Delinquent Criminology

To the Editor:

Criminology is a multi-disciplinary field. Although a plurality of its practitioners may have roots in sociology, the field finds room for the theories and methods of all relevant disciplines. The result is an enormous body of intellectual and scientific material. From some perspectives, this result is chaos. From others, it is a level of intellectual ferment found nowhere else in the social and behavioral sciences. From no reasonable perspective, it seems to me, does the state of the field call for the revisions suggested by Mike S. Adams in “A Delinquent Discipline: The Rise and Fall of Criminology” (Fall 2009, vol. 22, no. 4).

A return to the classical perspective is not required. It has already occurred. Theories based on choice assumptions are the most frequently cited and tested in the field. The self-report method of crime measurement does not need fixing. It has passed standard tests of reliability and validity. Whatever the faults of initial self-report measures, they cannot be part of a legitimate critique of criminological research. The causal order issue has been explicitly recognized for forty years, and articles submitted to leading journals are virtually certain to be scrutinized with this problem in mind. For that matter, the causal ordering of major correlates of crime (age, sex, ethnicity, IQ) is in no way problematic. Longitudinal designs have been vigorously promoted for thirty years or more. Their limitations have been known for a similar period. It is therefore not surprising that they have not lived up to their reputation, that the controlled experiment is now replacing them as the “gold standard” of criminological research. And it is no accident that experiments themselves are coming under increasing critical scrutiny. On the evidence, then, the field enjoys a state of health and is self-correcting in ways not imagined in Adams’s assessment.

If the science of criminology does not require revision, its politics are unlikely to respond to criticism or negative evidence. Fortunately, political views do not necessarily interfere with the workings of a serious intellectual enterprise. They may, however, if misused, undermine the work of others. In this connection: it is easily discovered that the Bierne/Messerschmidt textbook Prof. Adams uses as an example of the political bias of criminology in fact represents only the left edge of its political spectrum. It is a disservice to the field and to the goal of reasoned discourse to suggest that such books speak to the politics of criminologists as a whole.

Speaking of reasoned discourse: perhaps the most revealing evidence of the quality of Adams’s scholarship is his confident support of differential association/social learning theory. I am not a fan of this theory, but if I were I would take pains to avoid focusing my critical attention on an article by Ronald Akers. Prof. Akers is the world’s leading exponent of social learning theory as an explanation of crime.

In short, revisionist tendencies in criminology would not seem to require outside assistance. Economists, biologists, and psychologists are making strong claims to territory they deserted long ago. The political biases they bring with them are probably no more or no less dangerous than those endemic to sociologists. While political biases undoubtedly disfigure undergraduate education, in the context of research and theory they are easily identified and their products properly discounted. More damaging to the advancement of the field is the widespread belief among intellectuals inside and outside the academy that they know more than criminologists about crime.

Travis Hirschi

Former President

Arizona Association of Scholars

Regents Professor Emeritus

University of Arizona

To the Editor:

I would like to register several objections to Mike S. Adams’s “A Delinquent Discipline: The Rise and Fall of Criminology.”

  • The “classical school” of criminology, represented by Cesare Beccaria, did not even attempt to explain the causes of crime. His famous book, Of Crime and Its Punishment, dealt only with how to prevent crime, either by the violator again or by others who might be similarly disposed to do what the violator did. Granted that “classical” criminologists (the term “criminologist” did not exist at the time) may have considered crime a matter of free and rational choice; but the question of interest for criminologists who came later has always been what biological or social factors cause that choice to be made, “choice” being considered not entirely “free” or undetermined. This is what the “positivist [biological]” school of Lambroso et al., in the late nineteenth century and the “sociological” criminologists of the twentieth century have attempted to answer.

  • Adams’s principal complaint regarding criminology today seems to be that statistical studies that test various sociological theories of crime causation—mostly cross-sectional studies of correlations between hypothesized causal variables and crime or delinquency (the effect)—are unable to distinguish between the causes and the effects sufficiently. He believes that longitudinal studies which trace criminal careers over time would do a better job of this.

  • In most of the sociological theories of crime causation (strain theory: crime is caused by a social structure which denies to the lower classes sufficient means to satisfy their appetites for the good things the society has to offer, requiring some of them to take them by force, stealth or deceit; differential association theory: one learns or becomes disposed to commit crime from criminal or delinquent friends or associates; opportunity theory: because of environments favorable for the commission of crimes, more criminal opportunities are available to some individuals than to others) the conditions that all of these theories postulate as major causes of criminal behavior are presumed to pre-exist crime in the populations being studied and therefore presumed to be possible causes, whether the studies are cross-sectional or longitudinal. The relationship between independent variables and the dependent variables often are coeval and feedback on one another, it is true. One of the benefits of longitudinal studies is the tracing in individuals of criminal careers that may start with minor offenses and then evolve into something more serious and habitual. However, I doubt if there is any scientifically satisfactory way of clearly separating cause and effect in criminological research, regardless of which method of clearly separating cause and effect in criminology research, regardless of which method one employs.

Barton L. Ingraham, D. Crim.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Prof. Adams Responds

Travis Hirschi is probably the most influential criminologist alive today. I respect his work but I am perplexed by portions of his response to my recent article. For example, Prof. Hirschi states: “From no reasonable perspective, it seems to me, does the state of the field call for the revisions suggested by Mike S. Adams in ‘A Delinquent Discipline: The Rise and Fall of Criminology.’” I hope readers of my article recognized my principal criticism of the field: the routine practice of measuring the independent and dependent variables in reverse order (at least within the context of research on crime causation).

I simply cannot imagine how my suggestion that we measure our independent variables before our dependent variables could be deemed as anything other than “reasonable.” I would issue a challenge to Prof. Hirschi to name any other discipline where such widespread error is tolerated.

Prof. Hirschi also says that “The self-report method of crime measurement does not need fixing. It has passed standard tests of reliability and validity.” Standard tests of reliability and validity simply cannot correct errors of interpretation. Nor are they a remedy for intellectual dishonesty. If one measures, for example, involvement in crime prior to blocked educational opportunity one simply cannot posit the latter as the cause of the former. Reliability coefficients cannot detect backward reasoning. Nor can they perceive the obvious ideological motive for such backward reasoning.

Prof. Hirschi is simply incorrect in saying “The causal order issue has been explicitly recognized for forty years, and articles submitted to leading journals are virtually certain to be scrutinized with this problem in mind.” I cited articles published in leading peer-refereed that acknowledged neither the fact nor the profound implications of their backwards measurement of key variables. I made an argument supported by specific facts and specific references. Those references provide a clear refutation of Prof. Hirschi’s casual assertion.

Perhaps the most confusing of Prof. Hirschi’s assertions is that longitudinal surveys are weak and that “the controlled experiment is now replacing them as the ‘gold standard’ of criminological research.” I wrote an article focusing on a specific problem concerning the measurement of certain progressive theories in the context of crime causation. Would Prof. Hirschi attempt to remedy the problem by introducing delinquent peers, delinquent labels, and blocked opportunities into an experimental setting in an effort to induce criminal behavior? Would he use juveniles as human subjects? I am fairly certain that would raise insurmountable ethical difficulties.

Finally, I was surprised that Prof. Hirschi said that “the most revealing evidence of the quality of Adams’s scholarship is his confident support of differential association/social learning theory.” My qualified support of differential association theory is based upon evidence cited in the article. Prof. Hirschi does not state what is wrong with that evidence. He simply states that he is “not a fan of this theory.” Such statements do little to advance reasoned discourse. They do nothing to repair the wounded reputation of a discipline willing to tolerate methodological error—whether for political reasons or for mere convenience.

Priceless Education

To the Editor:

It was with great sadness and hesitation that I slowly read Steven Zelnick’s essay on the Intellectual Heritage program at Temple University, “Acres of Rhinestones: Temple Betrays Its Heritage,” in the Summer 2009 Academic Questions [vol. 22, no. 3].

I knew the collapse was coming—when I left the program in the mid-1990s it was clear that finding faculty capable of teaching the books was becoming more difficult—but it is sad when the end comes, and what followed is, to me at least, a painful parody.

Steve did a wonderful job with the program. He collected bright graduate students and the best of the Temple faculty, many of whom were probably in the program to show their respect and friendship for him. He hired eccentrics like myself, who had spent twenty years on Wall Street and still attended Mass regularly, and in both cases, was willing to explain why. The seminars in which faculty taught one another was one of the highlights of my learning experience…after all, how can non-Muslims teach the Koran for one week without patient coaching from dedicated Shia and Sunni professors, who gave their time generously to the program? This was my first teaching job, so most of what I learned about teaching I learned teaching Intellectual Heritage classes. I was an ABD at the time, so I greatly appreciated his taking me on. Not surprisingly, I had been rejected curtly by his predecessor a year earlier. Intellectual Heritage was a tribute to the materials we taught, but also to Steve, for his wisdom, kindness, boundless enthusiasm, and friendship. I will never be able to thank him enough.

The program also taught me to appreciate Temple students. They are smart, but often not well prepared, so you must move a bit more slowly than you would with an honors class of prep school students. In my first class of twenty-five students at Temple, seventeen were either black or English-as-a-second-language. They did not have brilliant high school educations. But they were very proud. The hint that they could not read Plato or Shakespeare, that they were not up to the task, when the kids across town at Penn were reading these authors, was an insult they would simply not stand for. They would double their efforts, get help from each other, and come to class prepared no matter what. They would refuse to be babied or to be treated as remedial cases. Their attitude was that if those sissified clowns at Penn can do it, so can I. And they did. Steve’s own attitude of tough love toward borderline students was carried on by many of his teachers, I am sure, and as a result they also gained self-respect and well-earned pride of accomplishment. I might add, for those who don’t know the program, that it was very popular. Done well, this is the best that school can be.

Since those days I have been teaching my own version of Intellectual Heritage in an honors program called Eckardt Scholars at Lehigh University. A wise Oxford don (now in the history department) took me on, but of course my appointments go from year-to-year, so I have no idea how long I will be able to carry on the work. I will teach this stuff as long as I am wanted. I also taught briefly in the Villanova program, which was doing reasonably well last time I checked.

I want to thank Steve again for giving me a chance to practice my craft. I can honestly say that I don’t know where I would be without him.

Wight Martindale, Jr.

Norristown, Pennsylvania

A Proposal for Modesty

To the Editor:

Jerry Coyne, the evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago [discussed in “What Are You Talking About?” by Robert Jackson, in the Summer 2009 issue (vol. 22, no. 3), a review of Rethinking Expertise, by Harry Collins and Robert Evans], entertains the astonishing metaphysical hope that given enough time science will develop a “theory of everything.” This hope appears in the same context with his assertion that science is based on reason rather than faith. He seems blind to the contradiction of sneering at faith, and in the same breath has faith that science will achieve what is now beyond its grasp. This hidden expression of faith puts him in the same class with Intelligent Design advocates who live in the hope that their misdirected efforts will someday gain the status of authentic science.

A little modesty all around would be in order in this discussion.

David H. Wallace

Newport Beach, California

Prof. Jackson Responds

As Mr. Wallace points out, a bit more modesty is in order among those vocal scientific experts who seek the platform of the public intellectual. John Henry Newman’s Idea comes to mind, with its reminder that the circumspect practitioner of science must be devoted to the “sovereignty of Truth”—i.e., something far greater than any one expert. As Newman put it:

Theories, speculations, hypotheses, are started; perhaps they are to die, still not before they have suggested ideas better than themselves. These better ideas are taken up in turn by other men, and, if they do not yet lead to truth, nevertheless they lead to what is still nearer to truth than themselves; and thus knowledge on the whole makes progress.

Such perspective secures the individual scientist’s humble yet honorable place in the scheme of things.

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