Criminology vs. Criminal Justice vs. Criminalistics: Your Guide to Finding the Right Field
So crime is your thing.
You’ve always loved a good mystery and you’re drawn to the challenge of understanding criminal behavior.
Maybe your fix is CSI, Making a Murderer or Criminal Minds—and when you’re in the mood for the real thing: True crime podcasts. Maybe you’ve even considered making a career out of your interest in criminal justice. But in your search for the right degree program, you’ve come to a realization: Crime is a broad subject.
At this point in your academic career it’s more than fine to daydream about being such-and-such special agent or working in the XYZ crime lab. Because whether you want to bust down doors, prosecute perpetrators or study bullet striations, earning a Bachelor’s degree in a crime-related discipline might be a good place to start.
As you learn more about the dozens of crime-fighting careers out there, you’ll need to decide which degree will put you on the best path to achieve your personal and professional goals.
Yet there seems to be some confusion out there about the terms and phrases people are using to search for careers in criminal justice. In an effort to clarify that confusion, we’re offering our best academic comparison of criminology versus criminal justice versus criminalistics.
What is criminology?
Developed in the late-18th Century, the word criminology literally means “the study of crime.” Criminology uses behavioral sciences (e.g., anthropology, sociology, psychology and law) to analyze and identify the causes of crime and devise methods for its prevention. It sees criminal behavior as both an individual and social phenomenon.
The most common subdivisions within criminology include:
- Biocriminology: the study of the biological basis of criminal behavior
- Feminist criminology: the study of women and crime
- Penology: the study of prisons and prison systems
Generally speaking, criminology is an academic discipline. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps together the “criminologist” profession with that of a sociologist—or, someone who does academic research on human social behavior.
Criminology-related jobs most often include government or nonprofit researchers and postsecondary instructors or professors. While a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can get you started, an advanced degree in criminology or a related field will most likely be required.
What is criminal justice?
Criminal justice refers to America's overarching system of law enforcement, courts and jails. It includes all of the institutions of government aimed at upholding social order, deterring and mitigating crime and sanctioning those who violate the law.
Some of the confusion associated with comparing criminal justice to criminology and criminalistics is the fact that these aren’t “apples to apples” comparisons. Criminal justice is actually a broader term that covers the subsets of criminology and criminalistics. For example, law enforcement agents may rely on the expertise of criminologists to aid in an investigation, but both are playing a role in the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice-related jobs can vary from attorneys and bailiffs to corrections officers and DEA agents. As such, the education levels needed to break into the field vary significantly. Students are also encouraged to join criminal justice professional associations to learn more about their specific area of interest and to start making contacts in the field.
What is criminalistics?
Criminalistics refers to a specialized section within the larger field of forensic science. A criminalist is a person responsible for the “recognition, documentation, collection, preservation and interpretation” of physical evidence from a crime scene. Criminalists are also often required to testify in court about their scientific findings.
Criminalists do not chase suspects through dark alleys or spend nights on stakeouts, despite what you might see on television. The truth is that the lab people stay in the lab; they’re not out fighting crime.
The BLS classifies a criminalist as a “forensic science technician” but they can also be referred to as crime scene investigators, crime scene technicians or crime lab techs.
The most common specializations within the field of criminalistics include:
- Firearms and toolmarks: focuses on the types of firearms used in a crime and any scratches or striations on spent bullets.
- Trace evidence: s microanalysis of fibers, hair, soil, food, plastic bags and anything else that can provide information about the context of the crime.
- DNA and Serology: examines any tissue or biological material that may contain DNA.
- Drugs, Alcohol and Toxicology: uses a chemistry-based analysis to identify controlled substances in powders, pills and liquids and body fluids.
Those hoping to break into the field of criminalistics will need a Bachelor’s degree in a natural science area: Including chemistry, biology or forensic science, according to the California Association of Criminalists. The BLS also adds that becoming a criminalist requires extensive on-the-job training and, if you’re planning to work for a police crime laboratory, being a sworn police officer.
They might sound similar and confuse you in a Google search, but our comparison of criminology, criminal justice and criminalistics shows that there are some key distinctions to be aware of.
One is a research-based academic discipline (criminology) while another is a profession rooted in natural sciences (criminalistics) and they both fall somewhere on the spectrum of careers within the larger criminal justice system.
If you’re thinking of turning your interest in criminal justice into a career, you’re probably curious about the opportunities available in the field. To learn more about your options, check out our article, “What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in March 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.