Criminalistics vs Criminology

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Criminalistics and criminology are two different sectors within the vast field of forensic science. They might seem similar, but the two differ significantly from one another. Criminalistics is the study of evidence to investigate crimes, and criminology is the examination of crime within society.

Criminalists collect, document, preserve, and examine the physical evidence at crime scenes. They also thoroughly survey crime scenes to detect if anything is out of place. They study the acquired evidence at a laboratory, using their knowledge of chemistry, biology, molecular biology, physics, statistics, and geology.

Upon close observation of the evidence, a criminalist must be able to piece together the events that may have transpired at a crime scene. There are many specializations in criminalistics including computer forensics, arson, blood and tissue spatter, DNA, toxicology, serology, firearms, and toolmarks, among others. Criminalists may also be called in a court of law to testify.

Criminology, on the other hand, involves the study of why crimes occur, how they can be prevented, and the effects they have on a society. Criminology uses the principles of psychology and sociology to trace the roots of crime and criminals. It also takes a look at the environmental, psychological, hereditary, and social causes of crime.

One common legal definition of criminology is as follows: “The study of the making of laws, the breaking of laws, and reactions to the breaking of laws.” By studying the socioeconomic status of a population, the areas in which they live, and the social groups of which they are part, criminologists can understand the overarching reasons for criminal activity. Criminalists also analyze the punishment and correction modes in practice and make recommendations on how crime can be reduced.

Below is a detailed comparison of criminalistics and criminology.

Criminalistics Criminology
Definition Criminalistics involves the collection, identification, and recognition of physical evidence from a crime scene. Criminalists apply their knowledge from across various disciplines—chemistry, biology, geology, and related sciences—to investigate and solve a crime. The career also involves the application of legal expertise. Criminology is the study of the causes of crime in a society, its effects, and how crime can be prevented. Criminologies examine the psychological, environmental, social, and hereditary causes of crime. They also study the different modes of punishment and correction.
Education Criminalists typically need a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, physics, biology, forensic science, or a related subject. Many criminalists also complete advanced degrees. Criminologists need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in criminology. One can also pursue a bachelor’s or master’s in criminal justice as these programs generally offer a concentration in criminology.
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Typical Coursework
  • Criminal law
  • Medico-legal death investigation
  • Forensic drug chemistry
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Forensic DNA and serology.

The different criminalistic disciplines include comparative sciences, traffic accident analysis, and criminal investigative analysis.

  • Criminal law
  • Psychology of crime
  • Statistical and computer applications in criminal justice
  • Research methods in criminal justice
  • Criminological theories
  • Race, ethnicity, crime and social justice
  • Prevention and treatment of crime
Skills & Competencies A criminalist must have strong written and verbal communication skills as well as the ability to think critically and come up with innovative solutions to problems. It is important to remember that a criminalist’s role is to present a detailed analysis of the available evidence, not passing judgment on the guilt or innocence of the accused. A criminologist must possess strong analytical and critical thinking skills. Moreover, they should be observant and have excellent communication and leadership skills. Their mission is to come up with strategies to improve the justice system by analyzing crime trends.
Job Titles
  • Forensic Analyst
  • Forensic Death Investigator
  • Forensic Fingerprint Expert
  • Crime Scene Technologist
  • Crime Scene Analyst
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • Correction Officer
  • Youth Services Counselor
  • Patrol Officer
  • Juvenile Detention Officer
  • Police Department Intern
  • Serious or Violent Offense Investigator
Where Do They Work? Criminalists generally work in government agencies such as police departments, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), among others. They can also work as medical examiners or coroners. Criminologists work in universities or government agencies, where they spend most of their time conducting research. They may also take up consulting, where they help guide policy-making for federal, state, private, and non-profit organizations. Some criminologists work with police departments and investigators.
Professional Organizations & Resources