Varying Theories on Crime

Many theories have been developed to explain criminal behavior. While some theories are not as common, others have evolved and are used in many criminal studies today. Modern criminologists combine the most germane aspects of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and biological theories to advance their understanding of criminal behavior.

Criminal Behavior Theories

Professionals in this field study the factors that contribute to criminal activities, make relevant policy recommendations and draw conclusions based on those assessments.

Historical Philosophies

Though crime studies have advanced beyond its field-specific foundations, the core ideas of these early philosophies are still applied to current theories. As examples:

  • Classical Theory: Classical theorists believe that punishment can deter people from committing criminal acts.
  • Marxism/Conflict Theory: Conflict theorists believe that capitalist societies create social and economic environments that facilitate crime.
  • Biological Positivism: Biological positivists believe that certain biological and mental traits present at birth make people more prone to crime.
  • Sociological Theory: Sociological theorists believe that a person’s social status within family, academia, and society are determinants of criminal behavior.
  • Psychological Theory: explain criminal behavior, in part, as factors affecting individuals such as negative childhood experiences, or incomplete cognitive development.
  • Anthropological Theory: explain criminal behavior derived from more atavistic reasoning (e.g. physical appearance – physiological differences based on the Italian School of Criminology and criminologists like Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri, and Ralfaele Garofalo).

Current Theories

Current theories retain the essence of their roots while expanding beyond antiquated or limiting concepts. There are dozens of existing theories, some more distinguished than others.

Rational Choice Theory, founded in Classical Theory, cites three “actors” (rational, predestined, and victimized) as the models for criminal behavior.

  • The Rational Actor chooses to commit crimes, which can be prevented by stringent punishments
  • The Predestined Actor cannot control their urges and are encouraged by their environment to commit crimes
  • The Victimized Actor is the victim of an unequal society; however, the society can be reformed via legislation

Contemporary Trait Theory’s origins are in Biological Positivism and claims that criminality is the product of abnormal biological or physical traits. According to this theory, there is a link between behavior patterns and chemical changes in the brain and nervous system. Further, each criminal has a unique set of characteristics that can be used to explain behavior. According to Trait Theory, criminal tendencies can be:

  • Inherited
  • Neurological problems
  • Blood-chemistry disorders that heighten anti-social activity

Within the realm of Contemporary Trait Theory is Psychodynamic Trait Theory, which was originated by Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, we are comprised of the id, ego, and super-ego:

  • The id is a person’s primitive side governing need for food and sleep.
  • The ego controls the id by setting up boundaries.
  • The super-ego judges situations through morality.

According to Psychodynamic Trait Theory, criminals have damaged egos. When the ego loses control, the id takes over. Immaturity, lack of social skills, and being excessively dependent are indicators of a damaged ego.

Social Structure Theory originating in Sociological Theory takes a different stance begging the question that if biologic factors explain crimes, then why does most crime take place in bad neighborhoods? Focal points of this theory are:

  • Urban conditions influence crime rates. Areas with high unemployment, low-performing and underfunded schools, or citizens with low socioeconomic status are more likely to produce criminals.
  • Conflict arises between people’s goals and the means used to obtain them. Criminals take whichever approach is easier regardless of its legality.
  • Criminal behavior is an expression of conformity to lower-class subculture values and traditions; it is not a rebellion against traditional society as some would think.

Social Conflict Theory’s foundations lie in Marxism/Conflict Theory. The prevailing belief is that a person, group, or institution can influence and control others. Criminals are seen as a political concept intended to protect the upper class at the expense of the lower. Concerns of this theory are:

  • The role of government in creating a criminogenic (tending to produce crime) environment.
  • The relationship between a capitalist, free enterprise economy and crime rates.
  • The prevalence of bias in the justice system.

Modern Approaches

While there are many other field-specific theories that aim to explain crime, the most modern approaches seem to lean toward attributing criminal behavior to genetics.

The Prevalence of Genetics, neurobiology and criminal behavior

Due to perceived racial bias in previous studies, genetics have been left out of the theoretical equation for analyzing and interpreting crime for the past 20 years by most involved in criminological studies. Assessment of social causes such as addictive tendencies, access to weaponry, and poverty were almost exclusively at the forefront of interpreting criminal activities. However, thanks to human genome sequencing, up-and-coming criminologists are now attempting to understand how genes can increase the risk of committing crimes and whether or not such tendencies can be inherited.

Scientists are quick to warn that social or environmental factors play a meaningful role in whether or not genetic crime-contributors will ever be triggered; however, studies have revealed compelling information:

  • Twin and sibling studies showed that for children not exposed to environmental risk factors, genetics did not play a role in violent behavior; though, for children exposed to eight or more risk factors, genetics accounted for 80% of their violence.
  • Adoptees whose biological parents broke the law were considerably more likely to follow a similar pattern of criminal behavior.
  • In a long-term study of 1,000 babies, children who demonstrated less self-control at three were more likely to commit crimes 30 years later.

Despite this, criminologists reassure that there is no such thing as a “crime gene”; rather, traits that are linked to aggressive or antisocial behavior that could lead to crime in certain environments are the subject of research.

Future studies in these areas could lead to increasingly complex questions in policy development including whether or not genetics should play a role in the development or rehabilitation programs or if genetic tendencies should be factored into sentencing criminals.

Determining what influences an individual to commit a crime requires complex analysis. Various academic fields contribute relevant theories that must be understood for criminologists to advance their understanding of why certain types of people commit certain types of crimes. Regis University offers an online Master of Science in Criminology online or on campus designed to give graduates tools to evaluate and study criminal behavior.

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