Sociology vs. Criminology

Criminology and criminal justice are hot. Even in these financially constrained times, colleges can't seem to get enough of these programs. Arizona State University last month announced a new online bachelor of science degree in criminology and criminal justice. Nyack College is starting a bachelor's degree. So is Rockhurst University, with a commitment to placing students in internships. Rochester Institute of Technology recently started a master's program. Texas State University is starting a doctorate. The list could go on and on.

June 18, 2010

Criminology and criminal justice are hot. Even in these financially constrained times, colleges can't seem to get enough of these programs. Arizona State University last month announced a new online bachelor of science degree in criminology and criminal justice. Nyack College is starting a bachelor's degree. So is Rockhurst University, with a commitment to placing students in internships. Rochester Institute of Technology recently started a master's program. Texas State University is starting a doctorate. The list could go on and on.

New academic programs in sociology? Not so much. And for many sociologists, there's the problem. What they see as a key subfield -- but one that should draw strength from the discipline as a whole -- is increasingly standing on its own. And many sociologists feel that these programs are skimping on the parts of a sociology education that people who work in criminal justice need. In an effort to reframe the discussion, the American Sociological Association appointed a special task force to study the relationship between sociology and criminology -- and that panel's report has just been released.

Generally, the report makes the case that the study of criminal justice requires extensive study of sociology, and that the norms of sociology programs are key. "What the report signals is that sociology is worried about losing intellectual jurisdiction over this very important and popular area," said Chris Uggen, a criminologist who is chair of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (and who was not on the ASA panel that produced the report).

While not rejecting the idea of separate departments of criminal justice and sociology, the report suggests that colleges and universities hesitate before going down that road, that criminology students in either track need to be required to take core sociology courses, and that a new certification standard set by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences may "erode the social science base of sociology and criminology."

Leaders of that group view the sociologists' report as a bit controlling and insulting (one called it "a sour grapes report") and are preparing a statement of their own to counter the sociologists' report. The criminal justice professors deride the sociologists' report as being less about teaching and research and more about cash -- in that many college administrators are favoring criminal justice these days, because of the enrollments it provides.

"I think the heart of the matter is that criminal justice is attracting large numbers of students and sociology programs by and large are not," said Jay Albanese, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University who has been involved in preparing the response to the sociologists. He said that sociologists have no more right to suggest what the curriculum should be in criminal justice programs than they do in a range of other fields, such as nursing and social work, that also require knowledge of society but that have their own research and teaching methods.

The numbers gathered by the ASA's committee show why the relationship between sociology and criminology/criminal justice is so complicated -- and why both sides perceive the other to have favored status. The following table shows what the association found about three models that are used: a single sociology department with a criminology or criminal justice minor or concentration; a single department with two majors; or two completely separate departments. When given the choice of majors, undergraduates flock to criminology and criminal justice.

But faculty slots don't necessarily follow in proportion. So while sociologists who don't focus on criminology feel that university administrators are pushing funds into criminology, those who teach criminology frequently face much higher student-to-faculty ratios, and also are more likely to be adjuncts who lack job security or time to pursue research.

Average Number of Students and Faculty by Program Type in Sociology and Criminology/Criminal Justice (CCJ)

  Single Department, Sociology Major With Criminology Minor Single Department, 2 Majors 2 Separate Departments
Sociology students 191.7 61 61.5
CCJ students 68.5 129.5 221
Sociology faculty 8.2 5.7 5.2
CCJ faculty 1.4 1.5 5.1
Faculty who teach both 1.9 4.8 0.7
Sociology adjuncts 2.3 2.9 3.4
CCJ adjuncts 1.5 2.9 3.6
Sociology student-faculty ration 18:1 7:1 11:1
CCJ student-faculty ratio 20:1 20:1 39:1

Much of the sociology association's report stresses the mutual benefits of experts in sociology who focus on issues other than criminal justice working closely with those who do. And there are lots of ideas about promoting more collaborative work and mutual respect. But other parts of the report have angered many in criminal justice as copies have circulated.

For instance, the sociologists' report raises questions about the motives behind the creation of new criminology programs. One recommendation is: "Recognize that criminology and criminal justice programs are sometimes seen as revenue-generating opportunities by administrators, especially when the programs are to be primarily staffed by adjuncts or individuals who have not completed a Ph.D. for whom there are low research expectations. Sociology, criminology and criminal justice faculty should work together to educate administrators about the long-term needs of their students and their programs."

Another recommendation is that criminology students in sociology departments be required to take "core sociology courses," and not just criminology. Separate criminology programs, meanwhile, are encouraged to consider adding "the examination of structural factors such as race, class, gender, social context and social process" to criminology-focused courses.

The report notes, for example, that more than one-third of separate criminology programs don't require an introductory sociology course, and that courses that are generally considered to be key in sociology aren't necessarily part of the criminology curriculum. Only 34 percent of criminology/criminal justice programs require a social theory course, for example, only 36 percent require a course in deviance, and only 22 percent in law and society.

While criminal justice programs have been growing for decades now, a new effort -- to certify some programs as meeting standards of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences -- is viewed with alarm by the sociologists.

"Departments should weigh carefully the potential benefits and costs of applying for ACJS certification for their criminology or criminal justice programs," the report says. "The ASA has not engaged in program certification largely because such processes would not respond to the range of accredited institutions of higher education and academic contexts in which sociology is taught. Given the constraints that ACJS certification requirements place on the autonomous decision making of departments and programs, there is a strong possibility that compliance with ACJS standards could erode the social science base of sociology and criminology, and undermine the potential benefits to the programs and students."

Albanese, who heads the academy committee that oversees those standards, said that the sociologists' analysis amounted to an unfair slam of the criteria. He said that the effort was designed to promote academic rigor. While it's true that the standards set out required content areas (administration of justice, corrections and criminological theory, for example), the standards also call for programs to feature broad general education goals. He pointed to a requirement that states: "Primary objectives of all criminal justice programs include the development of critical thinking; communication, technology, and computing skills; quantitative reasoning; ethical decision-making; and an understanding of diversity."

Just about any criminology program, he said, will cover in some ways the topics sociologists note aren't required in separate courses. On subjects such as diversity and deviance and so forth, he said, "we are teaching those subjects -- it's just that it isn't necessarily sociologists doing the teaching."

Albanese said he read the report as a sign that sociology is trying to regain control of criminology when "the horse left the barn a long time ago." He also said that the reason criminology and criminal justice programs have pushed for independence is that "mainstream sociology viewed us as outliers" and didn't particularly value the field -- until enrollments started to boom.

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of academic affairs for the ASA, said that she did not view the report as criticizing criminal justice programs but as advocating for "a broad liberal arts background" for such degrees. She also stressed the importance of criminology and criminal justice programs focusing "on race, class and gender structure" and their impact on society -- "a central substance of what sociology teaches." Such study, she said, would make criminal justice graduates better prepared for jobs.

And Vitullo said that the financial motives of college administrators are relevant in that they may lead them not to invest in great criminal justice programs, but to "throwing up a criminal justice program" just to attract students and tuition dollars.

"The concern is that decisions about academic programs are being made on the basis of revenue rather than on the basis of educational standards. The point here is in order to bolster a powerful undergraduate experience, students need to have the opportunity to work with professors who have appropriate funding, and have the appropriate training," she said. If colleges just start criminal justice programs quickly, "you may end up with more revenue, but not better-educated students."

Further, Vitullo stressed that she saw the association, in raising these issues, as sticking up for those teaching criminology and criminal justice. "They are getting heavier courseloads, and less time and money for research," she said. "We think they should get support for full-time tenure-track positions. We want to support criminologists."

Uggen, the criminologist at Minnesota who is a sociology chair, is very much in the middle on the debate. In his department, students who want to study criminology are sociology majors, who take core courses in the discipline and then concentrate in criminology -- and he favors such an approach. To study criminology, he said, "you really do need a grounding in research methods and statistics and the introductory courses" that sociology provides. At the same time, he said, sociologists should recognize that criminology has grown and that "there is a body of research that is more than a subset of sociology."

This means that sociologists who work on crime should be going to non-sociology meetings and reading non-sociology journals, as well as those of the discipline, he said. He views that as a net positive for sociology, as he and others in his department then bring back to various sociology courses some of the ideas that extend beyond that field, and that they have picked up in criminology .

While Uggen said he found the intellectual relationship between criminology and sociology more interesting to think about than the practical issues, he noted that the current situation in the discipline raises a lot of challenges for those who decide on the direction of departments.

"We're talking about resources," he said. "There are tensions when you have a [sociology] department that has five interest areas, one of which is criminology, and two-thirds of the undergraduates want to study that area. What percentage of your faculty should be there? What about the graduate students you admit?" He said that the answers to these issues are not simple. He said he thought the ASA report was "written from the perspective of sociologists" and said he wasn't surprised that it was frustrating some criminal justice scholars. "But I still think sociology has a lot to offer" criminology, he added.

The history of sociology as a discipline also affects the way people see this issue, Uggen said. "Sociology has a long history of sort of carving off its most successful programs," he said. For example, he said that organizational behavior -- which many sociologists view as very much a part of their field -- is now commonly a department in business schools, with its own journals and scholarly groups. "There's always a tension where sociologists are intellectually retreating to the core," he said.


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