Criminology Theories: The Varied Reasons Why People Commit Crimes

criminology theoriesWhy do people commit crimes? From misdemeanors to violent felonies, some individuals step in to the criminal justice system and learn their lesson to never commit a crime again.  Others unfortunately become repeat offenders with a never ending rap sheet.  Environment obviously plays a huge role but it is only one of many factors. The study of crime and why some people can’t get away from it while others never have even a speeding ticket has been dissected for decades.

Particularly, the study of criminology targets why individuals commit crimes and why they behave in certain situations.  By understanding why a person commits a crime, one can develop ways to control crime or rehabilitate the criminal. There are many theories in criminology. Some attribute crime to the individual; they believe that an individual weighs the pros and cons and makes a conscious choice whether or not to commit a crime. Others believe it is the community’s responsibility to ensure that their citizens do not commit crime by offering them a safe and secure place in which to live. Some argue that some individuals have specific traits that will determine how they will react when put in certain negative conditions. Although varied in thought, everyone can agree that justice needs to be secured in a civilized society.

Challenge your perception of crime with Criminology Made Easy: A Simple Introduction to Criminology Theories.

Choice Theory – Choice theory is the belief that individuals choose to commit a crime, looking at the opportunities before them, weighing the benefit versus the punishment, and deciding whether to proceed or not. This cost-benefit analysis primarily focuses on the idea that we all have the choice to proceed with our actions. Because of the punishment involved, we are deterred from committing the crime.

Classical Theory – Similar to the choice theory, this theory suggests that people think before they proceed with criminal actions; that when one commits a crime, it is because the individual decided that it was advantageous to commit the crime.  The individual commits the crime from his own free will being well aware of the punishment.

This theory, along with choice theory, derived its basis from what John Locke penned “The Social Contract.” Locke proposed that all citizens are equal, and that there is an unwritten but voluntary contract between the state and its citizens, giving power to those in government and defining a framework of mutual rights and duties. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “the right of all sovereigns is derived from the consent of every one of those who are to be governed.” This way of thinking enforces the idea that we, as citizens, agree to follow the laws of the government in return for our protection and sustenance which is very different from early European authoritarianism.

Conflict Theory – On a different spin, conflict theory holds that crime results from the conflicts in society among the different social classes, and that laws actually arise from necessity as a result of conflict, rather than a general consensus. The fundamental causes of crime are the social and economic forces operating within society. The criminal justice system and criminal law are thought to be operating on behalf of rich and powerful social elites, with resulting policies aimed at controlling the poor. The criminal justice establishment aims at imposing standards of morality and good behavior created by the powerful on the whole of society. Focus is on separating the powerful from the have-nots who would steal from others and protecting themselves from physical attacks. In the process the legal rights of poor folks might be ignored. The middle class are also co-opted; they side with the elites rather the poor, thinking they might themselves rise to the top by supporting the status quo.

Thus, street crimes, even minor monetary ones are routinely punished quite severely, while large scale financial and business crimes are treated much more leniently. Theft of a television might receive a longer sentence than stealing millions through illegal business practices.

Critical Theory: Critical theory upholds the belief that a small few, the elite of the society, decide laws and the definition of crime; those who commit crimes disagree with the laws that were created to keep control of them.

Critical criminology sees crime as a product of oppression of workers, (particularly, the poorer sections) and less advantaged groups within society, such as women and ethnic minorities, are seen to be the most likely to suffer oppressive social relations based upon class division, sexism and racism. More simply, critical criminology may be defined as any criminological topic area that takes into account the contextual factors of crime or critiques topics covered in mainstream criminology.

criminologytheoriesLabeling Theory: Those who follow the labeling theory of criminology ascribe to the fact that an individual will become what he is labeled or what others expect him to become; the danger comes from calling a crime a crime and a criminal a criminal.

Labeling theory holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. The theory was prominent during the 1960s and 1970s, and some modified versions of the theory have developed and are still currently popular. Unwanted descriptors or categorizations – including terms related to deviance, disability or diagnosis of a mental disorder – may be rejected on the basis that they are merely “labels”, often with attempts to adopt a more constructive language in its place. A stigma is defined as a powerfully negative label that changes a person’s self-concept and social identity. (

Learn more about labels, especially in an ADD labeled world.

Life Course Theory – Life course theory was developed as a way to assess and analyze people’s lives within structural, social, and cultural contexts. The life course approach examines an individual’s life history and examines, for example, how early events influence future decisions and events such as marriage, divorce, engagement in crime, or disease incidence.

According to Wikipedia, life course theory focuses directly on the connection between individual lives and the historical and socioeconomic context in which these lives unfold. As a concept, a life course is defined as “a sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time.” These events and roles do not necessarily proceed in a given sequence, but rather constitute the sum total of the person’s actual experience.  Consequentially, the events in one’s life ultimately shapes their disposition towards or against a life of crime.

Positivist Theory – On the other side of the spectrum, the positivist rejects the idea that each individual makes a conscious, rational choice to commit a crime but rather, some individuals are low in intelligence, social acceptance, or some other way, and that causes them to commit crime.

This theory acts on the proposition that one who commits a crime cannot morally comprehend the wrongfulness of his actions in the same way individuals of average intelligence or who are socially accepted, etc are able to do so.  The mind of these individuals has been affected in a particular way and therefore does not have the capability to make a conscious, rational choice to obey the law.  Unfortunately a case can be made based on this theory regarding shootings on school campuses where students have murdered fellow students usually because of some type of bullying involved.

Routine Activity theory – Followers of the routine activity theory believe that crime is inevitable, and that if the target is attractive enough, crime will happen; effective measures must be in place to deter crime from happening.

Social Control Theory -Theorists believe it is society’s responsibility to maintain a certain degree of stability and certainly in an individual’s life, to make the rules and responsibilities clear, and to create other activities to thwart criminal activity.

Drawing on the tenets of Routine Activity theory, Social Control theory is especially important when analyzing crime in impoverished areas.  The effects of poverty on the likelihood of crime is no secret nor is it a new phenomenon.  When there is not enough food to eat or children are left alone at home while their parents work a second job, the seeds for crime have been planted and under this theory, it is society’s obligation to prevent crime from happening.  Various methods to provide children with social activities when their parents are unable to are very important in low-income neighborhoods.  Giving children an alternative to a life of crime is necessary under this theory of criminology.

A Common Goal

Each theory has its own basis to explain why individuals commit crimes but as you can see, some overlap.  Whatever the theory may be, the end goal of lessening the occurrence of all crimes is commonly shared.  Criminology theory assists us in understanding why people commit crimes and enables us to attempt various courses of action in an effort to achieve that goal.