Criminological Theories And Their Application

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Criminology is a knowledge body that treats crimes as a social phenomenon. Criminological theories are important in understanding criminality. The latter term encompasses all the issues that involve law breaking, law making and reactions towards the process of breaking these laws. There is a unified sequence that is created by the latter mentioned processes. Criminology may also be defined as the process of studying the etiology, nature and extent of law breaking behavior. Given all the latter issues, then criminiology covers all the societal arrangements, group roles, structural issues in society and other dynamics affecting the group.

History and definition of criminology theories

Classical and choice theories

This school of thought began as early as the eighteenth century. One of the most notable figures associated with the classical schools at that time was Cesare Beccaria. His work and the work of many other criminologists influenced the criminal justice systems as we know it today. Classical theories were set aside for some years but this was later changed after the neo-classical movement began back in the nineteen eighties. At this point, criminologists began adopting positivism in their explanations while others also began embracing structural influences.

There are three main ideas that govern the classical school of thought and they are as follows

  • People’s freedom to choose
  • The ability to control choice
  • Certainty, swiftness and severity of punishment

The first aspect listed above is based on the fact that all human beings have the ability to make choices about their lives. This means that they have the free will to become greedy, jealous, thrill seekers, vain, lustful, needy, angry, vengeful etc. Consequently, most of the latter behaviors are mere indications of free will among these persons. (Siegel, 2004)

Secondly, the classical theory is founded upon the premise that all have the ability to control those choices. In other words, when individuals fear the risk of punishment, then they are likely to control their criminal tendencies. Human beings have the ability to analyze situations with regard to their positive outcomes and their potential negatives. If the risks involved in engaging in certain behavior are much less than the benefits, then an individual is likely to commit that crime.

Thirdly, the classical school of thought is founded on the swiftness severity and certainty of punishment. According to these thinkers, when the latter features are present within any society, then potential criminals are likely to be deterred from proceeding with their criminal intentions. In cases where punishment is conducted fairly, then this is likely to reinforce the latter belief about crime. One can regard punishment as an incentive for obeying the law. Consequently, if it is administered rationally and legitimately, then it can definitely deter crime. (Cook, 2005)

All in all, the interpretation of these three core ideas has brought about different reactions and different results especially when applied to case studies. Consequently, it is important for one to appreciate the context of a particular issue in order to understand crime. In this regard, a number of choice theories exist in the field of criminology. For instance, some people utilize the rational choice theory as a basis for understanding crime. Some prefer using the situational crime prevention theory, the sanctions theory and the deterrence theories all qualify as forms of the classical thought. In the above, the routine activities theory is founded upon the belief that for crime to occur, there must be three aspects that include; a suitable target, a potential offender and an absent or incapable guardian.

In the classical school of thought, individuals must be motivated to commit crimes through the availability of an opportunity. In practice, classical theories are important in understanding victimization as well. Demographics and lifestyle are important predictors of victimization (the process by which victims and offenders get in contact with one another). Many researchers have found that aspects such as being male, unmarried, leading an active lifestyle and using bars can have an important influence on the occurrence of crime. It should be noted however, that the classical school of thought is not founded entirely on demographic factors, as these are the important predictors of the occurrence of crime. While some of the latter may not qualify as fully fledged theories, they are still as important as the full theories in understanding crime. (Pearce, 2003)

The rational choice theory is founded upon the premise that criminals have the ability to use intelligent thought while committing crimes. In other words, social behavior is an aggregation of a series of behavioral actions that are affected and conducted by rational individuals. This means that potential criminals are actors that are affected by certain values and beliefs within society. Also, these actors usually calculate the benefits or the costs of taking a certain action and then make the decision to commit that act if they are likely to maximize its benefits or its overall utility process. In the rational choice theory, one must also consider the effect that one’s environment has upon their decisions making process.

Here, there is an assumption that all criminals are well aware of their value systems and the means required to pursue these courses of action. Consequently, it is necessary for actors or potential criminals to first collect, then organize and finally analyze this information in order to come up with the most feasible alternatives. The rational choice theory is founded upon the ends and means concept. In other words, the latter theory provides an avenue for describing how criminals are able to achieve certain ends through the means of rational calculus.

It should also be noted that the rational choice theory refers to methodological individualism. In order words, individuals must examine the options available to them. This process of rational thought is what is then translated into the entire society. Consequently, the theory is built up from the individual and then aggregated to the entire society. The rational choice theory presents researchers with a series of challenges. The first is that most of the variables found within this theory are difficult to quantify. One such example is a ‘potential criminal’. This variable is based on the aspect of criminality which is a personality trait yet crime itself is an event. The suitability of targets is yet another difficult term to define because most criminals portray this aspect differently depending on the demographics and their environment.

Other criminologists assert that the theory is best for preventative techniques. This is because it assists in explaining the following three d’s of crime

  • Detect
  • Delay
  • Deter

When one is actually interested in finding out details about the exact location of where crime was committed, then it may be increasingly difficult. Additionally, it is also very difficult to understand exactly when a crime had occurred. The aspect of a crime’s conditions can also be difficult to determine through the rational choice theory. (Schmalleger, 2005)

Other experts have also asserted that the rational choice theory may not be suitable in explaining criminal actions owing to the fact that it is more suitable in confirming that an action was committed rather than falsifying it. These critics also claim that the magnitude of effects of the theories’ variables are not well specified. This goes hand in hand with the overdependence on variables that cannot be observed or even measured. Lastly, critics claim that the theory is not particularly useful because it is a post hoc theory type.

The classical school of thought has been very influential in the criminal justice system as some of the policies affecting offenders are founded upon them. Examples of such policies include the get tough policy, police saturation measures and police crackdown in potential crime zones. Deterrence strategies are largely based on this notion and so are embarrassment rituals conducted upon offenders. (Pearce, 2003)

It should be noted that the choice theory renounces and firmly criticizes the use of rehabilitation as a form of law enforcement. These theorists believe that certain criminals are quite cold and hard such that it would be a waste of resources and time to try and rehabilitate them. Adherents to this principle are likely to understand that the only way to deal with crime is by separating innocent persons from evil ones.

Strain theory

The strain theory is based on the fact that certain social structures force individuals to commit crime. Strain theories were originally stated by well renowned criminologist Emile Durkheim. Thereafter, they were advanced by Robert Merton in the nineteen thirties who was then followed by Cohen in the mid nineteen fifties. Cloward and Ohlin did some more work on the theory and their efforts were subsequently backed by Rosenfeld and Messner.

According to these theories, strain may either be brought on by the structural institutions. The latter refer to societal level processes that are eventually transmitted down to the actors that make up society. Subsequently, most of them begin perceiving needs based on these structural institutions. A criminal’s perceptions about their opportunities or threats are defined by the level of regulation or circulation of a certain social structure.

The strain theory is also founded upon the premise that an individual is the person who has to undergo a lot of friction and difficulties in trying to meet society’s goals or expectations. Sometimes when these expectations are so important to the individual, then he or she might consider achieving through any route possible without serious consideration of the legitimacy of the means required to achieve it.

In Durkheim’s anomie concept, he tried to explain why certain individuals may choose to commit suicide. In his book, Durkheim states that this occurs when individuals loose their sense of purpose or when they feel sidelined by society. Additionally, this feeling is normally coupled by the lack of values in an individual.

Dubois also did some independent work on the strain theory and found that most people commit crimes as a result of the strain experienced within their environment. He confirmed this through a study of African American crime in the late nineteenth century. At that time, the society had just undergone radical changes in the political system thus heightening the level of expectations amongst this group. Most of them were strained by these and thus found themselves committing crimes to achieve their means. (Schmalleger, 2005)

It should also be noted that the strain theory can be analyzed through the functional aspect or through the structural aspect. In the structural aspect, there is more emphasis on the manner in which things work; here one examines the nature of a criminal event or the process of committing the criminal action with a look of the connections between these aspects and their level of interdependence of these variables. On the other hand, the functional explanation is founded upon the premise that certain structural features are parts of an overall system. This is the reason why things occur in the manner that they do. Social systems are mostly founded on the parts that make them up and when one part fails to perform these functions, then it subsequently leads to strain. If this strain continues for along time, then chances are that the entire system could fail.

Robert Merton was very influential in the theory because he provided an avenue for understanding crime through strain. Merton asserted that there are two major pathways within which individuals can be led to crime. The first is a culturally related expectation and the structural possibilities required to achieve this goal. Merton’s study was conducted at a time when people were moving to the United States in pursuance of the American dream. According to this author, many of them found that it was not as easy as they had thought. Merton claimed that there was a disconnection between the culturally related expectations and the socially acceptable methods of achieving it. This disconnect was what was called the anomie. He believed that certain individuals chose to engage in criminal behavior as a result of the strain created between their aspirations and the opportunities available or meeting these expectations. This is the reason why more crime is prevalent in the lower social classes than in the higher ones because many people actually lack the opportunities with which to achieve societal goals and they eventually choose to commit it through illegitimate reasons. (Pearce, 2003)

Usually, such persons may lose their sense of motivation and may get frustrated. Also, society creates a situation of anomie when it dwells too much on the winners rather than rewarding all people who had the courage to compete. What this creates is a situation in which members of society has no clear cut methodology or predictability that can be used to define success and this is what is regarded as anomie or a degree of cultural chaos

Cultural deviance theory

One of the pioneers who was very instrumental in the process in explain the cultural deviance theory was Albert Cohen. The latter criminologist concentrated on delinquent behavior among boys within eth London society. Through this study, he was able to come up with the delinquent subculture phenomenon. His major concern in the theory was the aspect of innovative adaptation. According to him, young people do not operate in isolation as most of them are influenced by the world around them. Consequently, by identifying and understanding the characteristic of these cultures, it is possible to remember the way one has to deal with certain issues.

The first aspect of a delinquent subculture is the non utilitarianism aspect of it. In this regard, juvenile delinquents take part in crime just so that they can enjoy themselves or so that they can have fun. Additionally, the delinquent subculture is characterized by a level of maliciousness where such groups just want to cause trouble. Besides these, many delinquent subcultures have a lot of negativism. In other words, they tend to negate the norms of other cultures such as the middle class and then perceive this defiance as normal.

Delinquent subcultures are also characterized by the presence of hedonism as  a need for immediate self gratification. Group autonomy also plays an important part here because most of these delinquents usually regard the authority of the groups as the only one and any other source is defied. (Schmalleger, 2005)

It is also important to note that Cohen felt that the delinquent boys were actually frustrated with the values of the middle class and consequently, rebelled against these sentiments through the use of crime.

Walter Miller on the other hand focused on another approach to cultural deviant theory. He did most of his research among lower class males in Boston. According to this author, delinquent behavior was not bought by another class’s values; instead, he saw it as a reflection of the lower class culture. He believed that middle class values were overestimated in Cohen’s theory. He also asserted that within the middle class, certain values were regarded as more important than others. However, the lower class was governed by different standards. In the end, this brings about clashes between these two groups and may create conflicts between the two categories or classes. In the lower class, values revolve around survival. Consequently, in the process of achieving these values, young males find that they have to engage in criminal behavior in order to achieve them.

Social process theories

In the social process, theory, more emphasis is placed on the micro level aspects than the macro one. This is different form all the latter mentioned theories because here, focus is on the role that the individual plays and how this affects society and not vice versa. One of the social process theories is the Sutherland’s Differential Associations theory. In this theory, learning is assumed to take place as a result of the process of socialization. In other words, individuals have the choice to either accept social norms or to reject them. This is different from the former mentioned theories (structural theories) that centre on society’s ability to impose its norms and value upon others without due consideration of their preferences. (Pearce, 2003)

Another distinct feature that emerges in the social process theories is the fact that criminal activities can take part in all social classes and there is little emphasis on one particular group. Another social process theory that one must consider is the social control theory. Through this theory, one is able to understand the fact that crime can be imposed through eth process of controlled existence. In the containment theory it is assumed that no single individual is actually forced to commit crime and that it can be committed by any one.  In the labeling theory, individuals are pushed into committing more crimes when they have been labeled as criminals by society itself.

Another social process theory is the social developmental theory. Here, an individual is  part of their interaction with their respective environments and this can only be understand by incorporating all the biological, psychological and sociological factors that come into play within an individual’s life. In the age graded theory, it is asserted that crime is likely to occur when there is a change that has occurred at a certain age within a person’s life. The individual responds to this abnormality through criminal behavior. Lastly, the dual taxonomic theory revolves around the fact that certain neuropsychological factors can make one more predisposed to crime. In this theory, considerations are also given to other causative factors such as poverty as drivers for the occurrence of crime. (Cook, 2005)

All in all, it should be noted that most crimes usually occur as a result of the specific choices that individuals have to make in the process of either accepting or rejecting societal norm.

Marxist criminology

The Marxist school of thought revolves around the reasons behind change. Additionally, it also dwells on the identification of disruptive forces in any one society. Additionally, it looks for ways in which any given society is divided along forces of wealth, power and also through prestige. Through these mechanisms, it is possible to understand why certain individuals behave the way the do.

In Marxist criminology, a lot of consideration is given to the relationships between crime and society i.e. There is a need to look into the structural and immediate social environments that could propagate crime. In this regard, Karl Marx believed that the upper class utilized the law in order to impose their own rules upon the lower class so that they could stay in those disadvantaged positions. Here, one can understand why certain acts are labeled as crimes and why others are not. This means that the theory is best for understanding state corporate crimes, state crime and also political crime.

While the relevance of the Marxist school of thought has reduced over the past decades, one cannot undermine the influence that this theory has upon the field of criminology. In Marxist criminology it is assumed that economic power can be translated into another form of power i.e. political power. Through economic power, the majority members of society i.e. those who do not have economic power are disempowered and causes discourse. (Schmalleger, 2005)

In Marxism, conformity is created through socialization. Conformity is an important part of a society because it ensures social order. Here, law is the methodology utilized to enforce the state’s interests. In other words, since all states operate under their own rules, then it is very possible to impose any kind of rules. It should be noted here that small groups always come out as leaders regardless of whether the system if governance is democratic or autocratic. The reason behind the emergence of groups in any given society is that there is a need for decision making organs everywhere. Consequently, society is forced to contend with the influences made by this ruling class. In other words, the modern state is largely driven and affected by those who control the means of production. Examples of how this can be depicted in colonial law in colonial states such as East Africa. The British created laws that would assist them in the process of securing returns from coffee plantains.

Property laws are usually created in such a manner that they would benefit the ruling class, these laws sideline the lower class and they are forced to look for other means of survival other than through the process of understanding these underlying issues. Most of them resort to crime as their last alternative to survival.  Adherents to this theory compare two continents i.e. Europe and North America. They claim that in Europe, the law is more socialistic and this is why crime rates are quite low. However, in the US, crime rates have hit all time highs because of the lack of effective mechanisms that would assist in the process of understanding this problem

The Marxist school of thought centers around the issue of social isolation. Consequently, it has also been used to understand why certain crimes work related crimes occur. When society offers certain individual work that is regarded as demeaning or work that involves no application of creativity or decisions making, then individuals are bound to get bored by it. In the end, some working class members opt to engage in corporate crime in order to defy this kind of oppression within the workplace.

Application of the theories to case studies

The case of the wall street broker

The classical theories can be applied to this situation in order to understand the latter issue. This wall street broker examined the costs of doing insider trading (i.e. engaging in unethical behavior, getting disbarred or being arrested) against the benefits that would emanate from committing the crime. The benefit would be five million dollars in a very short period. Additionally, punishment is not certain because if executed well, corporate crime is difficult to detect. Since punishment was not certain, then this could have propagated the individual in committing the crime. (Schmalleger, 2005)

The strain theory is also very important in understanding this broker’s decisions to commit corporate crime. This individual lives in a society that values winners or people who seem monetarily successful. It is likely that the legal channels for attaining high level of financial success are minimal as they may take too long. Consequently, there was an anomie in meeting societal expectations related to financial success and the legal channels available to achieve this. In the end, he chose to use a short cut to meet these expectations.

The cultural deviant theory states that individuals are likely to engage in certain forms of behavior owing to the fact that there are certain norms that society creates with regard to the middle class. Consequently, in order to defy these norms, then one is likely to engage in criminal behavior. The stock broker was rebelling against society’s expectations of him.

Social processes theories focus on the stock broker’s ability to decide for himself why he wants to commit a certain crime. The control theory can be applied here in that society’s expectations of monetary gain were able to control his actions and caused him to commit a crime. (Schmalleger, 2005)

In the Marxist school of thought, individuals commit crime because they are trying to respond to the demeaning work or the type of work that involves minimal creativity. This theory could be the strongest in trying to understand why this crime occurred. The stock broker could be committing the crime as a way of defying the oppressive nature of his job even after he received qualifications from one of the most reputable learning institutions in the world.

The suburban college girl

The classical choice theories focus on the benefits that one stands to gain against the costs or negatives that they have to incur. In this case, the college girl wanted to complete her education and pass; these were the benefits of the crime. On the other hand, the deterrents would be the fact that she can be rejected as a decent member of society. Since the punishment in this case was not that severe, then this could have pushed her there.

The strain theory also assists in understanding her situation. Society expects her to complete her education in order to get a good job and live comfortably. In order to do this, she must pay her tuition and look for time to read her books. Since the benefits are at stake, then she risks being labeled as an outcast just so that she can meet this expectation. The strain between these two aspects caused her to commit the social misdeed of becoming a call girl.

The cultural deviant theory can also be applied in this situation. The call girls comes from a middle class family, but she chooses to rebel against the expectation of this class by engaging in socially unacceptable behavior. This rebellion is propagated by the fact that she cannot meet the expectation of society through the available channels so she decided to rebel by looking for others. (Cook, 2005)

Social process theories also apply to her scenario in that she has the ability to decide for herself whether she wants to commit a crime and why she chose this avenue to do so. Marxist criminology can also be applied here because the controllers of capital have provided this girl with very limited routes to meet her obligations. In order to survive she has to resort to socially inappropriate means such as through the call girl service in order to make it. The most applicable theory in this case study is the strain theory.

The Hispanic boy

The classical school of thought would explain this boy’s decisions to join a gang though the aspect of punishment. In such a neighborhood, law enforcement authorities are not that vigilant, consequently, punishment is not certain, it may be delayed or might not be that severe. The benefits of joining the gang in clued protecting his life and getting money. Sine this boy has very few options that could assist him in meeting hi basic needs, then he weighs the benefits against the deterrents and finds that committing these gang crimes would be more beneficial to him. In close relation to this theory is the strain theory. There is anomie between meeting his basic needs such as food, clothing and the means available to get them. The Hispanic boy probably has little access to education thus making it extremely difficult for him to pursue his dreams through the legal channels. The anomie between these structural aspects cases him to commit crimes.

The cultural deviance theory is the most applicable in this case study because the Hispanic boy could be acting out against the rules of the middle class; that one has to get wealth through certain channels such as working or education. In close relation to this are the social process theories where neutralization theory would be most applicable

Marxist theory also applies in this situation because the controllers of wealth have created a situation where this boy has no other mechanism for earning a living since the former groups have limited his choices.

Male college student

Date rape can be explained through the classical theory in that this individual chose to engage in it because there are minimal chances of getting caught if it is covered against the background of a date. He chooses to engage in the act because he may not want to undergo the long process of normal intercourse. The benefits outweigh the punishment and thus prompt him to continue with it. The strain theory explains that society expects certain things from individuals. In this case, one is expected to engage in intercourse only through consent from both parties. However, in order to do this, the college student may be required to spend a lot of time on a certain lady. Consequently, there is a strain and he chooses to rape such victims in order to respond to this strain. (Schmalleger, 2005)

The cultural deviant theory may also be applicable in that he may be acting to his peer’s delinquent behavior. These peers may be acting out against their own class through date rape. The social process there is applicable in that the control theory helps to understand this college student’s behavior. Lastly, Marxism is also applicable here because he might be trying to depict sign of power among his partners. But in order to do that, one has to have status which is only applicable to controllers of capital. In reaction to this situations, he chooses to rebel through date rape.


Criminological theories are all applicable in the latter case sties. However, certain theories seem to stand out against others thus making it relatively easy to deal with the root causes of the crimes through those outstanding ones.


Siegel, L. (2004): Criminological theories, patterns and typologies, CA, Wadsworth Publishing Company

Pearce, F. (2003): Crimes of the powerful, Peter Lang Publishing company

Cook, D. (2005): Social process theories vs social structural theories, Routledge

Schmalleger, F. (2005): Criminology Today- an integrative approach; McGraw hill publishers

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Source by Carolyn Smith

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