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ARCHIVED: Criminal Justice Resources: Criminal Justice Theories


Criminologists use theories (sociology theories; psychology theories; etc.) to explore issues that have been identified in the criminal justice system or to explain criminality. This guide will point students toward resources that will assist in learning about some of these theories.

Make sure the theory you choose to explore aligns with your assignment requirements.

Tip! Remember there is no one "perfect" theory for a situation. A question that has you looking at an organizational theory might also require research into a sociological or legal theory.

Below are some general books that provide overviews - exploring various theories within the context of Criminology:

EXPLAINING CRIME: A PRIMER IN CRIMINOLOGICAL THEORY.  Hugh D. Barlow.  Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.  197pp.  online resource

THINK CRIMINOLOGY. John R. Fuller.  McGraw-Hill, 2012.  397pp.  on order

If you want to explore more, visit the MSU Catalog and try a keyword search with the words criminology theory

Special thanks to La Loria Konata at the Georgia State University Library for offering the genesis of this guide.

Reference Sources

Do you need a quick snapshot - a summary - of a concept or theory, just to get going? Read an encyclopedia entry! The Library has hundreds of encyclopedias, some in print and some available online.  Here is a brief list; for more possibilities consult the encyclopedias tab.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CRIMINOLOGICAL THEORY (Direct Link).  Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox.  Sage Publications, 2010.  Available online as part of SAGE REFERENCE ONLINE.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIAL THEORY (Direct Link).  George Ritzer.  Sage Publications, 2007.  Available online as part of SAGE REFERENCE ONLINE.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VICTIMOLOGY AND CRIME PREVENTION (Direct Link).  Bonnie Fisher and Steven Lab.  Available online as part of SAGE REFERENCE ONLINE

OXFORD BIBLIOGRAPHIES ONLINE / After clicking on link, choose criminology and browse through the various entries.

The Oxford Handbook of Criminological Theory / edited by Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox.  New York : Oxford University Press, c2013.  734pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East)  HV6025 .O868X 2013 : Criminological theory texts typically follow a conventional format. Diverse writings are neatly packaged into schools of thought, which are given clear labels and conveyed a chapter at a time, with topics like control theory in one chapter and strain theory in another. ...The Oxford Handbook of Criminological Theory takes a different approach across the criminological landscape. The volume is organized not around schools of thought but around themes that shape much thinking about and research on crime. This more unconventional approach seeks to show that criminological theory is not static but dynamic. In fact, most prominent scholars do not spend their time commenting upon and retesting theoretical propositions that have existed for many years. Rather, they move into more novel areas--areas often located in the interstitial junctures between more traditional theories. This Oxford Handbook presents a series of essays that captures not the past of criminology, but where theoretical explanation is headed. As a result, the volume is replete with new ideas, discussions of substantive topics with salient theoretical implications, and reviews and interpretations of literatures that illuminate promising avenues along which theory and research should evolve. Special attention is paid to how criminal participation is shaped intimately by individual traits, diverse social contexts, the situations in which the choice of crime is made, and exposure to coercive experiences. Each chapter can be read on its own--as furnishing an important analysis of a given theoretical issue--yet read as a whole, The Oxford Handbook of Criminological Theory offers a unique and deep understanding of criminology at its cutting edge.

Routledge Companion to Criminological Theory and Concepts / Avi Brisman.  2017.   On order :  Comprising over a hundred concise and authoritative essays written by leading scholars in the field, this volume explains in a clear and inviting way the emergence, context, evolution and current status of key criminological theories and conceptual themes.  The Companion is divided into six historical and thematic parts, each introduced by the editors and containing a selection of accessible and engaging short essays written specifically for this text:

  • Foundations of criminological thought and contemporary revitalizations
  • The emergence and growth of American criminology
  • From appreciation to critique
  • Late critical criminologies and new directions
  • Punishment and security
  • Geographies of crime

The SAGE handbook of criminological theory [electronic resource] / edited by Eugene McLaughlin and Tim Newburn. Sage, 2010.  532pp.  Available online as part of SAGE REFERENCE ONLINE. : For students and public policy makers, this collection of twenty-five articles on criminological theory explores current scholarship in several areas of social science research related to theoretical frameworks for studying law, crime, and punishment. Including both contemporary theories and emerging areas of research, topics discussed include genetics and crime, strain theory, feminist perspectives, realist criminology, developmental theories, and new approaches to victims and victimization. While organized to present coherent and progressive discourse for students, individual articles stand on their own, with introductions and copious notes. Contributors include academics in law from major American universities.

Biological Theories

A crime is committed for a physiological reason (e.g. Adolescents have not yet developed the mental reasoning of adults.)  For more information, see

Biological influences on criminal behavior / Gail S. Anderson. Boca Raton : CRC Press, c2007. 315pp. Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6115 .A644 2007 : In reviewing introductory texts available to criminologists, one is left with the impression that biological factors are irrelevant to the formulation of criminal behavior. Where biology is mentioned at all, it receives infinitesimal coverage. This dearth of attention could at one time be blamed on shoddy research and the legitimate fear that evidence gathered along this path would be used to support eugenics extremists. However, in the past 20 years, tremendously valuable work has been accomplished that legitimately correlates biological factors such as genetics, biochemistry, diet, and brain disease to criminal behavior...This book fundamentally questions the way most criminologists attempt to explain, let alone ameliorate the problem of human criminal behavior. Written by Gail Anderson, a highly respected expert in forensics, who also brings a much-needed biological background to the task, this resource champions contemporary biological theory by introducing criminologists to areas of research they might not otherwise encounter....Dr. Anderson discusses basic biological concepts such as natural selection and evolution in relation to behavior, and considers genetic factors including patterns of inheritance, sex-linked traits, and propensities toward aggression. She explores studies on hormonal effects, as well as brain chemistry, and delves deeply into organic brain dysfunction. She also looks at investigations into fetal conditions and birth-related difficulties, as well as research on nutrition and food allergies. While it is steeped in scientific research, the material is presented in a way that does not require a scientific background....The author does not suggest that biology plays the major role in criminal behavior; however, her carefully researched work does prove that we can gain a far deeper and more useful understanding when we objectively assess all of the factors involved.

Biology and criminology : the biosocial synthesis / Anthony Walsh. New York : Routledge, 2009.  352pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6115 .W34 2009 : Numerous criminologists have noted their dissatisfaction with the state of criminology. The need for a new paradigm for the 21st century is clear. However, many distrust biology as a factor in studies of criminal behavior, whether because of limited exposure or because the orientation of criminology in general has a propensity to see it as racist, classist, or at least illiberal. This innovative new book by noted criminologist Anthony Walsh dispels such fears, examining how information from the biological sciences strengthens criminology work and both complements and improves upon traditional theories of criminal behavior. With its reasoned case for biological science as a fundamental tool of the criminologist, Walsh's groundbreaking work will be required reading for all students and faculty within the field of criminology

Criminal Justice Theories

Explore the theories surrounding punishment. Criminal Justice Theories are also used to research the history or evolution of Criminal Justice ideologies.  For more information, see:

Criminological theory : an analysis of its underlying assumptions / Werner Einstadter, Stuart Henry. Fort Worth : Harcourt Brace College Publishers, c1995. 358pp. Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6018 .E56 1995 : This book is intended as an analytical overview of criminological theory. It is designed to give upper-level students a clear understanding of the underlying assumptions of criminological thought by examining the ideas of its various theories on human nature, societal structure, criminal law, criminal behavior, crime causation, and criminal justice policy. It shows how criminological theories are constituted and how particular theorists' ideas contribute to an overall theoretical framework.

Forgiveness and retribution : responding to wrongdoing / Margaret R. Holmgren.  Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2012.  297pp.  Schaeffer Law Library 2nd Level BJ1476 .H65 2012 : "Forgiveness and Retribution: Responding to Wrongdoing argues that ultimately, forgiveness is always the appropriate response to wrongdoing. In recent decades, many philosophers have claimed that unless certain conditions are met, we should resent those who have wronged us personally and that criminal offenders deserve to be punished. Conversely, Margaret Holmgren posits that we should forgive those who have ill-treated us, but only after working through a process of addressing the wrong. Holmgren then reflects on the kinds of laws and social practices a properly forgiving society would adopt.

Pathways and crime prevention : theory, policy, and practice / edited by Alan France and Ross Homel. Cullompton, Devon, UK ; Portland, Or. : Willan Pub., 2007.  368pp. Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6150 .P38 2007 : This book is concerned with the development of prevention policies and approaches that involve intervention 'early' in the lives of children, young people and their families, and explores new evidence that has been emerging from longitudinal and developmental prevention research. It addresses a number of key challenges, arguing that by broadening the research questions and exploring contributions from a wider range of disciplines our understanding of both the pathways into and out of crime and the type of interventions that might work will be greatly enhanced.

Legal Theories

Examines when the law itself leads to crime. (e.g. Until recently a right turn on red was illegal but many broke the law by making the turn. Why?)  For more information, see :

Institutions of law : an essay in legal theory / Neil MacCormick.  Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2007. 317pp.  Schaeffer Law Library Level 1 K331 .M34 2007 : Institutions of Law marks the long awaited definitive statement of Sir Neil MacCormick's distinctive theory of law as 'institutional normative order'. It takes account of recent developments in the sociology of law to provide a rigorous analysis of the role of law in our society and shows how law creates the conditions for social peace and a thriving economy. In doing so, Institutions of Law fills the need for a twenty-first century introduction to legal theory, such as was achieved in the last century by H.L.A. Hart's The Concept of Law.

Positivism in criminological thought : a study in the history and use of ideas / Teresa J. Neyhouse.  New York : LFB Scholarly Pub., 2002.  167pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6028 .N43 2002 : Opposing positivism as a philosophy dangerous to the project of human emancipation, Neyhouse (Appalachian State U.) traces the development of positivism in criminology, arguing that it is most developed during periods of great economic contraction. Because positivism is a control-oriented philosophy it is deployed against the consequent social unrest brought about economic contraction. The bourgeoisie deploy positivism as relief to threats to their status and livelihood. She argues that the technological and institutional aspects of positivism in criminal justice are accompanied by intellectual innovations justifying and facilitating social control.

A sociology of jurisprudence / Richard Nobles and David Schiff.  Oxford ; Portland, Or. : Hart Pub., 2006.  249pp.  Schaeffer Law Library Level 1  K370 .N63 2006 : Niklas Luhmann's sociological theory treats law -- along with politics, economics, media, and ethics -- as systems of communication. His theory not only offers profound and novel insights into the character of the legal system in modern society, but also provides an explanation for the role of jurisprudence as part of that legal system. In this work, the authors explore and develop Luhmann's claim that jurisprudence is part of law's self-description, a part of the legal system which, as a particular kind of legal communication, orientates legal operations by explaining law to itself. This approach has the potential to illuminate many of the interminable debates amongst and between different schools of jurisprudence on topics such as the origin and/or source of law, the nature of law's determinacy or indeterminacy, and the role of justice. The authors' introduction to Luhmann's systems theory concentrates on the concept of closure and the distinct disposition of law's openness to its environment. From this beginning, A Sociology of Jurisprudence goes on to offer a sustained and methodical application of systems theory to some of the traditional forms of jurisprudence: natural law and its relationship with legal positivism, Dworkin's version of natural law, Kelsen's version of legal positivism, and critical legal studies. This application of systems theory alters our perception of jurisprudence and better enables us to understand its role within law.

Organizational Theories

Explore how the complexities of the organization (e.g. a police precinct) motivate those operating within the organization. For more information, see :

Management and organization theory [electronic resource] : a Jossey-Bass reader / Jeffrey A. Miles. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass, [2012]  467pp.  Available Online : A "must-have" for any MBA/PhD in management and organizations, this reader is the first to name, describe, and explore each of the top 50 most popular, most researched, and most used management and organization theories to date. Organized to correspond to leading management textbooks, this Jossey-Bass Reader provides detailed information about each theory, including major survey instruments used to measure variables in the theory; major questions examined; significant figures who have published on the theory, strengths and weaknesses of the theory; practical applications; and seminal articles published for the theory.

Police administration : structures, processes, and behavior / Charles R. Swanson, Leonard Territo, Robert W. Taylor.  Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2005.  6th edition, 796pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV7935 .S95 2005  : The field of police administration is dynamic and ever changing. Laws are modified, new problems occur, and administrative practices that were once accepted as gospel are challenged, modified, and in some cases, discarded. In this edition, as with the previous four editions, we have tried to provide the most current and useful information to the reader in an effort to help them deal with these dynamic forces and the ever-changing environment of police work....Collectively the three authors have been police officers, detectives, administrators, and educators for over eighty years. We have studied, practiced, researched, taught, and consulted on police administration and an inevitable by-product of these experiences is the development of certain perspectives. It is these perspectives that form the rationale for this book....There is much new information in this book the reader will find informative and useful. For example, Chapter Two, Community Policing is a new chapter which focuses on the impact of community policing on police administration. We also discuss the expanded coverage of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). In Chapter 3, Politics and Police Administration there is an expanded discussion on the issues of police brutality and scandal as well as discussions of militias, right-wing groups in the United States and school violence. In Chapter 8, Human Resource Management we discuss the arguments presented in favor of requiring a college education for police applicants as well as arguments presented by some groups opposing college education for police applicants. Also in this chapter we have added new material on the Administration of Discipline, Internal Affairs Units, and Retirement Counseling. In Chapter 9, Stress and Police Personnel we have expanded our discussion on police suicide and address in considerable detail the phenomenon known as Suicide by Cop (SbC), Stress and the Female Police Officer and Police Domestic Violence. In Chapter 11, Legal Aspects of Police Administration there is a feature on the now infamous New York City Abner Louima case and its impact along with a discussion of several other high profile cases that have occurred in recent years in New York City. There is also a discussion of a recent Supreme Court decision which limits liability for injuries and deaths associated with high speed police pursuit as well as an update and expanded discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace. In Chapter 12, Planning and Decision Making, we have provided updated material on the investigation of the Branch Davidian Seige in Waco, Texas, focusing on the potential coverup and misuse of military personnel during the engagement....As with all previous editions, we have attempted to provide newspaper clippings, case studies and vignettes from our own experience. These are scattered throughout to illustrate points discussed in the narrative in order to make them more informative and interesting.

Theory and method in organization studies : paradigms and choices / Antonio Strati.  London : SAGE, 2000. 233pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HM786 .S7713 2000 : In this introduction to theory and method, students of organization will find a comprehensive view of the key theories in their field, combined with a toolkit of guidelines linking these to the different methods available for analyzing and interpreting organizational life....Distinguishing `the external society' and the `internal society', Antonio Strati sheds light on the different contexts that shape organizational life and the different levels of analysis that may be used. By showing the many levels at which organizations function and can be understood this book provides an invaluable introduction to analysis and research for advanced students. Recent concepts such as `the organization as hypertext'; `communities of practice.

Psychological theories

Examinse how an individual's personality may make them predisposed to committing criminal acts (e.g. depression or other mental illness.)  For more information, see :

Race, gender, and mental illness in the criminal justice system / Melissa Thompson.  New York : LFB Scholarly Pub., 2005.  216pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV9950 .T48 2005   Also available online: Thompson's work looks at the idea of criminals as "mad" or "bad," and finds that African Americans, who are less likely to receive psychiatric evaluations, may be portrayed as "normal" criminals and held to a different level of responsibility.Thompson analyzes the process through which criminal responsibility is constructed and reproduced on the basis of race and gender. While feminist literature points to constructions of female offenders as "mad" and male offenders as "bad," overall the results of this research do not support this perspective. Instead, major findings include strong and consistent evidence that African American defendants are less likely to receive psychiatric evaluations to determine mental status at the time of the offense. This implies that criminal justice officials have racial perceptions about the causes of crime; consequently, African American defendants may be portrayed as ?normal? criminals who are held to a different level of responsibility than non-African Americans.

Social learning theories of crime / edited by Christine S. Sellers, L. Thomas Winfree, Jr. and Ronald L. Akers.  Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, Vt. : Ashgate, c2012.  447pp. Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6023 .S62 2012 : The readings selected for this volume reveal the historical development of social learning theory, from its origins in differential association theory, through the role played by psychological behaviorism, to contemporary social learning theory and its further incorporation of social structure as the context within which criminal behavior is learned. The volume dispels common misunderstandings of the theory and emphasizes its foundations in both symbolic interactionism and behaviorism. At its core, the theory remains true to its origins in sociology, reflecting Sutherland's admonition that a complete learning theory must include macro- and micro-sociological processes. Besides conceptual treatments of the theory's development, the volume also presents data-based entries that convey the depth and breadth of social learning theory as an explanation of deviance. Social learning theory is demonstrated to be an explanation that spans the gamut of behaviors from gang activities to drug use to coercive sex to terrorism.

Understanding psychology and crime : perspectives on theory and action / James McGuire.  Buckingham : Open University Press, 2004.  280pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6080 .M58 2003 : What contributions can psychology make to the understanding of crime? How can theories of crime that focus on the individual be integrated in a wider social perspective? How can psychological models and research be applied in crime prevention and the reduction of repeat offending?...This book bridges the gap between criminology and psychological perspectives and ideas concerning crime. It sets this in historical context and provides an outline of the contributions that psychological approaches can make understanding crime and how to respond to it. It is argued that some objections to the use of psychology within criminology are based on outdated or erroneous conceptions about psychology itself. Throughout the book there is an emphasis on the close relationships between theory, research and practice, and a central part of this is to demonstrate how a methodical approach to the study of criminal behaviour can generate both systematic findings and practical solutions to problems. This authoritative and stimulating text provides essential reading for courses in criminology and psychology alike, moving from theory and research to how such ideas can be applied in crime prevention and reduction, and concluding with discussion of the ethical and political implications.

Sociological Theories

Focuess on the social conditions that lead to crime (e.g. Do abusive parents model violent behavior to children)  For more information, see :

Control theories of crime and delinquency / Chester L. Britt and Michael R. Gottfredson, editors. New Brunswick, NJ : Transaction Publishers, c2003.  281pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6001 .A37 v.12 : For the past twenty to thirty years, control theories of crime have been at the center of theoretical development in criminology. Key to the control theory perspective is the notion that crime is an inherently individual act, and its explanation requires that we focus on the characteristics of individuals who commit crimes. Consequently, control theory focuses on such issues as self-control and social control....The contributions to this volume explicate and extend the application of control theory. It is divided into three general areas. Part 1 focuses on key assumptions and components of control theories. Contributors discuss the notion of learning, or socialization, in the context of control theory and the effects that families, peers, and the criminal justice system have on self-control, social ties, and criminal behavior....Part 2 applies control theory to areas typically assumed to be out of the domain of self-control theory and social control theory, such as gender differences in crime, domestic violence, and group crime. Considering control theory's emphasis on explaining individual criminal acts, these chapters suggest an interesting area of development by highlighting the possibility that differences in crime across or within groups may begin with individual characteristics and then making inferences about groups and group processes....Part 3 approaches the explanation of crime cross-nationally and at the macro-level. Although the authors take different approaches, they all illustrate that a theory of crime does not require culture-specific elements in order to be a valid cross-cultural explanation. Contributors to this volume include: Robert Agnew, Todd Armstrong, Leana Allen Bouffard, Augustine Brannigan, Chester Britt, Barbara Costello, Maja Dekovic, Matt DeLisi, Michael Gottfredson, Henriette Haas, Kelly H. Hardwick, Travis Hirschi, Marianne Junger, Martin Killias, Helen Mederer, Kevin Thompson, and Alexander Vazsonyi.

Pressured into crime : an overview of general strain theory / Robert Agnew.  Los Angeles, Calif. : Roxbury Pub., c2006.  238pp.  Main Library Stacks (3 East) HV6018 .A35 2006 : Agnew (Emory U.) introduced students to one of the leading theories of crime: that people engage in crime because they experience strains or stressors. He looks at why certain types of strain are most likely to cause crime, why some people are more likely than others to respond to stress with crime, how the theory explains life-course and demographic patterns of crime and community and societal differences in crime, and how the theory can contribute to reducing crime.

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