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How Relevant are Sociological Theories of Crime?

Updated on December 19, 2017

Definitions of important terminologies

Reductionist theories are those that only study a singular component or aspect of an otherwise complex phenomenon.
Holistic studies are those that take into account multiple aspects of any phenomenon. For instance, a theory of crime that takes into account both physiological and sociological reasons for criminal behavior.
A theory that has individual differences is one that takes into account the notion of individuality in each person's behavior (each shall act differently due to their individual nature/personality and thus, be treated differently).
Deterministic theories are those that believe that given a certain situation, everyone will act in a preset, predetermined way. Hence the individual will have no control over his/her actions
Free will theories are those that believe that all individuals have complete control over their actions and decisions. Thus their behavior is a result of their will and decisions, as opposed to factors outside their control.
above are the definitions of some related terminologies that will be recurring in this article.

Crime and criminology as a social phenomenon and concern, and later as a field of scientific research, has existed for centuries. However, due to further study and research, it has taken a more structural form in recent times. In its basic form of definition, criminology is the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon, including both practical and theoretical study and application of it. It consists of within its scope the processes of making laws, breaking laws and the causes for it,and society's reaction toward the breaking of laws.

The concept of criminology has evolved through the centuries by various approaches and thought. With time it has resulted in gradual development of innumerable theories associated with causes of criminal behavior. These theories range from biological to psychological perspective. For instance, Lombroso, the pioneer of criminology theories associated with the Positive School, believed a positive correlation to exist between one's physique and their possibility of committing crime. On the other end of the spectrum Sigmund Freud believed that one's mental conflict, as a result of problems during early childhood development led to deviant personalities, resulting in crime.

Sociological Criminology

While numerous such thought has surfaced, great research and emphasis has been laid over sociological theories of crime, termed often as sociological criminology. Often considered to be the heart and crux of criminology study, sociological theorists of crime hold society and one's external environment responsible for criminal behavior. This is due to their belief that it is one's external environment that influences and develops their behavior (school, family). hence, such theories examine various aspects and processes of one's society and their experiences with their surroundings in order to understand criminal behavior. Some of these processes and features include social control, social process, social reaction (will be explained in detail ahead.).

While a plethora of theories exist, we shall examine three, one from each category mentioned above, in detail so as to obtain a better understanding of them, and the nature of such theories in general.

The Learning Theory (Tarde and Bandura)

One such theory is The Learning Theory by Tarde and Bandura, belonging in the category of social process theories. Social process refers to the impact of the process of acquaintance, socialization, and experiences with the environment (people and other societal elements) on one's behavior. Hence, the main belief of such theories is that association and acquaintances with criminals breeds criminality. The Learning Theory consists of Tarde's Theory of Imitation, which states that people in close intimacy with one other are likely to imitate each other. Moreover, the newly learned behaviors (through imitation) either reinforce, or discourage previous customs/practices, as part of the process of development. This makes impressionable children rather vulnerable, for exposure to crime may assuage the sense of morality in them, making them susceptible to criminality.

This theory is built upon Bandura's Social Learning Theory. This theory states that people, specifically children, often learn (in this case, violence and aggression) by observing, modelling and imitating those around them. That being, people and elements of environment (life experiences). According to Bandura, the three main models are family members, environmental experiences (socialization process, treatment and attitude of others toward the individual, etc), and mass media (people (even adults) often, albeit unconsciously, imitate and model elements of their lifestyle on that of influential people on screen, such as celebrities).

How relevant is the Learning Theory?

In order to obtain a better understanding of this theory and its importance, it is important to look at its pros and cons, which we shall now explore.

Bandura's social learning theory, upon which the Learning Theory is based, has been widely applied and used in various fields of psychology (education, part of the Behaviorist approach to learning, behavioral development of children). Moreover, this theory has been tested through a laboratory study conducted by Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961), which is commonly known as the "Bashing Bobo Doll Experiment". This experiment made use of children who were left in a confined space (room), along with an adult model (either male or female- the multiple groups of children were exposed to either one). These models had to perform systematic acts of violence and aggression towards the Bobo doll and other toys. The main hypothesis of the study was that aggressive behavior can be transmitted into children by them observing aggressive adult models in their social environment and imitating and modelling after them. The results of the study proved the hypothesis, for the children too performed violent aggressive acts similar to that of the model once left alone with the toys (after the model left). This makes the Social Learning Theory highly valid and easily applicable to a larger social structure. This automatically marks the Learning Theory possibly valid and useful too, in applying its principles to understand the origins of career criminality and that of law violations.

Secondly, this theory explains serial criminality, for it helps one understand the reasons of criminal behavior in those adults involved in such a life from an impressionable age. Such individuals view their immoral careers with a mask of desensitization, perceiving it as the only way of life due to their degenerate upbringing or environment.

Apart from that the Learning Theory does not limit its application to a particular social group. Hence, it can be used to explain crime in both males and females, all kinds of racial and ethnic groups, and most importantly in lower, middle and upper middle/upper classes.

While the Social Learning Theory is revered greatly in understanding the nurturing and development of children, one cannot be sure of its application to adults (Do they too, at such maturity learn simply through observation and imitation?). Furthermore, since the focus of this theory is primarily on the process of learning and development of behavior, it is mostly applied in child-related sectors, such as education. This, as a result, makes the application of the Learning Theory problematic in explaining criminal behavior of those adults who may have newly joined the underworld of crime.

Lastly, a theory such as this, like almost all sociological theories, places too much emphasis on society and one's external environment, while relieving the individual them self, albeit a child/youth even, from any responsibility. It does not take in to account the influence of one's individual genetics, inherited traits, personality, and preset mental states and disposition. It implies that all those (especially children and youths) exposed to crime and abuse will imitate it and learn such behavior. However, this is not always the case, for some individuals, or children, in this case, despite facing abuse and violence, or growing up in a detrimental environment, do not succumb to criminal activities, but rather, rise above it all and strive to become much better people than those who raised them.This makes the learning theory reductionist to a large extent in its approach.

the social learning theory has been applied in various fields of psychology, and has been tested and proved in the Bashing Bobo Doll experiment. This makes the learning theory valid and useful too.
the use of the Learning Theory is problematic in explaining criminal behavior of those individuals who have newly joined the world of crime. That is because the Social Learning Theory is mostly applied in child related sectors, due to its primary focus on the process of learning and development.
it helps explain serial criminality by pointing at the possible reasons for criminal behavior from an impressionable age.
the theory attributes criminality solely to one's external environment, while completely ignoring one's genes, and personality traits. It is also reductionist in its belief that all those exposed to crime and abuse will imitate and adopt a career of law violations.
this theory can be used to explain crime in all groups of society.
A summary of the Learning Theory's strengths and weaknesses.

All in all, the Learning Theory, while based on prior empirical data (The Social Learning Theory), its inherently reductionist nature does not make it an adequate explanation, especially if used solely, of criminal behavior.

Lemert's Labeling Theory

Another sociological theory, that is part of the Social Reaction facet is Lemert's Labeling Theory. Social Reaction theories believe that criminality cannot be understood simply through the study of criminals, but rather by viewing it in its entire social context, which includes the reaction of others toward the act of crime. This means that social reaction theories attempt to explain criminal behavior prior to the social reaction to it in context of social disorganization, as well as looking at additional occurrences of crime after the social reaction, which is attributed to socialization.

The labeling Theory believes in the existence of two types of deviance. The first is primary deviance, where crimes are situational based (differential circumstances). The other type is Secondary Deviance. Under this type the crimes are a result of the labels given to an individual for primary deviance. These labels lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, resulting in negative self image, and propelling them to commit greater degrees of crime (secondary deviance). This implies that individuals can enter into a career of law violations if they are negatively labelled for their personality or a petty crime, which skirts around the particular label as opposed to exactly falling on it.

How Important is the Labeling Theory in today's social context?

In order to answer that question, we will discuss its multiple strengths and weaknesses.

Firstly, this theory stresses upon the negative impact of the self-fulfilling prophecy, an important consequence of labeling, on one's entire outlook on life. It is further supplemented by its presence in various other institutions too (students labelled as failures are likely to perform poorly in academics at school. Young adults labelled as "psychopathic" and "deviants" for petty delinquency, or children tagged as "unruly", "disruptive" and "naughty" for disruptive behavior not as severe as criminal behavior, are more likely to become serious criminals ahead as a result of negative self image. Hence this theory serves a cautionary purpose against such labeling behaviors in nurturing institutions such as schools and home, for children are most impressionable. There, instead of continuously labeling, humiliating, and punishing children and youths for disruptive acts, constructive steps should be taken to bring them to the correct path by changing both behavior and thought process. Similarly, prisons (especially juvenile) should also follow such steps to minimize the risk of crime once the individual is released. Moreover, among adults to, care should be taken to not carelessly through around labels at one another (such as among colleagues), for the effects may be rather destructive. Further research and attention to this theory can be useful in bringing about positive changes in the manner in which primary deviance is handled (in home, schools, prison).

Apart from that, this theory again explains crime in all facets of society, instead of limiting its explanation to a particular group. For instance, it explains crime in both lower and middle classes, both genders, multiple age groups, while not limiting itself to a particular ethnicity or race.

This theory too, just like the learning theory, helps explain crime in adults who are career criminals, as well as the law violation careers of those whose nature of criminal acts have gradually escalated. All this being a result of labeling causing them to slowly embrace this self image and become desensitized toward the concept of morality (what is the point of doing the right thing when I am a bad person?)

On the other hand, while it explains the occurrence of secondary deviance, it does not pay much attention to the occurrence of crime in the first place, and vaguely attributes it to "social disorganization" instead. This limits the theory's usefulness in all crime related situations.

The labeling theory once again places to much responsibility on society alone, whereas crime is a result of both environmental circumstances and one's internal disposition. It believes crime to only occur as a result of labeling, while completely ignoring the presence of one's traits, personality, genes, cognition state, and other physiological and psychological processes, and its impact on one's behavior. Thus reducing humans to near empty vessels. It also automatically assumes that all those labelled for petty/smaller crimes will commit severe law violations later. This may not be the case at all times, for each individual reacts differently to his/her environment. Thus, this theory completely ignores individual differences and personality.

Lastly, due to its rather ambiguous nature, it becomes difficult to test and measure the theory's principles in a systematic manner. Moreover, if such a test were to be conducted, the probability of artificiality in the results is high, as well as the lack of n depth insight if the results are quantitative in nature, thus, reducing its over all validity. As a result, little to almost no empirical data exists, specifically for crime related situations. (application and research on labeling is ongoing in education and psychology).

it stresses upon the negative effects of the self fulfilling prophecy, and serves a cautionary purpose against labellng behavior in social institutions, especially those that deal with children, i.e schools.
the theory does not explain the occurance of crime in the first place (primary deviance)
The application of this theory is not limited to a singular facet of society ( a particular social class, gender age group etc.)
it places too much responsibility o the society alone while completely ingoring the presence and impact of one's genes, personality etc on one's behavior. Moreover, it assumes that all those targeted by labeling for petty deviance will commit severe law violations in the future.
it helps explain the root causes of career criminals and the behavior of those whose criminal acts have escalated.
the theory's ambiguous nature makes it difficult to test and measure its principles in a systematic manner. Hence, little to no empirical data exists for crime related situations.
A summary of the theory's strengths and weaknesses.

While the Labeling Theory's pertinence lies in the weighing caution it carries for nurturing and corrective institutions, it is here that its immediate relevance ends too. That is because just like the Learning Theory, it too on its own is not sufficient enough to explain all purposes and situations of crime.

Containment Theory (Reckless)

The last sociological theory to be discussed is the Containment Theory by Reckless, part of the social control control facet. Before we begin, it is important to understand social control perspective. Social control, in strictly sociological terms refers to the presence of imposed rules and value system, as well as the functioning of various institutions (schools, home, police, religion) in such a way that make people conform to the normative standards of behavior (do what is socially acceptable) and thus prevent disruption and conflict in society. Keeping in mind this, social control criminology theories believe that while human nature is the motivator for criminal behavior, it is the controls present in society that prevent them. Also, according to Reiss one's inability to refrain from meeting their personal needs in ways that conflict with society's norms and rules (controls) lead to criminality. This implies that one's internal desires can be strong enough to overpower the societal controls.

The Containment Theory states that each individual has inner and outer (environmental) controls (containment) and pressures/pushes that push or pull one towards conformity and criminality, respectively. The push and pulls toward criminality can be counteracted through internal and external containments, that keeps one within the lines of conformity. According to Reckless, there are five factors that come to play and interact in this case:

  1. Inner Containment: individual's personality
  2. Outer Containment: the constraints that society and social groups use (what was talked about earlier when discussing Social Control)
  3. Internal Pushes: factors such as restlessness, discontent, boredom etc.
  4. External pressures: adverse living conditions, abuse, poverty.
  5. External pulls: for example, deviant associates

These factors and motives interact with each other to produce behavior pertaining to either conformity or criminality.

It is important to note that this theory takes into account both sociological and psychological principles (internal pushes and containment).

How useful is the Containment Theory?

In order to understand its importance, we shall discuss its multiple advantages and disadvantages. It should be noted that the statement above already marks it as different and slightly more holistic from the other two theories discussed earlier.

Keeping in line with this thread, the Containment Theory places responsibility of crime and conformity on both the society and the individual them self, as opposed to the other two theories. This is seen in its recognition of both internal and external pushes/pressures, and containments. This implies that the containment theory views behavior (crime or conformity) as a product of the interaction of societal factors with one's internal disposition. This further explains the psychological/cognitive aspect of the theory, making it more holistic. For instance, a person will not commit crimes simply because of poverty or acquaintance with deviants, but also due to lack of morality (internal containment) and discontent (internal push). Hence, both sides hone and reinforce one another, leading to crime.

Secondly, this theory is not presumptuous in the fact that all individuals will act in a determined manner, unlike the earlier theories. This is not only due to their recognition of multiple factors (pushes, containments) at play, but also the theory's underlying belief that behavior is a result of differing social situation and one's disposition, emotional and cognitive state. Hence, keeping this in mind, each individual will react to the external pressures and containments differently by acting on different factors, based on their individual and differing internal state and personality(pushes and containments). For instance, while internal containments (strong morality) may be enough to keep one individual away form crime, the other may succumb to his or her environmental pressures and commit crimes. On the other hand, while one's moral personality may act as a strong deterrent, for the other it is the strict social norms and rules that keep them from crime. Moreover, it also explains why some people, despite their detrimental social situation (poverty, abusive life etc.), keep away form crime, while others in a similar social situation may not be able to (strong internal pushes). Hence their is no set way for these pushes/pulls and containments to interact, while each individual will act on different containments and pulls based on their environment and personality. Thus it is not only holistic but also caters to individual differences.

Apart from that,the containment theory can be applied to both middle class and higher class crime. For instance, individuals in higher classes may become acquainted with deviants or high profile discreet criminals, pulling them into a world of crime, as a result of their weak inner containment. Moreover, it is not limited to a particular gender or ethnic/racial group, due to its greater focus on individual nature and circumstance as opposed to a rather generalized stance. Thus its possible application to all situations and perpetrators of crime increase its usefulness.

Lastly, due to its individual nature, the theory also highlights the importance of dealing with each individual differently in the aftermath of crime, i.e incarceration. Their causes and circumstances should be understood before sentencing punishment, and steps should be taken to help change their internal thoughts and attitudes (for example, strengthening morality and teaching healthy ways to cope with severe discontent and frustration.)

While its vast number of strengths and weaknesses reinforce its importance in terms of usefulness and application, it is also important to acknowledge the theory's flaws.

Firstly, due to the complicated and intertwining (as opposed to simplistic) nature of this theory in needs to be explored in greater depth in order to the grasp the particulars of the functioning of these pulls and containments. For instance, what type of pull is stronger (internal or external), or is that determined by individual circumstance? Is their a definite way to change an individual's attitude toward a hypothetical detrimental circumstance in order to strengthen their internal containment? Questions such as these can only be answered after further study and research.

Apart from that, limited empirical data and concrete research exists for this theory,. Moreover, it is difficult to test this concept in a scientific manner due to its ambiguous and intertwining nature. However, the breakdown of these containments and pulls into specific categories may help make it a little easier to collect data that is reliable and quantifiable to some extent.

places the responsibility of crime on both the society and individual, for it views behaviour as a result of the interaction of one's environmental situation with one's internal disposition.
Greater in depth exploration of this theory is needed in order to understand the particulars of the pulls and containments.
The fact that each individual will act on different pulls/pushes and containments imply that it takes into account individual differences and recognises the fact that each person will act to thair external environment in accordance with their individual disposition.
Limited empirical data and research exists for the containment theory
It is not limited in its application to only a particular race, ethnicity, age group or social class
Individual circumstances should be understood individually of each convict during incarceration, in order to play a more corrective role.
A summary of the pros and cons

While the Containment Theory's strengths outweigh its weak points in both number and significance, its usefulness is nevertheless hindered. However, its holistic and individual approach to understanding crime and criminal make it quite revelant for almost all types of criminal situations.

The dissection and analysis of all three theories present varying beliefs and viewpoints, while setting the floor for further debate on the usefulness of each. However, the encompassing approach of the containment theory against the rather singular viewpoint of the earlier two imply the importance of viewing criminal behavior from various perspectives (sociological, mental state/processes, disposition) in order to obtain a more holistic understanding. Despite this these are simply three, among an abundance of theories. Hence, on their own, they can never be enough to explain causes of all possible crimes in all possible situations, for it is an intricate web of entangling motives, experiences, and actions which can only be broken down by extensive research. Thus, instead of focusing on simply one, different theories can be used to explain the causes of varying criminal behavior, depending on the type,nature, and circumstances in which the crime may occur.


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