Career Criminal: Definition and Research Methods

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The career criminal, or, more pointedly, those individuals who participate incriminal acts on a regular basis for both a central and constant source ofincome has, generally, a specific set of identifying factors which, whileconclusive in laymen’s terms, fail to meet the criteria necessary for scientificinquiry. While definitions exist as to what a career criminal is, the researchmethods employed in determining these definitions are a large point ofcontention for criminal justice theorists, especially due to their potential andvirtually imminent inclusion to modern hypothesis on the subject. These researchmethods include longitudinal data collection and compilation, cross-sectionaldata collection and compilation, and, as at least one group of theorists argue,the most efficient method, informative interviewing. The longitudinal researchmethod employs a data collection technique which focuses on the duration of aparticular act–in this case, the so-called criminal career–based not uponspecific incidents, but the length of time measured between such acts (Blumstein,Cohen, and Farrington, 1988). That is, an individual’s propensity for criminalconduct in a so-called career mode would be measured first by the original actas an origin, then with the succeeding acts, until a final point became evident.

Therefore, such a research method would logically conclude that an individualwho performed or participated in criminal conduct on two occasions several yearsapart would be considered a career criminal. It is for this reason, thatcriminal justice theorists differ as to the applicability and relevance of thelongitudinal research method (Blumstein, Cohen, and Farrington, 1988). Since thelongitudinal research method could construe two independent–or even twointerdependant–criminal acts as the foundational make-up of a career criminal,theorists may hypothesize incorrectly as to the actuality of an individualhaving a career based in criminal behavior. Because it is widely believed byopponents of the longitudinal research method that the mere occurrence of twocriminal acts spaced out over an individual’s lifetime or testing window is notindicative of the so-called career criminal modus operandi, the research methodhas increasingly lost its popularity and application in such studies, unless, ofcourse, it is supported or otherwise confirmed by other utilized researchprocedures (Blumstein, Cohen, and Farrington, 1988). One of these alternativetesting and research methods is the cross-sectional data collection andcompilation model. The cross-sectional data collection and compilation model,when applied to the criminal career hypothezation, measures the probability ofoccurrence of a particular act of criminal conduct or other so-called criminalbehavior. The cross-sectional model allows for a glimpse into each individualcriminal act which may be thought to, when compiled, comprise a framework whichindicates that individual is a career criminal. For this reason, thecross-sectional model is infinitely more applicable and accurate in determining,or at least providing indicators which would lead to a determination, of conductconstituting that of a career criminal. While such assistance is immeasurablefor a determination of whether or not an individual is a career criminal, itstill falls short of a definite model for such identification. For this reason,many criminal justice theorists feel that the individual application of thecross-sectional model is inappropriate for its unsupported inclusion intorelevant scientific hypothesis. Once again, however, when such data isadequately supported or otherwise confirmed by other information, inclusion isproper. Criminal justice theorists have relied on either one, or both modelssince the inception of investigation into all areas of criminal behavior. Suchdata, however, comes under fire if, and when, other theories surface whicheither provide additional information, or information which is more in-depth andin deference to that data already obtained and reported upon (Gottfredson andHirschi, 1988). The dilemma, of course, is that regardless of how detailed andin-depth even the most comprehensive of testing techniques are, there is alwaysone method which is the most detailed, as it originates from the primary source.

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This data is called informative interviewing (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1988).

Informative interviewing is a method through which criminal justice theoristsacquire information from the primary source (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1988). Inthe case of the present issue, deliberating over the question of what behavioris indicative of a career criminal, information would most probably be extractedfrom those individuals who exhibited the stereotypical traits of what isreferred to as a career criminal. These would include individuals whose primarysource of income is derived from the perpetration of crimes, the acquisition andconversion of cash or property into cash for personal use, and the consistencyof these acts. That is, are they performed on a verifiably consistent basis tothe aforementioned ends of sustaining life for a particular individual (Weis,1991). Alternatively, the informative interviewing method would need to addressthose groups which other testing methods and their proponents have identified aspossible career criminals. These would include those individuals who perpetratemore than one criminal act in the course of their lifetime or testing window,and those who perpetrate multiple criminal acts in an effort to maintainfinancial stability, as illuminated by the longitudinal research method and thecross-sectional data collection and compilation model, respectively (Gottfredsonand Hirschi, 1988). In total, the informative interviewing technique is the mostinclusive of all the testing measures, as it does not presuppose the existenceof facts or reasoned support thereof, nor rely on a multitude of secondarysources for its hypothetical theorizations. Opponents, however, argue that thesingle, most important drawback to utilization of the informative interviewtechnique for central reliance in a scientific study, is that there exists noguarantee that the information being obtained from the individual in questionis, indeed, a factual representation of his or her physical and mentalmanifestations and reasoning prior to, during, and after performance of thecriminal act (Weis, 1991). Though this seems a wholly valid and relevantargument based on the stereotypical nature of such individuals who maintain or,at least, are thought to maintain a life of crime, the scientist-interviewer hasa better probability of determining the truthfulness of the individual when heor she is face to face, rather than viewing so-called research on a twodimensional document (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1988). For this reason, it seemsthat the informative interviewing technique is the most reliable indicator of anindividual’s propensity to maintain a career firmly rooted in criminal activity.

Finally, the very issue of career criminals cannot be determined by thosestudies which seek to apply a virtual cornucopia of variables and otherindicators into a multi-tiered graphic conceptualization of a theory (Weis,1991). This is so because such a conceptualization, while attempting toscientifically duplicate the environment which produces career criminals,cannot, and thus leads the criminal justice theorist on a road wrought withbalances and counterbalances which seek to clarify and provide for thoseresponses which do not otherwise fall into the neatly, albeit mechanicallydefined categories (Elliot, 1994). Such is not the nature of a career criminal,and, ironically, may be indicative to the very mechanisms he or she seeks toobviate when choosing such an alternative, societally unaccepted posture as toself-sustenance. As the informative interview points out, asking someone whoknows is infinitely more reliable than relying on text written by someone whothinks they know.

BibliographyBlumstein, A., Cohen, J., and Farrington, D. (1988). Criminal careerresearch: it’s value for criminology. Blumstein, A., Cohen, J., and Farrington,D. (1988). Longitudinal and criminal career research: further clarifications.

Criminology, vol. 26, no. 1. Elliot, D. S. (1994). Serious violent offenders:onset, developmental course, and termination–The American Society ofCriminology 1993 Presidential Address. Criminology, vol. 32, no. 1. Gottfredson,M., and Hirschi, T. (1988). Science, public policy, and the career paradigm.

Criminology, vol. 26, no. 1. Sutherland, E. H. (1994). The professional thief.

classics of criminology. IL: Waveland Press. Welsh, A. E. (1991). Issues in themeasurement of criminal careers. Criminal Justice 400 packet, fall semester,1995 Iowa State University.

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