Sociology's Crime Problem

At one large public university, more than 600 undergraduates are currently classified as sociology majors. Students pick among five concentrations, and one -- criminal justice -- attracts more than half of the majors. Yet of the 30 faculty members, only 3 specialize in criminology. The department is "trying to bring the criminology majors in the fold of sociology" but finding that many of the students interested in criminal justice aren't necessarily interested, said a professor in the department.

August 4, 2008

At one large public university, more than 600 undergraduates are currently classified as sociology majors. Students pick among five concentrations, and one -- criminal justice -- attracts more than half of the majors. Yet of the 30 faculty members, only 3 specialize in criminology. The department is "trying to bring the criminology majors in the fold of sociology" but finding that many of the students interested in criminal justice aren't necessarily interested, said a professor in the department.

"They want hard core probation or forensics courses," not sociology, said the professor, who like many in this article asked that her institution not be identified.

The professor spoke on Sunday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, at a briefing by a special task force.the association created to study its relationship to criminology and criminal justice. Another professor described a department of seven faculty members where they "view it as a badge of honor to dismiss criminology" and to deal with increasing student interest by hiring adjuncts for the courses.

The tensions described by these professors were seen by task force members as typical of many campuses, where interest in criminal justice is taking off. At an increasing number of colleges, criminal justice has broken off from sociology into separate departments. But at many campuses where that has not happened, departments are facing what Steven E. Barkan, a professor at the University of Maine, called "structural tensions" of the sort he noted that sociologists realize have the potential to be unhealthy.

Many departments have reported to the task force, of which Barkan is a member, that two-thirds of their enrollments are now in criminal justice while one-third of faculty slots are there. Elite universities appear to be less affected by the trend, but elsewhere it is increasingly visible. Between 2001 and 2006, criminal justice overtook sociology in the number of bachelor's degrees completed. Sociology increased by 14.5 percent during that period, to 31,406. Criminology increased by 35.7 percent, to 34,209. During the same period of time, sociology master's degrees declined by 15 percent while criminology degrees (of which there aren't as many) increased by 135.5 percent, and criminal justice master's degrees were up 56.5 percent.

For sociology, the debates over what to do about these numbers aren't easy. Many in the discipline believe that such fields as gerontology and communications studies should be more fully integrated with sociology -- and partisans of the various approaches debate whether sociology pushed them out on their own or whether professors in those areas wanted to be seen as independent from sociology. In an era of tight budgets, when enrollments are more crucial than ever to liberal arts departments, some sociologists want to be sure criminal justice stays within the discipline, while others fear its presence will dilute standards.

For sociology, there are actually two discussions going on. One is about criminology -- which is seen as closer to sociology's roots and has a shared research and theoretical base, but focuses on a subset of issues. The other is about criminal justice, a more practical field in many cases designed to prepare students for careers in law enforcement or the judicial system. Many sociology departments are changing their names to "sociology and criminal justice" or just becoming the major for students interested in criminal justice, even though there isn't as much shared intellectual vision between the fields.

A survey of colleges by the ASA's task force found that 49 percent of institutions offered a sociology major only, 28 percent have separate departments of sociology and criminal justice with each offering a major, 19 percent have criminal justice and sociology majors offered by the sociology department, and the remainder offer only the criminal justice major.

According to results that task force members stressed were "very preliminary," many sociology chairs are reporting that they are being pressured to add criminal justice programs or to expand concentrations into full-fledged majors. The pressure, according to the chairs, comes from admissions offices, who report that criminal justice majors are hot, and will attract more applicants. Adding to the tension, the survey found, many chairs believe that their professors, especially older ones, hold their criminal justice colleagues in "low esteem."

If so, departments may be in for a rude awakening, according to data collected by the sociology task force. In the five years studied, the number of sociology Ph.D.'s increased by 3.1 percent, to 558. Doctorates in criminology and criminal justice, while still fewer in number, are increasing at much faster rates. The number of criminology doctorates awarded was up 19.0 percent, to 25, while criminal justice doctorates were up 88.1 percent, to 79. The increase is significant because many criminal justice programs have historically been led by sociologists, but with a critical mass of criminal justice Ph.D.'s being produced, that may change.

Some sociologists at the meeting Sunday talked about concerns over a "cop shop" mentality in criminal justice programs. In some programs, sociologists said, retired police officers are hired to "tell war stories," and the result is a loss of focus on the kinds of issues sociologists care about: the impact of poverty, race, gender and inequity on society. One sociologist said that he has been urged by his local police force to insist on the discipline's relevance in criminal justice programs. He quoted one police officer as saying: "We don't want you to teach them to shoot. We'll teach them to shoot."

But stressing traditional sociology knowledge may be easier said than done. Dennis W. MacDonald, chair of sociology at Saint Anselm College and chair of the task force, said that "even our sociology majors don't like theory."

Several said that the attraction of criminal justice is pragmatic -- with either students or their parents seeing that a criminal justice degree leads to many jobs. Even as sociology professors boast about how their bachelor's students can package their degrees for a variety of careers, they acknowledge that there is a huge demand for criminal justice graduates -- no packaging needed.

That pragmatism upsets some sociologists, who view their field proudly within the liberal arts and sciences -- not as job training. "We’ve gone from a culture that values higher education for the civilizing influence it has produced. And it should civilize and temper the worst impulses of humanity,” said one professor. "Now we have a vocationalizing influence. Our students are not coming to be better citizens, but to be employable."

The degree of frustration at individual colleges seems to vary widely. Several described respectful and even friendly relationships between sociology and criminal justice professors, but at the other extreme, one person described one mixed department as "a war zone." Even some of those who described cordial relations, however, said that tended to change if departmental reorganizations were proposed. Beyond issues of philosophy, professors noted practical reasons some may want separate departments. One criminologist who is in a sociology department, but whose university has a separate criminal justice department, said that the criminologists in sociology have realized that their criminal justice colleagues in their own department are being paid more, and that's led them to discuss whether they want to move there.

The sociology task force appeared torn on just how much to push sociology's values. Barkan said that one proposal the committee is considering would be to set up a minimum list of sociology course topics -- theory, research methods, statistics, inequalities -- that should be part of any criminal justice degree. One member of the audience said that would be a great idea because it would allow sociologists to point to a national standard to be sure criminal justice programs have enough intellectual heft.

But another audience member said such a list of requirements might have the opposite of the intended effect. It could easily prompt more criminal justice programs to sever ties to sociology and just do their own thing, he said.

An audience member who teaches criminology in a sociology program asked the task force to specifically address part of its report to non-criminology sociologists, and to stress that "criminal justice does belong." MacDonald said he thought it was important that criminal justice and criminology stay connected to sociology and that "it would be suicide" for the discipline to be seen as kicking the field out.

W. Wesley Johnson, president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and director of the doctoral program in criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi, was not at the sociology meeting, but in a phone interview, he said he was not surprised by the discussion. Johnson said that when he started studying criminal justice, all programs were led by sociologists, and that's no longer the case. Currently, he said, there are three faculty jobs available for every new Ph.D. in criminal justice.

Johnson said that he believes that sociology professors and criminal justice professors have more in common than they sometimes realize. The roots of criminal justice and criminology are all in sociology research, he said. "We are both grounded in communities and environments."

Another way that sociology and criminal justice are similar, he said, is that neither approach has a monopoly on academic excellence. "This is a new degree and it is evolving, and some programs are more rigorous than others” he said, "but that's true of sociology as well."

Johnson declined to endorse either joint sociology-criminal justice departments or separate programs. But he said that as long as enrollments boom in criminal justice, there will be more pressure to hire professors in the field and to be sure that the discipline's interests are addressed. "Administrators are going to allocate resources to units that are producing the most credit hours," he said. "Whoever hold the checkbook gets to call the shots."


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