Vol. 13 No. 4 (April 2003)


AN INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINOLOGICAL THEORY by Roger Hopkins Burke. Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing, 2002. 287pp. Cloth $59.55. ISBN: 1-903240-47-6.


Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: matwell@radford.edu .        


I suspect that most people who teach courses in criminological theory have a shelf or two of books with titles similar or identical to AN INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINOLOGICAL THEORY in their offices. Most of the time, not only the titles, but the contents of the works are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable. Virtually every one offers a summary of the main schools of criminological thought, in chronological order, starting with the classical work of Beccaria and ending with a chapter on contemporary or post-modernist theory. These are not the sort of books one would ever read just for pleasure. In fact, choosing which of them to assign for a class often seems a serendipitous matter. In that company, Hopkins Burke offers an attractive choice.


Two things set the book apart from the garden variety criminological theory text: the quality of the writing and the coherence of the organization. The prose is clear and elegant; the author does not plod along in the ponderous style that sometimes substitutes for serious engagement with ideas. Additionally, he does not lower the level of his writing to accommodate students, assuming that they are incapable of enlarging their vocabulary at the same time that they are learning about the causes of crime. All in all, Hopkins Burke writes in a literate style—perhaps more common in Britain where he taught at the University of Leicester and subsequently became director of the Nottingham Crime Research Unit—than in some American texts. 


As to structural coherence, rather than organizing the book in strict chronological order, Hopkins Burke sets it up thematically. Thus, after the introduction, the first section deals with the rational actor model from classical theorists to current rational choice approaches. Part two discusses what the author calls the “predestined actor” model. It follows that perspective from the work of Lombroso in the late nineteenth century to the deviant subculture theories of the later twentieth century. The third part focuses on the “victimized actor” from labeling theory to modern critical criminology. The fourth section offers examples of integrated theories from both the right and the left. The final chapter seems to have been written out of a sense of obligation, ensuring that nothing has been left out. In it, Hopkins Burke sets out some rather vague thoughts on the impact of post-modernist thought on criminological theory. Nonetheless, there is a logic and rationality to his way of categorizing and explaining the schools of criminological thought. His method offers students the kind of framework that will allow them to compare ideas and to see the commonalities as well as the disagreements among the theories. A very useful bonus feature is the comprehensive glossary of terms.


Additionally, there are several things in particular that motivate me to recommend this book for use in American universities. Hopkins Burke has both academic and public service credentials. This experience is especially demonstrated in the later sections where he discusses contemporary applications of theory. Students in the United States would benefit from some comparisons between analysis of the causes of crime within this country and in Europe, especially the United Kingdom. It is often argued that Americans tend to view their experience with criminal behavior as if it were unique or exceptional. A work such as this raises questions about that perspective.


The author is a scholar and practitioner within the “left realist” school. That approach has been influential in the political thinking of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his “New Labour” government. In general, left realists draw insights from a wide range of theories of crime and criminal policy. Blair expressed this outlook as “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” suggesting a policy that would address structural factors that contribute to criminal behavior while also holding offenders accountable. In the process, the New Labour government would take the work of criminologists seriously. Some might wish that Blair’s friends in the United States would subscribe to such an even-handed program.


Perhaps because he writes from the left realist perspective, which acknowledges that most theories of criminal behavior have something to offer, Hopkins Burke gives each school of thought serious and respectful attention. Even so, some discussions are better than others. The weakest section of the book is the twelve pages devoted to feminist theory. It rehashes the critiques of criminological theory that ignores the experiences of women and the traditional theories that correlated female crime with biology. Yet there is insufficient attention to the structural explanations that feminists have offered to account for the unique way in which a patriarchal society influences female crime and female victims. Ultimately, Hopkins Burke deals with issues of gender and crime by the old “add a chapter on women” method.


If one had a chance to discuss the book with Hopkins Burke, one might also ask him about his usage of the term “predestined actor” for the theories that emphasize biological, psychological, and societal factors that influence criminal behavior. Those approaches seldom claim that people behave without any control over their actions. Rather, even the later work of Lombroso, who comes as close to “predestined” as anyone, finds that a number of forces – e.g., biological, geographical, and economic – influence activities. It would seem that to describe those who are more likely to engage in crime “predisposed” is a better term than “predestined.” For example, Hopkins Burke includes the Chicago School and the theory of social disorganization within the predestined actor model. Yet the research within that tradition does not argue that people living in dysfunctional neighborhoods are forced into criminality by their environment. Rather, they argue that disorganized surroundings help to produce and sustain criminal values and activities. In my view, the term “predestined” is too extreme to be useful.


Nonetheless, on balance, the weaknesses of AN INTRODUCTION TO CRIMINOLOGICAL THEORY are small compared to its strengths. I would highly recommend it for use in a class of upper level undergraduates, especially those with some background in criminology or criminal justice. It would stimulate them to think and to synthesize, and it might well influence their writing skills for the better.



Beccaria, Cesare.  [1764] 1963.  ON CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS, trans. Henry Paolucci.  Indianapolis, Indiana:  Bobbs-Merrill. 


Lombroso, Cesare.  [1912] 1968.  CRIME:  ITS CAUSES AND REMEDIES.  Montclair, New Jersey:  Patterson Smith.           

Copyright 2003 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.