Theories in Criminology Unit

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Theoriesin Criminology


Given the nature of human beings, a majority of them are likely to acrime of any kind. Thus, understanding why people commit crimes orare likely against set regulations is an exciting area of study. Thescience of studying why people commit crimes or offend is classifiedas criminology. The field borrows a lot from other disciplines suchas sociology, biology, psychology, and philosophy among others inattempts to understand the motivation behind committing crimes andthe best way to address the situation or prevent criminal behavior.The paper provides an overview of the major theories in criminologythat include social learning theory, rational choice theory, labelingtheory, biological theory, and social disorganization theory amongothers.

Sociallearning theory

The Social learning theory (SCT) is a multidisciplinary approachdeveloped by Albert Bandura that was first suggested in 1963. Thetheory asserts that learning is a cognitive process that takes placein a social context and can be motivated by rewards or discouraged bypunishments. According to the theory, the learning process takesplace through observation or direct instruction. The theory is widelyapplied in several disciplines including education, developmentpsychology, management, and criminology. In criminology, the theoryhas made a significant contribution to the discipline and forms alarge part of the academic content in the field (Siegel 2012).

According to the theory, children learn criminal behavior from anearly age. The theory asserts that children or adults who hang aroundcriminals are likely to emulate such behavior. Such emulation ofbehavior takes place through a process known as differentialassociation, which is a mainstay of the theory. According to theconcept of differential association, individuals are likely toemulate behavior displayed by the people around them as a way offitting in that group. Initially, such behavior might appearrepulsive, but being around such an environment normalizes suchbehavior (Siegel 2012). Consequently, the theory contends thatcriminals should be weeded out of society and placed in incarcerationto avoid them influencing others. However, Edwin Sutherland’s(1947) principle states that being simply around criminal mindedpeople leads to the altering of behavior. On the contrary, thenature, characteristics, and balance of differential association arethe ones that affect one’s chances of taking up criminal conduct.

Another fundamental concept of the theory is differentialreinforcement. This concept asserts that rewards and punishmentsshape behaviors. The concept indicates that a given behavior isencouraged if it is rewarded and discouraged if it is punished. Thusthere are three conditions under which reinforcements are most likelyto occur. One is where behavior is frequently rewarded and rarelypunished. Second is where behavior is not rewarded and not punished.The other condition is where behavior is often punished and rarelyrewarded.

RationalChoice Theory

The rational choice theory also seeks to explain criminal behavior.The theory assumes that human beings are rational and thus applylogic in choosing behavior and acting in various ways. There are twomajor propositions of the theory: (1) individuals weigh consequencesof crime and compare potential positive, and negative outcomes and(2) criminals opt for criminal behavior “when benefits outweighcosts” (Gennarro, Maahs &amp Holmes 2011, p. 67). The potentialbenefits of criminal behavior need not be in a tangible form such asmoney or mobiles phones, but they can be intangible such as increasedrespect from fellow criminals or a sense of satisfaction oraccomplishment. According to this theory, the best way of deterringcriminal behavior is to increase the costs of such behavior such thatit will always outweigh the benefits. In such situations, logicalindividuals will opt to avoid criminal behavior due to the highercost compared to the benefits.


The labeling theory addresses both individual criminal behavior andthe impact of social reaction to criminal behaviors. The theoryasserts that to understand an offender`s behavior fully, he or shemust be studied in the context of the social environment. Theenvironment includes societal reactions to incidents ofrule-breaking. Scientists mainly from the Chicago School of sociologyargued that societies develop labels for individuals, and these tagsform a symbiotic relationship with people in that the labels aresourced from behavior while the labels themselves also influencebehavior. Thus, a person labeled as a deviant by society may acceptthat label and develop behavior that matches the tag (i.e.,internalizing the label).


Cesare Lombroso developed the biological theory of criminal behaviorin the nineteenth century. The theory has evolved into a class oftheories that tend to argue that criminal behavior is brought aboutby a combination of genetic factors and the social environment. Theevolutionary theory under this category asserts that some aspects ofcriminal behavior are genetic and passed down from one generation tothe next. Researchers have sought to identify specific genes inparticular individuals that predispose them to criminal conduct.Lombroso also introduced another angle to the biological theory bydeveloping the insane criminal model. The assertion made by thismodel is that some genetic conditions such as mental illness,epilepsy, and imbecilic may predispose one to criminal behavior dueto their conditions (Akers 2013). This issue is very relevant inmodern studies of criminology as contemporary news media indicatesthat insanity is a common plea in various criminal investigations andcourt cases.

SocialDisorganization Theory

The Social disorganization theory was developed by researchers atChicago School as an advancement on the earlier works of W. I. Thomasand Florian Znanieckis. The theory asserts that the ecology or theenvironment that individuals live in or their situations are likelyto influence their behavior. In simple terms, the place that onelives has an impact on their behavior (Burke 2013). The theory waswidely developed and confirmed by studies on youths from poorneighborhoods in America who tend to develop unique subcultures thatapprove and praise delinquency. As such, criminal behavior isnormalized in their thinking from an early age leading to criminalconduct.

SocialControl Theory

Travis Hirschideveloped the social control theory, which is also known as thesocial bond theory, in 1969. The theory posits that most people wouldcommit crimes if not for the controls that society places on itsmembers through various social institutions such as neighborhoods,schools, workplaces, social groups, friendships, churches, andfamilies. According to Hirschi, the theory is guided by four mainelements or bonds namely:

• Attachmentto other individuals

• Commitmentto following rules

•Involvement in typical social behaviors

• Belief -an essential value system

A breakdown inany of the four bonds or elements is likely to result in criminalconduct. Therefore, according to Hirschi, the best way to deter crimeis by maintaining strong social relationships (Akers 2013).


Robert Merton developed the social strain theory (also known asanomie theory or means-ends theory). In developing this theory,Merton argued that society is set up in a way that encouragesdeviance or criminal behavior. He believed that social expectationsand societal norms tend to place pressures on individuals. He citedthe case of the American dream, which can be elusive to many, but ispursued fervently by individuals regardless of their uniquepredispositions. To fit into the mainstream society, individuals haveto achieve these goals. Otherwise, they are forced into anothersubculture that accommodates people that have failed in attaining thestandards of the mainstream society. In most cases, such subculturescondone crime and other deviant behaviors.

Failure to attain set goals is just one of the three types of strainsidentified by the theory. Other strains include loss of positivestimuli and the presentation of negative stimuli. The loss ofpositive stimuli was likened to a case of loss of valued possessionsor the death of loved ones. Akers (2013) argues that in the event ofloss of positive stimuli, some individuals may turn to crime as ameans of hitting back. The presentation of negative stimuli happenswhen people undergo situations that do not sit well with them. Assuch, they may turn to crime as a way of mitigating or alleviatingsuch negative stimuli. For instance, one may turn to crime in anattempt to get back at bullies or people who hurt them.

Merton also developed a typology adaptation schedule. The table isaccompanied by symbols (+, X, -) with the first symbol indicating aperson`s relationship to norms and goals. The second symbol shows therelationship to standards and methods of attaining those goals.

• Conformity+ +

• Innovation+ –

• Ritualism-+

• Retreatism- –

• Rebellionxx

The “+”implies acceptance, “-” implies rejection while “x” impliesthe rejection of existing social values and substitution with others(Akers 2013).


The various criminal behaviors discussed above have their uniqueaspects. Given that different cases of criminal behavior areattributed to various factors, it implies that theories are notuniversally applicable to different criminal incidences. Nonetheless,the theories provide a good starting point of learning motivationsbehind criminal behavior and even allow prediction of criminalconduct.


Akers, R. (2013).Criminological theories: introduction and evaluation. NewYork: Routledge.

Burke, R. (2013).Introduction to criminological theory. New York: Routledge.

Ferell, J. &ampHoward, K. (2011). Cultural Criminology: Theories of Crime. SanFranscisco:


Gennarro, G., Maahs,J. &amp Holmes, K. (2011). Criminology: theory, research, andpolicy. New

York: Jones &ampBartlett Publishers.

Siegel, L. (2012).Criminology: theories, patterns, and typologies. New York:Cengage


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