Criminological Theory Essay

Length: 6 pages Sources: 7 Subject: Criminal Justice Type: Essay Paper: #92990348 Related Topics: Strain Theory, Shoplifting, Rational Choice Theory, Labeling Theory
Excerpt from Essay :

¶ … people commit crimes and other people do not continues to trouble both laypersons and experts alike. This paper will attempt to delve more deeply into the causality of the psychology of crime. Over the years, various theories have fallen out of favor regarding traits that predispose people to criminality. Some theorists tend to view 'nurture' rather than 'nature' as more important or vice versa. Regardless, although it is likely impossible to say once and for all what makes someone a criminal or a law-abiding citizen, attempting to explore the rationale behind crime is essential, given that it has a critical, material effect upon how criminal behavior is treated in our society.

This paper will begin with an overview of the nature and nurture debate within the field of criminology and then focus specifically upon how juvenile delinquency has been viewed in our culture, how it has been treated, and various theories which have been developed to explain and address it. Juvenile delinquency is also an interesting component of the nature-nurture debate given that many juveniles 'act out' during this period of their lives while struggling with their identities yet they do not later in life. The reason for this is poorly understood and requires further examination. Situation-specific crimes (such as war crimes) highlight the complexity of the causality of crime.

Clearly, no definitive, singular answer as to why people commit crimes, specifically why juveniles commit crimes in the manner that they do (and if this is distinct from the causality of adults) can be arrived at. However, this research will hopefully shed light upon the issue and clarify the current state of the academic conversation on this topic. In doing so, it is hoped that the nature-nurture debate can be rendered more multifaceted and illuminating.

Action plan for research


During this first month I will develop an action plan for my research topic. I will solidify my topic and select the necessary sources for a comprehensive literature review. I will refine and narrow down the parameters of my research to make them more manageable.


I will continue to accumulate sources and begin to narrow my topic. I will determine if there is enough available material on the subject I wish to address.


I will begin to outline the paper, determine the structure of the research and come to a definitive thesis to guide my future work.


I will begin to compose a rough draft of the body paragraphs and narrow down my source material. I will also make plans to conduct interviews and do field research if necessary.


I will begin to refine my opening paragraph and provide more structure to my research areas, adding to my outline and to my drafts with additional subtopics that might be germane to my field of study.


I will continue with the revising process of my draft and make any necessary additions or subtractions from my original outline.


I will finish and submit the project.

Key characteristics and literature review: Why individuals commit crimes

In general, there are two overarching theories as to why individuals commit crimes: biological and psychological or 'nature' versus 'nurture'-based theory. Nature-focused theories hypothesize that individuals commit crimes due to their biological hard-wiring. Nurture-focused theories suggest that individuals commit crimes due to influences in their environment. However, increasingly, this divide has begun to be questioned. The field of epigenetics, for example, stresses the degree to which certain genetic tendencies can interact with the environment. Recently, the nature-nurture debate was "declared to be officially redundant by social scientists and scientists, outdated, naive and unhelpful" and it was said that "nature and nurture interact to affect behaviour through complex and not yet fully understood ways, but, in practice, the debate continues," particularly in the field of criminology and in relation to juvenile-related crimes specifically (Levitt 2013). For example, not all individuals raised in impoverished households in crime-ridden areas become criminals; yet individuals born to a highly stressed environment with environmental 'shaping' forces that exhibit such criminal features are more likely to engage in illegal activities.

Historically, the classical theory of criminology was a predominantly rationalist one, suggesting that individuals have a strong degree of control over their behaviors. Criminology was heavily influenced by 'nurture'-based theories, suggesting that people could make rational choices about their behavior regarding whether to commit crimes or not. "The classical theorists believe in...


If the rewards for being a criminal are greater than the retribution it would bring then criminal behaviour seems more likely. This theory would predict that extreme punishments such as flogging or death would deter people from all crimes" (Sturt 2014). However, the classical theory also stressed that punishments should be meted out proportionately in relation to their severity and the individual's ability to benefit from the crime. In other words, if the punishment was harsh enough, the individual would logically determine that the crime was not worth the additional expenditure of energy and trouble: not every crime needed to have an extreme sentence, but all illegal behavior should have some consequence, depending upon its benefits to the potential criminal. ). A modern variation of classical criminological theories is that of social-control theory which likewise suggests that the potential for criminality exists within use all, if there are no institutional structures to provide incentives for existing in a state of harmony with others (Flowers 2002).

The concept of deterrence of the classical school still holds sway today to some degree within our legal system: the concept of consistency of punishment remains one of the hallmarks of the legal system (i.e., criminals should be punished in the same ways for the same types of crime, rather than arbitrarily. Yet even in this regard there is some variation, given that states or provinces may vary in terms of the punishments they accord (not all states have the death penalty in the U.S., for example) and there may be some inconsistencies in terms of how apparently similar crimes are viewed (certain types of drug use may be punished more harshly than others -- alcohol, even excessive intake, is a legal drug, while cannabis is not, for example). Furthermore and unfortunately, for the advocates of positivist or classical criminology, there is ample evidence of individuals committing apparently 'senseless' crimes that did not appear to rationally serve them. A good example of this is juvenile delinquents who engage in petty shoplifting or graffiti.

Particularly in regards to juvenile delinquency, there has been increasing emphasis placed upon sociological theories of crime, or the notion that peer pressure can motivate young people to engage in criminal activity. A more refined notion of how 'nurture' or environmental forces can produce asocial behavior is manifested in theories such as strain theory, which suggests that a lack of harmony between expectations and realities can case individuals to behave in asocial ways. "The cornerstone of what is known as 'the means-end theory of deviance' is that crime breeds in the gap, imbalance, or disjunction between culturally induced aspirations for economic success and structurally distributed possibilities of achievement" (O'Connor 2014). Teens who feel that they have no hope of attaining middle-class success may act out against a system they view as oppressive and constraining.

This theory was frequently used to explain why crime so often takes place in cities, given that individuals of lower class backgrounds can more starkly see the divisions between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' manifested before them. Critics of the theory, however, counter that it is problematic given that "the theory assumes fairly uniform economic success aspirations across social class" (O'Connor 2014). It does explain, however, "why crime is concentrated among the lower classes who have the least legitimate opportunities for achievement. It is the combination of the cultural emphasis and the social structure which produces intense pressure for deviation" (O'Connor 2014). But strain theory suggests that poverty alone does not produce criminality: it is a perception of injustice and a disparity of expectations. The nature of capitalist society with its extremes of wealth, particularly as manifest in the United States, are what create a criminal culture.

Clearly, not all crimes are committed by lower class individuals and there are many examples of juveniles from wealthier backgrounds 'acting out' during this period of their life. This suggests that social learning theory, or mimicking what is normal may contribute to criminal behavior. First advanced by Bandura's Bobo experiments, Bandura (1961) observed in a controlled experiment that children were more likely to engage in mimicking violent behavior towards the same doll (a 'Bobo' doll) if they had seen an adult do so previously. "That is, children learn social behavior such as aggression through the process of observation learning - through watching the behavior of another person" (McLeod 2011). However, some gender-based differences between the sexes were evident, suggesting some biological influences upon the sexes were evident: boys were far more likely to imitate males engaged in violence,…

Sources Used in Documents:


Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. 1961.Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-82.

Cooper, J., Walsh, A. & Ellis, L. 2010. Is criminology moving toward a paradigm shift?

Evidence from a Survey of the American Society of Criminology Journal of Criminal

Justice Education 21(3): 332 -- 347. [22 Nov 2014] [22 Nov 2014]

Cite this Document:

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