Important Theories in Criminology: Why People Commit Crime

Part of the Criminology For Dummies Cheat Sheet

In criminology, examining why people commit crime is very important in the ongoing debate of how crime should be handled and prevented. Many theories have emerged over the years, and they continue to be explored, individually and in combination, as criminologists seek the best solutions in ultimately reducing types and levels of crime. Here is a broad overview of some key theories:

  • Rational choice theory: People generally act in their self-interest and make decisions to commit crime after weighing the potential risks (including getting caught and punished) against the rewards.

  • Social disorganization theory: A person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that person makes. In particular, a neighborhood that has fraying social structures is more likely to have high crime rates. Such a neighborhood may have poor schools, vacant and vandalized buildings, high unemployment, and a mix of commercial and residential property.

  • Strain theory: Most people have similar aspirations, but they don’t all have the same opportunities or abilities. When people fail to achieve society’s expectations through approved means such as hard work and delayed gratification, they may attempt to achieve success through crime.

  • Social learning theory: People develop motivation to commit crime and the skills to commit crime through the people they associate with.

  • Social control theory: Most people would commit crime if not for the controls that society places on individuals through institutions such as schools, workplaces, churches, and families.

  • Labeling theory: People in power decide what acts are crimes, and the act of labeling someone a criminal is what makes him a criminal. Once a person is labeled a criminal, society takes away his opportunities, which may ultimately lead to more criminal behavior.

  • Biology, genetics, and evolution: Poor diet, mental illness, bad brain chemistry, and even evolutionary rewards for aggressive criminal conduct have been proposed as explanations for crime.

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