Crime Causation: Sociological Theories


This entry focuses on the three major sociological theories of crime and delinquency: strain, social learning, and control theories. It then briefly describes several other important theories of crime, most of which represent elaborations of these three theories. Finally, efforts to develop integrated theories of crime are briefly discussed.

All of the theories that are described explain crime in terms of the social environment, including the family, school, peer group, workplace, community, and society. These theories, however, differ from one another in several ways: they focus on somewhat different features of the social environment, they offer different accounts of why the social environment causes crime, and some focus on explaining individual differences in crime while others attempt to explain group differences in crime (e.g., why some communities have higher crime rates than other communities).

Strain theory

Why do people engage in crime according to strain theory? They experience strain or stress, they become upset, and they sometimes engage in crime as a result. They may engage in crime to reduce or escape from the strain they are experiencing. For example, they may engage in violence to end harassment from others, they may steal to reduce financial problems, or they may run away from home to escape abusive parents. They may also engage in crime to seek revenge against those who have wronged them. And they may engage in the crime of illicit drug use to make themselves feel better.

A recent version of strain theory is Robert Agnew's 1992 general strain theory. Agnew's theory draws heavily on previous versions of strain theory, particularly those of Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, David Greenberg, and Delbert Elliott and associates. Agnew, however, points to certain types of strain not considered in these previous versions and provides a fuller discussion of the conditions under which strain is most likely to lead to crime.

The major types of strain. Agnew describes two general categories of strain that contribute to crime: (1) others prevent you from achieving your goals, and (2) others take things you value or present you with negative or noxious stimuli.

While strain may result from the failure to achieve a variety of goals, Agnew and others focus on the failure to achieve three related goals: money, status/respect, andfor adolescentsautonomy from adults.

Money is perhaps the central goal in the United States. All people, poor as well as rich, are encouraged to work hard so that they might make a lot of money. Further, money is necessary to buy many of the things we want, including the necessities of life and luxury items. Many people, however, are prevented from getting the money they need through legal channels, such as work. This is especially true for poor people, but it is true for many middle-class people with lofty goals as well. As a consequence, such people experience strain and they may attempt to get money through illegal channelssuch as theft, selling drugs, and prostitution. Studies provide some support for this argument. Criminals and delinquents often report that they engage in income-generating crime because they want money but cannot easily get it any other way. And some data suggest that crime is more common among people who are dissatisfied with their monetary situationwith such dissatisfaction being higher among lower-class people and people who state that they want "a lot of money."

Closely related to the desire for money is the desire for status and respect. People want to be positively regarded by others and they want to be treated respectfully by others, which at a minimum involves being treated in a just or fair manner. While people have a general desire for status and respect, theorists such as James Messerschmidt argue that the desire for "masculine status" is especially relevant to crime. There are class and race differences in views about what it means to be a "man," although most such views emphasize traits like independence, dominance, toughness, competitiveness, and heterosexuality. Many males, especially those who are young, lower-class, and members of minority groups, experience difficulties in satisfying their desire to be viewed and treated as men. These people may attempt to "accomplish masculinity" through crime. They may attempt to coerce others into giving them the respect they believe they deserve as "real men." In this connection, they may adopt a tough demeanor, respond to even minor shows of disrespect with violence, and occasionally assault and rob others in an effort to establish a tough reputation. There have been no large scale tests of this idea, although several studies such as that of Elijah Anderson provide support for it.

Finally, a major goal of most adolescents is autonomy from adults. Autonomy may be defined as power over oneself: the ability to resist the demands of others and engage in action without the permission of others. Adolescents are often encouraged to be autonomous, but they are frequently denied autonomy by adults. The denial of autonomy may lead to delinquency for several reasons: delinquency may be a means of asserting autonomy (e.g., sexual intercourse or disorderly behavior), achieving autonomy (e.g., stealing money to gain financial independence from parents), or venting frustration against those who deny autonomy.

In addition to the failure to achieve one's goals, strain may result when people take something one values or present one with noxious or negative stimuli. Such negative treatment may upset or anger people and crime may be the result. Studies have found that a range of negative events and conditions increase the likelihood of crime. In particular, crime has been linked to child abuse and neglect, criminal victimization, physical punishment by parents, negative relations with parents, negative relations with teachers, negative school experiences, negative relations with peers, neighborhood problems, and a wide range of stressful life eventslike the divorce/separation of a parent, parental unemployment, and changing schools.

Factors influencing the effect of strain on delinquency. Strainful events and conditions make people feel bad. These bad feelings, in turn, create pressure for corrective action. This is especially true of anger and frustration, which energize the individual for action, create a desire for revenge, and lower inhibitions. There are several possible ways to cope with strain and these negative emotions, only some of which involve delinquency. Strain theorists attempt to describe those factors that increase the likelihood of a criminal response.

Among other things, strain is more likely to lead to crime among individuals with poor coping skills and resources. Some individuals are better able to cope with strain legally than others. For example, they have the verbal skills to negotiate with others or the financial resources to hire a lawyer. Related to this, strain is more likely to lead to delinquency among individuals with few conventional social supports. Family, friends, and others often help individuals cope with their problems, providing advice, direct assistance, and emotional support. In doing so, they reduce the likelihood of a criminal response.

Strain is more likely to lead to delinquency when the costs of delinquency are low and the benefits are high; that is, the probability of being caught and punished is low and the rewards of delinquency are high. Finally, strain is more likely to lead to delinquency among individuals who are disposed to delinquency. The individual's disposition to engage in delinquency is influenced by a number of factors. Certain individual traitslike irritability and impulsivityincrease the disposition for delinquency. Another key factor is whether individuals blame their strain on the deliberate behavior of someone else. Finally, individuals are more disposed to delinquency if they hold beliefs that justify delinquency, if they have been exposed to delinquent models, and if they have been reinforced for delinquency in the past (see below).

A variety of factors, then, influence whether individuals respond to strain with delinquency. Unfortunately, there has not been much research on the extent to which these factors condition the impact of strainand the research that has been done has produced mixed results.

Social learning theory

Why do people engage in crime according to social learning theory? They learn to engage in crime, primarily through their association with others. They are reinforced for crime, they learn beliefs that are favorable to crime, and they are exposed to criminal models. As a consequence, they come to view crime as something that is desirable or at least justifiable in certain situations. The primary version of social learning theory in criminology is that of Ronald Akers and the description that follows draws heavily on his work. Akers's theory, in turn, represents an elaboration of Edwin Sutherland's differential association theory (also see the related work of Albert Bandura in psychology).

According to social learning theory, juveniles learn to engage in crime in the same way they learn to engage in conforming behavior: through association with or exposure to others. Primary or intimate groups like the family and peer group have an especially large impact on what we learn. In fact, association with delinquent friends is the best predictor of delinquency other than prior delinquency. However, one does not have to be in direct contact with others to learn from them; for example, one may learn to engage in violence from observation of others in the media.

Most of social learning theory involves a description of the three mechanisms by which individuals learn to engage in crime from these others: differential reinforcement, beliefs, and modeling.

Differential reinforcement of crime. Individuals may teach others to engage in crime through the reinforcements and punishments they provide for behavior. Crime is more likely to occur when it (a) is frequently reinforced and infrequently punished; (b) results in large amounts of reinforcement (e.g., a lot of money, social approval, or pleasure) and little punishment; and (c) is more likely to be reinforced than alternative behaviors.

Reinforcements may be positive or negative. In positive reinforcement, the behavior results in something goodsome positive consequence. This consequence may involve such things as money, the pleasurable feelings associated with drug use, attention from parents, approval from friends, or an increase in social status. In negative reinforcement, the behavior results in the removal of something bada punisher is removed or avoided. For example, suppose one's friends have been calling her a coward because she refuses to use drugs with them. The individual eventually takes drugs with them, after which time they stop calling her a coward. The individual's drug use has been negatively reinforced.

According to social learning theory, some individuals are in environments where crime is more likely to be reinforced (and less likely to be punished). Sometimes this reinforcement is deliberate. For example, the parents of aggressive children often deliberately encourage and reinforce aggressive behavior outside the home. Or the adolescent's friends may reinforce drug use. At other times, the reinforcement for crime is less deliberate. For example, an embarrassed parent may give her screaming child a candy bar in the checkout line of a supermarket. Without intending to do so, the parent has just reinforced the child's aggressive behavior.

Data indicate that individuals who are reinforced for crime are more likely to engage in subsequent crime, especially when they are in situations similar to those where they were previously reinforced.

Beliefs favorable to crime. Other individuals may not only reinforce our crime, they may also teach us beliefs favorable to crime. Most individuals, of course, are taught that crime is bad or wrong. They eventually accept or "internalize" this belief, and they are less likely to engage in crime as a result. Some individuals, however, learn beliefs that are favorable to crime and they are more likely to engage in crime as a result.

Few peopleincluding criminalsgenerally approve of serious crimes like burglary and robbery. Surveys and interviews with criminals suggest that beliefs favoring crime fall into three categories. And data suggest that each type of belief increases the likelihood of crime.

First, some people generally approve of certain minor forms of crime, like certain forms of consensual sexual behavior, gambling, "soft" drug use, andfor adolescentsalcohol use, truancy, and curfew violation.

Second, some people conditionally approve of or justify certain forms of crime, including some serious crimes. These people believe that crime is generally wrong, but that some criminal acts are justifiable or even desirable in certain conditions. Many people, for example, will state that fighting is generally wrong, but that it is justified if you have been insulted or provoked in some way. Gresham Sykes and David Matza have listed some of the more common justifications used for crime. Several theorists have argued that certain groups in our societyespecially lower-class, young, minority malesare more likely to define violence as an acceptable response to a wide range of provocations and insults. And they claim that this "subculture of violence" is at least partly responsible for the higher rate of violence in these groups. Data in this area are somewhat mixed, but recent studies suggest that males, young people, and possibly lower-class people are more likely to hold beliefs favorable to violence. There is less evidence for a relationship between race and beliefs favorable to violence.

Third, some people hold certain general values that are conducive to crime. These values do not explicitly approve of or justify crime, but they make crime appear a more attractive alternative than would otherwise be the case. Theorists such as Matza and Sykes have listed three general sets of values in this area: an emphasis on "excitement," "thrills," or "kicks"; a disdain for hard work and a desire for quick, easy success; and an emphasis on toughness or being "macho." Such values can be realized through legitimate as well as illegitimate channels, but individuals with such values will likely view crime in a more favorable light than others.

The imitation of criminal models. Behavior is not only a function of beliefs and the reinforcements and punishments individuals receive, but also of the behavior of those around them. In particular, individuals often imitate or model the behavior of othersespecially when they like or respect these others and have reason to believe that imitating their behavior will result in reinforcement. For example, individuals are more likely to imitate others' behavior if they observe them receive reinforcement for their acts.

Social learning theory has much support and is perhaps the dominant theory of crime today. Data indicate that the people one associates with have a large impact on whether or not one engages in crime, and that this impact is partly explained by the effect these people have on one's beliefs regarding crime, the reinforcements and punishments one receives, and the models one is exposed to.

Control theory

Strain and social learning theorists ask, Why do people engage in crime? They then focus on the factors that push or entice people into committing criminal acts. Control theorists, however, begin with a rather different question. They ask, Why do people conform? Unlike strain and social learning theorists, control theorists take crime for granted. They argue that all people have needs and desires that are more easily satisfied through crime than through legal channels. For example, it is much easier to steal money than to work for it. So in the eyes of control theorists, crime requires no special explanation: it is often the most expedient way to get what one wants. Rather than explaining why people engage in crime, we need to explain why they do not.

According to control theorists, people do not engage in crime because of the controls or restraints placed on them. These controls may be viewed as barriers to crimethey refer to those factors that prevent them from engaging in crime. So while strain and social learning theory focus on those factors that push or lead the individual into crime, control theory focuses on the factors that restrain the individual from engaging in crime. Control theory goes on to argue that people differ in their level of control or in the restraints they face to crime. These differences explain differences in crime: some people are freer to engage in crime than others.

Control theories describe the major types of social control or the major restraints to crime. The control theory of Travis Hirschi dominates the literature, but Gerald Patterson and associates, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, and Robert Sampson and John Laub have extended Hirschi's theory in important ways. Rather than describing the different versions of control theory, an integrated control theory that draws on all of their insights is presented.

This integrated theory lists three major types of control: direct control, stake in conformity, and internal control. Each type has two or more components.

Direct control. When most people think of control they think of direct control: someone watching over people and sanctioning them for crime. Such control may be exercised by family members, school officials, coworkers, neighborhood residents, police, and others. Family members, however, are the major source of direct control given their intimate relationship with the person. Direct control has three components: setting rules, monitoring behavior, and sanctioning crime.

Direct control is enhanced to the extent that family members and others provide the person with clearly defined rules that prohibit criminal behavior and that limit the opportunities and temptations for crime. These rules may specify such things as who the person may associate with and the activities in which they can and cannot engage.

Direct control also involves monitoring the person's behavior to ensure that they comply with these rules and do not engage in crime. Monitoring may be direct or indirect. In direct monitoring, the person is under the direct surveillance of a parent or other conventional "authority figure." In indirect monitoring, the parent or authority figure does not directly observe the person but makes an effort to keep tabs on what they are doing. The parent, for example, may ask the juvenile where he or she is going, may periodically call the juvenile, and may ask others about the juvenile's behavior. People obviously differ in the extent to which their behavior is monitored.

Finally, direct control involves effectively sanctioning crime when it occurs. Effective sanctions are consistent, fair, and not overly harsh.

Level of direct control usually emerges as an important cause of crime in most studies.

Stake in conformity. The efforts to directly control behavior are a major restraint to crime. These efforts, however, are more effective with some people than with others. For example, all juveniles are subject to more or less the same direct controls at school: the same rules, the same monitoring, and the same sanctions if they deviate. Yet some juveniles are very responsive to these controls while others commit deviant acts on a regular basis. One reason for this is that some juveniles have more to lose by engaging in deviance. These juveniles have what has been called a high "stake in conformity," and they do not want to jeopardize that stake by engaging in deviance.

So one's stake in conformitythat which one has to lose by engaging in crimefunctions as another major restraint to crime. Those with a lot to lose will be more fearful of being caught and sanctioned and so will be less likely to engage in crime. People's stake in conformity has two components: their emotional attachment to conventional others and their actual or anticipated investment in conventional society.

If people have a strong emotional attachment to conventional others, like family members and teachers, they have more to lose by engaging in crime. Their crime may upset people they care about, cause them to think badly of them, and possibly disrupt their relationship with them. Studies generally confirm the importance of this bond. Individuals who report that they love and respect their parents and other conventional figures usually commit fewer crimes. Individuals who do not care about their parents or others, however, have less to lose by engaging in crime.

A second major component of people's stake in conformity is their investment in conventional society. Most people have put a lot of time and energy into conventional activities, like "getting an education, building up a business, [and] acquiring a reputation for virtue" (Hirschi, p. 20). And they have been rewarded for their efforts, in the form of such things as good grades, material possessions, and a good reputation. Individuals may also expect their efforts to reap certain rewards in the future; for example, one might anticipate getting into college or professional school, obtaining a good job, and living in a nice house. In short, people have a large investmentboth actual and anticipatedin conventional society. People do not want to jeopardize that investment by engaging in delinquency.

Internal control. People sometimes find themselves in situations where they are tempted to engage in crime and the probability of external sanction (and the loss of those things they value) is low. Yet many people still refrain from crime. The reason is that they are high in internal control. They are able to restrain themselves from engaging in crime. Internal control is a function of their beliefs regarding crime and their level of self-control.

Most people believe that crime is wrong and this belief acts as a major restraint to crime. The extent to which people believe that crime is wrong is at least partly a function of their level of direct control and their stake in conformity: were they closely attached to their parents and did their parents attempt to teach them that crime is wrong? If not, such individuals may form an amoral orientation to crime: they believe that crime is neither good nor bad. As a consequence, their beliefs do not restrain them from engaging in crime. Their beliefs do not propel or push them into crime; they do not believe that crime is good. Their amoral beliefs simply free them to pursue their needs and desires in the most expedient way. Rather then being taught that crime is good, control theorists argue that some people are simply not taught that crime is bad.

Finally, some people have personality traits that make them less responsive to the above controls and less able to restrain themselves from acting on their immediate desires. For example, if someone provokes them, they are more likely to get into a fight. Or if someone offers them drugs at a party, they are more likely to accept. They do not stop to consider the long-term consequences of their behavior. Rather, they simply focus on the immediate, short-term benefits or pleasures of criminal acts. Such individuals are said to be low in "self-control."

Self-control is indexed by several personality traits. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, "people who lack self control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal" (p. 90). It is claimed that the major cause of low self-control is "ineffective child-rearing." In particular, low self-control is more likely to result when parents do not establish a strong emotional bond with their children and do not properly monitor and sanction their children for delinquency. Certain theorists also claim that some of the traits characterizing low self-control have biological as well as social causes.

Gottfredson and Hirschi claim that one's level of self-control is determined early in life and is then quite resistant to change. Further, they claim that low self-control is the central cause of crime; other types of control and other causes of crime are said to be unimportant once level of self-control is established. Data do indicate that low self-control is an important cause of crime. Data, however, suggest that the self-control does vary over the life course and that other causes of crime are also important. For example, Sampson and Laub demonstrate that delinquent adolescents who enter satisfying marriages and obtain stable jobs (i.e., develop a strong stake in conformity) are less likely to engage in crime as adults.

In sum, crime is less likely when others try to directly control the person's behavior, when the person has a lot to lose by engaging in crime, and when the person tries to control his or her own behavior.

Labeling theory

The above theories examine how the social environment causes individuals to engage in crime, but they typically devote little attention to the official reaction to crime, that is, to the reaction of the police and other official agencies. Labeling theory focuses on the official reaction to crime and makes a rather counterintuitive argument regarding the causes of crime.

According to labeling theory, official efforts to control crime often have the effect of increasing crime. Individuals who are arrested, prosecuted, and punished are labeled as criminals. Others then view and treat these people as criminals, and this increases the likelihood of subsequent crime for several reasons. Labeled individuals may have trouble obtaining legitimate employment, which increases their level of strain and reduces their stake in conformity. Labeled individuals may find that conventional people are reluctant to associate with them, and they may associate with other criminals as a result. This reduces their bond with conventional others and fosters the social learning of crime. Finally, labeled individuals may eventually come to view themselves as criminals and act in accord with this self-concept.

Labeling theory was quite popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, but then fell into declinepartly as a result of the mixed results of empirical research. Some studies found that being officially labeled a criminal (e.g., arrested or convicted) increased subsequent crime, while other studies did not. Recent theoretical work, however, has revised the theory to take account of past problems. More attention is now being devoted to informal labeling, such as labeling by parents, peers, and teachers. Informal labeling is said to have a greater effect on subsequent crime than official labeling. Ross Matsueda discusses the reasons why individuals may be informally labeled as delinquents, noting that such labeling is not simply a function of official labeling (e.g., arrest). Informal labeling is also influenced by the individual's delinquent behavior and by their position in societywith powerless individuals being more likely to be labeled (e.g., urban, minority, lower-class, adolescents). Matsueda also argues that informal labels affect individuals' subsequent level of crime by affecting their perceptions of how others see them. If they believe that others see them as delinquents and trouble-makers, they are more likely to act in accord with this perception and engage in delinquency. Data provide some support for these arguments.

John Braithwaite extends labeling theory by arguing that labeling increases crime in some circumstances and reduces it in others. Labeling increases subsequent crime when no effort is made to reintegrate the offender back into conventional society; that is, when offenders are rejected or informally labeled on a long-term basis. But labeling reduces subsequent crime when efforts are made to reintegrate punished offenders back into conventional society. In particular, labeling reduces crime when offenders are made to feel a sense of shame or guilt for what they have done, but are eventually forgiven and reintegrated into conventional groupslike family and conventional peer groups. Such reintegration may occur "through words or gestures of forgiveness or ceremonies to decertify the offender as deviant" (pp. 100101). Braithwaite calls this process "reintegrative shaming." Reintegrative shaming is said to be more likely in certain types of social settings, for example, where individuals are closely attached to their parents, neighbors, and others. Such shaming is also more likely in "communitarian" societies, which place great stress on trust and the mutual obligation to help one another (e.g., Japan versus the United States). Braithwaite's theory has not yet been well tested, but it helps make sense of the mixed results of past research on labeling theory.

Social disorganization theory

The leading sociological theories focus on the immediate social environment, like the family, peer group, and school. And they are most concerned with explaining why some individuals are more likely to engage in crime than others. Much recent theoretical work, however, has also focused on the larger social environment, especially the community and the total society. This work usually attempts to explain why some groupslike communities and societieshave higher crime rates than other groups. In doing so, however, this work draws heavily on the central ideas of control, social learning, and strain theories.

Social disorganization theory seeks to explain community differences in crime rates (see Robert Sampson and W. Bryon Groves; Robert Bursik and Harold Grasmick). The theory identifies the characteristics of communities with high crime rates and draws on social control theory to explain why these characteristics contribute to crime.

Crime is said to be more likely in communities that are economically deprived, large in size, high in multiunit housing like apartments, high in residential mobility (people frequently move into and out of the community), and high in family disruption (high rates of divorce, single-parent families). These factors are said to reduce the ability or willingness of community residents to exercise effective social control, that is, to exercise direct control, provide young people with a stake in conformity, and socialize young people so that they condemn delinquency and develop self-control.

The residents of high crime communities often lack the skills and resources to effectively assist others. They are poor and many are single parents struggling with family responsibilities. As such, they often face problems in socializing their children against crime and providing them with a stake in conformity, like the skills to do well in school or the connections to secure a good job. These residents are also less likely to have close ties to their neighbors and to care about their community. They typically do not own their own homes, which lowers their investment in the community. They may hope to move to a more desirable community as soon as they are able, which also lowers their investment in the community. And they often do not know their neighbors well, since people frequently move into and out of the community. As a consequence, they are less likely to intervene in neighborhood affairslike monitoring the behavior of neighborhood residents and sanctioning crime. Finally, these residents are less likely to form or support community organizations, including educational, religious, and recreational organizations. This is partly a consequence of their limited resources and lower attachment to the community. This further reduces control, since these organizations help exercise direct control, provide people with a stake in conformity, and socialize people. Also, these organizations help secure resources from the larger society, like better schools and police protection. Recent data provide some support for these arguments.

Social disorganization theorists and other criminologists, such as John Hagan, point out that the number of communities with characteristics conducive to crimeparticularly high concentrations of poor peoplehas increased since the 1960s. These communities exist primarily in inner city areas and they are populated largely by members of minority groups (due to the effects of discrimination). Such communities have increased for several reasons. First, there has been a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs in central city areas, partly due to the relocation of factories to suburban areas and overseas. Also, the wages in manufacturing jobs have become less competitive, due to factors like foreign competition, the increase in the size of the work force, and the decline in unions. Second, the increase in very poor communities is due to the migration of many working- and middle-class African Americans to more affluent communities, leaving the poor behind. This migration was stimulated by a reduction in discriminatory housing and employment practices. Third, certain government policieslike the placement of public housing projects in inner-city communities and the reduction of certain social serviceshave contributed to the increased concentration of poverty.

Critical theories

Critical theories also try to explain group differences in crime rates in terms of the larger social environment; some focus on class differences, some on gender differences, and some on societal differences in crime. Several versions of critical theory exist, but all explain crime in terms of group differences in power.

Marxist theories. Marxist theories argue that those who own the means of production (e.g., factories, businesses) have the greatest power. This groupthe capitalist classuses its power for its own advantage. Capitalists work for the passage of laws that criminalize and severely sanction the "street" crimes of lower-class persons, but ignore or mildly sanction the harmful actions of business and industry (e.g., pollution, unsafe working conditions). And capitalists act to increase their profits; for example, they resist improvements in working conditions and they attempt to hold down the wages of workers. This is not to say that the capitalist class is perfectly unified or that the government always acts on its behalf. Most Marxists acknowledge that disputes sometimes arise within the capitalist class and that the government sometimes makes concessions to workers in an effort to protect the long-term interests of capitalists.

Marxists explain crime in several ways. Some draw on strain theory, arguing that workers and unemployed people engage in crime because they are not able to achieve their economic goals through legitimate channels. Also, Marxists argue that crime is a response to the poor living conditions experienced by workers and the unemployed. Some draw on control theory, arguing that crime results from the fact that many workers and the unemployed have little stake in society and are alienated from governmental and business institutions. And some draw on social learning theory, arguing that capitalist societies encourage the unrestrained pursuit of money. Marxist theories, then, attempt to explain both class and societal differences in crime.

Institutional anomie theory. Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld's institutional anomie theory draws on control and social learning theories to explain the high crime rate in the United States. According to the theory, the high crime rate partly stems from the emphasis placed on the "American Dream." Everyone is encouraged to strive for monetary success, but little emphasis is placed on the legitimate means to achieve such success: "it's not how you play the game; it's whether you win or lose." As a consequence, many attempt to obtain money through illegitimate channels or crime. Further, the emphasis on monetary success is paralleled by the dominance of economic institutions in the United States. Other major institutionsthe family, school, and the political systemare subservient to economic institutions. Noneconomic functions and roles (e.g., parent, teacher) are devalued and receive little support. Noneconomic institutions must accommodate themselves to the demands of the economy (e.g., parents neglect their children because of the demands of work). And economic norms have come to penetrate these other institutions (e.g., the school system, like the economic system, is based on the individualized competition for rewards). As a result, institutions like the family, school, and political system are less able to effectively socialize individuals against crime and sanction deviant behavior.

Feminist theories. Feminist theories focus on gender differences in power as a source of crime. These theories address two issues: why are males more involved in most forms of crime than females, and why do females engage in crime. Most theories of crime were developed with males in mind; feminists argue that the causes of female crime differ somewhat from the causes of male crime.

Gender differences in crime are said to be due largely to gender differences in social learning and control. Females are socialized to be passive, subservient, and focused on the needs of others. Further, females are more closely supervised than males, partly because fathers and husbands desire to protect their "property" from other males. Related to this, females are more closely tied to the household and to child-rearing tasks, which limits their opportunities to engage in many crimes.

Some females, of course, do engage in crime. Feminist theories argue that the causes of their crime differ somewhat from those of male crime, although female crime is largely explained in terms of strain theory. Meda Chesney-Lind and others argue that much female crime stems from the fact that juvenile females are often sexually abused by family members. This high rate of sexual abuse is fostered by the power of males over females, the sexualization of femalesespecially young femalesand a system that often fails to sanction sexual abuse. Abused females frequently run away, but they have difficulty surviving on the street. They are labeled as delinquents, making it difficult for them to obtain legitimate work. Juvenile justice officials, in fact, often arrest such females and return them to the families where they were abused. Further, these females are frequently abused and exploited by men on the street. As a consequence, they often turn to crimes like prostitution and theft to survive. Theorists have pointed to still other types of strain to explain female crime, like the financial and other difficulties experienced by women trying to raise families without financial support from fathers. The rapid increase in female-headed families in recent decades, in fact, has been used to explain the increase in rates of female property crime. It is also argued that some female crime stems from frustration over the constricted roles available to females in our society.

There are other versions of critical theory, including "postmodernist" theories of crime. A good overview can be found in the text by George Vold, Thomas J. Bernard, and Jeffrey B. Snipes.

Situations conducive to crime

The above theories focus on the factors that create a general willingness or predisposition to engage in crime, locating such factors in the immediate and larger social environment. People who are disposed to crime generally commit more crime than those who are not. But even the most predisposed people do not commit crime all of the time. In fact, they obey the law in most situations. Several theories argue that predisposed individuals are more likely to engage in crime in some types of situations than others. These theories specify the types of situations most conducive to crime. Such theories usually argue that crime is most likely in those types of situations where the benefits of crime are seen as high and the costs as low, an argument very compatible with social learning theory.

The most prominent theory in this area is the routine activities perspective, advanced by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson and elaborated by Felson. It is argued that crime is most likely when motivated offenders come together with attractive targets in the absence of capable guardians. Attractive targets are visible, accessible, valuable, and easy to move. The police may function as capable guardians, but it is more common for ordinary people to play this rolelike family members, neighbors, and teachers. According to this theory, the supply of suitable targets and the presence of capable guardians are a function of our everyday or "routine" activitieslike attending school, going to work, and socializing with friends. For example, Cohen and Felson point to a major change in routine activities since World War II: people are more likely to spend time away from home. This change partly reflects the fact that women have become much more likely to work outside the home and people have become more likely to seek entertainment outside the home. As a result, motivated offenders are more likely to encounter suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians. Homes are left unprotected during the day and often in the evening, and people spend more time in public settings where they may fall prey to motivated offenders. Other theories, like the rational-choice perspective of Derek B. Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, also discuss the characteristics of situations conducive to crime.

Integrated theories

Several theorists have attempted to combine certain of the above theories in an effort to create integrated theories of crime. The most prominent of these integrations are those of Terence P. Thornberry and Delbert S. Elliott and associates. Elliott's theory states that strain and labeling reduce social control. For example, school failure and negative labeling may threaten one's emotional bond to conventional others and investment in conventional society. Low social control, in turn, increases the likelihood of association with delinquent peers, which promotes the social learning of crime. Thornberry attempts to integrate control and social learning theories. Like Elliott, he argues that low control at home and at school promotes association with delinquent peers and the adoption of beliefs favorable to delinquency. Thornberry, however, also argues that most of the causes of crime have reciprocal effects on one another. For example, low attachment to parents increases the likelihood of association with delinquent peers, and association with delinquent peers reduces attachment to parents. Likewise, delinquency affects many of its causes: for example, it reduces attachment to parents and increases association with delinquent peers (an argument compatible with labeling theory). Further, Thornberry argues that the causes of crime vary over the life course. For example, parents have a much stronger effect on delinquency among younger than older adolescents. Factors like work, marriage, college, and the military, however, are more important among older adolescents.

The future of crime theories

Sociologists continue to refine existing theories and develop new theories of crime, including integrated theories of crime (e.g., Charles Tittle's control balance theory). Sociologists, however, are coming to recognize that it is not possible to explain crime solely in terms of the immediate social environment. As a consequence, they are devoting more attention to the larger social environment, which affects the immediate social environment. And they are devoting more attention to the situations in which people find themselves, which affect whether predisposed individuals will engage in crime. Further, sociologists are coming to recognize that they need to take account of the factors considered in biological, psychological, and other theories of crime. Most notably, they must take account of individual traits like intelligence, impulsivity, and irritability. These traits influence how individuals respond to their social environment. An irritable individual, for example, is more likely to respond to strain with crime. These traits also shape the individual's social environment. Irritable individuals, for example, are more likely to elicit hostile reactions from others and select themselves into social environments that are conducive to crime, like bad jobs and marriages. (At the same time, the social environment influences the development of individual traits and the ways in which individuals with particular traits behave.)

Further, sociologists are increasingly recognizing that their theories may require modification if they are to explain crime in different groups and among different types of offenders. As indicated above, theories may have to be modified to explain female versus male crime. And theories may have to be modified to explain crime across the life course. For example, the factors that explain why young adolescents start committing crime likely differ somewhat from those that explain why some older adolescents continue to commit crimes and others stop. Much recent attention, in fact, has been devoted to the explanation of crime across the life course, as described in the text by Vold, Bernard, and Snipes. Also, theories will have to be modified to explain crime among different types of offenders. Some offenders, for example, limit their offending to the adolescent years. Others offend at high rates across the life course.

Sociological theories, then, will become more complex, taking account of individual traits, the immediate social environment, the larger social environment, and situational factors. And modified versions of such theories will be developed to explain crime in different groups and among different types of offenders.

Robert Agnew

See also Class and Crime; Crime Causation: Biological Theories; Crime Causation: Economic Theories; Crime Causation: Political Theories; Crime Causation: Psychological Theories; Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures; Deviance; Family Relationships and Crime; Gender and Crime; Juvenile and Youth Gangs; Mass Media and Crime; Race and Crime; Riots: Behavioral Aspects; Unemployment and Crime; White-Collar Crime: History of an Idea.


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AGNEW, ROBERT. "Crime Causation: Sociological Theories." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. 30 May. 2016 <>.

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