Although contemporary criminologists may vary in their definition of what constitutes crime it is generally agreed that criminologists are interested in understanding, measuring, and controlling crime and deviance. According to Haines and White (1996,p.3)
Generally speaking, criminology focuses on three main areas: the sociology of law, which examines social aspects and the institutions of law. Theories of crime causation sometimes referred to as criminogenesis and the study of social responses to crime, which examines in more depth the formal institutions of criminal justice such as the police, courts and corrections.
It is often suggested by the lay person that in order to solve the issue of crime in society 'common sense' is all that is required. The commonsensical approach to crime is not based on social science or academic theories. An example of this is when people believed that the world was flat; it was a 'common' belief but a belief that had no scientific basis. Not all theories are concrete where something can be explained by observing or discovering facts, some can be abstract where it is more difficult to measure the effect, value or reason as they involve concepts that cannot be measured directly. The commonsensical viewpoint is not based on scientific evidence or research it is based on assumptions of the world that directly affects the individual , it is what we see around us in the micro not what we see in the macro, encompassing the whole of society. The commonsensical approach relates to the individuals own world and the common sense viewpoint can be different due to class, age, gender and ethnicity.
The common sense approach is not based on evidence and is rarely critical it is based on assumptions, life experiences and the experience of others that have influence over an individual's personal world and viewpoint, the influences can be from contact such as personal accounts by friends, relatives or from literature such as media reports and television programmes. The academic field of criminology draws on a bigger field of information, looking at themes, theories and patterns using other fields of academia to understand the bigger picture. Criminology does not accept the world on face value, while common sense makes rhetorical appeals in order to support a particular viewpoint. According to C Wright Mills (1959) in order to understand and appreciate what is happening in a person's life that person needs to have knowledge of social sciences in order to put life into perspective. Mills suggests that if people cannot distinguish between personal troubles and public issues then they will become trapped in a society that they cannot understand, leaving them unable to comprehend the social and structural dimensions of their own situations. "What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves" Mills (1959p,5)
In order to study criminology effectively the way of thinking needs to be altered not using commonsensical viewpoints but instead using 'a sociological imagination'. In order for society to be understood the 'criminological imagination is required to acknowledge the complexity of life, this will exclude just personal issues or just public issues, the understanding of both and how they interrelate is imperative.
According to Piquero and Weisburd (2010) quantitative research methods have been employed since the birth of criminology as an academic subject. Criminologists have used this form of research to establish patterns, origins and to help understand the effects of crime and victimisation. Results have been used by the criminal justice system and authorities to formulate many aspects of social policy. With the growth of technology and the advancement of computer software, quantitative research methods have become more in depth and complex.
The field of quantitative criminology routinely employs quantitative techniques of all levels of complexity, not only to deal with the advances in longitudinal, experimental and multi level data structures but also to study substantive methodological or evaluative concerns of interest in the criminological/ criminal justice community. (Bryman 2008,p22)
Official statistics using quantitative research methods are used as indicators to measure trends, patterns, and police workloads. Positivist criminologists argue that these figures compiled by authorities such as the police using court records and cautioning records can be a good starting point enabling individuals to make comparisons over time, in different regions and different social areas, they are relatively cheap to produce and can be obtained easily.
There are five main purposes for compiling national crime statistics. The figures recorded give parliament a reliable quantitative measurement of criminal activity which will enable government to make decisions relating to legislation and crime prevention measures. The national crime statistics help to keep all members of society, with an interest in studying criminal behaviour, informed. The reports can be used to assess the funding needs of various agencies such as the police and support for victims of crime. The figures can be used to access the performance of agencies such as the police service and to identify problem areas, and finally to provide a form of evidence that is required to implement social policies in order to deal with issues of increasing crime or crime prevention. (Smith 2006)
There are some limitations of official statistics, not all crimes are reported to the police, this can be for many reasons, fear of repercussions, the feeling that a criminal act may not be taken seriously or possibly that the police will not be able to help. Some victims of crime may feel ashamed or humiliated an example of this can be seen with victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.
The police may not record reported crime, Newburn (2007) suggests that there are several reasons for this:
The police may not accept the account given to them. The police may find insufficient evidence to confirm that an offence has taken place. The police may judge that the matter reported to them has already been satisfactorily dealt with or resolved. The police may simply not wish to pursue the matter and therefore fail to record it.
There are issues due to changes in counting rules that can have a negative or positive effect on the figures produced. An individual may be arrested for a series of offences and charged with several crimes or they may record the incidents as just one crime. This does not give a true reflection of the amount of crimes committed and inevitably the figures will reflect that.
The unreported, undiscovered, victimless, environmental, white collar or crimes dealt with by other authorities, for example, the Inland Revenue, known as the dark figure, tends to be many times higher than the number shown in official statistics. The dark figure represents the gap between recorded crime and the number of incidents that occur. According to Quetelet as cited in Walklate (2011) "our observations can only refer to a certain number of known and tried offences, out of the unknown sum total of crimes committed"
The national victimization survey, better known as the British Crime Survey, was introduced in 1982 to discover from a cross section of the public whether they have been the victim of particular crimes in the previous year. This method of quantitative research has its benefits in a similar way as police recorded statistics, it collects information from the victims rather than perpetrators it also collects information relating to where and how the incidents occurred, this information can be used to look at topics such as anti social behaviour and the perception of the criminal justice system. However it also has it criticisms. The survey is sent to a cross section of households and excludes individuals under sixteen years old. It has a restriction in that it relies on the person completing the survey to tell the truth, not everyone will be honest and feel that they can trust the authorities with what could be seen as sensitive data such as incidents of sexual crimes. The survey also relies on individuals remembering the circumstances of the incident and it does not take into account victimless crimes. It does not have the capability to measure offences such as drug deals as the parties involved are unlikely to disclose any involvement.
Both the British Crime Survey and Official Statistics have strengths and weaknesses, they measure different things and are both seen to be beneficial and currently the best sources in providing a general picture of crime in British society.
Emile Durkheim's study of suicide rates led to him to identifying four types of suicide, one type he called anomic this gave Robert Merton the basis for his theory of anomie. Merton's theory was developed using American culture. "American culture places an extraordinary emphasis on economic success but also because this goal is universal - held up for all to want and achieve." (Ball et al 2002p49) American culture suggests that the American dream is possible for everyone as long as they work hard and grasp the opportunities that come their way. Merton believed that the American dream was universal and the desire for material wealth universal but the means to achieve was not universal, some people were disadvantaged by social constraints such as the education system, employment opportunities and social status. Individuals of lower social class were not given the opportunities that the wealthy were and the poor had to be exceptionally talented or lucky in order to climb the social and economic ladder as quickly as the more affluent. Merton believed that this led to deviant behaviour and delinquency as the legitimate means to achieve was not available to all. As Newburn (2007) states "The dissonance between socially desired ends and limited means produces a 'strain to anomie'" Merton suggests that the lower classes are particularly vulnerable to anomie and those that don't conform to the legitimate means of success can be put into one of four categories. Innovation, the people in this category accept that they do not have legitimate means of achieving success and therefore may turn to crime to achieve financial gain. Ritualism, these people work hard, are honest but have no desire for reward, they may not have the drive or determination to succeed financially. Merton suggested that the individual that rejects cultural goals and institutional means would fall into the category of Retreatism, as Newburn (2007) points out, this person may be a drug taker or homeless. Merton's final category is Rebellion, this group of people reject both areas in the same way as the reatreatist but they also rebel against society with the intention of instigating change or creating a new society.
Merton's theory of anomie has been criticised with suggestion that it does not take into account political crimes or crimes without financial gain and it also assumes that everyone shares the same goals and values. (Siegel,2009,p207)