in this case means that the word mod or rocker signified a threat. The media installed mods and rockers as folk devils, and newsmaking practices specified who was disrupting the social order. They employed “inferential structures” to explain what the behavior was like, who perpetrated it, and why it happened (what Cohen called “orientations,” “images,” and “causation”). They were primed for panic.

The second group was moral entrepreneurs , referring to individuals and groups who target deviant behavior. Cohen spent time and effort understanding their worldviews and actions. The third group, the societal control culture , comprised those with institutional power: the police and the courts and local and national politicians. They were made aware of—“sensitized” to—the nature and extent of the problem. Concern was passed up the chain of command to the national level, where draconian control measures (innovation) were instituted. The fourth group, the public (acting as witnesses), had to decide who and what to believe. Cohen discussed the mods and rockers problem with individuals and groups, finding that they initially mistrusted media messages, yet ultimately believed them.

The complex interplay between these four groups defined the problem, its remedies, and the proposed solution (normally, a change in the law or its enforcement). Mods and rockers provoked a strengthening of one law (about drugs) and the introduction of a new one (about criminal damage). However, especially as the threat was largely mythical, such laws were more ritualistic than effective.

Laws confirm a primary function of moral panics: the reaffirmation of society’s moral boundaries. Cohen ( 1973 , p. 197) argued that the “affluent society” of the 1960s disconcerted traditionalists, fearful that the young were rejecting adult ideals: “the response was as much to what they stood for as what they did.” Future moral panics seemed inevitable. The pace of social change and the persistence of social inequality generate tensions that find an outlet in the identification and vilification of new kinds of deviant behavior. Cohen’s work was predictive. Six years later, Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, and Roberts ( 1978 ) argued that a moral panic about “mugging” validated Cohen’s predictions. A distinctively American take on moral panics appeared 16 years later, as discussed next.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s Attributional Model

In 1994 , Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda published Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance , with a second edition in 2009 . Their approach, known as social constructionism , challenged the basic assumption that sociology could define, measure, explain, and ameliorate social problems. On such issues as crime, mental retardation, and homosexuality, definition and measurement foundered.

Reviewing empirical studies in the constructionist tradition, Goode and Ben-Yehuda ( 2009 , p. 37) arrived at five defining “elements or criteria” of a moral panic.

Any moral panic involves a “heightened level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group or category” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , p. 37) and its consequences. Indices of concern include opinion polls, media coverage, and lobbying activity.

Moral panics exhibit “an increased level of hostility ” toward the deviants, who are “collectively designated as the enemy, or an enemy, of respectable society.” Their behavior is seen as “harmful or threatening” to the values and interests of society, “or at least a sizeable segment” of it (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , p. 38, emphasis in original). Constructing such folk devils is integral to moral panics.

In a moral panic, “there must be at least a certain minimal measure of consensus” across society as a whole, or at least “designated segments” of it, that “the threat is real, serious and caused by the wrongdoing group members and their behaviour” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , p. 38). Consensus can be challenged by organized opposition—“counter claimsmakers.”


Fundamentally, “the concept of moral panic rests on disproportion” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , p. 41, emphasis in original). It is evident where “public concern is in excess of what is appropriate if concern were directly proportional to objective harm” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , p. 40). Statistics are exaggerated or fabricated. The existence of other equally or more harmful activities is denied.

Panics are by their nature fleeting, subsiding as quickly as they erupt. The same issue may recur, but individual panics cannot be sustained for long. This has been called an “attributional model” of moral panics (Critcher, 2003 , p. 25) because it identifies essential characteristics. Central to this model is claims making about the problem: who makes claims, how, and why. Such claims are frequently made by social movements, who perceive and seek remedies for problematic behavior. Movements protest and demonstrate, appeal to public opinion, and gain access to the media. They may behave irresponsibly: exaggerating the threat, polarizing opinion, and vilifying opponents. Other authoritative organizations may collude with them, such as religious groups, professional associations, and the police. More often, the media, occasionally active in moral panics, are more often conduits for others’ claims making.

Goode and Ben-Yehuda assessed three competing explanations of moral panics. First, the grass-roots model identifies the source of panic as widespread anxieties about real or imagined threats. In the second explanation, the elite-engineered model , an elite group, manipulates a panic over an issue that they know to be exaggerated in order to divert attention from their own inability or unwillingness to solve social problems. Third, interest group theory argues that “the middle rungs of power and status” are where moral issues are most acutely felt. Goode and Ben-Yehuda suggested that elites are marginal. The combined forces of grass-roots feeling and middle class agitation lie behind the most effective panics. The wider explanation, however, lies in the nature of collective behavior (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 , pp. 51–72).

The consequences of moral panics are twofold: institutional legacy and normative transformation. Institutionalization involves establishing new laws, agencies, or professions. Normative transformations alter ideas about the acceptability of behavior, thus redrawing society’s moral boundaries. The missing children controversy of the 1980s is an oft-cited American example of moral panic (Best, 1990 ) despite the skepticism about the concept expressed by one of the leading writers on the topic (Best, 2013 ).

Comparing the Two Models

Comparing the processual model of Cohen with the attributional model of Goode and Ben-Yehuda reveals three basic similarities and three significant differences. The first similarity is their shared view that moral panics are an extreme form of more general processes by which social problems are constructed in public arenas. The second similarity is that they both observe that moral panics are recurrent features of modern society that have identifiable consequences on the law and state institutions. The third similarity is the perceived sociological function of moral panics as reaffirming the core values of society.

On the other hand, the first difference lies in how they assess the role of the media. In the processual version, the media are strategic in the formation of moral panics. They may be the prime movers or endorse others already campaigning, but they are always actively involved. In the attributional model, despite their greater prominence in Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s second edition ( 2009 , pp. 88–108), the media play a much more passive role. They provide an arena where different versions can compete.

The second difference is their conception of the most important agents in moral panics. In the processual model, state agencies, politicians, and legislators do not merely react to moral panics, but rather are frequently complicit in their construction. The attributional model places much more emphasis on the strategies adopted by claimsmakers. Their ability to galvanize public opinion about their case is crucial.

The third difference involves how to conceptualize the language of moral panics. In the attributional model, the emphasis is on the rhetoric of claims making (i.e., how campaigners adopt particular styles of argument). The processual model emphasizes moral panics as activating ideological discourses, such as those around law and order.

These differences are not insuperable. In an underrated effort, Klocke and Muschert ( 2010 ) created a composite model capitalizing on the strengths of the original theories. For a new research project, this might be a more useful tool than settling for just one of the original theories and thus omitting the insights of the other. Still, even in their present form, moral panic models have revealed a good deal about the topics that they have highlighted.

Accumulated Knowledge

Five topic clusters.

Moral panics have been studied extensively over the last 40 years. The accumulated findings will be reviewed here in the context of five clusters of topics: child abuse, drugs and alcohol, immigration, media technologies, and street crime. Cohen ( 2002 , p. xv) has a slightly different list of seven clusters. For each of these clusters, we know quite a lot about how moral panics operate and the impact that they have.

Child abuse . We know that exceptional cases of physical or sexual abuse become drivers of child protection policy, regardless of their typicality or alternative evidence from social work agencies. The original construction of the pedophile as the dangerous stranger was subsequently modified by revelations about pedophiles in the priesthood and among celebrities. But their presence in and around the family is still rarely acknowledged. Organizations apparently dedicated to saving children have their own self-serving agendas, while the media and public are highly susceptible to images of innocent children being damaged or corrupted (Jenkins, 1992 ; Kitzinger, 2004 ; Krinsky, 2008 ; Warner, 2015 ).

Drugs and alcohol . We know that consciousness-changing substances used for pleasure are a constant target for legal action because they allegedly jeopardize either the health of those who enjoy them or general law and order on the streets. Laws governing the sale, possession, or consumption of such substances are tightened continuously but can be enforced only selectively to avoid criminalizing broad swathes of primarily young people. A huge and permanent disjunction exists between the policies and prognostications of police, politicians, and the media and the views and practices of young people as a whole. Drug advice agencies find their expertise consistently undervalued (Parker, Aldridge, & Measham, 1998 ; Jenkins, 1999 ).The most recent examples include methamphetamine (Linneman, 2010 ; Omori, 2013 ), mephedrone (Collins, 2013 ; Alexandrescu, 2014 ), and novel psychoactive (“designer”) drugs (Miller et al., 2015 ).

Immigration . We know that a serial moral panic is likely to recur whenever people migrate to another location to live alongside the indigenous population, especially if the immigrants are of a different color. Accusations against these newcomers are invariably that they bring alien cultures and refuse to integrate with the mainstream culture; that they make excessive demands on welfare, education, and housing systems; and that they are excessively involved in crime. These negative assumptions occur in very different contexts, ranging from resistance to refugees from war in the Middle East in Britain or the European Union to American hostility to migrant labor from Mexico. Antipathy to migrants is routinely reproduced by the popular press, is confirmed by politicians of all shades, and has reinvigorated the extreme right in Europe (Welch, 2002 ; Kubrin, Zatz, & Martinez, 2012 ; Philo, Briant, & Donald, 2013 ).

Media technologies . We know that advent of any new medium of communication produces disquiet among guardians of childhood and culture. They fear that it will encourage children to seek pleasure in narratives of little intrinsic merit that proffer dangerous role models of violent or otherwise antisocial behavior. Children enter a fantasy or virtual world where they can act out roles and emotions that were otherwise prohibited. Such fears are often based on ignorance about the medium’s actual capacities or usage. Moralizing organizations, often religiously motivated, commonly advocate censorship that the media industry resists, while parents remain concerned but lack coherent control strategies (Barker & Petley, 1997 ; Livingstone, 2002 ). Cyberbullying (Milosevic, 2015 ) and sexting (Draper, 2012 ) are recent manifestations of this type of development.

Street crime . Interpersonal crime has always been a central concern of modern mass media. Coverage expands dramatically if new types or patterns of crime emerge, especially involving increased violence or the use of weapons. This sustains the belief that crime is out of control, so fear of being randomly attacked on the street by violent young men is prevalent in modern cosmopolitan societies, even among those least likely to become victims. This pattern prevails for such crimes as mugging and knife- or gun-related crime. Social causes, in the deprived structural position and limited cultural options of inner-city youth, are occasionally recognized, but the solutions are repressive: more vigorous policing and longer sentences for the actual or potential use of violence (Chambliss, 1995 ; Jewkes, 2015 ).

These five groupings are by no means exhaustive. Others could easily be added. Panics about welfare dependents exist, but they may be better analyzed as an ideologically motivated and increasingly successful attack upon the basis of the modern welfare state. Reaction to inner-city riots could be seen as moral panics but may simply represent what the state has always done when confronted with insurrection: come down immediately with the full force of the law, without preamble or apology.

Modern terrorism, one product of Islamic fundamentalism, is in a league of its own. An explicitly political type of deviance, it is an international confrontation that goes way beyond the confines of the nation-state, indivisible from the Western view of, and actions toward, the Muslim world. An initial view might be that the moral panic concept seems ill equipped to deal with its global nature, but it has nevertheless been occasionally applied. Early on, Rothe and Muzzatti ( 2004 ) employed both models to demonstrate that terrorism fitted them exactly. Walsh ( 2016 ) argued that terrorism remains a moral panic, if an exceptional one, since terrorists as folk devils deliberately provoke overreaction. Other analysts advocate substantial changes to the models to make them applicable (Morgan & Poynting, 2012 ; Shafir & Scairer, 2013 ). They may be stretching a point, however.

Other topics with the potential for a moral panic never develop. Both Levi ( 2009 ), for white-collar crime, and Jenkins ( 2009 ), for Internet child pornography, have explored how complex issues, that are not routinely visible and difficult to detect and featuring perpetrators who are not instantly recognizable, fail to attract the attention of moral entrepreneurs, the media, or enforcement agencies, except on rare and fleeting occasions. Domestic and sexual violence against women is another category that fails to spark a moral panic. What is absent from moral panics may be as significant as what is present in them. We now know a great deal about the latter.


On the basis of the research to date, we can make some reasonably robust empirical generalizations about moral panics, as follows:

In capitalist democracies, moral panics appear to be endemic; it is not a question of whether, but when, the next one will appear.

The relationship between an alleged problem and its actual occurrence or significance ranges from almost total fabrication through exaggeration of a relatively minor problem to systematic distortion of a major one.

The media play a crucial role in moral panics, but there are important differences between types of media: local and national, press and television, or upmarket and downmarket.

Moral panics can easily be exploited by party politicians.

Threats to children or from youth heighten emotional tension in moral panics.

Factors identified as causing the decline of a moral panic include:

Its displacement by other more novel and dramatic problems, especially in the media;

Its apparent or symbolic resolution by legal and related measures;

A decline in the symptoms of the problem as a result of social control initiatives;

The emergence of counterclaims that challenge or discredit the originators of the moral panic.

The knowledge accumulated by the numerous studies of moral panics has also confirmed the following basic features of the models as recurrent:

The strategic roles occupied by identifiable groupings: pressure groups, accredited professionals, mass media, and politicians.

The nature of the institutional legacies that they leave behind, especially changes in the law, though often symbolic.

The distorting effect of panics on the quality of public debate about social problems.

Their apparent function, in times of rapid or unsettling social change, of reaffirming the basic moral values of society.


Three features vary considerably across moral panics. The first is the status of the folk devil. Three of our five clusters have a clear folk devil, in their purest forms—pedophile, illegal immigrant, and mugger. But in the two others, the problem is an object, such as an Ecstasy pill or a computer game. Moral panics do not require a clear-cut folk devil, although they may be more effective when they have one.

The second is an apparent variability in the level and intensity of public (as opposed to elite) engagement. Threats from immigration, child abuse, and street crime seem to provoke collective emotional recognition, unlike those from new media technologies or recreational drugs. The reasons for this, such as the visibility of the deviance, require further investigation.

The third is the role of notorious cases with exceptional symbolic power, often with children or teenagers as victims. Variously conceptualized as “key events” (Kepplinger & Habermeier, 1995 ), “signal crimes” (Innes, 2003 ), or “scandals” (Butler & Drakeford, 2005 ), they attract media coverage, political response, and public opinion. These are not necessarily the triggers for the panic, which can create its own cases. Heightened sensitivity to an issue can transform an otherwise routine event into an emblematic one. Visual images of victims, especially if they are children, can become culturally iconic.

Both recurrent and variable features may be found in moral panics at different times and in different places. This point is discussed in the next sections.

Moral Panics in Time and Space

More and more information about the geography and history of moral panics has gradually emerged. Studies originally emanated from Anglophone countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), with supplements from Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). This is now changing. Moral panic analysis has gained a foothold in Central and Eastern Europe, South America, and the Far East. Krinsky ( 2013a ), for example, includes contributions from Brazil, Argentine, Poland, and Japan. A scholar of Japan (Toivonen, 2013 , p. 265) notes that

though most of the relevant literature focuses on Europe and North America, non-Western societies with modern media apparatuses are similarly susceptible to episodes of moral panic.

Social problems and their associated moral panics may be exported from Western societies, especially the United States (Best & Furedi, 2001 ). We can now recognize national variations in sociological characteristics crucial to moral panics. Systems of politics, media, religion, and law enforcement may appear similar in principle but differ in practice. It remains true that moral panics everywhere emerge from the interactions of the five Ps: press, politics, pressure groups, police, and public. But such systems vary across nations, with other variables appearing, such as the hegemony of organized religion over moral issues.

As the geographical perspective on moral panics widens, so does the historical one. Hostility to those perceived as deviant is intrinsic to the histories of Jewish and Romany people. The greatest moral panic of all time, the pursuit of witches, happened in Europe in the Middle Ages. A study of a later appearance of the phenomenon among the earliest settlers in the United States greatly influenced moral panic pioneers (Erikson, 1966 ). Moral panics can now be identified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Lemmings & Walker, 2009 ).

Such studies indicate that moral panics beyond religious or ethnic persecution are largely a product of modernity. Preconditions for moral panics include a formally free press, a government willing to respond to popular pressure, campaigners able and willing to organize to bring about legal change, and an elite belief that social stability depends upon the maintenance of a secular moral order. These conditions did not exist in England or the United States before the late eighteenth century and do not exist today in many societies. Moral panics cannot occur in closed societies. An impervious political system may create its own scapegoats but will not permit, nor respond to, independent agitation against moral evils. Societies ceasing to be totalitarian, as in Eastern Europe, are likely to start producing moral panics. They are, paradoxically, a product of culturally open societies.

We are progressing toward “a comparative sociology of moral panic that makes comparisons within one society and also between societies” (Cohen, 2002 , p. xxii). Appreciating the geographical breadth and historical depth of moral panic analysis assumes that the enterprise remains worthwhile. This is, however, a far from universal assumption. Its principles and practices continue to be challenged.

Critiques of Moral Panic Models

Reservations about moral panic analysis are many and varied. Some are based on a single case study, such as LSD (Cornwell & Linders, 2002 ) or AIDS (Miller & Kitzinger, 1988 ). Others discuss clusters of panics, such as those concerning crime (Jewkes, 2015 ). At a different level are those that consider the presuppositions and internal consistencies of the models as totalities (Garland, 2008 ). The debate is further confused by the fact that the target of criticism is usually only one of the two main models, and what applies to one may or may not apply to the other. Because it has the most influence in Britain, the debate is more intense there than anywhere else.

There are more complex maps of the past and present of moral panic analysis than can be considered here. Hier ( 2011a ) divides analysts into three camps: the conventional, the skeptical, and the revisionist. Krinsky ( 2013b ) perceives two waves of moral panic development, early and late. Rohloff, Hughes, Petley, and Critcher ( 2013 ) outline fundamental conceptual issues and contemporary debates. The approach here is more akin to that of David, Rohloff, Petley, and Hughes ( 2011 ), who enumerated the basic issues at stake. They are here divided (and thus fragmented) into six main lines of criticism: loose terminology, disproportionality, outdatedness, rigidity, political partisanship, and assumed media effects.

Loose Terminology

Critics argue that using the term and constructing a boundary around “moral” tends to prevent links to apparently similar issues, such as health or food scares. The definition of which issues are or are not “moral” is bound to be subjective and is always fluid because almost any issue can be moralized. Likewise, the term panic raises the objection that it imputes irrationality to people who may be genuinely and logically concerned. It pits the rational analyst against the irrational participants. “It is never very clear who is doing the panicking. Is it the media, the government, the public, or who?” (Miller & Kitzinger, 1988 , p. 216).

The logical basis of moral panic analysis is also questioned. Goode and Ben-Yehuda ( 2009 ) assert that moral panic analysis rests fundamentally on the ability to demonstrate that a response to a perceived social evil has been or is disproportionate. This implies that we are in a position to know what a proportionate response would be. For that to happen, we need to have detailed knowledge about the real dimensions of the problem. Critics say that often, such data are unreliable or unknowable. Even if they are known, who is to say what is a “proportionate” response to, say, the rape and murder of a child? Disproportionality does not work, but without it, there are no grounds to decide what is or is not a moral panic. The principal difficulty about a moral panic lies in

establishing the comparison between the scale of the problem and the scale of response to it … Conceptually the notion of a moral panic lacks any criteria of proportionality without which it is impossible to determine whether concern about any … problem is justified or not. (Waddington, 1986 , p. 246)


A different set of criticisms stems from the datedness of Cohen’s model. Produced 40 years ago, it reflected the British political system, cultural assumptions, and media structure of that time. Each of these has become much more fluid. The advent of new and social media in particular has changed the locus of definitional power so that many more voices are heard than was previously the case. Those in power can no longer be confident that their definitions of issues will prevail:

The proliferation and fragmentation of mass, niche and micro-media and the multiplicity of voices, which compete and contest the meaning of the issues subject to “moral panic,” suggest that both the original and revised models are outdated insofar as they could not possibly take account of the labyrinthine web of determining relations which now exist between social groups and the media, “reality” and representation. (McRobbie & Thornton, 1995 , p. 561)

The model itself is alleged to be mechanistic. “The most serious flaw of the concept of moral panic … is its lack of agency” (Miller & Kitzinger, 1988 , p. 216). The panic follows a prescribed script that robs those involved of any agency and the issue itself of any specificity. The model is rigid; that is, it does not permit variations in processes or outcomes. If cases depart from the anticipated sequence, the model founders and cannot explain such deviations. It is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only those events that approximate to the model are recognized as moral panics.

Political Partisanship

For some, moral panic too readily becomes a term of political abuse. It is a way of discrediting conservative claimsmakers. Liberal or radical campaigns on social issues are not accused of mounting moral panics. This sleight of hand disguises essentially political judgments as intellectual ones. “Moral panic is an invidious label” that is “driven largely by unstated ideological assumptions” (Best, 2013 , pp. 42–43).

Assumed Media Effects

In addition, there are allegations that this approach assumes that the public necessarily believes what the media transmit. This invalidates independence of judgment and experience—the idea that people may have a good foundation for their beliefs other than learning them from the media. Moral panic scholars “presuppose that in finding consensus on certain issues, audiences are gullible and that they privilege mediated knowledge over direct experience” (Jewkes, 2015 , p. 100). There is a built-in resistance to investigating media audiences empirically (Miller & Kitzinger, 1988 ).

Proposed Revisions

The critiques given in the previous sections are a formidable array, sufficient for some to advocate abolishing the approach altogether or limiting its application to a narrow range of cases. Best ( 2013 ) argued that the term moral panic should be strictly confined to media-led campaigns against perceived deviance among young people. McRobbie and Thornton ( 1995 , p. 572) argued more than 20 years ago that “the model of moral panic is urgently in need of updating precisely because of its success.” They explained why it should be done, but not how to do it. Garland ( 2008 ) wished to retain the essentials but advocated conceptual refinement. Hier ( 2002 ) sought to recharacterize moral panic as a special instance of a wider process of moral regulation. Ungar ( 2001 ) argued that in a risk society, new kinds of anxiety, especially about possible environmental catastrophes, displace traditional moral panics. In a much-neglected critique, Watney ( 1998 ) insisted that by concentrating on discrete episodes, moral panic analysis inherently fails to grasp the more continuous and profound ideological struggle over representation.


Defenders of the models, including Cohen ( 2002 ), Goode and Ben-Yehuda ( 2011 ), and Critcher ( 2003 ), have responded to these criticisms. They admit that the terminology is not wholly satisfactory, but they contend that it is better than any alternatives. There are social problems that directly involve questions around basic societal norms—“the expression of outrage at the violation of a given absolute value” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2011 , p. 21)—in a way that is demonstrably not the case for other categories of problems, such as health concerns or food scares. Cohen ( 2002 ) concedes that panic is a problematic term because of “its connotation with irrationality and being out of control” (p. xxvii) but insists that it “still makes sense as an extended metaphor” (p. xxvi), and that similarities remain in terms of psychological mechanisms with urban myths and natural disasters. The concept of panic may seem to overstate the case, but it remains appropriate to indicate how, at the height of social reaction, collective emotion overwhelms individual reason.

Disproportionality is probably the most contested judgment inherent in moral panic models. The originators remain adamant that usually such claims can be assessed for proportionality. As Cohen ( 2002 , p. xxviii) puts it, using the example of myths about asylum seekers, “the core empirical claims within each narrative can usually be reached by the most rudimentary social science methodology.” Goode and Ben-Yehuda ( 2009 ) argue, more elaborately, that disproportionality is evident when any one of five conditions is met: (a) that statistical claims are demonstrably false; (b) the putative problem is nonexistent; (c) absurd rumors flourish; (d) some problems are emphasized at the expense of similar, but more significant, ones; and (e) media and related attention increases despite no change in the rate of behavior.

Being outdated is more applicable to Cohen’s work from the 1970s than to Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s later and then revised model. Neither model tackles how the rise of the Internet and digital technologies, especially social media, has altered communication patterns during moral panics. While undeniable in principle, the practical effects of digital communication on moral panics have yet to be empirically proven. In some instances, social media have merely intensified the level of vitriol directed at identified deviants. In other examples, such as designer drugs, the Internet was the vehicle for spreading knowledge about and access to them. It was also possible to correct inaccuracies in the mainstream media’s reporting of supposedly drug-related deaths (Forsyth, 2012 ). But when legal action was taken, consumers had no voice.

The charge of rigidity is denied by defenders of the models. Cohen explicitly concedes that a potential moral panic may be stalled or sidetracked. Goode and Ben-Yehuda make a consistent and careful distinction between plentiful moral crusades and much rarer moral panics. The full-blown moral panic follows a predictable path and demonstrates consistent characteristics, but there are many claims making activities that never assume the status of moral panics.

The allegation of political partisanship—that conservative groups, but not liberal or radical ones, are castigated for seeking to create creating moral panics—cannot apply to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, who have explicitly derided moral panics that have been supported by radicals: pornography, snuff movies, school shootings, and (in retrospect, perhaps unwisely) sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Moral panic analysis does not automatically exonerate so-called progressive groupings who make controversial claims. Sex trafficking could be an example where those with the best of intentions are prone to exaggerate the existence of the problem because its nature is so vile (Weitzer, 2007 ; Cree et al., 2012 ). Cohen ( 2002 , p. xxxi) conceded that “the criticism that ‘moral panic’ is a value-laden concept, a mere political epithet, demands more complicated attention than it receives.” Nevertheless, since moral panics function to defend the existing moral order, they will be favored by conservatives and viewed skeptically by liberals.

The final point of criticism is that moral panic analysis assumes a gullible public. The reply is that it is difficult for the public to resist media messages. Goode and Ben Yehuda argued that opinion polls continuously demonstrate that the media and the claims makers they validate do set the public agenda. Cohen, whose original work explored the many ambiguities and inconsistencies in audience interpretations of media messages, never assumed that the audience was gullible, although it was inevitably media dependent.

The points at issue are substantial and complex; they have been simplified here for clarity. Some issues are amenable to empirical evidence from studies that have either discovered inconsistencies in the models or concluded that the essentials of the models can be verified. Other issues are more abstract, concerning how we conceive the nature of social processes or even knowledge itself. If nothing else, moral panic analysis has helped stimulate debate about the social construction of social problems, which is lively and ongoing. But the original models can no longer be freestanding—they need to be connected to other cognate strands in contemporary social science. One angle is to ask a simple question: What, if anything, are moral panics extreme manifestations of? One answer is moral regulation, discussed next.

Moral Panics and Moral Regulation

The concept of moral regulation holds that open societies conduct a continuous dialogue about the boundaries of morally acceptable behavior and how to regulate what is regarded as unacceptable. In principle, this can mean that activities once regarded as unacceptable are legitimated, such as homosexual relationships. In practice, though, the boundaries are continuously redrawn to cope with new kinds of moral impropriety, such as the misuse of social media.

Alan Hunt ( 1999 ) analyzed 19th-century movements for moral regulation in the United Kingdom and United States. He found moral regulation to be aimed at such traditionally immoral activities as sex, drinking, and gambling. He emphasized how organized advocates of regulation, who were usually middle class and often female, adopted common strategies. They identified and defined an immoral activity, specified who was involved in it, developed propaganda tactics, and demanded legislative action. These are essentially the same ploys that claimsmakers use today, despite huge changes in the social, economic, and political contexts. Hunt, however, expressly distanced himself from the moral panic concept.

By contrast, Sean Hier ( 2002 , 2008 ) wanted to retain a version of moral panic within the framework of moral regulation as a constant struggle over the process of moralization: that is, who or what should be made morally accountable. He endorsed major criticisms of established moral panic analysis, including its reliance on cognitive, behavioral, and normative measures of the gap between the reality of the problem and its social construction. Disproportionality cannot be evaluated without any reliable “indication of what constitutes a realistic level of concern, anxiety or alarm” (Hier, 2008 , p. 178).

Drawing on the Foucauldian concept of governmentality, Hier sees moral regulation as invariably requiring ethical self-formation of both would-be regulator and regulated: “projects of moral regulation reveal as much about the identity of those who seek to regulate as they do about those who come to serve as the object of regulation” (Hier, 2002 , p. 328). There is no inherent limit on the scope of moral regulation: “moralization can manifest itself empirically in any number of forms” (Hier, 2008 , p. 172).

Moral panics and moral regulation share two characteristics. Each involves one set of people seeking to act on the conduct of others. In both, the regulators confirm their own identities even as they try to alter others’ behavior. But the differences are significant. First, moral panics do not need any “character reformation of moral deviants” (Hier, 2002 , p. 329), but only direct and coercive intervention. Second, moral panics differentiate innocent victims from culpable perpetrators more clearly than moral regulation does. They appeal to a moral economy of harm: the idea that some are injured by the activities of others. A moral panic is a temporary rupture when the routine process of moral regulation fails: “the volatile local manifestation of what can otherwise be understood as the global project of moral regulation ” (Hier, 2002 , p. 329, emphases in original).

Hier includes in moral regulation a wide variety of issues, including “public surveillance, crime and disorder, child allergies, bullying, teen violence amongst females,” “hockey parents,” and “myriad health concerns” ( 2008 , p. 186); “criminality, health risk, sexual deviance and general perceptions of public/personal safety” ( 2002 , p. 331); the “detention of asylum seekers” or “public health scandals” ( 2008 , p. 172); and “commercially financed athletic center advertisements” or “publicly funded anti- smoking campaigns” ( 2008 , p. 180).

Critcher ( 2009 ) objects to such a liberal extension of the scope of moralization. Following Cohen ( 2002 ), he holds that there is a boundary on moral panic topics. Food safety issues, like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or E.coli, are excluded because the moral issues remain distinct from the political ones. In moral panics, blame is not a matter of technical or managerial inefficiency, but rather a serious moral failing. There is a difference between being corrupt and being incompetent. Critcher proposes instead assessing the construction of social problems on three criteria: moral order, the degree of perceived threat to basic values; social control, the extent to which there is identified a viable solution; and governmentality, how far moral regulation of others is represented as requiring ethical formation of the self. He constructs a typology where issues (and hence the likelihood of them transmuting into a moral panic) rate high, medium, or low for each criterion.

Hier ( 2011c ) subsequently accuses Critcher of “relying on a set of normative assumptions about moral order, social control, and ethical self-regulation” (p. 525) and misunderstanding Hier’s project to identify the “political and moral articulation of risk, harm, and personal responsibility” (p. 539). Meanwhile, Hunt returns to his critique of moral panic models, arguing that they are limiting and limited. Moral regulation is “better able to handle the difficult and complex entanglements associated with the problematization of risks and harms” (Hunt, 2011 , p. 66). A journey down the moral regulation route may sooner or later involve jettisoning moral panic. In the same article, Hunt insists that “it is crucial that attention be focused on ‘social anxiety’” (p. 67). Assessing explanations of who panics and why is our next consideration. Three possibilities are risk society theory, the culture of fear, and the politics of emotion.

Moral Panics in Social Context: Risk, Fear, and Emotion

As Carrabine ( 2008 , p. 162) has noted about moral panics, “all of the recent attempts to update the concept are drawn, in one way or another, to the risk society thesis.” It is not hard to see why. At a very basic level, moral panics embody a sense of risk. Most obvious is the case of children at risk of abuse. But the sense of risk is palpable elsewhere as well: the risk of becoming a victim of crime; the risks posed to the indigenous way of life by the presence of immigrants; the risks to personal health and public order from alcohol or drug abuse; and the risks to the well-being of children and young people from their immersion in new media. These are clearly different types and degrees of risk, but all indicate vulnerability and the need for protection. “The global scope of the risk society, its self-reflective quality and its pervasiveness create a new backdrop for standard moral panics” (Cohen, 2002 , p. xxv).

It is a more elaborate enterprise to connect the particular concerns of moral panic analysis with the more global perspective of risk theory. This body of work associated with Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens—to which Lupton ( 2013 ) remains an essential guide—argued that modern Western societies had become extremely risk conscious. Lupton ( 2013 , p. 17) summarized their overall view as follows:

[T]he contemporary obsession with the concept of risk has its roots in the changes inherent in the transformation of societies from pre-modern to modern and then to late modern.

While there are real differences between risk society perspectives, everyone agrees that

(1) risk has become an increasingly pervasive concept of human existence in Western societies; (2) risk is a central aspect of human subjectivity; (3) risk is seen as something that can be managed through human intervention; and (4) risk is associated with notions of choice, responsibility and blame. (Lupton, 2013 , p. 37)

Risk operates across both everyday personal life and the bigger issues of politics and public life. An enhanced consciousness of risk, therefore, might explain why late modern societies seem to experience a greater number and intensity of moral panics. However, such a connection has yet to be made. Two factors may be important. One is that risk theory is appropriated by comparatively narrow specialisms. So analysts are interested in what risk theory says to or about child abuse, crime, drug taking, new media technology, or immigration. Few seem interested in how the risk society is likely to construct social problems as a totality. The second factor is that in some areas—crime, drug taking, and, less clearly, child abuse—risk theory has been usurped by the governmentality approach. This utterly ignores moral panic analysis and subsumes risk within its overarching theory. So early attempts to combine risk and governmentality theory in analyzing the policing of crime, such as that by Ericson and Haggerty ( 1997 ), have faded away. Ironically, governmentality rules.

Risk theory has actually been used to mount an attack on conventional moral panic analysis. Ungar ( 2001 , p. 274) asked the question being explored here: “How will the rise of such risk society issues affect the occurrence and development of moral panics?” His answer was that the established concept is no longer relevant in the risk society. The assumptions made by moral panic analysts about which are the most salient issues, who are the most significant actors, and what are the most likely outcomes are all inappropriate for the more unpredictable, contested, and fluid course of problem identification and management in the risk society.

Those moral panic scholars who had high hopes of risk society have had them dashed. Perhaps a better alternative is a different effort to pinpoint contemporary society’s predisposition to panic—theories about a culture of fear, discussed next.

The Culture of Fear

The major works focusing on the topics and dynamics of fear are Furedi ( 1997 ), Glassner ( 1999 ), Altheide ( 2002 ), and Bauman ( 2007 ). The clearest definition of the culture of fear comes from Altheide ( 2002 , p. 2):

[T]he pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are central features of the effective environment or the physical and symbolic environment as people define and experience it in everyday life.

Each author specifies different causes for the culture of fear, but all identify the essential paradox—that Western societies, apparently more secure than any before, have produced a pervasive culture of fear, qualitatively different from anything which preceded it: more pervasive, more free-floating. It is realized most powerfully in traditional mass media (sometimes entertainment but mainly news), as well as in other public discourse. The culture of fear systematically misrecognizes social problems, producing a distorted and disproportionate response. A major consequence is hostility toward those defined as deviants. A secondary effect is to foster distrust of others, especially strangers.

The argument is in many ways persuasive. It explains a predisposition to collective overreaction to and panic about perceived threats. It includes an account of why those who objectively have least to fear subjectively experience that fear the most. It shares some deficiencies with risk theory. The geographical scope is vague, failing to explain which countries do or do not share a culture of fear. There are difficult historical questions about when and why this culture grew. Its ontological status is dubious: Do we all live out fear on a daily basis, or is it a pervasive concern of political and cultural institutions that only occasionally impinges on the private sphere? A neglected idea from disaster research is to explore how panic develops among elites (Clarke & Chess, 2008 ) who may have more to fear than most.

In a rare critique of the thesis, Pain ( 2010 ) has emphasized its lack of empirical evidence of fear among the general population. Using data from polls following terrorist attacks in major capitals, she showed that fear is not the main emotional reaction; that when it occurs, it is at a low level; that it declines with time and distance; that it is consistently greater in the United States than elsewhere; and that fear is most evident among marginal groups, either within the majority community or among ethnic minorities. She concludes that “much of the empirical evidence tells a different story from recent high-profile texts on the geopolitics of fear” (Pain, 2010 , p. 228). Pain emphasizes that emotional reactions are more nuanced, varied, and situationally dependent than blanket profiles of whole cultures can accommodate.

The Politics of Emotion

Just beneath the surface of moral panic analysis, and sometimes briefly on the surface, is a bubble waiting to burst: “the formation of a moral panic is a thing of energy and emotion rather than a simple mistake in rationality and information” (Young, 2011 , p. 255). It is present in the original studies, as Cohen chooses the term panic and cites disaster research and Goode and Ben-Yehuda emphasize hostility and volatility as dimensions of collective behavior. Emotional salience explains why some moral panics (mugging, pedophilia, immigration) galvanize the general public, while others (recreational drug consumption, misuse of social media) do not. Emotional vulnerability is implicit in the risk society thesis (if thinly disguised as ontological insecurity), but explicit in the culture of fear, where whole societies are taken to be in a permanent state of emotional alert. More recently, Hunt ( 2011 , p. 54) has argued for the need to take more seriously the “experiential intractability” of “social anxiety,” which emerges when societies undergo rapid cultural change.

Young ( 2009 ) activated the idea of “ressentiment,” a reservoir of moral outrage seeking targets for its negative emotions. This derives from traditional sociological analysis of system strain whenever the moral equation of effort and reward becomes imbalanced. This produces, especially among the aspiring middle classes, a degree of status frustration that finds emotional expression in hostility toward those perceived as deviant. Yet, like the risk society and the culture of fear, this is all so much fine argument, with little tangible proof.

Walby and Spencer ( 2011 ) are critical of assumptions that the emotional mood of the public can be inferred from media coverage or political pronouncements. Required instead is (p. 104)

empirically investigating what emotions do, how emotions align certain communities against others, and how emotions move people towards certain (sometimes violent) actions against others whose actions pose alleged harms.

Studying the construction of child abuse in Britain, Warner ( 2015 ) has argued for understanding “emotional politics.” Child abuse in particular (but potentially any moral panic) seems to trigger moral intensity: “to make judgements requires a sense of what is right and wrong and such moral evaluations are shaped by how we feel about the issue” (Warner, 2015 , p. 11, emphasis in original). Anger and contempt, outrage, and disgust are common reactions to stories about abused children. Feelings of shame give rise to a need to blame somebody for the events (Warner, 2015 , p. 6):

While emotions are generally thought of as being experienced by individuals and often being brief and episodic, the emotions that are politically important are experienced collectively and embedded in political institutions; they are also enduring rather than short-lived.

Politicians, the media, and official inquiries articulate moral judgments, inviting the public to share their emotions. Despite differences in welfare systems, Warner finds similar types of emotional politics around child abuse in Australasia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and New York in the United States, as well as Britain. Emotional blame is directed in different combinations at the underclass, women, and ethnic minorities. Emotion is socially structured.

A sociology of emotions might also take advantage of insights from social psychology about how groups construct and maintain boundaries with other groups. Pearce and Charman ( 2011 ) utilized two social psychological models. Social identity theory seeks to explain the significance and dynamics of defining in-groups and out-groups. The theory of social representations examines how people construct common sense categorizations of other people and their behavior. Their study analyzed discourse in both the media and focus-group discussions about asylum seekers in Britain. They discovered a consistent congruence between media and public discourses. Asylum seekers were perceived as economically, culturally, and physically threatening, especially as their inflow was uncontrollable. Boundaries between “us” and “them” were not completely rigid, but there were strict conditions governing flexibility. The project was not designed to explore the specifics of emotional response but resentment, hostility and metaphorical imagery (inevitably of floods) were all very evident. Overall the approach revealed “the potential for social psychological theory to extend the explanatory value of moral panic” (Pearce & Charman, 2011 , p. 309).

Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries

This article has outlined and explained the original moral panic models. It summarized what cumulative research has indicated as empirical generalizations about moral panics. The many and varied criticisms of moral panic models were explored, as were the rejoinders from their supporters. Subsequently, the discussion explored the debate about whether or how to rethink moral panics as exceptional moments in an ongoing process of moral regulation. The focus then shifted to the broader societal context where, in different ways, theories about the risk society and the culture of fear sought to account for the apparently increasing prevalence of moral panics. Finally, it looked at approaches that explored the social psychological dimensions of expressing collective emotions and constructing group identities.

There has not been the opportunity in this text to consider the academic status of moral panic analysis. The moral panic concept does not belong to any larger theory of the social formation. That is why it can be and has been appropriated by very different kinds of theory—by symbolic interactionism (Cohen, 2002 ) and collective behavior (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009 ) in the original studies, and then by Marxism (Hall et al., 1978 ) and even occasionally by feminism (Gelsthorpe, 2005 ). Moral panic analysis may be best understood as what Robert Merton ( 1967 , p. 39) called “middle range theory”:

Middle range theory is principally used in sociology to guide empirical inquiry. It is intermediate to general theories of social system which are too remote from particular classes of social behaviour, organization and change to account for what is observed and to those detailed orderly descriptions of particulars that are not generalized at all. Middle-range theory involves, abstractions, of course, but they are close enough to observed data to be incorporated in propositions that permit empirical testing. Middle-range theories deal with delimited aspects of social phenomena, as is indicated by their labels.

Realizing the full potential of moral panic analysis as middle range theory may require a properly interdisciplinary approach. It involves movement across disciplinary boundaries, such as those between sociology and psychology or policy and media studies. It also needs a comparative framework across space and time. While no single moral panic study can possibly be expected to incorporate all these disciplinary perspectives, that seems to be the direction in which the field of moral panics as a whole ought to go. Only time will tell.

Further Reading

There is no substitute for carefully reading the seminal moral panic texts in the order in which they were written. So start with Cohen ( 2002 ); the introduction to the third edition contains Cohen’s ruminations on moral panic analysis 30 years after his original study was published. Then move on to Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda ( 2009 ). They have a distinctive approach to moral panics, with a much greater historical and geographical range than Cohen’s single case study. Few writers draw on both models, so it’s worth considering a hybrid model, which may provide the best of both worlds. That can be found in Klocke and Muschert ( 2010 ).

Classic criticisms of moral panic models have been edited by Critcher ( 2006 ), while more recent debates are covered in a later collection (Hier, 2011b ). For applications of both models to a range of mainly British examples, see Critcher ( 2003 ). An ambivalent attitude to moral panics is evident in Jewkes ( 2015 ), while a much more international focus can be found in Krinsky ( 2013b ).

Finally, there are two readily accessible special editions of journals devoted to various aspects of moral panic. “Moral Panic—36 Years On” is a special issue of the British Journal of Criminology (vol. 49, no. 1, January 2009). “Moral Panics in the Contemporary World” is a special issue of Crime Media Culture (vol. 7, no. 3, December 2011).

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1. The literature on moral panic is now so vast that a full bibliography would be longer than the main article. References are thus often confined to the most seminal or recent contributions. Many otherwise excellent pieces have been omitted. This has unwittingly produced an Anglo-American bias. Another aspect of authorial discretion is that the article pays as much attention to new and possibly future directions for the field as it does to an exposition of the established works. This serves to reflect the dynamic nature of the moral panic concept.

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  • 2. The Impact of Violence on Children
  • 3. States' Obligations to Prevent VAC and Protect Child Victims
  • 4. Improving the Prevention of Violence against Children
  • 5. Improving the Criminal Justice Response to VAC
  • 6. Addressing Violence against Children within the Justice System
  • 1. The Role of the Justice System
  • 2. Convention on the Rights of the Child & International Legal Framework on Children's Rights
  • 3. Justice for Children
  • 4. Justice for Children in Conflict with the Law
  • 5. Realizing Justice for Children
  • 1a. Judicial Independence as Fundamental Value of Rule of Law & of Constitutionalism
  • 1b. Main Factors Aimed at Securing Judicial Independence
  • 2a. Public Prosecutors as ‘Gate Keepers’ of Criminal Justice
  • 2b. Institutional and Functional Role of Prosecutors
  • 2c. Other Factors Affecting the Role of Prosecutors
  • Basics of Computing
  • Global Connectivity and Technology Usage Trends
  • Cybercrime in Brief
  • Cybercrime Trends
  • Cybercrime Prevention
  • Offences against computer data and systems
  • Computer-related offences
  • Content-related offences
  • The Role of Cybercrime Law
  • Harmonization of Laws
  • International and Regional Instruments
  • International Human Rights and Cybercrime Law
  • Digital Evidence
  • Digital Forensics
  • Standards and Best Practices for Digital Forensics
  • Reporting Cybercrime
  • Who Conducts Cybercrime Investigations?
  • Obstacles to Cybercrime Investigations
  • Knowledge Management
  • Legal and Ethical Obligations
  • Handling of Digital Evidence
  • Digital Evidence Admissibility
  • Sovereignty and Jurisdiction
  • Formal International Cooperation Mechanisms
  • Informal International Cooperation Mechanisms
  • Data Retention, Preservation and Access
  • Challenges Relating to Extraterritorial Evidence
  • National Capacity and International Cooperation
  • Internet Governance
  • Cybersecurity Strategies: Basic Features
  • National Cybersecurity Strategies
  • International Cooperation on Cybersecurity Matters
  • Cybersecurity Posture
  • Assets, Vulnerabilities and Threats
  • Vulnerability Disclosure
  • Cybersecurity Measures and Usability
  • Situational Crime Prevention
  • Incident Detection, Response, Recovery & Preparedness
  • Privacy: What it is and Why it is Important
  • Privacy and Security
  • Cybercrime that Compromises Privacy
  • Data Protection Legislation
  • Data Breach Notification Laws
  • Enforcement of Privacy and Data Protection Laws
  • Intellectual Property: What it is
  • Types of Intellectual Property
  • Causes for Cyber-Enabled Copyright & Trademark Offences
  • Protection & Prevention Efforts
  • Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
  • Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment
  • Cyberbullying
  • Gender-Based Interpersonal Cybercrime
  • Interpersonal Cybercrime Prevention
  • Cyber Organized Crime: What is it?
  • Conceptualizing Organized Crime & Defining Actors Involved
  • Criminal Groups Engaging in Cyber Organized Crime
  • Cyber Organized Crime Activities
  • Preventing & Countering Cyber Organized Crime
  • Cyberespionage
  • Cyberterrorism
  • Cyberwarfare
  • Information Warfare, Disinformation & Electoral Fraud
  • Responses to Cyberinterventions
  • Framing the Issue of Firearms
  • Direct Impact of Firearms
  • Indirect Impacts of Firearms on States or Communities
  • International and National Responses
  • Typology and Classification of Firearms
  • Common Firearms Types
  • 'Other' Types of Firearms
  • Parts and Components
  • History of the Legitimate Arms Market
  • Need for a Legitimate Market
  • Key Actors in the Legitimate Market
  • Authorized & Unauthorized Arms Transfers
  • Illegal Firearms in Social, Cultural & Political Context
  • Supply, Demand & Criminal Motivations
  • Larger Scale Firearms Trafficking Activities
  • Smaller Scale Trafficking Activities
  • Sources of Illicit Firearms
  • Consequences of Illicit Markets
  • International Public Law & Transnational Law
  • International Instruments with Global Outreach
  • Commonalities, Differences & Complementarity between Global Instruments
  • Tools to Support Implementation of Global Instruments
  • Other United Nations Processes
  • The Sustainable Development Goals
  • Multilateral & Regional Instruments
  • Scope of National Firearms Regulations
  • National Firearms Strategies & Action Plans
  • Harmonization of National Legislation with International Firearms Instruments
  • Assistance for Development of National Firearms Legislation
  • Firearms Trafficking as a Cross-Cutting Element
  • Organized Crime and Organized Criminal Groups
  • Criminal Gangs
  • Terrorist Groups
  • Interconnections between Organized Criminal Groups & Terrorist Groups
  • Gangs - Organized Crime & Terrorism: An Evolving Continuum
  • International Response
  • International and National Legal Framework
  • Firearms Related Offences
  • Role of Law Enforcement
  • Firearms as Evidence
  • Use of Special Investigative Techniques
  • International Cooperation and Information Exchange
  • Prosecution and Adjudication of Firearms Trafficking
  • Teaching Methods & Principles
  • Ethical Learning Environments
  • Overview of Modules
  • Module Adaption & Design Guidelines
  • Table of Exercises
  • Basic Terms
  • Forms of Gender Discrimination
  • Ethics of Care
  • Case Studies for Professional Ethics
  • Case Studies for Role Morality
  • Additional Exercises
  • Defining Organized Crime
  • Definition in Convention
  • Similarities & Differences
  • Activities, Organization, Composition
  • Thinking Critically Through Fiction
  • Excerpts of Legislation
  • Research & Independent Study Questions
  • Legal Definitions of Organized Crimes
  • Criminal Association
  • Definitions in the Organized Crime Convention
  • Criminal Organizations and Enterprise Laws
  • Enabling Offence: Obstruction of Justice
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Wildlife & Forest Crime
  • Counterfeit Products Trafficking
  • Falsified Medical Products
  • Trafficking in Cultural Property
  • Trafficking in Persons
  • Case Studies & Exercises
  • Extortion Racketeering
  • Loansharking
  • Links to Corruption
  • Bribery versus Extortion
  • Money-Laundering
  • Liability of Legal Persons
  • How much Organized Crime is there?
  • Alternative Ways for Measuring
  • Measuring Product Markets
  • Risk Assessment
  • Key Concepts of Risk Assessment
  • Risk Assessment of Organized Crime Groups
  • Risk Assessment of Product Markets
  • Risk Assessment in Practice
  • Positivism: Environmental Influences
  • Classical: Pain-Pleasure Decisions
  • Structural Factors
  • Ethical Perspective
  • Crime Causes & Facilitating Factors
  • Models and Structure
  • Hierarchical Model
  • Local, Cultural Model
  • Enterprise or Business Model
  • Groups vs Activities
  • Networked Structure
  • Jurisdiction
  • Investigators of Organized Crime
  • Controlled Deliveries
  • Physical & Electronic Surveillance
  • Undercover Operations
  • Financial Analysis
  • Use of Informants
  • Rights of Victims & Witnesses
  • Role of Prosecutors
  • Adversarial vs Inquisitorial Legal Systems
  • Mitigating Punishment
  • Granting Immunity from Prosecution
  • Witness Protection
  • Aggravating & Mitigating Factors
  • Sentencing Options
  • Alternatives to Imprisonment
  • Death Penalty & Organized Crime
  • Backgrounds of Convicted Offenders
  • Confiscation
  • Confiscation in Practice
  • Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA)
  • Extradition
  • Transfer of Criminal Proceedings
  • Transfer of Sentenced Persons
  • Module 12: Prevention of Organized Crime
  • Adoption of Organized Crime Convention
  • Historical Context
  • Features of the Convention
  • Related international instruments
  • Conference of the Parties
  • Roles of Participants
  • Structure and Flow
  • Recommended Topics
  • Background Materials
  • What is Sex / Gender / Intersectionality?
  • Knowledge about Gender in Organized Crime
  • Gender and Organized Crime
  • Gender and Different Types of Organized Crime
  • Definitions and Terminology
  • Organized crime and Terrorism - International Legal Framework
  • International Terrorism-related Conventions
  • UNSC Resolutions on Terrorism
  • Organized Crime Convention and its Protocols
  • Theoretical Frameworks on Linkages between Organized Crime and Terrorism
  • Typologies of Criminal Behaviour Associated with Terrorism
  • Terrorism and Drug Trafficking
  • Terrorism and Trafficking in Weapons
  • Terrorism, Crime and Trafficking in Cultural Property
  • Trafficking in Persons and Terrorism
  • Intellectual Property Crime and Terrorism
  • Kidnapping for Ransom and Terrorism
  • Exploitation of Natural Resources and Terrorism
  • Review and Assessment Questions
  • Research and Independent Study Questions
  • Criminalization of Smuggling of Migrants
  • UNTOC & the Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants
  • Offences under the Protocol
  • Financial & Other Material Benefits
  • Aggravating Circumstances
  • Criminal Liability
  • Non-Criminalization of Smuggled Migrants
  • Scope of the Protocol
  • Humanitarian Exemption
  • Migrant Smuggling v. Irregular Migration
  • Migrant Smuggling vis-a-vis Other Crime Types
  • Other Resources
  • Assistance and Protection in the Protocol
  • International Human Rights and Refugee Law
  • Vulnerable groups
  • Positive and Negative Obligations of the State
  • Identification of Smuggled Migrants
  • Participation in Legal Proceedings
  • Role of Non-Governmental Organizations
  • Smuggled Migrants & Other Categories of Migrants
  • Short-, Mid- and Long-Term Measures
  • Criminal Justice Reponse: Scope
  • Investigative & Prosecutorial Approaches
  • Different Relevant Actors & Their Roles
  • Testimonial Evidence
  • Financial Investigations
  • Non-Governmental Organizations
  • ‘Outside the Box’ Methodologies
  • Intra- and Inter-Agency Coordination
  • Admissibility of Evidence
  • International Cooperation
  • Exchange of Information
  • Non-Criminal Law Relevant to Smuggling of Migrants
  • Administrative Approach
  • Complementary Activities & Role of Non-criminal Justice Actors
  • Macro-Perspective in Addressing Smuggling of Migrants
  • Human Security
  • International Aid and Cooperation
  • Migration & Migrant Smuggling
  • Mixed Migration Flows
  • Social Politics of Migrant Smuggling
  • Vulnerability
  • Profile of Smugglers
  • Role of Organized Criminal Groups
  • Humanitarianism, Security and Migrant Smuggling
  • Crime of Trafficking in Persons
  • The Issue of Consent
  • The Purpose of Exploitation
  • The abuse of a position of vulnerability
  • Indicators of Trafficking in Persons
  • Distinction between Trafficking in Persons and Other Crimes
  • Misconceptions Regarding Trafficking in Persons
  • Root Causes
  • Supply Side Prevention Strategies
  • Demand Side Prevention Strategies
  • Role of the Media
  • Safe Migration Channels
  • Crime Prevention Strategies
  • Monitoring, Evaluating & Reporting on Effectiveness of Prevention
  • Trafficked Persons as Victims
  • Protection under the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons
  • Broader International Framework
  • State Responsibility for Trafficking in Persons
  • Identification of Victims
  • Principle of Non-Criminalization of Victims
  • Criminal Justice Duties Imposed on States
  • Role of the Criminal Justice System
  • Current Low Levels of Prosecutions and Convictions
  • Challenges to an Effective Criminal Justice Response
  • Rights of Victims to Justice and Protection
  • Potential Strategies to “Turn the Tide”
  • State Cooperation with Civil Society
  • Civil Society Actors
  • The Private Sector
  • Comparing SOM and TIP
  • Differences and Commonalities
  • Vulnerability and Continuum between SOM & TIP
  • Labour Exploitation
  • Forced Marriage
  • Other Examples
  • Children on the Move
  • Protecting Smuggled and Trafficked Children
  • Protection in Practice
  • Children Alleged as Having Committed Smuggling or Trafficking Offences
  • Basic Terms - Gender and Gender Stereotypes
  • International Legal Frameworks and Definitions of TIP and SOM
  • Global Overview on TIP and SOM
  • Gender and Migration
  • Key Debates in the Scholarship on TIP and SOM
  • Gender and TIP and SOM Offenders
  • Responses to TIP and SOM
  • Use of Technology to Facilitate TIP and SOM
  • Technology Facilitating Trafficking in Persons
  • Technology in Smuggling of Migrants
  • Using Technology to Prevent and Combat TIP and SOM
  • Privacy and Data Concerns
  • Emerging Trends
  • Demand and Consumption
  • Supply and Demand
  • Implications of Wildlife Trafficking
  • Legal and Illegal Markets
  • Perpetrators and their Networks
  • Locations and Activities relating to Wildlife Trafficking
  • Environmental Protection & Conservation
  • CITES & the International Trade in Endangered Species
  • Organized Crime & Corruption
  • Animal Welfare
  • Criminal Justice Actors and Agencies
  • Criminalization of Wildlife Trafficking
  • Challenges for Law Enforcement
  • Investigation Measures and Detection Methods
  • Prosecution and Judiciary
  • Wild Flora as the Target of Illegal Trafficking
  • Purposes for which Wild Flora is Illegally Targeted
  • How is it Done and Who is Involved?
  • Consequences of Harms to Wild Flora
  • Terminology
  • Background: Communities and conservation: A history of disenfranchisement
  • Incentives for communities to get involved in illegal wildlife trafficking: the cost of conservation
  • Incentives to participate in illegal wildlife, logging and fishing economies
  • International and regional responses that fight wildlife trafficking while supporting IPLCs
  • Mechanisms for incentivizing community conservation and reducing wildlife trafficking
  • Critiques of community engagement
  • Other challenges posed by wildlife trafficking that affect local populations
  • Global Podcast Series
  • Apr. 2021: Call for Expressions of Interest: Online training for academics from francophone Africa
  • Feb. 2021: Series of Seminars for Universities of Central Asia
  • Dec. 2020: UNODC and TISS Conference on Access to Justice to End Violence
  • Nov. 2020: Expert Workshop for University Lecturers and Trainers from the Commonwealth of Independent States
  • Oct. 2020: E4J Webinar Series: Youth Empowerment through Education for Justice
  • Interview: How to use E4J's tool in teaching on TIP and SOM
  • E4J-Open University Online Training-of-Trainers Course
  • Teaching Integrity and Ethics Modules: Survey Results
  • Grants Programmes
  • E4J MUN Resource Guide
  • Library of Resources

Module 3: Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Proceedings

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E4J University Module Series: Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice

Introduction and learning outcomes.

  • Topic 1.  Introduction to the international standards and norms
  • Topic 2.  Identifying the need for legal aid, and the benefits and costs of legal aid
  • Topic 3.  Key components of the right of access to legal aid
  • Topic 4.  Access to legal aid for those with specific needs
  • Topic 5.  Models for governing, administering and funding legal aid
  • Topic 6.  Models for delivering legal aid services
  • Topic 7.  Roles and responsibilities of legal aid providers, and other criminal justice officials
  • Topic 8.  Quality assurance and legal aid services

Case studies

Possible class structure, core reading, advanced reading, student assessment, additional teaching tools, guidelines to develop a stand-alone course.

  • First published in January 2019

  This module is a resource for lecturers  

The case studies in this section are designed to provide students with an opportunity to evaluate access to legal aid in practice, and to constructively assess strategies for improving access to legal aid in different jurisdictions. Discussion questions relating to these case studies are presented in the Exercises section.

Pre-Class Case Study

A few weeks ago, you were visiting a friend in another part of town. About five minutes after you left your friend's house, you were stopped in the street by a police officer, arrested and taken to a police station. The police told you that you had been identified by a woman who told them that you had assaulted her about 30 minutes before you were stopped by the police officer. At that time, you had been with your friend, but when you tried to explain this to the police, they were not interested. You are now being prosecuted for assault and have to attend court next week.

The questions related to this pre-class case study are mentioned in the Exercises section.

In-Class Case Study of "Sami"

Sami is a girl aged 14 years. She grew up in a poor district of the capital city, but when she was 13 she was snatched from the street by a criminal gang and taken to a town in another part of the country. She does not speak the language used in that part of the country and does not really have a very clear idea of where it is in relation to the city that she came from. Several girls and boys are kept by the gang, and every day they are sent out to steal. They are often watched by a member of the gang, and severely punished if they are seen trying to talk to anyone, or seen to go outside of the area of the town that they are told to operate in. Sami has been beaten on several occasions and is often threatened with violence by gang members. Sometimes, she is made to have sex with men.

One day she was caught by the person she tried to steal from, who called the police. She was taken to the police station.

The questions related to this in-class case study are mentioned in the Exercises section.

Additional Case Study 

A 25-year-old man is arrested and detained by police officers on suspicion that he has stolen a car. He was identified by a neighbour of the owner of the car, who says he went to the same school as him, and who reported it to the police. The police take the man to the local police station, where they intend to interrogate him about the suspected offence.

Having regard to the law and practice in your jurisdiction:

(1) Assess whether -

(a) he has a right to a lawyer and, if so, at what point in the process that right applies

(b) he is likely, in practice, to have a lawyer and, if so, at what point in the process, and

(c) he is eligible for the lawyer to be paid under legal aid whilst he is held at the police station.

(2) Assume that the man is prosecuted for theft of the car. Assess whether -

(a) he has a right to a lawyer for the trial

(b) he is likely, in practice, to have a lawyer, and

(c) he is eligible for the lawyer to be paid under legal aid for the court proceedings.

Next: Possible class structure

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3.8 Conclusion

Criminology has its origins in the classical and positive schools, both of which emerged from the Age of Enlightenment. Although not regarded as scientific theories, the classical school writings of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham included assumptions about human nature and criminal behavior. In their view, humans were rational, self-interested, and hedonistic, and the purpose of the criminal law and punishments was to deter criminal behavior. The positive school represents the broader emergence of the idea that knowledge should be based on empirical, or scientific data, and the application of the scientific method to the study of social phenomena such as crime. Although lacking a strong theoretical statement, early efforts to gather statistics on crime and examine geographic, seasonal, and demographic patterns in criminal behavior represented an early effort of the positivist approach. The first attempts to scientifically explain criminal behavior came from doctors and psychiatrists in their search for the causes of mental illness (e.g., moral insanity), and other scientists who sought to better understand the link between the physical body (e.g., phrenology, physiognomy) and the human mind. As developments in the understanding of evolution and heredity advanced in the wider scientific world, concepts of degeneracy came to dominate the discourse about the causes of crime. This idea was extended by Cesare Lombroso, the first scholar to develop a theory of crime and apply the scientific method to its study. Although initially, he believed that criminals were evolutionary throwbacks, distinguishable by distinct physical characteristics, eventually his theory itself evolved to incorporate environmental explanations. Unfortunately, his theory also offered convenient justification for racist projects including Nazi and American eugenics. Although some scholars continued to work in the biological tradition, the horrors of genocide and eugenic projects and the rise of sociological positivism led to a disappearance of biological explanations in criminology. Today’s biological positivism rejects the earlier determinism of the previous century and emphasizes the importance of environmental factors.

3.8.1 Application Exercises

  • Is the “murder gene” real? Look up the concept of the murder gene and debate its credibility based on what you learned in this chapter.

3.8.2 Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that people possess free will or that their behavior is due to forces beyond their control, such as their biology? What implications does this have for the way society treats people who have broken criminal laws?
  • Do you think it is ethical for criminologists to study the biological basis for criminal behavior? Why or why not? How can modern criminologists who study the biological basis of crime avoid the scientific racism that led to eugenic criminology?
  • If a person knew they had a certain characteristic that was likely to be passed down to the next generation if they procreated, should they factor that into their decision about having children? Should anyone else have a say in their decision?

3.8.3 Key Terms

  • Born criminals
  • Criminal anthropology
  • Moral faculty
  • Moral insanity
  • Physiognomy
  • Positive criminology
  • Rational choice theory
  • Scientific racism
  • Social contract
  • Somatotyping

3.8.4 Summary

Criminology has its origins in two schools of thought: the classical and positive schools. Whereas theories within the classical school assume that all people are rational, self-interested, and capable of criminal behavior, theories within the positive school assume that criminal behavior is due to forces beyond an individual’s control, such as their biological or psychological makeup, environment, or sociological factors. Whereas the classical school asserted that punishment is the best approach to prevent crime, early proponents of the positive school suggested that medical treatment, rehabilitation, and, in some instances, incapacitation was the best approach. Although Lombroso is remembered for developing the first scientific theory of crime and attempting to gather data to test his theory, the crude methods and eugenic implications led to the biological approach being replaced by sociological perspectives. In contrast with these earlier theories, modern research on the biological roots of crime emphasizes the importance of the environment in interaction with biological factors to better explain crime.

3.8.5 Resources

  • This four-part series by PBS explores the science of mental illness and how it has developed over time. Mysteries of Mental Illness. (2022). https://www.pbs.org/show/mysteries-mental-illness/
  • This NPR Fresh Air interview shares the research of Adrian Raine on brain scans of murderers. (2014). Criminologist   believes  violent behavior is biological. https://www.npr.org/2014/03/21/292375166/criminologist-believes-violent-behavior-is-biological

3.8.6 Licenses and Attributions for Conclusion

“Conclusion” by Mauri Matsuda is licensed under CC BY 4.0 .

 Introduction to Criminology Copyright © by Taryn VanderPyl. All Rights Reserved.

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Home / Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs / Accredited Online Criminal Justice & Criminology Degree / Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice Resources / What Is Criminology? The Study of Crime and Criminal Minds

What is criminology? The study of crime and the criminal mind What is criminology? The study of crime and the criminal mind What is criminology? The study of crime and the criminal mind

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Tables of Contents

  • Criminology Definition and History
  • Criminology Theories
  • Criminology vs. Criminal Justice

Careers in Criminology: Salary and Job Outlook

  • Crime Statistics and Key Insights

In a time when the U.S. criminal justice system is under a microscope, criminologists are playing a key role in establishing a more equitable, science-based understanding of crime, policy, and social justice. Applying their theoretical knowledge and practical experience, professionals in this field support and strengthen the work of law enforcement agencies and legal professionals.

But what is criminology, really? This article will explore the many components of this rapidly evolving discipline and offer insights on how to pursue a variety of criminology careers.

criminology case study summary

Criminology definition and history

Criminology is the study of crime and criminal behavior, informed by principles of sociology and other non-legal fields, including psychology, economics, statistics, and anthropology.

Criminologists examine a variety of related areas , including:

  • Characteristics of people who commit crimes
  • Reasons why people commit crimes
  • Effects of crime on individuals and communities
  • Methods for preventing crime

Origins of criminology

The  roots of criminology  trace back to a movement to reform criminal justice and penal systems more than 200 years ago. The first collection and use of crime statistics in the 19th century then laid the groundwork for generations of increasingly sophisticated tools and methods, leading to our modern use of descriptive statistics, case studies, typologies, and predictive analytics.

18th-century origins of criminal theory

Cesare Beccaria’s “On Crime and Punishments,” published in 1764, called for  fitting the punishment to the severity of the crimes , as explained by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

  • Punishments for crimes should be “public, prompt, necessary, the minimum possible under the given circumstances, and established by law.”
  • Punishments are intended to deter the offender from further criminal activity.
  • Severity is based on the level of harm caused by the offense rather than the intent of the offender.

The legal reference website JRank highlights the work of Beccaria and Jeremy Benthem: The motivation for people’s choices is to seek pleasure or avoid pain.  Punishment for a crime  should deter potential choices to break the law by ensuring that the pain of potential punishment is greater than the pleasure derived from committing the crime. This idea spurred the first efforts in the U.S. and Europe to codify and standardize the law.

Mid-20th century development of modern criminology

The mid-20th century development of  “modern” criminology  involved seeking to understand crime’s causes by studying sociological, psychological, and economic conditions. The American Law Institute’s work on the  Model Penal Code  was a 10-year effort completed in 1962. The code established new standards of criminal liability that considered the mental elements of crime.

The code served as a model for penal code revisions in several states. It was also instrumental in charting the federal penal code for the first time. The code inspired other efforts to reform criminal law through criminology research application.

“New Criminology” and the impact of social upheaval on crime

In the 20th century, new approaches to criminology focused on the causes of crime, such as  conflicts between social and economic classes leading to social upheaval , as JRank explains. Social-process criminology emphasizes criminal behavior as something people learn through interaction with others, usually in small groups.

In contrast, control theory focuses on training people to behave appropriately by encouraging law-abiding behavior. Control theory’s basis is the belief that personal bonds give rise to our internal controls, such as conscience and guilt, and our external controls, such as shame, that deter us from breaking the law.

A multidisciplinary approach to criminology

In their research, criminologists consider many perspectives on crime’s causes and effects. This  multidisciplinary approach of criminologists  accepts there is no single answer to why people commit crimes. JRank notes attempts to control bad behavior date back to the earliest civilizations. Today, factors may be biological, psychological, economic, or social. Criminals are motivated by greed, anger, jealousy, pride, and other emotions. They seek material gain; they want control, revenge, or power.

Potential causes of or motivations for criminal activity include:

  • Parental relations
  • Hereditary and brain activity
  • Peer influence
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Easy opportunity

Criminology and the legal perspective

Criminologists study crime as an illegal action society punishes through the government’s legal system. Researchers focus on the causes, prevention, and correction of crime generally. By contrast, the legal industry’s perspective of crime emphasizes specific crimes and punishments governed by statutes and regulations, as well as established legal processes.

The legal definition of a crime is  an offense against public law , as UpCounsel explains. To qualify as a crime, the offense must be punishable, whether by fine, loss of freedom, or other method.  Criminologists have broadened the definition of crime  to include conduct that doesn’t violate existing law, as JRank reports. This includes economic exploitation, racial discrimination, and unsafe or unhealthy work environments.

Criminology resources

  • The Internet Journal of Criminology  — Links to government organizations, national and international organizations, academic institutions, and other criminology resources
  • Critical Criminology  — A compilation of resources that examine law, crime, and justice from the perspective of people of color, women, restorative efforts, and community justice
  • S. Department of Justice, National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center  — Links to criminal justice professional associations and groups that assist law enforcement in establishing policies, standards, training, and education

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Criminology Theories: Classical, Positivist, and Chicago School

Research into criminology theories is primarily sociological or psychological.  Sociological theories of criminology  perceive crime as a normal human response to social conditions that are “abnormal and criminogenic,” according to JRank.

Psychological theories of criminology  date back to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Crime results from a failure to form healthy and loving attachments to parents. Behavioral psychology introduced the concept of rewards and punishments: A rewarded crime is repeated; a punished crime is not.

Three principal approaches to criminology

Today, three criminology theories predominate: the Classical, Positivist, and Chicago schools.

  • The Classical School argues that people freely choose to engage in crime.  Bentham’s utilitarianism theory  states they are driven either by a desire for pleasure or by aversion to pain, as the Oxford University Press states.
  • The Positivist School applies scientific theory to criminology. It focuses on factors that compel people to commit crimes.
  • The Chicago School states that crime results from “ social disorganization ,” which is defined in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice as “the inability of a community to realize common values and maintain effective social controls.”

Criminology’s impact on reducing and preventing crimes

Two statistical programs run by the DOJ demonstrate the  impact that criminological studies have had on responding to, reducing, and preventing crimes .

  • The Uniform Crime Reporting program (UCR) collects information from law enforcement agencies across the country on dozens of crimes. It is intended to assist researchers in studying crime among neighboring jurisdictions and those with similar populations or other characteristics.
  • The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) analyzes crime incidents, victims, and trends. It collects data on reported and unreported crimes and provides researchers with demographic data on perpetrators and victims.

Research conducted by the Minnesota House Research Department  studied the effectiveness of the theory of criminal deterrence , which dates back to the 18th century. It reached three conclusions:

  • Deterrence is most effective for preplanned crimes.
  • Making already-long prison sentences even longer does little to deter crime.
  • Increasing the likelihood of getting caught is a more effective crime deterrent than increasing punishment.

Criminology and society’s treatment of criminals and victims

Little attention was paid to the needs of crime victims until the 1970s, when the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) determined that a  primary reason for unsuccessful prosecutions  was the poor treatment of witnesses and victims by the criminal justice system. Since that time, legislation and law enforcement programs, including the Violence Against Women Act of 1990, have worked to protect and assist victims and witnesses.

Similarly, criminology research has affected how criminals are treated in custody. The American Bar Association (ABA) has developed  Standards on Treatment of Prisoners  that describe correctional policies and professional standards that comply with constitutional and statutory law.

Criminology has also highlighted the real cost of crimes on individuals, families, and communities. The 2017 report  “Costs of Crime”  from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that new study methods will improve the accuracy of crime cost estimates, particularly in the area of compensating victims for their pain and suffering.

Criminology theory resources

  • “Predicting Pathways into Criminal Behavior: The Intersection of Race, Gender, Poverty, Psychological Factors”  investigates the factors involved in women’s involvement in criminal activity, including economic disadvantage related to education and employment.
  • The National Institute of Justice discusses mapping in law enforcement in this paper:  “From Crime Mapping to Crime Forecasting: The Evolution of Place-Based Policing” .

Criminology vs. criminal justice: what’s the difference?

The  primary distinction when it comes to criminology vs criminal justice  is the former’s emphasis on the study of crime and the latter’s focus on society’s response to crime, as the Balance Careers explains. Criminal justice applies principles and concepts developed by criminologists to enforcing laws and investigating crimes, as well as to the trial, punishment, and rehabilitation of criminals.

Criminal justice definition

The Legal Dictionary  defines criminal justice  as a set of procedures:

  • Investigating criminal conduct
  • Gathering evidence of the crime
  • Making arrests
  • Bringing charges in court
  • Raising defenses
  • Conducting trials
  • Rendering sentences
  • Carrying out punishments

By contrast, its definition of criminology emphasizes the scientific and academic aspects of the field’s study of crime, criminal behavior, and law enforcement. Criminal justice includes the work of:

  • Criminal courts
  • Prisons and other correctional institutions
  • Juvenile justice systems

Criminal justice and effective law enforcement

In the 20th century, the  field of criminal justice arose  as an effort to improve the effectiveness of law enforcement in light of expanding due process and other rights for criminal defendants, as Encyclopedia Britannica explains. The study of criminal justice expanded in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of qualitative descriptive analyses of the operations of specific criminal justice agencies.

More recent research in criminal justice emphasizes quantitative studies about the effectiveness of particular crime-fighting strategies and approaches. Researchers have studied whether an abusive spouse’s arrest prevents future incidents of abuse, and whether prison rehabilitation programs are effective in reducing recidivism.

One area of criminal justice research proven to be ineffective is the effort to predict which offenders are most likely to commit other crimes. Not only were models unable to identify habitual offenders, but researchers were questioned about whether such efforts violated people’s constitutional rights. The fear is that offenders may be punished not for what they had done but for what they might do in the future.

Such issues are at the forefront of modern discussions about the relationships between civil rights and law enforcement. With numerous  studies indicating a need to address systemic racism  in many corners of the justice system, future criminologists will play an important part in creating a more equitable framework for crime prevention.

Criminology and criminal justice work together to fight crime

Criminal justice and criminology are distinct fields, but they’re closely linked, theoretically and practically. From the viewpoint of potential criminologists and law enforcement professionals, the big difference is criminology’s focus on science and research, and criminal justice’s emphasis on application and administration.

For example, criminologists respond to a rise in homicides by studying underlying economic, sociological, and psychological conditions. By contrast, criminal justice officials respond by working to prevent future homicides and capture the perpetrators.

The two fields merge in  applied criminology , which studies “real-world” problems relating to crime and criminal justice. It applies criminology concepts to actual criminal justice policy and practice. The goal is to make criminology relevant in addressing crime, victimization, and the relationship between “governmental agendas and knowledge production.”

Criminologists promote crime-fighting efforts via tools such as the  New York Police Department’s CompStat system , which is now used by police departments across the country to  combine crime analysis and geographic information system technologies . Their work suggests innovative ways to improve law enforcement and instill trust in the criminal justice system.

Criminology vs. Criminal Justice: Additional Resources

  • Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • International Journal Of Criminal Justice Sciences, List of World Agencies/Organizations in Criminal Justice/Criminology
  • The Balance Careers, “The Difference Between Careers in Criminology and Criminal Justice”

criminology case study summary

Typical  employers of criminologists  include law enforcement and other government agencies, university research labs, and other research institutions, as PayScale.com explains. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)  defines criminologists  or penologists as sociologists who specialize in the study of crime. They investigate the social influences of crime on individuals, groups, and organizations.

Career options for criminologists

The Balance Careers  distinguishes criminology positions  as being more academic than those in criminal justice, although there is a great degree of overlap between the two fields. For example, people typically earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology followed by a master’s degree in criminal justice, or vice versa.

Among the daily tasks of criminologists are collecting and examining evidence, visiting crime scenes, attending autopsies, and exploring the psychological aspects of a crime from investigation through conviction and rehabilitation. These tasks require the ability to organize data and evidence, conduct statistical analysis, and write reports.

The range of  positions available to criminologists  include jobs with federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as public and private research organizations, think tanks, legislative bodies, and public policy bodies, as the Balance Careers reports. Criminologists strive to improve police operations via innovative programs, such as community-oriented policing and predictive policing.

Criminology Positions: Salaries and Employment Outlook

The BLS forecasts that the number of jobs for all sociologists, the category that includes criminologists, will increase by 9% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the average growth projected for all occupations. PayScale.com reports that the median annual criminology salary is around $44,000.

These are among the career options available to criminologists.

Forensic Science Technician

Forensic science technicians  assist in criminal investigations . They collect and analyze evidence, including fingerprints, weapons, and body fluids. They photograph and sketch crime scenes, and they catalog and preserve evidence before it is transferred to crime labs. They also work in labs, investigate possible suspects, and consult with experts in forensic medicine.

The BLS reports that the median annual salary of forensic science technicians as of May 2019 was $59,150. The number of jobs is forecast to increase by 14% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than the average projected for all occupations.

criminology case study summary

Probation and Community Control Officer

According to BLS figures, the  median annual salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists  was $54,290 as of May 2019. The number of jobs for the position is forecast to increase by 3% between 2018 and 2028, which is lower than the average projected for all occupations.

Probation and community control officers help former offenders transition to productive lives after incarceration. The Balance Careers lists the  duties of probation and community control officers .

  • Supervise probationers and parolees, including visiting their homes and meeting with their families
  • Collaborate with church groups and community organizations
  • Monitor probationers and parolees electronically
  • Perform pretrial investigations, submit sentencing recommendations, and testify in court
  • Prepare status reports on probationers and parolees, and assist them in job training and job searches

Police Officer

The median annual salary for police officers and detectives as of May 2019 was $65,170, according to the BLS. Jobs for police officers and detectives are expected to increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028, which is equal to the average projected for all occupations.

Police officers are tasked with protecting the lives and property of community residents. The BLS explains the  duties of police officers :

  • Respond to emergency and nonemergency situations
  • Patrol specific areas
  • Issue citations and conduct traffic stops
  • Use computers in the field to search for warrants and vehicle registrations
  • Conduct investigations at crime scenes
  • Collect and secure evidence
  • Prepare cases and testify in court

Corrections Officer

The median annual salary of corrections officers as of May 2019 was $47,830, according to BLS figures. The number of positions for corrections officers is forecast to decline by 7% between 2018 and 2028 as a result of expected reductions in prison populations.

Corrections officers oversee people who have been arrested and are awaiting a hearing or trial, as well as people who have been convicted and sentenced to serve time in jail or prison. The BLS notes the  duties of corrections officers :

  • Maintain order in jails and prisons by enforcing rules
  • Inspect facilities to ensure they meet safety and security standards
  • Supervise inmate activities and search them for contraband
  • Escort and transport inmates, and report on inmate conduct

Loss Prevention Manager

PayScale.com reports the median annual salary for loss prevention managers is around $52,000. The most common tasks of loss prevention managers are security risk management, safety compliance, inventory control, theft prevention, and security policies and procedures.

A loss prevention manager’s primary responsibility is to  prevent business losses due to internal or external theft, fraud, accidents, mishandling, or other causes , as PayScale.com explains. Other  duties of loss prevention managers  appear on O*Net Online:

  • Investigate employee theft and other violations of the company’s loss-prevention policies
  • Develop and implement programs to manage inventory, promote safety, and minimize losses
  • Ensure that prevention exception reports and cash discrepancies follow corporate guidelines
  • Train staff and managers on loss prevention strategies and techniques
  • Interview people suspected of shoplifting and other forms of theft

Detective/Criminal Investigator

Also referred to as detectives, criminal investigators are  police officers who gather facts and collect evidence in criminal cases . The BLS notes that criminal investigators often specialize in a single category of crime, such as fraud or homicide. These are the primary duties of criminal investigators:

  • Conduct interviews with crime victims, witnesses, suspects, and relevant experts
  • Examine police and other records
  • Monitor the activities of suspects and participate in raids and arrests
  • Write reports, prepare cases for trial, and testify during court proceedings

The median annual salary for detectives and criminal investigators as of May 2019 was $83,170, according to BLS figures. The number of jobs for police officers and detectives is forecast to increase by 5% between 2018 and 2028, which is equal to the average for all occupations.

criminology case study summary

Fish and Game Warden

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for fish and game wardens as of May 2019 was $57,500. The number of jobs for fish and game wardens is expected to increase by 2% between 2018 and 2028, which is below the average projected for all occupations.

Fish and game wardens are  responsible for enforcing laws related to hunting, fishing, and boating , as the BLS describes. These are among their primary duties:

  • Conduct interviews with complainants, witnesses, and suspects
  • Patrol fishing and hunting areas
  • Participate in search and rescue efforts
  • Monitor people suspected of violating regulations relating to fishing and hunting
  • Educate the public about laws governing outdoor activities

Private Investigator

The median annual salary for private detectives and investigators as of May 2019 was $50,510, according to BLS figures. The number of jobs for private investigators is forecast to grow by 8% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the average growth projected for all occupations.

The work done by private investigators for businesses and individuals mirrors that done by criminal investigators for public law enforcement agencies. These professionals examine records and conduct other research relating to legal, financial, and personal matters. The BLS lists the  duties of private detectives and investigators :

  • Conduct criminal and other background checks and verify statements made by individuals
  • Interview suspects, witnesses, and experts and perform other research into missing persons
  • Search for evidence in online, public, and court records
  • Perform surveillance and collect other evidence for clients

Insurance Fraud Investigator

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators was $66,790 as of May 2019. The agency expects the number of jobs for the category to decline by 4% between 2018 and 2028 due to automation of claims processing.

The position of insurance fraud investigator is included in the broad category of claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators who evaluate insurance claims. These are among the  principle duties of insurance fraud investigators , as listed by the BLS:

  • Examine and research insurance claims to confirm that they are legitimate
  • Conduct interviews with claimants’ doctors, employers, and others to review suspicious claims
  • Work with attorneys and other legal professionals to verify information related to claims
  • Perform surveillance to identify fraudulent claims resulting from staged accidents, arson, unnecessary medical treatments, and other criminal activity

Crime statistics and key insights

An important role played by criminologists is compiling and reporting on crime statistics.  The New Yorker  highlights both the importance of crime statistics in formulating crime-prevention strategies and enforcement policies and the  difficulty criminologists encounter in accurately measuring crime .

The article describes the challenge in determining whether cannabis use increases or reduces crime levels. Various analyses of crime rate trends in states where cannabis has been legalized have come to conflicting conclusions, pointing to the complexity of arriving at a definitive answer about what contributes to criminal activity. Criminologists use a variety of sources and techniques to try to provide statistics that can accurately portray crime trends and inform criminal policies.

How criminologists support law enforcement

Two of the DOJ’s most effective statistical analysis tools for assisting local crime-fighting efforts are the FBI’s UCR system and Bureau of Justice Statistics’ NCVS, both of which are described above. The systems share a shortcoming: Local jurisdictions disagree on what constitutes a crime. Some jurisdictions only report offenses that involve incarceration, while others include fined infractions.

Criminologists have developed a range of statistics-based tools that support federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

  • The City-Level Survey of Crime Victimization and Citizen Attitudes analyzes surveys conducted by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to  determine people’s perceptions of community policing and issues in their neighborhoods .
  • Emergency Room Statistics on Intentional Violence surveys a sample of hospital emergency rooms throughout the U.S. to  identify instances of domestic violence, rape, child abuse, and other intentional injuries .
  • The Police-Public Contact Survey interviews a representative sample of people across the country who either reported a crime or were detained in a traffic stop to  gauge their perceptions of the police’s conduct and response during the encounter .

Other organizations involved in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information about police activities include the Center for Policing Equity’s  COMSTAT for Justice , which is intended to identify bias in policing, and the  U.S. Commission on Civil Rights , whose 2019 report titled  “Police Use of Force: An Examination of Modern Policing Practices”  recommended that  more data on the use of force by police  be made available to law enforcement agencies, and that police be trained in de-escalation techniques, cultural differences, and anti-bias mechanisms.

Criminology’s impact by the numbers

Many of the statistics used and shared by the DOJ and the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are compiled by the  U.S. Census Bureau .

  • The Annual Survey of Jails reports on the  number of inmates in regional, county, city, and private jails , as well as demographic and criminal justice statistics of the jail population, among other areas related to incarceration.
  • The Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities gathers information on the  operation of the prisons and jails, and the conditions of confinement , such as capacity and crowding, court orders, staff workloads, and safety and security.
  • The Survey of Sexual Victimization (formerly the Survey of Sexual Violence) collects data on  sexual assaults in correctional facilities , including state prisons, state juvenile correction facilities, federal prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, and the U.S. military.  

Other sources of information on the impact of criminology research in law enforcement include the  Historical Violence Database  maintained by Ohio State University Criminal Justice Research Center, the University of Michigan’s  National Archive of Criminal Justice Data , the  National Criminal Justice Reference Service , and the University at Albany’s  Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics .

Criminologists: Serving Communities and Society

The work of criminologists touches nearly all aspects of social life. Crime investigation calls for specialized skills and training, sophisticated number-crunching ability, and a great deal of fieldwork interacting with colleagues within and outside criminal justice, and with the public.

Infographic Sources

The Balance Careers, “What Does a Criminologist Do?”

PayScale, “Average Criminologist Salary”

PayScale, “Average FBI Agent Salary”

PayScale, “Average Forensic Scientist Salary”

PayScale, “Average Police Detective Salary”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, “Detectives and Criminal Investigators”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Forensic Science Technicians”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Police and Detectives”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, “Sociologists”

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Social and economic impact of crime on wider society Case Study: Sarah Everard

Crime can cause significant social and economic problems to individuals and communities. Tackling crime can be expensive and can stretch budgets.

Part of Modern Studies Crime and law

Case Study: Sarah Everard

Sarah Everard was a 33 year old living in London. She disappeared on the 3rd of March 2021 when walking home from a friend’s house. Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police Officer, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and eventually murder on the 9th March. Her remains were found on the 10th of March in Kent.

Vigils were planned for Everard on the 13th March, the largest of which was on Clapham Common. These were organised by a new campaign group called ‘Reclaim These Streets’. The group was urged not to hold these vigils due to COVID 19 risks. As a result, several cities moved their vigils online.

The vigil on Clapham Common took place with hundreds of people attending throughout the day, including the Duchess of Cambridge.

The Metropolitan Police decided to break up the crowd in the evening with officers arresting attendees and walking over flowers that had been laid. This reaction prompted anger from the public and politicians.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating both the Metropolitan Police and Kent Police over responses to allegations regarding Wayne Couzens.

The government re-opened a call for evidence on its violence against women and girls strategy. They had 19,000 responses between December 2020 and March 2021. They had 160,000 responses in two weeks when they asked for more evidence.

Women across the UK shared their stories of harassment and self-policing. They also shared apps and tips to keep safe. One man tweeted asking how he can help women feel less anxious. This had 27 thousand likes and over one thousand replies. This has helped open conversations across the country.

More guides on this topic

  • Legal rights and responsibilities of UK citizens
  • Causes and theories of crime
  • Impact of crime on victims, offenders and their families
  • Effectiveness of custodial and non-custodial responses to crime
  • Classroom Videos

Related links

  • BBC News: Politics
  • BBC News: Business
  • BBC Democracy Live
  • SQA Higher Modern Studies
  • Scottish Parliament
  • Scottish Government


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