A point I made in our book is that many theoretical positions were imported into our discipline from sociology and that certain of these theories were better understood as criticisms of American society than formal theories about criminal involvement. I also made the point that theories are often viewed as “left leaning” or “right leaning.” What constitutes a left from right leaning theory is open to debate and I’m sure no definition will be all that precise. Nonetheless, at one end we have “perspectives” that are entirely political in orientation and that situate science in a broader context of leftist goals. In the middle we have theories that make assumptions about the pliability of human nature (or simply deny human nature) and theories that emphasize environment over everything else. Theories seen as right leaning, however, generally focus on individuals, their traits, and their decision-making.
If there is a leftist bias in the field, we should be able to find it by looking at things like rates of publication on certain topics. Enter Google Ngram.
Google Ngram counts the occurrence of words in books--lots and lots of books. Anthropologists, political scientists, and other scholars use Ngram to study things like the rise and fall of cultural symbols and ideas.
The Ngram I produced here shows the word counts and time-frame for various criminological perspectives.
Recall that criminology was part of sociology prior to breaking partially away in the 1970’s. This point is important to keep in mind because as you can see, the term “Differential Association Theory” came into existence in the 1950’s with Sutherland and was immediately imported into criminology.
Look at the immediate and explosive rate of production associated with “Radical Criminology.” Radicals, recall, make no pretense about their political orientations and they are still the largest division in the ASC.
Stepping down we see that Marxist Criminology came in strong and remains a dominant perspective and that other theories that emerged between 1985 and 1990 really took off.
It is interesting that General Strain Theory surpassed most of the other perspectives. It is also striking to see the onset and rise in Feminist Criminology--another orientation that mixes politics and science.
Yet you also cannot help to notice that other perspectives really haven’t taken off. Routine activities, self-control theory, and work on life-course persistent offenders remains comparatively infrequent--although I suspect the results might change if journal articles were analyzed and not books.
Oh, and biosocial criminology......right.
Rankings along the Y-axis is strongly suggestive of the leftist tilt in criminology. The theories and ideas in books are most likely to mention radical/feminist/Marxist approaches. These are far left perspectives. In the center left we find General Strain and Social Disorganization.
However, as we move down the axis we get into perspectives that are broadly viewed as right leaning. These perspectives are less frequently discussed but, I would argue, are better empirically supported than perspectives on the left and, especially, those on the far left.
Of course, standard caveats apply about the use of Ngram but this chart gives you an idea of the popularity of certain theoretical terms in our field. Is it by chance that radicals and their closely aligned associates are at the top of the heap and are the largest group in the ASC? Maybe. And is it by chance that perspectives that are viewed as right leaning are championed by a minority of individual criminologists? Maybe.
John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi
Professors of Crime and Criminology