After reading this section, students will be able to:
- Distinguish between classical, biological, psychological, and sociological explanations of criminal behavior.
- Understand the links between crime control policy and theories of criminal behavior.
- Demonstrate effective application of criminological theories to behavior.
This section introduces the importance of theory and theory creation. It also briefly describes some of the major paradigms of criminal explanations.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How do we know what theories explain crime better than other theories?
- How did the classical theory of crime influence the American criminal justice system?
- Why is it difficult to study biological theories of crime without thinking about the social environment?
- Which theory do you think explains criminal behavior the best? Why?
- Why do you think there have been so many different explanations to describe the origins of criminal behavior?
- 5.1: What is Theory?
- Criminological theories focus on explaining the causes of crime. They explain why some people commit a crime, identify risk factors for committing a crime, and can focus on how and why certain laws are created and enforced. Sutherland (1934) has referred to criminology as the scientific study of breaking the law, making the law, and society’s reaction to those who break the law. Besides making sense of our observations, theories also strive to make predictions.
- 5.6: Positivist Criminology
- Positivism is the use of empirical evidence through scientific inquiry to improve society. Ultimately, positivist criminology sought to identify other causes of criminal behavior beyond choice. The basic premises of positivism are measurement, objectivity, and causality. Early positivist theories speculated that there were criminals and non-criminals. Thus, we have to identify what causes criminals.
- 5.8: The Chicago School
- Biological and psychological positivism looked at differences between criminals and non-criminals. Instead of finding differences between kinds of people, the Chicago School tried to detect differences between kinds of places.
- 5.9: Strain Theories
- Strain theories assume people will commit crime because of strain, stress, or pressure. Depending on the version of strain theory, strain can come from a variety of origins. Strain theories also assume that human beings are naturally good; bad things happen, which “push” people into criminal activity.
- 5.10: Learning Theories
- In the previous sections, strain theories focused on social structural conditions that contribute to people experiencing strain, stress, or pressure. Strain theories explain how people can respond to these structures. Learning theories compliment strain theories because learning theories focus on the content and process of learning.