The roots of modern criminology can be found in the writings of social philosophers, who addressed Hobbes’s question: ”How is society possible?” Locke and Rousseau believed that humans are endowed with free will and are self-interested. If this is so, the very existence of society is problematic. If we are all free to maximize our own self-interest we cannot live together. Those who want more and are powerful can simply take from the less powerful. The question then, as now, focuses on how is it possible for us to live together. Criminologists are concerned with discovering answers to this basic question.

Locke and Rousseau, philosophers who are not considered criminologists, argued that society is possible because we all enter into a ”social contract” in which we choose to give up some of our freedom to act in our own self-interest for the privilege of living in society. What happens though to those who do not make, or choose to break, this covenant? Societies enforce the contract by punishing those who violate it. Early societies punished violations of the social contract by removing the privilege of living in society through banishment or death. In the event of minor violations, sanctions such as ostracism or limited participation in the community for a time were administered. The history of sanctions clearly demonstrates the extreme and frequently arbitrary and capricious nature of sanctions (Foucault 1979).

The Classical School of criminology (Beccaria 1764; Bentham 1765) began as an attempt to bring order and reasonableness to the enforcement of the social contract. Beccaria in On Crimes and Punishments (1768) made an appeal for a system of ”justice” that would define the appropriate amount of punishment for a violation as just that much that was needed to counter the pleasure and benefit from the wrong. In contemporary terms, this would shift the balance in a cost/benefit calculation, and would perhaps deter some crime. Bentham’s writings (1765) provided the philosophical foundation for the penitentiary movement that introduced a new and divisible form of sanction: incarceration. With the capacity to finally decide which punishment fits which crime, classical school criminologists believed that deterrence could be maximized and the cost to societal legitimacy of harsh, capricious, and excessive punishment could be avoided. In their tracts calling for reforms in how society sanctions rule-violators, we see the earliest attempts to explain two focal questions of criminology: Why do people commit crimes? How do societies try to control crime? The ”classical school” of criminology’s answer to the first question is that individuals act rationally, and when the benefits to violating the laws outweigh the cost then they are likely to choose to violate those laws. Their answer to the second question is deterrence. The use of sanctions was meant to discourage criminals from committing future crimes and at the same time send the message to noncriminals that crime does not pay. Beccaria and Bentham believed that a ”just desserts” model of criminal justice would fix specific punishments for specific crimes.

In the mid-nineteenth century the early ”scientific study” of human behavior turned to the question of why some people violate the law. The positivists, those who believed that the scientific means was the preeminent method of answering this and other questions, also believed that human behavior was not a product of choice nor individual free will. Instead they argued that human behavior was ”determined behavior,” that is, the product of forces simply not in the control of the individual. The earliest positivistic criminologists believed that much crime could be traced to biological sources. Gall (Leek 1970), referred to by some as the ”father of the bumps and grunts school of criminology,” studied convicts and concluded that observable physical features, such as cranial deformities and protuberances, could be used to identify ”born criminals.” Lombroso (1876) and his students, Ferri and Garofalo, also embraced the notion that some were born with criminal constitutions, but they also advanced the idea that social forces were an additional source of criminal causation. These early positivists were critics of the Classical School. They did not go so far as to argue that punishment should not be used to respond to crime, but they did advance the notion that punishment was insufficient to prevent crime. Simply raising the cost of crime will not prevent violations if individuals are not freely choosing their behavior. The early positivists believed that effective crime control would have to confront the root causes of violations, be they biological or social in nature.

Around 1900, Ferri gave a series of lectures critiquing social control policies derived from classical and neo-classical theory. What is most remarkable about those lectures is that, considered from the vantage point of scholars at the end of the twentieth century, the arguments then were little different from public debates today about what are the most effective means of controlling crime.

Then, as now, the main alternatives were ”get tough” deterrence strategies that assumed that potential criminals could be frightened into compliance with the law, versus strategies that would reduce the number of offenses by addressing the root causes of crime. We know far more about crime and criminals today than criminologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century knew, yet we continue the same debate, little changed from the one in which Ferri participated in.

The debates today pit those espousing rational choice theories of crime (control and deterrence theories being the most popular versions) against what still might best be called positivistic theories. To be sure, contemporary positivistic criminology is considerably different from the theories of Gall and Lombroso. Modern criminologists do not explain law-violating behavior using the shapes of heads and body forms. Yet there are still those who argue that biological traits can explain criminal behavior (Wilson and Herrenstein 1985; Mednick 1977), and still others who focus on psychological characteristics. But most modern criminologists are sociologists who focus on how social structures and culture explain criminal behavior. What all of these modern positivists have in common with their predecessors Gall, Lombroso, and company, is that they share a belief that human behavior, including crime, is not simply a consequence of individual choices. Behavior, they argue, is ”determined” at least in part by biological, psychological, or social forces. The goal of modern positivist criminologists is to unravel the combination of forces that make some people more likely than others to commit crimes.

Today the research of sociological criminologists focuses on three questions: What is the nature of crime? How do we explain crime? What are the effects of societies’ attempts to control crime? Approaches to answering these questions vary greatly, as do the answers offered by criminologists. For example the first question, what is the nature of crime, can be answered by detailing the characteristics of people who commit crimes. Alternatively, one can challenge the very definition of what crime, and consequently criminals, are. In an attempt to answer this question, some criminologists focus on how much crime there is. But of course, even this is a difficult question to answer because there are many ways to count crime, with each type offering different and sometimes seemingly conflicting answers.


Simply defining crime can be problematic. We can easily define crime legally: Crime is a violation of the criminal law. The simplicity of this definition is its virtue, but also its weakness. On the positive side, a legalistic definition clearly demarcates what will be counted as crime—those actions defined by the state as a violation. However, it is not as clear as to whom will be defined as criminals. Do we count as criminals those who violate the law and are not arrested? What about those who are arrested and not convicted? Some criminologists would argue that even an act that may appear to be criminal cannot be called ”crime” until a response or evaluation has been made of that act. For example, how can we know if an offensive act is a crime if there has been no evaluation of the intent of the perpetrator? In Anglo-American law, without criminal intent, an offensive action is not considered a criminal action. Other critics of a legalistic definition of crime argue that it is an overly limited conception that too narrowly truncates criminological inquiry; a legalistic definition of crime accepts the state’s definition of ”legal” and equates that with ”legitimate.” Critical criminologists (Quinney 1974; Chambliss 1975; Taylor, Walton, and Young 1973) argue that we should ask questions about the creation of law such as whose interests are being served by classifying a particular behavior as ”illegal.” Questions such as these tend to be ignored if we simply accept a legalistic definition. Indeed, the particular definition used influences the kind of questions criminologists ask. When a legalistic definition is used, criminologists tend to ask questions such as: ”How much crime occurs?” ”Who commits rime?” ”Why are some people criminal?” If a broader conception of crime is the focus (i.e., one that addresses the rule-makers as well as the rule-breakers), then one might ask these same questions, but add others: ”Where does the law come from?” ”Why are some offensive acts considered crimes while others are not?” ”Whose interests do the laws serve?” This is not a debate that will ever be resolved. Students of criminology should understand however, that the definition of crime they employ will have important implications for the kinds of questions they will ask, the kinds of data they will use to study crime, and the kinds of explanations and theories they will apply to understand crime and criminal behavior.


Having made choices about definitions, criminologists are then faced with an array of data and methodologies that can be brought to bear on criminological questions. The data and methodological approach used should be dictated by the definition of crime and the research question being asked. Some very interesting research problems require analysis of quantitative data while others require that the researcher use qualitative approaches to study crime or a criminal justice process. For example, if one is trying to describe the socio-demographic characteristics of criminals then one of several means of counting crimes and people who engage in them might be used. On the other hand, in his book On The Take (1978), because Chambliss was interested in the source and nature of organized crime, it was clearly more appropriate for him to spend time in the field observing and interviewing, rather than simply counting.

Methods of Criminological Research. For the most part, criminologists use the same types of research methods as do other sociologists. But a unique quality of crime is its ”hiddenness.” The character of crime means that those who do it hide it. As a result, the criminologist must be a bit of a detective even while engaged in social science research. To do this criminologists use observational studies such as those conducted by Chambliss (1978) in studying organized crime, or Fisse and Braithwaite (1987) in studies of white-collar crime, or Sanchez-Jankowski (1992) in his studies of gang crime.

Those who use quantitative methods frequently use data generated by the criminal justice system, victimization surveys, or self-reports. All of these data collection procedures have strengths and weaknesses, and they are best used by criminologists who have an appreciation of both. The most widely used criminal justice data are produced by police departments and published by the Federal Bureau Investigation each year in their Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). The UCR contains counts of the crimes reported to police, arrest data (including some characteristics of those arrested), police manpower statistics, and other data potentially of interest to researchers. Victimization surveys may be conducted by individuals or teams of researchers. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is conducted annually by the federal government and, as a consequence, is widely used. The virtue of victimization surveys is that they include criminal acts that are never reported to the police. As their name indicates, self-report studies simply ask a sample of people about their involvement in criminal activity. If done correctly, it is quite surprising what people will report to researchers.

Characteristics of criminals. It is always risky to speak of the characteristics of criminals because of the problems with crime data mentioned above. Also, one must take care to specify the types of crimes included in any description of those characteristics correlated with criminal involvement. For example, those engaging in white-collar crime have very different characteristics than perpetrators of what might be called ”common crimes” or ”street crime.” In order to engage in white-collar crime, one has to be old enough to have a white-collar job, and possess those characteristics (such as education) requisite for those jobs. Without these same requirements, the perpetrators of street crime can reasonably be expected to look different from white-collar criminals.

Criminologists frequently speak of ”the big four correlates of crime”: age, sex, race, and social class. The first two are rather uncomplicated. Crime is, for the most part, a young person’s activity (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983). Probable involvement escalates in the teen years reaching a peak at between ages 15 and 17 and then drops. Most people stop participating in criminal activity by their mid to late twenties, even if they have not been arrested, punished, or rehabilitated. The correlation between sex and crime is also quite straightforward. Males are more likely to engage in crime than females. Criminologists have not found a society where this pattern does not hold.

The correlation between race, or ethnicity, and crime is complex. Most Americans when asked state that they believe that minorities commit more crimes than whites. This oversimplification is not only inaccurate, but it obscures important patterns. First, some nonwhites in the United States are from groups with lower crime rates than whites (e.g. Chinese and Japanese Americans), but even this pattern is more complex. Chinese Americans whose families have been in the United States for generations seem to have lower crime rates than white Americans, but more recent Chinese immigrants have higher rates than white Americans. The category ”Asian Americans” is too diverse to make generalizations about the larger group’s perpetration of crime. The same is true of Latinos and Latinas. African Americans have disproportionately high crime rates, but Africans and people of Caribbean island descent have lower crime rates than black Americans. To simply describe the correlations between broad racial categories and crime misses an important sociological point: The criminality associated with each group appears to be more a product of their experience in America than simply their membership in that racial/ethnic category. This point is buttressed by patterns of race, ethnicity, and crime in other countries. Visible minorities and immigrants are more likely to have higher crime rates and to be more frequently arrested in countries where they are subordinated (see Tonry 1997 for a collection of studies of race, ethnicity, crime, and criminal justice in several countries).

For decades, in fact probably for centuries, researchers assumed that people from the lower classes committed more crime than those of higher status. In fact, most sociological theories used to explain common crime are based on this assumption. In the mid-1970s several criminologists argued that there really is not a substantial correlation between social class and crime (Tittle, Villemez, and Smith 1978). Many criminologists today believe that if we are simply considering the likelihood of breaking the law then there probably is not much difference by social class. But if the criminal domain being studied is serious violent offenses, then there probably is a negative association between social class and crime. Still, the correlation between social class and violent crime is not as strong as most people would assume (Hindelang, Hirschi, and Weis 1981).

Where crime occurs. A very sociological way of describing crime is to examine the crime patterns that exist for different types of areas. The social ”ecological” literature that does this usually focuses on states, metropolitan areas, cities, and neighborhoods. When this occurs, we find that those areas with relatively large numbers of residents who are poor, African American, immigrants, young, and living in crowded conditions have higher crime rates. One must be very careful when interpreting these patterns. Because an area with relatively large numbers of people with these characteristics has a high crime rate, we cannot conclude that they are necessarily the people committing the crimes. For example, high poverty areas have high crime rates. The high crime rates found in poor neighborhoods however, could be produced by their victimization by the nonpoor. The interesting thing about these correlations, as well as patterns of individual crime correlations, are not the observed patterns themselves but rather the questions that arise from these observations.

Victims of crime. One of the more interesting things that we have learned from victimization studies is how similar the victims of crimes are to the offenders. Victims of crime tend to be young, male, and minority group members. In fact, the prototypical victim of violent crime in America is a young, African-American male. The poor and those with limited education are disproportionately the victims of crime as well. These patterns are obviously inconsistent with popular images of crime and victimization, but they are quite predictable when we examine what we know about crime.


Three theoretical traditions in sociology dominated the study of crime from the early and mid-twentieth century. Contemporary versions of these theories continue to be used today. The ”Chicago School” tradition, or social disorganization theory, was the earliest of the three. The other two are differential association strain theories or anomie theory (including subculture theories).

Sociologists working in the Chicago School tradition have focused on how rapid or dramatic social change causes increases in crime. Just as Durkheim, Marx, Toennies, and other European sociologists thought that the rapid changes produced by industrialization and urbanization produced crime and disorder, so too did the Chicago School theorists. The location of the University of Chicago provided an excellent opportunity for Park, Burgess, and McKenzie to study the social ecology of the city. Shaw and McKay found (1931) that areas of the city characterized by high levels of social disorganization had higher rates of crime and delinquency.

In the 1920s and 1930s Chicago, like many American cities, experienced considerable immigration. Rapid population growth is a disorganizing influence, but growth resulting from in-migra-tion of very different people is particularly disruptive. Chicago’s in-migrants were both native-born whites and blacks from rural areas and small towns, and foreign immigrants. The heavy industry of cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh drew those seeking opportunities and new lives. Farmers and villagers from America’s hinterland, like their European cousins of whom Durkheim wrote, moved in large numbers into cities. At the start of the twentieth century Americans were predominately a rural population, but by the century’s mid-point most lived in urban areas. The social lives of these migrants, as well as those already living in the cities they moved to, were disrupted by the differences between urban and rural life. According to social disorganization theory, until the social ecology of the ”new place” can adapt, this rapid change is a criminogenic influence. But most rural migrants, and even many of the foreign immigrants to the city, looked like and eventually spoke the same language as the natives of the cities into which they moved. These similarities allowed for more rapid social integration for these migrants than was the case for African Americans and most foreign immigrants.

In these same decades America experienced what has been called ”the great migration”: the massive movement of African Americans out of the rural South and into northern (and some southern) cities. The scale of this migration is one of the most dramatic in human history. These migrants, unlike their white counterparts, were not integrated into the cities they now called home. In fact, most American cities at the end of the twentieth century were characterized by high levels of racial residential segregation (Massey and Denton 1993). Failure to integrate these migrants, coupled with other forces of social disorganization such as crowding, poverty, and illness, caused crime rates to climb in the cities, particularly in the segregated wards and neighborhoods where the migrants were forced to live.

Foreign immigrants during this period did not look as dramatically different from the rest of the population as blacks did, but the migrants from eastern and southern Europe who came to American cities did not speak English, and were frequently Catholic, while the native born were mostly Protestant. The combination of rapid population growth with the diversity of those moving into the cities created what the Chicago School sociologists called social disorganization. More specifically, the disorganized areas and neighborhoods where the unintegrated migrants lived were unable to exercise the social control that characterized organized, integrated communities. Here crime could flourish. Crime was not a consequence of who happened to live in a particular neighborhood, but rather of the character of the social ecology in which they lived. That is, the crime rate was a function of the area itself and not of the people who lived there. When members of an immigrant or ethnic group moved out of that area (usually in succeeding generations), that group’s crime rate would go down. But, the old neighborhood, with its cheaper housing and disorganized conditions, would attract another, more recent group migrating to the city. Those groups settled there because that is where they could afford to live. When they became more integrated in American urban life, like those who came before them, they would move to better neighborhoods and as a result have lower crime rates. Chicago School sociologists called the process of one ethnic group moving out to be replaced by a newly arriving group (with the first group passing on to newcomers both the neighborhood and its high crime) ”ethnic succession.” This pattern seems to have worked for most ethnic groups except African Americans. For African Americans, residential segregation and racial discrimination prohibited the move to better, more organized neighborhoods.

Contemporary social disorganization theorists (Sampson and Groves 1989) are less concerned with the effects of ethnic migration. The disorganizing effects of urban poverty (Sampson and Wilson 1994), racial residential segregation (Massey and Denton 1993), and the social isolation of the urban poor (Wilson 1987), and the consequent effect on crime is the focus of current research. This line of research has developed intriguing answers to the question of why some racial or ethnic groups have higher crime rates.

Both the anomie and differential association traditions grew out of critiques of the Chicago School version of social disorganization theory. The latter was developed by Sutherland (1924), himself a member of the University of Chicago faculty. Sutherland believed that a theory of crime should explain not only how bad behavior is produced in bad living conditions, but also how bad behavior arises from good living circumstances. This theory should also explain why most residents of disorganized neighborhoods do not become criminals or delinquents. Sutherland explained this by arguing that crime is more likely to occur when a person has a greater number of deviant associations, relative to non-deviant associations.

Differential association occurs when a person has internalized an excess of definitions favorable to violations of the law. Sutherland believed that we all experience a variety of forms of exposure to definitions favorable to violation of the law—”It is OK to steal this because the insurance company will pay for it”—and definitions unfavorable to violation of the law—”It is not OK to steal from stores, because all of us are hurt when prices go up to pay the stores’ higher insurance premiums.” Sutherland was very careful to point out what differential association was not. It is not a simple count of favorable and unfavorable definitions. Differential association theory is not a theory that focuses on who a person associates with. Indeed Sutherland argued that it is possible to receive definitions favorable to violation from the law-abiding. Of course those spending time with delinquent peers will be exposed to more criminal definitions, but the theory should not be reduced to simply a peer group theory of crime and delinquency (Sutherland and Cressey 1974). As Cressey has pointed out, if crime were simply a consequence of prolonged proximity with criminals, then prison guards would be the most criminal group in the population. Differential association theory continues to be of influence in contemporary sociology, but it does not occupy as central a role as it did in the 1940s and 1950s. Matsueda (1988), the theory’s major contemporary proponent, has emphasized the interactive quality (similar to labeling theory) of differential association theory. Matsueda has suggested new ways to operationalize the key concepts of differential association, and the theory is ”evolving” in his writings to bring in aspects of both interactionist and rational choice theory.

Anomie theory’s roots are in the work of Durkheim, who used the concept anomie to describe the disruption of regulating norms resulting from rapid social change. Strain theories, including anomie theory, focus on social structural strains, inequalities, and dislocations, which cause crime and delinquency. Durkheim stressed that societal norms that restrained the aspirations of individuals were important for preventing deviance. However, unrealistically high aspirations would be frustrated by a harsh social reality, leading to adaptations such as suicide, crime, and addiction. Merton adapted Durkheim’s notion of anomie by combining this idea with the observation that not only do societal norms affect the likelihood of achieving aspirations, but they also determine to a large degree what we aspire to (1938). In other words, society helps determine the goals that we internalize by defining which of them are legitimate but it also defines the legitimate means of achieving these goals. American society, for example, defines material comfort as legitimate goals, and taking a well-paid job as a legitimate means of achieving them. Yet legitimate means such as these and economic success are not universally available. When a society is characterized by a disjunction between its legitimate goals and the legitimate means available to achieve them, crime is more likely.

This conceptualization led a number of criminologists to focus on these ”opportunity structure” strains (Cloward and Ohlin 1960), as well as cultural strains (Cohen 1955), to explain why crime would be higher in lower social class neighborhoods. Contemporary strain theorists have moved in two directions. Some have proceeded in ways that are quite consistent with Merton’s original conceptualization, while others have set forward a more social psychological conception of strain (Agnew 1992). What ties these contemporary versions of anomie theory to the earlier tradition is the notion that there are individual adaptations to social strain, or structurally based unequal opportunity, and that some of these adaptations can result in crime.

Subcultural explanations of crime are similar to both differential association and anomie theories. Like differential association, subculture theories have an important learning component. Both types of theories emphasize that crime, the behavior, accompanying attitudes, justifications, etc., are learned by individuals within the context of the social environment in which they live. And, as anomie and other versions of strain theory emphasize, subcultural explanations of crime tend to focus on lower-class life as a generating milieu in which procriminal norms and values thrive. Cohen’s book Delinquent Boys (1955) describes delinquency as a product of class-based social strains, which lead to a gang subculture conducive to delinquency. Miller (1958) argued that a prodelinquency value system springs from situations where young boys grow up in poor, female-headed households. He felt that adherence to these values, which he called ”the focal concerns of the lower class,” made it more likely that boys would join gangs and involve themselves in delinquency. This idea enjoys recurring popularity in explanations of behavior in poor, and especially urban, minority neighborhoods (Banfield 1968; Murray 1984) even though it is notoriously difficult to test empirically.

A different version of subculture theory has been championed by Wolfgang (Wolfgang and Ferracuti 1967). Wolfgang and his colleagues argued that people in some segments of communities internalized, carried, and intergenerationally transferred values that were proviolence. Accordingly, members of this subculture of violence would more frequently resort to violence in circumstances where others probably would not. Critics of this thesis have argued that it is difficult to assess who carries ”subculture of violence values” except via the behavior that is being predicted.

Along with most other institutions and traditions, mainstream criminology was challenged in the 1960s. Critics raised questions about the theories, data, methods, and even the definitions of crime used in criminology. The early challenges came from labeling theorists. This group used a variant of symbolic interaction to argue that law-violating behavior was widespread in the general population, and the official labeling of a selected subset of violators was more a consequence of who the person was than of what the person had done (Becker 1963). Consequently, crime should not be defined as behavior that violates the law, because many people violate the law and are never arrested, prosecuted, or convicted. Rather, crime is a behavior that is selectively sanctioned, depending on who is engaging in it. It follows then that when criminologists use data produced by the criminal justice system, we are not studying crime but the criminal justice system itself. These data only tell us about the people selected for sanctioning, not about all of those who break the law. And, labeling theorists argued, most of our theories have been trying to explain why lower-class people engage disproportionately in crime, but since they do not—they are simply disproportionately sanc-tioned—the theories are pointless. What should be explained, labeling theorists argued, is why some people are more likely to be labeled and sanctioned as criminals than are others who engage in the same or similar behavior. The answer they offered was that those with sufficient resources—enough money, the right racial or gender status, etc.—to fend off labeling by the criminal justice system are simply less likely to be arrested.

A further contribution by labeling theorists is the idea that the labeling process actually creates deviance. The act of labeling people as criminals sets in motion processes that marginalize them from the mainstream, create in them the self-identification as ”criminal,” which in turn affects their behavior. In other words, the act of sanctioning causes more of the behavior the criminal justice system wishes to extinguish.

Marxist criminology actually began in 1916 with the publication of Bonger’s Criminality and Economic Conditions, but it became central to criminological discourse in the late 1960s and 1970s (Chambliss 1975; Platt 1969; Quinney 1974; Taylor, Walton, and Young 1973). The Marxist critique of mainstream criminology can be summarized by focusing on the argument that it tends to ask three types of questions: Who commits crimes? How much crime is there? Why do people break the law? The Marxist perspective argues that these may be important questions, but more important are those that do not reify the law itself. Marxists argue that in addition to the above questions, criminologists should ask: Where does the law come from? Whose interest does the law serve? Why are the laws structured and enforced in particular ways? Their answers to these questions are based on a class-conflict analysis. Power in social systems is allocated according to social class, and the powerful use the law to protect their interests and the status quo that perpetuates their superordinate status. So the law and criminal justice system practices primarily serve the interest of elites; while they at times serve the interests of other classes, their raison d’etre is the interests of the powerful. Law is structured to protect the current status arrangements.

Both the labeling and Marxist perspectives experienced broad popularity among students of criminology. Many scholars responded to their critiques not by joining them, but by taking some lessons from the debate and moving forward to develop theories consistent with traditional directions and research methods that were not as dependent on data generated by the criminal justice system. Victimization surveys and self-report studies of crime have become more widely used, in part as a consequence of these critiques.

All of the theories mentioned so far have had significant empirical challenges. Most of the initial statements have been falsified or their proponents have had to revise the perspective in the face of evidence that did not support it. Several of these explanations of crime, or how societies control their members, are used today in a modified form, while others have evolved into contemporary theories that are being tested by researchers. No doubt when someone writes about criminology in the future, some or all of the more recent theories will have joined those that have been falsified or modified as a result of empirical analyses. Contemporary criminological theories tend to be in the control theory, rational choice, or conflict traditions. However, these are not mutually exclusive (e.g. some control theories are very much rational choice theories).

Control theorists begin by saying that we ask the wrong question when we seek to understand why some people commit crimes. We should instead seek to explain why most people do not violate the rules. Control theorists reason that we do not need to explain why someone who is hungry or has less will steal from those who have what they want or need. We do not need to explain why the frustrated and angry among us will express their feelings violently. The interesting question is: Why don’t most people who have less or have grievances engage in property or violent crime? Other versions of control theory (Nye 1958; Reckless 1961) preceded his, but Hirschi’s (1969) classic answer to this question is that those who are ”socially bonded” to critical institutions such as families, schools, conventional norms, etc., are less likely to violate the law. The bonds give them a ”stake in conformity,” something they value and would risk losing should they violate important rules. Though not initially stated in rational choice terms of classical school ideas, one can see similarities between Hirschi’s notions of ”stakes in conformity” and the Classical School of criminology’s concept of the ”social contract.”

Control theory has evolved in a number of directions. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) have argued that crime and deviance are a consequence of the failure of some to develop adequate self-control. Self-control is developed, if at all, early in life—by the age of eight or ten. Those who do not develop self-control will, they argue, exhibit various forms (depending on their age) of deviance throughout their lives. These people will commit crimes disproportionately during the crime-prone ages, between adolescence and the late twenties. Sampson and Laub’s (1993) ”life-course” perspective argues that social bonds change for people at different stages of their lives. Bonds to families are important early, to schools and law-abiding peers later, and eventually bonds to spouses, one’s own children, and jobs and careers ultimately tie people to conventional norms and prevent crime and deviance. Tittle (1995) has offered a control balance theory of deviance. He believes that those who balance control exerted by self with control by others that they are subjected to are the least likely to commit acts of crime and deviance. Those whose ”control ratio” is out of balance, with too much or too little regulation by the self or others, have a higher probability of breaking rules.

The contemporary rational choice perspective of crime has been most explicitly articulated by economists (Becker 1968; Ehrlich 1973). Becker described the choices people make in social behavior, including crime, as much like those made in economic behavior. Before a purchase we weigh the cost of an item against the utility, or benefit to be gained by owning that item. Likewise, before engaging in crime, a person weighs the cost— prison, loss of prestige, relationships, or even life— against the benefits to crime—pleasure, expression of anger, or material gain. Becker argued that when the benefits outweigh the cost individuals would be more likely to commit criminal actions.

Control theory can also be thought of as a rational choice theory. The ”bonded” among us have a stake in conformity, or something to weigh on the ”to be lost” side of a cost-benefit analysis. To engage in crime is to risk the loss of valued bonds to family, teachers, or employers. The bond in control theory, thought of in this way, is an informal deterrent. Deterrence theory (Geerken and Gove 1975) is ordinarily written of in terms of a formal system of deterrence provided by the criminal justice system. As originally conceived by Classical School criminologists, police, prosecutors, and the courts endeavor to raise the cost of committing crime so that those costs outweigh the benefits from illegal behavior. In the case of those convicted, the courts attempt to do this by varying the sentence so that those convicted become convinced that they must avoid crime in the future. This deterrence aimed at those already in violation is referred to as ”specific” or ”special” deterrence. The noncriminal public is persuaded by general deterrence to avoid crime. They perceive that crime does not pay when they see others sanctioned. So, when considering criminal options, they weigh the utility of illegal action against the potential cost in the forms of sanctions. According to deterrence theory, when those positive utilities are outweighed by the perceived cost—effective deterrence—they choose not to engage in crime.

A number of contemporary conflict theories of criminology are legacies of 1960s and 1970s-era critical perspectives. Most prominent among these is feminist criminological theory (Simpson 1989). Contemporary conflict theories, like earlier Marxist theory, address important questions about interest groups. They begin with the position that to understand social life, including crime and responses to crime, the social, political, and economic interests of contesting parties and groups must be taken into account (Marxists, of course, focus on economic conflict). Feminist criminology focuses on gender conflict in society. These criminologists argue that to understand crimes by women, against women, and the reaction to both, we must consider the subordinate status of women. If poverty is one of the root causes of crime, then we should recognize first that the largest impoverished group in American society, and in most western industrialized societies, is children. Increasingly, children are raised in female-headed households whose poverty can be traced to the lower earnings of women, a consequence of gender stratification.

Other conflict analyses of crime focus on income inequality (Blau and Blau 1982), racial inequality (Sampson and Wilson 1994), and labor-market stratification (Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997). What these approaches share is the idea that to understand why individuals engage in crime, or why some groups or geographic areas have higher crime rates, or why patterns of criminal justice are the way they are, consideration of important social conflicts and cleavages must be brought into the analysis. Blau and Blau (1982) illustrated how income inequality, especially inequality based on race, is correlated with higher rates of violent crime. Those metropolitan areas with relatively high levels of inequality tend also to have more violence. Others (Williams 1984; Messener 1989) have argued that it is not so much relative inequality that leads to higher violent crime rates, but rather high levels of poverty. Sampson and Wilson (1994) argue that racial stratification is linked to economic stratification and this complex association accounts for higher levels of crime participation among blacks. Crutchfield and Pitchford (1997), studying a particular form of institutional stratification that was produced by segmented labor markets, found that those marginalized in the work force under some circumstances are more likely to engage in crime.

Hagan, Gillis, and Simpson (1985) developed what they call a ”power control theory of delinquency.” They combine elements of social control theory and conflict theory to explain class and gender patterns of delinquency. They argue that because of gender stratification, parents seek to control their daughters more and because of class stratification, those in the higher classes have more capacity (because they have the available resources) to monitor (control) their children. Yet, children of the upper classes are actually free to commit more delinquency by virtue of their social-class standing. Consequently, upper-class girls will be more controlled than their lower-class counterparts, but their brothers will have minor delinquency rates resembling those of lower-class boys.


While the theories discussed above focus on the causes of crime, they are also important for describing how social systems control crime. Societies attempt to control the behavior of people living within their borders with a combination of formal and informal systems of control. Social disorganization theory and anomie theory are examples of how crime is produced when normative control breaks down. Differential association and subcultural explanations describe how informal social control is subverted by socialization that supports criminal behavior rather than compliant behavior. Control theories focus specifically on how weak systems of informal social control fail. The obvious exception to this last statement is that portion of control theories that are also deterrence theory. Deterrence theory does consider informal systems of control, but an important part of this thesis is aimed at explaining how formal systems, or the criminal justice system in western societies, attempt to control criminal behavior. Most criminologists believe that informal systems of control are considerably more efficient than formal systems. This makes sense if one remembers that police cannot regulate us as much as we ourselves can when we have internalized conventional norms, and similarly, police cannot watch our behavior nearly as much as our families, friends, teachers, and neighbors can. The criminal justice system then is reduced to supporting informal systems of control (thus the interest in block-watch programs by police departments), engaging in community policing and patrol patterns that discourage crime, or reacting after violations have occurred.


Criminologists are interested in answering questions about how crime should be defined, why crime occurs, and how societies seek to control crime. The history of modern criminology, which can be traced to the early nineteenth century, has not produced definitive answers to these questions. To some students that is a source of frustration. To many of us the resulting ambiguity is the source of continuing interesting debate. More importantly, the disagreement among criminologists captures the complexity of social life. Oversimplification to achieve artificial closure on these debates will not produce quality answers to these questions, nor will it, to the consternation of some politicians, lead to workable solutions to crime problems. Most criminologists recognize that the complex debates about the answers to these three seemingly simple questions will ultimately be a more productive route to understanding crime and to finding effective means to address crime problems.

Next post:

Previous post: