I. Introduction

Criminology, the scientific study of criminals and criminal behavior. Criminologists attempt to build theories that explain why crimes occur and test those theories by observing behavior. Criminological theories help shape society's response to crime both in terms of preventing criminal behavior and responding to it after it occurs.

II. Development of Criminology

The discipline of criminology has evolved in three phases, beginning in the 18th century. Although crime and criminals have been around for as long as societies have existed, the systematic study of these phenomena did not begin until the late 1700s. Prior to that time, most explanations of crime equated it with sinthe violation of a sacred obligation. When scholars first distinguished crime from sin, they made possible explanations of criminal behavior that were not theological (religious). This, in turn, allowed for the dispassionate, scientific study of why crime occurs. The development of this study is now known as the era of classical criminology.

The second phase, which began in the 19th century, is referred to as modern criminology. During this era, criminology distinguished itself as a subspecialty within the emerging disciplines of psychology, sociology, and economics. Scholars formed criminological societies and founded criminology journals. Criminologists conducted empirical tests (observations or experiments) of their theories, rather than relying solely on speculation, and consequently developed a wide range of theories.

The third phase, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, may best be called independent criminology. During this period, criminology began to assert its independence from the traditional disciplines that spawned it. In Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, criminologists expanded their professional associations and published an increasing number of journals. A number of universities developed graduate programs in criminology. Criminological theories have become more multidisciplinary (spanning various fields of study) because independent criminologists seek to understand crime itself rather than study crime as one aspect of an overall sociological or psychological theory.

A. Classical Criminology

The issues of crime and punishment have aroused interest and discussion since ancient times. Scriptures dating from the 10th century BC prohibit certain acts and provide consequences for those who disobey these rules. In the 5th century BC Greek historian Thucydides wrote about the usefulness of the death penalty. With the development of Christianity in the 1st century AD, questions of crime and punishment were almost always discussed in religious terms.

Christian thought tended to emphasize personal responsibility for wrongdoing; requiring penitence (remorse) by the criminal in exchange for salvation, or forgiveness, by God. Although punishment practices during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) were often brutal, the church generally had a moderating influence. Christian philosophers expressed in their writings that the legitimate purpose of punishment was to reform and salvage the erring sinner.

It was not until the 18th century, however, that penal policy (and thereby the understanding of crime) was subject to systematic consideration. Authors began to condemn the frequent use of torture and the widespread imposition of capital punishment (the death penalty) and other brutal and degrading sanctions (penalties). In 1764 Italian jurist Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria published Tratto dei delitti e delle pene (1764; translated as Essays on Crimes and Punishments, 1880). In this work, Beccaria criticized the use of torture and secret judicial proceedings and advocated abolition of the death penalty. He also argued that the certainty–rather than the severity–of punishment was a more effective deterrent to crime. Finally, Beccaria argued that penalties imposed for criminal offenses should be in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

Around this same time, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed the systematic codification (arrangement) of criminal law. Bentham urged lawmakers to base crimes and punishments on the principle of utility–that is, the greatest good for the greatest number. He attacked the excessive severity of punishments prescribed in the criminal law. Many of Bentham's ideas were introduced as legislation into the British Parliament, and his efforts laid the groundwork for substantial legal reform in the next generation. In part as a result of Bentham's proposals, the number of crimes in England punishable by the death penalty was reduced from about 250 at the beginning of the 19th century to 4 by 1861.

The work of these 18th-century legal reformers did not produce an organized body of knowledge about why and when crime occurs. Rather, it served as the intellectual foundation for the field of criminology. Beccaria, Bentham, and those who followed them made crime and criminals a legitimate subject for scientific inquiry.

B. Modern Criminology

At the beginning of the 19th century, scholars began to apply the concepts and technologies of the rapidly developing biological and behavioral sciences to the study of crime. For the first time criminologists developed typologies of crime and criminals and attempted to identify patterns between these typologies and various biological, psychological, and social characteristics of offenders.

1. The Italian School

The founding of modern scientific criminology is generally credited to the so-called Italian school and to the work of its three principal exponents– Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Raffaele Garofalo. The first edition of Lombroso's most important work, L'uomo delinquente (The Criminal Man, 1876), attracted a great deal of attention because it appeared to demonstrate the feasibility of a genuinely scientific study of criminal behavior.

Lombroso asserted that criminals are a distinct physical and biological type. He believed that the true criminal could be identified by observing certain physical traits, including a long lower jaw, asymmetric cranium, and other detectable conditions. These traits, according to Lombroso, did not cause criminal behavior, but they revealed an inherent propensity (inclination) to crime. Lombroso taught that the propensity toward crime was the result of atavism, a reversion to a more primitive state of human development.

One of Lombroso's students, Enrico Ferri, accepted the existence of a criminal type but also focused on factors other than inherited physical characteristics as predictors of crime. He considered social factors such as population trends, religion, and the nature of the family. Ferri also proposed a more elaborate classification of criminal types, including the born or instinctive criminal, the insane criminal, the passionate criminal, the involuntary criminal, the occasional criminal, and the habitual criminal. According to Ferri, the last two types were not innate criminals but rather the products of unfortunate family or environmental circumstances. By explaining criminal behavior on the basis of social factors as well as inherited traits, Ferri expanded the scope of criminology.

Italian lawyer Raffaele Garofalo's major contribution to modern criminology is the concept of natural crime, which he argued was the principal concern of criminologists. According to Garofalo, natural or true crime is conduct that, when evaluated against the average moral sense of the community, offends the basic altruistic (unselfish) sense of humankind. The true criminal is one who lacks the basic altruistic sentiments of pity and honesty. Garofalo believed that the true criminal is a distinct biological or psychic type and that the altruistic deficiencies were organic or inherited. Still, Garofalo acknowledged that certain forms of criminal behavior might be encouraged by social and environmental circumstances.

The Italian school made a valuable contribution to criminology by stimulating thought and writing about crime and criminals. It focused attention on the offender as an appropriate object of study, which the 18th-century reformers had not done. Finally, the work of the Italian school framed the so-called nature-versus-nurture debate (whether biological or social factors create behaviors) that became a principal theme throughout the development of modern criminology.

2. Criminology in the United States

Scholars in the United States soon became interested in European thought and writing in the field of criminology. Two important events in the early development of scientific criminology in the United States were the National Conference on Criminal Law and Criminology held in Chicago, Illinois, in 1909 and the establishment of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology. The institute translated several important European works not previously available to the English-reading audience. Thereafter, criminology became a recognized subspecialty of study in many U.S. universities and in public and private research agencies.

Much of the development of modern criminology beyond that of the Italian school took place in the United States. The disciplines of psychology and sociology dominated criminological thought and research throughout the first half of the 20th century. Scholars developed theories of criminal behavior that were offshoots of more general psychological and sociological theories. For example, theories of crime that attributed criminal behavior to the social disorganization of urban areas developed as part of more general theories regarding the relationship of humans to their environment (see  Ecology). The same general theories were used to explain the distribution of other social phenomena such as mental illness.

During this time period criminologists developed a diverse collection of theories of criminal behavior based upon very different disciplinary assumptions. Eventually, sociology came to dominate the emerging field of criminology in the United States. Most of the work in criminology was done by sociologists, and most of the more popular theories emphasized the role of social factors in encouraging criminal behavior.

The dominance that social science disciplines had over the evolution of criminology in the United States led to a much greater emphasis on empirical testing than theorizing. The members of the Italian school and their successors in Europe did very little empirical testing of theories. Scholarship in Europe followed methods of deduction and argument. Practitioners of the emerging social sciences in the United States adopted a more scientific approach to building theory, emphasizing the collection and analysis of data on the social causes of criminal behavior.

C. Independent Criminology

In the late 1960s and early 1970s criminology began to emerge from the more established social sciences and became a discipline in its own right. The number of instructional programs in criminology and criminal justice by themselves increased significantly. Existing professional associations, such as the American Society of Criminology (ASC), grew substantially, new professional organizations such as the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) were formed, and the number of criminology journals increased. Much of this development was due to the availability of government funding for criminological research and statistical analysis.

The evolution toward an independent criminology freed the discipline from the dominance of sociology. Theories of criminal behavior became more multidisciplinary and included a greater variety of causal factors, including biological, psychological, and sociological factors. New technologies helped increase the emphasis on empirical testing of theories, which had begun in the era of modern criminology. Large-scale surveys of victims and self-report surveys of criminals provided data on crime and criminals independent of police and correctional records. In keeping with the new multidisciplinary nature of criminology, public and private funding encouraged the formation of multidisciplinary groups of researchers to engage in data collections.

III. The Goals of Criminology

The classical criminologists of the 18th century were primarily concerned with ending brutality and inequality against criminals by enforcing limitations on government power. They believed that criminal behavior was the product of the offender's rational choice, and that crime could be prevented through the speedy and certain application of penalties that attached painful and unattractive consequences to such behavior. Beginning in the era of modern criminology, the emphasis of the discipline shifted. Criminologists sought to develop theories to explain why crime occurred. They no longer relied as strongly on explanations of crime based on the offender's rational choice. Instead, they attributed criminal behavior to the motivation to commit crime and the social context that allows people to pursue criminal inclinations.

Contemporary scholars believe that criminal motivation is the product of one or more of a complex set of factors. These factors are so numerous and so varied that no system of classification can describe the current theories of crime causation with complete accuracy. However, broadly speaking these theories may be considered in one of the following three categories: (1) theories attributing criminal behavior to biological or congenital (inherited) defects of the offender, (2) theories relating crime to psychological factors or mental disorders, and (3) theories relating crime to environmental or social factors. Many criminologists have suggested theories of multiple causation involving factors from more than one of these categories.

IV. Biological Theories of Crime

The idea that crime is caused by biological defects or deficiencies in the offender was not new when advanced by Lombroso, but it received its most emphatic statement in the work of the Italian school. The most influential attack on Lombroso's work was conducted by British criminologist Charles Buckman Goring, who recorded the facial and other measurements of several thousand criminals and noncriminals. In his book The English Convict (1913), Goring concluded that Lombroso's findings had no adequate scientific support and that statistical evidence disproved the existence of a biological criminal type. Although most investigators found Goring's work persuasive, research continued into the possible relevance of inherited deficiencies.

During the first half of the 20th century, as the social sciences developed, biological theories of crime causation became less popular. The public became wary of biological typology after the National Socialist (Nazi) leaders in Germany relied on theories of racial superiority and inferiority to justify mass murder during World War II (1939-1945). However, with the passage of time and the development of sophisticated technologies in the field of biological sciences, biological theories of criminal behavior have reappeared.

The new theories are more sophisticated than those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Current theories rely on specific features of genes or the brain, rather than appearance, as physical indicators of a propensity toward crime. They are less deterministic than earlier biological theories, meaning that they recognize the substantial influence of social factors in addition to or in interaction with biologically caused predispositions to crime.

Two different types of biological or, more accurately, biosocial theories exist. One set of theories emphasizes genetic factors–that is, the traits transmitted from parents to offspring. Other studies emphasize irregularities in neurological development that might undermine certain self-controls that inhibit criminality. These irregularities may occur in the structure of the brain or in the chemical composition of the brain.

A. Genetic Factors

The evidence for an association between genetic makeup and criminality comes from empirical studies of identical twins (who have the same genetic makeup) and adopted children (who are genetically dissimilar from other family members). These studies attempt to show that biological inheritance affects the tendency toward criminality independently of or in conjunction with the social environment.

Studies of the interrelationship between the criminal tendencies of parents and children have found that children whose parents are involved in crime are more likely to engage in criminal behavior than children whose parents were law abiding. This finding is unsurprising due to a number of sociological factors that influence the children. Studies of twins provide somewhat more persuasive evidence.

Researchers have compared identical twins to fraternal twins (who share no more genes than siblings who are not twins). In most studies of twins, the degree of consistency between the criminality of identical twins is approximately twice that of fraternal twins. While this evidence is more persuasive than family studies, it is still possible that identical twins may be treated more similarly in social environments than fraternal twins. Studies of identical and fraternal twins reared apart would provide more accurate indications of the relative contributions of biology and socialization. However, such situations are very rare and only scattered case studies of this type have been done.

Finally, comparisons have been made between the criminal involvement of parents and their adoptive children and that of the children's biological parents. In most cases criminality of the biological parent is a better predictor of the child's criminal involvement than the criminality of the adoptive parents.

The evidence for a link between genetic makeup and a predisposition to criminality remains inconclusive. New technologies to map DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) may identify specific gene patterns that are associated with predispositions toward criminal behavior.

B. Neurological Abnormalities

The second major type of biological theory of criminality emphasizes the role of neurological factors. Studies in this area focus on abnormalities in brain functioning that reduce inhibitions toward aggression.

Abnormalities affecting aggression may occur in the structure of the brain. Researchers have discovered a positive relationship between aggressive behavior–including violent crime–and an impairment of the frontal lobe of the brain's cerebrum. This means that when researchers look for one factor, either abnormality or aggression, they often find the other factor as well.

Another type of dysfunction that may be related to aggression is chemical imbalances in the brain. Human thoughts, behavior, and emotions depend upon the transmission of electrical impulses within the central nervous system. The gaps between cells in the nervous system are called synapses and the chemicals that enable the flow of electrical impulses across the synapses are called neurotransmitters. Scientists believe that abnormally low levels of neurotransmitters interrupt the flow of electronic impulses, thereby short-circuiting emotions such as sympathy or empathy that can inhibit aggressive behavior. Researchers have found a relationship between levels of specific neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and certain antisocial behaviors, including violence.

The evidence concerning the relationship between neurological functioning and criminal behavior is mixed. For example, although there is some indication of a link between low serotonin levels and aggressive behavior, it is largely restricted to specific populations, such as alcoholics. Frontal-lobe disorders may be the cause of aggressive behavior or, conversely, they may result from injuries incurred as a result of aggressive behavior. Moreover, the most common measures of brain dysfunction are indirect measures, such as neuropsychological tests. These tests rely on the subject's responses rather than biological tests of the brain's structure or level of chemicals. Such tests may not indicate an existing abnormality, and they are unable to attribute any abnormality that is discovered to a particular location within the brain. Improved technologies such as brain imaging may be much more effective in identifying and locating impairments.

V. Psychological Theories of Crime

To account for criminal motivation in people, criminologists have used various psychological theories that attempt to explain human intellectual and emotional development. These theories can be divided into three categories: (1) moral development theories, (2) social learning theories, and (3) personality theories. Moral development theories describe a sequence of developmental stages that people pass through when acquiring the capacity to make moral judgments. According to these theorists, this development process may or may not be completed, and people who remain unable to recognize right from wrong will be more likely to engage in inappropriate, deviant, or even criminal behavior. Social learning theories emphasize the process of learning and internalizing moral codes. Learning theorists note different patterns of rewards and sanctions that affect this process. Personality theories assume a set of enduring perceptions and predispositions (tendencies) that each individual develops through early socialization. These theorists propose that certain predispositions or personality traits, such as impulsiveness or extroversion, increase the chances of criminal behavior.

A. Moral Development Theories

Criminologists who apply moral development theories build on the pioneering work done by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. According to Piaget, children evolve through four stages of cognitive development. From birth to age two, children experience the world only through their senses and motor abilities and have a very immediate, experience-based knowledge of the world. Between two and seven years of age children learn to think about and understand objects using thoughts that are independent of immediate experience. During this stage children are egocentric–that is, they believe that others experience the same reality that they do. From age seven to adolescence the child learns to think logically and to organize and classify objects. Beginning in adolescence, the child develops the ability to think logically about the future and to understand theoretical concepts. Theorists relate these stages of cognitive development to stages of moral development. At first, rules are given by powerful others. Later, children perceive that they can invent and modify rules. Finally, humans perceive the ultimate importance of abstract rules.

Influenced by Piaget's theory that development occurs in stages, in the mid-1960s American psychologist Lawrence Kolhberg proposed a multistage theory of moral evolution. In the early level of development, children strive to maximize pleasure and avoid punishment. Children at this level consider the needs of others only to the extent that meeting those needs will help the child fulfill his or her own needs. During the next period, which is characterized by conformity to social rules, the child demonstrates respect for and duty to authority. The child also seeks to avoid disapproval from that authority. As the child matures, his or her moral judgment is motivated by respect for legally determined rules and an understanding that these rules exist to benefit all. Eventually, universal principles are internalized. These principles, such as liberty and justice, may even transcend aspects of the existing legal system.

Other studies confirm that moral development is sequential, moving from external to internal control. In other words, while young children behave in order to avoid punishment or receive approval from others, adults develop internal codes and regulate their own behavior even in the absence of external enforcement. However, criminologists have not found truly strong indications of the effect of moral development on criminal activity. Sociologists who compared the patterns of moral development between delinquents and nondelinquents found some differences between the groups, but these differences were not conclusive.

B. Social Learning Theories

Social learning theories propose that people internalize moral codes more through the process of socialization–learning behaviors through interaction with others–rather than through a stage-by-stage development process. Specifically, social learning theorists maintain a young person learns how to behave based on how elders (primarily parent figures) respond to the person's violations of and compliance with rules. Rewards for acceptable behavior and sanctions (penalties) for transgressions indicate what is appropriate behavior.

Repeated instances of reward and sanction also lead to the internalization of these standards. Over time the transgression becomes associated with the sanction, and it produces anxiety even when no one is present to administer sanctions. Through this process children begin to control themselves in a manner consistent with moral and legal codes.

Social learning theories of criminal motivation and behavior have substantial empirical support. A number of studies indicate that deliquents were treated differently by their parents than youths with no record of delinquency. The socialization of delinquents is marked by lax and erratic discipline or by unduly harsh discipline, such as physical punishment. These studies do not describe in detail what effective socialization should be, but they do suggest that social learning is related to criminal involvement. Such studies also indicate that social learning theory is a promising approach to understanding criminal motivation and behavior.

C. Personality Theories

Personality theories attempt to explain how people acquire predispositions toward certain behavior. These predispositions are sometimes discussed in terms of personality traits, such as impulsiveness and stubbornness, or personality types, such as introvert and extrovert. All other things being equal, people will consistently display behaviors that they are predisposed toward. Accordingly, some social scientists believe that certain predispositions or personality types may be associated with criminal tendencies or activities.

In his work in the late 1800s and early 1900s Austrian physician Sigmund Freud described emotional development as the process of achieving a balance between conflicting desires. According to Freud, humans must resolve the tension between their purely self-interested tendencies, which he called the id, and the control of these forces by the combination of conscience and moral attitudes, which Freud called the superego. This process begins in infancy, at which time the id reigns without conflict.

As the child develops, conflicts occur between the id and superego, which are ultimately resolved by the ego–the sense of self. This process results in a person who strikes a balance between individualism and society, between hedonism (pleasure seeking) and repression of his or her desires. According to Freud, when this development process goes wrong any number of personality disorders can result, including a tendency toward criminal behavior.

Personality theorists have attempted to gauge the effects of personality development on criminal behavior by administering personality tests to groups of criminals and noncriminals. The evidence from these studies is mixed. In some instances, researchers found differences between the two groups on certain dimensions of personality, such as impulsiveness. However, in other instances no differences were found. Studies of mental disorders comparing prisoners and other populations suggest that only a few relatively rare crimes, such as sexual crimes of violence involving extremely deviant acts, can be attributed to mental illness.

VI. Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

The most common criminological theories attribute criminal motivation to environmental or social factors rather than biological or psychological traits. These theories may focus on social influences on crime or on economic factors.

A. Social Causes

One of the first theories describing the influence of social factors on crime came from French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. In the late 1880s Tarde criticized the physical typology theories of Lombroso and his followers. Although Tarde did not deny the relevance of biological factors in enhancing criminal tendencies, he asserted that the causes of crime are chiefly social. His basic theory on the causes of crime was founded on laws of imitation.

Tarde believed that persons predisposed to crime are attracted to criminal activity by the example of other criminals. He also felt that the particular crimes committed and the methods of committing those crimes are the products of imitation. The predisposition to crime, while in part reflecting many factors, is explained principally by the offender's social environment, particularly the environment of his younger years. Tarde was also one of the first to study the professional criminal. He noted that certain offenders pursue careers of crime. These career criminals may engage in periods of apprenticeship that are similar to those that characterize training for entry into other professions.

Another French social theorist of major importance to modern criminology was Émile Durkheim, who believed that the causes of crime are present in the very nature of society. According to Durkheim, whose major works were written in the 1890s, crime is related to the loss of social stability. Durkheim used the term anomie to describe the feelings of alienation and confusion associated with the breakdown of social bonds. According to Durkheim, individuals in the modern era tend to feel less connected to a community than did their ancestors, and thus their conduct is less influenced by group norms.

Since the early work of Tarde and Durkheim that proposed a link between social interactions and criminal motivation, sociological theories of crime have become much more detailed. They have identified the particular social groups that affect criminal motivation and the process by which criminal socialization occurs. This elaboration of sociological theories of crime can be divided into two major schools of thought: the social-structural school and the subcultural school.

1. Social-Structural Theories

The social-structural approach emphasizes the effects of an individual's position in society and the constraints that the person's status puts on his or her perceptions and behavior. According to this model, all members of society subscribe to the same moral code but some people–because of their position in society–are more able than others to follow that code. Social-structural theorists assert that crime is an adaptation to the limitations that social position places on individual behavior.

Social-structural theorists focus their attention on socioeconomic status or social class and the strain that lower class status brings. The principal goal of these theories is to explain why poorer people engage in crime more frequently than wealthy individuals. According to the structural strain theory developed by American sociologist Robert Merton in the late 1930s, crime is not simply a function of deprivation but the result of a disjuncture (lack of connection) between ends (goals) and the means to attain those ends.

People who aspire to the cultural norm of economic achievement but are denied the education, capital, or other means to realize those ends will experience strain. According to Merton, there are three possible responses to this strain. First, the person may try what Merton calls innovation. Although the individual continues to accept the cultural value of success, he or she will employ illegitimate means, such as theft or robbery, to obtain money because legitimate means to achieve this end are not available. Another possible response is what Merton termed retreatism. The person gives up the pursuit of economic success and engages in self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse. Finally, Merton identified the response of rebellion, wherein the person abandons the culturally dictated goal of economic achievement and engages in revolutionary activities or in attempts to reform the system.

One of the major criticisms of strain theories is that, although crime rates for poorer people exceed those for higher-income groups, only a small proportion of people in the lower economic class engages in criminal acts. American sociologists Edwin Sutherland, Richard Cloward, and Lloyd Ohlin have attempted to explain this phenomenon by emphasizing the role of learning. To become a criminal, a person must not only be inclined toward illegal activity, he or she must also learn how to commit criminal acts. Sutherland's differential association theory contends that people whose environment provides the opportunity to associate with criminals will learn these skills and will become criminals in response to strain. If the necessary learning structures are absent, they will not.

Another type of structural theory of crime is the ecological theory, which focuses on the criminal's relationship to the social environment. These theories emphasize migration and urbanization as sources of criminal adaptation and attempt to explain the geographic distribution of crime and criminals. Ecological theories often give special emphasis to urban areas.

In the 1940s American researchers Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay found that delinquent offenders clustered in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois. This clustering persisted over time–even when the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed dramatically. Shaw and McKay theorized that as people migrated from rural locations or from other nations into urban centers, their poverty forced them into districts that were on the fringe of industrial zones. These fringe areas, or areas of first settlement, were characterized by high levels of social disorganization–that is, the residents of these areas rarely interacted or communicated with each other.

Shaw and McKay also found the lack of communication in such areas was in part the result of the diversity of language and culture among immigrant groups, as well as the fact that people moved on after a short time. Thus it was difficult to form enduring relationships and to negotiate an agreed-upon code of behavior. Furthermore, because informal social control was weak and people did not share common norms, crime rates and arrests were high. When people left these areas, their risk of engaging in or being the victim of criminal activity dropped. Others moving into these disorganized areas experienced increased involvement in criminal activity.

Ecological theories were quite influential immediately after World War II (1939-1945). They served as a basis for crime prevention efforts such as the Chicago Area Project (CAP), which attempted to inject some form of social controls into disorganized areas. CAP personnel attempted to ease the adjustment of newcomers and to get residents to organize themselves into groups that could negotiate a consensual social order in the community and advocate for outside resources. In the 1960s the importance of community as a source of criminal motivation in sociological theory declined. New theories emphasized race and social class. Research conducted in the early 1980s, however, demonstrated that crime and criminals were still clustered in regions that were very much like the disorganized areas described in the earlier studies.

2. Subcultural Theories

While social-structural or strain theories assume that people share similar values and differ only with respect to access to resources, subcultural theories assume that certain groups have values quite distinct from those of the rest of society. Moreover, these differences are enduring. Members of these groups will be disproportionately involved in crime because they acquire and follow the values of their group. According to the subcultural model, crime does not occur because people have been imperfectly socialized; it occurs because they have been socialized in a deviant group and acquired its values.

Some subcultural theorists maintain there is a so-called lower-class culture that emphasizes toughness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. According to these theorists, attempting to behave in a manner consistent with these values disproportionally involves lower-class people in crime. For example, individuals from a subculture that puts extreme emphasis on toughness and individual respect may respond with violence to an insult that most people would consider trivial.

Social-control theory, developed by American criminologist Travis Hirschi in the late 1960s, is a variant of subcultural theories because it emphasizes the acquisition of values. However, social-control theory stands the principal question of criminology on its head. While most theories attempt to explain why certain people or classes of people become criminals, social-control theory asks why most people do not commit crimes.

Social-control theory assumes that everyone has a predisposition toward criminal behavior. Whether or not a person acts on those predispositions depends on whether he or she has ties to groups that impart values opposing crime, such as the family, school, the community, and volunteer organizations. People with such attachments initially hold certain values because they fear sanction from these groups. Gradually, however, the values are internalized and followed because of a belief that to do otherwise would be morally wrong. People without these attachments are not deterred by threat of group sanction nor do they ultimately internalize legitimate norms, and thus they are more likely to engage in criminal activity.

Substantial empirical evidence supports social-control theory. Numerous studies have shown that known delinquents and nondelinquents differ with respect to their attachments to legitimate groups as well as their commitment to legitimate values.

B. Economic Causes

Studies concerning the influence of economic factors on criminal behavior have attempted to link economic deprivation to increased motivation to commit crimes (especially property crimes). Such studies assume that when economic conditions worsen more people experience deprivation and turn to crime to reduce that deprivation. These same theories have been used to explain why people of lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately represented among known criminals.

Other studies attempt to relate the disproportionate involvement of poor people in crime to the distribution of power in society. The assumption in these studies is that criminal law is a tool used by the social group with higher economic status to advance its class interests. These theories assert that criminal law is fashioned according to the needs of this elite, and to the detriment of classes with lower status.

Studies of the relationship between unemployment and crime have yielded conflicting results. Some studies indicate a negative relationship between unemployment and crime–that is, when unemployment decreases, crime increases, or vice versa. Other studies indicate a positive relationship (when one increases, so does the other), and others find no relationship.

In certain macrosocial theories (theories that focus on whole social systems rather than individual people), criminologists link crime rates to the development of surplus labor (greater numbers of available workers than jobs) in the capitalist economic system. Those who follow the teachings of German political philosopher Karl Marx (known as Marxists) believe that capitalist societies generate surplus labor as a means of limiting the demands of workers for higher wages and other benefits. During periods of economic expansion, fewer people are punished for criminal activity. This reduces the amount of people in jail and increases the size of surplus labor in the economy. On the other hand, during periods of economic decline, more people are put in jail, which prevents too much surplus labor from posing a threat to the social and economic order.

VII. Theories of Criminal Opportunity

In the mid-1970s American sociologists Marcus Felson, Lawrence Cohen, and others changed the focus of criminological theory from explaining criminal motivation to explaining the occurrence of criminal events. They argued that criminal motivation alone was not sufficient to cause crime. In addition to motivation, the offender requires the opportunity to pursue his or her inclinations. According to these opportunity theorists, the physical and social environment of the offender and the victim (or target) encourage or limit criminal opportunity. They sought to identify environmental factors that provided the opportunity to commit crime.

According to opportunity theory, the dangerousness of a particular environment relates to four factors: (1) the accessibility of the victim or target, (2) the perceived attractiveness of the target, (3) the proximity to numerous potential offenders, and (4) the absence of capable guardians. The chance of a crime occurring is greatest in environments where accessibility, attractiveness, and proximity are high and where guardianship is low. The major purpose of most of the work in opportunity theory has been the elaboration of this basic framework and the classification of specific environments according to accessibility, guardianship, proximity, and attractiveness.

Empirical tests of opportunity theory have employed large-scale surveys of victims as well as experiments and in-depth studies of criminals. The victim surveys indicate the risk of victimization varies substantially across social and physical environments (social environment refers to the people in the area; physical environment to the actual place). This variation is generally consistent with opportunity theory. For example, people who report going out at night are more frequently victims than those who report staying home after dark. Also, residences in heavily trafficked locations are more often burglarized than those in less accessible places.

Experiments that vary attributes of the physical and social environments and monitor the effect on crime provide some support for opportunity theory. For example, when Germany enacted a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets, the theft rate for motorcycles decreased without a corresponding increase in thefts of other types of motor vehicles. Thieves were less likely to steal motorcycles unless they came equipped with a helmet because driving without a helmet increased the risk of being caught.

Opportunity theory is more easily and directly translated into crime prevention policy than theories of criminal motivation. Typical public policies designed to deter criminal activities usually require significant government efforts and resources. In contrast, reducing the opportunity for criminals to commit crime is left in large measure up to the individual citizen who has an interest in self-protection.

The major criticism of using opportunity theory to guide policy is that varying the factors that increase criminal opportunity will displace the crime, not prevent it. Reducing accessibility or increasing guardianship in one place will cause the motivated offender to look for another target. Critics argue for example, that reducing the availability of one crime tool, such as firearms, will simply encourage the use of alternative tools. However, evidence indicates reducing opportunity leads to reductions in illegal activities and not simply to displacement.

While opportunity theory has become very popular and enjoys some empirical support, it cannot be used to systematically distinguish dangerous social and physical environments from safe ones. Opportunity theorists have not been able to define the concepts of accessibility, guardianship, proximity, and attractiveness with sufficient specificity. See also  Crime Detection; Penology.


Contributed By:

James P. Lynch, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Justice, Law, and Society, American University. Author of Understanding Crime Incidence Statistics.

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Further Reading


"Criminology," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


© 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation.

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