Read Me First (CJ Specific) - University of Phoenix

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Week Two Read Me First

Theories of Criminal Behavior


In Week Two, you focus on crime causation. Six broad categories explain criminal behavior: rational choice theory, trait theories, social structure theories, social process theories, social conflict theory, and developmental theories. With each of these theory groups, your objective is to understand the main principles. The trait theory group, for example, contains specific theories about chemical and environmental precursors of crime, hormones and criminality, weather and crime, and genetics and crime. Next, you consider policy implications for each group and programs that developed from them.

When reviewing criminological theories remember that each theory contains strengths and weaknesses in relation to explaining crime. Seek out these strengths and weaknesses and begin to formulate thoughts concerning which theory is better at explaining specific crime types.

This Week in Relation to the Course

In Week Two, you examine various explanations for criminal behavior. Theories range from nonscientific to scientific and from preclassical to sociological. First, you identify classical, biological, and psychological theories of criminal behavior. The next group of theories is sociological in nature: social structural, social process, social conflict, and developmental theories.

Discussion of a Key Point, Thread, or Objective

You begin Week Two by exploring biological and psychological theories about crime. Generally, biologists, medical personnel, and psychologists are interested in the question about why some individuals are more likely than others to commit crime. In contrast, sociologists generally want to know why certain groups of people are more likely to commit crime or why crime is more common in certain locations.

There have always been explanations for crime. In the ancient world, criminal behavior was often attributed to acts of gods or demonic forces. In the medieval world, religious views dominated criminological thought. It remained that way until the 1700s, when reformers such as Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, started to be heard. Today, they are known as the founders of the classical school of criminology. It is important that you review the reforms they advocated. Many of their proposals were enacted and still exist today. Classical theory, with its more modern updates—rational-choice theory and deterrence theory—has become the dominant perspective of the criminal justice system today.

Positivism began in the 1800s and introduced the idea that human behavior had causes and effects. This meant that individuals might think they are in full control of their actions, but their behavior was really determined by forces beyond their control. Crime, being an effect, had a cause and it was the duty of the scientist to find it. Classical theorists had problems with this line of thought, because classical theory is based on the belief that criminals are responsible for their actions. Positivism says that criminal behavior is caused by factors that the criminal does not control.

Early biologists, such as Cesare Lombroso, began looking at the physical attributes of people and tried to link those attributes to criminal behavior. Lombroso was looking for signs of primitiveness, as indicated by his theory of atavism. Others looked at phrenology, or body types, for the answers. Biologists still look for answers today, but they are looking at genes and chromosomes, neurochemical mechanisms, diet and nutrition, and complications during pregnancy and birth.

Psychologists shift the focus from physical features to problems in the development of an individual’s personality. Famous psychologists include Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Some psychologists have tried to use IQ tests as an explanation for crime. Other psychologists are working on issues of temperament and personality type and how those issues relate to crime.

Sociological-based theories seek to explain crime by focusing on how society is organized. There is no assumption that there is anything wrong with the people who commit crime, in the sense that they are mentally ill. An early advocate of the crime-is-normal viewpoint was Emile Durkheim. Subsequently, sociologists at the University of Chicago began to look at types of communities and found that some appeared to be socially disorganized and prone to criminal behavior. The idea of trying to classify different types of communities is known as the ecological approach.

Other sociologists, such as Robert Merton, examined the social situation of the poor. These were people who found themselves exposed to the same cultural goals for economic success as everyone else, but who had little chance of achieving those goals through approved means. According to Merton, this structural situation created a great deal of strain for poverty-stricken people and produced a variety of adaptations or types of responses.

Others, such as Robert Agnew, took Merton’s anomie theory and broadened it to a general strain theory. Others focused on the subcultures formed by the structure of society and examined their norms and values. Some of these subcultures had quite deviant, if not criminal, lifestyles associated with them. Marvin Wolfgang took the idea of subculture and its different values and norms and suggested that some subcultures supported a subculture of violence.

Social process theories emphasize social processes. They focus on the nature of the interaction occurring in society. Structural theories explain why subcultures form and describe the attitudes and feelings that develop within them to promote criminality. Social process theories, such as learning theory, explain the mechanisms by which people come to accept these views and why criminal behavior results. One of the earliest of the learning theories was Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory. Other people, including some psychologists, who advanced these ideas were Daniel Glaser, Albert Bandura, Robert Burgess, and Ronald Akers.

One interesting question raised by social process theorists is why more people do not commit crime. This reverse line of thought led to theories about inner and outer containments that help prevent delinquency and the bonds that you develop with society. Much of the interest in this theory focuses on research concerning the family, schools, and religious experiences. More recently, researchers have examined the effects of low self-control and the amount of social controls placed on people and how these factors affect the occurrence of crime.

The social process theory, called labeling theory, examines the social reactions people have to crime. They study social reactions and how some people acquire the label of being a deviant, while for others, the label goes away. For those who have the misfortune to have a negative label, labeling theory also focuses on the long-term effects of these labels.

Conflict and radical theorists examine the mechanism that causes some people to turn to deviance, while others rise to power. In their view, the law is a tool used by the powerful to control the masses. Conflict, rather than consensus, is characteristic of society, but because some groups are more powerful than others, their agenda becomes law.

One of the newer practical developments in conflict theory is restorative justice. This is an attempt to restore the social bond that existed between the offender and the victim, rather than just to punish the offender, as is the case with the current criminal justice model.

Feminist theories of crime also fall into the category of social conflict. Typically, criminology has not focused on crime committed by females. Feminist criminology focuses on the role of masculinity and male dominance as important factors in street crime and victimization.

Developmental theories take a macro-level view of crime. For example, developmental theories focus on a group of traits that tend to lead to delinquency and deviant behavior. The life course and trajectory theories, for example, focus on a multitude of personal traits that lead to criminal behavior. Developmental theories look at self-control and analyze an individual’s ability to control personal impulses.

You also discuss some relevant crime prevention theories this week. Lifestyle and routine activities theories examine rates of victimization and indicate that certain types of lifestyles put people at greater risk of becoming victims. Routine activities theory suggests that particular activities in which people participate can also put them in greater jeopardy. Other theorists are looking at individual traits that make some people more likely to be victimized, like low self-control, lack of social relationships, childhood problems, or mental disorders. Other studies of victimization take a more broad view of victimization, noting the noneconomic consequences of being a victim.

Practical Applications and Questions

As you consider the array of theories about crime, try to think of ways in which they might be joined together into a more comprehensive theory. There are some dangers to that process, however, as the result may be what some criminological texts refer to as mush.

Consider which theories resonate with you. Do any of them make more sense to you than the others? Think about what it is that appeals to you. You may become aware of your own preferences, as well as your biases, in thinking about these theories.

How Tools, Readings, and Simulations Help Solidify Concepts

There are many theories about crime and crime and criminals have always stimulated controversy. This week, familiarize yourself with the theories. Read chapters 4–9, which provide an extensive overview of the theories. Also, the Films on Demand videos support the text and provide examples of how these theories explain criminal behavior.


This week, you covered the whole range of criminological theory. You began with preclassical theory and went through classical, biological, psychological, and sociological theories. Classical theory is the most prominent theory today in the criminal justice system, which includes rational choice.


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