Typologies of Criminal Behavior

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Sorting people into types according to distinguishing traits or forms of behavior that are presumed to characterize them is a common social process. For example, high school students often label their classmates as "hoods," "jocks," "Goths," or "brains." These slang terms identify certain students as delinquents, as overly interested in school athletic programs, as disaffected persons who dress in black and affect various deviant styles, or as particularly interested in good grades. Closer to criminology, police officers sometimes speak of "car clouters" (persons who steal packages and other items from cars) or "hubcap thieves." Similarly, prison inmates sometimes single out fellow convicts as "right guys," "outlaws," "wolves," or other types.

Such existential types refer to categories of people or of behavior that arise as persons go about trying to simplify and make sense of people and events they encounter in everyday social interactions. By contrast, constructed types are delineated by sociological theorists. For example, Edwin Lemert drew attention to offenders he labeled as naïve check forgers, but the persons so labeled did not use that label nor did those with whom they associated. Although constructed types are sometimes more precise and explicit than existential types, in many typological classifications the identifying features of specific types are unclear, with the result that researchers have difficulty in assigning persons to them. The following discussion reviews the construction and application of classificatory schemes in criminology.

Typologies in criminology

In the scientific study of crime, investigators have long noted enormous variety among criminals and criminal acts in complex societies. One of the first observers to address this diversity was Cesare Lombroso (18351909). He claimed that about one-third of all offenders were born criminals, that is, throwbacks to a more primitive human; more than half were criminaloids, people who were neither biologically nor psychologically abnormal; and the remainder were insane. Although this schemeand in particular the notion of born criminalshas few advocates today, criminologists have argued that more accurate typologies would facilitate causal analysis. Investigators have sought explanations of criminal behavior by sorting different forms of criminality into homogeneous types because they have been skeptical that a single theory can account for the entire array of crimes or criminals. For example, the criminality of some offenders may be due mainly to psychological problems, whereas other lawbreakers may be responding principally to economic pressures. Although different types of criminal activity may share some causal factors, the weighting of these and other influences would probably differ from one offender type to another.

Typologies may also facilitate crime prevention or correctional efforts, whose success depends on accurately identifying and addressing the specific problems underlying different kinds of lawbreaking behavior (Gibbons, 1965). This argument is similar to a medical one, in which it is assumed that the probability of successful prevention or treatment at certain physical illnesses is greatly enhanced when corrective efforts are tailored to a precise diagnosis of the ailment being attacked.

Crime-centered versus person-centered typologies

Criminologists have developed both crime-centered and person-centered typologies. The former sort out criminal activities into homogeneous groupings, such as residential burglary, car clouting, white-collar crime, and forcible rape. Criminologists base such types on offender-victim relations, techniques employed in the crime, and spatial or temporal features of the lawbreaking activity. By contrast, person-centered typologies assign individuals to role careers, syndromes, criminal roles, and other social and behavioral categories on the basis of similarities on their part in criminal involvement, attitudes, personality patterns, and other presumably relevant characteristics. In short, crime-centered classifications seek to identify distinct forms of crime, while criminal-centered endeavors search for relatively distinct patterns or types into which real-life offenders can be sorted.

Perhaps criminologists will ultimately identity a number of distinct crime forms and a collection of offender types as well. Or it may turn out that distinct patterns of lawbreaking can be identified, but persons who specialize in them may rarely be encountered. For example, while residential burglaries may follow a common pattern (occurring most often during daylight hours, etc.), few if any "burglars" who specialize in that form of crime may exist. Finally, it is possible that there are no distinct forms of crime or types of offenders.

Criteria for criminal typologies

Classification systems (taxonomies) identify the set of categories into which instances of a given phenomenon can be placed. The Stanford-Binet intelligence test is a familiar single-variable classification system: it permits the assignment of any human population to intelligence groups ranged along a scale. Populations of offenders have often been sorted into intelligence levels on the basis of this or other intelligence tests by correctional officials. A multivariate classification might sort individuals according to income, educational attainment, and intelligence; the classification scheme would include all the logically possible combinations of these three variables. In similar fashion, a multivariate system could assign lawbreakers to types defined by age, intelligence score, and current charged offense. In both of these illustrations, some of the groupings might be unpopulated, that is, no actual cases would fall within themthere may be no child molesters who are under twenty-five years of age or who have relatively high intelligence scores, even though the classification included such a pattern.

Typologies are a special kind of taxonomy in that they involve truth claims. Typologies identify groupings assumed to exist in the real world; thus, the category of youthful and intelligent child molesters noted above might be excluded from a typology constructed by a criminologist because he or she considered this pattern to be rare or nonexistent among actual offenders.

In order to be useful in causal inquiry or correctional intervention, typologies must meet several requirements. First, a typology must be sufficiently detailed and clear so that offenders can be reliably assigned to its categories. A second requirement is that the typology identify mutually exclusive types, so that actual offenders fall into only one slot. A third criterion is parsimony, that is, a relative limit in the number of types. Finally, typologies must be empirically congruent; that is, the typological description should closely fit the individuals in a given type, and the population under scrutiny should largely fall within the typology without a residual category of unclassified cases.

Typological schemes in criminology often fail to meet these four criteria, as the following review of person-centered classifications demonstrates.

Offender typologies

Criminologists have developed typologies of both adult and juvenile offenders. Some schemes rest on psychological criteria, whereas others use patterns of behavior common in correctional institutions to establish criminal types; sociological approaches emphasize individual criminal activities, personal attitudes, self-concepts, group relations, and similar variables. Examples of these approaches follow.

Psychological typologies. Psychiatrist Richard Jenkins and sociologist Lester Hewitt put forth an influential psychological typology of juvenile offenders many years ago. They examined youths in a child guidance clinic and concluded that delinquents fall into two groups: pseudosocial boys and unsocialized aggressive youths. The former were psychologically normal youngsters who were responding to antisocial conditions in their local communities, while the latter were asocial, violent juveniles who had suffered severe parental rejection.

A more recent and well-known psychological typology of offenders is Marguerite Warren's Interpersonal Maturity Levels (I-Levels) description of delinquents. Warren hypothesized that children become well-adjusted social beings by passing successfully through seven stages, from infantile dependence to adult maturity and interpersonal competence. Some individuals fail to attain the highest levels of personal development: their development stops at an intermediate stage, and they consequently behave in relatively immature ways. According to Warren, juvenile delinquents are usually found in three of the lowest levels of maturity. For example, some are easily led by peers into misbehavior, whereas others have great difficulty conforming to reasonable demands of authority figures.

The I-Levels model is faulty in some respects (Gibbons, 1970). For example, Warren did not adequately compare nondelinquents with offenders in terms of interpersonal competence. Moreover, the validity of the scheme is suspect. Investigators have tried to assign delinquents to Warren's typology through the use of personality tests or inventories, but have generally failed to obtain results consistent with I-Levels diagnoses based on clinical judgment.

Another psychological typology rests on felons' Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory scores (Megargee et al.). This typology can be useful in correctional programs, but many nonoffenders would probably exhibit psychological profiles similar to those that have been found among prisoners.

Finally, a number of psychiatrists have drawn upon their clinical experiences with offenders to create less formal typologies of lawbreakers. These descriptive typologies of murderers, sex offenders, and other kinds of criminals usually emphasize forms of psychological maladjustment that are said to differentiate criminal types.

Inmate social role typologies. Existential types noted among inmates of both juvenile correctional institutions and adult facilities have sometimes served as the basis of offender typologies. Proponents of this approach argue that these types parallel behavior patterns among lawbreakers at large.

In this tradition, Clarence Schrag reported that male prisoners are labeled in inmate argot as "square Johns," "right guys," "outlaws," or "politicians," according to the nature of their relationships with fellow prisoners (pp. 346356). Loyalty to other inmates is the decisive variable: thus, the "right guy" is faithful to his peers and hostile toward guards and other authority figures, whereas the "square John" is an alien in the convict social system. Schrag also contended that the criminal records and other characteristics of prisoners vary predictably with their position in the inmate role system.

In fact, however, there is only a relatively loose fit between this inmate typology and the real world. Peter Garabedian conducted research in the same prison from which Schrag's conclusions were derived. Garabedian assigned inmates to role types on the basis of their responses to an attitude questionnaire containing statements designed to reflect social roles. Significantly, he found that about one-third of the sample was unclassifiable through this procedure and that the correlations between offender characteristics and social roles were relatively weak.

Robert Leger studied inmate social categories as well. Using Garabedian's attitude questionnaire to identify inmate role types, Leger asked prisoners to indicate their own type. Additionally, he queried guards concerning prisoner roles, and included social background information on inmates as another measure of role. These techniques did not consistently assign particular individuals to a single type, nor did they agree on the total number of prisoners within each role.

Sociological typologies. The state and federal criminal codes represent a typology into which lawbreakers might be placed. For example, offenders could be classified on the basis of the crime with which they are currently charged. However, criminal codes do not meet the parsimony criterion; in addition, offenders violate different laws over time, which challenges the requirement of mutual exclusivity.

Sociological criminologists have attempted to overcome such problems with legal codes by developing offender typologies that assign persons who engage in similar collections of offenses to particular criminal behavior systems, role careers, or criminal behavior patterns. Typological efforts have also sought to discover offender groupings whose members share social background factors and causal experiences. In short, criminologists have tried to identify sociologically meaningful types.

One of these sociological typologies was constructed by Marshall Clinard and Richard Quinney, who used both offense-and person-centered criteria to define nine criminal behavior systems, including those involving violent personal criminal behavior, public-order criminal behavior, and occasional property criminal behavior (pp. 1421). They also discussed the criminal careers of offenders who fell into these groupings, implying that individuals in fact specialize to some degree.

Daniel Glaser has also offered a typological description of offenders. He identified ten offender patterns delimited by "offense descriptive variables" and "career commitment variables." Among his types, the "adolescent recapitulator" engages in an assortment of offenses; his criminality reflects a failure to assume a stable adult role. Glaser's "vocational predators" pursue crime as a livelihood. In this typology, drug addicts constitute another category, that of "addicted performers" (pp. 2766).

Glaser's scheme exhibits a number of flaws. First, it omits certain offenders, such as political criminals involved in political protest, and perpetrators of relatively petty offenses that are sometimes termed folk crimesfor example, traffic violations or fish and game law violations. Second, the adolescent recapitulator and certain other types are based on causal processes separating these offenders, rather than on their offense patterns and criminal careers. Third, although his descriptions of the types provide considerable detail consistent with much research on lawbreakers, Glaser's typology does not spell out the identifying characteristics of the offender categories with sufficient precision; one would be hard put to assign a population of actual offenders to these types.

Don Gibbons developed detailed and comprehensive typologies for both juvenile delinquents and adult offenders (1965, pp. 75125; 1979, pp. 8592). These typologies establish offender categories on the basis of the offenses in which the person is currently involved, his or her criminal career or prior criminal record, and the self-concept and role-related attitudes of the lawbreaker. For instance, one adult offender type, the "naïve check forger," writes bad checks on his or her own bank account, shows little criminal skill, views himself or herself as a noncriminal, and expresses such views as "you can't kill anyone with a fountain pen." Some of Gibbons's types rest on research findings reported by criminologists: Edwin Lemert's study of naïve check forgers provided some of the information on which Gibbons based this type description. Other types are grounded in criminological theory. In all, Gibbons established nine delinquent and fifteen adult offender categories.

What portion of the offender population falls within these types? Although no research has directly investigated the juvenile typology, the available data seem inconsistent with Gibbons's type descriptions (Gibbons and Krohn). The most striking evidence on delinquent behavior emphasizes its transitory or episodic character. Self-reported or so-called hidden delinquents most commonly indicate that they have been involved in infrequent and petty acts of lawbreaking, while juvenile offenders who turn up in the juvenile justice system often engage in numerous illegal acts rather than a few forms of lawbreaking. Researchers have been able to identify some of the latter as "serious and/or violent offenders" or as "chronic delinquents," but have not been able to make finer distinctions among them (Loeber, Farrington, and Waschbusch). In short, the delinquency typology posits more patterning of behavior among juvenile offenders than actually exists.

Gibbons's adult offender typology has been directly examined, and, as will be presently shown, other studies of offenders that bear on the question of empirical congruence are also relevant to this analysis.

Clayton Hartjen and Gibbons asked county probation officers to sort probationers into Gibbons's typology categories. The raters used abridged typological profiles of offenders; moreover, groups of three officers acted as independent judges who read the probationers' case files in order to determine to which types, if any, these persons belonged. Slightly less than half of the probationers were assigned to a type, although Hartjen subsequently placed most of the unassigned cases into seven ad hoc groups.

James McKenna also studied Gibbons's adult offender typology. Having examined their arrest records, he classified inmates in a state correctional institution into twelve offender types. McKenna then sought to determine whether the combinations of characteristics said to differentiate types actually existed among offenders. In only one of the twelve types did the hypothesized pattern of behavior and social-psychological characteristics emerge; that is, the vast majority of prisoners assigned to a particular type did not consistently exhibit similar attitudes and other differentiating features. These findings indicate that many real-life offenders cannot be assigned with precision in existing criminal typologies.

Other research studies as well have raised doubts about the accuracy of offender typologies. Joan Petersilia, Peter Greenwood, and Marvin Lavin studied forty-nine individuals serving prison terms for armed robbery. Their average age was thirty-nine, and thus most had been criminally active for some years. When these offenders were asked the number of times they had committed any of nine specific crimes since becoming involved in lawbreaking, they confessed to more than 10,000 offenses, or an average of 214 per person. Even more striking was the diversity of offenses: 3,620 drug sales, 2,331 burglaries, 1,492 automobile thefts, 995 forgeries, 993 major thefts, and 855 robberies. This finding undermines the assumption of offense specialization among lawbreakers and seriously challenges most offender typologies.

Another study by Mark Peterson, Harriet Braker, and Suzanne Polich involved over six hundred prison inmates who were asked to indicate the number and kinds of crimes they had committed during the three years prior to their present incarceration. For each type of crime, most of those who reported doing it said they did so infrequently, but a few of them confessed to engaging in the crime repeatedly. The researchers concluded that there are two major kinds of offenders: occasional criminals and broadly active ones. Few prisoners claimed to have committed a single crime at a high rate; thus there were few crime specialists in prison.

In still another investigation, Jan and Marcia Chaiken studied 2,200 jail and prison inmates in three states who were given a lengthy questionnaire that included self-report crime items. They were then asked to report the number of times they had committed robberies, assaults, burglaries, forgeries, frauds and thefts, and drug deals. About 13 percent of them said they had committed none of the offenses in the previous two years, while the rest reported involvement in one or more of the offenses, but most commonly, at relatively low rates. Also, while a sizable minority of the prisoners admitted having frequently committed one or more crimes prior to incarceration, most of them reported having been involved in crime-switching, rather than crime specialization.

Female offenders. Until relatively recently, criminologists paid relatively little attention to types of juvenile or adult female offenders. An implicit assumption has been that most female delinquents come to the attention of the police or the juvenile court, either because of minor misbehavior or sexual promiscuity. Similarly, a common presumption has been that many adult women offenders are petty thieves such as shoplifters while others have been involved in domestic violence, often directed at their common law or legal spouses.

However, in recent years, investigators have begun to examine female lawbreaking in more detail. In particular, considerable attention has focused on the different routes or pathways through which women enter into lawbreaking. One case in point is Eleanor Miller's research on women who have been involved in "street hustling," that is, a pattern of property crimes, drug use, and prostitution. She reported that there are four pathways that lead to street hustling. Mary Gilfus has provided parallel findings regarding women who have been involved in street crime. Similarly, Kathleen Daly has sorted female felons into several types, based on the kinds of offenses they have committed and their relationships' with spouses, boyfriends, and other associates. Then, too, investigators have directed attention at females who have been involved in homicides. Taken together, these studies indicate that there are a number of patterns or types that are involved in female criminality.

The future of typologies in criminological investigation

Criminologists will probably continue to endeavor to classify and categorize forms of crime and kinds of offenders despite the numerous problems identified above. Classification systems that sort offenders or crimes into relatively homogeneous categories alert observers to broad groupings of lawbreakers or offenses. These typological characterizations constitute benchmarks against which actual offenders or criminal incidents can be compared. In addition, typologies are useful in developing principles of correctional intervention in that they indicate the need for differential treatment, that is, intervention matched to the offender.

The population of offenders includes a large number of persons who do not fit existing typologies. Behavioral diversity among lawbreakers, rather than offense specialization, suggests that a loose fit will continue to exist between typological categories and actual offenders, with many of the latter falling outside of the classificatory scheme. Accordingly, future efforts will probably focus on patterns of crimes.

Several important steps have been taken in this direction. For example, Thomas Reppetto's study of burglary indicated that particular cases of burglary tend to resemble one another closely in terms of crime techniques employed, objects stolen in the burglaries, and so on. More generally, Weisburd, Wheeler, Waring, and Bode examined a number of federal offenders who had been convicted variously of antitrust violations, securities fraud, mail fraud, false claims, bribery, tax fraud, credit fraud, and bank embezzlement. They indicated that these offenses could be combined into three relatively distinct types in terms of offense complexity and the degree of harm to victims. Finally, Farr and Gibbons have developed a comprehensive typology of crime forms: organizational crime, organized crime, workplace crime, "street crime," social protest crime, violent crime, and folk/mundane crime. While a number of these crime patterns have been noted by others in the criminological literature, Farr and Gibbons have provided detailed and explicit accounts of the distinguishing features of each of these crime forms. More work of this kind is in order.

Don C. Gibbons

See also Crime: Definition; Criminal Careers; Organized Crime; Prediction of Crime and Recidivism; Sexual Predators; Victimless Crime; Violence.


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