What’s the Difference: Criminology v. Criminalistics


Photo courtesy of onlineschoolreport.com.

Criminology and criminalistics may sound similar, but they are very much distinct disciplines. While both fields operate within the world of criminal justice, criminology focuses on the sociological aspects of crime, whereas criminalistics centers on investigations through the use of hard science.

As a crime writer,  I’ve been asked for years about what the difference is between the two fields. To that end, here’s a brief overview of the distinctions between criminology and criminalistics.

What is Criminology

Simply put, criminology is the study of criminal behavior. Specifically, it’s a sociological discipline that explores the nature, causes, consequences, and prevention of crime.  

Criminologists operate as both an academic and detective, in that they must draw upon theories and hard data in conducting their work. People in this field often study social and criminal data in order to understand criminal motives while also determining the appropriate consequences for such behavior.

In order to operate in a just and productive manner, our criminal justice system requires the field of criminology. And that’s because top criminologists work closely with law enforcement and the courts to assist them with improving the overall efficiency and effectives of the system.

In order to provide credible and effective assistance, a criminologist needs to understand what motivates a criminal, how that crime affects society as a whole, the impact on the victim and the appropriate consequence for the crime.

What is Criminalistics

Although criminalistics is a subdivision of forensic science, the distinction is very technical, so for purposes of our discussion, those two terms are interchangeable. A professional who practices in criminalistics has a central role in the criminal justice system, in that they aid a criminal investigation by applying science to evidence within the parameters of the rules of criminal procedure.

In other words, forensic specialists collect, preserve and analyze evidence using scientific techniques. Some specialists collect and examine evidence at the scene of the crime, while other forensic experts only perform their work in a lab.

Many people in the field of criminalistics provide expert witness testimony at criminal trials by providing their scientific conclusions to the judge and jury. A skilled forensic scientist generally has the ability to perform complex scientific analysis while also simultaneously providing their conclusion by using common speech, so that a layperson can easily understand their findings.

Photo Courtesy of energizelawyer.com.

Brief History of Criminology

The origins of criminology date back to early 19th Century Europe, where torture was the norm for eliciting confessions and testimonies. These early criminologists were part of the classical era, and they believed torture to be wrong. Classicists also opined that criminal behavior is the direct result of a person’s free will (as opposed to some intervening, supernatural force). As a result of these thoughts, early criminologists advocated for the elimination of torture, but did believe in a firm system of punishment for one’s criminal actions.

The next phase of criminology is known as neo-classical, and that era’s greatest contribution to the field was the notion that self-defense was not in itself a crime. Prior to this era, many criminal justice systems punished the victim who acted in self-defense, along with the initial aggressor.

In the 1920’s, criminology became associated with the study of sociology, which resulted in theorists looking at the relationship between free will and one’s environment. This type of thinking expanded focus from the individual to society in general. And how someone’s relative standing in, and relationship to, society can have an impact on that person’s criminal propensities.

Today, criminologists focus not only on how to deter crime, but on methods to prevent a person from ever becoming a criminal. The focus is also on how to rehabilitate as opposed to strictly punishing one who engages in criminal behavior.

Brief History of Criminalistics

The origins of criminalistics dates back to ancient Greece and Rome with the practice of autopsies. And the first known forensic science guide was published in China during the 13th Century.

Modern criminalistics is generally known to have begun in the mid-1800s. At that time, the pioneering scientist was an Austrian named Hans Gross. He and his contemporaries were responsible for the first well-documented examples of applying scientific principles to criminal investigations.  

For the next hundred years, forensic scientists throughout Europe and North America made great strides in the field by developing innovative investigative techniques, including fingerprint analysis and anthropometry, which is the study of a person’s physical dimensions. Anthropometry was a crucial leap for forensics because it allowed investigators to build a physical profile of a corpse, which led to more victim identifications and solved crimes.

Modern forensic science incorporates biology, physics, mathematics, coding and chemistry. The science is then applied to the facts and data obtained during a criminal investigation. And because criminalistics has become so advanced, crimes that were once unsolvable are now being solved.

Criminology and criminalistics are both fascinating fields. Whether we are trying to determine how best to reduce crime in our culture, or are solving a decades-old murder, these disciplines are there to provide a roadmap. Which of these two fields would you rather pursue a career in?

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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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