Criminology 101: Methods for Studying Crime

As long as there are people, there will likely be crime. As long as there is crime, there will be a need for trained professionals to both fight it and study it. The fields of criminology and criminal justice both focus on this area.

Though similar, criminology and criminal justice do not have the same educational paths. This guide will explore the differences so that you can make informed educational and career decisions.

Criminal Justice and Criminology

Even though criminology and criminal justice both study crime, they have distinct differences. Understanding these differences, as well as the similarities between these programs, will help you choose the right one for your education and career goals.

Differences and Similarities

Criminology involves the study of crime and the motivations behind it. It can have a strong focus on psychology, and it is a subset of sociology. Criminologists will:

  • Research and analyze human behavior
  • Discuss why and how crimes occur
  • Suggest policies to help prevent crime and respond to it

In contrast, criminal justice involves society’s response to crime. These professionals will:

  • Enforce the laws in an effort to stop crime
  • Respond to crimes when they happen
  • Investigate crimes
  • Punish criminals
  • Analyze evidence or intelligence
  • Verify identities with fingerprints
  • Review immigration cases
  • Be involved with court cases
  • Teach criminal justice

So how are the two similar? Both require strong research and organization skills, and both involve studying crimes and criminals.

A Brief History of Criminology

The first records that could indicate an interest in criminology are found in the 19th century, but the idea of criminal theory actually dates back to the 1700s with the publication of “On Crime and Punishment” by Cesare Beccaria. The idea of these early writings on criminology is to make the punishment for a crime harsh enough to deter people from breaking the law. This basic premise served as the foundation for both American and European legal codes. This early theory became known as the Control Theory, as the goal was to put enough punishment in place to control people’s desire to break the law.

In the mid-1900s, modern criminological theories developed. The growth of interest in sociology and psychology led to a growth in the desire to understand the causes of crimes. Researchers started looking at the causes of crimes rather than just trying to find ways to prevent them. This new approach found that crime has many different motivations, and the solution is more than just control. While laws that aim to control behavior are important and helpful, criminologists are now focusing on changes in society that could help curb some of the additional causes.

Working with Law Enforcement

Criminologists often work alongside criminal justice professionals. This partnership between criminology and law enforcement seems to work well not only to investigate crimes but also to prevent them. Criminology has brought to light many factors that impact crime and criminals. For example, it was through the study of criminology that the American Bar Association put in place the Standards on Treatment of Prisoners to give more humane treatment to those who are incarcerated, and in 2017 the “Costs of Crime” report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office relied heavily on the work of criminologists.

It was not until the late 20th century that criminal justice as an academic field came to fruition, but their role with law enforcement is to improve its effectiveness. Both criminologists & criminal justice professionals have a role to play in law enforcement.

Research Methods in Criminal Justice and Criminology

There are several research methods used in both criminology and in the criminal justice system. Understanding these will help you understand what you may be studying in school if you pursue one of these degree paths.

Survey Research

According to the Law Library of American Law and Legal Information, survey research is the most commonly used method of observation within social sciences. Criminology is a social science, and survey research is an important tool for criminologists.

Survey research means collecting information from a large sample of individuals using a series of questions. The goal of surveys is to see what the population thinks or believes about a certain topic, often including the differences in experience or opinion as well as the proportion of each response group.

Surveys can include both open-ended questions that allow the respondent to give their own ideas and thoughts and close-ended questions that have a list of answers to choose from. This research method is quite versatile and costs little.

Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Research

Experimental research involves using the scientific method to examine potential outcomes, and the factors or variables that impact outcomes. At their most basic level, an experiment has three core components:

  • Two groups: an experimental group and a control group
  • A variable that is being studied
  • Random assignment of participants into these two groups

In an experiment, researchers will provide groups with a task, assessment, or something to produce an outcome. They will change the variable for the experimental group, while the control group remains unchanged, and compare the difference in outcomes.

Quasi-experimental research is similar, but it does not have a randomized assignment to control and test groups. They may not have a control group altogether. Studying the effect of law enforcement action on a particular crime is an example of a quasi-experimental research project. Quasi-experimental research is not as objectively rigorous as a pure experimental study because of these changes. However, they are often necessary when dealing with human groups or subjects because of the realities of working with real people and communities.

Cross-Sectional Research

A cross-sectional research project takes a group of people and studies something about them at one point in time. This research model is common in both criminology and criminal justice research. An example of a cross-sectional research project would be studying a particular type of crime in a particular city.

Longitudinal Research

Longitudinal research studies the same group of people over a set period of time. The goal is to see change both within the group and between the group members. The two types of research styles in longitudinal research are panel and cohort studies.

Panel studies interview a group of people multiple times over a span of time. An example is the National Crime Victimization Survey, which randomly selects homes in the United States. Once selected, the families sit through seven interviews over six months.

Cohort studies follow a group as they change over time. Tracking the criminal history of a particular generation of people, such as those born in a certain year, is an example of a cohort study.

Time Series Design

Time series design studies will take a group of people, such as the residents of a particular area, and study specific observations of them at different points of time. They may study the crime rate at one point, then come back to the group to study the crime rate again after new laws were put in place to deter crime.


Meta-analysis is a type of study that works to combine & analyze findings from multiple studies that have already been completed. In this way, criminologists can expand and connect findings and data from any of the above types of studies. Oftentimes, this results in even stronger findings, but it can also be used to identify weaknesses or missed connections. Meta-analyses are frequently used to inform public policy because they can serve to summarize and/or distill data in a more digestible way.

Criminal Justice and Criminology Master’s Program

Criminal justice and criminology work hand-in-hand, and many people will choose to study both in order to get a well-rounded education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see steady growth in this field, and the average pay is over $66,000 a year. However, those in the highest 10 percent of the field can earn over $105,000 a year, and graduate training could help you reach that potential.

Keiser University’s Master of Arts in Criminal Justice is a good choice if you are considering studying this field. It focuses on criminal justice but weaves in criminology throughout the program, and prepares students for a career in community service. The program is completely online, so this provides the flexibility that working adults need.

Doctoral Degrees in Criminal Justice & Criminology

Both criminal justice and criminology are complex fields that have lots of information available for students, and a doctoral program can take you even further in these fields. Keiser University’s Doctor of Criminal Justice blends criminology theory with practical criminal justice training. This online program takes between 20 and 32 months to complete the necessary coursework and focuses on giving students the skills they need to work in administration or research in criminal justice. After the required coursework, students complete an applied exercise with their applied doctoral project to conclude the program.

The Doctor of Philosophy in Criminal Justice and Criminology is another option from Keiser University. This doctoral degree offers the highest level of educational value to contribute to your success – covering agency evaluation, finding causes of crime & strategies for prevention, and even making your own impact in the field. It is also an online program; the coursework takes between 24 and 40 months to complete and culminates with the completion of a dissertation.

If you are already working in law enforcement and want to learn more about criminology, or if you have an undergrad degree in a criminal justice field and want to extend your employment potential, consider one of our master’s or doctoral programs in these criminal justice fields. Reach out to the team at Keiser University today to learn more about our graduate programs and to see which one is the right fit for your career goals.



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