Theoretical Perspectives to Understand and Explain Criminal Behavior

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...
Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (died 1875). See source website for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Elizabeth Hall 

The first theoretical perspectives on crime to be recognized originated around 1764 according to Siegel (2010), with the classical perspective.  Founded by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, the perspective holds that society can deter crime when the consequences of crime are absolute, harsh, and quickly administered.  They felt that people choose to commit crime after they considered the positive and negative aspects of the crime, and found that the positives outweigh the consequences. Modern classical theory is called choice theory.  This perspective was the major influence on our penal system for the next two hundred years, until late into the 19th century, giving way to positivism and the scientific method of studying human behavior and society.  It is from this positivism noted by August Comte, considered the founder of sociology, it is in this last stage that our current classifications of theoretical perspectives on crime have emerged.  These theories, grouped into four categories, which are; sociological theories, biological theories, psychological theories, and social-psychological theories, represent different causes of crime.  (Siegel, 2010)
The Sociological Theories
Karl Marx
Cover of Karl Marx
Sociological theories maintain that crime is a result of social and or cultural forces that are outside of any particular individual and are in existence before any criminal behavior is attempted or carried out.  The sociological theorists subdivide into two groups, structural and sub-cultural.  Structural theorists believe that certain groups or classes are not equal to others in their opportunities to achieve societal goals such as wealth, and power.  Some examples of these theories, according to Siegel (2010) stem from the Marxist/Conflict theory, founded by Karl Marx, Willem Bonger, Ralph Dahrendorf, and George Vold.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
This subset of theories states that the reason we have crime is class struggles, because our system of capitalism places emphasis on competition, wealth and power, thereby making crime inevitable as people compete for these values.  One modern theory subset is restorative justice, a system that encompasses a broad spectrum of “programs and practices” that mean that society recognizes and deals with making offenders accountable for their actions and to right the harms caused by their crimes, while also effectively, dealing with what victims ultimately need to move on as well.  Sometimes this entails victims’ families getting to talk to the offender about the incident, which allows for offender, community, and victim healing.  (Siegel, 2010)   
Another social structural theory subset is strain theory.  Strain theorists believe that because most people share similar values, but are not in equal in ability to obtain these values due to stratification of the socioeconomic classes. Emile Durkheim began the strain theory viewpoint with his concept of anomie, meaning societal rules of behavior including values, customs, and norms are broken or not working in times of fast-paced social transformations, or disasters like wartime or periods of food shortages.  Shifts in cultural values during extreme change, sow the seeds for social turmoil. Robert Merton applied Durkheim’s social ideas to the study of crime creating the theory of anomie.  This theory asserts that because legal means to obtain societal values are stratified among the classes, the strain that results from the lower classes inability to achieve these goals produces anomie.  (Siegel, 2008)
Another theory in this subset concerned with Durkheim’s work is the theory of differential opportunity discussed in their book Delinquency and Opportunity by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, notes (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006).  Published in 1960 this theory asserts that even though the lower class have the same values as the middle and upper classes and wish to succeed in a legal fashion are not able to because they are deprived of legal opportunity by society. It holds that people who grow up in the poverty-stricken congested decaying areas still desire middle class values and dreams, so crime is just a means to an end. This theory, like the sub-cultural theory is represented in our society by the rapid rise of gangs in our cities and suburbs.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
Sub-cultural theories or cultural deviance theories, rather, is the third leg of social structure theories resting on a combination of strain and social disorganization.  This theory is used to explain deteriorated neighborhoods and how the people living in them react to isolation from the middle and upper classes, and depravation due to economic inequities.  To escape the draining effect of frustration and disheartenment of their daily lives, the lower class people create sub-cultures with their own value systems, beliefs, and rules.  Where the upper and middle class value education, hard work, and in the middle class delayed gratification, the sub-cultures of the lower classed people value other things such as how tough a person is, or whether they take risks, or have “street smarts”.  According to Siegel (2010) this theory began in 1938 by Thorsten Sellin’s book Culture Conflict and Crime linking cultural adaptation to crime through the theory of conduct norms.  Sellin’s asserts that the sub-cultures maintain their own standards of rules and normal conduct for daily living. This led to Walter Miller’s focal concerns theory in 1958 stating that lower class focal concerns endorse criminal behavior.  According to Siegel (2010), focal concern conformity plays a principle role in the lives of lower class people and consist of the ability to cause trouble, physical and spiritual toughness, street savvy, excitement, fate, and autonomy.
In 1955, Albert Cohen developed the theory of deviant sub-cultures, which attests that when lower class youths cannot feasibly obtain the middle class success, they remonstrate against it, valuing the exact opposite of middle class success.  In our times, we can recognize this in the numbers of gangs in our society.  According to (Siegel, 2010) in describing this theory, it is our socialization process, which causes the formation of the deviant subculture.
The Biological Theories
Biological theorists believe that genetic influences, biochemical abnormalities, and neuropsychological reasons are the reasons for crime (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006).  These theories were founded on the premise of Cesare Lombroso’s work, which professed that criminals are born bad.  One of the theories relates that it is biochemical conditions such as diet, chemical and mineral influences, blood sugar, and hormonal influences are the reason for crime.  Biochemical theorists say that every person is different, and the way that our individual bodies react to influences within our own chemistry and the environmental factors cause criminals to behave antisocially.  (Siegel, 2010)
Other biological theorists conclude that it is neurological and physical anomalies, which cause people to commit crime.  According to Siegel (2010), violent offenders have been linked to damage “in the prefrontal lobes, thalamus, hypothalamus, medial temporal lobes, superior parietal and left angular gyrus areas of the brain”.  These defects can appear in many forms such as minimal brain dysfunction, learning disabilities, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, tumors, lesions, injuries, diseases such as epilepsy, and brain chemistry.  Some theorists have also linked genetics to crime, studying parental deviance and twin behavior.  Studies regarding parental deviance have found that there is some relevance to this theory but cannot prove that it is genetic and not upbringing causing the results.  This is the same with the twin studies because the reasons for the similarities might be due to the same upbringing.  (Siegel, 2010)
The Psychological Theories
Psychological crime theories infer that crime is the result of individual personality traits of the criminal.  There are two major theories, the psychodynamic theory, and cognitive theory.  The psychodynamic theorists think that, like Sigmund Freud’s theory, crime is caused by people with weak egos and superegos no control over their id, with antisocial tendencies, which will end up committing crime.  Freud believed that things that happened to us in our formative years affect people.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
Cognitive theory, founded by Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Titchener, and William James, operated on the presumption that it is our mental processes, and how individuals comprehend, and psychologically characterize the world around them.  It is because every individual processes the world around them differently, and that changes occur as we mature that this theory explains the aging out process effectively, and covers more areas of crime.  In modern cognitive theory there are several different areas theorists focus on, the moral development school of thought concerns itself with how individuals morally characterize themselves.  The humanistic view approaches theory, emphasizing self-awareness and feelings, while the information processing school focuses on how we process, code, gather, and employ information to make decisions.  (Siegel, 2010)
The Social-Psychological Theories
The group of theories labeled social-psychological theories attempts to provide a connection between the psychological, environmental, and social schools of thought.  They are also known as social process theories, representing the fact that these theorists believe that it is a process we go through that enables us to commit crimes. There are two groups of social process theory, separated by direct learning and control.  Social learning, labeling theory, control theory, and their subsets are what we consider social process theories.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
Differential association reinforcement theory, according to Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., and Nietzel, M.T. (2006), is a learning theory developed by Edwin H. Sutherland.  According to this theory, criminal behavior stems from social environments encouraging criminal behavior.  Furthered by B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning, the differential association reinforcement theory holds that crime is the result of operant conditioning, which is the reinforcement of the behavior that outweighs any consequences of the action, and modeling behavior.  This theory effectively explains why some people of affluence commit crimes, but lacks an explanation when it comes to violent impulsive behaviors, and why some people are more prone than others, to commit crimes at all.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
Social learning theorists believe that crime is the product of a process called behavior modeling according to Siegel (2010).  The most noted of these theorists is Albert Bandura, who studied children’s reactions to witnessing adult aggression to BoBo dolls.  He conducted a study, and proved that children learn aggressive behaviors just from watching adults behave aggressively.  This theory holds that observational learning is more successful than differential association, (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006).  These theorists believe that aggressive behavior is learned behavior, stemming from family interaction, environmental experiences, and the mass media.  (Siegel, 2010)
Labeling theory looks at the careers of criminals as being a product of disparaging societal relations and disgracing social encounters and the subjective nature of the law.  The key tenets of the theory are as follows: those who currently are making the laws bias the criminal natures of certain behaviors.  This means that what is considered to be a crime is only such because people label the behavior as a crime.  People are labeled as well as acts.  Whether the behavior is positive or negative, prejudiced explanation of behavior is required.  The theory also works off the assumption that once one is labeled, as for example, a pothead, meaning a person who smokes marijuana, the rest of their life will follow suit as a pothead with all of the social stigmatization that follows that association.  It also suggests that lawmakers can change what deems an act to be illegal, to suit their own needs, as was the case with marijuana. (Siegel, 2007)
Control theorists believe that people are naturally antisocial, unless taught not to be by other people.  The assumption is that some people never form adequate social bonds therefore never learn or adjust internally to acceptable behaviors.  They believe that socialization is the reason for crime and focus on why people choose not to commit crime.  Social control and containment theories are the subsets of control theory. 
Social control theory assumes that all people have the ability and drive to commit crime and that there are more than ample opportunities to commit crimes in modern society.  Travis Hirschi, according to Siegel (2010), makes a connection with the things that attach us to society such as our personal relationships.  His theory asserts that while all people are naturally predisposed to commit crime, it is the fear of what other people would think that prevents us all from becoming criminals.  In the absence of good moral relationships with people who would frown on criminal behavior, we are all susceptible to criminality.  (Siegel, 2010)
Our attachments are formed on four levels, attachment, which is explained, as our sensitivity to others is the first level.  Commitment to the conventions of society is another, which leads to involvement in societal activities, and leaves little time for criminal behavior as the third element.  The last element is belief in cultural and moral values of our cultures, which plays a large role in keeping our criminal tendencies at bay.  Hirschi used self-reporting questionnaires to prove this theory, and his findings were consistent.  (Siegel, 2010)
Containment theory deals with the ideas of self-concept and crime.  Even back to 1951, notes Siegel (2010), sociologists, such as Albert Reiss, were studying delinquents, concluding that they all seem to have “weak egos”.  Walter Reckless is the actual founder of the containment theory that proposes that it is public demands and societal rules controlling crime through external containment.  He felt that if a society has well defined behavioral rules, encourages moral standings, and is assimilated well, as long as there is positive reinforcement, crime rates should go down.  The theory explains why some law-abiding citizens in high crime areas choose to obey the law but fails to explain groups such as gangs that organize around criminality.  (Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T., 2006)
There are many theories of crime, and they affect our policies and laws every day from each of the schools of thought. The implications of sociological policy can be seen in action observing our welfare systems and in undertakings as the Chicago Project, which attempted to organize the lower class.  Examples of psychological theory include family therapy organizations, mental health facilities, and substance abuse facilities all over the nation.  Biological practitioners have addressed learning disabilities, lighting, issued mood-altering drugs such as lithium, controlled diets, and performed psychosurgeries.  The implications of the social-psychological theories have changed the way we as a society look at criminals. Social learning theories have changed the way we treat criminals, and the educational system has been altered immensely by these theories.  The Head Start program is a good example of these changes.  Control theory has implications in the development of diversion programs for youths to prevent criminality, and in the post criminality phase where criminals have to pay restitution.  It seems that of all the theories, the social-psychological theories are best suited to reduce recidivism and crime, because they incorporate the physical, mental, and environmental elements of society at the same time instead of trying to ignore certain aspects and concentrate on just one.  (Siegel, 2010)

Greene, E., Heibrun, K., Fortune, W.H., Nietzel, M.T. (2006).  Psychology and the Legal System (6th Ed.).  Florence, Kentucky.  Cengage Learning
Siegel, L. J. (2007).  Criminology: The Core.  Third Edition.  Belmont, Ca. Cengage Learning
Siegel, L.J. (2010).  Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies.  Tenth Edition.  Belmont:    
             Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Enhanced by Zemanta

This is


Post a Comment

All comments and feedback appreciated!

Criminology & Justice Headline Animator


Law Books




Serial Killers



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...