The Contributions of an Interactionist Approach to Research and Theory on Criminal Careers

Jeffery T. Ulmer, J. William Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


The term ‘criminal career’ is treated in different ways by two distinct approaches, with differing ontological assumptions about human social behavior—a positivist approach and a pragmatist/ symbolic interactionist approach. Our major argument is that those interested in criminal careers and in stability and change in ‘criminal propensity’ have much to gain by attending to symbolic interactionist conceptions of careers in crime and deviance, which are based on pragmatist rather than positivist ontological assumptions. These symbolic interactionist conceptions of criminal careers emphasize that continuity and change are inseparable, and that social constraints and opportunities, socialization, and even biology may influence, but never totally determine the contingencies and choices involved in criminal activity throughout the life course. Such symbolic interactionist conceptions would therefore provide those interested in both quantitative and qualitative research on criminal careers with a theoretical framework that makes sense of individual level indeterminacy, and stability and change in criminal activity over the life course.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)95-124
Number of pages30
JournalTheoretical Criminology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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