Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

The Trouble(s) with Unification: Debating Assumptions, Methods, and Expertise in Criminology

Academic journal article Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology

The Trouble(s) with Unification: Debating Assumptions, Methods, and Expertise in Criminology

Article excerpt


Describing the 'crisis' in criminology is hardly new. In response to recent concerns, Robert Agnew (2011) has started an important conversation about the value of working toward unifying criminology. In this paper we explore in more depth the complications of such an endeavour. We focus on theoretical assumptions, the political implications of methodological decisions, and the complexity required for a more robust approach to the question of expertise in criminal justice policymaking. We hope to continue this conversation and propose one means to consider on what basis theoretical integration, mixed methods, and a more modest criminology best can proceed.

Key words: Agnew; unification; critique; theoretical assumptions; methodological decision-making; expertise and professionalism; pragmatism.


Over the last decade concerns about the state of the field of criminology have spilled over into the Presidential Address at the American Society of Criminology's annual meetings. Senior scholars have decried the limits of criminological knowledge (Laub, 2004), the complexity of evidence (Clear, 2010), and the failure to address the persistent problem of race (Tonry, 2008). In addition, the recognition of criminology's general historical illiteracy (Bursik, 2009) might be seen alongside the failure to take seriously the consequences of accepting unquestioned and sometimes unconscious theoretical assumptions (Agnew, 2014). Findings of low levels of explained variance through theory testing imply that contemporary criminological research is disregarding key variables, theories, and approaches, and is failing to focus on the processes that underlie crime (Weisburd & Piquero, 2008; Wikstrom, 2007).

Robert Agnew (2011) has offered an important contribution designed to spark a constructive conversation about how best to address the concerns expressed above. While interest in integration is certainly not new, his call for a unified criminology offers a means to address underlying assumptions in criminology by exploring literature from fields such as evolutionary theory, social psychology, and biology. In response, some have expressed doubt that fragmentation is in fact a problem for criminology and insist that existing divisions ensure its interdisciplinary vitality. According to Brisman (2012), criminology is a hybrid subject that is constantly changing, and is in far more danger from a totalizing homogeneity than from its current state of disciplinary discord.

In this paper, we hope to contribute to Agnew's (2011) call for constructive conversation and earnest engagement. While sympathetic to the project he outlines, we consider three themes that may complicate his larger project. These include: the problem of base assumptions in our theories; the observation that methods are often guided by ideological determinations about the nature of reality; and questions about expertise, professionalism, and policymaking in criminology. We argue that these efforts to unify criminology must not gloss over core differences related to assumptions about human nature or fail to account for the distinctive epistemological bases for criminological research programs. Those interested in unifying criminology should also consider how the quantified self and self-serving approaches to expertise may reveal the dark side of careerism. This paper attempts to map the external realities and internal constraints within the field and also examines the potential for unification through the lens of theoretical assumptions, epistemic methodological choices, and the promise and peril of professionalism. In the hope of continuing this conversation, we conclude by introducing three projects that could complement nascent calls for unification.

Mapping the Challenges: External Realities and Internal Constraints

The notion that a 'crisis' in criminology exists has been contested. Brisman (2012) suggests such a charge is overblown. …

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