Crime Theory in the World of Criminology  Essay

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Crime Theory

In the world of criminology, several theories have been constructed to help legal professionals understand the nature of and motive behind criminal activity. Studying these more closely can help with the rehabilitation of criminals and curb criminal activity. Criminal theory, therefore, is constructed to determine ways in which to prevent crime and mitigate the crime being committed. Theories such as the social control theory, strain theory, differential association theory, and neutralization theory can therefore be used for the purposes mentioned above. Each theory has its strenghts and weaknesses; to determine the theory to use could be determined on a case by case basis, hence enhancing the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of the theory in question.

According to Welch (1998), Hirschi wrote his Causes of Delinquency, in which he developed the social control theory, during the 1960s. This was a troubled time in social terms, and American society found itself in need of an alternative to the social disorganization perspective of criminology. Hirschi observed that social institutions such as organized religion, the family, and educational institutions have lost their appeal for young people with the arrival of rock and roll, drugs, and the civil rights movement. These trends have resulted in a general delinquency, as they encouraged individuals to distance themselves from conventional norms. While most delinquency theories at the time were generally psychological in nature, Hirschi's was instead sociological. Because this was such a far departure from the norm, the author took great care to point out the inadequacies of other theories. As such, Hirschi's theory assumes that delinquency occurs when the bond with society is weak or broken. The theory therefore focused on broken relationships, rather than the inner individual motivation, as leading to crime.

Hirschi developed four variables to explain his theory of deviation from the social norm more clearly: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. These variables have received considerable criticism, however. The first is that these four variables do not adequately cover all the types of crime committed by delinquents. White collar crime, for example, is committed by individuals who otherwise conform to the social norm. The opportunity for crime exists, which the individual then uses.

Another criticism is a confusion of terms. Terms like Hirschi's "commitment" and "involvement" do not mean the same as their meaning in spoken language. Instead, he attaches to the terms a very particular criminological meaning.

The main strength of the theory is that it suggests an external and collective component to criminal activity rather than only an internal, individual paradigm. Although not proven to be entirely accurate or clear, it serves as a valuable basis for further research and more theoretical concerns.

Nash (2002) mentions that General Strain Theory was first introduced in 1992 by sociologist Robert Agnew. This theory recognizes individual differences in the response to strain. Some would, for example, succumb to this effect to commit delinquent acts and crime. As such, it is an individualistic view of crime, in that it recognizes that different individuals, under the same type and amount of strain, would react differently. It is a micro level view of criminal activity and delinquency.

According to Nash (2002), there has also been a suggestion that specific personality traits in individuals would lead to the different reactions to strain. Certain traits would therefore lead to certain reactions, which in turn would lead to crime and delinquency. In other words, crime and delinquency are regarded as ways to relieve the strain that is experienced.

The author mentions emotional and financial strain as two types of strain that might lead to crime and delinquency, where violence might relieve the emotional strain and theft the financial strain.

One shortcoming of the General Strain Theory is its distinction among races, and why it appears that races other than White tend to commit a higher volume of crime than their Caucasian counterparts. It has no clear explanation for those Caucasians who do commit crime. Also, it does not recognize that there are indeed social interactions that might lead to crime, rather than only micro-level issues.

The differential association theory was established by Edwin Sutherland in response to his increased frustration at the lack integrated factors to explain criminal activity. He therefore developed a theory of crime that introduced three concepts; normative conflict, differential association, and differential group organization in order to explain crime in terms of the social level, the individual level, and the group level.

According to Sutherland, crime at the level of society occurs as a result of normative conflict. Societies that occur on a relatively primitive level tend to be characterized by harmony, solidarity, and consensus. Basic values and beliefs are relatively uniform. These societies also have little crime. The modern industrialized nation, on the other hand, became segmented into groups according to differences in basic interests, values, and behavior. These differences lead higher criminal activity than the harmony experienced in more primitive societies. At its basis, Sutherland holds that normative conflict results from disagreements about the importance and appropriateness of the law. This conflict leads to higher crime rates.

On the individual level, Sutherland holds that crime occurs as a result of definition differentiation. Some definitions justify crime, as in "Everyone cheats on their taxes." This definition justifies a specific crime on an individual level. The individual decides to commit crime as a result of a definition that makes it acceptable to that individual. The basic tenets of the crime grow in the individual as a result of social interactions, but nonetheless the decision to commit crime and the criminal activity itself occur on an individual level.

According to Sutherland, groups can also be organized in favor of or against crime. Some neighbourhoods, for example, are strongly organized in favor of street crime, while others are organized against it. The norms and values dictated by these groups are relatively uniform, which means that the accepted norms of the group dictate delinquency or law-abiding behavior.

Originated by Gresham Sykes and David Matza, neutralization theory involves the neutralization of guilt by justifying the criminal activity that is planned. The theorists provide for five types of neutralization, including the denial of responsibility, the denial of injury, the denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and an appeal to higher loyalties than those dictated the law against the specific activity being committed.

Denial of responsibility means that the individual claims that the crime was not really a choice that is consciously made. Peer pressure, emotion, lack of judgement because of mind altering substances, or a combination of these is used to justify the crime. Something is said to have "made" the person commit the crime. Denial of the injury refers to the claim that nobody was hurt by the crime, such as rape victims "playing at" being victims, robbed stores that are insured, or stolen cars that were "just borrowed." Denial of the victim refers to the claim that victims of crime somehow deserve it, such as women in certain types of clothing "asking" to be raped. Condemnation of the condemners refers to the claim that even those who make and enforce the law are perpetrators of crime, such as "Judges are corrupt." Finally, the appeal to higher loyalties refers to an adherence to the group and its norms above all else, including the law.

What is interesting about criminal activity is that a multiple number of theories could be applied to specific criminal activities. One example is the recent conviction of Jessie Keenan, who was found guilty of four counts of arson by Judge Linda Ludgate. He was sentenced to 4 years and 9 months in state prison.

The most likely theories to apply here would be the general strain theory and the differential association theory. There seem to be no accomplices in the crime, so…

Online Sources Used in Document:


Ball, R.A. (2006, Mar 7). An Empirical Exploration of Neutralization Theory. Criminology, Vol 4, Iss 2. Retrieved from:

Matsueda, R.L. (2000). Differential Association Theory. Retrieved from:

Nash, M. (2002, Nov. 15). General Strain Theory as an Explanation for Crime and Deviance. Retrieved from:

Welch, K. (1998, Nov. 30). Two Major Theories of Travis Hirschi. Retrieved from:

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