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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Situations Conducive To Crime

The above theories focus on the factors that create a general willingness or predisposition to engage in crime, locating such factors in the immediate and larger social environment. People who are disposed to crime generally commit more crime than those who are not. But even the most predisposed people do not commit crime all of the time. In fact, they obey the law in most situations. Several theories argue that predisposed individuals are more likely to engage in crime in some types of situations than others. These theories specify the types of situations most conducive to crime. Such theories usually argue that crime is most likely in those types of situations where the benefits of crime are seen as high and the costs as low, an argument very compatible with social learning theory.

The most prominent theory in this area is the routine activities perspective, advanced by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson and elaborated by Felson. It is argued that crime is most likely when motivated offenders come together with attractive targets in the absence of capable guardians. Attractive targets are visible, accessible, valuable, and easy to move. The police may function as capable guardians, but it is more common for ordinary people to play this role—like family members, neighbors, and teachers. According to this theory, the supply of suitable targets and the presence of capable guardians are a function of our everyday or "routine" activities—like attending school, going to work, and socializing with friends. For example, Cohen and Felson point to a major change in routine activities since World War II: people are more likely to spend time away from home. This change partly reflects the fact that women have become much more likely to work outside the home and people have become more likely to seek entertainment outside the home. As a result, motivated offenders are more likely to encounter suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians. Homes are left unprotected during the day and often in the evening, and people spend more time in public settings where they may fall prey to motivated offenders. Other theories, like the rational-choice perspective of Derek B. Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke, also discuss the characteristics of situations conducive to crime.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories