During one of my first American Society of Criminology meetings, I attended a “Students meet Scholars” session. It was a great session, a fascinating conversation, and the graduate students (myself included) were asking a lot of questions about the intellectual trajectory of the topic. After the session, I was waiting in line for the restroom with one of the eminent scholars from the panel, who said to me, “You must be a sociologist.” (I assumed her declaration was based on my questions from the session.) I awkwardly laughed and affirmed that I was getting my PhD in sociology. Since that interaction, I have been a bit stuck on what the “you must be a sociologist” versus “you must be a criminologist” labels mean, what they are good for, and why we can’t be both.
I study crime and inequality, some version of the word “crime” appears in almost every class I have ever taught, I publish in criminology and sociology journals, and I attend the ASC and the ASA. The ASC is cheaper and has more free wine, so I like it better. The late criminologist Bob Bursik (PhD in sociology) once told me, “ASA is a bunch of snobs.” I often agree with his sentiment. I tell my sociology graduate students to study crime because there are more academic jobs. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Justice funded my dissertation research. When I first applied to jobs as a PhD candidate, I applied to sociology and criminology departments. I got offers in both, but I took a sociology job. Being in a sociology department became important to me because I get excited about the breadth of the intellectual conversations that happen in sociology and because some of my classes don’t have the word “crime” in them. Being in a sociology department also helped me realize that I don’t want to do research that is not about crime and inequality.
The biggest distinction for me between the labels of criminologist and sociologist is in the orientation to theory. It is hard to publish in sociology without strong theoretical frameworks and/or contributions. To achieve this, often our studies of crime and inequality represent a case of some larger social process. It is hard to publish in criminology without any theory, but there are fewer theoretical toolkits to draw from in criminology. Plus, criminology includes a lot more theory testing than theory developing. This slightly different orientation toward theory can come at a cost. Criminology has the space to be more applied than sociology and can be more relevant to policy. Sociologists often want their research to be applied, but the reality is that our long theoretical frameworks can be a burden to generalist audiences. Long, complicated understandings of inequality or other social problems don’t often lend themselves to digestible suggestions for change.
Historically, criminology was a part of sociology – a lens through which to study society. The label of criminologist has become more divisive because of the growth and funding of criminal justice departments across the US academy. Criminal justice emphasizes solving crime (or lowering crime rates) more so than the broader study of crime. The merger of criminology with criminal justice has meant that criminology is seen as more conservative, but the merger has also meant that some outsiders miss the strong sociological methods and theoretical orientations happening in the work of great criminology.
My forthcoming book, Syndicate Women, is on gender inequality in organized crime networks from Prohibition Chicago. I have received positive and negative feedback from sociologists and criminologists on the research. A few criminologists have asked me why I want more women in organized crime. A few sociologists have asked me how the book’s theoretical explanation can be applied to any case other than crime. Both of these questions reveal the worst of these labels. My book will be classified as criminology and sociology—probably in alphabetical order. I hope criminologists and sociologists (as well as gender scholars, legal scholars, historians, and network scientists) will read it and find something interesting and useful. My research is better because I read broadly and because I try to do both criminology and sociology well.
Chris M. Smith, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of California, Davis
January 21, 2019