Self-defense>Criminal behavior>Criminological theories

↩ Back

Criminological theories


The following is an excerpt from one of my graduate research papers on criminological theory. I have included the references but have eliminated the footnotes to preclude anyone from submitting the paper in a college class. Why do people commit crimes? There must be a reason, or, is it that they it's just what criminals do.

Social structural theories

Social structural theories attempt to explain why people commit crimes as related to the social structure of society. They are macro theories that address the broader questions about differences across societies or among major groups in a society. Social structural theories involve factors that can affect the individual but are beyond the control of the individual to change. They attempt to relate the extent and distribution of crime and "Why do they do it?" to the social structure. Social structural theories do not simply try to locate individuals above or below one another in the social structure; they try to locate individuals in terms of their relationship to one another within the structure.

Social structural theorists do not agree over the causes of crime. Some believe crime can be linked to subcultures of crime, while others doubt even the existence of subcultures. Some feel crime is linked to social forces that can be changed through reform, while others, such as Marxist supporters, feel crime is linked to oppression in capitalist societies, which cannot be changed except through revolution.

Although Marx did not write specifically about criminal behavior, he was concerned with how social structure affected behavior. He felt that a capitalist two-class social structure, consisting of the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class (the proletariat), permitted the bourgeoisie to control and oppress the proletariat and thus affect their behavior. Marx felt the only way this oppression could change would be for the proletariat to revolt against the bourgeoisie. Bonger later applied Marx’s theory to criminal behavior by hypothesizing that the capitalistic social structure induces and encourages greed and selfishness, which then leads to criminal behavior.

Marxist supporters fall into two major groups. The first group is the instrumentalists, who view the political state as only and always an instrument of the capitalist state. The second group is the structuralists, who see the view the political state as having some "relative autonomy" and not totally under the domination of the ruling elite. 

Colvin and Pauly attempted to link structural-Marxism and behavior by postulating that workplace control structures affect the family control structure according to the parents’ locations within the workplace control structure. They found that parents controlled their children in the same ways they were being controlled at their jobs, but the researchers could not link class and behavior.

In 1988, Hagan analyzed interviews of 1,049 randomly selected Americans to determine how race and class position were related to the perception of criminal injustice. The data showed that blacks were significantly more likely than whites to perceive criminal injustice, but that class position conditioned their perceptions. Hagan concluded that class conflict does exist regarding criminal injustice. He felt his findings were important to Marxists because the data pointed out that class position was significant to the understanding of crime. However, he also felt the findings would be important to non-Marxists because, even if they did not agree that class injustice exists, they would agree that the perception of class injustice does indeed exist.

Social structural theories can be classified into two main types:
  • Type 1 theories. These theories ask how social structure explains the legal structure and social control mechanisms of society, such as social control theory, social bonding theory, conflict theory, and social disorganization theory. 
  • Type 2 theories. These theories attempt to explain how social structures affect individuals in terms of criminality and deviance, such as anomie theory and strain theory. 
These social structural theories are described as follows: 

Type 1 theories

Social control theory. This theory argues that people are motivated to obey the law by social controls but that they do not need any special motivation to violate the law—this occurs naturally in the absence of any social controls. Since social control theorists assume everyone would violate the law if they could get away with it, they concentrate on explaining why people do not commit crimes.

Social bonding theory. This theory proposes that delinquent acts result when a person’s bond (which is his or her attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs) to society is weakened or broken.

Conflict theory. This theory proposes that society is not held together by agreement or consensus on major values. Instead, it is held together by conflict, where groups are held together in a dynamic equilibrium of opposing group interests and efforts where power is the primary determinant of the outcome.

Type 2 theories

Theory of anomie. This theory proposes that criminal behavior was caused by a state of normlessness or lack of social regulation, where there was a disassociation between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal mean to those ends. In this state of normlessness, society places a strong emphasis on reaching goals but not on socially approved means of reaching those goals. Society promotes the ideal that there is equal opportunity for all to reach their goals, but in reality, the lower classes do not have an equal opportunity to reach their goals.

Social disorganization and general strain theories

The remaining Type 1 theory of social disorganization and the remaining Type 2 theory of general strain will now be discussed in detail. Some empirical tests of the two theories and social structural theories in general will be examined, along with some criticisms of the theories.

Social disorganization theory 

Social disorganization theory was first developed by Shaw and Mckay in their studies of juvenile delinquency in urban areas in the 1930s. It refers to the inability of local communities to realize the common values of their residents or solve their commonly experienced problems. 

Social disorganization proposes that social order, stability, and integration are conducive to conformity, while disorder and segregation facilitate crime and deviance. A social system is considered organized if it has an internal consensus on its norms and values, a strong cohesion among its members, and there is an orderly social interaction. A system is considered disorganized if there is a breakdown in social control, a disruption in its cohesion, or a lack of integration. This disorganization may lead to a higher rate of crime and deviance. Several empirical studies have tested the social disorganization theory.

Although not a definitive test of social disorganization theory, a 1989 empirical study of 238 localities in Great Britain by Sampson and Groves supported the theory. The study found that communities characterized by sparse friendship networks, unsupervised teenage peer groups, and low organizational participation had disproportionately high rates of crime and delinquency. The data supported the theory that low economic status, ethnic heterogeneity, residential mobility, and family disruption lead to community disorganization, which leads to increases in crime and delinquency rates. The researchers believed they demonstrated that social disorganization theory was relevant for explaining macro-level variations in crime rates.

In 1991, Gottfredson et al. conducted a study that combined two types of social disorganization research, (1) distribution of crime rates among social areas and (2) distribution of crime among individuals, into one study. They studied social area influences on the delinquent behavior of 3,729 adolescents who were clustered within diverse social areas (census block groups). The results showed that the level of affluence and education of the population of an area had no effect on social bonding or association with deviant peers and implied that social area and community characteristics have only a small effect on individual delinquent behavior. The study found that social areas have only a small effect on individual delinquent behavior, so it provided little support for social disorganization theory.

When people attempt to deal with social disorganization, it can cause strain. Merton first mentioned strain as a part of his theory of anomie where he found the discrepancy between aspirations and expectations causes strain on lower classes to use whatever means available to reach their goals, be they legal or illegal. Agnew used this concept of strain to develop a general strain theory, which states that strain comes from adaptation to stress. General strain theory posits that stress can come from many sources, such as from the blockage of pain-avoidance behavior, not just from discrepancies between aspirations and expectations. Agnew identified three types of deviance-producing strain: failure to achieve positively valued goals, removal of positively valued stimuli, and confrontation with negative stimuli. Several empirical studies have tested general strain theory.

A 1992 study by Agnew and White was the first test of general strain theory and it found support for the theory. The study used data from a sample of 1,380 New Jersey adolescents to test the effects of the theory on delinquency and drug use, using the measures of social control, differential association, and strain. It found that strain interacts with variables, such as interactions with delinquent friends and self-efficacy, and has a substantial effect on delinquency and a moderate effect on drug use.

General strain theory

General strain theory suggests that delinquent behavior enables adolescents to cope with socio-emotional problems generated by negative social relations. A 1996 study by Brezina used a factor analysis of the Youth in Transition survey of 2,213 national male public high school students to explore the ways that delinquency may enable adolescents to cope with the strain and its effectiveness in doing so. The results supported general strain theory, indicating that strain leads to a range of negative affective states, including feelings of anger and depression, and that delinquency represents a partially successful adaptation to strain.

Most etiological studies of the social structural theories of criminal behavior are unidirectional in structure. They look at crime as being caused by a variety of social factors but ignore the reciprocal influence of crime on those factors. A 1984 study by Thornberry and Christenson used a linear panel model to analyze data from the Philadelphia birth cohort of 1945 to assess the theoretical and empirical consequences associated with unidirectional explanations of criminal involvement as related to unemployment. The results showed that crime did not appear to be a simple product of unemployment. Instead, crime and unemployment appeared to influence each other mutually over time. The study suggested that criminal behavior should no longer be viewed as an outcome of social processes but should be viewed as an integral part of the processes where each influences the other over a person’s life span.

Some studies have been critical of social structural theories. Tittle and Villemez found that social class is almost irrelevant for criminality, but they reserved judgment about the general import of social class. Tittle analyzed available data and found that numerous theories that were developed on the assumption of class differences appear to be based on false premises. They found two problems with studies that attempt to demonstrate that the social status of individuals is inversely related to criminal behavior. First, methodological limitations undermine the generalizability, applicability, or validity of much of the data. Second, the data is less voluminous and comprehensive than is usually thought.

Empirical studies by Hagan and other researchers emphasized that the sociological focus on the ‘ultimate" structural causes of criminal behavior has impeded the formation of effective crime polices. Hagan felt that if structural criminology were pursued within the life course framework (which means that social events, such as crime, are linked to broad life trajectories that may be criminal or non-criminal in form), it might bring out new answers to the causes of crime.

Bursik pointed out that most of the problems with studies of social structure are recursive. They fail to consider the degree to which rates of crime and delinquency may affect a community’s capacity for social control.

Like other theories that attempt to explain why people commit crimes, social structural theories have both supporters and detractors. Like other theories, social structural theories appear to explain crime in certain circumstances, but they fail to explain it in all circumstances. Research has provided some support for social structural theories, but the relationships have been weak. General strain theory seems to have more empirical support than does social disorganization theory. For this reason, it appears that general strain theory is of more importance than social disorganization theories in explaining the causes of crime.

Social structural theories tend to make broad assumptions about crime while skimming over important differences among such crimes as organized crime, violent crime, and mundane crimes. It seems there would be more progress in understanding the social sources of crime if social structure theorists would concentrate on a particular type of crime and unite their theories into an overall general theory.


  • Agnew, R. (1985). A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency. Social Forces, 64, pp. 151-167.
  • Agnew, R. and White, H. R. (1992). An Empirical Test of General Strain Theory. Criminology, 30(4), pp. 475-500.
  • Akers, R. L. (1997). Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation. 2nd Edition. Los Angeles, California: Roxbury Publishing Company.
  • Brezina, T. (1996). Adapting to Strain: An Examination of Delinquent Coping Responses. Criminology, 34(1), pp. 39-60.
  • Bursik, R. J. (1988). Social Disorganization and Theories of Crime and Delinquency: Problems and Prospects. Criminology, 26, pp. 519-551.
  • Colvin, M. and Pauly, J. (1983). A Critique of Criminology: Toward an Integrated Structural-Marxist Theory of Delinquency Production. American Journal of Sociology, 89(3), pp. 513-551.
  • Gottfredson, D. C., McNeil III, R. J., and Gottfredson, G. D. (1991). Social Area Influences on Delinquency: A Multilevel Analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 28(2), pp. 197-226.
  • Hagan, J. (1988). Structural Criminology. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  • Jeffery, C. R. (1990). Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Sampson, R. J. and Groves, W. B. (1989). Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory. American Journal of Sociology, 94(4), pp. 774-802.
  • Tittle, C. R. and Villemez, W. J. (1977). Social Class and Criminality. Social Forces, 456, pp. 474-503.
  • Tittle, C. R., Villemez, W. J., and Smith, D. A. (1978). The Myth of Social Class and Criminality: An Empirical Assessment of the Empirical Evidence. American Sociological Review, 43, pp. 643-656.
  • Thornberry, T. P. and Christenson, R. L. (1984). Unemployment and Criminal Involvement: An Investigation of Reciprocal Causal Structures. American Sociological Review, 49, pp. 398-411. 
↩ Back

No comments: