Enhance your knowledge with our library

Crime Theories

Criminology is the body of knowledge regarding crime as a social phenomenon. Crime theory is the logical construction that attempts to explain this phenomenon. There are many crime theories dealing with a number of aspects of why crime exists such as; human behavior, societal influence, economic and environmental factors and learned behaviors. Theories have been researched, studied and researched over and over again by different scientists and criminologists since the 17th century. These theories can be both simple and complex, depending on the relationships of the factors being hypothesized. Crime theories are used every day in the criminal justice system and by all individuals when forming an opinion about a crime or the perpetrator. All the theories have their own distinct aspects and followers as well as skeptics.


Nature or nurture? This has been an age old debate amongst the scientific and criminal justice system for years. Scientific research has shown that both a person’s individual genetic makeup and their environment play significant roles in an individual’s criminality. Some experts, such as Caitlin Jones of the Rochester Institute of Technology, put forth the theory that “having a genetic predisposition for criminal behavior does not determine the actions of an individual, but if they are exposed to the right environment, then their chances are greater for engaging in criminal or anti-social behavior.”


The Psychology theory implies that one’s psychological make-up, whether low intelligence, stress or psychopathy, should take away their responsibility for criminal acts— has been debated, denied and accepted by different experts. The idea that if a person commits a crime, mentally disabled or not, they should be restrained so they do not perpetrate any other crimes, is a very valid one, say some experts. Dr. Michael J Hurd, a psychotherapist and author of the book Grow Up America!, has this to say about the debate, "Can we ever divorce mental health and responsibility (criminal or otherwise)?"


According to Michael D. Maltz of the University of Illinois at Chicago, “In studying the relationship between communities and crime, most researchers use either one of two methods: quantitative and cross-sectional, or qualitative and ethnographic. The former has the advantage of permitting the researcher to look for general relationships among a great number of community variables, but the nature of the interactions occurring within the communities cannot be discerned. The latter has the advantage of permitting the researcher to describe street-level interactions in a neighborhood and relate them to its characteristics, but by its nature ethnography can only investigate such interactions in a limited interval of time and space.” The Ecology theory was very popular in the 1920s and 1940s and was developed at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, the theory was used to explain “urban social change.”


Durkheim’s anomie theory in the late 1800s was the basis for the Strain theory. Anomie can be translated as deregulation. When deregulation occurs, regulation becomes inadequate and crime can occur due to the strain placed upon an individual. Strain is referenced by the friction and pain experienced by a person as they look for ways to meet their needs. 

There have been many Strain theories developed over the years, with the Messner and Rosenfeld’s Strain Theory, developed in 1994, being the latest of them. Their theory suggests “Their argument is not only that concern for economics has come to dominate our culture, but that the noneconomic institutions in society have tended to become subservient to the economy. For example, the entire educational system seems to have become driven by the job market (nobody wants to go to college just for the sake of education anymore), politicians get elected on the strength of the economy, and despite lip service to family values, executives are expected to uproot their families in service to corporate life. Goals other than material success (such as parenting, teaching, and serving the community) are just not important anymore.“ They theorize the cause of crime is anomie, and the American Dream fosters crime.


The father of American criminology, Sutherland (1883-1950), wrote on and purported the Learning theory or as he called it Differential Association theory in criminology. The basis of the theory was through his studies of white collar crime and professional theft. His research led him to believe that an individual’s social learning processes could turn anyone into a criminal—anytime, anywhere. He believed that “criminal behavior was learned; it is learned in the interaction with others; criminal behavior involves learning techniques, motives, drives and rationalizations and attitudes; the specific direction of motives and attitudes is learned from definitions of legal codes as favorable or unfavorable; a person becomes a criminal when there is excess of definitions favorable to violation of the law; differential associations vary in frequency , duration, priority and intensity; The process of learning criminal behavior involves all the mechanisms involved in any other learning; and finally, criminals must be differentiated from non-criminals.”


Gottsfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime has been an important one in the last decade. The theory explores the scope and limitation of behaviors against the casual effect of low self-control. Many other theorists believe human beings are dominated by forces at play within each individual and motives for crime range from instrumental needs, emotional rage, frustration or for the thrill or high they get. However, Briar and Pilavin in 1965, theorized “since most people are motivated to break laws at one time or another, a focus on motives does not explain who will commit criminal and delinquent acts.”


Labeling theories, which are many, put forth the idea that labeling and reacting to individual offenders as criminals has perpetuated negative results, deepening the delinquents behaviors and making the crime issue worse. Many believe that the criminal justice system is dangerous in that it has too much social control. These theorists argue that it’s not the harm that is caused by the crime that makes the act criminal, but the label that is conferred on the act. Theorist have been researching and studying the Labeling theory since Tannenbaum first introduced it in 1938. His argument was one that defining and segregating any individual for special treatment becomes a path to stimulating and evoking the very traits that are criminal to begin with.


The Conflict theory is one that is based upon the idea that the causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within each society. Also, introduced in this theory, is the thought that economic and social crime in the classes are not punished even-handily. William Chambliss, in his classic essay, The Saints and the Roughnecks, compares the punishment and labeling between two groups of adolescent’s crime. The lower class boys were harassed by local police and labeled delinquents and future criminals, while the upper class boy’s actions, which were equally as criminal, were said to be youthful indiscretions and a learning experience.


The Radical theories tend to lend themselves to the idea that crime and the criminal justice system are by-products of capitalism and view that the powerful and affluent use the criminal justice system to channel the poor into patterns of behavior that preserve their idealist agendas. Radical criminal theories have been revived of late and the Marxist approach has been skewed into one that relates to criminology, when, in fact, Marx had little or no interest in criminology. The Radical theory is viewed in the scientific community with much skepticism.


"I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig." -- Andrea Dworkin. This quote exhibits just one train of thought brought about by the inequality of females in many societies. The Feminist theory is one based on the criminal acts perpetrated by an individual female or group of females brought on by feelings of frustration, rage and persecution acerbated by the negative acts of the male gender. There are many skeptics and much denial of this theory. 


The most recent of the crime theories, the Postmodern theory, sets forth the point of view that crime is not only the result of the social interactions in an area, but of many factors of an individual’s situation and physical makeup. That each individual, no matter the circumstances is responsible for his or her criminal actions and that criminal behavior has caused them to turn their backs on the social norm which is set forth by society and the ruling government. The theory hopes to open new pathways to learning why and how individuals commit criminal acts and how it affects society as a whole.

 While all crime theories are devised to try to explain and understand criminal acts and the individuals that commit them, it is an ongoing science that’s validity is in the mind of the creator or believer. No one theory can define all crime, but can be used constructively to help each of us understand crime a little better and help the professional criminologists find new ways to deal with and eradicate criminal behavior.

("Legal information found on this page does not constitute legal advice.")

About Us

The Majlessi Law Firm is a distinguished and highly-ranked personal injury and wrongful death legal practice. The firm utilizes assertive litigation strategies to uphold consumer rights against corporations responsible for producing hazardous products that lead to injuries or fatalities, as well as individuals whose negligent or deliberate actions cause harm.

Support Office

The Majlessi Law Firm
11847 Gorham Ave. PH 403
Los Angeles, CA 90049
United States

(310) 724-6222