CCJ 5015

Nature of Crime

Lecture 1


The Nature of Crime

Criminology has been blessed with a large number of scientific theories.

(Vold et al.,1998)

What Constitute Theory?

n      Theories are tentative answers to commonly asked questions about such events.  (Akers, 1999)

n      “In general, scientific theories make statements about the relationship between two classes of phenomena”                   (Vold et al.,1998:4)


What Constitutes Theory?

n      “ Theories, then, are really a generalization of a sort; they explain how two or more events are related to each other.”

     (Williams and McShane, 1988:2)

n      “ A theory is a set of interconnected statements or propositions that explain how two or more events or factors are related to one another.” (Curran & Renzetti, 1994:2)


Scientific Knowledge

n       Scientific knowledge comes from scientific inquiry. Scientific inquiry is the practice and process of science: verification of observations made in a reliable and systematic manner. 

n       Once these observations have been observed and recorded time and time again, then a proposition or theory is made which explains
what we have observed. This time-after-time
approach is known as the empirical approach.


The Development of Theories

n      The conduct of science is carried out within the community of scholars.  This requires the submission of research to scrutiny by the Scientific community.  Through this
process, findings and opinions are examined by other scholars and through a process of communication either proved, disproved, or improved.


The Scientific Approach

n       “Positivists”, hold the social world to be
similar to the natural world and explain it in the same ‘positive’ terms as the physical sciences.

n       Social life is assumed to have properties which vary over time.  The goal of theory is to formulate propositions predictive of the quantity of this variation from one setting to another, using other variations to explain it.

n       The assumption is that social action is concrete, quantifiable, and susceptible to scientific analysis (Wilson, 1983:13).

Criminological Theories

n       Theory is“an explanation of the relationship between two or more phenomena.”(Walker,1998)
Theory serves a number of purposes:

n       1. to unify, systematize, and organize knowledge;

n       2. provide meaning and understanding to
    empirical findings and to identify causes;

n       3. to make sure that research fits reality;

n       4. to guide and stimulate scientific inquiry;

n       5. to provide a basis for the kinds of research that
    may be used in the criminal justice system.

Criminological Theory

n      A criminological theory, then, is an explanation of the relationship between people's characteristics and the possibility that they will engage in criminal behavior.

Weaknesses of Current Theories

n       Two major difficulties confront criminologists:

n        (1) a theory of criminal behaviour is not a theory of crime, it does not explain why behaviour is criminal  or non-criminal; and

n        (2) there is no theory available which explains all types of criminal behaviour.  Psychiatric theories are inadequate because not all criminals are emotionally
disturbed, and not all the emotionally disturbed are criminals.  Narrow sociological explanations are inadequate because not all criminals have prior associations with criminals, and not all individuals associating with criminals become criminals.  A theory is needed to integrate the legal, sociological, and psychological aspects of crime.

What Constitutes Theory?

n       These theories are statements about what is or what will be, not idle or philosophical speculation.

n       They are not statements about right and wrong, about “oughtness”

n       Theories are abstract, but they are about reality.

n       Theories about crime are part of a broader social science effort to explain human behavior and society.

n       The theories studied are part of an attempt to understand why people conform or deviate.


 Theories of Crime

n       In simple terms, a theory is a propositional statement which explains and/or predicts human behaviour in a systematic manner.

n       A theory states a relationship between two or more conditions or events by saying
“if this is present, then that is likely to occur.” 

n       Problems with most theories include the fact that they are too broad and often stated in terms
which are too simplistic to be useful.  Often theories are made to cover as much as possible and are presented in terms easy to understand.

What Constitutes Theory?

n       Theories are logical constructions that explain natural phenomena. They are not always directly observable, but can be supported or refuted by empirical findings.

n       Theory and empirical research are related through hypotheses, which are testable propositions that are logically derived from theories.

n       Scientific hypotheses must be capable of being accepted or rejected.


What Constitutes Theory?

n       Every policy or action taken is based on some theory or notion of why crime occurs.

n       This class will address the range of theories addressing the question, “Why do people commit crime?”.

n       A second question will emerge later in the semester as we also ask, “Why did the system chose that specific individual to be an offender?”


Nature of Crime

n      Sixty years ago, Michael and Adler noted,

“The assurance with which criminologists have advanced opinions regarding the cause of crime is striking compared to the worthlessness of the data upon which these opinions are based.” (Michael and Adler, 1933: 169)           

Nature of Crime

n       Gould noted, “Some topics are invested with enormous social importance but blessed with very little reliable information.  When the ration of data to social impact is low, a history of scientific attitudes may be little more than an oblique record of social change.  It may be that the history of criminology reflects more about the changing values of the larger society than it does about the changing scientific knowledge of crime” (Gould, 1981:22).

Theories of Crime

n       Social context plays a crucial role in nourishing certain ways of thinking about crime.  If the prevailing social context changes and people begin to experience life differently, there will be a corresponding shift in the way they see their world and the people in it…all of this can take place…without the systematic analysis of whether the old theory was wrong…” (Lilly et al., 1995 p.5)

Theories of Crime

n      Theories are frequently dismissed by practitioners as empty ruminations…

n      “Ideas have consequences” (Szaz, 1987)

n      To a considerable extent Criminal Justice Policy is based upon implicit “theories” of what causes people to commit crime.

n      Different theories suggest different ways to reduce crime.

Theories of Crime

n      “Perhaps the clearest lesson to be learned from historical research on crime and deviance is that the approach to crime control that characterizes any given era in history is inexorably linked to contemporaneous notions about crime causation.” (Flanagan, 1987 p.232)

Theories of Crime

n      To date, most theorizing on crime then is based on the social context and experiences of the theoretician.

n      Similar to early medicine, crime theories move from fad to fad. (President Washington was most likely killed by his doctor, who believe bleeding removed evil from the body…”)

Theories of Crime

n       If offenders are genetically damaged untreatable, then incapacitation makes total sense

n       If offenders are the product of mental illness then psychotherapy is realistic.

n       If economic deprivation is the source of crime then job training and employment is therapeutic.

n       “As theories of crime change, so do criminal justice policies.” (Lilly et al. 1995 p.7)

Criminological Theory Types

Criminology is the study of the entire process of law-making, law breaking and law-enforcing.(Sutherland, 1994)

     #Law making theories discusses the processes by which laws come to be.

     #Law enforcing discusses the impacts of enforcement upon defining criminals.

     #Law breaking theories discuss why certain people violate societal norms and laws.


Law Making Theories

n      Often referred to as Theories of Law and Criminal Justice

n      Answer the question as to why certain people and certain behaviors become to be defined and are dealt with as criminals.

n      Why is a certain conduct defined as illegal?

n      What determines the type of action to be taken when this behavior is confronted?


Law Making Theories

n       How is it decided?

n       Who makes the decision?

n       How are the resources of the Criminal Justice System brought to bear against it?

n       This is not about what type of system we should have, but rather what type of system we do have, and …why?

n       Doesn’t discuss the type of system we should have.


Law Making and Law Enforcing Theories

n       These theories attempt to explain the behaviors of the participants in the system and the operation of the system itself.

n       They produce hypotheses about the factors that account for legal and criminal justice actions and decisions.

n       Theories do not tell us what are the correct, proper, and desirable values that the system should exemplify.


Law Breaking Theories

n       The first question involves making sense out of the differences in location and rates of crime in groups, cultures and societies.

n       The second question involves explaining differences between individuals.  Why one person commits a crime and another doesn’t

n       The first question focuses on societal processes, the second on individual process.


Law Breaking Theories

n      Two major questions are just subcategories of the main question “Why do or do not people commit crime and deviance.?”

n      Structural theories tend to focus on variations in in social or cultural makeup.  Most of these theories also contain some reference to the process by which these impact the individual.


Law Breaking Theories

n      Most process theories while focusing on individual differences also address how these individual differences come to be.

Theories of Criminal Behavior

n      Theories of criminal and delinquent behavior attempt to answer the question of why legal norms and values are violated.

n      This involves two interrelated questions:

n       What are there variations in group rates of crime and deviance?

n       Why do some individuals come to commit criminal and deviant acts?


Theories of Criminal Behavior

n       The first question involves making sense out of the differences in location and rates of crime in groups, cultures and societies.

n       The second question involves explaining differences between individuals.  Why one person commits a crime and another doesn’t

n       The first question focuses on societal processes, the second on individual process.


Classifying Theories by Discipline

n      There is another ways to classify theories of crime and deviance:

n       By the general scientific discipline from which the explanatory variables are drawn

n       Like with structure and process there is also overlap.



Theories by Discipline

n       Biological theories of crime, theories that explain crime based on genetic, chemical, neurological, or physiological variables.

n       Psychological: based on personality, emotional maladjustment, mental retardation, psychic disturbance,or psychological trait.

n       Social psychological: behavior, self, and cognitive variables in a group setting.


Theories by Discipline

n      Sociological:  Theories that explain crime by cultural, structural, and socio demographic variables.

n      There is considerable overlap and a number of theories draw from two or more sets of variables in their explanations.

Scientific Inquiry

n      Scientific study of crime guards against, but does not prevent, ideological and political beliefs influencing the research process (Babie & Maxwell, 1995: 22)

Why Scientific Method Needed

n       Personal “experiences” can be based on:

n        Inaccurate Observations

n        Overgeneralizations

n        Selective Observations

n        Ex Post Hoc Hypothesizing

n        Illogical Reasoning (gambler’s fallacy)

n        Ego involvement in Understanding

n        Ideology and Politics (Faith triumphs over facts)

n        The Premature Closure of Inquiry

Social Scientific Theory

n       Composed of three fundamental elements:

n        Theory

n        Research Methods

n        Statistics

n       Theory addresses what is, not philosophy or belief.

n       Science is focused on logical and persistent regularities in life.

n       Interested in explaining aggregates not individuals


Social Scientific Theory

n       Attribute are characteristics (male,young)

n       Variables are comprised of a set of attributes

n       Interested in finding relationships that connect variables

n       Statements about the relationships between variables are called hypotheses.

n       A number of interrelated hypotheses is called a theory.

Social Scientific Theory

n      Traditionally science involves:

n       Theory

n       Operationalization

n       Observation

n      Social scientific theory and research are linked through two logical methods:

n       Deduction

n       Induction

Social Scientific Theory

n      Grounded theory, theory based more on observation than deduction.

n      Science involves alterations of deduction and induction.

Scientific Terminology

n      A fact is an observation.

n      A law is a universal generalization about a set of facts

n      A theory is a systematic explanation for a set of facts or laws.

n      A paradigm is a fundamental model or scheme that organizes our view of something.

Criminal Justice Theories

n       Frequently adapted from other disciplines

n       Two general often overlapping categories:

n        Law breaking

n        Policy responses

n       Theory and Policy are linked:

n        Theory influences basic research which may suggest new policy

n        Policies are formulated like hypotheses and may be subject to empirical test.

Nature of Crime

n      Two basic types of theories of crime:

n       One relies on the spiritual or other-world explanations

n       One relies on natural or this world explanations.

n      This class will focus mainly on the latter.

Spiritual Views of Crime

n      Spiritual views are part of a general view of the world that holds that many events result from the influence of otherworldly powers.

n      Crime in early time was largely a private matter where the victim or the victim’s family sought revenge against the offender or offender’s family

Spiritual View of Crime

n      There were general rules to address private vengeance, mostly the concept of proportionality, that is the revenge had to be proportionate to the offense.

n      The problem with private vengeance is that it often started blood feuds that would continue until one or both families were wiped out.

Spiritual Views of Crime

n      In feudal Europe to reduce the prevalence of blood feuds, trials were instituted that called upon God to indicate innocence and guilt. 

n      Trial by combat

n      Trial by ordeal (drowning, gauntlet, walking on fire.)


Spiritual Views of Crime

n       The Pope in 1215 condemned trial by ordeal, and ordered compurgation, where 12 people would swear the parties innocence. (ultimately evolves into juries)

n       1790s Quakers develop Pennsylvania system, where praying and penitence is the answer to a life of crime.

n       Spiritual answers may be correct, but they can’t be tested…

Natural Explanations of Crime

n       Naturalism makes use of objects and events in the material world to explain events.

n       What arose was a series of “natural penalties, natural law”

n       In the sixteenth century this approach flowered with Spinoza, Descartes, and Leibniz.

n       Modern social science continues this naturalistic tradition.

The Naturalist Evolution: Science

n      Three different frames of reference have evolved relative to criminology:

n       Criminal behavior as freely chosen

n       Criminal behavior as caused by forces beyond the control of the individual

n       Crime as primarily a function of the way the criminal law is written and enforced.  It focuses on the behavior of law rather than the behavior of criminals.


Classical Criminology

n       The first of the scientific views of crime focused upon intelligence and rationality as the fundamental human characteristics to explain behavior.

n       Humans calculate their chances and move toward award and away from penalty.

n       Each person is the master of their fate, possessed of free will rather than driven by spirits or devils.

Classical Criminology

n      This classical approach impacted law, philosophy, political science and economics.

n      In this approach, crime was defined strictly from a legal point of view.  Crime would be defined as commission of an act prohibited by criminal law or omission of an act required by it.

Classical Criminology

n      Crime is seen as a product of the free choice of an individual.

n      The individual assesses the potential benefits of crime versus the potential costs.

n      The rational response of society is to reduce the benefits and increase the costs of crime.

Classical Criminology

n      Classical criminologists sought to design and test a system of punishment that would result in a minimum occurrence of crime.

n      Classical criminology is concerned with deterrence

Positivist Criminology

n       Positivist criminology argues that behavior is determined by factors beyond the individual’s control.

n       People can behave only as they have been already determined to behave.

n       Thinking and reasoning are only processes of rationalization in which the person justifies their predetermined course of action.

Positivist Criminology

n       Positivist theories arose in criminology after classical theories had dominated the field for over a hundred years.

n       Positivist theories arose after a 100 years of apparent failure of trying to reduce crime by making punishment more swift, severe and certain. Crime continued to rise.

n       These new theories explained why classical criminology failed, peoples behavior was determined.

Positivist Crime

n      Original positivist criminologists looked to biological explanations for crime.

n      Later they shifted their focus to psychological and then sociological factors.

n      Some today hold with a single factor explanation, others used a multi-factor approach.

Positivist Criminology

n      Positivist criminologists find it difficult to work with the strictly legal framework of crime.( The law often distinguishes between legal and illegal behavior on rather fine points.)

n      Positivists tend to use natural definitions of crime. (These are definitions that fix on the nature of the behavior defined.)

Positivist Criminology

n      Gottfredson and Hirschi describe the nature of crime as “as acts that involve simple and immediate gratification but few long term benefits, are exciting and risky but require little skill or planning and generally produce few benefits for the offender while imposing may costs on the victim.” (Gottfredson&Hirschi, 1990:15)

The Behavior of Criminal Law

n       Positivist theories dominated criminology for over a hundred years until the 1970s when a group of criminologists questioned positivist’s natural definition of crime.

n       They questioned whether crime is that much different than legal behavior.  If so the sources of both criminal and non criminal behavior should be found in the same processes.

The Behavior of Criminal Law

n       A second question arose in why some people who commit crime are labeled as criminals while others are not.

n       They focus on how the criminal law itself is written and enforced.

n       These criminologists frequently study the systematic differences in the enforcement of law that result in certain groups being disproportionately processed by the CJ system.

The Behavior of Law

n      Theories of the behavior of law suggest that the volume of crime and characteristics of criminals are determined primarily by how the law is written and enforced.


q     R. Akers (1999) Criminological Theories 2nd ed. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

n      D. Curran & C. Renzetti (1994) Theories of Crime Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


q      T.J. Flanagan (1987)“Change and influence in popular criminology.” Journal of Criminal Justice 15, 231-243.

q      M. R. Gottfredson and T. Hirschi, (1990) A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford Calif.

q      S. J. Gould (1981) The Measurement of Man, Norton, New York.

q      J.R.Lilly, F.T. Cullen and R.A.Ball (1995)  Criminological Theories: Context and Consequences (2nd ed.) Sage, London. Eng.


q      J. Michael and M. Adler (1933) Crime, Law and Social Science, Patterson Smith, Montclair, N.J

q      M. G.Maxfield & E. Babbie (1995) Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology  Wadsworth, Belmont CA.

q      E. Sutherland, D. Cressey & D. Luckenbill (1992) Principles of Criminology 11th ed. Dix Hills, N.Y.: General Hall.


n      G. Vold, T. Bernard & J. Snipes (1998) Theoretical Criminology 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

n      F. Williams & M. McShane (1988) Criminological Theory Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.