Social Scientists on Crime After World War II

30 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2019

Date Written: December 10, 2019


This paper addresses the history of social scientific work on crime after World War II. We argue that the mid-1960s marked a turning point that profoundly transformed the way in which the public discourse, policy programs, and social scientific work addressed crime. Up to the mid-1960s, crime was not a central concern for the average American and the Federal government had a very limited role in fighting it. Within social science, sociological studies dominated the analysis of crime. The mainstream of research mixed the influence of Robert Merton’s theory of anomie with the Chicago-school ecological approach, relegating biological and psychological explanations to a backstage status. It located the origins of delinquent behavior in relative deprivation and dysfunctional neighborhoods. This broad outlook framed the way in which various social scientific notions infused the study of crime and eventually made their way to Washington, making the idea of relative deprivation central to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

From then on, crime fell under the prerogatives of the Federal government and gradually gained prominence. At the same time, the social turmoil of the 1960s challenged the consensus about the so-called “rootcauses” of crime and their treatment though welfare programs and community empowerment. By the end of the decade, crime rates had skyrocketed and riots erupted throughout the country. The fear of crime nurtured the rise of a conservative view that emphasized the significance of law enforcement and punishment. The figure of the criminal as a responsible decision-maker became increasingly popular. Social scientists involved in the public attack on crime also shared increasing doubts about social-deprivation explanations. Even though they did not go as far as James Q. Wilson in urging criminologists to become “policy analysts” and relinquish the socioeconomic rootcauses of crime, the social scientific study of crime increasingly emphasized a “control” approach to crime. That approach brought together insights from economics, operations research, political science, sociology and psychology so as to address cost-effective law enforcement and deterrence. In effect, criminology became increasingly dependent on policy concerns. Public support from urban development or health agencies was progressively replaced by funds from criminal justice and law enforcement agencies, further illustrating the changing orientation in public policy. Within a number of universities, the creation of criminal justice departments also provided a new institutional setting to further this multi-disciplinary outlook and respond to the ever-increasing public demands for professional training in crime combat.

By the end of the 1970s, control theories of crime represented a sizable chunk of the literature, though they were not influential enough to define a new consensus. On top of the unresolved debates on how policy-oriented research should handle crime, a number of social scientists rejected criminology’s dependence on the State and the development of policy analysis. Emerging from the counterculture of the 1960s, another approach brought together radical economists, historians, sociologists and psychologists, in analyzing lawmaking and the criminal justice system as tools used by those in power to enforce their own interests. Instead of taking the legal definition of crime for granted, they urged social scientists to analyze crime with their own tools. These were not the only theories to push for a thorough redefinition of crime in disciplinary terms. Neoliberal economic analysis of law, championed by Richard Posner and Gary Becker, also offered to redefine crime as “market bypassing” in order to promote wealth maximization. Very influential in the expansion of the boundaries of economics into the law, the movement did not stand in stark opposition to control theory if only because it also focused on deterrence.

As a result of the important transformations of American society, politics and social sciences during the 1960s, knowledge about crime became specialized and increasingly discipline-oriented, even under the broad umbrellas of control theories and critical criminology. In the process, the boundaries between the social sciences shifted. The socioeconomic causes of crime used in sociology to understand individual trajectories toward criminal behavior gave increasingly way to a broader focus on crime and law enforcement, grounded on rational choice and cost benefit analysis.

JEL Classification: B10

Suggested Citation

Fleury, Jean-Baptiste, Social Scientists on Crime After World War II (December 10, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Jean-Baptiste Fleury (Contact Author)

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