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Applying Criminological Theory to Crime Trends

Updated on October 3, 2015

Learning Theory

Learning theory is based upon the principles of behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychology posits that a person's behavior is learned and maintained by its consequences, or reward value. Some theories in criminology believe that criminality is a function of individual socialization, how individuals have been influenced by their experiences or relationships with family relationships, peer groups, teachers, church, authority figures, and other agents of socialization. These are called learning theories, and specifically social learning theories, because criminology never really embraced the psychological determinism inherent in most learning psychologies.

Sutherland (1883-1950) is called the father of American criminology. In 1924, he wrote a book called Criminology, the first fully sociological textbook in the field. He first put forth his theory in the second edition of 1934. Sutherland states that criminal behavior is learned behavior and learned via social interaction with others. This theory mostly talked about of the Interactionist theory of deviance. This theory focuses on how individuals learn how to become criminals, but does not concern itself with why they become criminals. They learn how to commit criminal acts; they learn motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes. It grows socially easier for the individuals to commit a crime. (Trevor Millington and Mark Sutherland Williams 2007)

In the late 1960s, new social learning theories were developed which dropped Sutherland's point that learning criminal behavior takes place in primary groups (Burgess & Akers 1968). According to Akers (1985), people are first indoctrinated into deviant behavior by differential association with deviant peers. Then, through differential reinforcement, they learn how to reap rewards and avoid punishment by reference to the actual or anticipated consequences of given behaviors. These consequences are the social and nonsocial reinforcements that provide a support system for those with criminal careers or persistent criminality. Structural conditions affect a person's differential reinforcements. Criminal knowledge is gained through reflection over past experience. Potential offenders consider the outcomes of their past experiences, anticipate future rewards and punishments, and then decide which acts will be profitable and which ones will be dangerous. This theory has been tested fairly successfully on teenage deviance such as tobacco, drug, and alcohol use (Akers et al. 1979). It tends to explain 50-60% of the differences between users and abstainers using measurement items like: perceptions of actual or anticipated praise or absence of praise; and the total good things felt from deviance minus the total bad things felt. Differential reinforcement theory tends to fit well with rational choice theory because they both explain the decision making process involved in developing the motivation, attitudes, and techniques necessary to commit crime. It can explain solitary offending (since learning is sometimes solitary). Like all learning theories, it claims to be a general theory of crime.

Control Theory

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. (Travis Hirschi 1990)

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. (Travis Hirschi 1990)

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

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory holds that society is based on conflict between competing interest groups; for example, rich against poor, management against labor, whites against minorities, men against women, adults against children, etc. These kind of dog-eat-dog theories also have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and are characterized by the study of power and powerlessness.

Karl Marx’s conflict theory claims that crime is inevitable in capitalist societies, as invariably certain groups will become marginalised and unequal. In seeking equality, members of these groups may often turn to crime in order to gain the material wealth that apparently brings equality in capitalist economic states. Marx, in his conflict theory, gives priority to economic inequalities (Karl Marx 2000). In his view, all societies are marked by the conflict of social classes, sometime overt, sometimes hidden, but always the major source of stability and change in society. Those who control the productive property of any society (land, factories, and equipment) use their economic power to dominate other spheres culture, religion, education, politics, and certainly the criminal justice system. There may be laws that benefit everybody, but mostly "the gneral interest" is a fiction that covers up class interest. "Justice" and "fair play" are public relations for a system that actually protects private property and treats transgressions against the upper classes much more seriously than transgressions against the lower classes.

There are many interpretations about what Marx said or meant. The two-class model of social stratification, while still popular as an explanation of fiscal crisis, is today seen as a form of vulgar Marxism. Similarly, only instrumental Marxism views law as a tool of the ruling class. Structural Marxism denies deliberate intention to the ruling class and believes it rules by ideas or conspiracies. The FrankfurtSchool incorporated Freudian psychoanalysis into Marxism. In addition, neo-Marxism makes use of the fact that Marx implied most criminals were lumpenproletariat who could not be counted on for revolutionary purposes. Radical criminology or critical criminology is a branch of conflict theory, drawing its ideas from a basic Marxist perspective. For Karl Marx (1818-1883), modern capitalist societies were controlled by a wealthy few (bourgeoisie) who controlled the means of production (factories, raw materials, equipment, technology, etc.) while everyone else (the proletariat) was reduced to the lot of being wage laborers. While Marx himself never really addressed in detail the criminal justice system’s specific role in keeping such a system in place, from his writings a radical tradition has emerged. From this perspective, certain types of crime take on a different character. Stealing can be seen as an attempt to take away from the rich. Sellin referred to the like as “social banditry.” Protest-related violence may actually be the start of proto-revolutionary movements, ultimately leading to a workers’ revolt and the establishment of a just society.


The Proceeds of Crime: Law and Practice of Restraint, Confiscation, Condemnation, and Forfeiture by Trevor Millington and Mark Sutherland Williams; Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition (April 27, 2007), 18-78.

A General Theory of Crime by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi; Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 1990), 23-28.

Theories of Surplus Value by Karl Marx; Prometheus Books (July 2000), 9-11.

Theory of Crime


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