Who is the real criminologist? And other uncomfortable questions about expertise

Unless I’m mistaken, there are two situations in which people can legitimately claim to call themselves a criminologist.

In the first instance, many criminal justice agencies and other government organizations hire individuals for the job title “Criminologist.” In order to be considered for this designation, the person must possess, the necessary specified qualifications (usually a master’s degree, typically in criminology or criminal justice). These individuals assess crime statistics, or they are involved in the processing of crime scenes.

In the other situation, in general, as long as you have earned a PhD from an accredited university, and you publish your research in peer reviewed journals or books in the field of criminology or criminal justice, you also have a legitimate claim to calling yourself a criminologist.

So what?

Some individuals (often current or retired criminal justice practitioners or people with lived experience – formerly incarcerated citizens, justice impacted or involved, etc.) refer to themselves as criminologists.

Lived, or sometimes labelled firsthand experience can be very important, in helping to understand the subtleties of a situation, process, or profession, but in and of itself lived experience is not equivalent to certification.

Certification typically requires a person to complete a course of studies and training, pass a test, earn a degree, and/or be granted a licensure in a relevant subject area. In general, this process assists a person to gain expertise. Moreover, individuals with lived experience may have valuable insights, and we might want to listen to them or read what they want to say, and perhaps they have something of interest to add to the discussion and thus we can learn from them. But again, they do not have recognized appropriate subject specific certifications. More specifically, just because you have some knowledge about crime, criminals and criminal justice agencies, it may give you some expertise, but it does not grant you a certification, nor does it make you a bona fide criminologist.

Why is calling oneself a criminologist without the appropriate certifications problematic?

To begin with it’s disingenuous to call oneself something when one is not.

Additionally, if almost anyone can call themselves a criminologist without the appropriate certification, etc. it devalues the expertise of people who have gone through the long slog of earning the appropriate degrees, standards, etc.

Moreover, claims to the designation of criminologist without appropriate certification also has the potential to misrepresent what appropriately credentialed criminologists know and do.

I believe that the issue I am addressing is part of the confusion that many people (and organizations) have about the labels, terms, and the relationship among amateurs, authorities, experts, and professionals, and often the lack of knowledge they may also have concerning certification and accreditation. Clearly there is a linkage among these terms, thus this is also a point in time when consulting a dictionary and paying attention to nuance is important.

In general, amateurs do not have as much knowledge, experience and skills as an expert. Experts, on the other hand, typically have specialized knowledge and skills, and may even have some sort of relevant certification, as may the organization they work for, if indeed they work in this kind of setting, has been accredited by a relevant recognized body.

Experts may act in an unprofessional (even amateurish) manner, they may also have difficulty translating their knowledge to a wider audience, but as long as they have the appropriate certifications, then they are still experts.

Why does this occur?

Unlike the professions of architecture, law, medicine, etc. the field of criminology does not have a recognized way to certify individuals to become criminologists, a professional organization to determine and enforce licensing standards, nor sanction those who call themselves criminologist but don’t have the credentials. Thus any individual who wants to call themselves a criminologist can do so at will.

How can this problem be solved?

I have two weak and imperfect solutions to this conundrum. And maybe this is why this problem is so thorny and persists.

On the one hand, criminologists can spend time educating the public about what is needed to be labelled a criminologist. We can even work hard to convince our learned organizations, like ASC or ACJS to do the same. But in all reality I doubt that the general public really cares about this situation.

Alternatively, we might try and convince one or more of our learned organizations to establish a certification or licensing process. This initiative, however, may unnecessarily burdensome and end excluding people with criminal convictions, similar to what has happened with other large licensure bodies Why? One of the first things that a professional organizations often does is to exclude people with criminal records. At the very least ASC or ACJS can try this as an experiment, for a short period of time. And then evaluate it.


We can make it our mission to point out every time we see, meet or learn of someone who claims to be a criminologist is not what in fact they claim to be. Although this may provide some personal satisfaction at some level to some people, it also seems to be an exhausting process. Until then we will live with complicated issue.

photo credit nist6dhFollow
3d human give a lecture behind a podium