Criminology: nascent science of crimes and criminals

Translated by Natacha Perrin, proofread by Niki SO and Guéric Cardet

Delinquency is a dominating concern in modern societies. Government policies face it with more or less assertiveness. Criminology is a discipline relatively new that might enlighten decision-makers in the political and professional spheres about facing issues such as delinquency and criminality.

According to sociologist Renaud Fillieule, “Nowadays, delinquency constitutes one of the seven main issues of our society”. For Maurice Cusson, delinquency is a specific action in which a transgression is committed and that causes undeniable damage to others. It has to be framed by a reliable method trying to define the acting-out. To ensure people’s safety, as well as preventing and dealing with delinquency is the purpose of the fight led by politicians, especially in North America. Since the 19th century, this support is accompanied by the study of crimes’ and criminals’ distinctive features: criminology. This field of study has got more and more popular ever since. The Canadian International Centre of Comparative Criminology (Centre International de Criminologie Comparée), the Belgian Criminological Research Centre in Belgium (Centre des Recherches Criminologiques) or many and varied professionalizing specializations provided in France prepare future professionals to the fight against crime.

Also called criminal’s science or crime’s science, criminology is elaborating theories needed to situate or anticipate delinquency. Professionals use these tools to carry out their work. On November 25th, as part of a movie-debate night about “serial-killers” in Clermont-Ferrand (France), Stéphane Bourgoin revisited his work. He is a French author, specialized in the study of serial killers and criminal profiling. Within 40 years, he met seventy-seven serial killers, mainly in the United States of America (USA). It was an opportunity to understand the emergence of criminology and its necessity as well as the issues specific to this field.

A field of study based on understanding and solving

Society has a major role in delinquency’s development. First of all, because it defines the norms. At first sight, one could think that the success of criminologists’ method would entail government repression in keeping with the norms established by society. Beyond this, and thanks to Cesare Beccaria’s work, it appears that legislative deterrence, combined with judicial sanctions should be enough to limit criminal actions. But the aim of criminology is mostly practical. Indeed, to produce answers and data while looking for a culprit enables the avoidance of another acting-out.

Law enforcement officers, judges, psychiatrists or prison superintendents must build their reflection around these stakes. With this in mind, Stéphane Bourgoin has contributed to the search for the Zodiac Killer, still unidentified. Thanks to documents brought a few years after the investigation, evidences are unquestionable. A “dead former journalist” according to Stéphane Bourgoin; a lead missed by the American police at that time. The case was colossal but revealed a lack of cooperation between the counties. In this case, criminology had found its limits.


A field of study going through an identity crisis

Since its beginning, criminology is based on experience more than asserted theories. That’s why it remains doubtful. Earlier work in the 19th century struggled to understand what drives a delinquent to action. It is up to “modern criminology” to ascertain the reasons for of the offender’s determination.

Nevertheless, considering the cultural, normative and moral differences that distinguish each society, one single criminological method couldn’t prove to be consistent in time and space. Apart from the necessity to find an international consensus, criminology now faces a new form of criminality that includes terrorism and mass-massacres. Such phenomenon are so incontrollable that even a consistent method could not forestall them.

But above all, criminology endeavors to isolate criminal behaviors from the whole of social relations. This specialized science also depends on historical and cultural features of societies. While Canada and the USA as well as Germany and the United Kingdom set it up as an institution, France only gives it a feeble acknowledgment. These irregularity in legal recognition from a country to another though enables us to demonstrate the shortcomings and advantages of the discipline. The influence of criminology within the understanding of acting-outs contributes to the final goal of criminology: the decrease of delinquency. These objectives still remain specific to each country and the effectiveness of criminology may not be the same if it were to be extended to the entire world.

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