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Conservatism and Common Sense: The Criminological Career of James Q. Wilson

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 20 Issue: 3 Dated: September 2003 Pages: 661-674
Matt DeLisi
Date Published
September 2003
14 pages
This article discusses James Q. Wilson’s criminological contributions, from his research on policing in the 1960's to his moral philosophy of today.
Wilson is one of the most cited scholars in criminology and criminal justice journals. His work has been influential in the areas of policing, urban politics, criminal justice policy, criminological theory, criminal careers, morality and crime, and examinations of human nature. The often-cited contributions of his study pertain to styles of policing: the watchman style, with its emphasis on maintaining order; the legalistic style, with its full-enforcement stance; and the service style, with its focus on community empowerment, help, and social assistance to residents. His systematic analyses include the realization that the majority of police time is spent gathering information, maintaining order, and providing mundane services, not enforcing the law. His studies also showed that because of organizational constraints, the police actually under-enforce the law. Officers’ discretion is multifaceted and influenced by the nature of the criminal situation, whether the police or a citizen invoked police action, and by organizational structure and politics. Wilson also attended to the “outsider” nature of police work by describing it as a craft performed by officers that perceive that they are owners of a special skill and that view themselves as set apart from society. Five of Wilson’s critiques of mainstream criminology are that (1) society induces individuals to commit crime is erroneous; (2) the criminological majority speaks out of ideology instead of empirical fact; (3) white collar crime is not the equivalent of street crime; (4) crime is a moral phenomenon; and (5) “wicked people” exist. The most recent part of Wilson’s career has been devoted primarily to moral philosophy, particularly the foundations of human nature. He suggests that most people have a disposition that is comprised of various benevolent sentiments, including fairness, self-control, integrity, and courage. The sources that threaten to undermine the collective moral sense is the ongoing irrationality practiced in the Nation’s criminal courts. The family is the most important social institution. 64 references


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