This paper is copyrighted by Steve Cooper.

Dr. James Q. Wilson

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Steve Cooper



While several social scientists have made major contributions to the study of deviance, relatively few have had a major influence in criminology throughout the world (Cohen and Farrington, 1994). James Q. Wilson is one such scholar. Not only have his works impacted academia, they have also fostered organizational change throughout the criminal justice system. In particular, his work has brought about significant change in the way our police are managed. These policy recommendations, as we will see, are often the result of his inquisitive mind, massive meta-analyses and empirical testing of various research hypotheses.

Biographical Information



University of Redlands (AB, 1952)
University of Chicago (PhD, 1959) ***
Received honorary degrees from four universities ***


Contributions and Professional Service

James Collins Professor of Management at UCLA since 1985 ***
Prior, he was for twenty six years the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University ***
Authored or co-authored twelve books ***
Served on a number of national commissions concerned with public policy ***
Chairman of the White House Task Force on Crime in 1966
Chairman of the National Advisory Commission on Drug Abuse Prevention in 1972-1973
Member of the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime in 1981
Member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1985 to 1990
Serves on the board of directors for numerous companies ***
Chairman of the Council of Academic Advisors of the American Enterprise Institute
Elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Fellow of the American Philosophical Society
Received James Madison award for distinguished scholarship from the American Political Science Association ***


*** Denotes what I consider to be extraordinary accomplishments

SOURCE: UCLA School of Management Homepage


        Upon graduating from the University of Chicago with his doctorate in 1959, Dr. James Q. Wilson begun teaching government at Harvard. After twenty-six years of teaching at Harvard, Dr. Wilson transferred to University of California, Los Angeles where he has been since. Dr. Wilson has written several books and numerous articles and other scholarly works. In addition to serving on a number of committees and task forces for the government, Dr. Wilson has also served on the board of directors for numerous companies. It has often been noted that Dr. Wilson may be one of the foremost criminologists of all time.

        Many criminology scholars have made significant contributions to our field, however, very few have had such an impact as James Q. Wilson. A Citation analysis for 1986-1990 which included five major criminology journals throughout the world, found that four US criminologists were particularly influential in all major countries. They include Marvin E. Wolfgang, Alfred Blumstein, James Q. Wilson and Michael J. Hindelang (Cohn and Farrington, 1994). This preeminence was connected with longitudinal research on criminal careers (Wolfgang, Blumstein), measuring crime (Wolfgang, Blumstein, Hindelang), correlates of crime (Hindelang, Wilson), & public policy discussions (Wilson). Additionally, Cohn and Farrington noted that the most influential criminologists in the US tended to be influential everywhere else,  however, many influential criminologists in other countries might be influential nowhere else.

        However, it is important to note that because one is often cited, doesn't always mean that there is a high level of intersubjectivity amongst academicians. For example, if I (Cooper) suggest something which is erroneous or that most people disagree with, such as that all criminals are White, then many authors may choose to refute my work. In doing so, each author will undoubtedly site my work and my name (Cooper). If my work is highly controversial, felonious or generally poor, it may still be cited numerous time even though my work actually provided no scholarly contribution to our field. The point here is that a simple citation analysis can be deceiving and one must carefully examine the findings of such a report before they can be relied upon with any degree of certainty.


Historical Context of James Q. Wilson's Work

        It seems to me that we need to begin our examination of James Q. Wilson's work by first looking at the historical context in which his work emerged. During the late 60's and early 70's when Wilson initiated much of his work, a major political shift towards a conservative, republican agenda emerged. In the arena of criminology and criminal justice, we saw a renewed interest in classical approaches to criminality and the medical model which is grounded heavily in positivism began to depart our socio-political system of addressing deviance. 

        For example, In academia, The Florida State University's School of Social Welfare which started in 1953 as a liberal approach to exploring crime issues, offered the first Ph.D. program in Criminology. However, it wasn't long until the School of Social Welfare was renamed the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The program then took on a neo-conservative approach but still maintained its roots heavily grounded in a liberal ideology. As a result of programs such as FSU's program and others at UC Berkeley and the like, a liberal discourse about criminality came to light. This set the stage for what was to become a succinctly dichotomized national debate between liberal and conservative ideologies concerning causation of crime.

        With the shift to political conservativeness of the 70's, Ronald Reagan was elected as Governor of California. At this point is when we find the work of James Q. Wilson skyrocket with enormous popularity. It was seen as having the answers to the difficult questions that people were afraid to even ask. At this point, Dr. C. Ray Jeffrey at Florida State University was arguing for an Integrated Systems Model, which is heavily grounded in a biological approach. The work of conservatives such as Wilson and others, whom repeatedly refuted much of the deterministic theories of criminality, was welcomed with opened arms.

        Being seen as a threat to the moral majority and the republican agenda, then Governor Reagan of California ordered the University of California, Berkeley's radical, liberal Criminology program to be closed. At the same time, Wilson and others advocated "constitutional factors". Critics claim the conservative approach to crime is similar to an Eugenics ideology. Conservative ideology gained support across the country and Ronald Reagan was elected President. This political shift gave more strength to many of Wilson's ideologies.

Brief Summary of the Original Theory(s)

Rational Choice Perspective

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Is there any chance that McVeigh did not act with free will?

        Thinking about Crime, Wilson's 1975 classic, effectively articulated the deterrence argument and challenged many of the prevailing liberal views (Wilson, 1975). His book also, renewed an interest in classical views and approaches to explaining deviance. He attacked the positivist view that crime was a function of external forces, such as poverty, that could be altered by government functions. His reasoning was straight-forward and follows that if variables such as poverty were causing crime, then if we aided the poor with financial support, we would expect to see a decrease in crime. However, most literature to date has not supported that hypothesis.

        Wilson further advocated deterring would-be offenders and incarcerating known criminals. He felt that society would best be served and the criminals' appetite would be reduced through tough crime sanctions (Wilson, 1975).

        Wilson theorized that people are:

likely to commit crime;
lack inhibition against misconduct;
value the excitement and thrills of breaking the law;
have a low stake in conformity; and,
are willing to take greater chances than the average person.

        What Wilson defined as a particular "thought process and criminal decision making" is referred today as rational choice approach to crime causation Wilson strongly argues that individuals make clear, rational decisions after evaluating all their possibilities and do that which will bring them the most pleasure and the least pain (Sykes, 1978).

Constitutional Factors

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Was race to blame for the worst rioting Generation X has ever seen?

        Wilson's book with Richard Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature, broadly probed many of the biological and developmental factors associated with individual criminality. Wilson advocated that constitutional factors may help to explain deviance (Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). Constitutional factors, as they described, include gender, intelligence, age, temperament, fetal alcohol syndrome and the like. Additionally, Wilson describes constitutional factors as those factors which are usually present at or soon after birth and whose behavioral consequences usually appears during the child's development. Furthermore, these traits are not necessarily genetic.


"Broken Windows" Theory

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What is the role of the police in a democratic society?

        Wilson and Kelling reviewed the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment and Zimbardo's testing of "Broken Windows" theory. Wilson and George Kelling's 1982 Atlantic Monthly article, Broken Windows  followed and provided further impetus in support of the notion that interaction between the police and the community was desirable to ensure order maintenance in neighborhoods (Broken Windows, 1982). Later in his work, Wilson coined the term "Order Maintenance" which he defines as, "management of conflict situations to bring about consensual resolution" (Inciardi, 1996). This term, along with a new typology of policing styles has been widely adopted by academicians and practitioners alike.

Discussion of how the Model has been Altered as New Research has Emerged


Rational Choice Perspective

        One particular issue that has emerged is the necessity for congruent "operationalized definitions" of variables. Wilson noted that in recent studies, the term recidivism had been operationalized in so many different ways that one researchers definition of recidivism may not even closely resemble another's (Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). At any rate, a major division between "rational choice" and "determinism" still holds today. Research findings have been dichotomized and theorists are just as split in terms of the theoretical perspectives they advocate.

Constitutional Factors

        Biological research by Mednick, Yeudall, Raine and others have generally supported Wilson's "constitutional" hypotheses, however, work in this area is not only skeptical, but often comes under heavy scrutiny from the academic community. By suggesting that one may be more or less likely to commit deviant or delinquent acts because of a constitutional predisposition (i.e., slow heart rate, low intelligence, minority status, etc.) is to imply that certain groups are inherently better than others. In doing so, Wilson and others have been criticized by left-winged liberals as fostering a renewed eugenics movement. As a result, it seems as if his work in this area has begun to consider additional factors which may help to reduce the culpability and free-will of an offender.

"Broken Windows" Theory

        The work of Wilson and Kelling, which identified a list of benefits to the community of a proactive police force, has continued to gain acceptance in the policing business. Ipso facto, problem-oriented policing finds massive 'intersubjectivity' and support from cops and researchers alike, much coming directly from the seminal work of Wilson (Reiman, 1990). Follow-up work by community policing researchers such as Trojanowich, Zhao, Thurman and many others continually find empirical support for the policy recommendations of Wilson and Kelling. 

The Theory's Current Usage/Popularity within the Criminal Justice System


Rational Choice Perspective

        A conservative shift in US politics coincided with Wilson's Thinking About Crime and his advocacy of rational choice. This shift in political ideology resulted in the election of President Reagan. Political decision makers have continually utilized Wilson's ideas. Wilson continues to serve on national committees for crime prevention and control which indicates his high level of political acceptance for his ideology and policy recommendations. The notion that criminal behavior is a  rational choice is increasingly popular. We find great examples of this belief in the attitudes of the courts and legislatures (i.e., lower age for death penalty and age at which one can be tried as an adult).

        Also, a shift away from the medical model occurred with the works of Wilson suggesting that not only are certain inherent factors a cause of deviance (race, age, etc.), but that criminals exercise freewill when they choose to violate the law and as a result, treatment programs to rehabilitate these offenders would prove futile at best (Wilson, 1994).

Constitutional Factors

        Wilson's work has resulted in an international debate over the causes of deviance. As a result of his identification of constitutional factors, new research exploring these variables has emerged which has added to the body of knowledge in criminology. It is often said that we know very little about crime. For example, we know that most crime is committed by males. Additionally, we know that most offenders are young, between 14 and 21, and that most of these criminals are white (Wilson and Herrenstein, 1985). Beyond that, we do not know much at all. Wilson has continually reminded us that that is about the extent of our definitve knowledge about criminality. Anything else, is simply a guess.

"Broken Windows" Theory

        Wilson's work with George Kelling led to the implementation of various policing models, including community policing, problem-oriented policing and the like. Kelling, Pate, Diekman and Brown of the Police Foundation conducted the Kansas City Prevention Patrol Experiment. Arguably, one the most important research studies ever conducted on policing. hypothesized what that increasing police presence would deter crime. Three groups - increased patrol (proactive), decreased patrol (reactive) and normal patrol (control) study suggested that the three areas experienced no significant differences: level of crime citizen's attitudes towards police services fear of crime police response time or citizen's satisfaction of response time (Reid, 1996).

        A major complaint of social science research is that often the findings lie on a library shelf and are seldom put into practice. Additionally, we often see public policy implemented that runs in direct opposition of what the literature suggests. One such example is President Clinton's Crime Bill in which he provided funding for thousands of new police officers to be hired. But in light of the work conducted by Wilson and his colleagues, one must ask if putting thousands of  new cops on the beat will reduce crime? In response to this question, Wilson points out that by the time all the monies are distributed throughout the country and all is done, the end result may be interesting. Wilson suggests that the net result may be as little as one or two cops per department, which in reality is not a major increase of police presence in any given neighborhood.


        The work of James Q. Wilson has contributed to our understanding of criminality tremendously. His work has been highly scrutinized by top scholars, but the ideas and theories advanced by Wilson appear to be stronger than ever. As our country seeks to get tough on crime, several of the policy recommendations made by Wilson and his colleagues are becoming increasingly attractive.

Works Cited

Bohm, Robert and Keith Haley

1997. Introduction to Criminal Justice. New York: Glencoe.

Cohn, Ellen G. and David Farrington

Who Are the Most Influential Criminologists in the English-Speaking World?: British-Journal-of-Criminology, 1994, 34, 2, spring, 204-225.

Inciardi, James

Criminal Justice. Fortworth: Harcourt Brace Publishers, 1996.

Landis, Judson,

1992 Sociology: Concepts and Characteristics. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Lilly, J. Robert et al.

Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995

Miller, Jerome

1996 . Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System. Cambridge: University Press.

Neubauer, David

America's Courts and the Criminal Justice System. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1996.

Reid, Sue Titus

1996. Crime and Criminology. Madison: Brown and Benchmark.

Reiman, Jeffrey

1990. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor get Prison. New York: McMillian.

Schmalleger, Frank

1996. Criminology Today. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Schmallenger, Frank.

Criminal Justice Today. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Sykes, Gresham

Criminology. Harcourt: New York, 1978.

Walker, Samuel

1994. Sense and Nonsense about Crime and Drugs: A Policy Guide. Belmont: Wadsworth.

The Atlantic Monthly

March 1982; Broken Windows; Volume 249, No. 3; pages 29-38.

UCLA School of Management Homepage:

Wilson, James Q.

        1975. Thinking About Crime. New York, Random House.

Wilson, James Q. and Richard Herrnstein

1985 Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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