By Troy Duster

On June 20, 2011, the New York Times published an article entitled "Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look" in anticipation of the start (that day) of the annual National Institute of Justice Conference in Arlington, Virginia. The article noted: "On the opening day criminologists from around the country can attend a panel on creating databases for information about DNA and 'new genetic markers' that forensic scientists are discovering."1 The reporter noted how much the climate has changed in the last two decades, when social scientists studying crime generally eschewed any attempts to bring genetics into their explanatory models.

The general frame for the Times' piece is that careful, thoughtful and reasonable social scientists are finally acknowledging that genes play a role in criminal behavior. By innuendo, only those social scientists that are ideologically bound to ignore the role of genetics hold to an outmoded view. This is very reminiscent of an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education two years earlier, in which a very similar frame was used even more dramatically,  with the jaw-dropping opening lines: "Genetic research finally makes its way into the thinking of sociologists. If sociologists ignore genes, will other academics-and the wider world-ignore sociology?"2

 For both articles, the reporters interviewed me. The earlier piece cast me in the role of the backward looking Luddite trying to push back against the inevitable tide of progress in science. Indeed, this article stated that I go " far as to suggest that any sociologist who embraced genetic approaches was a traitor to the discipline."

Actually, I said nothing of the kind. Rather, in the article that the reporter references, I assiduously described the scaffolding of knowledge production around criminal statistics of both violent and property crimes, indicating how those who begin theorizing about such crimes with already collected crime statistics are likely to make a fundamental mistake in scientific inquiry.3 The first principle of data collection in science is the assurance of the accuracy and integrity of baseline data. If there is a systematic skew or flaw in the database, theories built upon that database are unreliable. This is as true for sociologists as it is for geneticists. Before I turn to the matter of bringing in genetics to help explain criminal behavior, some historical context is necessary for how sociologists have made this error in theorizing about explanations of crime.

In the middle of the twentieth century, there were two major competing sociological approaches to the study of deviance, law, and the criminal justice system in the United States. The first was centered at Columbia, and could be generally described as dominated by Robert Merton and his students using the functionalist paradigm. Drawing from both Durkheim and Parsons, Merton and his colleagues approached the study of deviance by exploring the putative functional relationship between "the deviant world" and "the normal world." Their basic assumptions pivoted upon an empirical strategy relying on statistical aggregates of deviant and criminal behavior as reflected in local police records and the Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI. While there was an occasional foray into field site investigations, the overwhelming tendency of this approach assumed that the data from official statistics sufficiently reflected the empirical world, and that theorizing from these databases warranted little in the way of caution or concern.

The University of Chicago was the alternative and competitive approach, with a long tradition of field site investigations of particular forms of "deviance," from "the gang" to "the hobo" to the prostitute, gambler, and other vice sets and settings. Their practitioners literally went to those places in the society that any competent actor would presume to be the site of deviance.

While there were significant differences between Chicago and Columbia in their respective renderings of explanations of crime and deviance, in very important ways, both adopted a "taken-for-granted" world.

Onto this stage would step a third set of key players who would shift the focus to challenge the epistemological foundations of the whole playing field, and not just of theory and research on deviance. Egon Bittner and Aaron Cicourel would ride around in police cars and see just how and when police used discretion in their arrest procedures.4,5 David Sudnow would go to the Public Defender's office and record the way in which the Public Defender and the Prosecuting Attorney worked in concert to secure guilty pleas from "certain suspects" but let others bargain "harder" when their legal representation took a private turn.6 Erving Goffman would venture into mental hospital wards, and break the path for the next generation that would study intake decisions for mental institutions.7

In some ways, the methodology of this new breed of work seemed parallel to the earlier field research traditions. However, in fundamental ways, the domain assumptions were strikingly different. Chicago was mainly trying to find out and explain what "the deviants were really like" in their natural setting. The new approach was to raise another whole order of question: "What are the social processes that explain why some get classified and others don't, even though both are engaged in the same or similar behavior?" When Cicourel and Bittner were riding around in police cars, observing and recording how official statistics are compiled, they were asserting that the point at which rate construction occurs is the preferred site for an investigation of those otherwise "taken for granted" statistics that had been the structural underpinning database for theorizing about deviance and crime. It would not be much of a leap to conclude that, if the site of rate construction was the preferred focal point for inquiry and theorizing about these data, then surely it would have bearing and impact on all manners of rate construction, from epidemiological work in public health to coroner's collective accounts of the causes of death.

The importance of data collection at the site of knowledge production

There are powerful organizational motives for police departments to demonstrate effectiveness in "solving crimes."  It is a considerable embarrassment for a police department to have a long list of crimes on their books, for which no arrest has been made. No police chief wishes to face a city council with this problem. Thus, there are organizational imperatives for police departments to clean up the books by a procedure known as "cleared by arrest."

Few matters count as much as this one when it comes to reporting to the public about what the police are doing.8 To understand how arrest rates are influenced by "clearing," it is vital to empirically ground this procedure by close observation.

Here is the pattern: Someone, "P," is arrested and charged with committing a crime, let's say burglary. There are a number of other burglaries in this police precinct. The arresting officers see a pattern to these burglaries, and decide that the suspect is likely to have committed a number of those on their unsolved burglary list. Thus, it sometimes happens that when "P" is arrested for just one of those burglaries, the police can "clear by arrest" 15-20 crimes with that single arrest. This can show up in the statistics as a "repeat offender," even though there may never be any follow-up empirical research to verify or corroborate that the "rap sheet" accurately represents the burglaries now attributed to "P".

But only if one is "riding around in police cars," or doing the equivalent close-up observation of police work can this be corroborated as a pattern.9 And yet, if social theorists take the FBI Uniform Crime Reports as a reflection of the crime rate, with no observations as to how those rates were constructed, they will make the predictable "policy error" of assuming that there are only a very small number of persons who commit a large number of crimes. The resulting error in theorizing would be to then look for the "kind of person" who repeatedly engages in this behavior (as if it were not "cleared by arrest" that generated the long rap sheet). So the "bad apple" theory, that only a very few people commit the bulk of the crimes, may indeed be a function of the bureaucratic imperatives of police work. The "bad apple" solves a problem for police reporting of crimes "cleared by arrest." But if sociologists, criminologists, and then behavioral geneticist begin their inquiry at this point, what they will have missed is the actual empirical behavior-in this case, the police requirement to clear-by-arrest.

Bringing in genetics - compounding the error at the base of data entry

It is at this very point of knowledge production that we see the methodological problem of bringing in geneticists to help explain criminality.  By definition, geneticists are seeking to find genetic markers, the usually very complex matter of finding the genotype to explain the phenotype. But this presumes that the Uniform Crime Reports represent the actual, concentrated behavior of single individuals with those genetic markers, and is not an artifact of bureaucratic resolution to an organizational imperative to "clear by arrest." And it is this that I said sociologists should be focusing their research upon, namely the site of knowledge production in crime prevention, control and explanation!  Indeed, in that article, I explicitly cited the work of anthropologist of science Duana Fullwiley, who goes to the laboratories where geneticists deploy concepts such as racial admixture to examine how they are using the idea of race and ethnicity in their search for genetic markers.10 A recommendation for the preferred focus upon an empirical site where scientists can more accurately assess rate construction is a far cry from calling colleagues "traitors" for pursuing collaborative research. Instead, that framing of the problem is a red herring diverting attention from the problem of "bringing genetics in to help explain crime."

I conclude with a dramatic example to illustrate the basic problem. We have reasonable grounds to conclude that although whites consume more marijuana per capita than do African Americans, it is African Americans who are routinely arrested for marijuana possession at least four to nine times the rate as are whites, depending upon the region of the country.11

If sociologists begin with these current arrest data for marijuana possession and then join with geneticists to help explain the sharply distorted over-representation of African Americans in the criminal database, they will have made the most fundamental of errors in scientific theorizing: never realizing the source of their error is based upon inattention to how crime rates are constructed. Even worse, they will have erroneously concluded that they have "advanced scientific inquiry" by partnering with a neighboring discipline in a thoughtful, ecumenical embrace to better explain the genetic basis of drug crimes.

Troy Duster, PhD, is a Chancellor's Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and professor of sociology and director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University.




1. Cohen, Patricia  2011. "Genetic Basis of Crime: A New Look," New York Times (June 19) 1: Arts Section.

2. Shea, Christopher  2009. "The Nature-Nurture Debate, Redux," Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review (January 9).

3. Duster, Troy  2006. "Comparative Perspectives and Competing Explanations: Taking on the Newly Configured Reductionist Challenge to Sociology," American Sociological Review, 71 (February: 1-15)

4. Bittner, Egon 1967. "The Police on Skid-Row: A 'study of peace-keeping.'" American Sociological Review 32:699-715.

5. Cicourel, Aaron V. 1967. The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

6. Sudnow, David 1965. "Normal Crimes: Sociological Features of the Penal Code in a Public Defender Office." Social Problems 12:255-76.

7. Goffman, Erving 1959. "The Moral Career of the Mental Patient." Psychiatry 22(2):123-42.

8. Skolnick, Jerome H. 2002. "Corruption and the Blue Code of Silence." Police Practice and Research 3:7-19; Skolnick, Jerome H. and James J. Fyfe. 1993.  Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. New York: Free Press.

9. Jackall, Robert  2005. Street Stories: The World of Private Detectives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

10. Fullwiley, Duana 2008. 'The Biologistical Construction of Race: 'Admixture' Technology and the New Genetic Medicine," Social Studies of Science 38(5): 695-735; Fullwiley, Duana 2007, "The Molecularization of Race: Institutionalizing Human Difference in Pharmacogenetics Practice," Science as Culture, 16 (1): 1-30.

11. Blow, Charles 2010. "Smoke and Mirrors. " New York Times (Oct. 22) at: also see graph at:; Levine, Harry and Deborah P. Small 2008, Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City, 1997-2007. New York Civil Liberties Union, final version, 2010a at; Levine et al. 2010b, "Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California," Drug Policy Alliance, Los Angeles, Ca, Oct 2010.

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