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General Criminology - A Theoretical Perspective

Updated on May 15, 2013

The Complicated Question of Why

Theories that exist in an attempt to explain criminal behavior vary widely. Some refer to the effects the environment can have on an individual while others place the blame closer to home. The fact of the matter is, every criminal situation has a different origin story. Narrowing cause down to a specific label is simply not realistic.

The Classical Theory of crime works to explain criminal activity by analyzing the thought process that leads to the behavior. An individual weighs the risks and the rewards of an action before making the decision whether or not to commit it. If the payout is bigger than the possible punishment, they are more willing to involve themselves criminally. The important aspect of this theory is that it deems crime a rational choice. Many others attempt to explain this by focusing on what may be wrong or a separate influence. The Differential Association Theory could contribute to the process of weighing the differences. It explains that criminal activity is learned through any associations with criminal definitions. These definitions may label criminal conduct as neutral or even justified under certain circumstances. With this in consideration, one can see how an individual could come to the conclusion that crime was more beneficial than it was detrimental.

Biological theories focus on physical aspects being indicators of criminality. Historically, the Positivist perspective explained that biological deficiencies were to blame.They also rejected the concept of free will entirely, convinced of the fact that criminal tendencies were more instinctual or even built into us. Later criminologists leaned in a more sociological or psychological direction. This early field of thought, however, paved the way for individualized scientific treatment of criminals based solely on the findings of the physical and social sciences Those who followed this aspect of criminology worked to explain the overall physiological inability of an individual to tell right from wrong or even influential hereditary factors that led to criminal activity. Unlike The Classical Theory, this concept has hoped to find an irregularity that can be cured or even altered to cease criminal desire in the individual entirely. From the variations between the physical structure of the brain in a normal person as opposed to someone predisposed to criminal activity, to the smallest detail in our cells, this theory is more animalistic or natural in its attempted explanation.

Psychological theories are far and wide and can vary from the complex to the simplistic. The most prominent aspect that this way of thinking focuses on is failures in psychological development overall. It also focuses on the ways that violence and aggression are learned through direct experience and modeling. Studies in this field have revealed that individuals who are more irresponsible, intolerant, and impulsive are more predisposed to criminal activity. Psychologists have worked to investigate the connection or relation between mental disorders such as bipolar, intermittent explosive disorder, and schizophrenia among many others. Psychoanalytic theories attempt to explain this behavior through factors in childhood development, the intertwined relationship between unconscious motives and conscious behavior, and psychological conflict.

There is a strong desire that exists today to focus more strongly on mental illness as a whole. The human brain is vaguely understood, and the extreme scenarios that many individuals endure can easily have detrimental effects in more ways than we may understand. Because of this, the psychological theory of criminality seems the most sensible to apply to modern criminology. The fact of the matter is, psychology cannot be entirely eliminated from consideration when attempting to understand abnormal behavior. However, the definition of what is abnormal is often up for debate. In general, it has been designated that an abnormality in day to day behavior is one that prevents personal care, integral social interaction, or an activity required to survive. For example, if a certain addiction or obsession has taken the place of eating for an individual, this would be considered abnormal. In contrast, someone who obsessively takes part in a recreational activity such as video games but still maintains themselves and their surroundings healthfully would be considered normal in the sense of the word. This is often used to determine whether or not an addiction is becoming all consuming. If it has grown to hold more importance than necessary routines, intervening is then necessary.

Overall, as our understanding of psychology evolves, so too does the number of sensible applications to criminality. Biological theories are not entirely reliable and carry little solid evidence, while this and other aspects of the social sciences continue to contribute positively to our understanding.


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    • Argosy2015 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Highland, IN

      Hello Larry,

      I appreciate your comments, and you're very right about the sociopathic mindset. In all honesty, since I've written this broad article I have become more adept in regards to that topic (this is a somewhat older writing of mine). This was intended, at least, to just be a surface view of criminological theories in a general way. However, I feel as well that it was far too simplistic and I threw around terminology a bit too much.

      If you would like a great insight in regards to the sociopath's mind, I would recommend the recent article posted in Psychology Today magazine titled Confessions of a Sociopath. It was written anonymously, and I feel it gives a great window into the thought process. Again, thank you for the criticism! It's much appreciated.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      5 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Sarah,

      Since you've chosen a very broad topic, it's not practical to cover every facet.

      Robert Hare at the University of British Columbia has spent many years studying sociopaths in prison settings, and in formulating a Psychopathy Checklist to assist in identifying these individuals. Supposedly this subgroup commits half of all violent crimes. But sociopaths comprise only about 1% of the general population.

      The central characteristic of sociopaths is zero conscience. Of course, there are other traits that cluster around it. Example: poor impulse control.

      For garden variety criminals, there's usually an underdeveloped sense of right and wrong that can be built upon in treatment programs.

      For sociopaths, the best that we can do is humane warehousing, detoxing under medical supervision, and remedial education (if needed) during of their prison sentences. My layman's understanding is that psychological 'treatment' for this subgroup would be a waste of scarce resources.

      Voted up.


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