Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

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Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

The most common criminological theories attribute criminal motivation to environmental or social factors rather than biological or psychological traits. These theories may focus on social influences on crime or on economic factors.

Social Causes

One of the first theories describing the influence of social factors on crime came from French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. In the late 1880s Tarde criticized the physical typology theories of Lombroso and his followers. Although Tarde did not deny the relevance of biological factors in enhancing criminal tendencies, he asserted that the causes of crime are chiefly social. His basic theory on the causes of crime was founded on laws of imitation.

Tarde believed that persons predisposed to crime are attracted to criminal activity by the example of other criminals. He also felt that the particular crimes committed and the methods of committing those crimes are the products of imitation. The predisposition to crime, while in part reflecting many factors, is explained principally by the offender’s social environment, particularly the environment of his younger years. Tarde was also one of the first to study the professional criminal. He noted that certain offenders pursue careers of crime. These career criminals may engage in periods of apprenticeship that are similar to those that characterize training for entry into other professions.

Another French social theorist of major importance to modern criminology was à‰mile Durkheim, who believed that the causes of crime are present in the very nature of society. According to Durkheim, whose major works were written in the 1890s, crime is related to the loss of social stability. Durkheim used the term anomie to describe the feelings of alienation and confusion associated with the breakdown of social bonds. According to Durkheim, individuals in the modern era tend to feel less connected to a community than did their ancestors, and thus their conduct is less influenced by group norms.

Since the early work of Tarde and Durkheim that proposed a link between social interactions and criminal motivation, sociological theories of crime have become much more detailed. They have identified the particular social groups that affect criminal motivation and the process by which criminal socialization occurs. This elaboration of sociological theories of crime can be divided into two major schools of thought: the social-structural school and the subcultural school.

Social-Structural Theories

The social-structural approach emphasizes the effects of an individual’s position in society and the constraints that the person’s status puts on his or her perceptions and behavior. According to this model, all members of society subscribe to the same moral code but some people-because of their position in society-are more able than others to follow that code. Social-structural theorists assert that crime is an adaptation to the limitations that social position places on individual behavior.

Social-structural theorists focus their attention on socioeconomic status or social class and the strain that lower class status brings. The principal goal of these theories is to explain why poorer people engage in crime more frequently than wealthy individuals. According to the structural strain theory developed by American sociologist Robert Merton in the late 1930s, crime is not simply a function of deprivation but the result of a disjuncture (lack of connection) between ends (goals) and the means to attain those ends.

People who aspire to the cultural norm of economic achievement but are denied the education, capital, or other means to realize those ends will experience strain. According to Merton, there are three possible responses to this strain. First, the person may try what Merton calls innovation. Although the individual continues to accept the cultural value of success, he or she will employ illegitimate means, such as theft or robbery, to obtain money because legitimate means to achieve this end are not available. Another possible response is what Merton termed retreatism. The person gives up the pursuit of economic success and engages in self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse. Finally, Merton identified the response of rebellion, wherein the person abandons the culturally dictated goal of economic achievement and engages in revolutionary activities or in attempts to reform the system.

One of the major criticisms of strain theories is that, although crime rates for poorer people exceed those for higher-income groups, only a small proportion of people in the lower economic class engages in criminal acts. American sociologists Edwin Sutherland, Richard Cloward, and Lloyd Ohlin have attempted to explain this phenomenon by emphasizing the role of learning. To become a criminal, a person must not only be inclined toward illegal activity, he or she must also learn how to commit criminal acts. Sutherland’s differential association theory contends that people whose environment provides the opportunity to associate with criminals will learn these skills and will become criminals in response to strain. If the necessary learning structures are absent, they will not.

Another type of structural theory of crime is the ecological theory, which focuses on the criminal’s relationship to the social environment. These theories emphasize migration and urbanization as sources of criminal adaptation and attempt to explain the geographic distribution of crime and criminals. Ecological theories often give special emphasis to urban areas.

In the 1940s American researchers Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay found that delinquent offenders clustered in certain neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois. This clustering persisted over time-even when the ethnic composition of the neighborhood changed dramatically. Shaw and McKay theorized that as people migrated from rural locations or from other nations into urban centers, their poverty forced them into districts that were on the fringe of industrial zones. These fringe areas, or areas of first settlement, were characterized by high levels of social disorganization-that is, the residents of these areas rarely interacted or communicated with each other.

Shaw and McKay also found the lack of communication in such areas was in part the result of the diversity of language and culture among immigrant groups, as well as the fact that people moved on after a short time. Thus it was difficult to form enduring relationships and to negotiate an agreed-upon code of behavior. Furthermore, because informal social control was weak and people did not share common norms, crime rates and arrests were high. When people left these areas, their risk of engaging in or being the victim of criminal activity dropped. Others moving into these disorganized areas experienced increased involvement in criminal activity.

Ecological theories were quite influential immediately after World War II (1939-1945). They served as a basis for crime prevention efforts such as the Chicago Area Project (CAP), which attempted to inject some form of social controls into disorganized areas. CAP personnel attempted to ease the adjustment of newcomers and to get residents to organize themselves into groups that could negotiate a consensual social order in the community and advocate for outside resources. In the 1960s the importance of community as a source of criminal motivation in sociological theory declined. New theories emphasized race and social class. Research conducted in the early 1980s, however, demonstrated that crime and criminals were still clustered in regions that were very much like the disorganized areas described in the earlier studies.

Subcultural Theories

While social-structural or strain theories assume that people share similar values and differ only with respect to access to resources, subcultural theories assume that certain groups have values quite distinct from those of the rest of society. Moreover, these differences are enduring. Members of these groups will be disproportionately involved in crime because they acquire and follow the values of their group. According to the subcultural model, crime does not occur because people have been imperfectly socialized; it occurs because they have been socialized in a deviant group and acquired its values.

Some subcultural theorists maintain there is a so-called lower-class culture that emphasizes toughness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. According to these theorists, attempting to behave in a manner consistent with these values disproportionally involves lower-class people in crime. For example, individuals from a subculture that puts extreme emphasis on toughness and individual respect may respond with violence to an insult that most people would consider trivial.

Social-control theory, developed by American criminologist Travis Hirschi in the late 1960s, is a variant of subcultural theories because it emphasizes the acquisition of values. However, social-control theory stands the principal question of criminology on its head. While most theories attempt to explain why certain people or classes of people become criminals, social-control theory asks why most people do not commit crimes.

Social-control theory assumes that everyone has a predisposition toward criminal behavior. Whether or not a person acts on those predispositions depends on whether he or she has ties to groups that impart values opposing crime, such as the family, school, the community, and volunteer organizations. People with such attachments initially hold certain values because they fear sanction from these groups. Gradually, however, the values are internalized and followed because of a belief that to do otherwise would be morally wrong. People without these attachments are not deterred by threat of group sanction nor do they ultimately internalize legitimate norms, and thus they are more likely to engage in criminal activity.

Substantial empirical evidence supports social-control theory. Numerous studies have shown that known delinquents and nondelinquents differ with respect to their attachments to legitimate groups as well as their commitment to legitimate values.

Economic Causes

Studies concerning the influence of economic factors on criminal behavior have attempted to link economic deprivation to increased motivation to commit crimes (especially property crimes). Such studies assume that when economic conditions worsen more people experience deprivation and turn to crime to reduce that deprivation. These same theories have been used to explain why people of lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately represented among known criminals.

Other studies attempt to relate the disproportionate involvement of poor people in crime to the distribution of power in society. The assumption in these studies is that criminal law is a tool used by the social group with higher economic status to advance its class interests. These theories assert that criminal law is fashioned according to the needs of this elite, and to the detriment of classes with lower status.

Studies of the relationship between unemployment and crime have yielded conflicting results. Some studies indicate a negative relationship between unemployment and crime-that is, when unemployment decreases, crime increases, or vice versa. Other studies indicate a positive relationship (when one increases, so does the other), and others find no relationship.

In certain macrosocial theories (theories that focus on whole social systems rather than individual people), criminologists link crime rates to the development of surplus labor (greater numbers of available workers than jobs) in the capitalist economic system. Those who follow the teachings of German political philosopher Karl Marx (known as Marxists) believe that capitalist societies generate surplus labor as a means of limiting the demands of workers for higher wages and other benefits. During periods of economic expansion, fewer people are punished for criminal activity. This reduces the amount of people in jail and increases the size of surplus labor in the economy. On the other hand, during periods of economic decline, more people are put in jail, which prevents too much surplus labor from posing a threat to the social and economic order.

Source: “Criminology,”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

See Also

Criminology: Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

Introduction to Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

The most common criminological theories attribute criminal motivation to environmental or social factors rather than biological or psychological traits. These theories may focus on social influences on crime or on economic factors.” (1)


Notes and References

Guide to Environmental and Social Theories of Crime

In this Section

Criminology, Criminology Development (including Classical Criminology, Modern Criminology, Criminology Italian School and Independent Criminology), Criminology Goals, Biological Theories of Crime (including Crime Genetic Factors and Neurological Abnormalities), Psychological Theories of Crime (including Moral Development Theories, Social Learning Theories and Personality Theories), Environmental and Social Theories of Crime (including Social Causes, Social-Structural Theories, Subcultural Theories and Economic Causes of Crime) and

Criminal Opportunity.

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