Although forensic science and criminology both approach issues of crime and criminal behavior from a scientific standpoint, the two disciplines are quite different. Criminology and forensic science represent differing sciences and different functions. They differ further in scope and application. Forensic science provides methods for solving crime, while criminology develops theories for explaining crime as a social phenomenon.
Forensic science applies the tools and methods of the natural sciences, especially biology and chemistry, to issues of a legal nature. Forensic scientists collect and analyze physical evidence, such as blood and other bodily fluids, shell casings, hair and fibers, to help solve crimes. They collect evidence at crime scenes and analyze the materials in laboratories. Forensic science is thus an applied natural science. Criminology, in contrast, is a specialized social science that evolved from sociology. Criminology uses sociological theories and methods to study criminal behavior and how societies respond to crime. As a social science, criminology often lacks the precision and methodological rigor of the natural sciences.
Investigation vs. Explanation
As an applied science, forensic science serves as an investigatory tool. Crime scene technicians and other forensic specialists apply scientific methods to solve specific crimes. Criminologists focus on crime as a phenomenon rather than on specific cases of criminal behavior, seeking to explain crime itself. For the criminologist, specific crimes represent data by which they develop theoretical frameworks to explain criminal behavior. The forensic scientist wants to solve specific crimes by using scientific techniques, rather than developing broad theories about crime.
Read More: Different Forensic Investigation Methods
Criminal and Civil Applications
Although most people associate forensic science with criminal investigations--thanks in part, no doubt, to popular television dramas such as “CSI”--forensic science applies to civil law as well as criminal matters. In addition to helping police solve crimes, forensic experts can use such techniques as handwriting analysis and document study to assist in civil matters regarding, for example, the age and authenticity of disputed documents, such as contracts and wills. Forensic science applies scientific techniques and knowledge to legal matters--civil and criminal. Criminology focuses solely on crime and criminal justice issues, not on civil law.
Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.