Research Program Department of Criminology
Drawing on different disciplines, the field of criminology is empirically vibrant and theoretically rich. Yet its greatest strength, diversity, may also be its greatest weakness due to the risk of theoretical and empirical fragmentation. The field is still in full pursuit of an integrated and unifying theoretical framework. This requires successfully bridging one of its main divides, that between dispositional explanations, which attribute criminal behavior to stable individual differences, and sociogenic perspectives, which identify criminogenic environments and situational factors as the principal causes of crime. Cumulative evidence suggests both are important: Johnny is a bad boy because he is self-centered, aggressive, and impulsive. But Johnny also gets into trouble because he lives in a rough neighborhood, is exposed to delinquent peers, and drinks and gets high frequently. Scientific perspectives that can link these findings are crucial for arriving at an encompassing view of the causes and persistence of criminal conduct.
The Theoretical Innovation key area of interest is dedicated to theory development from an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective, in particular by examining the interrelations between contextual factors and individual-level factors in the explanation of criminal behavior. It draws on the rich, theoretical traditions within criminology and expands on them by drawing from other fields such as social, evolutionary and cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics.
Carefully constructed questionnaires, cleverly designed observation and interview schemes, and large-scale registration and longitudinal data have long been the prevailing approaches for data collection in empirical criminology. Tremendous progress has been made in improving our understanding of criminal conduct through the use of these methods, and the field has reached an impressive degree of qualitative and quantitative sophistication. However, the emphasis on these largely retrospective methods has led to a fundamentally skewed distribution of knowledge in criminology. We know a lot about what predicts the involvement in crime, offender characteristics, and life events that contribute to criminal careers. Yet we know surprisingly little about the offending process itself. Achieving step changes in our understanding of crime and its prevention requires the exploration of novel approaches. The area of interest Methodological Innovation & Technology builds on criminal decision-making research and the application of technologies such as virtual reality to study crime.
There is an important disconnect between theory and practice in criminology. Crime research and theorizing regularly proceed without taking much notice of what happens “on the ground”. Criminal justice and rehabilitation practices on the ground, in turn, often pay little heed to evidence-based interventions or theory. Following Kurt Lewin’s maxim that there is nothing as practical as a good theory, the third key area in the Department of Criminology seeks to connect theory, innovative methods, and technology to policy and practice.
Ultimately, criminology is an applied science seeking to understand not only the occurrence of crime but also to provide concrete input as to how to prevent it from happening and to minimize its harmful consequences. Research in this area will apply state-of-the-art knowledge to generate solutions of an applied nature, for example by providing input for the training of practitioners in the criminal justice system (e.g., police, youth care workers, probation services, magistrates) and to enable policy makers to render evidence-based policies, laws, and rehabilitation instruments.