Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 5.27.38 PMIt might not be CSI: Miami, but criminology is the real deal when it comes to thinking about the psychological impulses that cause people to commit crimes. I’m particularly fond of criminology as it goes far beyond just separating people into “good” and “bad” and utterly bypasses discrimination.

There many different theories of crime and this post focuses on the most prevalent and historically popular. Whether you think crime is caused by individuals or society, these theories will certainly open up new doors for your perspective. Bring yourself up to speed on the subject with this criminology made easy course.


1. Classical Theory

Where else would we start than with the classical theory? First conceived by Cesare Beccaria, the classical theory states that crime is a result of the risk-reward ratio leaning favorably towards “reward.” In other words, if the reward outweighs the risk, crime occurs. Of course, this theory also states that crime is a choice and that the choice must be a selfish one. A selfish choice combined with a low-risk reward forms the classical theory.

2. Strain Theory

This one is just like it sounds: crime is more likely to occur when a person is strained. However, this theory specifically cites an inability to achieve one’s goals or success as the source of crime-inducing strain. Further, it is not so much what the goal is – financial success, artistic success, etc. – but what the inability to achieve the goal causes a person to feel. If they feel anger instead of depression, they are naturally going to be more likely to commit crimes.

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3. Social Control / Power Control Theory

An interesting question to ask is, “Why isn’t there more crime?” If you think the answer to that question is that social policies and powerful governments keep people from committing crime, then you would be a supporter of the social/power control theory. This theory states that it is up to society to prevent crime, to enforce rules, to provide stable environments, etc. This is a somewhat pessimistic view of the human race (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong) as it believes that crime would be widespread if there was an absence of control or governance.

4. Routine Activity Theory

This theory is somewhat related to the social/power control theory. There are several key elements to this theory: a desirable goal that can be achieved through crime, a societal routine (ethnicity of U.S. presidents) and a rule or deterrent that is less effective when the routine is broken.

Here is a simpler way of looking at it: this theory states that crime “wants” to happen and that routine helps keep crime at bay, but when routine changes, we are exposed to new circumstances that re-ignite the desire for crime, especially when the new circumstances are not as well protected by law.

5. Critical Theory

This is a highly relevant theory in today’s American societal composition. The basics of this theory believe that even democracy is too imbalanced; that a very small number of law-makers and power-holders make the laws and, thus, the definition of crime. The people who commit crimes do not necessarily clash with the laws themselves, but with the law makers.

The truth behind this theory is that capitalism creates an environment provides special opportunities for the powerful to take advantage of; they can influence law makers, pay-off enforcement, etc. This is basically a theory of inequality. The impoverished are aware of the inequality and what causes it, so the crime that results here is partially of the revolutionary flavor.

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6. Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice theory is quite similar to the classical theory, but criminologists believe it is a furthering of the classical ideas.

As you might have guessed, this theory hinges on the belief that crime is rational. In other words, crime is a result of risk and reward (just like the classical theory). However, this theory goes on to state that if we raise the risk (harsher laws, harsher punishments, etc.), then the reward becomes off-balanced and this deters crime.

The rational choice theory also believes that time plays a role in crime. For example, if a punishment might not take effect until some point in the future, then this does not deter crime as much as an immediate punishment. Because of the highly psychological nature of this theory, proof or evidence or the degree to which this theory can be advanced relies on cooperation with – as fate would have it – “criminals.”

7. Social Disorganization Theory

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this theory is going. The social disorganization theory believes that if you have disorganized cities, towns, communities, etc., then you will have a surge in crime. You can see how this theory is a byproduct of the social/power control and rational theories. Basically, if proper infrastructure does not exist to fight crime, then crime will grow. Areas thought to be good examples of social disorganization are those whose populations are too high, with income too low, and (naturally) in a highly urban setting.

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8. Positivist Theory

This theory is the one that places almost all of the blame on the individual, but in a very, very unique way. For example, the positivist theory DOES NOT believe in the rational theory; individuals DO NOT make rational decisions to commit crime.

No, instead the positivist theory believes that some people are born predisposed toward crime. That’s right, crime is in their DNA. But it gets even more interesting. The positivist theory does not necessarily believe that individuals who are born “stupider” or “meaner” are the criminals; it has more to do with abnormalities. Someone could be extremely intelligent (too intelligent, if you catch my drift), or have a personality that isn’t well received by society, or some other biological difference that creates a psychological or sociological side-effect of a propensity for crime.

The core of this theory is science. It is science, not politics, that can get at the root of crime. For some free scientific insight, read this blog post on what it’s like being a forensic analyst.

9. Labeling Theory

This theory is straight-forward but quite unnerving. The labeling theory believes that if we label someone a criminal, they are more likely to become a criminal; if we label something a crime, it is more likely to be committed.

In other words, when someone commits a crime and they are convicted, they are then “officially” labeled a criminal and this becomes their role. They are a criminal, they are sent to prison, they are going to develop a criminal mindset and associate themselves with what we (society) have deemed “Criminal.”

10. Life Course Theory

The name says it all (or, rather, most of it): this theory believes that the likelihood of someone committing a crime can be traced along their life course. Crime is shaped by the events in out lives.

The two key events are transitory (short term) and trajectory (long term) events. It is believed that negative, transitory events can create a faster response toward crime, but that this can be more easily reversed, i.e. someone can escape from being named a “criminal.” But crime that results from trajectory events is much harder to reverse, and many believe it is impossible.

If you want to take your interest in criminal theory further, check out this awesome course on crime studies taught by criminal profiler and crime writer Chelsea Hoffman.

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