2 minute read

Criminology: Intellectual History

Sociological Theories

Sociological theories generally assert that crime is the normal response of a biologically and psychologically normal individual to social conditions that are abnormal and criminogenic. A large number of these theories have been proposed. For example, Edwin Sutherland (1883–1950) proposed differential association theory, which argues that criminal behavior is normal learned behavior, that the learning takes place in a process of interpersonal communication with other people, that it consists primarily in the learning of ideas about whether laws are to be obeyed, and that the learning of criminal behaviors is determined primarily by the extent of the person's contact with other people who themselves engage in criminal behaviors. Robert K. Merton proposed a theory of social structural strain. He argued that American culture emphasizes the goal of monetary success at the expense of adhering to the legitimate means to achieve that success. This results in high rates of profit-oriented crimes. He also argued that American society has an unequal distribution of the legitimate opportunities to achieve monetary success. That is, people in the upper classes have very many legitimate opportunities to make money, while people in the lower classes had very few. Merton argued that this resulted in the reverse distribution of profit-oriented crimes, with the lowest classes having the highest rates of such crime and the highest classes having the lowest rates. Clifford Shaw presented an ecological theory that looks at crime at the neighborhood level. He generally found that neighborhoods with high poverty, frequent residential mobility, and family disruption (e.g., many divorced or single parents) have higher crime rates. Travis Hirschi proposed a social control theory that focused on the ability to resist the natural temptations of criminal behavior. Individuals who are more strongly attached to parents, more involved in conventional activities, have more to lose from criminal behavior, and have stronger beliefs in conventional moral values, will tend to commit less crime. Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi later proposed a general theory of crime as being the result of low self-control. Where Hirschi's earlier social control theory concerned the restraints on an individual's behavior that are found in the person's immediate environment, self-control theory focuses on certain stable characteristics that people have after age eight or so. People with low self-control, and therefore a higher tendency to commit crime, tend to be impulsive, insensitive to others, oriented toward physical rather than mental activities, prone to take risks, shortsighted, and nonverbal. Labeling theories, by contrast, argue that people who become involved in the criminal justice system tend to be labeled as criminals by that system, rejected by law-abiding people, and accepted as criminals by other criminals. All of this results in their taking on a criminal self-concept, in which they come to think of themselves as criminals. The criminal self-concept then becomes the major cause of crime. Radical criminologists focus on the structure of society, in particular its political and legal systems. In one way or another, often with a considerable degree of subtlety, the criminal law is seen as a tool by which rich and powerful people maintain and preserve their own privileges and status.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminology: Intellectual History - Early Thinking About Crime And Punishment, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Classical Criminology, Positivist Criminology