Crime, Theories of

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Most accounts of the rise of criminological inquiry indicate that it had its beginnings in mid-nineteenth-century developments in Europe, including the work of Cesare Lombroso, an Italian prison physician, who argued that many criminals are atavists, that is, biological throwbacks to a human type, homo delinquens, that allegedly existed prior to the appearance of homo sapiens. Since the time of Lombroso and other early figures in criminology, the field has grown markedly, both in terms of the variety of scholars who have tried to uncover the causes of crime and also in terms of the diverse theories that have been produced by these persons (Gibbons 1994). Currently legal theorists, psychologists, economists, geographers, and representatives of other scholarly fields engage in criminological theorizing and research. There has also been renewed interest in sociobiological theorizing and investigation regarding criminality. Even so, the largest share of work has been and continues to be carried on by sociologists. Thus, criminology is frequently identified as a subfield of sociology (Gibbons 1979, 1994).

Although a few scholars have argued that crime should be defined as consisting of violations of basic human rights or for some other "social" conception, most criminologists opt for the legalistic view that crime and criminal behavior are identified by the criminal laws of nations, states, and local jurisdictions. Acts that are not prohibited or required by the criminal law are not crimes, however much they may offend some members of the community. Also, the reach of the criminal law in modern societies is very broad, involving a wide range of behavioral acts that vary not only in form but in severity as well. The criminal laws of various states and nations prohibit morally repugnant acts such as murder or incest, but they also prohibit less serious offenses such as vandalism, petty theft, and myriad other acts. Parenthetically, there is considerable controversy in modern America, both among criminologists and among members of the general public, as to whether certain kinds of behavior, such as marijuana use, various consensual sex acts between adults, or abortion, ought to be expunged from or brought into the criminal codes.

Persons of all ages violate criminal laws, although a number of forms of criminality are most frequent among persons in their teens or early twenties. Except for "status offense" violations such as running away, truancy, and the like, which apply only to juveniles (usually defined as persons under eighteen years of age), juvenile delinquency and adult criminality are defined by the same body of criminal statutes. However, criminologists have often constructed theories about delinquency separate from explanations of adult criminality. Although many theories of delinquency closely resemble those dealing with adult crime, some of the former are not paralleled by theories of adult criminality. In the discussion to follow, most attention is upon explanatory arguments about adult lawbreaking, but some mention is also made of causal arguments about juvenile crime.


Given the broad compass of the criminal law, and given the variety of different perspectives from which the phenomenon of crime has been addressed, it is little wonder that there are many theories of crime. Most of these theories center on the explanation of crime patterns and crime rates, or what might be termed "crime in the aggregate," or are pitched at the individual level and endeavor to identify factors that account for the involvement of specific individuals in lawbreaking conduct (Cressey 1951; Gibbons 1992, pp. 35–39)

These are related but analytically separate questions about the causes of crime. As Donald Cressey (1951) argued many years ago, an adequate account of criminality should contain two distinct but consistent aspects: First, a statement that explains the statistical distribution of criminal behavior in time and space (epidemiology), and second, a statement that identifies the process or processes by which persons come to engage in criminal behavior.

Statistical distributions of criminal behavior in time and space are usually presented in the form of crime rates of one kind or another. One of the most familiar of these is the index crime rate reported annually for cities, states, and other jurisdictions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The index crime rate is comprised of the number of reported cases of murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson per jurisdiction, expressed as a rate per 100,000 persons in that jurisdiction's population.

Many crime rate patterns are well known, including relatively high rates of violence in the United States as compared to other nations, state-by-state variations in forcible rape rates, regional variations in homicide and other crimes within the United States, and so forth. However, criminological scholars continue to be hampered in their efforts to account for variations in crime across various nations in the world by the lack of detailed data about lawbreaking in nations and regions other than the United States (although see van Dijk, Mayhew, and Killias 1990).

Criminologists have developed a number of theories or explanations for many crime rate variations. One case in point is Larry Baron and Murray Straus's (1987) investigation of rape rates for the fifty American states, in which they hypothesized that state-to-state variations in gender inequality, social disorganization (high divorce rates, low church attendance, and the like), pornography readership, and "cultural spillover" (authorized paddling of school children, etc.) are major influences on forcible rape. Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld's (1994) institutional anomie theory is another example of theorizing that focuses on crime rate variations. They argued that in present-day America, cultural pressures to accumulate money and other forms of wealth are joined to weak social controls arising from noneconomic elements of the social structure, principally the political system, along with religion, education, and family patterns. According to Messner and Rosenfeld, this pronounced emphasis on the accumulation of wealth and weak social restraints promotes high rates of instrumental criminal activity such as robbery, burglary, larceny, and auto theft.

Crime rates are important social indicators that reflect the quality of life in different regions, states, or areas. Additionally, theories that link various social factors to those rates provide considerable insight into the causes of lawbreaking. But, it is well to keep in mind that crime rates are the summary expression of illegal acts of individuals. Much of the time, the precise number of offenders who have carried out the reported offenses is unknown because individual law violators engage in varying numbers of crimes per year. Even so, crime rates summarize the illegal actions of individuals. Accordingly, theories of crime must ultimately deal with the processes by which these specific persons come to exhibit criminal behavior.

In practice, criminological theories that focus on crime rates and patterns often have had relatively little to say about the causes of individual behavior. For example, variations in income inequality from one place to another have been identified by criminologists as being related to rates of predatory property crime such as burglary, automobile theft, and larceny. Many of the studies that have reported this finding have had little to say about how income inequality, defined as the unequal distribution of income among an entire population of an area or locale, affects individuals. In short, explanations of crime rate variations often have failed to indicate how the explanatory variables they identify "get inside the heads of offenders," so to speak.

Although criminological theories about crime rates and crime patterns have often been developed independently of theories related to the processes by which specific persons come to exhibit criminal conduct, valid theories of these processes ought to have implications for the task of understanding the realities of individual criminal conduct. For example, if variations in gender inequality and levels of pornography are related to rates of forcible rape, it may be that males who carry out sexual assaults are also the individuals who most strongly approve of discrimination against women and who are avid consumers of pornography. In the same way, if income inequality bears a consistent relationship to rates of predatory crime, it may be that individual predators express strong feelings of "relative deprivation," that is, perceptions that they are economically disadvantaged and distressed about their situation. However, some additional factors may also have to be identified that determine which of the persons who oppose women's rights or who feel relatively deprived become involved in illegal conduct and which do not.


A number of arguments about crime patterns and the processes through which individuals get involved in lawbreaking are examined below. Before moving to these specific theories, however, two other general observations are in order. First, in criminology, as in sociology more generally, there is considerable disagreement regarding the nature of perspectives, theories, and hypotheses (as well as paradigms, frameworks, and other theoretical constructions). Even so, perspectives are often identified as broad and relatively unsystematic arguments; while theories are often described as sets of concepts, along with interconnected propositions that link the concepts together into an "explanatory package"; and hypotheses are specific research propositions derived from theories. In practice, however, many causal explanations that have been described as theories have been incomplete and also conceptually imprecise. Jack Gibbs (1985) has labeled such "theories" as being in "the discursive mode" rather than as formal theories. Discursive arguments are stated in everyday language and their underlying logic is often difficult to identify. According to Gibbs, because many criminological theories are discursive, precise predictions cannot be deduced from them, nor is it possible to subject predictions to empirical test, that is, to validation through research.

Many criminological theories involve relatively vague concepts, faulty underlying logic, and other problems. At the same time, it is possible to identify a number of general theoretical perspectives in criminology and to differentiate these from relatively formalized and precise theories. For example, many criminologists contend that American society is criminogenic because it involves social and economic features that appear to contribute heavily to criminality. However, this is a general perspective rather than a theory of crime in that it does not identify the full range of factors that contribute to lawbreaking, and it also lacks a set of explicit and interrelated propositions. By contrast, the income inequality argument more clearly qualifies as a causal theory, as does the formulation that links gender inequality, pornography readership, and certain other influences to forcible rape.

A few other comments are in order on theoretical perspectives in criminology. During most of the developmental history of criminology in the United States, from the early 1900s to the present, sociological criminologists voiced support for the criminogenic culture thesis that directs attention to social-structural factors thought to be responsible for criminality. Thus, this view might also be referred to as "mainstream criminology." Most criminologists have linked lawbreaking to major "rents and tears" in societal structure at the same time that most of them have assumed that these crime-producing features can be remedied or lessened through social and economic reforms of one kind or another (Gibbons 1992, 1994; Currie 1985).

In the 1970s, a markedly different perspective competed for attention. Often referred to as "radical-Marxist" or "critical" criminology, it asserted that the causes of crime arise out of societal characteristics that are inherent in corporate capitalism (Gibbons 1992, pp.122–130; Chambliss 1975; Quinney 1974, 1977). According to radical-Marxist criminologists, criminal laws serve the interests of the capitalist ruling class. In turn, the system of corporate capitalism over which the ruling class presides depends for its survival on the exploitation of the resources and people of other countries and the economic oppression of citizens within capitalist nations. These conditions create economic strains for many persons, contribute to the deterioration of family life, and drive many individuals into desperate acts of lawbreaking.

The radical-Marxist perspective received considerable attention in the 1970s. Those who criticized it claimed that it presented a one-dimensional, oversimplified account of the social sources of criminality. For example, while some criminal laws favor the interests of the owners of capital, many others serve broader social interests. Similarly, while some forms of crime may be related to economic problems, others are not.

A number of other alternative perspectives began to appear in criminology in the 1980s and 1990s, so that theorizing about crime and criminality has become even more diversified. These "new criminologies" (Gibbons 1994, pp. 151–175) include postmodernist viewpoints, feminist arguments, and a number of other strains of thought, all of which differ in a number of ways from "mainstream" criminology.

Although broad theorizing has continued to proliferate in criminology, another major trend in recent years has taken criminology in a different direction, toward relatively detailed theories specific to one or another form of crime and toward research investigations of those theories. Baron and Straus's (1987) formulation that links gender inequality, pornography, and specific flaws in the social control system is a case in point, as is Kenneth Polk's (1994) theorizing and research regarding the various "scenarios" of social interaction that culminate in lethal violence. Indeed, contemporary criminology has a rich accumulation of empirical evidence that can be drawn upon by those who seek to understand the nature and causes of criminality in modern societies.


The legal codes of the various states and of the federal government include hundreds of specific offenses, but the explanatory task is to develop a relatively small set of theories that make sense of this diverse collection of illegal activities.

In their response to this task, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990) have argued that virtually all forms of criminal activity, and many kinds of deviant behavior as well, share certain features in common: they are spontaneous, unplanned actions requiring little or no skill for their commission. Further, Gottfredson and Hirschi have claimed that lawbreakers rarely specialize in specific acts of criminality. They concluded that virtually all of these varying criminal and deviant acts can be accounted for by a single, general theory that asserts they are the work of persons who are characterized by low self-control. Accordingly, in their view, there is no need for schemes that classify types of crime or kinds of offenders or for separate theories to account for them.

However, many criminologists contend that there are relatively distinct forms of crime that differ from each other and also that the behavior of many criminals is relatively patterned. For example, some offenders concentrate their efforts upon larcenous acts while others of them are mainly involved in acts of violence.

A number of criminologists have tried to sort the diverse collection of illegal activities into a smaller number of sociologically meaningful groupings or crime forms (Farr and Gibbons 1990; Gibbons 1994). Some have singled out crude property crime, consisting of larceny, burglary, robbery, and kindred offenses, as one type of crime; others have placed homicide and assaultive acts into another crime type; while still others have treated forcible rape and other sexual offenses as yet another broad form of lawbreaking. Then, too, "white-collar" or organizational crime has often been singled out as a crime pattern (Sutherland 1949; Schrager and Short 1978; Coleman 1987), consisting in large part of criminal acts such as antitrust violations, financial fraud, and the like, carried on by corporations and other large organizations. "Organized crime" is still another type that has received a good deal of criminological attention. Some persons have also pointed to a collection of offenses that receive little visibility in the mass media and elsewhere and have termed these "folk crimes" (Ross 1960–1961, 1973) or "mundane crimes" (Gibbons 1983). Finally, "political crime" has been identified as a major pattern of lawbreaking (Turk 1982).

Although these groupings identify forms of lawbreaking that may differ from each other in important ways, it is also true that they are relatively crude in form in that the underlying dimensions or variables on which they are based have not been spelled out. Further, there is disagreement among criminologists as to the specific crimes that should be identified as instances of white-collar crime, mundane crime, or some other category.

Criminologists have also developed systems for sorting individual offenders into behavioral types (Gibbons 1965). Although related to crime classification efforts, categorization of lawbreakers into types is a separate activity. While it may be possible to identify groupings such as predatory property crime, it many not be true that individual offenders specialize in that form of crime, hence it may be incorrect to speak of "predatory offenders" as a type of criminal. Most offender classification systems have been deficient in one respect or another (Gibbons 1985), but the most serious flaw is that they are oversimplified. Researchers have discovered that many offenders engage in a fairly diverse collection of offenses over their criminal "careers" rather than being crime specialists such as "burglars," "robbers," or "drug dealers" (Chaiken and Chaiken 1982).


The number of theories regarding particular forms of crime is extensive, thus they cannot all be reviewed here (for a review of many of them, see Gibbons 1994). Additional to those theories mentioned previously, a sampling of the more important ones would include the routine activities explanation of predatory property crime. Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson (1979) contend that predatory property crime involves three major elements: the supply of motivated offenders, the supply of suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians. In other words, these crimes are carried out by persons with criminal motives, but the incidence of such offenses also depends upon the number of opportunities to burglarize homes or to rob persons. Also, the number of burglaries from one community to another is influenced by the degree to which residents in local areas act as guardians by maintaining surveillance over homes in their neighborhoods or by taking other crime-control steps. This theory takes note of the fact that criminal opportunities have increased in the United States in recent decades at the same time that capable guardianship has declined, due principally to changes in employment patterns. In particular, the number of families in which both adult members work during the day has grown markedly, as has the number of employed, single-parent families. Research evidence lends considerable support to this theory (Cohen and Felson 1979).

Research evidence also indicates that income inequality is related to predatory property crime (Braithwaite 1979; Carroll and Jackson 1983). Further, Leo Carroll and Pamela Jackson (1983) argue that the routine activities and income inequality arguments are interrelated. They suggest that the labor market trends identified in the former have led to increased crime opportunities, declines in guardianship, and heightened levels of income inequality.


While theories about crime patterns and rates have been developed principally by sociological criminologists, representatives of a number of disciplines have endeavored to identify factors and processes that explain the involvement or noninvolvement of specific individuals in lawbreaking. Three basic approaches can be noted: the biogenicsociobiogenic, psychogenic, and sociogenic orientations. Biogenic-sociobiogenic views attribute the genesis or causes of lawbreaking, entirely or in part, to constitutional and hereditary factors, while psychogenic perspectives often contend that lawbreakers exhibit personality problems to which their illegal conduct is a response. By contrast, sociologists have most often advanced sociological theories, arguing that criminal behavior is learned in a socialization process by individuals who are neither biologically nor psychologically flawed. Also, some persons have constructed theories that combine or integrate elements of these three approaches, one case being James Wilson and Richard Herrnstein's (1985) argument that the behavior of criminals has genetic and constitutional roots and that offenders tend to be more mesomorphic in body build, less intelligent, and more burdened with personality defects than their noncriminal peers. Wilson and Herrnstein also contend that various social factors such as unemployment, community influences, and the like play some part in criminality.

Three generalizations can be made about biological theories: First, conclusive evidence supporting these arguments has not yet been produced; second, biological factors cannot be ruled out on the basis of the empirical evidence currently on hand; and third, if biological factors are involved in criminality, they are probably intertwined with social and psychological influences (Trasler 1987; Fishbein 1990).

In the first half of the twentieth century, psychological arguments about criminals centered on claims that these persons were feebleminded, or somewhat later, that many of them were suffering from serious mental pathology of one sort or another. However, a number of reviews of the evidence, particularly that having to do with the alleged role of low intelligence or personality defects in criminality, turned up little or no support for such claims (Schuessler and Cressey 1950; Waldo and Dinitz 1967; Tennenbaum 1977).

Even so, there is a lingering suspicion among a number of criminologists that the criminal acts of at least some lawbreakers, including certain kinds of sexual offenders, can be attributed to faulty socialization and abberant personality patterns (Gibbons 1994). Additionally, some psychologists have argued that even though the broad theory that criminality is due to marked personality defects on the part of lawbreakers lacks support, it is nonetheless true that individual differences in the form of personality patterns must be incorporated into criminological theories (Andrews and Wormith 1989; Blackburn 1993; Andrews and Bonta 1998). Moreover, in the opinion of a number of sociological criminologists, the argument that individual differences make a difference, both in accounting for criminality and for conformity, is persuasive (Gibbons 1989, 1994). Personality dynamics play a part in the behavior patterns that individuals exhibit, thus such concepts as role and status are often not entirely adequate to account for the behavior of individuals. Lawbreaking is quite probably related to the psychic needs of individuals as well as social and economic influences that play upon them. On this point, Jack Katz (1988) has explored the personal meanings of homicidal acts, shoplifting, and a number of other kinds of criminality to the persons who have engaged in these acts.

Sutherland's theory of differential association (Sutherland, Cressey, and Luckenbill 1992, pp.88–90) has been one of the most influential sociological theories about the processes through which persons come to engage in criminality. Sutherland maintained that criminal behavior, including techniques of committing crime and conduct definitions favorable to lawbreaking activity, is learned in association with other persons. Many of the associations of persons involve face-to-face contact, but conduct definitions favoring criminality can be acquired indirectly from reference groups, that is, from persons who are important to individuals but with whom they do not directly associate. Sutherland also contended that associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity (the personal meaning or significance to individuals of particular social ties).

A very different theory, directed mainly at the explanation of juvenile delinquency, is that if, through faulty socialization, individuals fail to become bonded or connected to others (that is, if they do not develop positive attachments to adult persons such as parents or teachers), they will then be unlikely to refrain from misbehavior (Hirschi 1969). The emphasis in this argument is on the failure to acquire prosocial, nondelinquent sentiments rather than on the learning of antisocial ones. In this view, delinquency is the result of defective socialization rather than of socialization patterns through which criminal attitudes are learned. A more recent but related version of this argument, noted earlier in this essay, is that of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), who have claimed that criminality and other forms of deviance are most often engaged in by persons who are low on self-control.


Clearly, there is a wealth of differing arguments about the causes of crime and individual lawbreaking now in existence. Not surprisingly, then, a number of scholars have begun to ask whether it might be possible to amalgamate some or all of these varied lines of explanation into an integrated theory and thereby to develop a more powerful causal argument. Some criminologists have suggested that biological, psychological, and sociological contentions about crime all have some part to play in explaining crime and that, therefore, they should be integrated (Barak 1998). Others have proposed more limited forms of integration in which, for example, several sociological arguments might be merged into a single formulation (e.g., Tittle 1995; Braithwaite 1989) or in which psychological claims about lawbreaking might be linked or integrated with sociological ones. But to date, criminological investigators have not moved very far in the direction of sophisticated theoretical integrations. Further research on the interconnections between biological, psychological, and social factors in crime and criminal conduct will probably be required if integrative efforts are to bear fruit.

(see also: Criminology; Juvenile Delinquency Theories; Social Control)


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Don C. Gibbons