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Economic Crime: Theory - Ecological Theory Of Illegal Expropriation

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In a series of papers, Lawrence Cohen and colleagues (see Cohen and Machalek) offer an ecological theory of illegal expropriation. This theory is consistent with the neoclassical assumption that the frequency of a behavior, including an illegal one, typically reflects its ability to satisfy people's preferences; however, an ecological approach to crime differs from the neoclassical perspective in two key ways. First, it does not assume that people necessarily know the benefits of behaviors before they act. Instead, it assumes that actions can have unintended positive results, consequences that encourage people to repeat their actions. Thus, people's behavioral choices do not necessarily reflect rational calculations based on complete information, nor are their behaviors always directed toward their most valued preference. Second, Cohen and Machalek's theory differs from the neoclassical approach in that it explicitly treats behaviors as strategies that are influenced by the actions of others. A strategy is simply a set of behaviors that yield benefits, whether the benefits were intended or not; the greater the benefits a strategy provides, the more likely that it will be repeated and proliferate within and across populations.

Drawing on behavioral biology and earlier work on routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson), Cohen and Machalek argue that expropriation is just one of many strategies that people can follow. They define illegal expropriation as a process whereby individuals or groups use coercion, deception, or stealth to usurp material resources or services from others. People may use an illegal expropriation strategy for a variety of reasons; however, they are most likely to continue to employ such a strategy because of its success. Likewise, others are most likely to adopt or copy an illegal expropriation strategy when they observe, or acquire knowledge about, its success. Note, however, that people often choose strategies impulsively, and can select one that is suboptimal. Thus, choosing an expropriative crime strategy may be inconsistent with a person's best interests.

The success of an expropriative strategy has two dimensions: the extent to which it provides valued returns for those who use it and the extent to which it proliferates in a group or population. Several characteristics influence a strategy's success: how it is executed, how it responds to the defensive counter-strategies of victims, and the manner in which it spreads. A strategy is most likely to succeed when it is (1) cryptic, (2) deceptive, (3) bold, (4) surprising, (5) evasive, (6) resistant, (7) mobile, (8) mutable, and/or (9) stimulating. A cryptic strategy is not detected by the victim until after the expropriation occurs (e.g., embezzlement). A deceptive strategy is one that is detected, but the victim interprets the strategy as benevolent or innocuous (e.g., a confidence game). In other contexts, a strategy may be more effective when it is bold; that is, it over-powers the victim (e.g., robbery). A bold strategy is often more efficient if it involves the element of surprise (e.g., highjacking). A strategy that is evasive moves easily from location to location, thereby avoiding or neutralizing victim recognition or retaliation (e.g., con games and telephone sales frauds) whereas a resistant strategy is impervious to victim retaliations (e.g., extortion or gang crime). A mobile strategy spreads easily: it can be transmitted from one person to another and can migrate from one group or population to another (e.g., computer crimes). A strategy that is mutable adapts to accommodate changing victim counter strategies, as well as to cultural and social transformations (e.g., the addition of alarm deactivation skills to a car theft strategy). Finally, a strategy that is stimulating or exciting may also proliferate because of the pleasure it provides (e.g., the thrill of shoplifting).

Several factors external to a strategy also effect its likelihood of success. For example, expropriative strategies may become ineffective in situations where the number of expropriators exceeds the number of producers, or when past victimizations educate people against further victimizations. Thus, the extent to which an expropriative strategy is used and is successful is the result of a dynamic process that involves the past and current experiences of exploiters and producers, and the nature of the social, cultural, and material world in which they live.

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