Main Classical Criminological Theories Analysis

If it was the case that all criminal behaviour was due to genetics then this would have massive implications for the criminal justice system. The punishment of offenders both in prison and in the community by the probation service is aimed at rehabilitating offenders in order to reduce the risk of them re-offending. The Probation service uses cognitive-behavioural methods to address an offender’s criminal behaviour and reduce the risk of re-offending. This method is based on the notion that criminality is due to a cognitive deficit, or is a learned behaviour, both of which can be changed (McGuire, James 2000).

If criminality was due to genetic transmission then the work done by the probation service would be useless, a person’s genetic makeup cannot be changed and therefore an offender cannot change their behaviour. However there is an increasing amount of evidence as to the effectiveness of community penalties. In Particular the effect participation in programmes based on the cognitive behavioural model has had on reconviction rates. Aggression replacement training programmes have achieved a 14% reduction in reconvictions. The sex offender programme reduced overall offending by 22%.

The Drink Impaired Drivers programmes have seen reconvictions drop by a third (Rethinking Crime and Punishment 2002). If the answer to what causes crime is not due to genetic factors then other options must be explored such as the effect of the environment, the nurture side of the debate. Many psychologists believe that parenting styles, the quality of the home environment and the atmosphere within the home can have dramatic and long lasting effects on children (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg72). Bowlby (1953) placed a great deal of importance on the development and maintenance of a strong attachment with a single mother figure.

He claimed that his was essential for current and later mental health. He claimed that maternal deprivation in the early months of life could interfere with the formation of an attachment, and deprivation occurring in late months could lead to the disruption of an existing attachment. Bowlby claimed that either of these effects could have long term consequences. Bowlby documented many cases of such deprivation which led to mental retardation, delinquency and affectionless psychopathy in later life (Bremner, J, G. 1999 pg225).

Many of Bowlby’s theories have been proven to be false, in particular the notion that the child needs its mother as an ever present companion. It has been proven that children are capable of forming multiple attachments. Bowlby also focused on the physical presence of the mother and disregarded the quality of are. Many of the problems Bowlby associated with maternal deprivation could be due to faulty child rearing practices (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg 73). One particularly interesting contribution to the nurture side of the debate comes from the Cambridge study which was carried out by David Farrington and his colleagues.

This was a longitudinal study of 411 working class boys born in the East End of London in 1953. Of this sample 20% had criminal convictions by the age of seventeen and a further 13% by the age of twenty-five. Half of the total convictions were carried out by just 23 boys, just 5% of the total sample. The Cambridge study investigated the backgrounds of all the boy’s to establish what factors increased the risk of criminal behaviour. The most important factors were found to be low income, parental criminality, low intelligence, impulsivity and poor parenting practice.

Because of the link between offending and various social problems, Farrington predicts that any methods used to tackle offending will have much more far reaching effects. These methods will also reduce alcohol abuse, drink driving, family violence, truancy and school failure, unemployment and divorce. Farrington found that problem children grow into problem adults whose own children often become a problem and he states that urgent efforts are needed to reduce these problems (Farrington, 1997)

In contrast to some of these views social learning theories suggest that criminality is not due to genetics or personality but is in fact a learned response. Albert Bandura believed that a great deal of a person’s behaviour is a result of learning through observation and imitation. Bandura carried out a series of experiments on young children using a ‘Bobo doll’ Three groups of children were put into different situations, one group watched an adult behave aggressively toward the doll, another group saw an adult play quietly and a third group saw no adult.

The children were then observed in free play and the group which had seen the aggressive adult behaved in similar aggressive manner towards the doll while the other two groups played nicely (Pallalia, D, E. and Wendkos-Old, S. 1988). Bandura argued that people learn aggressive or criminal behaviour by observing others behaving in the same way. He argued that this ‘modelling’ can take place in the family, local society and from television and media (Ainsworth, P, B. 2000 pg 83).

No single theory can provide all the answers for criminality but when all the theories are combined they give a much clearer picture. There are many more theories than the ones mentioned here, all of which may be relevant to the causal explanation of crime. The nature versus nurture debate is something which goes on in many disciplines and will continue to do so. In the criminal justice system it is the social theories which appear to be most prevalent. Along with social learning theory is Durkheim’s Anomie theory and Merton’s Strain theory (Ainsworth, P, B.

2000). The methods which are used effectively by the probation service to reduce re-offending are based on the notion that behaviour is learned and can therefore be changed. This does not discount genetic factors but follows the principle that genetics define the limits within which a person develops. With these limits it is the environment which then shapes human behaviour.


  • Akers, R. L. (1997) Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation (2nd Edition) Roxbury Publishing Company. California
  • Ainsworth, P, B (2000) Psychology and Crime. Myths and Reality. Pearson Education Ltd. Essex.
  • Blackburn, R. (1993) The Psychology of Criminal Conduct: Theory, Research and Practice. Wiley. Chichester.
  • Bremner, J, G. (1999) Infancy. (2nd Ed) Blackwell Publishers. Oxford.
  • Bull, R. and McAlpine, S. (1998). Cited in Ainsworth, P, B 2000. Psychology and Crime. Myths and Reality. Pearson Education Ltd. Essex. Clinard, M, B. (1964) cited in Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (1995) Sociology-Themes and Perspectives. (4th Ed) Harper Collins Publishers. London