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Crime Causation: The Field


Crime causation is a daunting and complex field. For centuries, philosophers have pondered the meaning of the concept of cause as it pertains to human behavior. Increasingly, research suggests that individuals are unaware of the causes of other people's behaviors as well as the causes of much of their own conduct. It is no longer sufficient to ask people, "Why did you do that?" (Davison and Neale, p. 167), because they may only think they know. Instead, modern research offers a bevy of approaches in an attempt to answer that question.

The "why did you do that?" inquiry is particularly perplexing when it applies to crime. Criminal behavior is, by definition, outside of normative conduct. Many criminals engage in behaviors that most people could not conceive of doing themselves. There is also a wide range of criminal misconduct that may not always share the same source. For example, the causes of violent crime can differ from the causes of property crime; the causes of chronic and repeat criminality can differ from the causes of one-time or infrequent criminality. This type of variation makes the field of crime causation all the more challenging.

There are two basic questions concerning cause-and-effect relationships: (1) What evidence is needed to support a legitimate inference that "A" caused "B"? (2) Assuming that the evidence in question (1) is acceptable, what inferences can be drawn from such evidence, and how? These questions are difficult in part because there are no clear semantics for describing causal chains nor the proper empirical tools for raising causal questions and deriving causal answers. Yet the questions are critical for determining the causes of crime. The concept of cause structures the way we perceive and think about the "why did you do that?" inquiry, as well as the legal action courts may take in response to it.

Some causal questions are particularly troublesome to researchers because of the strong ties between criminology, philosophy, and law. For example, the concepts of cause and effect are inter-twined with the concepts of free will and determinism, which are in turn associated with the legal concepts of responsibility and reasonable person. More philosophically detached fields of study (such as engineering or mathematics) appear to encounter fewer problems with causal investigations because they can more easily sidestep moral and value-laden issues. While increasingly quantitative approaches in criminology may succeed in restructuring the way researchers investigate the causes of crime, the field of criminology cannot avoid tackling philosophical questions altogether; the semantic roots of law and morality run too deep and they frame the disciplinary lense that criminologists use for study.

Modern crime causation models favor an interdisciplinary lense that recognizes how different fields complement, rather than contrast with, one another. This approach acknowledges that no single theory can explain all the many types of criminality nor the legal and moral issues that accompany them.

The entries that follow highlight this disciplinary interaction among theories within five different fields: biology, sociology, psychology, economics, and politics. Biological theories of crime focus on the physiological, biochemical, neurological, and genetic factors that influence criminal behavior. However, such theories also stress the complex link between a person's biology and the broad span of social or environmental factors that sociological theories examine. For example, the three major sociological theories of crime and delinquency—strain, social learning, and control—all explain crime in terms of social environmental factors, such as the family, school, peer group, workplace, community, and society. However, sociologists also recognize the significance of biological, psychological, and related theories of crime as well as the importance of individual traits such as intelligence, impulsivity, and irritability. These theories and traits help explain how individuals respond to their social environment. Similarly, psychological theories study in particular two types of crime factors that look at individuals in the context of their social environment: (1) family influences, such as broken homes, poor child-rearing methods, and criminal parents; and (2) individual influences, such as intelligence, personality (e.g., impulsivity), and cognitive processes (e.g., thinking, reasoning, and decision-making). A more comprehensive psychological theory of crime highlights the importance of motivational, inhibiting, decisionmaking, and learning processes, as well as the need to incorporate biological, individual, family, peer, school, and neighborhood factors.

On the surface, economic theories of crime appear to be relatively unusual. Predicated on a model of rational behavior, they attempt to explain a behavior (crime) that is largely considered irrational. The standard economic model of crime proposes that individuals choose between criminal behavior and legal behavior on the basis of a number of factors, including the expected gains from crime relative to earnings from legal work and the risk of being caught and convicted. While an economic model of crime may not explicitly profess a mutidisciplinary approach, such an approach can be implied in the broad selection of variables that economists study (e.g., sex, age, intelligence, income, education, peer-group effects).

Lastly, political theories recognize that any crime theory may be linked with some political ideology (conservative, liberal, or radical), and therefore may be used for political purposes. For example, criminologists seem to associate biological and psychological theories more closely with a conservative ideology and align some sociological and economic theories more closely with a liberal or radical ideology. Consequently, any theory of crime can be viewed as a political theory.

In general, then, the following entries show that modern approaches to crime causation are integrative. They emphasize a wide range of possible influential variables, methodologies, and ideologies. If criminal behavior is as diverse and multifaceted as criminologists believe, then the causal theories and philosophies that explain that behavior should be also.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law