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Interdisciplinary Integration:
Building Criminology by Stealing from our Friends

by D. Wayne Osgood, Pennsylvania State University
in The Criminologist , Vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 1998.
Copyright, American Society of Criminology, reproduced with permission.

Editor's Note: This paper was presented at the session "Theoretical Integration: Across Levels and Disciplines" at the 1997 meetings of the American Society of Criminology, San Diego, November 21.

In criminology, the phrase "theoretical integration" is associated with bold theoretical statements that attempt to reformulate the best known theories in our field (e.g. Elliott, Ageton, and Canter, 1979; Thornberry, 1987); and also with high level debate about the best approach to developing criminological theory (e.g., Bernard, 1996; Messner, Krohn, & Liska, 1989). In this light, my aims are quite modest. I want to argue for one simple point about integrated theories, and then I am going to use that point as an excuse for some observations about the importance of interdisciplinary work for criminology and criminal justice research. I am not going to propose a theory, or describe any work of my own. Rather, this discussion is intended to prod the field, and of course myself, to consider how we should approach our work. In the end, I want to off some pragmatic suggestions about mundane matters such as what journals we read, what conferences we attend, requirements of our graduate programs, and what is included in our textbooks.

The title of my essay is "Interdisciplinary Integration: Building Criminology by Stealing from Our Friends," and this is essentially my version of the interdisciplinary theme President Jim Short chose for the 1997 conference--which is "Crossing Boundaries and Building Bridges." I am going to try to convince you that it is best for criminology if many of us make a regular practice of academic thievery by keeping our eyes on sister disciplines to see what ideas would be useful to take for ourselves. Fortunately, in the academic world there are no sanctions against this kind of theft, as long as we cite our sources. For every type of variable considered a potential source of crime--whether it be family, community, brain chemistry, organizational structure, or labor market--there is some other group of scholars who take that topic as their primary focus. For every aspect of the criminal justice system that we find of interest, there are scholars who study comparable problems in other settings. I believe that one of the best ways to find new insights that will help build our field is for criminologists to steal ideas from these fields and bring them back to the rest of us. I am also going to suggest that we should balance our thievery with charity, by giving our own riches away to other fields whenever we have the chance.

Criminology is an inherently interdisciplinary field. There is no limit to the list of disciplinary perspectives from which one could study crime and the social institutions that address crime. There has been tremendous growth and change in criminology in the last twenty years, and one aspect of that change is our relationship to other fields of study. Specialty journals and doctoral programs in criminology are now commonplace where once they were rare. There is much that is positive about his growth, especially the increasing sophistication of the field. Yet I am especially concerned with one potential cost, namely, insularity.

Twenty years ago almost every criminologist had doctoral level training in a traditional discipline, such as sociology, psychology, political science, or economics. Now an increasing share of our new Ph.D.s are trained in departments or schools solely dedicated to the study of crime and justice. Compared to the traditional disciplines, specialized programs can offer more intensive training specific to crime and justice. Yet for that same reason specialty programs are not an especially good place to learn about anything other than criminology. That means that we run the risk of a kind of new kind of insularity in which criminology can become isolated from the disciplines from which it sprang. To fight against that insularity we need to keep an active flow of ideas to and from other fields by having many criminologists involved in those fields.

Let me turn to integrated theories of crime and delinquency to illustrate my point. As is clear from Bernard and Snipes (1996) recent review, there is now a long list of integrated theories in criminology, and they are quite diverse. Iím going to focus initially on the kind of integrated theory that I think of as most common, and these are the integrations that are reformulations of prior theories. These begin with the first integrated theory from Del Elliott and his colleagues (Elliott et al., 1979; Elliott, Huizinga, and Ageton, 1985) and also include the theoretical statements by Thornberry (1987), Pearson and Weiner (1985), and Edwards (1992). These theorists address the interplay of variables associated with well established theories such as strain, social control, and social learning: They propose combining the theories for greater explanatory power; they address the influences among variables associated with different theories; they challenge the presumed causal ordering of previous theories; they reinterpret relationships as predictable from one theory rather than another, and so on.

In other words, these integrated theories offer new positions on issues that criminologists have already thought about and studied a lot. My interest is in something these integrations do not offer, namely new topics that criminologists werenít studying before. I definitely do not mean to say that the integration of established theories is a worthless enterprise. These theories concern those variables that decades of theory and research have identified as highly relevant to crime and delinquency; so sorting out the meaning, strength, and direction of the relationships among these variables is certainly an appropriate task.

Yet as much as these efforts illustrate the growing sophistication of research on core topics in our field, they also illustrate the tendency toward insularity. These integrated theoretical positions focus exclusively on variables that criminologists were already studying, such as attachment to parents, aspirations for conventional goals, and peers' delinquency. If we ask what kind of research follows from these theories, the answer is surely: more of the same kind of research we were already doing. We may have a more complex statistical model, we may have separated some reciprocal relationships, and we may have explained a bit more variance. But we are still juggling the same set of very well established "bivariate facts."

There are many things we may ask of theories, such as consistency with the facts, logical coherence, falsifiability, and conceptual definitions suitable for research. These are all well and good, but I am concerned with another feature of theories that I think is the most critical for their value to the field: Does the theory lead to new avenues of research? Does it inspire researchers to collect data that they would not otherwise have collected and thereby generate findings about new topics? Does it lead to genuinely new knowledge, not just refinement of current knowledge? Because this type of integration looks only inward to what criminology already is, it offers us little in this regard.

I contend that what would be most useful for building criminology is outside influence. This will occur when criminologists who are well informed about our own field find good ideas from other fields of study and integrate those ideas into new theories, or at least new lines of research.

Let me give you an illustration of what I mean. Parent and peer influence are two of the most popular elements in theories of delinquency, and they appear in most of the integrated theories, typically citing Hirschi (1969), Akers (1977, Burgess & Akers, 1966), and Sutherland (Sutherland & Cressey, 1955) . Though there have been many studies since those classic works, as far as I can tell the basic conceptions of parental and peer influence in criminology have remained largely unchanged for a couple of decades.

Not surprisingly, parent and peer influence are important topics in many other fields of study as well, such as academic achievement, political attitudes, mental health, and so on. Parent and peer influence are especially fundamental topics in the field of child development, and the study of adolescence is one of the most active specialties in child development today. I often attend the meetings of the Society for Research on Adolescence, which is the professional organization of this group. My wife is a developmental psychologist, and I first went accompanying heróthinking that there might be a few sessions where I could learn something useful, but mainly figuring that I could play most of the time she worked. In recent years she has complained that there are more sessions of interest to me at these meetings than there are to her. I think she is right. A substantial share of the research presented at the adolescence meetings concerns delinquency and drug use.

I see few criminologists at those meetings, but I hear about a lot of research that is very relevant to criminology. The contrast in research presented there and at the criminology meetings is instructive. Most of this research fails to meet some research standards in criminology, such as using small non-representative samples, including trivial items in measures of delinquency, and failing to control for well established correlates of crime. At the same time, Iíve learned that few studies in our field would past muster in theirs. For instance, developmental researchers expect multiple sources of measurement for key concepts. Certainly the study of parent and peer influence would require either observational data or independent reports from the parents and peers. Our practice of relying on reports of a single respondent for measures of all variables would be highly suspect.

These methodological differences can challenge us to improve our own work. It is even more interesting that the body of assumptions, concepts, and "established facts" that these researchers bring to their work is often different from our own. For instance, developmentalists have looked at peer relations and delinquency from a very different angle. We long ago established that delinquency is typically group behavior, and we are especially concerned with the impact of peer group norms. Developmentalists work from a tradition of interest in the development of peer relations, and there is [a] strong current of work focusing on acceptance and rejection by one's peers. Where criminologists have asked "who are your friends and what do they do?", developmentalists have asked "who in this school is well liked and who is rejected or ignored?" A core finding of the developmentalists is that children who are not accepted by their peers are much more likely to become delinquent. How does this square with the social nature of delinquency and the prominence of criminological theories that portray delinquency as something you catch from your friends? I donít know, but I think that criminologists could do some interesting theoretical and empirical work figuring it out. Doing so would bring something new to criminology because it involves issues that arenít part of the same old set of theories weíve been tossing around for well over twenty years. Someone should go steal from these folks!

Of course, what Iím proposing is nothing new. In fact, itís easy to make the case that the most influential work in criminology has usually involved importing ideas from other fields, developing novel applications to crime and justice. Sutherlandís differential association theory (Sutherland & Cressey, 1955) clearly bears a heavy debt to George Herbert Meadís original version of symbolic interactionism (1934), and Burgess and Akers (1966) used the logical framework of the psychology of operant conditioning to reformulate Sutherlandís theory as differential learning. Shaw and McKayís social disorganization theory borrowed wholesale from the work on social ecology and urbanization by others in the Chicago school such as Thomas and Znaniecki (1958 [1927]) and Burgess (1925). All scholars stand on the shoulders of others. To make a silly analogy, my point is that criminology will be better off if we donít all stand on the same shoulders. The biggest advances have come when someone found some new shoulders to stand on.

This tradition of cross-specialty integration continues today as well. Temi Moffittís (1993) typological theory has been very successful at spurring new research because it so articulately weaves together themes from the study of psychopathology, neuropsychology, life-course study of personality, and (yes) traditional criminology. John Haganís power control theory (Hagan, Gillis, & Simpson, 1985) has spawned a new line of research connecting interpersonal relationships at the workplace and in the home to delinquency by drawing on feminist theory of patriarchy and new conceptions of class from the study of stratification. Frank Cullenís (1994) social support theory views crime from the perspective of one of the most highly developed approaches to the study of stress, coping, and mental health. These three theorists show us a different version of integrated theory--one that combines current criminological theory with ideas from other fields.

Will the data support these recent theories? Only time will tell. Even if each proves false, however, all will have made important contributions to criminology. Because they ask new questions, the answers will be new criminological knowledge, even if those answers are not the ones the theorists predicted.

So how do we cross these disciplinary or specialty boundaries? Or as Iíve been putting it, how do we learn to steal from our friends? It don't think it is really all that hard. I'm going to spend most of the time I have left giving you a few concrete suggestions.

One possibility is to engage in a bit of differential association, that is, to make some friends in related disciplines and hang around with them. My own main forays into this sort of integration have been a couple of papers on biology and crime (Rowe & Osgood, 1984; Booth & Osgood, 1993). Sociologist friends sometimes wonder how I ever came to engage in such disreputable behavior, and I provide the explanation that is always so popular with delinquents--I just didn't want to let down my friends. David Rowe and I have been pals since graduate school, and our criminological interests had always been quite different. David would try to convince me of the important contribution of genetics, and gradually my skepticism evolved into some fruitful conversations. We came to realize that at least some sociological theories of crime provided good accounts of how social processes would connect genetically based variation in domains such as temperament with later delinquency in adolescence. As David was writing up one of his behavioral genetic studies of crime, he decided that our discussions would make a good basis for an introduction for a paper of broader interest to social scientists. He invited me to be a co-author, and we wrote a paper that neither of us could have produced alone, especially as junior professors (Rowe and Osgood, 1984). A paper on testosterone with Alan Booth evolved in essentially the same way (Booth and Osgood, 1993). Thus, my first suggestion about how to cross disciplinary boundaries is to take an active interest in the work of colleagues who know something you donít. Itís likely that you know things that they donít as well.

My second suggestion is to keep an eye out for other academic specialties that study your topic from a different tradition. Whatever you study, some group other than criminologists studies it to. For me, this group has been developmentalists, but there is no end to the list of possibilities. If you study justice system decision-making, then you would probably be interested in the work of decision researchers found in psychology departments and business schools. If you study communities and crime, then you might get interesting ideas from community scholars in sociology, rural sociology, and political science. There is no end to the list of possibilities.

Once you find a relevant niche, there are a couple of simple things you can do to draw on the knowledge of that area. First, keep track of a few of the best journals in that field. Iíve found that a small investment of time in scanning the tables of contents of a few journals has led me to a handful of articles that have influenced my work a great deal. Second, go to conferences in that specialty now and then. Not only will you meet new people and learn about interesting work, but you are also likely to find that knowledge you take for granted as a criminologist is new and interesting to someone else.

Another way that we can promote the cross-fertilization I have in mind is through our graduate training. Having reached the point where doctoral programs in crime and criminal justice are common, we run the risk of insularity because many graduates will have backgrounds only in the study of crime and justice. Yes, there is an advantage in specialization, where students can gain more extensive training in criminology. But the field will not grow unless criminologists have outside expertise as well. In Penn Stateís Crime, Law, and Justice Program we have decided that the solution is to require doctoral students to formulate an additional specialization consisting of twelve hours of graduate course work outside of our program. These courses must comprise a coherent whole that is relevant to the studentsí interests in crime and justice. We are fortunate to be at a fine university where there are strong programs in many relevant areas, such as human development, family studies, organizational theory, demography, geography, economics, statistics, and so forth. We believe that students who receive training that combines in-depth study of criminology with an additional specialty will be best prepared to move criminology forward in the future.

A final avenue I have in mind for importing outside work into criminology is through the dissemination of knowledge, particularly through journals and textbooks. We can encourage friends in other specialties to send their work to our journals whenever it would fit. When acting as reviewers and editors, we can try to be open to the work of "outsiders" by valuing ideas that are novel to us and methodological strengths that arenít common in criminological work. That also means holding back on the tendency to judge harshly when authors fail to cite the work that first comes to our minds as relevant and when some of our usual methodological standards arenít met.

I also would like to see textbooks play an active role in expanding the bounds of criminology. (Yes, I think that's pretty unlikely myself, but it would be a good idea.) Text book authors could do a great service by bringing in relevant work from allied disciplines, such as incorporating pertinent developmental research in delinquency textbooks. In some cases, our texts define the field to be much narrower than it really is, as evidenced by the program of the ASC meetings. For instance, in teaching juvenile justice, I find that the texts would lead one to think that the latest word on programs to treat or prevent delinquency are the diversion and scared straight programs of the 1970ís. The standard repertoire of programs reviewed stresses classics such as the Silverlake and Provo studies and the Chicago Area Projects, from the 1940ís to 1960ís. Rarely do we find mention of program related research by current leaders in the field such as Patterson, Hawkins, Catalano, Tolan, Guerra, Barton, and Mulvey--even though many of these folks are active participants in ASC. I suppose that the difference is that older programs were closely associated with sociological criminology, while the current work is by cross-over specialists housed in departments such as psychology and social work. Our students need to learn about this new work, and we who teach the courses need to learn about it too. If we do not bring relevant work by others into criminology, then we run the risk that our own work will become irrelevant and that policy makers and funding sources will not see criminology as having anything to say on the topic.

I am going to finish by emphasizing another potential advantage of crossing the boundaries of disciplines or specialties, which is that it can be good for our reputations, both individually and as a field. This is what I had in mind by balancing our thievery from other fields with the charity of giving criminology away. We criminologists do some pretty good work. We have an extensive body of knowledge, a set of interesting and coherent theories, and a large bag of methodological and statistical tools. We can spread the word about our accomplishments by publishing some of our work in relevant journals of other specialties and by presenting at their conferences.

Let me tell you a story about an occasion where I was especially proud to be able to call myself a criminologist. It was a meeting of the Society of Research on Child Development, about five or seven years ago. This is the major biennial conference of all developmentalists, which boasts an average attendance of about 8,000. The setting was a large ballroom, stuffed with an audience of several hundred for a session on community context and adolescent development, and the panel included several leaders in the study of adolescence. The chair introduced the session noting that developmentalists had first recognized the importance of community context in the 1970ís, that plans for the first major studies had been made several years before the conference, and here at last we would learn of the very first findings. The first speaker was not a developmentalist, however, but rather our own Rob Sampson. Rob led off by describing the relevance of Thrasherís work from the 1920ís and Shaw and McKayís from the 1930ís, proceeding to tie his own findings into this rich tradition of theory and research that is so central to our field. The other panel members presented some interesting work, but it wasnít very sophisticated, and it suffered from a lack of theory about community level variables. Criminology had been there already, and it was nice that one of us was on the scene to help out our friends.

So I invite you to join me in this challenge of being the kind of criminologist who is something else too--to try out this version of theft combined with charity. It has great potential both for enriching your own work and for invigorating and promoting our field.

Wayne Osgood is a Professor in the Crime, Law, and Justice Program of the Department of Sociology at Penn State University. He has conducted research on topics such as criminal careers, age and crime, peer influence, and juvenile justice evaluation. Though he is really a criminologist, he sometimes passes himself off as a sociologist, psychologist, developmentalist, or methodologist.


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