Offense Specialization Research Paper

This sample Offense Specialization Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper, see the lists of criminal justice research paper topics, and browse research paper examples.

The topic of offense specialization is one that is distinct from that of offending generally. For offending, the questions often concern how much crime that people commit and why some people do it and others do not. For specialization, the question is instead, among those who do commit crime, are there any who show a preference for a particular type of crime and, if so, then why. The question is of particular interest to policymakers, who want to be able to target their resources toward controlling, for example, the serious violent offender. Academic criminologists are interested in specialization as well, because whether it exists or not speaks to the validity of many theories of crime. The debate about the existence and value of even studying specialization has sometimes been lively.

Research on offense specialization goes back many decades and the empirical support for its patterns, and even its very existence, was long inconclusive. The development of new statistical approaches, as well as new conceptions of what specialization means, has revitalized research in this area. This more recent work has established that a small minority of offenders do specialize and even that this tendency is relatively stable over a period of time and, to some degree, predictable. Research examining how well criminological theories account for specialization, however, is in its infancy. At this point, no research has conclusively been able to locate support for any particular theory positing reasons why some offenders prefer one type of crime and other offenders another.


In public discourse, individual offenders have commonly been described as “drug users,” “sex offenders,” “murderers,” or “arsonists,” depending on what they were arrested for, with the idea that the label characterizes the sort of crimes that they prefer and tend to commit over and over again. This, essentially, is what specialization is all about; specialists focus on a limited and specific range of offense types and thus such descriptors are appropriate. At the other end of the continuum is the idea that offenders commit a wide variety of offenses with no obvious inclination toward any one type. That is, they may take drugs but violence and property crime comprise a share of the offenses as well. Such offenders who are not specialists are described as “generalist” or “versatile.” To the degree that offenders do not specialize, then attempts to classify them by the crimes they commit are pointless and targeted programs doomed to failure. The question of whether specialization even exists or not, and what causes it, is thus very important in terms of crime policy and within academic criminology.

Policymakers are particularly interested in controlling the most serious types of crime, such as violence, and so much interest in the topic of specialization reflects this. The public tends to fear violent crime, and violence produces great cost for individuals and society beyond the loss of property (if any) – injury, lost wages, death, expenses associated with attempts to improve physical security, and so on. The topic of specialization research has a long history in academic criminology as well, primarily because of its interest to policymakers as well as its relevance to many criminological theories. Theoretical concerns, however, have not generally motivated much of the research on specialization over the years; rather, scholars have invested their energies in developing innovative statistical procedures in order to address difficult methodological problems. The earliest work on specialization employed transition matrices to examine specialization and defined specialists as those who had an appropriate sequence of arrests (e.g., arrest for robbery followed by an arrest for the same crime). This type of approach, although it would dominate studies of specialization over the next two decades, only reported weak evidence of specialization and could not allow for in-depth theory testing.

Specialization has since come to include the diversity of crimes an offender commits over a period of time. Offenders who have a wide mixture of criminal activity would indicate versatility, where those who show more focus in their participation in illegal activity would indicate a specialist. Research using this conception of specialization has tended to show more consistent support for specialization. Statistical methods that define specialization in terms of the diversity of the offense repertoire have also allowed researchers to attempt to locate predictors for specialization. This research, however, is in its infancy; however, it does consistently show that groups of people do specialize in such crimes as violence.

In the following sections, a review of the major frameworks for understanding specialization will be provided as well as an examination of how researchers have attempted to not only establish the existence of specialization but also to empirically evaluate these competing theories.

Perspectives On Specialization

Notwithstanding the generally inconsistent evidence on specialization, many theories take a clear position about whether specialization exists or how it might occur. Beginning over a century ago, criminologists such as Cesare Lombroso had attempted to create typologies of offenders, classifying them based upon the sort of crimes that they tended to commit. These early schemes have largely been abandoned in favor of general theories, which are designed to encompass the processes common to all crimes. Nevertheless, a number of perspectives have gained popularity in recent years arguing that offenders do specialize. In contrast to general theories, these approaches describe the unique process that ultimately produces a specialist offender.

The criminal career perspective. The criminal career perspective was the driving force for research on specialization between the 1980s and 1990s. This approach was not a theory, insofar as it offered no explanation for why individuals committed crime or specialized in some crimes over others, but rather was intended to supply a framework or language for describing the long-term development of criminal patterns. Research on specialization across the criminal career was primarily interested in the sequence of offense types committed by those who participated in crime. Those persons who switched from one type of crime to another were “versatile,” whereas those who committed a series of the same offenses were defined as specialists.

The cultural deviance perspective. A more detailed account that predicts not only specialization but also explains why some offenders prefer some crime types over others can be found in the cultural deviance group of theories. The basic orientation that these theories all share is the idea that crime is something that is acquired through contact with other individuals or the prevailing culture. If an individual is embedded within a culture that values white-collar crime (and not other types of crime), for example, then those types of crime will dominate his or her offense repertoire. Specialization is not required; however, the correct combination of cultural influences can result in offenders who specialize.

A leading contemporary example of how cultural deviance theories address specialization comes from research on subcultures of violence, most notably the work of Elijah Anderson and his account of the code of the street. The code of the street is a normative system that views violence and violent retaliation as the chief means that poor African American males living in disadvantaged areas can build and assert their reputations and protect themselves. To the degree that these young males accept beliefs that acts of disrespect require a violent response, then a greater share of their crimes should be violent in nature. Similar normative systems are evident in other areas of the United States, including, for example, the Southern subculture of violence in rural Appalachia.

The control perspective. The control perspective begins with the assumption that people will naturally pursue pleasure and avoid pain; in this respect, one can understand all offenses in the same light insofar as they all bring advantage at (so far as the offender is concerned) little cost. Or, put another way, control theories typically see no distinction in the reasons offenders engage in any particular type of crime, since they all produce advantage for the offender. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory, among the most well-known of control theories, explicitly rejects specialization. Self-control refers to the acquired tendency of individuals to weigh the long-term consequences of their decisions. To assume that there is specialization is to make a case that there are different causal processes that lead to the different categories of offenders. But Gottfredson and Hirschi examined the nature of crime and argued that they all share the same basic qualities. Engaging in them produces quick, easy, and certain short-term advantage and long-term negative consequences: drinking, drug use, white-collar crime, robbery, and theft. To that degree, low self-control can account for the commission of any of them and specialized theories were not necessary.

Strain theories. Strain, or anomie, theories begin with the assumption that people would like to avoid offending but are compelled by the failure to meet certain cultural expectations (e.g., the American Dream) into crime. Robert Merton’s classic version of strain theory, developed in the 1930s, asserted that people adapt to strain in one of five ways: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, or rebellion. The retreatist, for example, based on their circumstances, would more likely engage in substance use. The innovator, in contrast, is an ambitious person who would break the law in order to achieve material wealth. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin’s extension of Merton’s theory retained the specialization argument in slightly different form, arguing that in some areas a “criminal subculture” (which would emphasize economically motivated crime) would emerge. Where opportunities for economic advancement are lacking, then a “conflict subculture” might appear; in this context, violent crime would prevail. Where offenders live in neighborhoods with diminished legitimate and illegitimate opportunities, so-called double failures, then a “retreatist subculture” is likely to emerge.

General Strain Theory, a more recent extension of Merton’s theory, has begun to make arguments that indicate specialization can occur. For instance, Robert Agnew indicated that males are more likely than females to respond to strain with offending that is directed against others. Agnew’s theory and research suggests that males are more expressive and retaliatory as they experience strain which increases their chances of engaging in violent crime when compared to females.

Moffitt’s developmental taxonomy. Terrie Moffitt’s theory is one of the leading developmental theories in contemporary criminology and it proposes that there are two distinct offender pathways, each possessing unique points of origin. The “adolescent-limited” offender is someone whose violations of the law start relatively late, in adolescence, and primarily focus on rulebreaking behaviors rather than serious crime. These offenses are perhaps best understood in terms of reactions against the rules that constrain the autonomy of adolescents, the “maturity gap,” and the resultant frustration and are mainly characterized by status offending (e.g., truancy, smoking) and other minor crimes. The “life-course-persistent” offender, in contrast, begins offending fairly early in life and this offender’s repertoire includes not only rule-breaking behavior but also more serious crime. This type of offender has its origins in neuropsychological deficits present at birth and extremely poor parenting. In this respect, adolescent-limited offenders tend to specialize more in minor acts of rebellion than the life-course-persistent offenders.

Methods For Studying Specialization

Although there are clearly many frameworks that allege specialization can occur, the research literature testing the validity of these is not well developed. A significant reason for this is the limitations in the availability of statistical methods with which to study specialization data, which is a problem that in recent years has begun to be better addressed. This problem suggests that the measurement of offense specialization has been a challenging issue.

In the earliest years of research on specialization, researchers have preferred to use transition matrices to explore the sequence of arrests by type. These statistical methods, used to study specialization since the 1960s, estimate the chance for an arrest of a given type at Time 2 after an arrest for a crime at Time 1. Research using this approach has often found a fairly small degree of specialization in arrests. Marvin Wolfgang and his colleagues in the early 1970s, for instance, found virtually no connection between sequential arrests, a pattern that research over the next several decades would generally replicate.

The next major innovation was the development and publication of David Farrington’s “Forward Specialization Coefficient” (FSC) in the late 1980s. The FSC, which also examined specialization in the sequencing of offenses, was created in part as a response to the concern that some types of crime are quite rare, particularly those that are violent. The offenses that policymakers tended to be least concerned about – such as thefts – are in fact the likeliest crimes to occur. Not surprisingly, using a transition matrix it would be easier to detect theft specialization; however, this would not be all that meaningful given that thefts are common and could be predicted based on chance alone (evidence of specialization among rarer offense types, like violence, would be correspondingly more difficult to locate). The FSC contrasted the level of specialization that one would predict based on chance alone with that actually observed. The method produced a standardized score for the sample, with 0 indicating complete versatility (or, put another way, all evidence of specialization could be explained by chance) and 1 signifying complete specialization. The FSC in turn came to be the preferred measure for studying specialization, although not without criticism with regard to such concerns as the interpretation of the coefficient. Research seemed to indicate that adult offenders were the most apt to specialize, for example, but conclusive evidence was disappointingly elusive.

Researchers also perceived that there were disadvantages to using transition matrix approaches, including the FSC. First, many theories of crime do not appear to define specialization in terms of a sequence of events. As a result, studies examining sequences have uncertain theoretical implications because theories, such as those summarized earlier, generally do not make assertions like “a robbery arrest must be followed by another robbery arrest.” Second, sequences of events create analysis problems. For instance, with the FSC and the transition matrix, a person who committed a robbery at T1 and not at T2 is not a specialist. But what if that person committed a robbery at T3? As a result of questions like this, researchers began to explore statistical methods that would capture specialization in terms of the proportion of all offenses that were of a given type. Third, matrix-based approaches can only report specialization in an aggregate sense. In other words, the analysis can identify the level of specialization within the entire sample, but this meant that it was extremely difficult to locate risk factors that would help academics and policymakers classify individual offenders as specialists. While the literature using transition matrixes might crudely show that adults are more prone to specialize, it was not possible to predict which individuals among these adults would be most likely to specialize without committing the ecological fallacy.

Alex Piquero and his colleagues were the first to use a “diversity index” to measure specialization. This index was originally developed by statisticians who were interested in the variety of species of animals and later applied to criminological work, and the technique offered important advantages over earlier methods insofar as it addressed the problems outlined above. Rather than considering the observed sequence of two arrests, as with transition matrixes, the index considers the entire spectrum of crimes a person has committed. Little diversity in a person’s crime record would indicate a specialist offender, where a broad range of crime would mark the versatile or generalist offender. This conception of specialization offered important new advantages over the FSC. For the diversity index to show specialization, it was not necessary to find contiguous arrests because the analysis weighs the entire portfolio of offense activity over a period of time. This definition of specialization also tends to be more consistent with many of the theories designed to account for the emergence of specific types of crime.

The index also produced a score for each individual, thus allowing researchers to test the impact of theoretically relevant variables on offense diversity or specialization in a regression framework, which was a task for which transition matrixes were poorly suited. Legitimate scores would range from 0 (complete versatility) to 1 (complete specialization). Because each individual receives a diversity score, this can in turn be used as an outcome measure in a regression analysis. Tests that included both the FSC and the diversity index showed similar patterns in specialization. Tests of criminological theories using this method, often focusing on Moffitt’s developmental taxonomy, has reported inconsistent results showing that adolescent-limited offenders are more apt to specialize than life-course-persistent offenders.

The diversity index, although more flexible than the FSC, also has limitations; tests of specialization often face difficult analytic problems that frequently make no single statistical method ideal. First, even if an offender committed, for example, nine offenses of the same type, if there were 10 or more crime categories then that individual will not receive the maximum diversity score. Another concern centers on the fact that the diversity index does not take into account the base rates of offending across the population. That is to say, crimes that are more common (e.g., thefts) might give the appearance of specialization when that offender’s record in no way differs from that of other offenders.

Alternatively, researchers can use latent class analysis (LCA), which resembles factor analysis and is used to classify offenders rather than assess how well the component measures cluster together. Only a small number of studies have used this approach, producing some mixed findings. Some early work found that LCA could only distinguish between offenders and nonoffenders, while more recent work using offender populations and a larger number of offense categories reported the ability to classify offenders. Some scholars have noted limitations with this approach, such as the confounding between offense frequency and specialization. That is to say, offenders who commit more crimes are likely to have at least some offending of a certain type, say violence. Because of this, the determination of how much specialization there is depends upon the researcher’s assessment.

A final technique that researchers have used with some frequency in recent years is the Item Response Theory (IRT)-based approach developed by Wayne Osgood and Christopher Schreck. This method employs a multilevel regression approach, with the first level assessing whether specialization exists and the second level incorporating predictors of specialization. There are additional attributes that make this approach very useful for assessing specialization. First, the approach defines specialization as the degree to which an individual deviates from the population base rates for all offenses. For instance, if we assume that 80 % of the crimes committed by everyone are nonviolent and 20 % are violent, then someone with that same distribution is not especially unique; however, a person with 70 % violent and 30 % nonviolent offenses differs quite dramatically from the population. Second, the IRT model incorporates data from all subjects, including nonoffenders and low-rate offenders; many of the approaches described in this section (e.g., the FSC, diversity index) can only employ samples of offenders, usually only those with numerous arrests. Offenders with a higher level of activity will receive greater weight in the IRTbased analyses, however. Third, the approach controls for the frequency of offending as well as for specialization. Research using this method has shown that specialization does in fact exist among a minority of offenders, that their tendencies to specialize are stable over time, and that it is possible to predict specialization in violence using theoretically relevant predictors. Jean McGloin and her colleagues, in a recently published article using this statistical method, found that subculture-of-violence measures failed to predict tendencies to specialize in violence, contrary to the theory described earlier. This body of work is in its infancy, however. The ability of the IRT method to exploit predictor variables, as with the diversity index, nevertheless leaves the field of specialization poised for significant new advances in theoretically relevant research.

As the research literature developed, however, it became clear that studying specialization introduced many challenges that make efforts to locate it more difficult. For instance, the source of data researchers use can influence whether they find specialization or not. Specialization appears more likely to emerge with self-report data, where individuals describe their own offending, than with official arrest data. This is perhaps not surprising; arrests tend to be relatively infrequent events even among those with many arrests, and many crimes that people commit go unreported to the police. Self-report data thus can provide a more comprehensive picture of what offenders are probably doing; however, there is a limit to the level of detail one can reasonably expect. For instance, with self-report data the subjects may have a difficult time, simply due to memory problems, establishing the time order of their criminal activity. Official arrest data, vetted by police and accompanied by a clear time of arrest, are more suitable for such methods as the transition matrix.

A further issue that has developed in specialization research concerns how scholars ought to measure it. That is to say, what offenses ought to get included and how ought they to be grouped together (e.g., violent vs. nonviolent, white-collar vs. street crime). The diversity index has great flexibility for incorporating multiple offense categories; however, it has a difficult time discriminating between types of offenders. For instance, two offenders with scores indicating maximum specialization might specialize in very different crimes (e.g., one in drugs, the other in rapes), with each type possibly arising from different causal processes. The IRT-based approach, in contrast, can only examine the contrast between two general categories. If theories identify three or more types of offenders, then the method cannot easily accommodate that many classifications.


Research on specialization is of potentially great importance in the study on crime and for policy. Those who make policy decisions have an interest in locating and targeting crime control efforts toward those who are most likely to engage in serious crime, especially violence, through practices like selective incapacitation. Academics have contentiously debated the value of research on specialization, largely because evidence (or its lack) speaks to the legitimacy of their theories. Some theories argue that violent offenders, for example, were subject to specific processes that made them violent; other processes lead to offenders who prefer other types of crime. General theories, like self-control theory, however, identify processes common to all crimes and argue that specialization cannot exist in a meaningful sense.

For decades, strong evidence of specialization (and its causes) has been elusive. In recent years, especially with the advent of research methods defining specialization in terms of diversity rather than a sequence of offenses, evidence that some offenders specialize has strengthened. Locating exactly why this is so, however, has proven difficult. This research, however, is in its early stages and can benefit from verification as well as the incorporation of additional theoretical explanations.


  1. Agnew R (2006) Pressured into crime: an overview of general strain theory. Roxbury, Los Angeles, CA Anderson E (1999) Code of the street: decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. Norton, New York
  2. Blumstein A, Larson R (1969) Models of a total criminal justice system. Operations Res 17:199–232
  3. Blumstein A, Cohen J, Das S, Moitra SD (1988) Specialization and seriousness during adult criminal careers. J Quant Criminol 4:303–345
  4. Britt CL (1996) The measurement of specialization and escalation in the criminal career: an alternative modeling strategy. J Quant Criminol 12:193–222
  5. Bursik RJ (1980) The dynamics of specialization in juvenile offenses. Social Forces 58:851–864
  6. Cloward RA, Ohlin LE (1960) Delinquency and opportunity. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  7. Colvin M, Pauly J (1983) A critique of criminology: toward an integrated structural-Marxist theory of delinquency production. Am J Sociol 89:513–551
  8. Deane G, Armstrong DP, Felson RB (2005) An examination of offense specialization using marginal logit models. Criminology 43:955–988
  9. Farrington DP, Snyder HN, Finnegan TA (1988) Specialization in juvenile court careers. Criminology 26:461–487
  10. Gottfredson MR, Hirschi T (1990) A general theory of crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  11. Kempf KL (1987) Specialization and the criminal career. Criminology 25:399–420
  12. Lattimore PK, Visher C, Linster R (1994) Specialization in juvenile careers: Markov results for a California cohort. J Quant Criminol 10:291–316
  13. Lombroso C (1911) Crime: its causes and remedies. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston
  14. Mazerolle P, Brame R, Paternoster R, Piquero A, Dean C (2000) Onset age, persistence, and offending versatility: comparisons across gender. Criminology 38:1143–1172
  15. McGloin JM, Schreck CJ, Stewart EA, Ousey GS (2011) Predicting the violent offender: the discriminant validity of the subculture of violence. Criminology 49:767–794
  16. Merton RK (1938) Social structure and anomie. Am Soc Rev 3:672–682
  17. Moffitt TE (1993) Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: a developmental taxonomy. Psychol Rev 100:674–701
  18. Osgood DW, Schreck CJ (2007) A new method for studying the extent, stability, and predictors of individual specialization in violence. Criminology 45:273–312
  19. Paternoster R, Brame R, Piquero A, Mazerolle P, Dean CW (1998) The forward specialization coefficient: distributional properties and subgroup differences. J Quant Criminol 14:133–154
  20. Piquero AR, Paternoster R, Brame R, Mazerolle P, Dean CW (1999) Onset age and specialization in offending behavior. J Res Crime and Delinq 36:235–274
  21. Reiss AJ, Roth JA (1993) Understanding and preventing violence, vol I. National Academy Press, Washington, DC
  22. Sullivan CJ, McGloin JM, Pratt TC, Piquero AR (2006) Rethinking the “norm” of offender generality: investigating specialization in the short-term. Criminology 44:199–233
  23. Wolfgang M, Figlio R, Sellin T (1972) Delinquency in a birth cohort. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655