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Understanding criminology

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This module introduces you to the many ways criminologists seek to explain crime, victims of crime and the role of criminal justice. Through the use of engaging topics, each study week begins with examples of crimes or criminal justice problems that you may recognise from the news, other media outlets and popular culture. It will gently introduce you to different criminological concepts and theories and you'll actively engage and explore these through the use of virtual learning environment activities and written assessment. You'll become equipped with the skills needed to understand theories and concepts about crime, and will advance your understanding of everyday social issues that may influence crime and victims of crime.

What you will study

The module is organised around three strands: causes of crime, responses to crime, and thinking beyond crime and criminal justice. You'll be introduced to questions such as:

  • What is crime? What defines 'crime' and why are some harmful behaviours labelled 'crimes' while others are not?
  • Who is a victim? What is criminal justice?
  • Why do certain behaviours come to be defined as ‘criminal’?
  • What are the limitations of criminology for explaining things that are unjust or harmful, and what other ways are there of thinking about crime, criminal justice and the things that cause us harm?

Block 1 gives you a brief overview of how these questions shape criminology. Through films about sex workers and self-inflicted deaths in prison, you'll begin to explore what different responses to these questions reveal about relationships between individuals and society, and power and inequality. You'll be introduced to the ways in which criminologists use theories and concepts alongside observations to build an understanding of the issues that interest them.

Block 2 begins by exploring different understandings of the causes of crime and some of the criminal justice responses that come from them. You'll be introduced to biological, psychological and sociological explanations of crime causation and explore the main ways in which different criminal justice policies are understood to address the problem of crime. 

Block 3 starts with the question why are some harmful actions and behaviours considered to be criminal, while others are not. You'll look at who defines crime, how such definitions are enforced and how some, but not all, lawbreakers come to be labelled as "criminals". You'll consider the role of the victim in criminal justice systems and explore the key issues surrounding their inclusion and exclusion. You'll also learn about aspects of criminal justice such as community justice and policing, and ask questions about how effectively criminal justice policies achieve their stated goals.

Block 4 considers the limitations of criminology and criminal justice for thinking about other harmful actions that fall outside the gaze of crime policy and practice. You'll be introduced to the concepts of 'invisible crimes' and ‘invisible victims', and explore the idea of that the physical harm and injury caused by some social structures, institutions and social and economic policies can be understood as a form of violence. The module concludes by examining the implications of a social harm perspective for policy and practice, and inviting you to reflect on your own theoretical positions.

This module will build on the knowledge and skills you have gained at OU level 1 study and will further develop your skills of critical analysis, argumentation, academic writing and reflection on your learning.

It reflects The Open University’s commitment to developing modules that span and integrate a range of learning outcomes across the areas of knowledge and understanding, cognitive (analytical) skills, key skills of communication and information literacy and lifelong learning, and practical and professional skills. The development of these skills is embedded within every stage of the module and you will be supported in progressively developing these.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through OU level 1 study or by doing equivalent study at another university. Our key introductory OU level 1 module Introducing the social sciences (DD102) gives an excellent grounding for this module.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

There is no requirement for you to undertake any specific preparatory work prior to starting this module. However, you could read Criminology by Tim Newburn, which sets out the different ways of understanding crime, victims of crime and criminal justice or watch the films Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore (2002) which explores the causes of a high school massacre and gun violence and Monster by Patty Jenkins (2003) which tells the story of a woman who was executed in Florida, in 2002, for killing six men.

What's included

You’ll also be provided with two module textbooks and a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be assigned a tutor who will give you advice and guidance throughout the module. They will help you with the study materials, as well as mark and comment on your written assignments. Your tutor will also support you with the activities and collaborative work.

We aim to provide online tutorials. Recordings of these will typically be made available. While you’re not obliged to attend any of these tutorial events, you are strongly encouraged to take part.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying DD212 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Understanding criminology starts once a year. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027. 

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
1 Interactive computer-marked assignment (iCMA)
End-of-module assessment

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