Theories of Crime

Theories of Crime

            The argument of the root causes of crime and the sufficient solution, has been ongoing for decades.  Studies have come up with different theories intended to explain the causes of crime, and to give the solution to crimes.  According to Nietzel (2004: p15), researchers have shown that no single factor can explain what the root cause of crime is, and no single element can give an entire solution to crime control and prevention.  In fact, various theories of crime explain differing views to factors causing crimes and offer different solution to crime control and prevention.

            It has in fact been agreed by most criminologists that no single factor can be mentioned as the ultimate cause of criminal behavior.  According to most researchers, crime is a symptom of wider malaise.  It is upon this belief that most studies have evolved with time, attempting to establish the root causes of crime and to establish the appropriate solution for crime control and prevention (Adler &Laufer, 2006: p246)

The Subcultural Theory of Crime

            The subcultural theory has been very significant in advancing the study of crime. Lanier (2004) posited that as a means of viewing youth culture and juvenile crime in particular, it has had great influence.  In attempting to grant meaning to the offenders, the subcultural theory has dominated the study of criminology in the last two decades, and has emerged as a staple reflex in the depiction of the modern journalists.  It has been argued that, though many theories including realism have attempted to give much of the criminology theory, no much development has been done as in the development of  the subcultural theory and in the specific debate of the labeling perspective.

            The subcultural theory in criminology emerged from the Chicago School, from the study done on gangs, and advanced through the significant interaction school to a set of criminology theories asserting that certain subcultures or groups in the society have attitudes or values, that are conducive to violence and crime.  The primary focus of this school of thought is on juvenile delinquency.  Most researchers are of the opinion that the understanding and control of this form of crime would be effective to prevent the transition of teenage offenders to habitual criminals.

            Culture refers to that which is transmitted socially, as opposed to biologically, representing the values, customs and norms against which a human behavior is judged by a majority.  According to Donald and Cressey (2004: p247-252), a subculture can be used to refer to the distinguished culture within a culture.  In subculture theory, culture is defined as the way in which people evolve in order to deal with problems facing them in their daily lives.  It includes political institutions, moral standards, ways of dressing, language, modes of sexuality, work norms, in summary it includes all human behavior.  This implies that human beings find themselves placed in specific structural settings in this world, their race, gender, class, or age as an example.

             Cultural solutions evolve to try and solve the problems faced by individuals in their daily life.  The subcultural theory asserts that people in different cultures face specific challenges and hence develop their own subculture.  The key cultural axes are the ones of gender, ethnicity, class and age.  These in turn determine a particular space occupied by a certain group of people, such as rural areas or the inner city, and the particular time and country that a person may be belonging to.

            Studies have shown that, predicaments of social structures often give rise to specific problems in a certain group of people in the society.  On the other hand, it has been argued that subcultures overlap and are not distinct.  According to McCord and Osgood (2005: p45), the subculture of the young men belonging to the black community overlap largely with their female counterparts.  But difference stemming form the gender perspective may be detected.  For instance, punks, teds, rockers, and modes may be different attempts by youths in the working class to solve their similar problems.

            Although these terms are mainly used to refer to the deviant and young groups, subcultural forms are created by all human beings.  This is understood to be a matter of focus, army officers and policemen for instance, establish their own subcultures that are exotic and developed in their own ways, as the ones which exist in the underworld.  The subcultural approach clearly differs from other perspectives of human deviance McCord & Osgood 2005: p74-75).

            According to the subcultural theory, subcultures that are deviant are not viewed as pathological groupings of individuals who are maladjusted and lacking cultures, but rather as important attempts to tackle problems that often face individuals.  What the latest teenage style is, or what juvenile vandalism is, cultural responses are important and can never be meaningless to explain these.

              The subcultural theory would view the behavior of human beings as basically meaningful, and that varying behaviors represent the different solutions offered to different problems, which specific subcultures have with time evolved.  Thornberry (2004: p162) states that a riot as a good example, is a situation where a group of people try to respond to a certain problem in terms of their subcultural concern.  Though this may not be the best method for solving a problem within a group of people, it does make sense given the understanding and limitation of the people concerning the particular situation.

            From the approach of the subcultural theorists, the behavior limiting the contribution of children is always perceived in the wrong way.  Most adults reject such deviant behavior, or interpret the deviant behavior in the scientific view as under achievement, or hyperactivity.  They argue that people should should apply the subcultural approach and instead view the deviant behavior as pathological, lacking meaning or irrational.  Subcultural theorists on the other hand explain this as an evolved social activity with a meaningful rationality.

             According to Fitzgerald and McLennan (2005: p204), denying to give meaning and reason to most human behaviors, has hindered researchers from encompassing the important components of the subjectivity of human beings, necessary to explain the root causes of crime and to give the ultimate solution for controlling and preventing crime in the society.   The subcultural theory in fact tries to bridge the problem of objectivity and subjectivity in the explanation of crime.

            The subcultural theory has also been successful in interpreting the behavior of an individual in the wider society.  Instead of interpreting individual actions in the propensity of a specific person, for instance, explaining that the violence of a person results from Psychopath, or that greed portrayed by an individual results from the evil nature.  This theory asserts that the understanding of individuals can only be effective through subcultures which the individuals are part of (Nietzel, 2004: p244)

Critique of the Subcultural Theory

            This theory has had its own critiques.  According to Sanders (2007: p76), the only important variables in the evaluation of subculture theory appear to be those of age and class, the study is said to have neglected important factors in the explanation of crime such as ethnicity, race and gender.  Subculture theory has been termed as guilty of romanticizing the concerned groups, with a veiled inference mentioning ordinary kids as too passive or drab to warrant investigation.  Some researchers have argued that, the subcultural theory should have explained crime in a wider sense by not only considering the behavior of people as being influenced only by certain values and cultures, but by incorporating a model that regards the social expression and formation as a division between labor and capital, leading to the ideology that is bound to economic interests.  No critiques have so far challenged the foundation on which the debate of subcultural theory analysis is based.

            It has been argued that this theory position a diverse group of individuals as an entity discreet, assuming that they have similar codes and ways of relating in their behavior.  This is shown by the assumption that youths are both historically contingent and piecemeal, the use of descriptive classification has had very little success for the degree to which a research on the understanding of crime is still being conducted.  It has been argued that, the youths do not form a unitary object Sanders, 2007: p107-110).

The Chicago School theory of crime

            The Chicago school focus on the behavior of human beings as being determined by physical and social environmental factors, rather than personal characteristics, or genetic factors.  The community is seen as a major factor contributing to the behavior of human beings, and that cities function as microcosm.  Researchers from the Chicago theory have developed the empirical sociology, which implies that the behavior of human beings should be studied from their natural environment, other than looking at their social environment (Claire, 2002: p342-345).  The Chicago theory is best known for concentrating in urban sociology, and for improving the approach of symbolic interactions.

            Anthropologists and Biologists have accepted the evolution theory as demonstrating that living things and animals often adapt to their environment.  In considering human beings who are seen as responsible for their destinies, Chicago theory believe that the natural surrounding inhabited by a community is the key factor in the shaping human behavior, and that the city in this study functions as microcosm.  It is in fact asserted that cities being great places where all energies of mankind and passions are released, the process of civilization can easily be investigated as it were, under a scientific microscope.

            McCord and Osgood (2005: p423-437), influenced this school of thought, by proposing that a community is not in any way super organism and that the development of communities is a pattern that is fixed in succession stages from inception, to some single self regulated state, or to single climax stage of equilibrium.  By analogy, it has been stated that a human being is born, grows, matures and then dies, but the individual and the community inhabited continue with the growth and exhibit properties that are greater than the combination of the properties of all parts.

            Chicago theory has to a large extent focused on the city of Chicago as the main object of this study.  Researchers have in their attempt tried to seek evidence as to whether increase in social mobility and urbanization have been the major causes of the contemporary problems experienced in the society.  Chicago is said to have been a clean place originally, and an empty physical environment.  During 1860, Chicago town had a population of only 10,000 people.  After the fire that occurred in 1879, there was rapid growth in the then small town of Chicago, and the population increased up to two million.  The increase was caused by an influx of the migrants, and this in turn produced homeless people in the town (Sanders (2007: p88), this also led to poor working conditions, poor housing, long working hours and low wages.  (Sanders, 2007: p91) emphasizes that the sudden freedom given to the immigrants who were released from the controls of Europe to the competition which was not restrained in the new city of Chicago, is the main reason for the rapid population growth.

            Ecological studies mainly concentrate on establishing spot maps of the city of Chicago, as a place where specific behavior can be detected, including suicide, homicide, alcoholism, poverty and psychoses, the rates are then computed based on the census data.  A visual comparison of the specific maps were used to identify the concentration of specific behavior in some areas of the town.  Correlation of varying rates by areas were not established until later.  For Roy (2008: p212), the groups studied had to reconstruct and re-inscribe themselves in order to prosper.  Spot maps were created to demonstrate the range and location of social problems with a major concentration on juvenile delinquency.  Rates were used to divide the city into blocks, in order to illustrate individual behavior within the population, in consideration to ethnicity, race and gender.  There was also a development of self-reporting techniques on the life histories of various people to avail a subjective balance to the studied analysis (Albion &  Ellsworth, 2005: p76-78).

Critique of the Chicago Theory

            According to Herbert and Evans (2003: p56-60), using environmental determinants to explain individual's behavior may prevent people from establishing the real factors that cause crime around them.  In fact it has been argued that there may be a tendency for the bad people to be blamed, instead of blaming the bad surrounding.  This approach is said to have failed in providing the specific factors in the environment which result to deviant behavior, and can therefore not offer the ultimate solution for control and prevention of crime.

             Researchers have claimed that when Chicago theory define social factors as invisible, this is the ambiguity it creates.  The unstable social factors imply that there exist a stable pattern in someplace, somewhere where all social organizations and institutions function the way they are supposed to be functioning.  Though this theory takes functionalist perspective, of the social structure, social disorganization theories are not functionalists in nature, and have failed to elaborate the ultimate factors contributing to deviant behavior (McCord & Osgood, 2005: p172).

The labeling theory of Crime

            Labeling theory of crime is also referred to as the social reaction theory.  According to Adler and Laufer (2006: p66), this theory looks at human beings from the approach of how the majority in the society view the minority and those who are considered to be deviating from the social norms.  This theory concentrates in considering how the behavior and self identity of individuals may be influenced, or determined by the terms used to classify or describe them.  The theory is linked with the concept of stereotyping and prophecy self-fulfilling.  This approach was dominant during the 1960s and 1970s, upon which modified versions have been developed with time.  Unwanted categorizations or descriptors including words like mental illness, disability, or deviance may not be acceptable on grounds of being insignificant labels, and only trying to achieve a constructive language in its place.

            According to Roy (2008: p45), the self is often reconstructed and constructed through interaction with different members of the community.  Through social interactions, an individual is able to determine how others judge him in the society, after attempting to participate in various roles and responsibilities, and viewing how the society react in response.  Theoretically, this creates the subjective perspective of the self, but through the intrusion of third parties in the life on an individual, the objective data is created, and it may need re-evaluation of the formed perception relying on the authoritativeness of judgment from other people.  Friends and families may judge an individual differently, from the way a stranger may judge the same person.  Social representatives, such as the judges, officers or the police may make decisions that may be respected globally.

            Deviance for instance may be perceived by a group of people as failing to conform to the norms and rules of the society.  A person who fails to conform to these rules may in turn be judged as have offended and violated the social behavior and moral norms.  The power of a group is shown in this manner.  Groups therefore tend to treat breach of their rules in a different way, and the deterrence in treatment depends on  the seriousness of the breach.  The more the treatment differ, the more the image of a person is affected.

            Stigmatization of a breach depends on the importance associated to a certain moral, or the tenet the moral may be presenting in the society.  For instance, when a person gets involved in adultery, this may be looked at as an informal breach, or may be termed as criminal in consideration of morality, religion or marital status within the society.  Adultery for instance is not a crime in most Western countries.  Though a person may face unfortunate consequences as a result of being labeled as an adulterer, such consequences may not be severe.  In other countries however, such as Islamic countries, extramarital activities are referred by the term Zina, which is a crime and parties involved may face severe consequences as a result.

            Stereotypes also present a problem in the labeling theory.  Commitment of a crime may be perceived and treated differently depending on special factors such as race, gender, age, among other factors from the nature and class of the rule breaker.  Significant structural factors may also determine how a wrong done by a person is treated.  Structural factors may include the social class of the offender, the time of day when the offense was committed, and the neighborhood surrounding on which the offense is committed (Donald & Cressey, 2004: p89-92).

            In the approach of criminal behavior, the labeling theory applies phenomenology, which argues that, labels applied to various people have a great impact on their behavior, and especially the application of stigmatizing or negative labels, such as felon or criminal.  It has been asserted that such labels promote deviant behavior, the individual tends to become a prophecy of self fulfillment.  It has been established that, labels and judgments given to individuals leave them with no other option, but to comply with what the society already believe about them.  This in fact promotes the deviant behavior among people who are already labeled, whether correctly, or wrongly.

            According to Fitzgerald and McLennan (2005: p356), the labeling theory asserts that deviant behavior can be controlled through use of limited social shaming reaction, this may be achieved by use of tolerance factors for the labelers, and replacement of moral indignation.  This theory proposes that rehabilitation is the best way of preventing crimes and reforming criminals in the society, through making alteration to the labels given to them.  The theory has in turn given alternative policies for crime prevention, conciliation, mediation and client empowerment schemes, ceremonies of forgiveness between victims and offenders, reparation and restitution.

            The social construction of any deviant behavior has a significant role when it comes to the process of labeling in the society.  This type of labeling helps not only in labeling criminally deviant behavior which violates the social norms and rules, but also in labeling the behavior which reflects stigmatized or stereotyped behavior of individuals, who are mentally ill.  Mental illness in this context however implies to people who are deemed as permanently social misfits.  The society then places specific expectations to the individuals who are referred to be mentally ill.  Over time, these group of people change their behavior from the right, to the wrong unconsciously to fulfill the society's expectations.  It is therefore argued that mental illness is a social construction, and is mainly influenced by the labels given by the society (Claire, 2002: p254-256).

             Critique of the labeling Theory

            The approach of criminal deviant behavior by the labeling theory has attracted many critiques over time.  It has been argued that, the society cannot have influence on an individual's mental illness.  But that the perception of the society on mental illness, arise from the behavior exhibited by an individual.  According to Sanders (2007: p57), individuals who are mentally ill often behave in unnatural way due to their disorders, and this is why they get to have different treatment.  Sociologists in most instances tend to view mental illness and labeling concept as topics that should be learned differently.  From a recent study on biological roots of schizophrenia and manic depression, it is not practical to believe that mental illness results from social construction.  It has been argued that, the labeling theory in real sense can prolong and accentuate the issue referred to be mentally ill, though this may not be the full case.

            The labeling theory has been criticized for promoting policies that are not practical in the application, and also for failure to tackle the serious and dangerous offenses in the society.  Some of the major offenses such as use of violence, are universally known to be wrong.  The labeling theory however deals only with habitual offenses and assert that the seriousness of any offense depends on the perception, rules and morals a society basing on factors such as, age, gender, religion, ethnicity among others. According to Albion and  Ellsworth (2005: p77), this approach is therefore not constructive.

            Specific labels are used by the society to show the extent of their disapproval with regard to certain deviant acts.  Terms such as child abuser, rapist, or murder are used to illustrate the extent to which the society disapproves the act. However, there is little in terms of mechanical determinism in showing that the use of such labels may contribute to a large extent in reforming the person who is labeled as a criminal.  If the valuation of the label means to reduce recidivism, the continue use of the label may cause the adverse effects that are not desired.  This cause prejudice to the person labeled, or may lead to the inability of a person to maintain employment.


            From the above discussion, it is clear that various theories have been created in an attempt to explain factors contributing to criminal behavior and providing the appropriate solution.  Though each of the above theories have been criticized for one weakness or another, it is apparent that they have played a major role to the understanding of crime.


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