Theories evaluations

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Biological Theories 

Psychological Theories 

Deterrence Theory

Rational Choice Theory

Social Disorganization Theory

Anomie Theory

Strain Theory

1
Theory Evaluation

WHAT MAKES A GOOD THEORY

Akers & Sellers (2013)

● 6 criteria for evaluating theory
o Logical consistency
o Scope
o Parsimony
o Testability
o Empirical Validity – most important
o Policy Implications

● Logical Consistency

o Basic prerequisite for good theory – ​Does the theory logically make sense?
o Must have clearly defined concepts and propositions that are logically stated and

internally consistent
▪ Example: If a theory states that biological deficiencies are to blame for

crime, family socialization cannot be claimed to be the basic cause of
crime

o Book Definition:​ A theory needs to be presented in a logical manner and
to have clearly stated propositions that agree with or do not contradict one
another. Restated, does the theory make logical and consistent sense?

● Scope

o Refers to the range of phenomena the theory proposes to explain.
o Does or can the theory explain multiple types of crime?

▪ Example: A theory of check forging may be accurate but is incredibly
limited in scope. A theory explaining a wide range of crimes, including
check forging, is preferred. In other words, we do not want a theory to be
so focused that it cannot work on multiple crimes.

o Book Definition​: Refers to how much or how many types of crime or deviance the
theory covers

● Parsimony

o Refers to the conciseness and abstractness of a set of concepts and propositions
o Interrelated with scope, meaning a good theory explains a wide range of

behaviors with as few succinct statements as necessary
▪ Example: Gottfredson & Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime

o Book Definition:​ This refers to how many propositions, steps, or statements are
involved. How simple is the theory?​ Can the theory address multiple crimes
and areas with few propositions and concepts that are clear and concise?

2
Theory Evaluation

● Testability
o Theories must be testable by objective, repeatable evidence
o Is the theory testable?
o Theories must also be subject to ​empirical falsification

▪ State another way, the theory must be open to evidence that would
disprove its hypotheses

o If a theory is not falsifiable, it is ​tautological
o Is the theory tautological?

▪ A tautology is a statement or hypothesis that is true by definition or
involves circular reasoning

▪ Example: Labeling serial killers as psychopaths and then asserting that
people commit serial murders because they are psychopathic, which
equates to “psychopaths are psychopathic”

o A theory may also be untestable if its propositions are so open-ended that any
contradictory empirical evidence can be reinterpreted to support the theory

o A theory may also be untestable if its concepts are not measurable by observable
and reportable events
▪ Example: people commit crime because they are possessed by invisible

demons
▪ Important: not everything has to be observed if it can be reported (i.e.

self-report surveys)
o Book Definition​: To be valid and ultimately useful, a theory must be able to be

subjected to scientific research. Theories may be untestable if they are
tautological, propose causes that are not measurable, or are so open-ended that
empirical findings can always be re-interpreted to support the theory.

● Empirical Validity

o Means that a theory has been supported by research evidence (results and findings
from research)
▪ Most important criterion for judging a theory

▪ The other criteria mean very little if the theory is not supported
o Soft determinism acknowledges human nature and leaves room for individual

choices that cannot be completely predicted
▪ Take away: no theory will be completely true or false

o Book Definition​: This is the most important factor in evaluating a theory, and
means that the theory has been supported by research evidence.

o Can research support this theory? Are there several research studies that
support this theory?

● Policy Implications

o The value of theory is further evaluated by its usefulness in providing guidelines
for effective social and criminal justice policy and practice

3
Theory Evaluation

o Can this theory have policy implications to help decrease or prevent crime?
o Book Definition​: If the theory is empirically valid, what solutions are suggested.

Biological Theories

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weaknesses:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Psychological Theories

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weakness:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Rational Choice Theory

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weakness:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Social Disorganization Theory

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weakness:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Anomie Theory

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weakness:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Strain Theory

Type of Theory:

Concept(s):

Proposition(s):

Other Element(s):

Logical Consistency:

Scope:

Parsimony:

Testability:

Empirical Validity:

Policy Implications:

Strengths & Weakness:

Personal Theory Evaluation

Deterrence Theories

Logical consistency:
Deterrence theory makes logical sense, as it can be assumed that increasing the certainty,
severity, and celerity of punishment should decrease crime. Deterrence Theory consists of three
main concepts: certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment. Certainty is how probable it is that
an individual will get caught and punished for committing a crime. Severity is how severe the
punishment will be for committing a specific crime. Celerity is the swiftness of punishment once
the crime is committed. The proposition assumes that those three concepts increase when
related to punishment/risk, crime should decrease as an effect, as individuals begin to abstain
from engaging in criminal behavior. Deterrence theory has good logical consistency because of
its clearly stated and internally consistent concepts. Jeremy Bentham and Beccaria did not
focus on punishment being as hard as possible or something reminiscent of Hammurabi’s code.
Instead they proposed that punishment needs to be just sever enough that it outweighed the
gain of committing a crime without being too severe that I became unjust (Akers, 2012). Logical
consistency is appropriate because it recognizes the threat and risk of punishment that all
crimes possess, which deter crime when administered certainly, severely, and swiftly.
**Note: Note the concepts and propositions here. What makes this logical or not logical? Find
support from your book.

Scope:
Deterrence theory has a wide scope as the idea can be applied to most crimes. When Akers
(2012) talks about specific and general deterrence, both are talked about in a broad sense that
covers multitudes of crime. The book talks about deterrence in relation to domestic abuse and
delinquency, but the concepts mentioned above can be applied to other crimes. These crimes
may entail robbery, murder, kidnapping, etc. If individuals are aware of these consequences,
then they are more likely to refrain from committing these crimes. Explain more here. The idea
of general deterrence is based on the idea that offenders and the punishment they receive for
their crimes will instill fear in the public to the point it will deter the public from committing crime
(Akers,2012). Discuss specific deterrence and general deterrence here. Discuss informal and
formal sanctions here.
**Note: Make sure to explain all elements in this section. Explain in detail what crimes that this
can cover and why.

Parsimony:
Deterrence Theory is parsimonious at first glance because its concepts are concise, clear, and
easy to understand. The concepts: certainty, severity, and celerity are clearly defined making the
theory’s main thesis easy to comprehend, leaving very little room for any confusion. However, it
is important to note that the concept of celerity, how fast punishment takes place after the crime
is committed, varies from theorist to theorist or even individual to individual. It is also to note that
there are other elements such as informal sanctions, formal sanctions, specific deterrence,
general deterrence, and how these are used to explain this theory. Theory may not be as
parsimonious in depth as it is on its surface. Thus, the theory shows that it is not very simple but
not complex – it is more so simple but with multiple notable components.

**Note: What are the other elements that may make this less parsimonious, if any?

Testability:
Deterrence Theory has proven to be difficult to test. Deterrence theory fails to test one of the
three concepts, making the overall theory difficult to find the test. As noted in the section above,
the celerity of punishment is widely debated, some believing punishment begins at arrest while
others believe it starts at conviction. The inability to agree on a set start time of punishment has
led to the concept becoming virtually untestable. Paternoster states that “support for deterrence
theory is a misinterpretation of the findings of negative correlations between the perceptions of
sanctions and the deterrence of offenses” (Paternoster, 1983). The theory is also difficult to test
because individuals are not fully aware of the certainty, severity, and celerity of crime.
Individuals may usually act out of impulse, survival, greed, or other aspects while not
understanding the consequences or possibly disregarding the consequences.
**Note: Are concepts testable? Is it easy to test? Is it difficult to test? Have people tested this
theory fully?

Empirical validity:
Identify two studies that support your claim and one against your argument. What did the
studies argue? How did the authors test this theory? What did the studies find? What did the
authors say about the theory as a whole – difficult or relatively easy? Are there a lot of studies
that test this theory? Why or why not?

Policy Implications:
The policy implications of deterrence theory are the most common reaction to crime as is. Most
when seeing increasing crime rates call for more severe and certain punishment to curb
recidivism and discourage potential offenders. In fact, the idea of deterrence remains to be the
basis of our modern criminal justice system (Akers, 2012). When the idea of deterrence is
expanded to include informal sanctions as proposed by Paternoster, the policy implications
include individuals being deterred from crime because of the informal sanctions put on them by
family, friends, the community etc. Accounting for the informal sanctions, this theory’s policy
implications would also include the possibility of severed personal relationships because of the
formal sanctions. In fact, informal sanctions have more of an effect on deterring crime than the
formal ones do (Akers, 2012).
**Note: Are the policy implications reasonable? Can the policy implications be effective today?
What does the book tell us? What policy implications can you think of from this theory?

CHAPTER 2

DETERRENCE AND
RATIONAL CHOICE
THEORIES

Classical Criminology and
the Deterrence Doctrine

Classical criminology refers primarily to the eighteenth century
writings of Cesare Beccaria in Italy and Jeremy Bentham in Eng­

land. 1 Both were utilitarian social philosophers who were primarily
concerned with legal and penal reform rather than with formulating
an explanation of criminal behavior. In doing so, however, they formu­
lated a theory of crime that remains relevant to criminology today.2

The system of law, courts, and penalties of the day that the classical
criminologists wanted to change was marred in most European coun­
tries by arbitrary, biased, and capricious judicial decisions. It was com­
mon to use torture to coerce confessions and to inflict cruel
punishments, including whipping, public hanging, and mutilation. The
classical criminologists were intent on providing a philosophical ra­
tionale for reforming the judicial and legal system to make it more
rational and fair. Their ideas converged with the developing interests
of the rising middle classes of merchants and the economic philosophy
promoting trade, commerce, and industry. They promoted reforms
which many of the leading intellectuals of the day were advocating.
Their arguments also fit well with developing political movements seek­
ing greater citizen participation and democratic control of government.
Many of the law reforms proposed by classical utilitarian philosophers,
such as doing away with cruel and unusual punishment and instituting
the right to a speedy trial, were incorporated into the Constitution of
the United States in its B i l l of Rights amendments. Others, such as a
legislatively fixed scale of punishment for each type and degree of crime,
were incorporated into the new legal codes of France in 1791, following
the French Revolution.

15

CHAPTER 2

DETERRENCE AND
RATIONAL CHOICE
THEORIES

Classical Criminology and
the Deterrence Doctrine

Classical criminology refers primarily to the eighteenth century
writings of Cesare Beccaria in Italy and Jeremy Bentham in Eng­

land.1 Both were utilitarian social philosophers who were primarily
concerned with legal and penal reform rather than with formulating
an explanation of criminal behavior. In doing so, however, they formu­
lated a theory of crime that remains relevant to criminology today.2

The system of law, courts, and penalties of the day that the classical
criminologists wanted to change was marred in most European coun­
tries by arbitrary, biased, and capricious judicial decisions. It was com­
mon to use torture to coerce confessions and to inflict cruel
punishments, including whipping, public hanging, and mutilation. The
classical criminologists were intent on providing a philosophical ra­
tionale for reforming the judicial and legal system to make it more
rational and fair. Their ideas converged with the developing interests
of the rising middle classes of merchants and the economic philosophy
promoting trade, commerce, and industry. They promoted reforms
which many of the leading intellectuals of the day were advocating.
Their arguments also fit well with developing political movements seek­
ing greater citizen participation and democratic control of government.
Many of the law reforms proposed by classical utilitarian philosophers,
such as doing away with cruel and unusual punishment and instituting
the right to a speedy trial, were incorporated into the Constitution of
the United States in its Bill of Rights amendments. Others, such as a
legislatively fixed scale of punishment for each type and degree of crime,
were incorporated into the new legal codes of France in 1791, following
the French Revolution.

15

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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16 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Deterrence: Certainty, Severity, and Celerity of Punishment

Severity and Fitting the Punishment to the Crime
The basic premise in classical criminology is that actions are taken

and decisions are made by persons in the rational exercise of free wil l .
Al l individuals choose to obey or violate the law by a rational calculation
of the risk of pain versus potential pleasure derived from an act. In
contemplating a criminal act, they take into account the probable legal
penalties and the likelihood that they will be caught. If they believe that
the legal penalty threatens more pain than the probable gain produced
by the crime, then they will not commit the crime. Their calculation is
based on their own experience with criminal punishment, their knowl­
edge of what punishment is imposed by law, and their awareness of
what punishment has been given to apprehended offenders in the past.
(See the discussion of specific and general deterrence below.)

A legal system that is capricious and uncertain does not guarantee
sufficient grounds for making such rational decisions. Such a system
is not only unjust, it is also ineffective in controlling crime. In order to
prevent crime, therefore, criminal law must provide reasonable penal­
ties which are applied in a reasonable fashion to encourage citizens to
obey rather than violate the law. The primary purpose of criminal law
is deterrence. It should not be used simply to avenge the wrongs done
to the state or the victim. The legislators enact laws that clearly define
what is unlawful, prescribe punishment for law violation sufficient
enough to offset the gain from crime, and thereby deter criminal acts
by citizens. Judges should do no more than determine guilt or innocence
and should use no discretion to alter penalties provided for by law.

The punishment must “fit the crime.” This may be interpreted as
retribution: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But to Bentham and
Beccaria, fitting the punishment to the crime meant more than making
the punishment proportional to the harm caused to society. It meant
that the punishment must be tailored to be just severe enough to over­
come the gain offered by crime. Punishment that is too severe is unjust,
and punishment that is not severe enough will not deter.

The assumption behind this argument is that the amount of gain or
pleasure derived from committing a particular crime is approximately
the same for everyone. Therefore, making the punishment fit the crime
stands in contrast to the punishment fitting the individual. The law
should strictly apply the penalty called for a particular crime, and the
penalty should not vary by the characteristics or circumstances of the
offender. The argument also assumes that the more serious or harmful
the crime, the more the individual stands to gain from it; therefore, the
more serious the crime, the more severe the penalty should be to deter
it. In classical criminology, this concept of proportionality meant that
the legislature should enact an exact scale of crimes with an exact scale

16 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Deten-ence: Certainty, Severity, and Celerity of Punishment

Severity and Fitting the Punishment to the Crime
The basic premise in classical criminology is that actions are taken

and decisions are made by persons in the rational exercise of free will.
All individuals choose to obey or violate the law by a rational calculation
of the risk of pain versus potential pleasure derived from an act. In
contemplating a criminal act, they take into account the probable legal
penalties and the likelihood that they will be caught. If they believe that
the legal penalty threatens more pain than the probable gain produced
by the crime, then they will not commit the crime. Their calculation is
based on their own experience with criminal punishment, their knowl­
edge of what punishment is imposed by law, and their awareness of
what punishment has been given to apprehended offenders in the past.
(See the discussion of specific and general deterrence below.)

A legal system that is capricious and uncertain does not guarantee
sufficient grounds for making such rational decisions. Such a system
is not only unjust, it is also ineffective in controlling crime. In order to
prevent crime, therefore, criminal law must provide reasonable penal­
ties which are applied in a reasonable fashion to encourage citizens to
obey rather than violate the law. The primary purpose of criminal law
is deterrence. It should not be used simply to avenge the wrongs done
to the state or the victim. The legislators enact laws that clearly define
what is unlawful, prescribe punishment for law violation sufficient
enough to offset the gain from crime, and thereby deter criminal acts
by citizens. Judges should do no more than determine guilt or innocence
and should use no discretion to alter penalties provided for by law.

The punishment must “fit the crime.” This may be interpreted as
retribution: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But to Bentham and
Beccaria, fitting the punishment to the crime meant more than making
the punishment proportional to the harm caused to society. It meant
that the punishment must be tailored to be just severe enough to over­
come the gain offered by crime. Punishment that is too severe is unjust,
and punishment that is not severe enough will not deter.

The assumption behind this argument is that the amount of gain or
pleasure derived from committing a particular crime is approximately
the same for everyone. Therefore, making the punishment fit the crime
stands in contrast to the punishment fitting the individual. The law
should strictly apply the penalty called for a particular crime, and the
penalty should not vary by the characteristics or circumstances of the
offender. The argument also assumes that the more serious or harmful
the crime, the more the individual stands to gain from it; therefore, the
more serious the crime, the more severe the penalty should be to deter
it. In classical criminology, this concept of proportionality meant that
the legislature should enact an exact scale of crimes with an exact scale

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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17 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

of threatened punishment, without regard to individual differences.
This was later modified to consider that age and mental capacity may
affect one’s ability to reason rationally.

Certainty and Celerity of Punishment
The deterrence doctrine does not rest on the severity of legal penalties

alone. It further determines that, in order to deter, punishment for crime
must be swift and certain. Celerity refers to the swiftness with which
criminal sanctions are applied after the commission of crime.

The more immediately after the commission of a crime a punishment
is inflicted, the more just and useful it will be. . . . An immediate pun­
ishment is more useful; because the smaller the interval of time between
the punishment and the crime, the stronger and more lasting will be the
association of the two ideas of crime and punishment. (Beccaria,
1972:18-19)

Certainty refers to the probability of apprehension and punishment for a
crime. If the punishment for a crime is severe, certain, and swift, the
citizenry wil l rationally calculate that more is to be lost than gained from
crime and wil l be deterred from violating the law. Both Beccaria and Ben-
tham saw a connection between certainty and severity of punishment.
Certainty is more effective in deterring crime than severity of punishment.
The more severe the punishment, the less likely it is to be applied; and
the less certain the punishment, the more severe it must be to deter crime.

Specific and General Deterrence
There are two ways by which deterrence is intended to operate. First,

apprehended and punished offenders will refrain from repeating crimes
if they are certainly caught and severely punished. This is known as
“specific deterrence” or “special deterrence.” Second is “general deter­
rence,” in which the state’s punishment of offenders serves as an exam­
ple to those in the general public who have not yet committed a crime,
instilling in them enough fear of state punishment to deter them from
crime (Zimring, 1971; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973).

Modern Deterrence Theory

Studies of Deterrence
The principles of certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment, pro­

portionality, and specific and general deterrence remain at the heart of
modern deterrence theory (Zimring and Hawkins, 1973; Gibbs, 1975;
Wright, 1993b). Furthermore, the deterrence doctrine remains the
philosophical foundation for modern Western criminal law and crimi­
nal justice systems. The policy implications of deterrence theory
evolved from the interest in changing the judicial and penal policy of

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 17

of threatened punishment, without regard to individual differences.
This was later modified to consider that age and mental capacity may
affect one’s ability to reason rationally.

Certainty and Celerity of Punishment
The deterrence doctrine does not rest on the severity oflegal penalties

alone. It further determines that, in order to deter, punishment for crime
must be swift and certain. Celerity refers to the swiftness with which
criminal sanctions are applied after the commission of crime.

The more immediately after the commission of a crime a punishment
is inflicted, the more just and useful it will be …. An immediate pun­
ishment is more useful; because the smaller the interval of time between
the punishment and the crime, the stronger and more lasting will be the
association of the two ideas of crime and punishment. (Beccaria,
1972:18-19)

Certainty refers to the probability of apprehension and punishment for a
crime. If the punishment for a crime is severe, certain, and swift, the
citizenry will rationally calculate that more is to be lost than gained from
crime and will be deterred from violating the law. Both Beccaria and Ben­
tham saw a connection between certainty and severity of punishment.
Certainty is more effective in deterring crime than severity of punishment.
The more severe the punishment, the less likely it is to be applied; and
the less certain the punishment, the more severe it must be to deter crime.

Specific and General Deterrence
There are two ways by which deterrence is intended to operate. First,

apprehended and punished offenders will refrain from repeating crimes
if they are certainly caught and severely punished. This is known as
“specific deterrence” or “special deterrence.” Second is “general deter­
rence,” in which the state’s punishment of offenders serves as an exam­
ple to those in the general public who have not yet committed a crime,
instilling in them enough fear of state punishment to deter them from
crime (Zimring, 1971; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973).

Modern Deterrence Theory

Studies of Deterrence
The principles of certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment, pro­

portionality, and specific and general deterrence remain at the heart of
modern deterrence theory (Zimring and Hawkins, 1973; Gibbs, 1975;
Wright, 1993b). Furthermore, the deterrence doctrine remains the
philosophical foundation for modern Western criminal law and crimi­
nal justice systems. The policy implications of deterrence theory
evolved from the interest in changing the judicial and penal policy of

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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18 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

the eighteenth century, and the theory continues to attract many ad­
herents today because of its direct applicability to policy on law en­
forcement, courts, and imprisonment. The most common policy
reaction to crime problems is to call for increased penalties, more severe
sentences, additions to the police force so more arrests can be made,
and the increased certainty of conviction and sentencing. These trends
are directly related to all the efforts by legislators to make criminal
penalties more certain and severe, to reduce the recidivism of already
punished offenders, and to deter new offenders. A policy of longer
sentences, especially when selectively applied to habitual offenders,
may also be based on the premise that imprisonment, even when it
does not deter, will at least incapacitate offenders for a period of time
(Blumstein et al., 1978). But the deterrence potential is always behind
the policy on all criminal sanctions, from the death penalty on down.

In spite of the long history and continuing importance of deterrence
theory, empirical research designed to test it was rare until the late
1960s. Prior to that, most discussions of deterrence revolved around
the humanitarian, philosophical, and moral implications of punish­
ment rather than the empirical validity of the theory (Ball, 1965; Toby,
1964; Gibbs, 1975). Since 1970, however, deterrence has been one of
the most frequently discussed and researched theories in criminology
(see Gibbs, 1975; Tittle, 1980; Wright, 1993b; Stitt and Giacopassi,
1992).

The first studies on deterrence consisted primarily of comparisons
between states which provided capital punishment for first-degree
homicide and those which had no death penalty. The early studies also
examined homicide rates in states before and after they abolished capi­
tal punishment. These studies found that the provision or absence of
the death penalty in state statutes had no effect on the homicide rate
(Sellin, 1959; Bedau, 1964). Research by Gibbs (1968), Tittle (1969),
and Chiricos and Waldo (1970) set the stage for many of the studies
that followed and have continued to this day. Their studies moved
beyond the effects of the death penalty to test the deterrent effect of
certainty and severity of punishment on a whole range of criminal and
delinquent offenses. They did not include measures for celerity of pun­
ishment, however, and it has seldom been included in deterrence re­
search ever since.

Objective Measures of Deterrence
Deterrence research measures the severity and certainty of criminal

penalties in two ways. The first approach is to use objective indicators
from official criminal justice statistics. The certainty or risk of penalty,
for instance, is measured by the arrest rate (the ratio of arrests to crimes
known to the police) or by the proportion of arrested offenders who
are prosecuted and convicted in court. The severity of punishment may

18 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

the eighteenth century, and the theory continues to attract many ad­
herents today because of its direct applicability to policy on law en­
forcement, courts, and imprisonment. The most common policy
reaction to crime problems is to call for increased penalties, more severe
sentences, additions to the police force so more arrests can be made,
and the increased certainty of conviction and sentencing. These trends
are directly related to all the efforts by legislators to make criminal
penalties more certain and severe, to reduce the recidivism of already
punished offenders, and to deter new offenders. A policy of longer
sentences, especially when selectively applied to habitual offenders,
may also be based on the premise that imprisonment, even when it
does not deter, will at least incapacitate offenders for a period of time
(Blumstein et al., 1978). But the deterrence potential is always behind
the policy on all criminal sanctions, from the death penalty on down.

In spite of the long history and continuing importance of deterrence
theory, empirical research designed to test it was rare until the late
1960s. Prior to that, most discussions of deterrence revolved around
the humanitarian, philosophical, and moral implications of punish­
ment rather than the empirical validity of the theory (Ball, 1965; Toby,
1964; Gibbs, 1975). Since 1970, however, deterrence has been one of
the most frequently discussed and researched theories in criminology
(see Gibbs, 1975; Tittle, 1980; Wright, 1993b; Stitt and Giacopassi,
1992).

The first studies on deterrence consisted primarily of comparisons
between states which provided capital punishment for first-degree
homicide and those which had no death penalty. The early studies also
examined homicide rates in states before and after they abolished capi­
tal punishment. These studies found that the provision or absence of
the death penalty in state statutes had no effect on the homicide rate
(Sellin, 1959; Bedau, 1964). Research by Gibbs (1968), Tittle (1969),
and Chiricos and Waldo (1970) set the stage for many of the studies
that followed and have continued to this day. Their studies moved
beyond the effects of the death penalty to test the deterrent effect of
certainty and severity of punishment on a whole range of criminal and
delinquent offenses. They did not include measures for celerity of pun­
ishment, however, and it has seldom been included in deterrence re­
search ever since.

Objective Measures of Deterrence
Deterrence research measures the severity and certainty of criminal

penalties in two ways. The first approach is to use objective indicators
from official criminal justice statistics. The certainty or risk of penalty,
for instance, is measured by the arrest rate (the ratio of arrests to crimes
known to the police) or by the proportion of arrested offenders who
are prosecuted and convicted in court. The severity of punishment may

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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19 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

be measured by the maximum sentence provided by law for an offense,
by the average length of sentence for a particular crime, or by the
proportion of convicted offenders sentenced to prison rather than to
probation or some other non-incarceration program. Deterrence theory
predicts an inverse or negative relationship between these official meas­
ures of legal penalties and the official crime rate measured by crimes
known to the police. When the objective certainty and severity of crimi­
nal sanctions are high, according to the theory, official crime rates
should be low (Gibbs, 1968; 1975; Tittle, 1969; 1980; Chiricos and
Waldo, 1971; Ross, 1982).

Perceptual Measures of Deterrence
The second approach is to measure individuals’ subjective percep­

tions of legal penalties. The objective threat of legal punishment means
nothing if citizens are not aware of the official sanctions or do not
believe that there is any high risk of penalty if they were to commit a
crime. In fact, most people have a very limited knowledge of what the
legal penalties actually are and often make very inaccurate estimations
of the true odds of apprehension and incarceration. But a person’s fear
of punishment should have a deterrent effect on his or her decision to
violate the law, even if that fear has no connection with objective reality.
Ultimately, deterrence theory proposes that it is what people believe
about the certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment, regardless
of its true risks, that determines their choice of conformity or crime.

Recognizing this crucial cognitive dimension of deterrence, re­
searchers have utilized “subjective” measures of the risks and severity
of legal penalties as perceived by individuals. This is measured, for
example, by asking respondents on questionnaires or in interviews
questions such as, “How likely is it that someone like you would be
arrested if you committed X?” Most research on deterrence since the
1970s has used these perceptual measures, typically relating individu­
als’ perceptions of risk and severity of penalties to their self-reported
delinquency and crime. 3 The higher the risks of apprehension and the
stiffer the penalties for an offense perceived by individuals, the theory
predicts, the less likely they are to commit that offense.

Do Criminal Sanctions Deter?
If there were no criminal justice system and no penalties provided

by law for harmful acts against others and society, it would be obvious
that laws prohibiting certain behavior would carry no threat for viola­
tion. The laws could maintain some moral suasion, and most would
probably still obey the law and refrain from predatory acts. But law­
lessness would be more rampant than it is now. Indeed, a formal control
system of laws and government is essential to social order in a modern
political state. In this sense, the mere existence of a system that provides

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 19

be measured by the maximum sentence provided by law for an offense,
by the average length of sentence for a particular crime, or by the
proportion of convicted offenders sentenced to prison rather than to
probation or some other non-incarceration program. Deterrence theory
predicts an inverse or negative relationship between these official meas­
ures of legal penalties and the official crime rate measured by crimes
known to the police. When the objective certainty and severity of crimi­
nal sanctions are high, according to the theory, official crime rates
should be low (Gibbs, 1968; 1975; Tittle, 1969; 1980; Chiricos and
Waldo, 1971; Ross, 1982).

Perceptual Measures of Deterrence
The second approach is to measure individuals’ subjective percep­

tions of legal penalties. The objective threat of legal punishment means
nothing if citizens are not aware of the official sanctions or do not
believe that there is any high risk of penalty if they were to commit a
crime. In fact, most people have a very limited knowledge of what the
legal penalties actually are and often make very inaccurate estimations
of the true odds of apprehension and incarceration. But a person’s fear
of punishment should have a deterrent effect on his or her decision to
violate the law, even if that fear has no connection with objective reality.
Ultimately, deterrence theory proposes that it is what people believe
about the certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment, regardless
of its true risks, that determines their choice of conformity or crime.

Recognizing this crucial cognitive dimension of deterrence, re­
searchers have utilized “subjective” measures of the risks and severity
of legal penalties as perceived by individuals. This is measured, for
example, by asking respondents on questionnaires or in interviews
questions such as, “How likely is it that someone like you would be
arrested if you committed X?” Most research on deterrence since the
1970s has used these perceptual measures, typically relating individu­
als’ perceptions of risk and severity of penalties to their self-reported
delinquency and crime.3 The higher the risks of apprehension and the
stiffer the penalties for an offense perceived by individuals, the theory
predicts, the less likely they are to commit that offense.

Do Criminal Sanctions Deter?
If there were no criminal justice system and no penalties provided

by law for harmful acts against others and society, it would be obvious
that laws prohibiting certain behavior would carry no threat for viola­
tion. The laws could maintain some moral suasion, and most would
probably still obey the law and refrain from predatory acts. But law­
lessness would be more rampant than it is now. Indeed, a formal control
system of laws and government is essential to social order in a modem
political state. In this sense, the mere existence of a system that provides

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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20 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

punishment for wrongdoing deters an unknown amount of crime. This
effect of the chance of punishment versus no punishment at all has
been referred to as absolute deterrence (see Zimring and Hawkins, 1973;
Gibbs, 1975; see also Wright, 1993b).

However, absolute deterrence is not the relevant issue in deterrence
research. Most people, most of the time and under most circumstances,
conform to the law because they adhere to the same moral values as
those embodied in the law, not because they are worried about impris­
onment. We do not steal and kil l because we believe it is morally wrong.
We have been educated and socialized to abhor these things. Our so­
cialization comes from the family, church, school, and other groups
and institutions in society; and partly from the educative effect of the
law itself, simply by its formal condemnation of certain acts (Andenaes,
1971; see Gibbs, 1975, for a review of other preventive effects of law
beyond deterrence). Therefore, the important question that research
on deterrence attempts to answer is, does the actual or perceived threat
of formally applied punishment by the state provide a significant mar-
ginal deterrent effect beyond that assured by the informal control sys­
tem? (Gibbs, 1975; Zimring and Hawkins, 1968)

The best answer seems to be yes, but not very much. Studies of both
objective and perceptual deterrence often do find negative correlations
between certainty of criminal penalties and the rate or frequency of
criminal behavior, but the correlations tend to be low. Severity of pun­
ishment has an even weaker effect on crime, whether among the main
body of criminal offenders (Smith and Akers, 1992) or among a special
category such as those convicted of white-collar offenses (Weisburd et
al., 1995). Neither the existence of capital punishment nor the certainty
of the death penalty has ever had a significant effect on the rate of
homicides. Findings show that there is some deterrent effect from the
perceived certainty of criminal penalties, but the empirical validity of
deterrence theory is limited.

Deterrence and the Experiential Effect
Paternoster et al. (1983; 1985) take a more critical stance toward

deterrence theory. They maintain that even a conclusion of modest
support for deterrence theory is a misinterpretation of the findings of
negative correlations between the perceptions of sanctions and the
deterrence of offenses. They support their argument by referring to the
fact that much of deterrence research is “cross-sectional.” Cross-sec­
tional research means that the perceptions of risk and the self-reported
offenses are measured during the same time period. Indeed, in some
studies, the respondents have been asked about current perceptions of
deterrence, while questions about offenses have included violations
that occurred in the past. Consequently, this research often does not

20 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

punishment for wrongdoing deters an unknown amount of crime. This
effect of the chance of punishment versus no punishment at all has
been referred to as absolute deterrence (see Zimring and Hawkins, 1973;
Gibbs, 1975; see also Wright, 1993b).

However, absolute deterrence is not the relevant issue in deterrence
research. Most people, most of the time and under most circumstances,
conform to the law because they adhere to the same moral values as
those embodied in the law, not because they are worried about impris­
onment. We do not steal and kill because we believe it is morally wrong.
We have been educated and socialized to abhor these things. Our so­
cialization comes from the family, church, school, and other groups
and institutions in society; and partly from the educative effect of the
law itself, simply by its formal condemnation of certain acts (Andenaes,
1971; see Gibbs, 1975, for a review of other preventive effects of law
beyond deterrence). Therefore, the important question that research
on deterrence attempts to answer is, does the actual or perceived threat
of formally applied punishment by the state provide a significant mar­
ginal deterrent effect beyond that assured by the informal control sys­
tem? (Gibbs, 1975; Zimring and Hawkins, 1968)

The best answer seems to be yes, but not very much. Studies of both
objective and perceptual deterrence often do find negative correlations
between certainty of criminal penalties and the rate or frequency of
criminal behavior, but the correlations tend to be low. Severity of pun­
ishment has an even weaker effect on crime, whether among the main
body of criminal offenders (Smith and Akers, 1992) or among a special
category such as those convicted of white-collar offenses (Weisburd et
al., 1995). Neither the existence of capital punishment nor the certainty
of the death penalty has ever had a significant effect on the rate of
homicides. Findings show that there is some deterrent effect from the
perceived certainty of criminal penalties, but the empirical validity of
deterrence theory is limited.

Deterrence and the Experiential Effect
Paternoster et al. (1983; 1985) take a more critical stance toward

deterrence theory. They maintain that even a conclusion of modest
support for deterrence theory is a misinterpretation of the findings of
negative correlations between the perceptions of sanctions and the
deterrence of offenses. They support their argument by referring to the
fact that much of deterrence research is “cross-sectional.” Cross-sec­
tional research means that the perceptions of risk and the self-reported
offenses are measured during the same time period. Indeed, in some
studies, the respondents have been asked about current perceptions of
deterrence, while questions about offenses have included violations
that occurred in the past. Consequently, this research often does not

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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21 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

ascertain whether the respondents’ perceptions of risk came before or
after they committed the offenses. Sometimes, the offenses preceded
the reported perceptions of risk.

Paternoster et al.’s own longitudinal study, which measured percep­
tions of the certainty of legal punishment before and after offenses, was
able to show that “the effect of prior behavior on current perceptions
of the certainty of arrest, the experiential effect, is stronger than the
effect of perceptions of certainty on subsequent behavior, the deterrent
effect” (Paternoster et al., 1983:471; emphasis added). Those respon­
dents with “little prior experience in committing an offense have higher
estimates of the certainty of punishment than those with experience”
(Paternoster et al., 1985:429). In other words, the more frequently re­
spondents have been involved in law violations in the past, the lower
their perceived risk of sanctions in the present. Paternoster et al. (1983)
concluded that findings of negative associations between perceived
risks and criminal behavior reflect more the “experiential” effect of
behavior on the perceptions of risk than the “deterrent” effect.

Paternoster et al. (1983) are correct in concluding that the correlation
they found between the perceptions of risk and subsequent offenses
are too weak to validate deterrence theory. They fail to recognize, how­
ever, that their findings on the experiential effect may not in fact con­
tradict the principle of specific deterrence. If respondents had
previously committed offenses, but had not been punished for them,
the principle of specific deterrence would subsequently predict a low
level of perceived certainty. Individuals who are involved in repeated
crimes without suffering punishment should have lower perceptions
of risk, since they have gotten away with it so often. This in turn should
be related to repeating offenses in the future (Stafford and Warr, 1993).
Specific deterrence is supposed to operate based on persons getting
caught and punished for criminal acts. If they are not, the theory argues,
then they will come to believe that the certainty of punishment is low.
In this sense, then, deterrence theory predicts the very experiential
effect that Paternoster et al. found.

It would be contrary to the principle of specific deterrence if the
research had found that respondents who reported frequent arrests in
the past still had perceptions of a low risk of criminal sanctions. Pater­
noster et al. asked only about prior behavior. They did not measure past
experience with arrest and punishment, so we do not know the extent
to which their finding of an experiential effect contradicts deterrence
theory.

Modifications and Expansions of Deterrence Concepts
Another aspect of this study by Paternoster et al. (1983; 1985) points

to the movement by many researchers to expand deterrence concepts

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 21

ascertain whether the respondents’ perceptions of risk came before or
after they committed the offenses. Sometimes, the offenses preceded
the reported perceptions of risk.

Paternoster et al.’s own longitudinal study, which measured percep­
tions of the certainty of legal punishment before and after offenses, was
able to show that “the effect of prior behavior on current perceptions
of the certainty of arrest, the experiential effect, is stronger than the
effect of perceptions of certainty on subsequent behavior, the deterrent
effect” (Paternoster et al., 1983:471; emphasis added). Those respon­
dents with “little prior experience in committing an offense have higher
estimates of the certainty of punishment than those with experience”
(Paternoster et aI., 1985:429). In other words, the more frequently re­
spondents have been involved in law violations in the past, the lower
their perceived risk of sanctions in the present. Paternoster et al. (1983)
concluded that findings of negative associations between perceived
risks and criminal behavior reflect more the “experiential” effect of
behavior on the perceptions of risk than the “deterrent” effect.

Paternoster et al. (1983) are correct in concluding that the correlation
they found between the perceptions of risk and subsequent offenses
are too weak to validate deterrence theory. They fail to recognize, how­
ever, that their findings on the experiential effect may not in fact con­
tradict the principle of specific deterrence. If respondents had
previously committed offenses, but had not been punished for them,
the principle of specific deterrence would subsequently predict a low
level of perceived certainty. Individuals who are involved in repeated
crimes without suffering punishment should have lower perceptions
of risk, since they have gotten away with it so often. This in tum should
be related to repeating offenses in the future (Stafford and Warr, 1993).
Specific deterrence is supposed to operate based on persons getting
caught and punished for criminal acts. If they are not, the theory argues,
then they will come to believe that the certainty of punishment is low.
In this sense, then, deterrence theory predicts the very experiential
effect that Paternoster et al. found.

It would be contrary to the principle of specific deterrence if the
research had found that respondents who reported frequent arrests in
the past still had perceptions of a low risk of criminal sanctions. Pater­
noster et al. asked only about prior behavior. They did not measure past
experience with arrest and punishment, so we do not know the extent
to which their finding of an experiential effect contradicts deterrence
theory.

Modifications and Expansions of Deterrence Concepts
Another aspect of this study by Paternoster et al. (1983; 1985) points

to the movement by many researchers to expand deterrence concepts

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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.

22 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

beyond legal penalties. Paternoster et al. included variables from social
bonding theory (i.e., moral beliefs and attachment to parents and peers)
and social learning theory (i.e., the perceived risk of informal sanctions
from family and friends and association with offenders). (See Chapters
4 and 5.) When these other variables are taken into account, the already
weak relationship between the perceptions of risk of legal penalties and
offense behavior virtually disappears.

The research by Paternoster et al. followed up previous studies (An­
derson et al., 1977; Akers et al., 1979; Grasmick and Green, 1980) in
which the concept of deterrence is expanded beyond the strictly legal
or formal sanctions to include “informal deterrence.” Informal deter­
rence means the actual or anticipated social sanctions and other con­
sequences of crime and deviance that prevent their occurrence or
recurrence. This research has found that the perceptions of informal
sanctions, such as the disapproval of family and friends or one’s own
conscience and moral commitments, do have deterrent effects. Indeed,
they have more effect on refraining from law violations than the per­
ceived certainty of arrest or severity of penalties (Green, 1989; Grasmick
and Bursik, 1990).

Zimring and Hawkins (1973) have argued that formal punishment
may deter most effectively when it “sets off” or provokes these informal
social sanctions. An adolescent may refrain from delinquency, not only
merely out of fear of what the police will do, but of what his or her
parents will do once they learn of his or her arrest. Williams and Hawkins
(1989) expand on this notion of the deterrent effects of informal sanc­
tions that may be triggered by the application of formal criminal justice
sanctions. They found in their study that the arrest of an abusing hus­
band or boyfriend may have a deterrent effect, in part because of a
concern over the negative reactions of friends, family, neighbors, or
employers toward him based on their knowledge that he has been ar­
rested. In this instance, fear of arrest may be a deterrent, not only
because of the negative experience of the arrest itself, but because of
other negative consequences invoked by the arrest. These may include
the informal costs of severed relationships, damage to one’s reputation,
and the possible loss of current or future employment. Williams and
Hawkins argue that the general concept of deterrence should be ex­
panded to include these informal negative sanctions. Subsequent re­
search by Nagin and Paternoster (1991b) does not support this
argument, however, when it is applied to delinquency. They find a very
small deterrent effect from the perceptions of formal sanctions, and
this effect is not increased at all as a result of informal costs that may
be related to the formal sanction. Instead, the informal sanctions have
an independent effect on delinquent behavior that is stronger than the
effect of perceived formal sanctions.

22 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

beyond legal penalties. Paternoster et al. included variables from social
bonding theory (Le., moral beliefs and attachment to parents and peers)
and social learning theory (Le., the perceived risk of informal sanctions
from family and friends and association with offenders). (See Chapters
4 and 5.) When these other variables are taken into account, the already
weak relationship between the perceptions of risk of legal penalties and
offense behavior virtually disappears.

The research by Paternoster et al. followed up previous studies (An­
derson et al., 1977; Akers et al., 1979; Grasmick and Green, 1980) in
which the concept of deterrence is expanded beyond the strictly legal
or formal sanctions to include “informal deterrence.” Informal deter­
rence means the actual or anticipated social sanctions and other con­
sequences of crime and deviance that prevent their occurrence or
recurrence. This research has found that the perceptions of informal
sanctions, such as the disapproval of family and friends or one’s own
conscience and moral commitments, do have deterrent effects. Indeed,
they have more effect on refraining from law violations than the per­
ceived certainty of arrest or severity of penalties (Green, 1989; Grasmick
and Bursik, 1990).

Zimring and Hawkins (1973) have argued that formal punishment
may deter most effectively when it “sets off’ or provokes these informal
social sanctions. An adolescent may refrain from delinquency, not only
merely out of fear of what the police will do, but of what his or her
parents will do once they learn of his or her arrest. Williams and Hawkins
(1989) expand on this notion of the deterrent effects of informal sanc­
tions that may be triggered by the application of formal criminal justice
sanctions. They found in their study that the arrest of an abusing hus­
band or boyfriend may have a deterrent effect, in part because of a
concern over the negative reactions of friends, family, neighbors, or
employers toward him based on their knowledge that he has been ar­
rested. In this instance, fear of arrest may be a deterrent, not only
because of the negative experience of the arrest itself, but because of
other negative consequences invoked by the arrest. These may include
the informal costs of severed relationships, damage to one’s reputation,
and the possible loss of current or future employment. Williams and
Hawkins argue that the general concept of deterrence should be ex­
panded to include these informal negative sanctions. Subsequent re­
search by Nagin and Paternoster (1991 b) does not support this
argument, however, when it is applied to delinquency. They find a very
small deterrent effect from the perceptions of formal sanctions, and
this effect is not increased at all as a result of informal costs that may
be related to the formal sanction. Instead, the informal sanctions have
an independent effect on delinquent behavior that is stronger than the
effect of perceived formal sanctions.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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23 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

That the informal sanction system may be more effective in control­
ling crime than legal sanctions should come as no surprise. But does
research evidence that informal sanctions on criminal and delinquent
behavior have a deterrent effect on crime increase the empirical validity
of deterrence theory? In my opinion, it does not. Deterrence theory
refers only to the threat of legal punishment.

[T]he proper definition [of deterrence]… is narrow. In a legal context,
the term “deterrence” refers to any instance in which an individual con­
templates a criminal act but refrains entirely from or curtails the com­
mission of such an act because he or she perceives some risk of legal
punishment and fears the consequences. (Gibbs, 1986:325-36)

There is no room in deterrence theory for variations in the rewards
for crime, the social consequences of actions, individual or group pro­
pensities toward crime, and the whole range of other variables. The
question to be answered about deterrence theory is not whether pun­
ishment of any kind from any source deters, but whether the threat of
punishment by law deters. The more the deterrence theory is expanded
to include informal sanctions and other aspects of the social environ­
ment beyond the law, the less it remains a deterrence theory and the
more it begins to resemble other theories that already include these
variables. It is more appropriate, therefore, to interpret positive find­
ings on informal sanctions and similar variables as supporting the other
theories (e.g., social learning and social bonding), from which the vari­
ables have been borrowed, than it is to conclude that such findings
support an expanded deterrence theory.

Rational Choice Theory

Deterrence and Expected Utility
The expansion of the concept of deterrence has been most associated

with the introduction into criminology in the 1980s of “rational choice”
theory.4 Rational choice theory is based on the “expected utility” prin­
ciple in economic theory. The expected utility principle simply states
that people will make rational decisions based on the extent to which
they expect the choice to maximize their profits or benefits and mini­
mize the costs or losses. This is the same general assumption about
human nature made in classical criminology.

The obvious affinity between deterrence and rational choice theories
stems from the fact that they both grew out of the same utilitarian
philosophy of the eighteenth century (see Gibbs, 1975). The former was
applied to the law, and the latter to the economy. Despite this long
historical connection, rational choice theory of crime has only recently
been introduced in criminology. Except for the use of such concepts as

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 23

That the informal sanction system may be more effective in control­
ling crime than legal sanctions should come as no surprise. But does
research evidence that informal sanctions on criminal and delinquent
behavior have a deterrent effect on crime increase the empirical validity
of deterrence theory? In my opinion, it does not. Deterrence theory
refers only to the threat of legal punishment.

[T]he proper definition [of deterrence] … is narrow. In a legal context,
the term “deterrence” refers to any instance in which an individual con­
templates a criminal act but refrains entirely from or curtails the com­
mission of such an act because he or she perceives some risk of legal
punishment and fears the consequences. (Gibbs, 1986:325-36)

There is no room in deterrence theory for variations in the rewards
for crime, the social consequences of actions, individual or group pro­
pensities toward crime, and the whole range of other variables. The
question to be answered about deterrence theory is not whether pun­
ishment of any kind from any source deters, but whether the threat of
punishment by law deters. The more the deterrence theory is expanded
to include informal sanctions and other aspects of the social environ­
ment beyond the law, the less it remains a deterrence theory and the
more it begins to resemble other theories that already include these
variables. It is more appropriate, therefore, to interpret positive find­
ings on informal sanctions and similar variables as supporting the other
theories (e.g., socialleaming and social bonding), from which the vari­
ables have been borrowed, than it is to conclude that such findings
support an expanded deterrence theory.

Rational Choice Theory

Deterrence and Expected Utility
The expansion of the concept of deterrence has been most associated

with the introduction into criminology in the 1980s of “rational choice”
theory.4 Rational choice theory is based on the “expected utility” prin­
ciple in economic theory. The expected utility principle simply states
that people will make rational decisions based on the extent to which
they expect the choice to maximize their profits or benefits and mini­
mize the costs or losses. This is the same general assumption about
human nature made in classical criminology.

The obvious affinity between deterrence and rational choice theories
stems from the fact that they both grew out of the same utilitarian
philosophy of the eighteenth century (see Gibbs, 1975). The former was
applied to the law, and the latter to the economy. Despite this long
historical connection, rational choice theory of crime has only recently
been introduced in criminology. Except for the use of such concepts as

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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ed

.

24 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

“aleatory risk” in delinquency research by sociologists (Short and
Strodtbeck, 1965), rational choice was introduced to criminology pri­
marily through the analyses of crime by economists (see Becker, 1968;
Heineke, 1978; Crouch, 1979). Gibbs (1975:203) notes that “shortly after
the revival of interest in the deterrence question among sociologists,
economists were drawn to the subject in large number.”

Some criminologists, who had been conducting deterrence research
for some time, began in the 1980s to refer to the economic model of
rational choice as an expansion of the deterrence doctrine beyond legal
punishment. However, rational choice theorists claim much more than
just an expansion of deterrence theory. The theory is proposed as a
general, all-inclusive explanation of both the decision to commit a spe­
cific crime and the development of, or desistance from, a criminal
career. The decisions are based on the offenders’ expected effort and
reward compared to the likelihood and severity of punishment and
other costs of the crime (Cornish and Clarke, 1986).

Research on Rational Choice Theory
Do offenders calculate that the effort and costs of crime are less than

the expected reward before the act in the way predicted by rational
choice theory? The answer depends on whether one believes this theory
assumes that pure or partial rationality operates in crime. Does the
theory hypothesize that each person approaches the commission of a
crime with a highly rational calculation of pleasure versus pain before
acting on or refraining from the crime? Does an offender choose to
commit a crime with full knowledge and free will , taking into account
only a carefully reasoned, objectively or subjectively determined set of
costs and benefits? If it is this kind of pure rationality that rational
choice theory assumes, then the theory has virtually no empirical va­
lidity. The purely rational calculation of the probable consequences of
an action is a rarity even among the general conforming public. More­
over, even offenders who pursue crime on a regular, business-like basis
typically do not operate through a wholly rational decision-making
process.

For instance, in a study of repeat property offenders, Tunnell (1990;
1992) found that the threat of re-imprisonment did not deter their
recommission of crimes. Offenders thought that they would gain in­
come from their crimes and would not be caught, or they believed that
they would not serve much prison time if they did get caught. Further­
more, they were not afraid to serve time in prison because life in prison
was not threatening to them. These findings would seem to be in line
with rational choice theory, since the expected benefits were perceived
as outweighing the expected costs of the crime; hence, the decision was
made to commit the crime. However, the process whereby offenders

24 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

“aleatory risk” in delinquency research by sociologists (Short and
Strodtbeck, 1965), rational choice was introduced to criminology pri­
marily through the analyses of crime by economists (see Becker, 1968;
Heineke, 1978; Crouch, 1979). Gibbs (1975:203) notes that “shortly after
the revival of interest in the deterrence question among sociologists,
economists were drawn to the subject in large number.”

Some criminologists, who had been conducting deterrence research
for some time, began in the 1980s to refer to the economic model of
rational choice as an expansion of the deterrence doctrine beyond legal
punishment. However, rational choice theorists claim much more than
just an expansion of deterrence theory. The theory is proposed as a
general, all-inclusive explanation of both the decision to commit a spe­
cific crime and the development of, or desistance from, a criminal
career. The decisions are based on the offenders’ expected effort and
reward compared to the likelihood and severity of punishment and
other costs of the crime (Cornish and Clarke, 1986).

Research on Rational Choice Theory
Do offenders calculate that the effort and costs of crime are less than

the expected reward before the act in the way predicted by rational
choice theory? The answer depends on whether one believes this theory
assumes that pure or partial rationality operates in crime. Does the
theory hypothesize that each person approaches the commission of a
crime with a highly rational calculation of pleasure versus pain before
acting on or refraining from the crime? Does an offender choose to
commit a crime with full knowledge and free will, taking into account
only a carefully reasoned, objectively or subjectively determined set of
costs and benefits? If it is this kind of pure rationality that rational
choice theory assumes, then the theory has virtually no empirical va­
lidity. The purely rational calculation of the probable consequences of
an action is a rarity even among the general conforming public. More­
over, even offenders who pursue crime on a regular, business-like basis
typically do not operate through a wholly rational decision-making
process.

For instance, in a study of repeat property offenders, Tunnell (1990;
1992) found that the threat of re-imprisonment did not deter their
recommission of crimes. Offenders thought that they would gain in­
come from their crimes and would not be caught, or they believed that
they would not serve much prison time if they did get caught. Further­
more, they were not afraid to serve time in prison because life in prison
was not threatening to them. These findings would seem to be in line
with rational choice theory, since the expected benefits were perceived
as outweighing the expected costs of the crime; hence, the decision was
made to commit the crime. However, the process whereby offenders

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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25 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

reached a decision to attempt another crime did not fit the model of a
purely rational calculation of costs and benefits. They did try to avoid
capture, but their actions and assessments of the risks were very unre­
alistic, even to some extent irrational. They were unable to make rea­
sonable assessments of the risk of arrests, did little planning for the
crime, and were uninformed about the legal penalties in the state where
their crimes were committed. Moreover, all of the offenders in the study:

[R]eported that they (and nearly every thief they knew) simply do not
think about the possible legal consequences of their criminal actions
before committing crimes Rather than thinking of possible negative
consequences of their actions, those offenders reported thinking pri­
marily of the anticipated positive consequences. . . . They simply be­
lieved that they would not be caught and refused to think beyond that
point.

The decision-making process appears not to be a matter of rational
evaluation or calculation of the benefits and risks . . . [R]isks (1) are
thought about only rarely or (2) are considered minimally but are put
out of their minds. (Tunnell, 1990:680-81)

Similarly, in an ethnographic study of burglars, Paul Cromwell and
his associates found that “a completely rational model of decision mak­
ing in residential burglary cannot be supported” (Cromwell et al.,
1991:43). Rather, professional burglars engage in only partially rational
calculation of gains and risks before deciding to burglarize a house,
and “research reporting that a high percentage of burglars make care­
fully planned, highly rational decisions based upon a detailed evalu­
ation of environmental cues may be in error” (Cromwell et al., 1991:42).

Most of our burglar informants could design a textbook burglary….
[T]hey often described their past burglaries as though they were ration­
ally conceived and executed. Yet upon closer inspection, when their
previous burglaries were reconstructed, textbook procedures frequently
gave way to opportunity and situational factors (Cromwell et al.,
1991:42).

The empirical validity of a purely rational explanation of crime may
not be important, however, because rational choice theorists seldom
put forth such pure models. Instead, they have developed models of
partial rationality that incorporate limitations and constraints on
choices through lack of information, moral values, and other influences
on criminal behavior. Although rational choice theorists often refer to
the “reasoning criminal” and the “rational component” in crime, they
go to great length to point out how limited and circumscribed reasoning
and rationality are. The empirically verified models in the literature
are based on the assumptions of a fairly minimal level of rationality.

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 25

reached a decision to attempt another crime did not fit the model of a
purely rational calculation of costs and benefits. They did try to avoid
capture, but their actions and assessments of the risks were very unre­
alistic, even to some extent irrational. They were unable to make rea­
sonable assessments of the risk of arrests, did little planning for the
crime, and were uninformed about the legal penalties in the state where
their crimes were committed. Moreover, all ofthe offenders in the study:

[RJeported that they (and nearly every thief they knew) simply do not
think about the possible legal consequences of their criminal actions
before committing crimes …. Rather than thinking of possible negative
consequences of their actions, those offenders reported thinking pri­
marily of the anticipated positive consequences …. They simply be­
lieved that they would not be caught and refused to think beyond that
point.

The decision-making process appears not to be a matter of rational
evaluation or calculation of the benefits and risks … [RJisks (1) are
thought about only rarely or (2) are considered minimally but are put
out of their minds. (Tunnell, 1990:680-81)

Similarly, in an ethnographic study of burglars, Paul Cromwell and
his associates found that “a completely rational model of decision mak­
ing in residential burglary cannot be supported” (Cromwell et al.,
1991 :43). Rather, professional burglars engage in only partially rational
calculation of gains and risks before deciding to burglarize a house,
and “research reporting that a high percentage of burglars make care­
fully planned, highly rational decisions based upon a detailed evalu­
ation of environmental cues may be in error” (Cromwell et al., 1991 :42).

Most of our burglar informants could design a textbook burglary ….
[TJhey often described their past burglaries as though they were ration­
ally conceived and executed. Yet upon closer inspection, when their
previous burglaries were reconstructed, textbook procedures frequently
gave way to opportunity and situational factors (Cromwell et al.,
1991:42).

The empirical validity of a purely rational explanation of crime may
not be important, however, because rational choice theorists seldom
put forth such pure models. Instead, they have developed models of
partial rationality that incorporate limitations and constraints on
choices through lack of information, moral values, and other influences
on criminal behavior. Although rational choice theorists often refer to
the “reasoning criminal” and the “rational component” in crime, they
go to great length to point out how limited and circumscribed reasoning
and rationality are. The empirically verified models in the literature
are based on the assumptions of a fairly minimal level of rationality.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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26 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

(See, for example, Piliavin et al., 1986; Cornish and Clarke, 1986; Ben­
nett, 1986; Carroll and Weaver, 1986; Harding, 1990.)

Proponents often contrast rational choice theory with what they label
“traditional criminology.” They believe that this theory differs from
other theories because, in their view, all other criminological theories
assume that criminal behavior is irrational. But they are mistaken about
other criminological theories. In reality, except for psychoanalytic the­
ory and some versions of biological theory (see Chapter 3), all other
criminological theories assume no more or less rationality in crime
than do most rational choice models.

Furthermore, the rational choice models that have been supported
by research evidence do not stick strictly with measures of expected
utility. They incorporate various psychological and sociological back­
ground and situational variables taken from other theories, to such an
extent that there is little to set them apart from other theoretical models.
In fact, some of the studies purporting to find evidence favoring rational
choice theory actually test models that are indistinguishable from other,
supposedly non-rational choice theories. The clearest example of this
is the research by Paternoster (1989a; 1989b). He tested the effect on
delinquent behavior of several variables in what he calls a “deter­
rence/rational choice” model. This model consists of the following vari­
ables: affective ties, costs of material deprivation, social groups and
opportunities, informal social sanctions, perceptions of formal legal
sanctions, and moral beliefs about specific delinquent acts. There is
nothing in this set of variables that distinguishes it as a rational choice
model. Al l the variables are taken from social learning and social bond­
ing theories. Paternosters finding that these variables are related to
delinquent behavior, therefore, tells us little about the empirical validity
of rational choice theory. However, it does tell us about the validity of
social learning and social bonding theories.

The broadening of rational choice theory has the same consequence
as the expansion of deterrence theory—it becomes a different theory.
When rational choice theory is stated in its pure form, it does not
provide an adequate explanation of criminal behavior. It provides a
more empirically verified explanation of crime when it is expanded to
include variables beyond rationally expected utility. However, when
rational choice theory is modified in this way, the level of rationality it
assumes is indistinguishable from that expected in other theories, and
it incorporates explanatory variables from them. When the modifica­
tions reach this point, it is no longer appropriate to call the result
rational choice theory (Akers, 1990).

26 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

(See, for example, Piliavin et aI., 1986; Cornish and Clarke, 1986; Ben­
nett, 1986; Carroll and Weaver, 1986; Harding, 1990.)

Proponents often contrast rational choice theory with what they label
“traditional criminology.” They believe that this theory differs from
other theories because, in their view, all other criminological theories
assume that criminal behavior is irrational. But they are mistaken about
other criminological theories. In reality, except for psychoanalytic the­
ory and some versions of biological theory (see Chapter 3), all other
criminological theories assume no more or less rationality in crime
than do most rational choice models.

Furthermore, the rational choice models that have been supported
by research evidence do not stick strictly with measures of expected
utility. They incorporate various psychological and sociological back­
ground and situational variables taken from other theories, to such an
extent that there is little to set them apart from other theoretical models.
In fact, some of the studies purporting to find evidence favoring rational
choice theory actually test models that are indistinguishable from other,
supposedly non-rational choice theories. The clearest example of this
is the research by Paternoster (1989a; 1989b). He tested the effect on
delinquent behavior of several variables in what he calls a “deter­
rence/rational choice” model. This model consists of the followingvari­
abIes: affective ties, costs of material deprivation, social groups and
opportunities, informal social sanctions, perceptions of formal legal
sanctions, and moral beliefs about specific delinquent acts. There is
nothing in this set of variables that distinguishes it as a rational choice
model. All the variables are taken from social learning and social bond­
ing theories. Paternoster’s finding that these variables are related to
delinquent behavior, therefore, tells us little about the empirical validity
of rational choice theory. However, it does tell us about the validity of
social learning and social bonding theories.

The broadening of rational choice theory has the same consequence
as the expansion of deterrence theory-it becomes a different theory.
When rational choice theory is stated in its pure form, it does not
provide an adequate explanation of criminal behavior. It provides a
more empirically verified explanation of crime when it is expanded to
include variables beyond rationally expected utility. However, when
rational choice theory is modified in this way, the level of rationality it
assumes is indistinguishable from that expected in other theories, and
it incorporates explanatory variables from them. When the modifica­
tions reach this point, it is no longer appropriate to call the result
rational choice theory (Akers, 1990).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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27 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

Routine Activities Theory

Felson and Cohen: Offenders, Targets, and Guardians
Elements of deterrence and rational choice are also found in routine

activities theory.5 In order for a personal or property crime to occur,
there must be at the same time and place a perpetrator, a victim, and/or
an object of property. The occurrence can be facilitated if there are
other persons or circumstances in the situation that encourage it, or it
can be prevented if the potential victim or another person is present
who can take action to deter it. Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson
(1979) have taken these basic elements of time, place, objects, and
persons to develop a “routine activities” theory of crime events. They
do so by placing these elements into three categories of variables which
increase or decrease the likelihood that persons will be victims of “direct
contact” predatory (personal or property) crime.

The three main categories of variables identified by Cohen and Fel­
son are: (1) motivated offenders, (2) suitable targets of criminal victimi­
zation, and (3) capable guardians of persons or property. The main
proposition in the theory is that the rate of criminal victimization is
increased when there is a “convergence in space and time of the three
minimal elements of direct-contact predatory violations” (Cohen and
Felson, 1979:589). That is, the likelihood of crime increases when there
is one or more persons present who are motivated to commit a crime,
a suitable target or potential victim that is available, and the absence
of formal or informal guardians who could deter the potential offender.
The relative presence or absence of these elements is variable, and “the
risk of criminal victimization varies dramatically among the circum­
stances and locations in which people place themselves and their prop­
erty” (Cohen and Felson, 1979:595). The theory derives its name from
the fact that Cohen and Felson begin with the assumption that the
conjunction of these elements of crime are related to the normal, legal,
and “routine” activities of potential victims and guardians. “[T]he spa­
tial and temporal structure of routine legal activities should play an
important role in determining the location, type, and quantity of illegal
acts occurring in a given community or society” (Cohen and Felson,
1979:590).

Routine activities are defined by Cohen and Felson as “recurrent and
prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual
needs . . . formalized work, as well as the provision of standard food,
shelter, sexual outlet, leisure, social interaction, learning, and child-
bearing” (Cohen and Felson, 1979:593). They hypothesize that changes
in daily activities related to work, school, and leisure since World War
II have placed more people in particular places at particular times
which both increase their accessibility as targets of crime and keep

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 27

Routine Activities Theory

Felson and Cohen: Offenders, Targets, and Guardians
Elements of deterrence and rational choice are also found in routine

activities theory.s In order for a personal or property crime to occur,
there must be at the same time and place a perpetrator, a victim, and/or
an object of property. The occurrence can be facilitated if there are
other persons or circumstances in the situation that encourage it, or it
can be prevented if the potential victim or another person is present
who can take action to deter it. Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson
(1979) have taken these basic elements of time, place, objects, and
persons to develop a “routine activities” theory of crime events. They
do so by placing these elements into three categories of variables which
increase or decrease the likelihood that persons will be victims of “direct
contact” predatory (personal or property) crime.

The three main categories of variables identified by Cohen and Fel­
son are: (1) motivated offenders, (2) suitable targets of criminal victimi­
zation, and (3) capable guardians of persons or property. The main
proposition in the theory is that the rate of criminal victimization is
increased when there is a “convergence in space and time of the three
minimal elements of direct-contact predatory violations” (Cohen and
Felson, 1979:589). That is, the likelihood of crime increases when there
is one or more persons present who are motivated to commit a crime,
a suitable target or potential victim that is available, and the absence
of formal or informal guardians who could deter the potential offender.
The relative presence or absence of these elements is variable, and “the
risk of criminal victimization varies dramatically among the circum­
stances and locations in which people place themselves and their prop­
erty” (Cohen and Felson, 1979:595). The theory derives its name from
the fact that Cohen and Felson begin with the assumption that the
conjunction of these elements of crime are related to the normal, legal,
and “routine” activities of potential victims and guardians. “[T]he spa­
tial and temporal structure of routine legal activities should play an
important role in determining the location, type, and quantity of illegal
acts occurring in a given community or society” (Cohen and Felson,
1979:590).

Routine activities are defined by Cohen and Felson as “recurrent and
prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual
needs … formalized work, as well as the provision of standard food,
shelter, sexual outlet, leisure, social interaction, learning, and child­
bearing” (Cohen and Felson, 1979:593). They hypothesize that changes
in daily activities related to work, school, and leisure since World War
II have placed more people in particular places at particular times
which both increase their accessibility as targets of crime and keep

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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28_ Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

them away from home as guardians of their own possessions and prop­
erty.

In recent applications of the theory, Felson (1994) downplays the
significance of formal guardians because “crime is a private phenome­
non largely impervious to state intervention.” Rather, he emphasizes
the crime prevention and deterrence that naturally occurs in the infor­
mal control system, the “quiet and natural method by which people
prevent crime in the course of daily life. This control occurs as people
interact and bring out the best in one another” (Felson, 1994:xii-xiii).
The police are not the only capable guardians. Indeed, guardians who
prevent or deter crime are more likely to be ordinary citizens, oneself,
friends, family, or even strangers. The vulnerability of property to theft
is affected by a number of physical features, such as its weight and ease
of mobility and how much physical “target hardening” (e.g., installing
better locks) has been done. But sights and sounds, being in dangerous
and risky places, routines of the family and household, and one’s per­
sonal characteristics have an effect on the risk of victimization for both
violent and property crime. Felson also extends the theory beyond
predatory crimes to such offenses as illegal consumption and sales of
drugs and alcohol.

Felson’s emphasis on the informal control system does not distin­
guish routine activities theory from the general sociological view (dis­
cussed above and in Chapter 8) that conformity to the law comes more
from the informal system of socialization and control than from the
formal control system. This general sociological view has also been
applied to drug use. “The general reduction in drug use in American
society [from the late 1970s to the early 1990s] may be the result of
changes in social norms and the informal control system unrelated to
conscious and deliberate prevention, treatment, or law enforcement
efforts” (Akers, 1992:183). The validity of routine activities theory,
therefore, does not rest on the relative importance of the informal and
formal control systems in crime but on how well hypotheses about the
effect of the three main elements of the theory on crime are supported.

Empirical Validity of Routine Activities Theory
Cohen and Felson argue that a change in any one of these elements

would change the crime rates, but that the presence of all three would
produce a multiplier effect on crime rates. Their research (Cohen and
Felson, 1979), however, focused on only two of the three elements:
suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians. They do not rule
out that the “routine activity approach might in the future be applied
to the analysis of offenders and their inclinations as well” (Cohen and
Felson, 1979:605).

28 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

them away from home as guardians of their own possessions and prop­
erty.

In recent applications of the theory, Felson (1994) downplays the
significance of formal guardians because “crime is a private phenome­
non largely impervious to state intervention.” Rather, he emphasizes
the crime prevention and deterrence that naturally occurs in the infor­
mal control system, the “quiet and natural method by which people
prevent crime in the course of daily life. This control occurs as people
interact and bring out the best in one another” (Felson, 1994:xii-xiii).
The police are not the only capable guardians. Indeed, guardians who
prevent or deter crime are more likely to be ordinary citizens, oneself,
friends, family, or even strangers. The vulnerability of property to theft
is affected by a number of physical features, such as its weight and ease
of mobility and how much physical “target hardening” (e.g., installing
better locks) has been done. But sights and sounds, being in dangerous
and risky places, routines of the family and household, and one’s per­
sonal characteristics have an effect on the risk of victimization for both
violent and property crime. Felson also extends the theory beyond
predatory crimes to such offenses as illegal consumption and sales of
drugs and alcohol.

Felson’s emphasis on the informal control system does not distin­
guish routine activities theory from the general sociological view (dis­
cussed above and in Chapter 8) that conformity to the law comes more
from the informal system of socialization and control than from the
formal control system. This general sociological view has also been
applied to drug use. “The general reduction in drug use in American
society [from the late 1970s to the early 1990s] may be the result of
changes in social norms and the informal control system unrelated to
conscious and deliberate prevention, treatment, or law enforcement
efforts” (Akers, 1992: 183). The validity of routine activities theory,
therefore, does not rest on the relative importance of the informal and
formal control systems in crime but on how well hypotheses about the
effect of the three main elements of the theory on crime are supported.

Empirical Validity of Routine Activities Theory
Cohen and Felson argue that a change in anyone of these elements

would change the crime rates, but that the presence of all three would
produce a multiplier effect on crime rates. Their research (Cohen and
Felson, 1979), however, focused on only two of the three elements:
suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians. They do not rule
out that the “routine activity approach might in the future be applied
to the analysis of offenders and their inclinations as well” (Cohen and
Felson, 1979:605).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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29 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

They present data on post-war trends (into the 1970s) in family ac­
tivities, consumer products, and businesses that seem to be compatible
with the trends in type and rate of crimes in the United States. Their
main findings, however, relate crime rates to a “household activity
ratio,” the percentage of all households that are not husband-wife fami­
lies or where the wife is employed in the labor force. Such households
are more vulnerable to crime victimization because their members are
away from home more and less able to function as guardians of their
property. They are more likely to possess more desirable goods to be
stolen, and they are more exposed to personal crime away from home.
Controlling for age composition and unemployment, Cohen and Felson
found that the changes in household activity were correlated with
changes in the rates of all major predatory violent and property crimes.
They recognize that these were not the direct measures of the concepts
in the theory, but they conclude that the findings are consistent with
the theory.

Cohen et al. (1981) present the theory in a more formalized fashion,
renaming it “opportunity” theory and testing its propositions with data
from the national crime victimization surveys. The formal theory refers
to exposure, proximity, guardianship, and target attractiveness as vari­
ables that increase the risk of criminal victimization. But these are not
measured directly. They are assumed from variations in age, race, and
income, household composition, labor force participation, and resi­
dence in different areas of the city. Although inconclusive on some,
their findings are consistent with most of the hypotheses; consequently,
they conclude that the theory is supportable.

Messner and Tardiff (1985) use the routine activities approach to
interpret their findings on the correlations between the social charac­
teristics of Manhattan homicide victims, the time and location of the
homicides, and the relationship between victims and offenders. They
do not attempt to account for the rate or number of homicides, but
only for the place and type of homicide. They contend that “sociode-
mographic and temporal characteristics structure routine activities
and, in so doing, affect both the location of potential victims in physical
space and the ‘pool’ of personal contacts from which offenders are
ultimately drawn” (Messner and Tardiff, 1985:243). These sociode-
mographic and temporal variables should be related to where and with
whom one carries out the normal round of activities. When one’s routine
activities are concentrated in and around the home, victims and offend­
ers are less likely to interact; whereas, spending more time away from
the house increases the chances of victimization by strangers. Messner
and Tardiff found weak support for the expectations about family versus
stranger homicides, but no relationship between time and location of
homicides.

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 29

They present data on post-war trends (into the 1970s) in family ac­
tivities, consumer products, and businesses that seem to be compatible
with the trends in type and rate of crimes in the United States. Their
main findings, however, relate crime rates to a “household activity
ratio,” the percentage of all households that are not husband-wife fami­
lies or where the wife is employed in the labor force. Such households
are more vulnerable to crime victimization because their members are
away from home more and less able to function as guardians of their
property. They are more likely to possess more desirable goods to be
stolen, and they are more exposed to personal crime away from home.
Controlling for age composition and unemployment, Cohen and Felson
found that the changes in household activity were correlated with
changes in the rates of all major predatory violent and property crimes.
They recognize that these were not the direct measures of the concepts
in the theory, but they conclude that the findings are consistent with
the theory.

Cohen et al. (1981) present the theory in a more formalized fashion,
renaming it “opportunity” theory and testing its propositions with data
from the national crime victimization surveys. The formal theory refers
to exposure, proximity, guardianship, and target attractiveness as vari­
ables that increase the risk of criminal victimization. But these are not
measured directly. They are assumed from variations in age, race, and
income, household composition, labor force participation, and resi­
dence in different areas of the city. Although inconclusive on some,
their findings are consistent with most of the hypotheses; consequently,
they conclude that the theory is supportable.

Messner and Tardiff (1985) use the routine activities approach to
interpret their findings on the correlations between the social charac­
teristics of Manhattan homicide victims, the time and location of the
homicides, and the relationship between victims and offenders. They
do not attempt to account for the rate or number of homicides, but
only for the place and type of homicide. They contend that “sociode­
mographic and temporal characteristics structure routine activities
and, in so doing, affect both the location of potential victims in physical
space and the ‘pool’ of personal contacts from which offenders are
ultimately drawn” (Messner and Tardiff, 1985:243). These sociode­
mographic and temporal variables should be related to where and with
whom one carries out the normal round of activities. When one’s routine
activities are concentrated in and around the home, victims and offend­
ers are less likely to interact; whereas, spending more time away from
the house increases the chances of victimization by strangers. Messner
and Tardiff found weak support for the expectations about family versus
stranger homicides, but no relationship between time and location of
homicides.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
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30 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Sherman et al. (1989) also report findings consistent with routine
activities theory in their study of the “hot spots” of predatory crime.
They note that prior research on routine activities used data on the
characteristics of individuals or households as measures of lifestyles
that affect the convergence of victim, offender, and guardians. Their
research focused on the “criminology of place” by using Minneapolis
police “call data” (i.e., crimes reported to the police by telephone) in
Minneapolis to locate concentrations (i.e., hot spots) of such calls at
certain addresses, intersections, parks, and hospitals. They found that
most crime reports came from only 3 percent of all the locations in the
city and that reports of each of the major types of predatory crime were
concentrated only in a few locations. Sherman et al. do not know what
it is about these places that make them hot spots, but they believe that
there is something about them that relates to the convergence of victims
and offenders in the absence of guardians.

Kennedy and Forde (1990) also reported support for routine activi­
ties theory based on both property and violent crime data from a tele­
phone victimization survey. They found that victimization varies by
age, sex, and income, but also varies by the extent to which persons
stay at home or go out at night to bars, work, or school. They concluded
from this that the routine activity of leaving home at this time renders
these persons more vulnerable as victims and less capable as guardians
over their property.

Findings from qualitative research on the responses of the formal
and informal control systems to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew
in Florida in 1992 are generally consistent with routine activities theory.
The natural disaster temporarily increased the vulnerability of persons
and property as crime targets. For a short time, there was nearly a
complete loss of formal guardianship in the form of police protection
in some of the neighborhoods. Motivated offenders with previous re­
cords were attracted to the areas in the aftermath of the storm, and
some local people took criminal advantage of the situation. However,
there was little looting in the neighborhoods and crime rates actually
went down during the time when the community was most vulnerable
(but then increased again after the initial impact period). This was most
likely the result of stepping into the void by competent guardians in
the form of neighbors watching out for neighbors, citizens guarding
their own and others property (sometimes with firearms), citizen pa­
trols, and other steps taken to aid one another in the absence of gov­
ernment and formal control (Cromwell et al., 1995).

The fact that some may be motivated to commit crime when targets
are made vulnerable by such events as natural disasters raises questions
about the concept of motivated or likely offender. Does the concept of
motivated offender in routine activities theory refer only to someone

30 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Sherman et al. (1989) also report findings consistent with routine
activities theory in their study of the “hot spots” of predatory crime.
They note that prior research on routine activities used data on the
characteristics of individuals or households as measures of lifestyles
that affect the convergence of victim, offender, and guardians. Their
research focused on the “criminology of place” by using Minneapolis
police “call data” (i.e., crimes reported to the police by telephone) in
Minneapolis to locate concentrations (Le., hot spots) of such calls at
certain addresses, intersections, parks, and hospitals. They found that
most crime reports came from only 3 percent of all the locations in the
city and that reports of each of the major types of predatory crime were
concentrated only in a few locations. Sherman et al. do not know what
it is about these places that make them hot spots, but they believe that
there is something about them that relates to the convergence of victims
and offenders in the absence of guardians.

Kennedy and Forde (1990) also reported support for routine activi­
ties theory based on both property and violent crime data from a tele­
phone victimization survey. They found that victimization varies by
age, sex, and income, but also varies by the extent to which persons
stay at home or go out at night to bars, work, or school. They concluded
from this that the routine activity of leaving home at this time renders
these persons more vulnerable as victims and less capable as guardians
over their property.

Findings from qualitative research on the responses of the formal
and informal control systems to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew
in Florida in 1992 are generally consistent with routine activities theory.
The natural disaster temporarily increased the vulnerability of persons
and property as crime targets. For a short time, there was nearly a
complete loss of formal guardianship in the form of police protection
in some of the neighborhoods. Motivated offenders with previous re­
cords were attracted to the areas in the aftermath of the storm, and
some local people took criminal advantage of the situation. However,
there was little looting in the neighborhoods and crime rates actually
went down during the time when the community was most vulnerable
(but then increased again after the initial impact period). This was most
likely the result of stepping into the void by competent guardians in
the form of neighbors watching out for neighbors, citizens guarding
their own and others property (sometimes with firearms), citizen pa­
trols, and other steps taken to aid one another in the absence of gov­
ernment and formal control (Cromwell et aI., 1995).

The fact that some may be motivated to commit crime when targets
are made vulnerable by such events as natural disasters raises questions
about the concept of motivated or likely offender. Does the concept of
motivated offender in routine activities theory refer only to someone

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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31 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

with a pre-existing set of crime-prone motivations or does it include
anyone who is enticed by the opportunity for quick gain itself, even
though he or she may not have previously existing criminal intentions?
In the former case, the situation provokes motivation to action but does
not create it; in the latter, the situation both creates and provokes the
motivation. Since all persons are thus potentially motivated to commit
crime, can the presence of a motivated offender simply be assumed
from the presence of any person? If so, how does the theory distinguish
between circumstances in which a motivated offender is present and
those in which one is not? There is ambiguity on this point in routine
activities theory (Akers et al., 1994).

Jensen and Brownfield (1986) point to another variable which is
seldom controlled for in studies of routine activities: the deviant or
non-deviant nature of the activities in which victims are engaged. They
found that the activities most strongly related to adolescents becoming
victims of crime are not the normal conforming routine activities (dat­
ing, going out at night, shopping, or going to parties), but rather the
deviant activity of committing offenses. In other words, those who
commit crimes are more likely to be victims of crime. Engaging in
offense behavior itself, of course, does not fit Cohen and Felson’s defi­
nition of “routine” activity. Moreover, as Jensen and Brownfield (1986)
point out, since criminal behavior is correlated with victimization, vari­
ables taken from theories that explain criminal behavior should also
be correlated with victimization.

In fact, most of the variables in the opportunity [routine activities]
model of victimization have appeared in one form or another in tradi­
tional etiological theories of crime or delinquency. Exposure and prox­
imity to offenders is central to differential association and social
learning theories of criminality. Cohen et al. propose that exposure and
proximity to offenders increase the risk of victimization, while differen­
tial association and social learning theories propose that the same vari­
ables increase the chances of criminal behavior. . . . In short,
“victimogenic” variables have been introduced in earlier theories as
“criminogenic.” (Jensen and Brownfield, 1986)

Even though it draws upon etiological theories, routine activities
theory is only indirectly a theory of the commission of criminal behav­
ior. It is primarily a theory of criminal victimization. That is, it does
not offer an explanation of why some persons are motivated to develop
a pattern of crime or commit a particular crime. It simply assumes that
such persons exist and that they commit crimes in certain places and
times at which the opportunities and potential victims are available.
Routine activities theory does not explain why informal crime precau­
tions may or may not be exercised by individuals in their homes or
elsewhere, nor does it explain formal control exercised by law and the

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 31

with a pre-existing set of crime-prone motivations or does it include
anyone who is enticed by the opportunity for quick gain itself, even
though he or she may not have previously existing criminal intentions?
In the former case, the situation provokes motivation to action but does
not create it; in the latter, the situation both creates and provokes the
motivation. Since all persons are thus potentially motivated to commit
crime, can the presence of a motivated offender simply be assumed
from the presence of any person? If so, how does the theory distinguish
between circumstances in which a motivated offender is present and
those in which one is not? There is ambiguity on this point in routine
activities theory (Akers et aI., 1994).

Jensen and Brownfield (1986) point to another variable which is
seldom controlled for in studies of routine activities: the deviant or
non-deviant nature of the activities in which victims are engaged. They
found that the activities most strongly related to adolescents becoming
victims of crime are not the normal conforming routine activities (dat­
ing, going out at night, shopping, or going to parties), but rather the
deviant activity of committing offenses. In other words, those who
commit crimes are more likely to be victims of crime. Engaging in
offense behavior itself, of course, does not fit Cohen and Felson’s defi­
nition of “routine” activity. Moreover, as Jensen and Brownfield (1986)
point out, since criminal behavior is correlated with victimization, vari­
ables taken from theories that explain criminal behavior should also
be correlated with victimization.

In fact, most of the variables in the opportunity [routine activities]
model of victimization have appeared in one form or another in tradi­
tional etiological theories of crime or delinquency. Exposure and prox­
imity to offenders is central to differential association and social
learning theories of criminality. Cohen et al. propose that exposure and
proximity to offenders increase the risk of victimization, while differen­
tial association and social learning theories propose that the same vari­
ables increase the chances of criminal behavior …. In short,
“victimogenic” variables have been introduced in earlier theories as
” criminogenic.” (Jensen and Brownfield, 1986)

Even though it draws upon etiological theories, routine activities
theory is only indirectly a theory of the commission of criminal behav­
ior. It is primarily a theory of criminal victimization. That is, it does
not offer an explanation of why some persons are motivated to develop
a pattern of crime or commit a particular crime. It simply assumes that
such persons exist and that they commit crimes in certain places and
times at which the opportunities and potential victims are available.
Routine activities theory does not explain why informal crime precau­
tions mayor may not be exercised by individuals in their homes or
elsewhere, nor does it explain formal control exercised by law and the

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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32 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

criminal justice system. It simply assumes that, if informal or formal
guardians are not present or able to prevent crime, then crime wil l
occur.

We have long known that vulnerability to criminal victimization is
related to social characteristics such as age, sex, and race, and that
unguarded or easily available property is more apt to be stolen or van­
dalized. Ordinary precautions, of course, decrease the chances of vic­
timization. Common sense tells us that, if one is sitting at home
watching television rather than out on the streets, one’s home is not
likely to be burglarized and one has a zero chance of being the victim
of a street mugging. Possessing social characteristics correlated with a
higher-risk lifestyle obviously makes one more vulnerable as a crime
victim. But Felson and others have taken these common sense and
empirical realities and woven them into a coherent framework for un­
derstanding the variations in criminal victimization by time and place.
The theory is well-stated, logically consistent, and has clear policy im­
plications and powerful potential for understanding the impact of nor­
mal, even desirable, social structural changes on predatory crime.

Its empirical validity has not yet been well-established, however. As
we have seen, several researchers have reported findings that are con­
sistent with routine activities theory (see also Stahura and Sloan, 1988;
Massey et al., 1989; Miethe et al., 1987; Cromwell et al., 1991). But that
research has not really tested full models of the theory. With a few
exceptions (Stahura and Sloan, 1988), researchers have not measured
variations in the motivation for crime or variations in the presence of
motivated offenders. Thus, at least one of the three major categories of
variables in this theory is usually omitted. Even when included, offender
motivation is not directly measured, but rather assumed from vari­
ations in the demographic correlates of crime.

Similarly, the other two major categories of suitable targets of crime
and absence of capable guardians are usually not directly measured.
The original research by Cohen, Felson, and associates used no direct
measures of the routine activities of victims or suitable guardians. They
were only assumed from labor force participation, household compo­
sition, and so on. In subsequent research, victim vulnerability and
guardianship have usually been assumed from the social characteristics
of victims, although some activities of victims (e.g., their presence at
home or their going out at night) have been directly measured (Kennedy
and Forde, 1990). As Sherman et al. noted, “most tests of routine ac­
tivities theory lack independent measures of the lifestyles in question
and substitute presumed demographic correlates for them” (Sherman
et al., 1989:31). The research on routine activities has reported numer­
ous findings that are consistent with the assumptions in routine activi-

32 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

criminal justice system. It simply assumes that, if informal or formal
guardians are not present or able to prevent crime, then crime will
occur.

We have long known that vulnerability to criminal victimization is
related to social characteristics such as age, sex, and race, and that
unguarded or easily available property is more apt to be stolen or van­
dalized. Ordinary precautions, of course, decrease the chances of vic­
timization. Common sense tells us that, if one is sitting at home
watching television rather than out on the streets, one’s home is not
likely to be burglarized and one has a zero chance of being the victim
of a street mugging. Possessing social characteristics correlated with a
higher-risk lifestyle obviously makes one more vulnerable as a crime
victim. But Felson and others have taken these common sense and
empirical realities and woven them into a coherent framework for un­
derstanding the variations in criminal victimization by time and place.
The theory is well-stated, logically consistent, and has clear policy im­
plications and powerful potential for understanding the impact of nor­
mal, even desirable, social structural changes on predatory crime.

Its empirical validity has not yet been well-established, however. As
we have seen, several researchers have reported findings that are con­
sistent with routine activities theory (see also Stahura and Sloan, 1988;
Massey et al., 1989; Miethe et al., 1987; Cromwell et al., 1991). But that
research has not really tested full models of the theory. With a few
exceptions (Stahura and Sloan, 1988), researchers have not measured
variations in the motivation for crime or variations in the presence of
motivated offenders. Thus, at least one of the three major categories of
variables in this theory is usually omitted. Even when included, offender
motivation is not directly measured, but rather assumed from vari­
ations in the demographic correlates of crime.

Similarly, the other two major categories of suitable targets of crime
and absence of capable guardians are usually not directly measured.
The original research by Cohen, Felson, and associates used no direct
measures of the routine activities of victims or suitable guardians. They
were only assumed from labor force participation, household compo­
sition, and so on. In subsequent research, victim vulnerability and
guardianship have usually been assumed from the social characteristics
of victims, although some activities of victims (e.g., their presence at
home or their going out at night) have been directly measured (Kennedy
and Forde, 1990). As Sherman et al. noted, “most tests of routine ac­
tivities theory lack independent measures of the lifestyles in question
and substitute presumed demographic correlates for them” (Sherman
et al., 1989:31). The research on routine activities has reported numer­
ous findings that are consistent with the assumptions in routine activi-

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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33 Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories

ties theory. More work needs to be done to devise direct empirical
measures of its key concepts.

Summary
Deterrence theory states that if legal penalties are certain, severe,

and swift, crime will be deterred. In empirical studies severity is seldom
found to have a deterrent effect on crime. Neither the existence of
capital punishment nor the certainty of the death penalty have had an
effect on the rate of homicides. A negative correlation between objective
or perceived certainty and illegal behavior is a common research find­
ing, but the correlation tends to be weak.

There is more empirical support when deterrence concepts are ex­
panded to take into account the informal social processes of reward,
punishment, and moral beliefs. Rational choice theory is another type
of expansion or modification of deterrence theory. When rational choice
theory is stated in its pure form, it does not stand up well to empirical
evidence. However, when this theory is modified so that a relatively low
level of rationality is assumed and explanatory variables from other
theories are added, it is more likely to be upheld by the data. When
deterrence and rational choice theories are so modified, they resemble
more the modern social bonding or social learning theories than the
classical deterrence or pure rational choice models. Therefore, positive
research findings on these modified versions are more appropriately
viewed as validating these other theories from which the more powerful
explanatory variables are taken, rather than validating deterrence or
rational choice theories alone.

The main proposition in routine activities theory is that the rate of
criminal victimization is increased when there is one or more persons
likely to commit a crime, a vulnerable target or victim is present, and
formal or informal guardians to prevent the motivated offender are
absent. Research has not tested full models of the theory, and the major
variables are usually measured indirectly. Its empirical validity has not
yet been firmly established, but most of the research done so far reports
findings consistent with the theory.

Deterrence and Rational Choice Theories 33

ties theory. More work needs to be done to devise direct empirical
measures of its key concepts.

Summary
Deterrence theory states that if legal penalties are certain, severe,

and swift, crime will be deterred. In empirical studies severity is seldom
found to have a deterrent effect on crime. Neither the existence of
capital punishment nor the certainty of the death penalty have had an
effect on the rate of homicides. A negative correlation between objective
or perceived certainty and illegal behavior is a common research find­
ing, but the correlation tends to be weak.

There is more empirical support when deterrence concepts are ex­
panded to take into account the informal social processes of reward,
punishment, and moral beliefs. Rational choice theory is another type
of expansion or modification of deterrence theory. When rational choice
theory is stated in its pure form, it does not stand up well to empirical
evidence. However, when this theory is modified so that a relatively low
level of rationality is assumed and explanatory variables from other
theories are added, it is more likely to be upheld by the data. When
deterrence and rational choice theories are so modified, they resemble
more the modem social bonding or social learning theories than the
classical deterrence or pure rational choice models. Therefore, positive
research findings on these modified versions are more appropriately
viewed as validating these other theories from which the more powerful
explanatory variables are taken, rather than validating deterrence or
rational choice theories alone.

The main proposition in routine activities theory is that the rate of
criminal victimization is increased when there is one or more persons
likely to commit a crime, a vulnerable target or victim is present, and
formal or informal guardians to prevent the motivated offender are
absent. Research has not tested full models of the theory, and the major
variables are usually measured indirectly. Its empirical validity has not
yet been firmly established, but most of the research done so far reports
findings consistent with the theory.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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34 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Notes

1. For Beccarias writings, see Beccaria (1963; 1972) and Monachesi
(1973). For Benthams writings, see Bentham (1948) and Geis (1973).
For general discussions of the classical criminology of both, see Vold
(1958), Vo;d and Bernard (1986), and Wright (1993b).

2. Piers Beirne (1991) argues that Beccaria’s main purpose was neither
legal reform nor a rational explanation of crime. Rather, it was to intro­
duce a deterministic “science of man” which ran contrary to the assump­
tions of free-will, volitional acts. Therefore, his theory was just as
positivistic as subsequent theories.

3. See, for instance, Jensen, (1969), Waldo and Chiricos (1972), Anderson
et al. (1977), Jensen et al. (1978), Tittle (1980), Paternoster et al. (1983),
Klepper and Nagin (1989), Nagin and Paternoster (1994), Miller and
Iovanni (1994).

4. For general and specific rational choice models, many of which are
basically expansions on deterrence theory, see Cornish and Clarke
(1986), Piliavin et al. (1986), Klepper and Nagin (1989), Paternoster,
(1989a; 1989b), Williams and Hawkins (1989), Grasmick and Bursik
(1990). For general critiques of rational choice theory, see Gibbs (1989)
and Akers (1990).

5. Since routine activities theory stresses the ecological distribution of
victims, crime opportunities, and motivated offenders, it could well be
classified with social disorganization as an ecological theory of crime
(see Chapter 7). It is not rational choice or deterrence theory. However,
the concept of guardianship includes formal actions by police to deter
crime and incorporates elements of the deterrence doctrine. Also, it
makes the assumption that motivated offenders choose to commit a
crime after assessing the presence of guardians and the vulnerability of
crime targets. Therefore, it is often interpreted as a rational choice the­
ory. For these reasons, a discussion of it is included in this chapter.

34 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Notes

1. For Beccaria’s writings, see Beccaria (1963; 1972) and Monachesi
(1973). For Bentham’s writings, see Bentham (1948) and Geis (1973).
For general discussions of the classical criminology of both, see VoId
(1958), VoId and Bernard (1986), and Wright (1993b).

2. Piers Beirne (1991) argues that Beccaria’s main purpose was neither
legal reform nor a rational explanation of crime. Rather, it was to intro­
duce a deterministic “science of man” which ran contrary to the assump­
tions of free-will, volitional acts. Therefore, his theory was just as
positivistic as subsequent theories.

3. See, for instance, Jensen, (1969), Waldo and Chiricos (1972), Anderson
et al. (1977), Jensen et al. (1978), Tittle (1980), Paternoster et al. (1983),
Klepper and Nagin (1989), Nagin and Paternoster (1994), Miller and
Iovanni (1994).

4. For general and specific rational choice models, many of which are
basically expansions on deterrence theory, see Cornish and Clarke
(1986), Piliavin et al. (1986), Klepper and Nagin (1989), Paternoster,
(1989a; 1989b), Williams and Hawkins (1989), Grasmick and Bursik
(1990). For general critiques of rational choice theory, see Gibbs (1989)
and Akers (1990).

5. Since routine activities theory stresses the ecological distribution of
victims, crime opportunities, and motivated offenders, it could well be
classified with social disorganization as an ecological theory of crime
(see Chapter 7). It is not rational choice or deterrence theory. However,
the concept of guardianship includes formal actions by police to deter
crime and incorporates elements of the deterrence doctrine. Also, it
makes the assumption that motivated offenders choose to commit a
crime after assessing the presence of guardians and the vulnerability of
crime targets. Therefore, it is often interpreted as a rational choice the­
ory. For these reasons, a discussion of it is included in this chapter.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:30:58.

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CHAPTER 3

BIOLOGICAL AND
PSYCHOLOGICAL
THEORIES

Introduction

Social structural and social psychological theories, to be introduced
and evaluated in later chapters, either ignore or specifically ex­

clude biological or psychological factors in crime. This is not because
such theories assume that biological and psychological factors play no
part in human behavior or that individuals are all the same. They focus
solely on the social factors in crime with the assumption that biological
and personality variations among individuals are more or less within
the normal range. Little or no criminal behavior is considered to be
directly caused by abnormal physiology or abnormal psychology.

Traditional biological theories, on the other hand, take the opposite
approach by focusing on anatomical, physiological, or genetic abnor­
malities within the individual which separate law-breakers into a dis­
tinctly different category of persons from the law-abiding majority. In
turn, such theories ignore or downplay the effect of social environ­
mental factors in crime. Recent biological theorizing, which empha­
sizes biological variations within the normal range, has begun to
include the interplay of biological, social, and psychological variables
in crime and delinquency.

Psychoanalytic and personality theories recognize the effects of an
individuals experiences, especially in early childhood, on ones emo­
tional adjustment and the formation of personality traits and types. But
such factors are not viewed as the cause of criminal behavior. Criminal
behavior results from abnormal emotional adjustment or personality
traits residing within the individual.

35

CHAPTER 3

BIOLOGICALAND
PSYCHOLOGICAL
THEORIES

Introduction

Social structural and social psychological theories, to be introduced
and evaluated in later chapters, either ignore or specifically ex­

clude biological or psychological factors in crime. This is not because
such theories assume that biological and psychological factors play no
part in human behavior or that individuals are all the same. They focus
solely on the social factors in crime with the assumption that biological
and personality variations among individuals are more or less within
the normal range. Little or no criminal behavior is considered to be
directly caused by abnormal physiology or abnormal psychology.

Traditional biological theories, on the other hand, take the opposite
approach by focusing on anatomical, physiological, or genetic abnor­
malities within the individual which separate law-breakers into a dis­
tinctly different category of persons from the law-abiding majority. In
turn, such theories ignore or downplay the effect of social environ­
mental factors in crime. Recent biological theorizing, which empha­
sizes biological variations within the normal range, has begun to
include the interplay of biological, social, and psychological variables
in crime and delinquency.

Psychoanalytic and personality theories recognize the effects of an
individual’s experiences, especially in early childhood, on one’s emo­
tional adjustment and the formation of personality traits and types. But
such factors are not viewed as the cause of criminal behavior. Criminal
behavior results from abnormal emotional adjustment or personality
traits residing within the individual.

35

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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36 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Lombroso and Early Biological Theories

The classical school of criminology retained a virtual monopoly on
the study of crime until the latter part of the nineteenth century. By the
1870s, the classical theory, which upheld the belief that persons ration­
ally calculate pleasure and pain during the exercise of free will to com­
mit or refrain from crime, began to give way to biological “positivism.”
This new theory proposed that crime is not a rationally reasoned be­
havior which will occur unless prevented by the proper threat of pun­
ishment, but rather is the result of inborn abnormalities. An individuals
physical traits index a bodily constitution with an associated mental
and psychological makeup that causes one to violate the rules of modern
society. Rational decisions, the theory argues, have nothing to do with
it. Although environmental conditions and situations can provoke or
restrain criminal behavior, they do not cause the commission of a crime.
While some normal persons may on occasion succumb to temptations
and pressures to commit a crime, the real criminal is born with criminal
traits and will always be at odds with civilized society. The early bio­
logical criminologists viewed criminals as a distinct set of people who
were biologically inferior to law-abiding citizens or inherently defective
in some way.

While society is certainly justified in punishing criminals for its own
protection, the certainty or severity of punishment will have no effect
on natural-born criminals, since their crimes are caused by an innate
biological makeup which no law can affect. While the classical school
of criminology was humanistic and focused on the crime itself, biologi­
cal positivism was scientific and concentrated on the individual crimi­
nal (see Wolfgang, 1972; Void and Bernard, 1986).

Lombroso’s Theory of the Born Criminal
The most important of the early biological theories, the one from

which nearly all other biological theories stem, was first introduced in
1876 by Cesare Lombroso in The Criminal Man. Lombroso revised and
enlarged this original publication through five editions and published
separate volumes on the causes and remedies of crime and of the female
criminal (Lombroso, 1912; Wolfgang, 1972). Lombroso observed the
physical characteristics (head, body, arms, and skin) of Italian prisoners
and compared them to Italian soldiers. From these comparisons he
concluded that criminals were physically different from law-abiding
citizens and that these differences demonstrated the biological causes
of criminal behavior.

Lombroso believed that certain physical features identified the con­
vict in prison as a “born criminal.” The born criminal comes into the
world with a bodily constitution that causes him to violate the laws of

36 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Lombroso and Early Biological Theories

The classical school of criminology retained a virtual monopoly on
the study of crime until the latter part of the nineteenth century. By the
1870s, the classical theory, which upheld the belief that persons ration­
ally calculate pleasure and pain during the exercise of free will to com­
mit or refrain from crime, began to give way to biological “positivism.”
This new theory proposed that crime is not a rationally reasoned be­
havior which will occur unless prevented by the proper threat of pun­
ishment, but rather is the result of inborn abnormalities. An individual’s
physical traits index a bodily constitution with an associated mental
and psychological makeup that causes one to violate the rules of modem
society. Rational decisions, the theory argues, have nothing to do with
it. Although environmental conditions and situations can provoke or
restrain criminal behavior, they do not cause the commission of a crime.
While some normal persons may on occasion succumb to temptations
and pressures to commit a crime, the real criminal is born with criminal
traits and will always be at odds with civilized society. The early bio­
logical criminologists viewed criminals as a distinct set of people who
were biologically inferior to law-abiding citizens or inherently defective
in some way.

While society is certainly justified in punishing criminals for its own
protection, the certainty or severity of punishment will have no effect
on natural-born criminals, since their crimes are caused by an innate
biological makeup which no law can affect. While the classical school
of criminology was humanistic and focused on the crime itself, biologi­
cal positivism was scientific and concentrated on the individual crimi­
nal (see Wolfgang, 1972; VoId and Bernard, 1986).

Lombroso’s Theory of the Born Criminal
The most important of the early biological theories, the one from

which nearly all other biological theories stem, was first introduced in
1876 by Cesare Lombroso in The Criminal Man. Lombroso revised and
enlarged this original publication through five editions and published
separate volumes on the causes and remedies of crime and of the female
criminal (Lombroso, 1912; Wolfgang, 1972). Lombroso observed the
physical characteristics (head, body, arms, and skin) ofItalian prisoners
and compared them to Italian soldiers. From these comparisons he
concluded that criminals were physically different from law-abiding
citizens and that these differences demonstrated the biological causes
of criminal behavior.

Lombroso believed that certain physical features identified the con­
vict in prison as a “born criminal.” The born criminal comes into the
world with a bodily constitution that causes him to violate the laws of

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

C
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©

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37 Biological and Psychological Theories

modern society. The born criminal is an “atavism/’ Lombroso theo­
rized, a throwback to an earlier stage of human evolution. He has the
physical makeup, mental capabilities, and instincts of primitive man.
The born criminal, therefore, is unsuited for life in civilized society
and, unless specifically prevented, wil l inevitably violate its social and
legal rules. Lombroso maintained that this born criminal can be iden­
tified by the possession of certain visible “stigmata”—for example, an
asymmetry of the face or head, large monkey-like ears, large lips, re­
ceding chin, twisted nose, excessive cheek bones, long arms, excessive
skin wrinkles, and extra fingers or toes. The male with five or more of
these physical anomalies is marked as a born criminal. Female crimi­
nals are also born criminals, but they may be identified with as few as
three anomalies.

In addition to the born criminal, Lombroso recognized two other
types, the “insane criminal” and the “criminaloid.” The insane criminal,
with whom Lombroso included the idiot, imbecile, epileptic, and psy­
chotic, is mentally unfit for society. These criminals are no more capable
than born criminals of controlling their criminal tendency, but they do
not possess the criminal stigmata of the evolutionary throwback. Crimi-
naloids are motivated by passion or have an emotional makeup that
compels them, under the right circumstances, to commit crime. Of
these types, the born criminal is the true criminal type, the most seri­
ously incorrigible and dangerous to society.

Lombroso originally viewed the great majority of criminals as born
criminals, but later reduced the proportion to one-third as he added
more social, economic, and political conditions as factors in crime.
Nevertheless, the concept of the born criminal remained the centerpiece
of Lombrosian theory. This basic concept of innate criminality became
the dominant perspective on crime and triggered an onslaught of bio­
logical theorizing about crime. Any theory that refers to inherited traits,
physical abnormalities, the biological inferiority of certain races and
categories of people, body type, feeblemindedness, biochemical imbal­
ances, and biological defects and malfunctions that cause individuals
to commit crime, can be traced back to Lombroso’s theory (see Void
and Bernard, 1986).

The Criminal as Biologically Inferior
Charles Goring, an English prison medical officer, published in 1913

The English Convict, a report of findings from a laborious study that
took years to complete. Goring employed the most sophisticated physi­
cal measurements and statistical techniques of the day. Comparing
prison inmates with university undergraduates, soldiers, professors,
and hospital patients, his study found no statistically significant differ­
ences between behavior and 37 physical traits that included head sizes,

Biological and Psychological Theories 37

modem society. The born criminal is an “atavism,” Lombroso theo­
rized, a throwback to an earlier stage of human evolution. He has the
physical makeup, mental capabilities, and instincts of primitive man.
The born criminal, therefore, is unsuited for life in civilized society
and, unless specifically prevented, will inevitably violate its social and
legal rules. Lombroso maintained that this born criminal can be iden­
tified by the possession of certain visible “stigmata”-for example, an
asymmetry of the face or head, large monkey-like ears, large lips, re­
ceding chin, twisted nose, excessive cheek bones, long arms, excessive
skin wrinkles, and extra fingers or toes. The male with five or more of
these physical anomalies is marked as a born criminal. Female crimi­
nals are also born criminals, but they may be identified with as few as
three anomalies.

In addition to the born criminal, Lombroso recognized two other
types, the “insane criminal” and the “criminaloid.” The insane criminal,
with whom Lombroso included the idiot, imbecile, epileptic, and psy­
chotic, is mentally unfit for society. These criminals are no more capable
than born criminals of controlling their criminal tendency, but they do
not possess the criminal stigmata of the evolutionary throwback. Crimi­
naloids are motivated by passion or have an emotional makeup that
compels them, under the right circumstances, to commit crime. Of
these types, the born criminal is the true criminal type, the most seri­
ously incorrigible and dangerous to society.

Lombroso originally viewed the great majority of criminals as born
criminals, but later reduced the proportion to one-third as he added
more social, economic, and political conditions as factors in crime.
Nevertheless, the concept of the born criminal remained the centerpiece
of Lombrosian theory. This basic concept of innate criminality became
the dominant perspective on crime and triggered an onslaught of bio­
logical theorizing about crime. Any theory that refers to inherited traits,
physical abnormalities, the biological inferiority of certain races and
categories of people, body type, feeblemindedness, biochemical imbal­
ances, and biological defects and malfunctions that cause individuals
to commit crime, can be traced back to Lombroso’s theory (see VoId
and Bernard, 1986).

The Criminal as Biologically Inferior
Charles Goring, an English prison medical officer, published in 1913

The English Convict, a report of findings from a laborious study that
took years to complete. Goring employed the most sophisticated physi­
cal measurements and statistical techniques of the day. Comparing
prison inmates with university undergraduates, soldiers, professors,
and hospital patients, his study found no statistically significant differ­
ences between behavior and 37 physical traits that included head sizes,

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

C
op

yr
ig

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©

1
99

9.
T

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G
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up
. A

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re
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rv
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.

38 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

color of eyes, and facial features. As a result, he concluded that Lom­
broso was wrong: there was no such thing as a physical criminal type.
His findings provided no support at all for Lombroso’s theory that
criminals are clearly differentiated from law-abiding citizens by physi­
cal appearance and measurable stigmata.

Goring s study came to be viewed by many scholars as the definitive
refutation of Lombrosian theory. In truth, although Goring rejected
Lombroso’s particular theory of the criminal as an evolutionary ata­
vism, he accepted the Lombrosian notion that criminals are born with
criminal traits. His own theory dismissed the effects of social factors
on crime and proposed that criminals are inherently inferior to law-
abiding citizens.

Of all of the measurements he took, Goring found statistically sig­
nificant differences (even while controlling for social class and age)
between prisoners and civilians on two characteristics—body stature
and weight. The prisoners in his study were shorter and thinner than
the civilians. They were also judged (by the researcher’s impression
rather than by IQ tests) to be of lower intelligence. Goring took these
findings as evidence that criminals suffer innately from both a “defec­
tive physique” and “defective intelligence.” He later added inherent
“moral defectiveness” to include recidivists who did not appear to be
physically or mentally defective. In one way or another, he concluded,
all offenders have a general inherited inferiority to law-abiding citizens
(Driver, 1972; Wilson and Hermstein, 1985; Void and Bernard, 1986).

Subsequently, American anthropologist E . A. Hooten in Crime and
the Man (1939) attacked Goring’s methods and conclusions. Hooten
conducted an elaborate study of 17,000 subjects in several states. The
study included meticulous measurements of the physical charac­
teristics of inmates in prisons, reformatories, county jails, and other
correctional facilities. These were compared with measurements of the
same characteristics in college students, hospital patients, mental pa­
tients, firemen, and policemen. This comparison of prisoners with ci­
vilians was made within one elaborate typology of racial and nationality
groups and within another typology of criminal offenses.

Although he included “sociological gleanings” concerning prisoners,
Hooten concluded that sociological factors were not important, be­
cause criminals are basically “organically inferior.”

[T]he real basis of the whole body of sociological, metric, and mor­
phological deviations of criminals from civilians is the organic inferior­
ity of the former. . . . [W]hatever the crime may be, it ordinarily arises
from a deteriorated organism. . . . You may say that this is tantamount
to a declaration that the primary cause of crime is biological inferiority—
and that is exactly what I mean. . . . Certainly the penitentiaries of our

38 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

color of eyes, and facial features. As a result, he concluded that Lom­
broso was wrong: there was no such thing as a physical criminal type.
His findings provided no support at all for Lombroso’s theory that
criminals are clearly differentiated from law-abiding citizens by physi­
cal appearance and measurable stigmata.

Goring’s study came to be viewed by many scholars as the definitive
refutation of Lombrosian theory. In truth, although Goring rejected
Lombroso’s particular theory of the criminal as an evolutionary ata­
vism, he accepted the Lombrosian notion that criminals are born with
criminal traits. His own theory dismissed the effects of social factors
on crime and proposed that criminals are inherently inferior to law­
abiding citizens.

Of all of the measurements he took, Goring found statistically sig­
nificant differences (even while controlling for social class and age)
between prisoners and civilians on two characteristics-body stature
and weight. The prisoners in his study were shorter and thinner than
the civilians. They were also judged (by the researcher’s impression
rather than by 10 tests) to be of lower intelligence. Goring took these
findings as evidence that criminals suffer innately from both a “defec­
tive physique” and “defective intelligence.” He later added inherent
“moral defectiveness” to include recidivists who did not appear to be
physically or mentally defective. In one way or another, he concluded,
all offenders have a general inherited inferiority to law-abiding citizens
(Driver, 1972; Wilson and Hermstein, 1985; VoId and Bernard, 1986).

Subsequently, American anthropologist E. A. Hooten in Crime and
the Man (1939) attacked Goring’s methods and conclusions. Hooten
conducted an elaborate study of 17,000 subjects in several states. The
study included meticulous measurements of the physical charac­
teristics of inmates in prisons, reformatories, county jails, and other
correctional facilities. These were compared with measurements of the
same characteristics in college students, hospital patients, mental pa­
tients, firemen, and policemen. This comparison of prisoners with ci­
vilians was made within one elaborate typology of racial and nationality
groups and within another typology of criminal offenses.

Although he included “sociological gleanings” concerning prisoners,
Hooten concluded that sociological factors were not important, be­
cause criminals are basically “organically inferior.”

[T]he real basis of the whole body of sociological, metric, and mor­
phological deviations of criminals from civilians is the organic inferior­
ity of the former …. [W]hatever the crime may be, it ordinarily arises
from a deteriorated organism …. You may say that this is tantamount
to a declaration that the primary cause of crime is biological inferiority­
and that is exactly what I mean …. Certainly the penitentiaries of our

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

C
op

yr
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©

1
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re
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rv
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39 Biological and Psychological Theories

society are built upon the shifting sands and quaking bogs of inferior
human organisms. (Hooten, 1939)

Just as Hooten found Goring’s techniques deficient, Hooten’s work
was itself criticized on several grounds. The differences he discovered
between prisoners and non-prisoners were actually quite small. Fur­
thermore, he did not take into account the fact that his civilian sample
included a large proportion of firemen and policemen who had been
selected for their jobs based on their size and physical qualities. In
addition, there was more variation among the prisoners than there was
between the prisoners and civilians. The prisoners may have been in­
volved in many types of crime in the past, but only their most recent
crime was recorded to identify the physical characteristics of types of
offenders. Hooten began with the assumption of the biological inferi­
ority of criminals and only interpreted the differences between prison­
ers and civilians (e.g., foreheads, nasal bridges, jaws, eye colors,
eyebrows, tattoos, and ears) as the confirmation of that inferiority. No
differences in measurements were interpreted as an indication of the
superiority of the inmates, and similarities between the two groups
were ignored altogether. Hooten’s conclusion that criminals were bio­
logically inferior to law-abiding citizens was clearly a case of the cir­
cular reasoning of tautology (Void, 1958:62-63); that is, it was
foreordained by the assumption with which he began. There was no
possible way to falsify his theory, which was true because he assumed
it to be true.

The Lombrosian notion of criminal inferiority promoted by Goring
and Hooten is also found in theories of feeblemindedness, inherited
criminal traits, endocrine imbalances, and body types, along with many
similar explanations that flourished in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries (see Void and Bernard, 1985; Shoemaker, 1990).
Social and non-biological factors were occasionally recognized by these
early biological theorists, but environmental factors were seen as inci­
dental when compared to the certain destiny of the physical criminal
type. In all these theories the central proposition was that criminals,
at least the most serious and dangerous ones, were born by nature
rather than made or nurtured. Criminals did not simply behave differ­
ently from ordinary people, it was proposed, they were inherently dif­
ferent with an inferior or defective biology that predetermined their
criminal behavior (Rafter, 1992).

Recognizing the Inadequacies of Early Biological Theories
This singleminded biological determinism was later criticized by

sociologists for ignoring or giving insufficient attention to social, eco­
nomic, and environmental factors. The critics were very successful in
pointing out the methodological flaws in the biological research, the

Biological and Psychological Theories

society are built upon the shifting sands and quaking bogs of inferior
human organisms. (Hooten, 1939)

39

Just as Hooten found Goring’s techniques deficient, Hooten’s work
was itself criticized on several grounds. The differences he discovered
between prisoners and non-prisoners were actually quite small. Fur­
thermore, he did not take into account the fact that his civilian sample
included a large proportion of firemen and policemen who had been
selected for their jobs based on their size and physical qualities. In
addition, there was more variation among the prisoners than there was
between the prisoners and civilians. The prisoners may have been in­
volved in many types of crime in the past, but only their most recent
crime was recorded to identify the physical characteristics of types of
offenders. Hooten began with the assumption of the biological inferi­
ority of criminals and only interpreted the differences between prison­
ers and civilians (e.g., foreheads, nasal bridges, jaws, eye colors,
eyebrows, tattoos, and ears) as the confirmation of that inferiority. No
differences in measurements were interpreted as an indication of the
superiority of the inmates, and similarities between the two groups
were ignored altogether. Hooten’s conclusion that criminals were bio­
logically inferior to law-abiding citizens was clearly a case of the cir­
cular reasoning of tautology (VoId, 1958:62-63); that is, it was
foreordained by the assumption with which he began. There was no
possible way to falsify his theory, which was true because he assumed
it to be true.

The Lombrosian notion of criminal inferiority promoted by Goring
and Hooten is also found in theories of feeblemindedness, inherited
criminal traits, endocrine imbalances, and body types, along with many
similar explanations that flourished in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries (see VoId and Bernard, 1985; Shoemaker, 1990).
Social and non-biological factors were occasionally recognized by these
early biological theorists, but environmental factors were seen as inci­
dental when compared to the certain destiny of the physical criminal
type. In all these theories the central proposition was that criminals,
at least the most serious and dangerous ones, were born by nature
rather than made or nurtured. Criminals did not simply behave differ­
ently from ordinary people, it was proposed, they were inherently dif­
ferent with an inferior or defective biology that predetermined their
criminal behavior (Rafter, 1992).

Recognizing the Inadequacies of Early Biological Theories
This singleminded biological determinism was later criticized by

sociologists for ignoring or giving insufficient attention to social, eco­
nomic, and environmental factors. The critics were very successful in
pointing out the methodological flaws in the biological research, the

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

C
op

yr
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©

1
99

9.
T

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up
. A

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s

re
se

rv
ed

.

40 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

tautological reasoning, and the fact that the empirical evidence did not
really support the theories. By the 1950s, biological theories in crimi­
nology had been thoroughly discredited. Criminology and delinquency
textbooks continued to discuss Lombroso and other biological theorists
for their historical interest, but the authors were highly critical of bio­
logical theory. Journal articles proposing or testing the biological ex­
planations of crime became virtually nonexistent. Biological theory had
by that time been regarded by criminologists as unfounded and incon­
sequential.

To some extent, the dismissal of biological theories was based on the
disciplinary predilections of sociologists, the strongest critics of bio­
logical theory. Sociological approaches to crime were always treated
more favorably in America and Great Britain and, by mid-century,
sociologists dominated criminological theory and research. This socio­
logical preeminence in American criminology persists today, although
it is not as pervasive as it once was (Akers, 1992a).

C. Ray Jeffery (1979; 1980) and other modern proponents of biologi­
cal theories of crime claim that even in recent times these theories are
not only totally ignored, but are treated as a taboo subject and system­
atically suppressed by closed-minded, sociologically oriented crimi­
nologists (see Holzman, 1979; Gordon, 1980; Taylor, 1984). This claim,
however, seems to be highly questionable (Karmen, 1980). Publications
on biological theories in criminology have actually flourished in the
past two decades and continue to find a prominent place in scholarly
journals (see the extensive literature in Fishbein, 1990).

Though sociologists and other sociologically-minded criminologists
usually dismiss biological variables from their theories and remain the
staunchest critics of biological theories, they are also vehement critics
of each others sociological theories. Much of the objection to biological
theory is based on its controversial implications for policy. If biological
factors are innate or genetic, the theory proposes, one can only change
them through medical or surgical procedures to modify brain or bio­
chemical functions. If the biological factors cannot be changed, then
the only alternative for society is the long-term isolation and incarcera­
tion of criminals or selective breeding to prevent the biologically de­
fective from reproducing (Rafter, 1992).

The major reason for the rejection of these earlier biological theories
has in reality very little to do with disciplinary or policy issues. It is
simply because the theories were found to be untestable, illogical, or
wrong. They seldom withstood empirical tests and often espoused sim­
plistic, racist and sexist notions that easily crumbled under closer scru­
tiny. The earlier biological theories were rejected primarily because of
the:

40 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

tautological reasoning, and the fact that the empirical evidence did not
really support the theories. By the 1950s, biological theories in crimi­
nology had been thoroughly discredited. Criminology and delinquency
textbooks continued to discuss Lombroso and other biological theorists
for their historical interest, but the authors were highly critical of bio­
logical theory. Journal articles proposing or testing the biological ex­
planations of crime became virtually nonexistent. Biological theory had
by that time been regarded by criminologists as unfounded and incon­
sequential.

To some extent, the dismissal of biological theories was based on the
disciplinary predilections of sociologists, the strongest critics of bio­
logical theory. Sociological approaches to crime were always treated
more favorably in America and Great Britain and, by mid-century,
sociologists dominated criminological theory and research. This socio­
logical preeminence in American criminology persists today, although
it is not as pervasive as it once was (Akers, 1992a).

C. Ray Jeffery (1979; 1980) and other modern proponents ofbiologi­
cal theories of crime claim that even in recent times these theories are
not only totally ignored, but are treated as a taboo subject and system­
atically suppressed by closed-minded, sociologically oriented crimi­
nologists (see Holzman, 1979; Gordon, 1980; Taylor, 1984). This claim,
however, seems to be highly questionable (Karmen, 1980). Publications
on biological theories in criminology have actually flourished in the
past two decades and continue to find a prominent place in scholarly
journals (see the extensive literature in Fishbein, 1990).

Though sociologists and other sociologically-minded criminologists
usually dismiss biological variables from their theories and remain the
staunchest critics of biological theories, they are also vehement critics
of each other’s sociological theories. Much of the objection to biological
theory is based on its controversial implications for policy. If biological
factors are innate or genetic, the theory proposes, one can only change
them through medical or surgical procedures to modify brain or bio­
chemical functions. If the biological factors cannot be changed, then
the only alternative for society is the long-term isolation and incarcera­
tion of criminals or selective breeding to prevent the biologically de­
fective from reproducing (Rafter, 1992).

The major reason for the rejection of these earlier biological theories
has in reality very little to do with disciplinary or policy issues. It is
simply because the theories were found to be untestable, illogical, or
wrong. They seldom withstood empirical tests and often espoused sim­
plistic, racist and sexist notions that easily crumbled under closer scru­
tiny. The earlier biological theories were rejected primarily because of
the:

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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.

41 Biological and Psychological Theories

[Sjorry history of this perspective in the last hundred years [with its]
extravagant claims, meager empirical evidence, naivete, gross inade­
quacy, and stated or implied concepts of racial and ethnic inferiority….
(Dinitz, 1977:31)

Even the strongest supporters of modern biological theories of crime
and delinquency recognize that the discrediting of Lombrosian posi­
tivism was “due to the serious methodological flaws of these early
studies and the weakness of their efforts to integrate their findings with
sociological theory and data” (Mednick and Shoham, 1979:ix).

In genetic research on criminal behavior much of the early research
was based on methodologically questionable twin studies or, even worse,
ideologically tainted studies from Nazi Germany. (Mednick, 1987)

“[B]iological criminology” was eventually discredited because its
findings were largely unscientific, simplistic, and unicausal. Biological
factors were globally rejected due to the inability of theorists to posit a
rational explanation for the development of criminal behavior. (Fish-
bein, 1990)

In light of this recognized “sorry history” of the biological explana­
tions for crime, is it any wonder that the modern resurgence of biologi­
cal theories of crime and delinquency over the past two decades has
been met with strong skepticism? Some of these modern proponents
have not offered any new theories, but have simply resurrected many
of the older biological explanations of crime, relied on the same old,
flawed studies, and presented little evidence that could be any more
convincing. 1

XYY: The Super-Male Criminal
One theory that has been advanced since the 1960s to explain the

behavior of violent male criminals is the proposal of a chromosomal
abnormality, in which such males have an XYY, instead of the normal
XY, male chromosomal pattern. The extra Y chromosome, so goes the
hypothesis, turns these criminals into “super-males.” This extra dose
of maleness supposedly creates such a strong compulsion that the X Y Y
carrier is at extreme risk of committing violent crime. The finding in
some studies that the proportion of X Y Y males in prison populations
(from 1 to 3%) is higher than in the general male population (less than
1%) is accepted as irrefutable evidence that this chromosomal abnor­
mality is a significant cause of criminal behavior (Taylor, 1984).

If the X Y Y syndrome plays any role in criminal causation, it would
seem to be a very minute one. It can offer no explanation for female
crime and would at best apply to a tiny portion of incarcerated offend­
ers, let alone an even tinier portion of male offenders in general. Its
scope is extremely limited, to say the least. More importantly, there is
little empirical evidence to support the X Y Y theory. Males with the X Y Y

Biological and Psychological Theories

[S]orry history of this perspective in the last hundred years [with its]
extravagant claims, meager empirical evidence, naivete, gross inade­
quacy, and stated or implied concepts of racial and ethnic inferiority ….
(Dinitz, 1977:31)

41

Even the strongest supporters of modern biological theories of crime
and delinquency recognize that the discrediting of Lombrosian posi­
tivism was “due to the serious methodological flaws of these early
studies and the weakness of their efforts to integrate their findings with
sociological theory and data” (Mednick and Shoham, 1979:ix).

In genetic research on criminal behavior much of the early research
was based on methodologically questionable twin studies or, even worse,
ideologically tainted studies from Nazi Germany. (Mednick, 1987)

“[B]iological criminology” was eventually discredited because its
findings were largely unscientific, simplistic, and unicausal. Biological
factors were globally rejected due to the inability of theorists to posit a
rational explanation for the development of criminal behavior. (Fish­
bein, 1990)

In light of this recognized “sorry history” of the biological explana­
tions for crime, is it any wonder that the modern resurgence of biologi­
cal theories of crime and delinquency over the past two decades has
been met with strong skepticism? Some of these modern proponents
have not offered any new theories, but have simply resurrected many
of the older biological explanations of crime, relied on the same old,
flawed studies, and presented little evidence that could be any more
convincing. 1

XYY: The Super-Male Criminal
One theory that has been advanced since the 1960s to explain the

behavior of violent male criminals is the proposal of a chromosomal
abnormality, in which such males have an XYY, instead of the normal
XY, male chromosomal pattern. The extra Y chromosome, so goes the
hypothesis, turns these criminals into “super-males.” This extra dose
of maleness supposedly creates such a strong compulsion that the XYY
carrier is at extreme risk of committing violent crime. The finding in
some studies that the proportion of XYY males in prison populations
(from 1 to 3%) is higher than in the general male population (less than
1 %) is accepted as irrefutable evidence that this chromosomal abnor­
mality is a significant cause of criminal behavior (Taylor, 1984).

If the XYY syndrome plays any role in criminal causation, it would
seem to be a very minute one. It can offer no explanation for female
crime and would at best apply to a tiny portion of incarcerated offend­
ers, let alone an even tinier portion of male offenders in general. Its
scope is extremely limited, to say the least. More importantly, there is
little empirical evidence to support the XYY theory. Males with the XYY

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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42 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

chromosomal abnormality found in prison populations are less likely
than other prisoners to be incarcerated for violent offenses. In fact, the
percentage of institutionalized males who have the Klinefelter syn­
drome (an extra female chromosome of X X Y ) equals or exceeds the
percentage with the extra male chromosome. Only a small proportion
of X Y Y males commit crimes of any kind, and there is simply no evi­
dence that the X Y Y syndrome is a specific cause of any criminal be­
havior. Even major contemporary proponents of biological
explanations of crime dismiss the X Y Y theory as scientifically invalid
(National Institute of Mental Health, 1970; Fox, 1971; Witkin, 1977;
Mednick et al., 1982; 1987).

Modern Biological Theories
of Crime and Delinquency
Current biological theorists, for the most part, reject the kind of

simplistic biological determinism characteristic of the theories of Lom­
broso, Goring, Hooten, and the X Y Y syndrome. More recent biological
explanations have been founded on newer discoveries and technical
advances in genetics, brain functioning, neurology, and biochemistry.
Because of this, biological explanations of crime have come to occupy
a new place of respectability in criminology. Though they must still
contend with methodological problems and questionable empirical va­
lidity, they are taken more seriously today than at any time in the latter
part of this century. The emphasis in biological theory has shifted from
speculation over physical stigmata and constitutional makeup of the
born criminal to careful studies of the genes, brain, central and auto­
nomic nervous systems, nutrition, hormonal (male and female) bal­
ances, metabolism, physiological arousal levels, and biological
processes in learning.2

Most of the modern theorists claim that they have no desire to dredge
up old, meaningless debate over nature versus nurture or to resurrect
the Lombrosian theory of the born criminal (Gove and Carpenter, 1982).
Rather, they have taken a new course with the assumption that behavior,
whether conforming or deviant, results from the interaction of the
biological make-up of the human organism with the physical and social
environment. Therefore, no specific criminal behavior is inherited or
physiologically preordained, nor is there is any single gene that pro­
duces criminal acts. Behavioral potentials and susceptibilities, they
propose, can be triggered by biological factors. These potentialities
have different probabilities of actual occurrence, depending upon the
environments the individual confronts over a period of time. Few bio­
logical factors in crime are viewed today as fixed and immutable.

42 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

chromosomal abnormality found in prison populations are less likely
than other prisoners to be incarcerated for violent offenses. In fact, the
percentage of institutionalized males who have the Klinefelter syn­
drome (an extra female chromosome of XXY) equals or exceeds the
percentage with the extra male chromosome. Only a small proportion
of XYY males commit crimes of any kind, and there is simply no evi­
dence that the XYY syndrome is a specific cause of any criminal be­
havior. Even major contemporary proponents of biological
explanations of crime dismiss the XYY theory as scientifically invalid
(National Institute of Mental Health, 1970; Fox, 1971; Witkin, 1977;
Mednick et al., 1982; 1987).

Modern Biological Theories
of Crime and Delinquency

Current biological theorists, for the most part, reject the kind of
simplistic biological determinism characteristic of the theories of Lom­
broso, Goring, Hooten, and the XYY syndrome. More recent biological
explanations have been founded on newer discoveries and technical
advances in genetics, brain functioning, neurology, and biochemistry.
Because of this, biological explanations of crime have come to occupy
a new place of respectability in criminology. Though they must still
contend with methodological problems and questionable empirical va­
lidity, they are taken more seriously today than at any time in the latter
part of this century. The emphasis in biological theory has shifted from
speculation over physical stigmata and constitutional makeup of the
born criminal to careful studies of the genes, brain, central and auto­
nomic nervous systems, nutrition, hormonal (male and female) bal­
ances, metabolism, physiological arousal levels, and biological
processes in leaming.2

Most of the modem theorists claim that they have no desire to dredge
up old, meaningless debate over nature versus nurture or to resurrect
the Lombrosian theory of the born criminal (Gove and Carpenter, 1982).
Rather, they have taken a new course with the assumption that behavior,
whether conforming or deviant, results from the interaction of the
biological make-up of the human organism with the physical and social
environment. Therefore, no specific criminal behavior is inherited or
physiologically preordained, nor is there is any single gene that pro­
duces criminal acts. Behavioral potentials and susceptibilities, they
propose, can be triggered by biological factors. These potentialities
have different probabilities of actual occurrence, depending upon the
environments the individual confronts over a period of time. Few bio­
logical factors in crime are viewed today as fixed and immutable.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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43 Biological and Psychological Theories

Rather, they interact with and may be affected by the physical and social
environment.3

As a rule, what is inherited is not a behavior; rather it is the way in
which an individual responds to the environment. It provides an orien­
tation, predisposition, or tendency to behave in a certain fashion. . . .
Findings of biological involvement in antisocial behavior have, in a few
studies, disclosed measurable abnormalities, but in a number of studies,
measurements do not reach pathologic levels. In other words . . . the
biological values do not necessarily exceed normal limits and would not
alarm a practicing physician.” (Fishbein, 1990:42 and 54)

Although he gives primacy to biological causes (especially brain function­
ing) and is skeptical over the importance of social factors, C. Ray Jeffery
(1977; 1979) proposes that criminal behavior results from the interaction
of biology, behavior, and the environment.

IQ, Mental Functioning, and Delinquency
The theory that delinquents are inherently feebleminded or suffer

disproportionately from “learning disabilities” has little empirical sup­
port (Murray, 1976). Childhood intelligence does not predict adolescent
delinquency very well. Parental discipline, family cohesion, religious
upbringing, and a child’s exposure to delinquent peers are more effec­
tive predictors (Glueck and Glueck, 1959; McCord and McCord, 1959).

Nevertheless, research has consistently found a weak to moderate
negative correlation between IQ (intelligence quotient) and delinquent
behavior, which does not diminish when class, race, and other factors
are controlled (Gordon, 1987). The higher the IQ score, the lower the
probability that the adolescent will commit delinquent acts. Gordon
(1987), noting the frequency with which this IQ-delinquency relation­
ship has been found in research literature, addresses the consistently
lower average IQ score among black youth compared to white youth.
He attributes the differences in black and white delinquency rates to
differences in black and white IQ scores. Hirschi and Hindelang (1977)
show that the relationship between delinquency and IQ scores, while
not very strong, is at least as strong as that between delinquency and
social class.

The extent to which IQ scores reflect only native, organically deter­
mined intelligence is disputed. Hirschi and Hindelang (1977) argue that
the relationship between IQ and delinquency is an indirect one, in
which low intelligence negatively affects school performance and ad­
justment, which in turn increases the probability of delinquency. Gor­
don (1987) believes that IQ tests accurately tap an underlying “g” factor
of innate intelligence, which measures of school achievement simply
reflect.

Biological and Psychological Theories 43

Rather, they interact with and may be affected by the physical and social
environment. 3

As a rule, what is inherited is not a behavior; rather it is the way in
which an individual responds to the environment. It provides an orien­
tation, predisposition, or tendency to behave in a certain fashion ….
Findings of biological involvement in antisocial behavior have, in a few
studies, disclosed measurable abnormalities, but in a number of studies,
measurements do not reach pathologic levels. In other words … the
biological values do not necessarily exceed normal limits and would not
alarm a practicing physician.” (Fishbein, 1990:42 and 54)

Although he gives primacy to biological causes (especially brain function­
ing) and is skeptical over the importance of social factors, C. Ray Jeffery
(1977; 1979) proposes that criminal behavior results from the interaction
of biology, behavior, and the environment.

IQ, Mental Functioning, and Delinquency
The theory that delinquents are inherently feebleminded or suffer

disproportionately from “learning disabilities” has little empirical sup­
port (Murray, 1976). Childhood intelligence does not predict adolescent
delinquency very well. Parental discipline, family cohesion, religious
upbringing, and a child’s exposure to delinquent peers are more effec­
tive predictors (Glueck and Glueck, 1959; McCord and McCord, 1959).

Nevertheless, research has consistently found a weak to moderate
negative correlation between IQ (intelligence quotient) and delinquent
behavior, which does not diminish when class, race, and other factors
are controlled (Gordon, 1987). The higher the IQ score, the lower the
probability that the adolescent will commit delinquent acts. Gordon
(1987), noting the frequency with which this IQ-delinquency relation­
ship has been found in research literature, addresses the consistently
lower average IQ score among black youth compared to white youth.
He attributes the differences in black and white delinquency rates to
differences in black and white IQ scores. Hirschi and Hindelang (1977)
show that the relationship between delinquency and IQ scores, while
not very strong, is at least as strong as that between delinquency and
social class.

The extent to which IQ scores reflect only native, organically deter­
mined intelligence is disputed. Hirschi and Hindelang (1977) argue that
the relationship between IQ and delinquency is an indirect one, in
which low intelligence negatively affects school performance and ad­
justment, which in tum increases the probability of delinquency. Gor­
don (1987) believes that IQ tests accurately tap an underlying “g” factor
of innate intelligence, which measures of school achievement simply
reflect.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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44 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Racial differences in intelligence is a highly controversial and unset­
tled issue, and the evidence of significant differences in average delin­
quent behavior between black and white youth is inconsistent (see
Chapter 8). The notion of an IQ effect on delinquency is often rejected
because it has racist and undemocratic policy implications. However,
it is difficult to dismiss entirely the evidence of correlation (albeit one
of low magnitude) between IQ scores and delinquency, which does not
disappear when many other factors are controlled (Gordon, 1987). The
question is, what theory does this correlation support? Too often, it has
been concluded that the correlations demonstrate the impact of bio­
logical factors—a conclusion which holds true only if one begins with
the assumption that intelligence is biologically innate and has a direct
effect on delinquency. If one starts with the assumption that IQ is at
least partly the result of socialization and educational training, or that
it has an indirect impact on delinquency through school achievement
or the learning of delinquency, then the connection supports non-bio­
logical theories.

Terrie Moffitt and associates (Moffitt et al., 1994) have proposed a
neuropsychological model of male delinquency (arguing that it does
not apply to female delinquency) that goes beyond IQ to incorporate
other aspects of mental functioning, such as verbal ability, visual-motor
integration, and mental flexibility. Such factors are proposed as pre­
dictors only of early onset “life-course-persistent” antisocial behavior-
delinquencies that begin by age 13 and continue into later life stages.
They are not proposed as factors in “adolescence-limited” delin­
quency—onset or acceleration of delinquency after age 13 that does
not persist into adulthood (Moffitt, 1993). The researchers report some
support for the model for self-reported and official delinquency. But
the delinquency at ages 15 and 18 are consistently related only to verbal
ability and memory at age 13. None of the neuropsychological measures
at age 13 were strong predictors of later delinquency.

Testosterone and Criminal Aggressiveness
Several researchers have pointed to a connection between testoster­

one (male hormone) levels and anti-social and aggressive behavior
(Booth and Osgood, 1993). Since testosterone is a male hormone, one
would expect the theory and research to be concentrated on the role
that high levels of testosterone play in propensities toward male ag­
gression and violence. However, the relationship between testosterone
and a variety of other adolescent and adult behavior, such as sexual
behavior, substance use, smoking, and nonviolent crime, has also been
studied.

Research has found statistically significant relationships, but, except
for the unsurprising finding that testosterone level is associated with

44 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Racial differences in intelligence is a highly controversial and unset­
tled issue, and the evidence of significant differences in average delin­
quent behavior between black and white youth is inconsistent (see
Chapter 8). The notion of an IQ effect on delinquency is often rejected
because it has racist and undemocratic policy implications. However,
it is difficult to dismiss entirely the evidence of correlation (albeit one
of low magnitude) between IQ scores and delinquency, which does not
disappear when many other factors are controlled (Gordon, 1987). The
question is, what theory does this correlation support? Too often, it has
been concluded that the correlations demonstrate the impact of bio­
logical factors-a conclusion which holds true only if one begins with
the assumption that intelligence is biologically innate and has a direct
effect on delinquency. If one starts with the assumption that IQ is at
least partly the result of socialization and educational training, or that
it has an indirect impact on delinquency through school achievement
or the learning of delinquency, then the connection supports non-bio­
logical theories.

Terrie Moffitt and associates (Moffitt et al., 1994) have proposed a
neuropsychological model of male delinquency (arguing that it does
not apply to female delinquency) that goes beyond IQ to incorporate
other aspects of mental functioning, such as verbal ability, visual-motor
integration, and mental flexibility. Such factors are proposed as pre­
dictors only of early onset “life-course-persistent” antisocial behavior­
delinquencies that begin by age 13 and continue into later life stages.
They are not proposed as factors in “adolescence-limited” delin­
quency-onset or acceleration of delinquency after age 13 that does
not persist into adulthood (Moffitt, 1993). The researchers report some
support for the model for self-reported and official delinquency. But
the delinquency at ages 15 and 18 are consistently related only to verbal
ability and memory at age 13. None of the neuropsychological measures
at age 13 were strong predictors of later delinquency.

Testosterone and Criminal Aggressiveness
Several researchers have pointed to a connection between testoster­

one (male hormone) levels and anti-social and aggressive behavior
(Booth and Osgood, 1993). Since testosterone is a male hormone, one
would expect the theory and research to be concentrated on the role
that high levels of testosterone play in propensities toward male ag­
gression and violence. However, the relationship between testosterone
and a variety of other adolescent and adult behavior, such as sexual
behavior, substance use, smoking, and nonviolent crime, has also been
studied.

Research has found statistically significant relationships, but, except
for the unsurprising finding that testosterone level is associated with

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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.

45 Biological and Psychological Theories

increased sexual activity (Udry, 1988), the relationships appear to be
weak. No one has yet proposed a general theory of crime based on
testosterone. Nevertheless, the fact that the effects of testosterone level
has been tested on so many different types of deviance would indicate
that researchers are hypothesizing that higher levels of testosterone
create a general propensity to violate social and legal norms.

Booth and Osgood (1993) have presented a theory of adult male
deviance that relies on the indirect effects of testosterone levels, medi­
ated by the degree of social integration and prior adolescent delin­
quency. They were able to test this theory in part with a sample of
Vietnam War veterans, measuring testosterone levels in blood speci­
mens. Self-reported adult deviance (e.g., fighting, police arrests, and
passing bad checks) and previous adolescent delinquency were also
obtained from the veterans. Controlling for age and race, the re­
searchers found a relationship between testosterone and adult devi­
ance, but one which was reduced by introducing measures of social
integration and, even more so, by measures of prior delinquency.

Booth and Osgood conclude that “we have firm evidence that there
is a relationship between testosterone level and adult deviance. This
relationship is strong enough to be of substantive interest, but it is not
so strong that testosterone would qualify as the major determinant of
adult deviance” (Booth and Osgood, 1993). This seems to be a modest
conclusion, but it overstates the relationship found in their research.
In fact, the initial relationship between testosterone levels is extremely
weak (explaining close to zero percent of the variance in adult devi­
ance), and the relationship disappears when social integration and prior
delinquency are taken into account.

Mednick’s Theory of Inherited Criminal Tendencies
Of all the various biological explanations of crime, the best known

and most systematically stated and tested is the biosocial theory of
Sarnoff Mednick and his associates (Mednick and Christiansen, 1977;
MednickandShoham, 1979; Mednick etal., 1981; Mednick etal., 1987;
Mednick et al., 1984; Brennan et al., 1995). Mednicks theory proposes
that some genetic factor(s) is passed along from parent to offspring.
Criminal or delinquent behavior is not directly inherited, the theory
explains, nor does the genetic factor directly cause the behavior; rather,
one inherits a greater susceptibility to succumb to criminogenic envi­
ronments or to adapt to normal environments in a deviant way.

Mednick has hypothesized that the susceptible individual inherits
an autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is slower to be aroused or to
react to stimuli. Those who inherit slow arousal potential learn to con­
trol aggressive or anti-social behavior slowly or not at all. Thus, they
stand at greater risk of becoming law violators (Mednick, 1977).

Biological and Psychological Theories 45

increased sexual activity (Uchy, 1988), the relationships appear to be
weak. No one has yet proposed a general theory of crime based on
testosterone. Nevertheless, the fact that the effects of testosterone level
has been tested on so many different types of deviance would indicate
that researchers are hypothesizing that higher levels of testosterone
create a general propensity to violate social and legal norms.

Booth and Osgood (1993) have presented a theory of adult male
deviance that relies on the indirect effects of testosterone levels, medi­
ated by the degree of social integration and prior adolescent delin­
quency. They were able to test this theory in part with a sample of
Vietnam War veterans, measuring testosterone levels in blood speci­
mens. Self-reported adult deviance (e.g., fighting, police arrests, and
passing bad checks) and previous adolescent delinquency were also
obtained from the veterans. Controlling for age and race, the re­
searchers found a relationship between testosterone and adult devi­
ance, but one which was reduced by introducing measures of social
integration and, even more so, by measures of prior delinquency.

Booth and Osgood conclude that “we have firm evidence that there
is a relationship between testosterone level and adult deviance. This
relationship is strong enough to be of substantive interest, but it is not
so strong that testosterone would qualify as the major determinant of
adult deviance” (Booth and Osgood, 1993). This seems to be a modest
conclusion, but it overstates the relationship found in their research.
In fact, the initial relationship between testosterone levels is extremely
weak (explaining close to zero percent of the variance in adult devi­
ance), and the relationship disappears when social integration and prior
delinquency are taken into account.

Mednick’s Theory of Inherited Criminal Tendencies
Of all the various biological explanations of crime, the best known

and most systematically stated and tested is the biosocial theory of
Sarnoff Mednick and his associates (Mednick and Christiansen, 1977;
Mednick and Shoham, 1979; Mednick et al., 1981; Mednick et al., 1987;
Mednick et al., 1984; Brennan et al., 1995). Mednick’s theory proposes
that some genetic factor(s) is passed along from parent to offspring.
Criminal or delinquent behavior is not directly inherited, the theory
explains, nor does the genetic factor directly cause the behavior; rather,
one inherits a greater susceptibility to succumb to criminogenic envi­
ronments or to adapt to normal environments in a deviant way.

Mednick has hypothesized that the susceptible individual inherits
an autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is slower to be aroused or to
react to stimuli. Those who inherit slow arousal potentialleam to con­
trol aggressive or anti-social behavior slowly or not at all. Thus, they
stand at greater risk of becoming law violators (Mednick, 1977).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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46 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

[ANS responsiveness] may play a role in the social learning of law-
abiding behavior…. Briefly stated, this theory suggests that faster ANS
recovery (or half recovery) should be associated with greater reinforce­
ment and increased learning of the inhibition of antisocial tendencies.
Slow ANS recovery, on the other hand should be associated with poor
learning of the inhibition of antisocial responses. (Brennan et al.,
1995:84-85)

Hans J. Eysenck has also proposed a similar biosocial “arousal”
theory, in which the inherent differences in individuals’ levels of arousal
affect their conditioning by the social environment. Those with low
arousability are less likely to learn prosocial behavior and more likely
to learn criminal and deviant behavior patterns (Eysenck and Gudjons-
son, 1989).

Mednick and colleagues’ first study, conducted in Copenhagen, Den­
mark, linked the criminality of biological fathers with the subsequent
criminal behavior of their sons who had been adopted out and raised
by adoptive parents. They found the highest rates of officially recorded
criminal offenses among those sons whose biological and adoptive fa­
thers both had criminal records, and the lowest rates when neither had
criminal records. Those sons whose biological fathers had criminal
records, but whose adoptive fathers did not, were more likely to be
registered as criminals than those whose adoptive fathers, but not their
biological fathers, had criminal records (Hutchings and Mednick,
1977c).

Later, the same type of study was conducted on a larger sample of
adopted sons from all parts of Denmark. Mednick interpreted the find­
ings from this larger study as a replication and independent confirma­
tion of the findings from the Copenhagen study. The larger study
included the criminal background of both parents, biological and adop­
tive, and related that to the adoptees’ criminal convictions. Again, Med­
nick reports verification of the theory. He found that those with only
criminal biological parents were more likely than those with only crimi­
nal adoptive parents to have been convicted of offenses. The highest
rate of convictions were found among persons whose biological and
adoptive parents both had been convicted of crimes (Mednick et al.,
1984).

These Danish studies are the most famous and most frequently cited
in support of the heritability of criminal propensities. However,
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:47-63) have pointed to some serious
flaws in this research, which has since raised doubts as to how much
it actually validates the theory of inherited criminal potential. Here are
six points to consider:

(1) The differences between the criminality effects of biological and
adoptive fathers found in the Copenhagen study, while in the expected

46 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

[ANS responsiveness] may playa role in the social learning of Iaw­
abiding behavior …. Briefly stated, this theory suggests that faster ANS
recovery (or half recovery) should be associated with greater reinforce­
ment and increased learning of the inhibition of antisocial tendencies.
Slow ANS recovery, on the other hand should be associated with poor
learning of the inhibition of antisocial responses. (Brennan et aI.,
1995:84-85)

Hans J. Eysenck has also proposed a similar biosocial “arousal”
theory, in which the inherent differences in individuals’ levels of arousal
affect their conditioning by the social environment. Those with low
arousability are less likely to learn prosocial behavior and more likely
to learn criminal and deviant behavior patterns (Eysenck and Gudjons­
son, 1989).

Mednick and colleagues’ first study, conducted in Copenhagen, Den­
mark, linked the criminality of biological fathers with the subsequent
criminal behavior of their sons who had been adopted out and raised
by adoptive parents. They found the highest rates of officially recorded
criminal offenses among those sons whose biological and adoptive fa­
thers both had criminal records, and the lowest rates when neither had
criminal records. Those sons whose biological fathers had criminal
records, but whose adoptive fathers did not, were more likely to be
registered as criminals than those whose adoptive fathers, but not their
biological fathers, had criminal records (Hutchings and Mednick,
1977c).

Later, the same type of study was conducted on a larger sample of
adopted sons from all parts of Denmark. Mednick interpreted the find­
ings from this larger study as a replication and independent confirma­
tion of the findings from the Copenhagen study. The larger study
included the criminal background of both parents, biological and adop­
tive, and related that to the adoptees’ criminal convictions. Again, Med­
nick reports verification of the theory. He found that those with only
criminal biological parents were more likely than those with only crimi­
nal adoptive parents to have been convicted of offenses. The highest
rate of convictions were found among persons whose biological and
adoptive parents both had been convicted of crimes (Mednick et aI.,
1984).

These Danish studies are the most famous and most frequently cited
in support of the heritability of criminal propensities. However,
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:47-63) have pointed to some serious
flaws in this research, which has since raised doubts as to how much
it actually validates the theory of inherited criminal potential. Here are
six points to consider:

(1) The differences between the criminality effects of biological and
adoptive fathers found in the Copenhagen study, while in the expected

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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47 Biological and Psychological Theories

direction, were not statistically significant. Therefore, while not dis­
continuing the theory, such findings cannot be taken as evidence in
favor of the theory.

(2) The larger Denmark study shifted from fathers’ criminality ex­
clusively to the criminal record of the parents (either the mother, father,
or both). Since different measures of the independent variable were
used, the second study really did not replicate the first study as Mednick
claims.

(3) When considered separately in the second study, the effect of
biological mothers’ criminality was stronger than the effects of fathers’
criminality. The finding that criminality may be more maternally than
paternally inherited seems uncharacteristic in light of the fact that men
are far more criminally inclined than women. If crime is inherited, why
would it be inherited from the gender with a significantly lower rate of
criminal behavior?

(4) Mednick incorporated all of the same subjects from Copenhagen
into the larger sample from Denmark. This is inappropriate in a repli­
cation study, since it contaminates the independence of replicated find­
ings.

(5) The effects of the criminality of biological parents found in the
Denmark study, while statistically significant because of the larger sam­
ple size, were actually less than the effects found in the Copenhagen
study. The percentage difference in the criminality of adoptive sons
with or without criminality in biological parents was very small, even
though it was somewhat more than the differences between those with
or without criminality in adoptive parents.

(6) When Gottfredson and Hirschi subsequently removed the Copen­
hagen sample (to eliminate the sample contamination) and analyzed
data only from the larger Denmark sample, they found no significant
relationship between the criminality of sons and biological parents.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) also show that Swedish and Ameri­
can adoption research purporting to duplicate Mednick’s findings has
in fact found very small, insignificant differences in the criminality of
offspring that could be attributed to inherited traits. They estimate that
the correlation between biological fathers’ and sons’ criminality is
about r=.03 and conclude that “the magnitude of the ‘genetic effect’ as
determined by adoption studies is near zero” (Gottfredson and Hirschi,
1990:60).

Another approach to testing biosocial theory is to study the behavior
of twins. A central concept in twin research is known as “concordance.”
Concordance is a quantitative measure of the degree to which the ob­
served behavior or attribute of one twin (or sibling) matches that of the
other. Most studies of identical and fraternal twins, both those raised
in the same family and those separated by adoption, have found higher

Biological and Psychological Theories 47

direction, were not statistically significant. Therefore, while not dis­
confirming the theory, such findings cannot be taken as evidence in
favor of the theory.

(2) The larger Denmark study shifted from fathers’ criminality ex­
clusively to the criminal record of the parents (either the mother, father,
or both). Since different measures of the independent variable were
used, the second study really did not replicate the first study as Mednick
claims.

(3) When considered separately in the second study, the effect of
biological mothers’ criminality was stronger than the effects of fathers’
criminality. The finding that criminality may be more maternally than
paternally inherited seems uncharacteristic in light of the fact that men
are far more criminally inclined than women. If crime is inherited, why
would it be inherited from the gender with a significandy lower rate of
criminal behavior?

(4) Mednick incorporated all of the same subjects from Copenhagen
into the larger sample from Denmark. This is inappropriate in a repli­
cation study, since it contaminates the independence of replicated find­
ings.

(5) The effects of the criminality of biological parents found in the
Denmark study, while statistically significant because of the larger sam­
ple size, were actually less than the effects found in the Copenhagen
study. The percentage difference in the criminality of adoptive sons
with or without criminality in biological parents was very small, even
though it was somewhat more than the differences between those with
or without criminality in adoptive parents.

(6) When Gottfredson and Hirschi subsequently removed the Copen­
hagen sample (to eliminate the sample contamination) and analyzed
data only from the larger Denmark sample, they found no significant
relationship between the criminality of sons and biological parents.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) also show that Swedish and Ameri­
can adoption research purporting to duplicate Mednick’s findings has
in fact found very small, insignificant differences in the criminality of
offspring that could be attributed to inherited traits. They estimate that
the correlation between biological fathers’ and sons’ criminality is
about r=.03 and conclude that “the magnitude of the ‘genetic effect’ as
determined by adoption studies is near zero” (Gottfredson and Hirschi,
1990:60).

Another approach to testing biosocial theory is to study the behavior
of twins. A central concept in twin research is known as “concordance.”
Concordance is a quantitative measure of the degree to which the ob­
served behavior or attribute of one twin (or sibling) matches that of the
other. Most studies of identical and fraternal twins, both those raised
in the same family and those separated by adoption, have found higher

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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48 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

concordance between the criminal and non-criminal behavior of iden­
tical twins than between fraternal twins. But these studies have not
been successful in showing how much of this concordance is based
solely on biological as opposed to social similarities (Hutchings and
Mednick, 1977a; 1977b).

Based on findings from a mailed questionnaire study of twins, Rowe
(1984; 1986) concluded that individual differences in self-reported de­
linquency were more the result of genetic factors than common or
specific environmental factors. However, by adjusting for mutual sib­
ling influence, he later reduced the estimates of the effect of heritability
on delinquency from about two-thirds of the differences in delinquent
behavior to about one-third (Rowe and Gulley, 1992). Also, in a later
analysis of the same data into which he included specific measures of
family variables, Rowe concluded that delinquency is best explained
by the combined effects of heredity and family environment. Similarly,
Carey (1992) found in a study of Danish identical and fraternal twins
that when the imitation and other peer effects of sibling interaction are
taken into account, the amount of variance attributed to genetic simi­
larity is considerably reduced.

The traditional models suggest a strong heritability: the genotype
contributes to between 57 percent and 71 percent of the variance in
[delinquency] liability. The model that permits peer influence suggests
more modest estimates of heritability, in one case actually approaching
0.0. (Carey, 1992:21)

In the twin studies, the biological and social variables are seldom
measured directly.4 In the studies of adoptees, similarly biological vari­
ables are indirectly measured by the degree of behavioral similarities
between biological parent(s) and offspring when the biological par­
ents) does not raise the child. Social variables are assumed to be op­
erative when similarities are found in the behavior of adoptive parents
and adoptees. Concordance in the behavior of twins reared apart is
attributed to biological factors on the assumption that their social en­
vironments differ. Children reared together are assumed to have had
similar social environments.

Empirical Validity of Biological
Theories of Criminal Behavior
As shown above, modern biological explanations of crime have far

surpassed the early biological theories of Lombroso, Goring, Hooten,
and others. This is partly the result of greater theoretical sophistication,
less reliance on immutable biological defects or destiny, and greater
attention to interaction with social and psychological variables. It is

48 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

concordance between the criminal and non-criminal behavior of iden­
tical twins than between fraternal twins. But these studies have not
been successful in showing how much of this concordance is based
solely on biological as opposed to social similarities (Hutchings and
Mednick, 1977a; 1977b).

Based on findings from a mailed questionnaire study of twins, Rowe
(1984; 1986) concluded that individual differences in self-reported de­
linquency were more the result of genetic factors than common or
specific environmental factors. However, by adjusting for mutual sib­
ling influence, he later reduced the estimates of the effect of heritability
on delinquency from about two-thirds of the differences in delinquent
behavior to about one-third (Rowe and Gulley, 1992). Also, in a later
analysis of the same data into which he included specific measures of
family variables, Rowe concluded that delinquency is best explained
by the combined effects of heredity and family environment. Similarly,
Carey (1992) found in a study of Danish identical and fraternal twins
that when the imitation and other peer effects of sibling interaction are
taken into account, the amount of variance attributed to genetic simi­
larity is considerably reduced.

The traditional models suggest a strong heritability: the genotype
contributes to between 57 percent and 71 percent of the variance in
[delinquency] liability. The model that permits peer influence suggests
more modest estimates of heritability, in one case actually approaching
0.0. (Carey, 1992:21)

In the twin studies, the biological and social variables are seldom
measured directly.4 In the studies of adoptees, similarly biological vari­
ables are indirectly measured by the degree of behavioral similarities
between biological parent(s) and offspring when the biological par­
ent(s) does not raise the child. Social variables are assumed to be op­
erative when similarities are found in the behavior of adoptive parents
and adoptees. Concordance in the behavior of twins reared apart is
attributed to biological factors on the assumption that their social en­
vironments differ. Children reared together are assumed to have had
similar social environments.

Empirical Validity of Biological
Theories of Criminal Behavior
As shown above, modem biological explanations of crime have far

surpassed the early biological theories of Lombroso, Goring, Hooten,
and others. This is partly the result of greater theoretical sophistication,
less reliance on immutable biological defects or destiny, and greater
attention to interaction with social and psychological variables. It is

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

C
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49 Biological and Psychological Theories

also partly the result of more sophisticated methodology in biological
studies and an expanded knowledge of neurological, hormonal, and
other bodily systems.

Nevertheless, such research has not yet established the empirical
validity of biological theories. Tests of the theories continue to have
problems with methodology, sampling, and measurement (Fishbein,
1990). Walters and White (1989) came to a similar conclusion based
on their own extensive review of research on the heritability of criminal
behavior. They considered studies using four basic approaches: family
studies, twin studies, adoption studies, and gene-environment interac­
tion studies. Their review found that biological research on crime suf­
fers from several methodological deficiencies, including the
measurement of criminality, sample size, sampling bias, statistical pro­
cedures, and generalizability. Walters and White believed that genetic
factors are correlated with some measures of criminal behavior, but
they warned that:

[T]he large number of methodological flaws and limitations in the
research should make one cautious in drawing any causal inferences at
this point in time. Our review leads us to the inevitable conclusion that
current genetic research on crime has been poorly designed, ambigu­
ously reported, and exceedingly inadequate in addressing the relevant
issues. (Walters and White, 1989:478)

Walters (1992) followed this up with a statistical “meta-analysis,”
i.e., the re-calculation of different measures of effect reported from
different studies into a standard measure of effect that can be compared
across studies. He found that the correlations reported from different
studies were often statistically significant and usually in the expected
direction. But the average overall effect of heredity on crime found in
these studies was weak. The more recently and rigorously studies are
conducted, the more likely they are to find the weaker effects of genetic
factors on crime than did the older and more poorly designed studies.
The strongest methodology, used in adoption studies, produces findings
less favorable to the hypothesis of a genetic effect in crime than the
weaker methodology in family and twin studies.

Thus far, newer biological explanations have garnered mixed and
generally weak empirical support. Biological theories that posit crime-
specific genetic or physiological defects have not been, and are not
likely to be, accepted as sound explanations in criminology. The greater
the extent to which a biological theory proposes to relate normal physi­
ological and sensory processes to social and environmental variables
in explaining criminal behavior, the more likely it will be empirically
supported and accepted in criminology.

Biological and Psychological Theories 49

also partly the result of more sophisticated methodology in biological
studies and an expanded knowledge of neurological, hormonal, and
other bodily systems.

Nevertheless, such research has not yet established the empirical
validity of biological theories. Tests of the theories continue to have
problems with methodology, sampling, and measurement (Fishbein,
1990). Walters and White (1989) came to a similar conclusion based
on their own extensive review of research on the heritability of criminal
behavior. They considered studies using four basic approaches: family
studies, twin studies, adoption studies, and gene-environment interac­
tion studies. Their review found that biological research on crime suf­
fers from several methodological deficiencies, including the
measurement of criminality, sample size, sampling bias, statistical pro­
cedures, and generalizability. Walters and White believed that genetic
factors are correlated with some measures of criminal behavior, but
they warned that:

[T]he large number of methodological flaws and limitations in the
research should make one cautious in drawing any causal inferences at
this point in time. Our review leads us to the inevitable conclusion that
current genetic research on crime has been poorly designed, ambigu­
ously reported, and exceedingly inadequate in addressing the relevant
issues. (Walters and White, 1989:478)

Walters (1992) followed this up with a statistical “meta-analysis,”
i.e., the re-calculation of different measures of effect reported from
different studies into a standard measure of effect that can be compared
across studies. He found that the correlations reported from different
studies were often statistically significant and usually in the expected
direction. But the average overall effect of heredity on crime found in
these studies was weak. The more recently and rigorously studies are”
conducted, the more likely they are to find the weaker effects of genetic
factors on crime than did the older and more poorly designed studies.
The strongest methodology, used in adoption studies, produces findings
less favorable to the hypothesis of a genetic effect in crime than the
weaker methodology in family and twin studies.

Thus far, newer biological explanations have garnered mixed and
generally weak empirical support. Biological theories that posit crime­
specific genetic or physiological defects have not been, and are not
likely to be, accepted as sound explanations in criminology. The greater
the extent to which a biological theory proposes to relate normal physi­
ological and sensory processes to social and environmental variables
in explaining criminal behavior, the more likely it will be empirically
supported and accepted in criminology.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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50 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Rowe and Osgood (1984) argue that the operation of genetic factors
between an individual’s delinquent behavior and the delinquency of his
or her friends can be integrated into current sociological theories of
delinquency. Their stance is not that delinquency is the direct or inevi­
table outcome of genetic differences. Rather, they propose that “causal
sequences leading to delinquency are traceable to individual differences
in genes, so any social causation entails either individual differences
in reactions to social processes or differential social reactions to already
differing individuals” (Rowe and Osgood, 1984:526).

There is little to disagree with in the assertion that biology interacts
with the environment. The real question involves the nature of that
interaction and the extent to which crime is influenced by biology or
environment. If a theory proposes that biological defects or abnormali­
ties are the direct cause of all or most criminal behavior, it is not likely
to be supported by empirical evidence. It is also less likely to be sup­
ported if it contends that individual biological factors better explain
the full range of crime and delinquency in general than do social or
social-psychological factors.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalytic theory shares with biological theory the search for
causes of crime within the makeup of the individual. Rather than seek
for the causes in biological processes or anomalies, it attempts to look
deep into the mind of the individual. According to Kate Friedlander
(1947), classical Freudian psychoanalytic explanations of delinquency
focus on abnormalities or disturbances in the individuals emotional
development from early childhood. The id is the unconscious seat of
irrational, antisocial, and instinctual impulses which must be control­
led and shaped for social adaptation to life in society. This is done
through the development of the ego, or the conscious and rational part
of the mind, and through the superego, or the conscience and moral­
izing part of the mind. Normally, a child’s emotional maturation goes
through developmental stages, each of which is rooted in sexuality: an
oral phase as an infant, an anal phase up to about age three, a phallic
phase up to about age five, a latency phase up to the time of puberty,
then finally a mature genital phase of development as an adult.

The id is uncontrolled, until the development of the ego gains control
over the instincts at about age three. At the beginning of the phallic
stage, the child wants to possess the parent of the opposite sex and
perceives the same-sex parent as a rival for the affection of the other
parent. These feelings are repressed, and an Oedipus complex (the
unconscious love of the mother and hatred/fear of the father by the
boy) or an Electra complex (the love of the father and hatred/fear of

50 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Rowe and Osgood (1984) argue that the operation of genetic factors
between an individual’s delinquent behavior and the delinquency of his
or her friends can be integrated into current sociological theories of
delinquency. Their stance is not that delinquency is the direct or inevi­
table outcome of genetic differences. Rather, they propose that “causal
sequences leading to delinquency are traceable to individual differences
in genes, so any social causation entails either individual differences
in reactions to social processes or differential social reactions to already
differing individuals” (Rowe and Osgood, 1984:526).

There is little to disagree with in the assertion that biology interacts
with the environment. The real question involves the nature of that
interaction and the extent to which crime is influenced by biology or
environment. If a theory proposes that biological defects or abnormali­
ties are the direct cause of all or most criminal behavior, it is not likely
to be supported by empirical evidence. It is also less likely to be sup­
ported if it contends that individual biological factors better explain
the full range of crime and delinquency in general than do social or
social-psychological factors.

Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalytic theory shares with biological theory the search for
causes of crime within the makeup of the individual. Rather than seek
for the causes in biological processes or anomalies, it attempts to look
deep into the mind of the individual. According to Kate Friedlander
(1947), classical Freudian psychoanalytic explanations of delinquency
focus on abnormalities or disturbances in the individual’s emotional
development from early childhood. The id is the unconscious seat of
irrational, antisocial, and instinctual impulses which must be control­
led and shaped for social adaptation to life in society. This is done
through the development of the ego, or the conscious and rational part
of the mind, and through the superego, or the conscience and moral­
izing part of the mind. Normally, a child’s emotional maturation goes
through developmental stages, each of which is rooted in sexuality: an
oral phase as an infant, an anal phase up to about age three, a phallic
phase up to about age five, a latency phase up to the time of puberty,
then finally a mature genital phase of development as an adult.

The id is uncontrolled, until the development of the ego gains control
over the instincts at about age three. At the beginning of the phallic
stage, the child wants to possess the parent of the opposite sex and
perceives the same-sex parent as a rival for the affection of the other
parent. These feelings are repressed, and an Oedipus complex (the
unconscious love of the mother and hatred/fear of the father by the
boy) or an Electra complex (the love of the father and hatred/fear of

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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51 Biological and Psychological Theories

the mother by the girl) develops. The superego evolves by identifying
with the same-sex parent and internalizing parental control; hence, the
child gives up the desire to possess the opposite-sex parent. Any abnor­
mal development during these stages, or any fixation at an infantile or
childhood stage, leads to antisocial behavior by adolescence as the
individual struggles with the unconscious guilt and pathology of this
arrested development.

The basic premise of the psychoanalytic approach to crime is that
delinquent or criminal behavior is in itself unimportant. It is only a
symptom of the psychic conflict between the id, ego, and superego,
arising from abnormal maturation or control of instincts, a poor early
relationship with the mother or father, fixation at a stage of emotional
development, and/or repressed sexuality or guilt. The most critical fixa­
tion is at the Oedipus/Electra stage. The adolescent is not consciously
aware of these conflicts, because they all trace back to early childhood,
the conscious memories of which are blocked by “infantile amnesia.”
Repressed guilt and conflict continue to be the “true” causes of delin­
quency, although other more visible factors may seem to be operating.

Other Freudian or neo-Freudian explanations of crime and delin­
quency emphasize the underdevelopment or disrupted development of
the superego, due to the absence of parents or the presence of cruel,
unloving parents. Some theorists stress that not only are the criminal
acts themselves expressions of unresolved guilt, but criminals uncon­
sciously seek to be caught and punished to expatiate this repressed
guilt. Whatever the specific mechanism, psychoanalytic explanations
rely heavily on irrational and unconscious motivations as the basic
forces behind crime. In psychoanalytical theory, all criminal behavior
is explained as expressions or symptoms of one or more underlying
mental illnesses, emotional disorders, or psychic disturbances. Not only
law violations but also various other types of deviant behavior, such as
drug and alcohol abuse, are seen as dysfunctional attempts to deal with
repressed guilt, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, pent up ag­
gression, or other unresolved unconscious and emotional turmoil. Both
adolescent delinquency and adult crime are believed to stem essentially
from these irrational impulses or compulsions. Early childhood events
are often seen as crucial, while current or anticipated environmental
and social events are seen as irrelevant or important only as triggering
events for the dysfunctional behavior.5

The treatment and policy implications of psychanalytic theory are
direct and obvious. Criminal and delinquent offenders should be treated
not as evil but as sick persons who are not basically responsible for
their actions in any rational or controllable sense. Therefore, punish­
ment of offenders wil l be ineffective and will only provoke more guilt
and unhealthy psychological reactions.

Biological and Psychological Theories 51

the mother by the girl) develops. The superego evolves by identifying
with the same-sex parent and internalizing parental control; hence, the
child gives up the desire to possess the opposite-sex parent. Anyabnor­
mal development during these stages, or any fixation at an infantile or
childhood stage, leads to antisocial behavior by adolescence as the
individual struggles with the unconscious guilt and pathology of this
arrested development.

The basic premise of the psychoanalytic approach to crime is that
delinquent or criminal behavior is in itself unimportant. It is only a
symptom of the psychic conflict between the id, ego, and superego,
arising from abnormal maturation or control of instincts, a poor early
relationship with the mother or father, fixation at a stage of emotional
development, and/or repressed sexuality or guilt. The most critical fixa­
tion is at the Oedipus/Electra stage. The adolescent is not consciously
aware of these conflicts, because they all trace back to early childhood,
the conscious memories of which are blocked by “infantile amnesia.”
Repressed guilt and conflict continue to be the “true” causes of delin­
quency, although other more visible factors may seem to be operating.

Other Freudian or neo-Freudian explanations of crime and delin­
quency emphasize the underdevelopment or disrupted development of
the superego, due to the absence of parents or the presence of cruel,
unloving parents. Some theorists stress that not only are the criminal
acts themselves expressions of unresolved guilt, but criminals uncon­
sciously seek to be caught and punished to expatiate this repressed
guilt. Whatever the specific mechanism, psychoanalytic explanations
rely heavily on irrational and unconscious motivations as the basic
forces behind crime. In psychoanalytical theory, all criminal behavior
is explained as expressions or symptoms of one or more underlying
mental illnesses, emotional disorders, or psychic disturbances. Not only
law violations but also various other types of deviant behavior, such as
drug and alcohol abuse, are seen as dysfunctional attempts to deal with
repressed guilt, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, pent up ag­
gression, or other unresolved unconscious and emotional turmoil. Both
adolescent delinquency and adult crime are believed to stem essentially
from these irrational impulses or compulsions. Early childhood events
are often seen as crucial, while current or anticipated environmental
and social events are seen as irrelevant or important only as triggering
events for the dysfunctional behavior. 5

The treatment and policy implications of psychanalytic theory are
direct and obvious. Criminal and delinquent offenders should be treated
not as evil but as sick persons who are not basically responsible for
their actions in any rational or controllable sense. Therefore, punish­
ment of offenders will be ineffective and will only provoke more guilt
and unhealthy psychological reactions.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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52 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Delinquents and criminals, the theory contends, need treatment for
underlying emotional disturbances. Cure that problem, and the prob­
lem of crime will be remedied. Any attempt to deal only with the symp­
tom, the behavior, or the pent-up emotions of the offender wil l only
result in the substitution of another deviant symptom to express itself.
The criminal must undergo psychoanalytic treatment to help him or
her uncover the hidden, repressed causes of the behavior, which can
then be dealt with effectively by the ego and superego. Since the real
causes of the behavior lie hidden in the unconscious, the objective is
to reveal to the person’s conscious mind the deep-seated unconscious
motivations that are driving his or her deviant behavior. Once these are
brought out into the open, they can be handled more rationally and
resolved in a healthy way. Intensive, individual, in-depth therapeutic
sessions are the ideal course to take, although other less intensive treat­
ment is possible.

The empirical validity of psychoanalytic explanations of crime, upon
which these treatment policies rest, is difficult to assess. The language
used is often strongly deterministic, claiming unequivocal empirical
support for a psychiatric explanation of individual cases as the outcome
of mental disorder. Flora Schreiber (1984) conducted interviews with
Joseph Kallinger, a shoemaker who, along with his teenage son, com­
mitted a series of burglaries and robberies and three murders. Schreiber
reaches firm cause-and-effect conclusions about the connection be­
tween the elder Kallinger’s criminal behavior and what she diagnoses
as his psychosis caused by the psychological and physical abuse of him
as a child by his adoptive parents. She concentrates especially on the
time when Joseph was four years old and his parents told him that the
hernia operation he had was really done to remove the demon from his
penis. According to Schreiber, this and other statements made to the
young boy about his penis produced “psychological castration” in
Joseph. This was the primary cause of Kallinger’s psychosis, which in
his adult life “drives him to ki l l .”

Joseph Kallinger would never have become a killer without his psy­
chosis. With it he had no other course. . . . [M]urder was the inevitable
outcome of Kallinger’s psychosis…. [H]e had become psychotic before
he committed a single crime. . . . [T]he crimes sprang directly from the
psychosis: from the delusional system and the hallucinations the psy­
chosis had spawned. . . . One can, however, establish a cause and effect
relationship between Joe Kallinger’s murders and the psychological
abuse of him as a child. (Kallinger, 1984:17, 390, 394)

Psychiatric studies rely heavily on clinical and case studies such as
this, producing widely varying estimates of the proportions of offenders
who have some diagnosable mental disorder or psychiatric problem.

52 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Delinquents and criminals, the theory contends, need treatment for
underlying emotional disturbances. Cure that problem, and the prob­
lem of crime will be remedied. Any attempt to deal only with the symp­
tom, the behavior, or the pent-up emotions of the offender will only
result in the substitution of another deviant symptom to express itself.
The criminal must undergo psychoanalytic treatment to help him or
her uncover the hidden, repressed causes of the behavior, which can
then be dealt with effectively by the ego and superego. Since the real
causes of the behavior lie hidden in the unconscious, the objective is
to reveal to the person’s conscious mind the deep-seated unconscious
motivations that are driving his or her deviant behavior. Once these are
brought out into the open, they can be handled more rationally and
resolved in a healthy way. Intensive, individual, in-depth therapeutic
sessions are the ideal course to take, although other less intensive treat­
ment is possible.

The empirical validity of psychoanalytic explanations of crime, upon
which these treatment policies rest, is difficult to assess. The language
used is often strongly deterministic, claiming unequivocal empirical
support for a psychiatric explanation of individual cases as the outcome
of mental disorder. Flora Schreiber (1984) conducted interviews with
Joseph Kallinger, a shoemaker who, along with his teenage son, com­
mitted a series of burglaries and robberies and three murders. Schreiber
reaches firm cause-and-effect conclusions about the connection be­
tween the elder Kallinger’s criminal behavior and what she diagnoses
as his psychosis caused by the psychological and physical abuse of him
as a child by his adoptive parents. She concentrates especially on the
time when Joseph was four years old and his parents told him that the
hernia operation he had was really done to remove the demon from his
penis. According to Schreiber, this and other statements made to the
young boy about his penis produced “psychological castration” in
Joseph. This was the primary cause of Kallinger’s psychosis, which in
his adult life “drives him to kill.”

Joseph Kallinger would never have become a killer without his psy­
chosis. With it he had no other course …. [M]urder was the inevitable
outcome of Kallinger’s psychosis …. [H]e had become psychotic before
he committed a single crime …. [T]he crimes sprang directly from the
psychosis: from the delusional system and the hallucinations the psy­
chosis had spawned …. One can, however, establish a cause and effect
relationship between Joe Kallinger’s murders and the psychological
abuse of him as a child. (Kallinger, 1984:17,390,394)

Psychiatric studies rely heavily on clinical and case studies such as
this, producing widely varying estimates of the proportions of offenders
who have some diagnosable mental disorder or psychiatric problem.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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53 Biological and Psychological Theories

Such studies concentrate on individual cases or on small samples of
the most serious offenders. Unfortunately, there are very few compari­
sons with samples of the general population or other offenders (Pallone
and Hennessey, 1992).

Moreover, there may be no way to test psychoanalytic theory directly,
because the motivations are deeply hidden in the unconscious, un­
known even to the offender. Therefore, it is only the interpretation of
the therapist that determines when the independent variables of un­
conscious urges and impulses are present. Psychoanalytic interpreta­
tions, therefore, tend to be after the fact, tautological, and untestable
(Shoham and Seis, 1993). Typically, the “psychopathic deviation” as­
sumed to be the cause of criminal behavior is determined by clinical
judgment, in which ” ‘habitual criminality’ itself is a principal criterion
for such a diagnosis.” This procedure produces “a tautology of impres­
sive proportions” (Pallone and Hennessy, 1992:56 and 165). Various
techniques of clinical measures, such as “projective” tests, are some­
times used to add to clinical judgment. But “both the paucity of studies
and the instability of the interpretations preclude any valid generaliza­
tions based on projective test data” (Pallone and Hennessy, 1992:168).

Personality Theory

Personality theories share with the psychoanalytic approach the as­
sumption that offending behavior is important only as a symptom of
an underlying problem within the individual. The implications for pol­
icy and practice based on individualized therapy are also similar. Treat­
ment, not punishment, is needed, preferably intensive individual
counseling. These policy and practice implications have been widely
adopted in the criminal and juvenile justice system. Virtually every
residential and non-residential delinquency and crime prevention, cor­
rectional, and treatment program in the includes some form of indi­
vidual counseling guided by the psychological theories of emotional
maladjustment.

In personality theory, the problem lies not in unconscious motiva­
tion, but in the content of the person s personality. The basic proposition
here is that delinquents and criminals have abnormal, inadequate, or
specifically criminal personalities or personality traits that differentiate
them from law-abiding people.

One version of personality theory explains criminal and delinquent
behavior as an expression of such deviant personality traits as impul­
siveness, aggressiveness, sensation-seeking, rebelliousness, hostility,
and so on. Another version claims that criminal and delinquent offend­
ers differ from law-abiding persons in basic personality type. Conform­
ity reflects normal personality. Serious criminal violations spring from

Biological and Psychological Theories 53

Such studies concentrate on individual cases or on small samples of
the most serious offenders. Unfortunately, there are very few compari­
sons with samples of the general population or other offenders (Pallone
and Hennessey, 1992).

Moreover, there may be no way to test psychoanalytic theory directly,
because the motivations are deeply hidden in the unconscious, un­
known even to the offender. Therefore, it is only the interpretation of
the therapist that determines when the independent variables of un­
conscious urges and impulses are present. Psychoanalytic interpreta­
tions, therefore, tend to be after the fact, tautological, and untestable
(Shoham and Seis, 1993). Typically, the “psychopathic deviation” as­
sumed to be the cause of criminal behavior is determined by clinical
judgment, in which” ‘habitual criminality’ itself is a principal criterion
for such a diagnosis.” This procedure produces “a tautology of impres­
sive proportions” (Pallone and Hennessy, 1992:56 and 165). Various
techniques of clinical measures, such as “projective” tests, are some­
times used to add to clinical judgment. But “both the paucity of studies
and the instability of the interpretations preclude any valid generaliza­
tions based on projective test data” (Pallone and Hennessy, 1992:168).

Personality Theory

Personality theories share with the psychoanalytic approach the as­
sumption that offending behavior is important only as a symptom of
an underlying problem within the individual. The implications for pol­
icy and practice based on individualized therapy are also similar. Treat­
ment, not punishment, is needed, preferably intensive individual
counseling. These policy and practice implications have been widely
adopted in the criminal and juvenile justice system. Virtually every
residential and non-residential delinquency and crime prevention, cor­
rectional, and treatment program in the includes some form of indi­
vidual counseling guided by the psychological theories of emotional
maladjustment.

In personality theory, the problem lies not in unconscious motiva­
tion, but in the content ofthe person’s personality. The basic proposition
here is that delinquents and criminals have abnormal, inadequate, or
specifically criminal personalities or personality traits that differentiate
them from law-abiding people.

One version of personality theory explains criminal and delinquent
behavior as an expression of such deviant personality traits as impul­
siveness, aggressiveness, sensation-seeking, rebelliousness, hostility,
and so on. Another version claims that criminal and delinquent offend­
ers differ from law-abiding persons in basic personality type. Conform­
ity reflects normal personality. Serious criminal violations spring from

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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54 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

an aberrant personality, variously labelled a psychopathic, antisocial,
or sociopathic personality. These are vague concepts, but the psycho­
path is usually defined as a self-centered person who has not been
properly socialized into pro-social attitudes and values, who has devel­
oped no sense of right and wrong, who has no empathy with others,
and who is incapable of feeling remorse or guilt for misconduct or harm
to others.

Personality theories have been empirically tested with more rigorous
methodology than psychoanalytic theories. The most common tech­
nique is to measure personality traits with a written personality inven­
tory and compare mean responses on the inventory from adjudicated
delinquents with mean responses from non-delinquents. The most com­
monly used personality tests are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
Inventory (MMPI) and the California Psychological Inventory (CPI).
The CPI is intended to measure variations in personality traits, such as
dominance, tolerance, and sociability. The M M P I uses several scales to
measure “abnormal” personality traits, such as depression, hysteria,
paranoia, psychopathology, introversion/extroversion, and compul-
siveness (Hathaway and Meehl, 1951).

The M M P I was originally designed by Starke Hathaway (1939) for
the purpose of detecting deviant personality patterns in mentally i l l
adults. Using it to predict delinquency is based on the assumption that
delinquency is symptomatic of mental illness similar to adult patterns
of maladaptive behavior (Hathaway and Monachesi, 1953). Research
has found that institutionalized delinquents score higher on the scales
of asocial, amoral, and psychopathic behavior, while non-delinquents
tend to be more introverted. However, attempts at predicting future
delinquency from M M P I measures have only been partially successful.
The strongest predictive scale from the MMPI, the “F Scale,” does not
measure any personality trait at all. Rather, it records any inconsistent
or careless responses to the questions on the M M P I or any poor reading
ability in completing the questionnaire (Hathaway and Monachesi,
1963).

Other research findings on the causative effects of personality traits
on criminal and delinquent behavior are inconsistent. A review of such
studies at mid-century concluded that only a minority of them found
significant differences in personality between delinquents and non-de­
linquents (Schuessler and Cressey 1950). However, a subsequent review
reported that a majority of the more carefully conducted studies found
significant differences (Waldo and Dinitz, 1967), and studies continue
to find correlations of personality traits with self-report and other meas­
ures of delinquency and crime (Caspi et al., 1994). Other current analy­
ses, on the other hand, have reported mixed findings in the research

54 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

an aberrant personality, variously labelled a psychopathic, antisocial,
or sociopathic personality. These are vague concepts, but the psycho­
path is usually defined as a self-centered person who has not been
properly socialized into pro-social attitudes and values, who has devel­
oped no sense of right and wrong, who has no empathy with others,
and who is incapable of feeling remorse or guilt for misconduct or harm
to others.

Personality theories have been empirically tested with more rigorous
methodology than psychoanalytic theories. The most common tech­
nique is to measure personality traits with a written personality inven­
tory and compare mean responses on the inventory from adjudicated
delinquents with mean responses from non-delinquents. The most com­
monly used personality tests are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
Inventory (MMPI) and the California Psychological Inventory (CPI).
The CPI is intended to measure variations in personality traits, such as
dominance, tolerance, and sociability. The MMPI uses several scales to
measure “abnormal” personality traits, such as depression, hysteria,
paranoia, psychopathology, introversion/extroversion, and compul­
siveness (Hathaway and Meehl, 1951).

The MMPI was originally designed by Starke Hathaway (1939) for
the purpose of detecting deviant personality patterns in mentally ill
adults. Using it to predict delinquency is based on the assumption that
delinquency is symptomatic of mental illness similar to adult patterns
of maladaptive behavior (Hathaway and Monachesi, 1953). Research
has found that institutionalized delinquents score higher on the scales
of asocial, amoral, and psychopathic behavior, while non-delinquents
tend to be more introverted. However, attempts at predicting future
delinquency from MMPI measures have only been partially successful.
The strongest predictive scale from the MMPI, the “F Scale,” does not
measure any personality trait at all. Rather, it records any inconsistent
or careless responses to the questions on the MMPI or any poor reading
ability in completing the questionnaire (Hathaway and Monachesi,
1963).

Other research findings on the causative effects of personality traits
on criminal and delinquent behavior are inconsistent. A review of such
studies at mid-century concluded that only a minority of them found
significant differences in personality between delinquents and non-de­
linquents (Schuessler and Cressey, 1950). However, a subsequent review
reported that a majority of the more carefully conducted studies found
significant differences (Waldo and Dinitz, 1967), and studies continue
to find correlations of personality traits with self-report and other meas­
ures of delinquency and crime (Caspi et al., 1994). Other current analy­
ses, on the other hand, have reported mixed findings in the research

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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55 Biological and Psychological Theories

on personality and criminal behavior (see Sutherland, Cressey, and
Luckenbill, 1992).

Personality theories and research testing also have problems with
tautology. The concept of the psychopathic personality, for instance, is
so broad that it could apply to virtually anyone who violates the law.
For this reason, there have been widely different estimates of the pro­
portion of offenders who are psychopaths, from 10 percent to 80 per­
cent, depending on who applies the definition. Moreover, some of the
diagnostic measures used to classify persons as psychopathic are sim­
ply indicators of a prior history of deviant or criminal behavior, such
as frequent arrests, abuse of others, and fighting.

Similar problems of tautological relationships are found in the stud­
ies using personality inventories. In the MMPI , the main scale that
differentiates delinquents from non-delinquents also measures psycho­
pathic tendencies. But this same scale includes items about “trouble
with the law,” the very thing it is supposed to explain. Furthermore, the
items on this scale and the socialization scale of the CPI were originally
developed by creating various questions to which delinquents would
respond differently than non-delinquents. When the same items are
later submitted to groups of delinquents and non-delinquents, different
responses will automatically be expected. The research using person­
ality inventories and other methods of measuring personality charac­
teristics have not been able to produce findings to support personality
variables as major causes of criminal and delinquent behavior (Void
and Bernard, 1986; Shoemaker, 1990; Pallone and Hennessy, 1992;
Sutherland, Cressey, and Luckenbill, 1992).

Summary
Early biological positivism proposed that criminal behavior is di­

rectly determined by the person s biological makeup. This basic concept
of innate criminality, of the criminal as a distinctly different type of
person from law-abiding citizens, was proposed in theories of the born
criminal, which listed physical abnormalities, biological inferiority,
body type, biochemical imbalances, and biological defects as the pri­
mary causes of crime. This kind of biological theory has largely been
discredited. Current biological theorizing tends to move beyond the
simplistic determinism of early theories. The older biological theories
have given way to theories relating crime and delinquency to measur­
able variations in inherited characteristics, brain functioning, central
and autonomic nervous systems, nutrition, hormonal balances, meta­
bolism, physiological arousal levels, biological processes in learning,
and similar variables.

Biological and Psychological Theories 55

on personality and criminal behavior (see Sutherland, Cressey, and
Luckenbill, 1992).

Personality theories and research testing also have problems with
tautology. The concept of the psychopathic personality, for instance, is
so broad that it could apply to virtually anyone who violates the law.
For this reason, there have been widely different estimates of the pro­
portion of offenders who are psychopaths, from 10 percent to 80 per­
cent, depending on who applies the definition. Moreover, some of the
diagnostic measures used to classify persons as psychopathic are sim­
ply indicators of a prior history of deviant or criminal behavior, such
as frequent arrests, abuse of others, and fighting.

Similar problems of tautological relationships are found in the stud­
ies using personality inventories. In the MMPI, the main scale that
differentiates delinquents from non-delinquents also measures psycho­
pathic tendencies. But this same scale includes items about “trouble
with the law,” the very thing it is supposed to explain. Furthermore, the
items on this scale and the socialization scale of the CPI were originally
developed by creating various questions to which delinquents would
respond differently than non-delinquents. When the same items are
later submitted to groups of delinquents and non-delinquents, different
responses will automatically be expected. The research using person­
ality inventories and other methods of measuring personality charac­
teristics have not been able to produce findings to support personality
variables as major causes of criminal and delinquent behavior (VoId
and Bernard, 1986; Shoemaker, 1990; Pallone and Hennessy, 1992;
Sutherland, Cressey, and Luckenbill, 1992).

Summary

Early biological positivism proposed that criminal behavior is di­
rectly determined by the person’s biological makeup. This basic concept
of innate criminality, of the criminal as a distinctly different type of
person from law-abiding citizens, was proposed in theories of the born
criminal, which listed physical abnormalities, biological inferiority,
body type, biochemical imbalances, and biological defects as the pri­
mary causes of crime. This kind of biological theory has largely been
discredited. Current biological theorizing tends to move beyond the
simplistic determinism of early theories. The older biological theories
have given way to theories relating crime and delinquency to measur­
able variations in inherited characteristics, brain functioning, central
and autonomic nervous systems, nutrition, hormonal balances, meta­
bolism, physiological arousal levels, biological processes in learning,
and similar variables.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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56 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Modern biological theories propose the interaction of these factors
with the social environment. However, they do not support the view
that specific biological defects produce specific criminal behavior or
that a single gene produces criminal acts. Biological factors are not
regarded as fixed and immutable or as having any greater power over
behavior than social or psychological variables. Rather, their effects are
viewed as indirect and mediated by other factors.

The newer biological explanations of crime have found greater ac­
ceptance in criminology, but they have been criticized for their depend­
ence on research with serious methodological problems that produce
questionable empirical validity. Research has provided some evidence
in favor of the newer biological theories of criminal behavior, but prob­
lems with methodology, sampling, and measurement have resulted in
mixed and generally weak empirical support.

Psychoanalytic and personality theories also concentrate on the
causes of crime arising from within the individual, but the causes are
not seen as inherited or biologically predetermined. The causes are
dysfunctional, abnormal emotional adjustment or deviant personality
traits formed in early socialization and childhood development. The
policy implications of these theories are widely adopted in correctional
treatment programs. Empirical tests of these theories have been ham­
pered by tautological propositions and measures of key concepts. Per­
sonality theories are more testable than psychoanalytic theories, but
empirical research has produced mixed results.

56 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Modem biological theories propose the interaction of these factors
with the social environment. However, they do not support the view
that specific biological defects produce specific criminal behavior or
that a single gene produces criminal acts. Biological factors are not
regarded as fixed and immutable or as having any greater power over
behavior than social or psychological variables. Rather, their effects are
viewed as indirect and mediated by other factors.

The newer biological explanations of crime have found greater ac­
ceptance in criminology, but they have been criticized for their depend­
ence on research with serious methodological problems that produce
questionable empirical validity. Research has provided some evidence
in favor of the newer biological theories of criminal behavior, but prob­
lems with methodology, sampling, and measurement have resulted in
mixed and generally weak empirical support.

Psychoanalytic and personality theories also concentrate on the
causes of crime arising from within the individual, but the causes are
not seen as inherited or biologically predetermined. The causes are
dysfunctional, abnormal emotional adjustment or deviant personality
traits formed in early socialization and childhood development. The
policy implications of these theories are widely adopted in correctional
treatment programs. Empirical tests of these theories have been ham­
pered by tautological propositions and measures of key concepts. Per­
sonality theories are more testable than psychoanalytic theories, but
empirical research has produced mixed results.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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57 Biological and Psychological Theories

Notes

1. See, for instance, the biological theorizing in Wilson and Herrnstein
(1985) or Taylor (1984).

2. See the papers in Mednick et al. (1987) and the review of various bio­
logical studies in Shah and Roth (1974), Void and Bernard (1986), Wal­
ters and White (1989), and Fishbein (1990).

3. See Mednick and Christiansen (1977), Mednick and Shoham (1979),
Jeffery (1977; 1979), Mednick et al. (1981), Mednick et al. (1987),
Eysenck and Gudjonsson (1989), Fishbein (1990), and Brennan et al.
(1995).

4. Some studies do directly measure these variables. See Mednick et al.
(1981) and Rowe (1986). Also, social variables are seldom directly meas­
ured. See Rowe (1986).

5. See Lindner (1944), Aichhorn (1963), Halleck (1967), and the reviews
of psychoanalytic theory in Hakeem (1957-58), Vold and Bernard (1986),
Shoemaker (1990), Holman and Quinn (1992), Pallone and Hennessy
(1992), and Shoham and Seis (1993).

Biological and Psychological Theories

Notes

1. See, for instance, the biological theorizing in Wilson and Herrnstein
(1985) or Taylor (1984).

2. See the papers in Mednick et al. (1987) and the review of various bio­
logical studies in Shah and Roth (1974), VoId and Bernard (1986), Wal­
ters and White (1989), and Fishbein (1990).

3. See Mednick and Christiansen (1977), Mednick and Shoham (1979),
Jeffery (1977; 1979), Mednick et al. (1981), Mednick et al. (1987),
Eysenck and Gudjonsson (1989), Fishbein (1990), and Brennan et al.
(1995).

4. Some studies do directly measure these variables. See Mednick et al.
(1981) and Rowe (1986). Also, social variables are seldom directly meas­
ured. See Rowe (1986).

5. See Lindner (1944), Aichhorn (1963), Halleck (1967), and the reviews
of psychoanalytic theory in Hakeem (1957-58), Void and Bernard (1986),
Shoemaker (1990), Holman and Quinn (1992), Pallone and Hennessy
(1992), and Shoham and Seis (1993).

57

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-02 13:31:08.

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Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
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CHAPTER 7

SOCIAL
DISORGANIZATION,
ANOMIE, AND
STRAIN THEORIES

Introduction

Social disorganization and anomie (also referred to as strain) theo­
ries have evolved from different theoretical and research tradi­

tions. They are included in the same chapter, however, because they
have a common theme. Both propose that social order, stability, and
integration are conducive to conformity, while disorder and mal-
integration are conducive to crime and deviance. A social system (a
society, community, or subsystem within a society) is described as so­
cially organized and integrated if there is an internal consensus on its
norms and values, a strong cohesion exists among its members, and
social interaction proceeds in an orderly way. Conversely, the system
is described as disorganized or anomic if there is a disruption in its
social cohesion or integration, a breakdown in social control, or
malalignment among its elements.

Both theories propose that the less there exists solidarity, cohesion,
or integration within a group, community, or society, the higher wil l be
the rate of crime and deviance. Each attempts to explain high rates of
crime and delinquency in disadvantaged lower-class and ethnic groups.
At one time or another, both theories have focused specifically on de­
linquent or criminal gangs and subcultures.

Social Disorganization and the Urban
Ecology of Crime and Delinquency
Social disorganization theory was first developed in the studies of

urban crime and delinquency by sociologists at the University of Chi-

115

CHAPTER 7

SOCIAL
DISORGANIZATION,
ANOMIE,AND
STRAIN THEORIES

Introduction

Social disorganization and anomie (also referred to as strain) theo­
ries have evolved from different theoretical and research tradi­

tions. They are included in the same chapter, however, because they
have a common theme. Both propose that social order, stability, and
integration are conducive to conformity, while disorder and mal­
integration are conducive to crime and deviance. A social system (a
society, community, or subsystem within a society) is described as so­
cially organized and integrated if there is an internal consensus on its
norms and values, a strong cohesion exists among its members, and
social interaction proceeds in an orderly way. Conversely, the system
is described as disorganized or anomic if there is a disruption in its
social cohesion or integration, a breakdown in social control, or
malalignment among its elements.

Both theories propose that the less there exists solidarity, cohesion,
or integration within a group, community, or society, the higher will be
the rate of crime and deviance. Each attempts to explain high rates of
crime and delinquency in disadvantaged lower-class and ethnic groups.
At one time or another, both theories have focused specifically on de­
linquent or criminal gangs and subcultures.

Social Disorganization and the Urban
Ecology of Crime and Delinquency
Social disorganization theory was first developed in the studies of

urban crime and delinquency by sociologists at the University of Chi-

115

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
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116 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

cago and the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago in the 1920s
and 1930s (Shaw and McKay, 1942; 1969). Since then, the theory has
most often been applied to urban crime and deviance, though the con­
cept of social disorganization has also been applied to the conditions
of a family, a whole society, or some segment of society (Rose, 1954).
The Chicago studies plotted out the residential location of those youths
who had been referred to juvenile court from different areas of the city.
These studies showed that the distribution of delinquents around the
city fits a systematic pattern. The rates of delinquency in the lower-class
neighborhoods were highest near the inner city and decreased out­
wardly toward the more affluent areas. The inner city neighborhoods
maintained high rates of delinquency over decades, even though the
racial and ethnic makeup of the population in those areas underwent
substantial change. The same pattern of declining rates of delinquency
as the distance from the inner city neighborhood increased was found
within each racial or ethnic group (Shaw and McKay, 1942; 1969).

These findings were explained by reference to a theory of urban
ecology which viewed the city as analogous to the natural ecological
communities of plants and animals (Park et al., 1928). The residential,
commercial, and industrial pattern of urban settlement was described
as developing an ecological pattern of concentric zones that spread
from the center toward the outermost edge of the city. Directly adjacent
to the city’s commercial and business core of the city was a “zone in
transition,” which was changing from residential to commercial. It was
in this area that the highest rates of delinquency were found.

This transition zone was characterized by physical decay, poor hous­
ing, incomplete and broken families, high rates of illegitimate births,
and an unstable, heterogeneous population. The residents were at the
bottom end of the socio-economic scale with low income, education,
and occupations. In addition to high rates of delinquency, this area had
high official rates of adult crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitu­
tion, and mental illness. Al l these forms of deviance and lawlessness
were interpreted as the outcome of social disorganization within this
urban area. The Chicago sociologists emphasized that residents in this
area were not biologically or psychologically abnormal. Rather, their
crime and deviance were simply the normal responses of normal people
to abnormal social conditions. Under these conditions, criminal and
delinquent traditions developed and were culturally transmitted from
one generation to the next. Industrialization, urbanization, and other
social changes in modern society were seen by the Chicago sociologists
as causing social disorganization by undermining the social control of
traditional social order and values.

These sociologists were also concerned with the implications of their
theory and research for delinquency prevention. They developed the

116 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

cago and the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago in the 1920s
and 1930s (Shaw and McKay, 1942; 1969). Since then, the theory has
most often been applied to urban crime and deviance, though the con­
cept of social disorganization has also been applied to the conditions
of a family, a whole society, or some segment of society (Rose, 1954).
The Chicago studies plotted out the residential location of those youths
who had been referred to juvenile court from different areas of the city.
These studies showed that the distribution of delinquents around the
city fits a systematic pattern. The rates of delinquency in the lower-class
neighborhoods were highest near the inner city and decreased out­
wardly toward the more affluent areas. The inner city neighborhoods
maintained high rates of delinquency over decades, even though the
racial and ethnic makeup of the population in those areas underwent
substantial change. The same pattern of declining rates of delinquency
as the distance from the inner city neighborhood increased was found
within each racial or ethnic group (Shaw and McKay, 1942; 1969).

These findings were explained by reference to a theory of urban
ecology which viewed the city as analogous to the natural ecological
communities of plants and animals (Park et al., 1928). The residential,
commercial, and industrial pattern of urban settlement was described
as developing an ecological pattern of concentric zones that spread
from the center toward the outermost edge of the city. Directly adjacent
to the city’s commercial and business core of the city was a “zone in
transition,” which was changing from residential to commercial. It was
in this area that the highest rates of delinquency were found.

This transition zone was characterized by physical decay, poor hous­
ing, incomplete and broken families, high rates of illegitimate births,
and an unstable, heterogeneous population. The residents were at the
bottom end of the socio-economic scale with low income, education,
and occupations. In addition to high rates of delinquency, this area had
high official rates of adult crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitu­
tion, and mental illness. All these forms of deviance and lawlessness
were interpreted as the outcome of social disorganization within this
urban area. The Chicago sociologists emphasized that residents in this
area were not biologically or psychologically abnormal. Rather, their
crime and deviance were simply the normal responses of normal people
to abnormal social conditions. Under these conditions, criminal and
delinquent traditions developed and were culturally transmitted from
one generation to the next. Industrialization, urbanization, and other
social changes in modem society were seen by the Chicago sociologists
as causing social disorganization by undermining the social control of
traditional social order and values.

These sociologists were also concerned with the implications of their
theory and research for delinquency prevention. They developed the

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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117 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

Chicago Area Projects in several of the lower-class, high-delinquency
neighborhoods. These efforts were met with mixed success, though
delinquency rates were in fact reduced in some neighborhoods. The
objective of the Chicago Area Projects was to counter disorganization
with social organization and informal social control geared toward
conventional values and activities. Neighborhood organization was fos­
tered by the development of local groups and clubs run by law-abiding
adults in the community. Delinquent gangs were identified and social
workers were assigned to make contact with them and try to involve
them in alternatives to delinquent behavior. Recreational and athletic
teams and other non-delinquent activities were organized for the youths
in the area (see Lundman, 1993).

Research on Social Disorganization
Since the pioneering studies of Shaw and McKay, a great deal of

research has been done on the ecology of urban crime and delinquency.
Studies and research data on urban crime remain an important part of
criminological research. While some studies have been patterned
closely after the social disorganization approach of the early Chicago
studies, others only indirectly relate to it. 1

It is difficult to judge the extent to which the original Chicago re­
search and subsequent research has verified social disorganization as
an explanation of crime. A trend in the migration of both white and
black middle-class residents, as well as industry and business, out of
the large cities into suburban communities has resulted in even more
deprivation, decay, and other conditions of social disorganization
within the urban centers. This trend has left a population of the “truly
disadvantaged” (Wilson, 1987) or an “under class” with high rates of
unemployment, welfare support, illegitimate births, single-parent fami­
lies, drug use and abuse, and violence. Research continues to find that
arrests, convictions, incarcerations and other measures of official rates
of crime and delinquency are alarmingly high among the residents in
these neighborhoods.

To what degree the relationship between inner-city residence and
crime is the result of social disorganization remains uncertain. Often
the research does not carefully measure social disorganization. The
very fact that crime and deviance are high within an area is itself some­
times used, tautologically, as an empirical indicator that the area is
socially disorganized (see Bursik’s 1988 review of this issue). Further­
more, even in those areas characterized as the most disorganized, only
a minority of youths and even smaller minority of adults are involved
in crime. There is also the question of how much concentration of
official crime rates in these areas results from higher rates of criminal

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 117

Chicago Area Projects in several of the lower-class, high-delinquency
neighborhoods. These efforts were met with mixed success, though
delinquency rates were in fact reduced in some neighborhoods. The
objective of the Chicago Area Projects was to counter disorganization
with social organization and informal social control geared toward
conventional values and activities. Neighborhood organization was fos­
tered by the development of local groups and clubs run by law-abiding
adults in the community. Delinquent gangs were identified and social
workers were assigned to make contact with them and try to involve
them in alternatives to delinquent behavior. Recreational and athletic
teams and other non-delinquent activities were organized for the youths
in the area (see Lundman, 1993).

Research on Social Disotganization
Since the pioneering studies of Shaw and McKay, a great deal of

research has been done on the ecology of urban crime and delinquency.
Studies and research data on urban crime remain an important part of
criminological research. While some studies have been patterned
closely after the social disorganization approach of the early Chicago
studies, others only indirectly relate to it. I

It is difficult to judge the extent to which the original Chicago re­
search and subsequent research has verified social disorganization as
an explanation of crime. A trend in the migration of both white and
black middle-class residents, as well as industry and business, out of
the large cities into suburban communities has resulted in even more
deprivation, decay, and other conditions of social disorganization
within the urban centers. This trend has left a population of the “truly
disadvantaged” (Wilson, 1987) or an “under class” with high rates of
unemployment, welfare support, illegitimate births, single-parent fami­
lies, drug use and abuse, and violence. Research continues to find that
arrests, convictions, incarcerations and other measures of official rates
of crime and delinquency are alarmingly high among the residents in
these neighborhoods.

To what degree the relationship between inner-city residence and
crime is the result of social disorganization remains uncertain. Often
the research does not carefully measure social disorganization. The
very fact that crime and deviance are high within an area is itself some­
times used, tautologically, as an empirical indicator that the area is
socially disorganized (see Bursik’s 1988 review of this issue). Further­
more, even in those areas characterized as the most disorganized, only
a minority of youths and even smaller minority of adults are involved
in crime. There is also the question of how much concentration of
official crime rates in these areas results from higher rates of criminal

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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118 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

behavior among its residents or from race and class disparities in police
practices (Warner and Pierce, 1993).

Moreover, exactly what physical, economic, population, or family
conditions constitute social disorganization? Is it true that physical,
economic, and population characteristics are objective indicators of
disorganization, or does the term simply reflect a value judgment about
lower-class lifestyle and living conditions? By the 1940s, the term “dif­
ferential social organization” (Sutherland, 1947) had been introduced
to emphasize that these urban neighborhoods may not be so much
disorganized as simply organized around different values and concerns.
Edwin Sutherland’s (1947) education and part of his academic career
was at the University of Chicago, and he acknowledged the influence
of the Chicago sociologists (Sutherland, 1973). His theory of “differen­
tial association” complements differential social organization by ex­
plaining crime as behavior learned through an exposure to different
conforming and criminal patterns (see Chapter 4 on social learning
theory).

In recent years, social disorganization has received renewed theo­
retical attention through the work of Robert Bursik, Robert Sampson,
and others who have re-analyzed the theory, related it to current theo­
ries, and addressed some of the criticisms of this theory (Sampson,
1995). Bursik (1988) points out that Shaw and McKay were not trying
to propose that urban ecology, economic conditions of urban neighbor­
hoods, and rapid social changes are the direct causes of crime and
delinquency. Rather, he argues, they were proposing that social disor­
ganization undermines or hinders informal social controls within the
community and neighborhood, thus allowing high rates of crime to
occur. Therefore, the absence or breakdown of social control is a key
component behind the concept of social disorganization which, Bursik
contends, ties it to modern social control theory (see Chapter 5). Bursik
also links the assumptions of the ecological distribution of crime op­
portunities in routine activities theory to the social disorganization
approach.

Sampson and Groves (1989) have pointed to the same problem iden­
tified by Bursik: social disorganization theory does not propose that
such factors as social class and the racial composition of a community
are direct causes of crime and delinquency. Yet, these are the variables
that have been used to measure social disorganization. Research has
not directly measured the components of social disorganization itself.
Therefore, Sampson and Groves (1989:775) concluded that, “while past
researchers have examined Shaw and McKay’s prediction concerning
community change and extra-local influence on delinquency, no one
has directly tested their theory of social disorganization.”

118 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

behavior among its residents or from race and class disparities in police
practices (Warner and Pierce, 1993).

Moreover, exactly what physical, economic, population, or family
conditions constitute social disorganization? Is it true that physical,
economic, and population characteristics are objective indicators of
disorganization, or does the term simply reflect a value judgment about
lower-class lifestyle and living conditions? By the 1940s, the term “dif­
ferential social organization” (Sutherland, 1947) had been introduced
to emphasize that these urban neighborhoods may not be so much
disorganized as simply organized around different values and concerns.
Edwin Sutherland’s (1947) education and part of his academic career
was at the University of Chicago, and he acknowledged the influence
of the Chicago sociologists (Sutherland, 1973). His theory of “differen­
tial association” complements differential social organization by ex­
plaining crime as behavior learned through an exposure to different
conforming and criminal patterns (see Chapter 4 on social learning
theory).

In recent years, social disorganization has received renewed theo­
retical attention through the work of Robert Bursik, Robert Sampson,
and others who have re-analyzed the theory, related it to current theo­
ries, and addressed some of the criticisms of this theory (Sampson,
1995). Bursik (1988) points out that Shaw and McKay were not trying
to propose that urban ecology, economic conditions of urban neighbor­
hoods, and rapid social changes are the direct causes of crime and
delinquency. Rather, he argues, they were proposing that social disor­
ganization undermines or hinders informal social controls within the
community and neighborhood, thus allowing high rates of crime to
occur. Therefore, the absence or breakdown of social control is a key
component behind the concept of social disorganization which, Bursik
contends, ties it to modem social control theory (see Chapter 5). Bursik
also links the assumptions of the ecological distribution of crime op­
portunities in routine activities theory to the social disorganization
approach.

Sampson and Groves (1989) have pointed to the same problem iden­
tified by Bursik: social disorganization theory does not propose that
such factors as social class and the racial composition of a community
are direct causes of crime and delinquency. Yet, these are the variables
that have been used to measure social disorganization. Research has
not directly measured the components of social disorganization itself.
Therefore, Sampson and Groves (1989:775) concluded that, “while past
researchers have examined Shaw and McKay’s prediction concerning
community change and extra-local influence on delinquency, no one
has directly tested their theory of social disorganization.”

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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119 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

Sampson and Groves (1989) proffered an empirical model of social
disorganization that remedied this problem. Their model contains the
usual measures of “external” factors affecting social disorganization,
such as social class, residential mobility, and family disruption, but
then goes beyond these variables to include the measures of three key
components of the concept of social disorganization: community su­
pervision of teenage gangs, informal friendship networks, and partici­
pation in formal organizations. Their data from British communities
supported this model. They found that most of the external factors were
related to social disorganization, as predicted. The links in the model
were completed by showing that the measures of social disorganization
were good predictors of rates of crime victimization. Though not very
adequately, the model also explained the rates of criminal offenses.

More recent research has not followed the Sampson and Grove model
of measuring social disorganization directly. Social disorganization
continues to be measured indirectly by social conditions in different
areas of the city. Warner and Pierce (1993), for instance, report strong
relationships between rates of telephone calls to police (by victims of
assaults, robbery, and burglary) and neighborhood poverty, racial het­
erogeneity, residential instability, family disruption, and high density
of housing units as measures of social disorganization. Gottfredson
and associates (1991) tested social disorganization theory by correlat­
ing census-block level data on disrupted families, poverty, unemploy­
ment, income, and education with individual-level self-reports of
delinquent behavior of interpersonal aggression, theft and vandalism,
and drug use. The independent variables accounted for individuals’
delinquency, but the relationships were not strong and varied by type
of delinquency and gender. Moreover, the adolescents’ social bonds and
peer associations mediated the effects of social disorganization on de­
linquency.

Anomie/Strain Theory

Merton’s Anomie Theory
Anomie theory provides an explanation of the concentration of crime

not only in the lower-class urban areas but also in lower- class and
minority groups in general, as well as the overall high crime rate in
American society. This theory leans heavily on the work of Emile Durk-
heim, one of the founders of sociology. Durkheim (1951 [1897]) used
the term anomie to refer to a state of normlessness or lack of social
regulation in modern society as one condition that promotes higher
rates of suicide. Robert Merton (1938; 1957) applied this Durkheimian
approach to the condition of modern industrial societies, especially in
the United States. To Merton, an integrated society maintains a balance

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 119

Sampson and Groves (1989) proffered an empirical model of social
disorganization that remedied this problem. Their model contains the
usual measures of “external” factors affecting social disorganization,
such as social class, residential mobility, and family disruption, but
then goes beyond these variables to include the measures of three key
components of the concept of social disorganization: community su­
pervision of teenage gangs, informal friendship networks, and partici­
pation in formal organizations. Their data from British communities
supported this model. They found that most of the external factors were
related to social disorganization, as predicted. The links in the model
were completed by showing that the measures of social disorganization
were good predictors of rates of crime victimization. Though not very
adequately, the model also explained the rates of criminal offenses.

More recent research has not followed the Sampson and Grove model
of measuring social disorganization directly. Social disorganization
continues to be measured indirectly by social conditions in different
areas of the city. Warner and Pierce (1993), for instance, report strong
relationships between rates of telephone calls to police (by victims of
assaults, robbery, and burglary) and neighborhood poverty, racial het­
erogeneity, residential instability, family disruption, and high density
of housing units as measures of social disorganization. Gottfredson
and associates (1991) tested social disorganization theory by correlat­
ing census-block level data on disrupted families, poverty, unemploy­
ment, income, and education with individual-level self-reports of
delinquent behavior of interpersonal aggression, theft and vandalism,
and drug use. The independent variables accounted for individuals’
delinquency, but the relationships were not strong and varied by type
of delinquency and gender. Moreover, the adolescents’ social bonds and
peer associations mediated the effects of social disorganization on de­
linquency.

Anomie/Strain Theory

Merton’s Anomie Theory
Anomie theory provides an explanation of the concentration of crime

not only in the lower-class urban areas but also in lower- class and
minority groups in general, as well as the overall high crime rate in
American society. This theory leans heavily on the work of Emile Durk­
heim, one of the founders of sociology. Durkheim (1951 [1897]) used
the term anomie to refer to a state of normlessness or lack of social
regulation in modem society as one condition that promotes higher
rates of suicide. Robert Merton (1938; 1957) applied this Durkheimian
approach to the condition of modem industrial societies, especially in
the United States. To Merton, an integrated society maintains a balance

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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120 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

between social structure (approved social means) and culture (ap­
proved goals). Anomie is the form that societal malintegration takes
when there is a dissociation between valued cultural ends and legiti­
mate societal means to those ends.

Merton argued that American society evinces this means-ends dis-
juncture in two basic ways. First, the strong cultural emphasis on suc­
cess goals in America is not matched by an equally strong emphasis on
socially approved means. Everyone is socialized to aspire toward high
achievement and success. Competitiveness and success is glorified by
public authorities, taught in the schools, glamorized in the media, and
encouraged by the values that are passed along from generation to
generation. Worth is judged by material and monetary success. The
American dream means that anyone can make it big.

Of course, this success is supposed to be achieved by an honest effort
in legitimate educational, occupational, and economic endeavors.
However, Merton perceived American values to be more concerned with
acquiring success, getting ahead, and getting the money at any cost,
than with the right and proper way to do so. While other industrial
societies may have the same problem, American society is especially
prone to stress achievement of the ends over utilization of approved
means. Americans, then, are more likely than members of more inte­
grated societies to do whatever it takes to achieve success, even if it
means breaking the law. Hence, we have higher crimes rates than other
societies.

Second, there is a discrepancy between means and ends perpetuated
by the class system in American and, to a lesser degree, other industri­
alized societies. The success ethic permeates all levels of the class struc­
ture and is embodied in the educational system to which persons of all
social classes are exposed. The American dream promotes the ideal that
equal opportunity for success is available to all. In reality, however,
disadvantaged minority groups and the lower class do not have equal
access to such legitimate opportunities. They are socialized to hold high
aspirations, yet they are relatively blocked off from the conventional
educational and occupational opportunities needed to realize those
ambitions. This anomic condition produces strain or pressure on these
groups to take advantage of whatever effective means to income and
success they can find, even if these means are illegitimate or illegal.

Merton (1938) identified five “modes of adaptation” to strain. The
first, “conformity,” is the most common response: one simply accepts
the state of affairs and continues to strive for success within the re­
stricted conventional means available. The second type of adaptation,
“innovation,” is the most common deviant response: one maintains
commitment to success goals but takes advantage of illegitimate means
to attain them. Most crime and delinquency, especially income-produc-

120 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

between social structure (approved social means) and culture (ap­
proved goals). Anomie is the form that societal malintegration takes
when there is a dissociation between valued cultural ends and legiti­
mate societal means to those ends.

Merton argued that American society evinces this means-ends dis­
juncture in two basic ways. First, the strong cultural emphasis on suc­
cess goals in America is not matched by an equally strong emphasis on
socially approved means. Everyone is socialized to aspire toward high
achievement and success. Competitiveness and success is glorified by
public authorities, taught in the schools, glamorized in the media, and
encouraged by the values that are passed along from generation to
generation. Worth is judged by material and monetary success. The
American dream means that anyone can make it big.

Of course, this success is supposed to be achieved by an honest effort
in legitimate educational, occupational, and economic endeavors.
However, Merton perceived American values to be more concerned with
acquiring success, getting ahead, and getting the money at any cost,
than with the right and proper way to do so. While other industrial
societies may have the same problem, American society is especially
prone to stress achievement of the ends over utilization of approved
means. Americans, then, are more likely than members of more inte­
grated societies to do whatever it takes to achieve success, even if it
means breaking the law. Hence, we have higher crimes rates than other
societies.

Second, there is a discrepancy between means and ends perpetuated
by the class system in American and, to a lesser degree, other industri­
alized societies. The success ethic permeates all levels of the class struc­
ture and is embodied in the educational system to which persons of all
social classes are exposed. The American dream promotes the ideal that
equal opportunity for success is available to all. In reality, however,
disadvantaged minority groups and the lower class do not have equal
access to such legitimate opportunities. They are socialized to hold high
aspirations, yet they are relatively blocked off from the conventional
educational and occupational opportunities needed to realize those
ambitions. This anomic condition produces strain or pressure on these
groups to take advantage of whatever effective means to income and
success they can find, even if these means are illegitimate or illegal.

Merton (1938) identified five “modes of adaptation” to strain. The
first, “conformity,” is the most common response: one simply accepts
the state of affairs and continues to strive for success within the re­
stricted conventional means available. The second type of adaptation,
“innovation,” is the most common deviant response: one maintains
commitment to success goals but takes advantage of illegitimate means
to attain them. Most crime and delinquency, especially income-produc-

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 121

ing offenses, would fit into this adaptive mode. Another deviant mode,
“rebellion,” rejects the system altogether, both means and ends, and
replaces it with a new one, such as a violent overthrow of the system.
Yet another, “retreatism,” refers to an escapist response: one becomes
a societal dropout, giving up on both the goals and the effort to achieve
them. Merton placed alcoholics, drug addicts, vagrants, and the se­
verely mentally ill in this mode. Finally, there is “ritualism,” in which
one gives up the struggle to get ahead and concentrates on retaining
what little has been gained, by adhering rigidly and zealously to the
norms.

Innovation is the most frequently adapted non-conformist mode
among members of the lower class. The high rate of crime in the lower
class, therefore, is explained by its location in a society which subjects
it to high levels of anomie-induced strain. This strain is produced by
the disjuncture between society’s dream of equality and success for all
and the actual inequality in the distribution of opportunities to realize
that dream. This inequity is most severe for members of the lower class,
the disadvantaged, and minority groups. Relatively deprived of legiti­
mate means, while still imbued with the American dream, they respond
by resorting to illegitimate means.

Cohen: Status Deprivation and the Delinquent Subculture
Albert K. Cohen (1955) followed Merton by emphasizing the struc­

tural sources of strain that leads to deviant adaptations by the lower
class. But Cohen applied it specifically to the delinquent subculture
found among lower-class adolescent males. He recognized that the de­
linquent subculture has an effect on and plays a role in influencing
individual lower-class boys to become involved in delinquent behavior.
But he denied any interest in the explanation of variations in individual
behavior. Instead, he wanted to explain, not why the delinquent sub­
culture was maintained over a period of time, but why it existed in the
first place.

Cohen’s version of anomie theory is in basic agreement with Merton’s
theory, because both perceive blocked goals as producing deviance-in­
ducing strain. However, rather than the inability to gain material suc­
cess, in Cohen’s view, it is the inability to gain status and acceptance in
conventional society that produces the strain. Status in conventional
society is achieved by meeting society’s standards of dress, behavior,
scholastic abilities, and so on. The most pervasive of these standards,
according to Cohen, are those of the middle class. Adolescents are most
likely to be confronted by the middle-class criteria of respectability and
acceptance in the public schools. Middle-class expectations are im­
posed by teachers and administrators on students from all class back­
grounds. Such standards as good manners, appropriate demeanor,

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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122 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

non-aggressive attitudes and behavior, attention to grades, studying,
and active participation in school activities are among the ways that
students gain status and approval.

Middle-class adolescents, supported by middle-class parents, are
best able to meet these standards. They achieve recognition and gain
status by measuring up to these standards, not only in the eyes of adults
but to a large extent in the eyes of their peers. However, lower-class
youths, especially boys, cannot always meet these standards. They do
not have the verbal and social skills to measure up to the yardstick of
middle-class values. As a result, their “status deprivation” produces
“status frustration.”

According to Cohen, the delinquent subculture is a “reaction forma­
tion” to this frustration. The criteria for acceptability found in this
subculture can be met by lower-class boys, who gain status in delin­
quent gangs by adhering to “malicious” and “negativistic” values in
opposition to conventional standards. If non-aggression is acceptable
in the middle class, then a reputation for aggressive toughness is the
way to gain status in the delinquent subculture. If polite classroom
behavior and making good grades will gain greater standing in the eyes
of the teachers, then classroom disruption and disdain for academic
achievement wil l gain greater standing in the delinquent subculture.

Cohen argued that Merton’s image of deviants turning to illegitimate
means because of the deprivation of legitimate means is too rational­
istic to apply to the “non-utilitarian” delinquent subculture. For exam­
ple, most of the property offenses committed by delinquent youths are
really not intended to produce income or gain material success by illegal
means. Rather, they are non-utilitarian responses to status frustration
that also meet with the approval of delinquent peers.

Cloward and Ohlin: Differential Opportunity and
Delinquent Subcultures

Shortly after Cohen’s theory was published, Richard Cloward and
Lloyd Ohlin (Cloward 1961; 1959) proposed a “differential opportunity”
theory of delinquency. Their theory drew from the anomie theory of
Merton and Cohen’s subcultural theory on the one hand, and from Shaw
and McKay’s social disorganization and Sutherland’s differential asso­
ciation theories on the other. Although the general propositions of their
theory have subsequently been applied to a whole range of delinquent
and criminal behavior, Cloward and Ohlin developed it specifically to
account for types of, and participation in, delinquent subcultures.

In Cloward and Ohlin’s view, Merton’s anomie theory incorrectly
assumed that lower-class persons, who are denied access to legitimate
opportunities, automatically have access to illegitimate opportunities.
They interpreted Sutherland, as well as Shaw and McKay, as focusing

122 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

non-aggressive attitudes and behavior, attention to grades, studying,
and active participation in school activities are among the ways that
students gain status and approval.

Middle-class adolescents, supported by middle-class parents, are
best able to meet these standards. They achieve recognition and gain
status by measuring up to these standards, not only in the eyes of adults
but to a large extent in the eyes of their peers. However, lower-class
youths, especially boys, cannot always meet these standards. They do
not have the verbal and social skills to measure up to the yardstick of
middle-class values. As a result, their “status deprivation” produces
“status frustration.”

According to Cohen, the delinquent subculture is a “reaction forma­
tion” to this frustration. The criteria for acceptability found in this
subculture can be met by lower-class boys, who gain status in delin­
quent gangs by adhering to “malicious” and “negativistic” values in
opposition to conventional standards. If non-aggression is acceptable
in the middle class, then a reputation for aggressive toughness is the
way to gain status in the delinquent subculture. If polite classroom
behavior and making good grades will gain greater standing in the eyes
of the teachers, then classroom disruption and disdain for academic
achievement will gain greater standing in the delinquent subculture.

Cohen argued that Merton’s image of deviants turning to illegitimate
means because of the deprivation of legitimate means is too rational­
istic to apply to the “non-utilitarian” delinquent subculture. For exam­
ple, most of the property offenses committed by delinquent youths are
really not intended to produce income or gain material success by illegal
means. Rather, they are non-utilitarian responses to status frustration
that also meet with the approval of delinquent peers.

Cloward and Ohlin: Differential Opportunity and
Delinquent Subcultures

Shortly after Cohen’s theory was published, Richard Cloward and
Lloyd Ohlin (Cloward 1961; 1959) proposed a “differential opportunity”
theory of delinquency. Their theory drew from the anomie theory of
Merton and Cohen’s subcultural theory on the one hand, and from Shaw
and McKay’s social disorganization and Sutherland’s differential asso­
ciation theories on the other. Although the general propositions oftheir
theory have subsequently been applied to a whole range of delinquent
and criminal behavior, Cloward and Ohlin developed it specifically to
account for types of, and participation in, delinquent subcultures.

In Cloward and Ohlin’s view, Merton’s anomie theory incorrectly
assumed that lower-class persons, who are denied access to legitimate
opportunities, automatically have access to illegitimate opportunities.
They interpreted Sutherland, as well as Shaw and McKay, as focusing

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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123 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

on the cultural transmission of delinquent values in lower-class urban
areas and implicitly demonstrating the importance of the availability
of illegitimate opportunities. Their theory combines anomie, differen­
tial association, and social disorganization by proposing that deviant
adaptations are explained by location in both the legitimate and ille­
gitimate opportunity structures.

Motivation and the aspiration to succeed by themselves do not ac­
count for either conforming or deviant behavior, argue Cloward and
Ohlin. The individual must be in deviant or conforming “learning en­
vironments” which allow one to learn and perform the requisite skills
and abilities. Just because legitimate opportunities are blocked does
not necessarily mean that illegitimate opportunities are freely available.
Some illegitimate roles may be available, while others may not be at
all. Just as there is unequal access to role models and opportunities to
fulfill conforming roles, there is unequal access to illegitimate roles
and opportunities.

Among adolescent boys, it is clear that deprivation of legitimate
means produces a strain toward delinquent activities, but what kind of
delinquent patterns they will become involved in depends on what
illegitimate opportunities are available to them in their community.
Boys from racial and ethnic minorities, especially those in the lower-
class neighborhoods of large urban centers, are most likely to be de­
prived of legitimate educational and occupational opportunities.
Therefore, high rates of delinquency are to be expected among them.
But the kind of subculture or gang delinquency they adopt depends on
the nature of the illegitimate opportunities available to them. These
opportunities are determined by the social organization of the neigh­
borhoods or the areas of the city where they are raised.

While Cohen posited a single delinquent subculture, Cloward and
Ohlin saw several subcultures. Though they recognized that delinquent
gangs carry on a variety of illegal activities, they argued that these gangs
develop more or less specialized delinquent subcultures, depending on
the illegitimate opportunities in their neighborhoods.

The first major type of specialized delinquent subculture, “criminal,”
is characterized by youth gangs organized primarily to commit income-
producing offenses, such as theft, extortion, and fraud. Theirs is a more
or less utilitarian choice of illegal means that corresponds with Merton s
innovation adaptation. Such gangs are found in lower-class ethnic
neighborhoods organized around stable adult criminal patterns and
values. Organized and successful criminals reside or operate openly in
these neighborhoods, providing criminal role models and opportunities
as alternatives to legitimate ones.

The second major type of delinquent subculture, “conflict,” is ex­
pressed in fighting gangs. Status or “rep” in these groups is gained by

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 123

on the cultural transmission of delinquent values in lower-class urban
areas and implicitly demonstrating the importance of the availability
of illegitimate opportunities. Their theory combines anomie, differen­
tial association, and social disorganization by proposing that deviant
adaptations are explained by location in both the legitimate and ille­
gitimate opportunity structures.

Motivation and the aspiration to succeed by themselves do not ac­
count for either conforming or deviant behavior, argue Cloward and
Ohlin. The individual must be in deviant or conforming “learning en­
vironments” which allow one to learn and perform the requisite skills
and abilities. Just because legitimate opportunities are blocked does
not necessarily mean that illegitimate opportunities are freely available.
Some illegitimate roles may be available, while others may not be at
all. Just as there is unequal access to role models and opportunities to
fulfill conforming roles, there is unequal access to illegitimate roles
and opportunities.

Among adolescent boys, it is clear that deprivation of legitimate
means produces a strain toward delinquent activities, but what kind of
delinquent patterns they will become involved in depends on what
illegitimate opportunities are available to them in their community.
Boys from racial and ethnic minorities, especially those in the lower­
class neighborhoods of large urban centers, are most likely to be de­
prived of legitimate educational and occupational opportunities.
Therefore, high rates of delinquency are to be expected among them.
But the kind of subculture or gang delinquency they adopt depends on
the nature of the illegitimate opportunities available to them. These
opportunities are determined by the social organization of the neigh­
borhoods or the areas of the city where they are raised.

While Cohen posited a single delinquent subculture, Cloward and
Ohlin saw several subcultures. Though they recognized that delinquent
gangs carry on a variety of illegal activities, they argued that these gangs
develop more or less specialized delinquent subcultures, depending on
the illegitimate opportunities in their neighborhoods.

The first major type of specialized delinquent subculture, “criminal,”
is characterized by youth gangs organized primarily to commit income­
producing offenses, such as theft, extortion, and fraud. Theirs is a more
or less utilitarian choice of illegal means that corresponds with Merton’s
innovation adaptation. Such gangs are found in lower-class ethnic
neighborhoods organized around stable adult criminal patterns and
values. Organized and successful criminals reside or operate openly in
these neighborhoods, providing criminal role models and opportunities
as alternatives to legitimate ones.

The second major type of delinquent subculture, “conflict,” is ex­
pressed in fighting gangs. Status or “rep” in these groups is gained by

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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124 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

being tough, violent, and able to fight. They are found in the socially
disorganized lower-class neighborhoods with very few illegal opportu­
nities to replace the legal opportunities that are denied them. There are
few successful or emulated adult role models, either conventional or
deviant. Youths become alienated from the adult world and view most
of the adults they encounter as “weak.” They are unable to develop the
skills, either legitimate or illegal, to achieve economic success and see
no way to gain conventional or criminal status. In frustration they turn
to gangs in which the only status to be gained is by fearlessness and
violence.

The third major type of delinquent subculture, “retreatist,” is pri­
marily focused on the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Retreatist
gang members have given up on both goals and means, whether con­
ventional or illegal. Cloward and Ohlin did not specify the type of neigh­
borhood in which retreatist gangs are found, but they described their
members as “double failures.” Double failures not only perform poorly
in school and have little or no occupational prospects, they are neither
good crooks nor good fighters. They escape into a different world in
which the only goal is the “kick” and being “cool.” While most sustain
themselves by one type or another of a non-violent “hustle,” status and
admiration can only be gained within the gang by getting high and
maintaining a drug habit.

Miller: Focal Concerns of Lower-Class Culture
Walter B. Miller (1958), following Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin,

concentrated on the delinquency of lower-class male gangs (or, in
Miller’s terms, “street corner groups”) in economically deprived neigh­
borhoods. He also agreed with strain theorists that the commission of
delinquent behavior is motivated by the attempt to gain desired ends.
But rather than positing a distinct delinquent subculture(s) adapted to
the availability of legitimate or illegitimate opportunities, Miller pro­
posed that delinquent behavior is a youthful adaptation to a distinct
lower-class culture. Delinquency is one way of achieving or gaining
acceptance according to the expectations of this lower-class culture.
Lower-class youth learn and act according to the central values or “focal
concerns” of lower-class adults, but the delinquent adolescents express
and carry out these values in an exaggerated way. These are trouble
(revolving around getting away with law violations), toughness (show­
ing physical power and fearlessness), smartness (ability to con or dupe
others), excitement (seeking thrills, risk-taking, danger), fatalism (being
lucky or unlucky), and autonomy (freedom from authority, inde­
pendence). By demonstrating toughness, smartness, autonomy, and the
other characteristics implied in the focal concerns, lower-class males
achieve status and belonging in the street corner groups. These qualities

124 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

being tough, violent, and able to fight. They are found in the socially
disorganized lower-class neighborhoods with very few illegal opportu­
nities to replace the legal opportunities that are denied them. There are
few successful or emulated adult role models, either conventional or
deviant. Youths become alienated from the adult world and view most
of the adults they encounter as “weak.” They are unable to develop the
skills, either legitimate or illegal, to achieve economic success and see
no way to gain conventional or criminal status. In frustration they tum
to gangs in which the only status to be gained is by fearlessness and
violence.

The third major type of delinquent subculture, “retreatist,” is pri­
marily focused on the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Retreatist
gang members have given up on both goals and means, whether con­
ventional or illegal. Cloward and Ohlin did not specify the type of neigh­
borhood in which retreatist gangs are found, but they described their
members as “double failures.” Double failures not only perform poorly
in school and have little or no occupational prospects, they are neither
good crooks nor good fighters. They escape into a different world in
which the only goal is the “kick” and being “cool.” While most sustain
themselves by one type or another of a non-violent “hustle,” status and
admiration can only be gained within the gang by getting high and
maintaining a drug habit.

Miller: Focal Concerns of Lower-Class Culture
Walter B. Miller (1958), following Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin,

concentrated on the delinquency of lower-class male gangs (or, in
Miller’s terms, “street comer groups”) in economically deprived neigh­
borhoods. He also agreed with strain theorists that the commission of
delinquent behavior is motivated by the attempt to gain desired ends.
But rather than positing a distinct delinquent subculture(s) adapted to
the availability of legitimate or illegitimate opportunities, Miller pro­
posed that delinquent behavior is a youthful adaptation to a distinct
lower-class culture. Delinquency is one way of achieving or gaining
acceptance according to the expectations of this lower-class culture.
Lower-class youth learn and act according to the central values or “focal
concerns” oflower-class adults, but the delinquent adolescents express
and carry out these values in an exaggerated way. These are trouble
(revolving around getting away with law violations), toughness (show­
ing physical power and fearlessness), smartness (ability to con or dupe
others), excitement (seeking thrills, risk-taking, danger), fatalism (being
lucky or unlucky), and autonomy (freedom from authority, inde­
pendence). By demonstrating toughness, smartness, autonomy, and the
other characteristics implied in the focal concerns, lower-class males
achieve status and belonging in the street comer groups. These qualities

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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125 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

can be demonstrated and the valued ends achieved by fighting and
other forms of illegal and deviant behavior.2

Research on Anomie/Strain Theory

Is Crime and Delinquency Concentrated in
the Lower Class and Minority Groups?

Anomie theory provides some clear policy implications. If blocked
legitimate opportunities motivate persons to achieve through criminal
activity, then that activity can be countered by the provision of greater
access to legitimate opportunities through educational and job-training
programs. If delinquent gangs form in the city because of unequal
opportunity and the availability of delinquent subcultures and illegal
opportunities, then the objective should be to work directly with these
gangs to offer alternatives to their subculture and provide law-abiding
models and opportunities.

For instance, Cloward and Ohlin’s theory became the specific theo­
retical framework for the New York community-based delinquency pre­
vention program known as “Mobilization for Youth” in the 1960s. This
project was designed to organize the local lower-class community and
enhance the ability of youths to gain legitimate success through job
opportunity, education, and skill training. Youth gang workers at­
tempted to lead gangs away from delinquent values and activities and
redirect their energies into sports and positive activities. Mobilization
for Youth, unfortunately undermined by political opposition, was never
completed. Neither that nor similar programs that followed were able
to achieve their ambitious goal of changing the social structure of com­
munities and thereby preventing crime and delinquency. Nevertheless,
equal-opportunity and job-training programs for school dropouts and
lower-class youths, and community delinquency prevention programs,
s t i l l continue to this day (Siegel and Senna, 1991; Bynum and
Thompson, 1992).

In both theory and practice, anomie theory emphasizes the predomi­
nance of crime and delinquency among the lower-class and minority
populations, the most deprived of legitimate opportunities. Al l varieties
of this theory discussed so far have predicted an inverse relationship
between social class and law-breaking, and by extension of the assump­
tions and logic of anomie, one is also led to expect higher rates of crime
and delinquency in disadvantaged minority groups.

As we have already seen, early urban research based on official sta­
tistics found a disproportionate amount of crime and delinquency in
the lower-class and minority groups. Studies of self-reported delinquent
behavior that began in the 1950s, however, raised serious questions
about the class distribution of delinquency (Nye, 1958; Akers, 1964).

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 125

can be demonstrated and the valued ends achieved by fighting and
other forms of illegal and deviant behavior.2

Research on Anomie/Strain Theory

Is Crime and Delinquency Concentrated in
the Lower Class and Minority Groups?

Anomie theory provides some clear policy implications. If blocked
legitimate opportunities motivate persons to achieve through criminal
activity, then that activity can be countered by the provision of greater
access to legitimate opportunities through educational and job-training
programs. If delinquent gangs form in the city because of unequal
opportunity and the availability of delinquent subcultures and illegal
opportunities, then the objective should be to work directly with these
gangs to offer alternatives to their subculture and provide law-abiding
models and opportunities.

For instance, Cloward and Ohlin’s theory became the specific theo­
retical framework for the New York community-based delinquency pre­
vention program known as “Mobilization for Youth” in the 1960s. This
project was designed to organize the local lower-class community and
enhance the ability of youths to gain legitimate success through job
opportunity, education, and skill training. Youth gang workers at­
tempted to lead gangs away from delinquent values and activities and
redirect their energies into sports and positive activities. Mobilization
for Youth, unfortunately undermined by political opposition, was never
completed. Neither that nor similar programs that followed were able
to achieve their ambitious goal of changing the social structure of com­
munities and thereby preventing crime and delinquency. Nevertheless,
equal-opportunity and job-training programs for school dropouts and
lower-class youths, and community delinquency prevention programs,
still continue to this day (Siegel and Senna, 1991; Bynum and
Thompson, 1992).

In both theory and practice, anomie theory emphasizes the predomi­
nance of crime and delinquency among the lower-class and minority
populations, the most deprived oflegitimate opportunities. All varieties
of this theory discussed so far have predicted an inverse relationship
between social class and law-breaking, and by extension of the assump­
tions and logic of anomie, one is also led to expect higher rates of crime
and delinquency in disadvantaged minority groups.

As we have already seen, early urban research based on official sta­
tistics found a disproportionate amount of crime and delinquency in
the lower-class and minority groups. Studies of self-reported delinquent
behavior that began in the 1950s, however, raised serious questions
about the class distribution of delinquency (Nye, 1958; Akers, 1964).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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126 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

By the 1970s, nearly all of the self-reported delinquency studies, as well
as the few self-report studies of adult crime, found little differences in
the levels of delinquent behavior by socio-economic status (SES) (Tittle
and Villemez, 1977). Studies using official measures of crime and de­
linquency continued to find more offenders in the lower class than in
the middle and upper classes, but even in these studies the correlations
were not high (Tittle et al., 1978). The effects of class and race were
stronger in longitudinal studies of official arrest histories from delin­
quency to adult crime (Wolfgang et al., 1972; Wolfgang et al., 1987).

Some researchers have argued that, if self-report studies would util­
ize more effective measures of illegal behavior, then they too would find
crime and delinquency to be related to both social class and race (Hin-
delang et al., 1979). They contend that self-report studies only measure
the more trivial offenses and do not include high-frequency offenders,
whereas official measures pick up the more serious, frequent, and
chronic offenders. Their conclusion, then, is that there may be little
difference by class and race in low-frequency, minor offenses, but there
are considerable class and race differences in the most frequent and
serious offenses.

This suggests that, if self-report studies would only do a better job
of measuring more frequent and serious offenses, then they too would
find that delinquency is strongly related to race and class. Some self-
report studies that include high-frequency and serious offenses have
found them most likely to occur in the lower class, as is found in studies
using official measures (Hindelangetal., 1980; Elliott and Ageton, 1980;
Thornberry and Farnworth, 1982). Up to now, however, “overall . . .
recent analyses concerning the strength of an SES/delinquency rela­
tionship, as revealed by officially recorded measures relative to self-re­
port measures, show mixed results” (Tittle and Meier, 1990).

Other researchers have concluded that, while there is no relationship
between class and delinquency or crime in general, there is a relation­
ship under some conditions. Some argue that a correlation exists when
social class is dichotomized and the most disadvantaged underclass is
compared with every other class level. Others maintain that the rela­
tionship is stronger among blacks than whites and among males than
females. It has also been suggested that the relationship will hold true
for urban centers but not for suburban communities, and for lower-
class youths in middle- or upper-class communities but not for those
in predominantly lower-class neighborhoods. However, research evi­
dence does not clearly support a class/crime relationship under these
conditions.

It is possible that the relationship between class-related access to
legitimate opportunities and the official crime rate is different for
blacks and whites. Lafree et al. (1992), for example, found that the

126 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

By the 1970s, nearly all of the self-reported delinquency studies, as well
as the few self-report studies of adult crime, found little differences in
the levels of delinquent behavior by socio-economic status (SES) (Tittle
and Villemez, 1977). Studies using official measures of crime and de­
linquency continued to find more offenders in the lower class than in
the middle and upper classes, but even in these studies the correlations
were not high (Tittle et al., 1978). The effects of class and race were
stronger in longitudinal studies of official arrest histories from delin­
quency to adult crime (Wolfgang et al., 1972; Wolfgang et al., 1987).

Some researchers have argued that, if self-report studies would util­
ize more effective measures of illegal behavior, then they too would find
crime and delinquency to be related to both social class and race (Hin­
delang et al., 1979). They contend that self-report studies only measure
the more trivial offenses and do not include high-frequency offenders,
whereas official measures pick up the more serious, frequent, and
chronic offenders. Their conclusion, then, is that there may be little
difference by class and race in low-frequency, minor offenses, but there
are considerable class and race differences in the most frequent and
serious offenses.

This suggests that, if self-report studies would only do a better job
of measuring more frequent and serious offenses, then they too would
find that delinquency is strongly related to race and class. Some self­
report studies that include high-frequency and serious offenses have
found them most likely to occur in the lower class, as is found in studies
using official measures (Hindelang et al., 1980; Elliott and Ageton, 1980;
Thornberry and Farnworth, 1982). Up to now, however, “overall …
recent analyses concerning the strength of an SES/delinquency rela­
tionship, as revealed by officially recorded measures relative to self-re­
port measures, show mixed results” (Tittle and Meier, 1990).

Other researchers have concluded that, while there is no relationship
between class and delinquency or crime in general, there is a relation­
ship under some conditions. Some argue that a correlation exists when
social class is dichotomized and the most disadvantaged underclass is
compared with every other class level. Others maintain that the rela­
tionship is stronger among blacks than whites and among males than
females. It has also been suggested that the relationship will hold true
for urban centers but not for suburban communities, and for lower­
class youths in middle- or upper-class communities but not for those
in predominantly lower-class neighborhoods. However, research evi­
dence does not clearly support a class/crime relationship under these
conditions.

It is possible that the relationship between class-related access to
legitimate opportunities and the official crime rate is different for
blacks and whites. Lafree et al. (1992), for example, found that the

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
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127 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

burglary, homicide, and robbery arrest rates in the United States since
1957 were related in the expected direction to indicators of economic
well-being among white males but not among black males. The unem­
ployed are expected to experience the greatest strain of blocked oppor­
tunities and are more likely to commit crime than the gainfully
employed. There is mixed support for this hypothesis. It is also proposed
that offenders who are apprehended and imprisoned are more likely to
come from the ranks of the unemployed (Chiricos, 1991). However,
there is little evidence that unemployment motivates people to commit
criminal acts. Moreover, crime is as likely to affect unemployment as
vice versa (Thornberry and Christenson, 1984; Cantor and Land, 1985).

Self-report studies find class and race variations in criminal and
delinquent behavior, but they are not as great as the class and race
differences in officially arrested, convicted, and/or imprisoned popula­
tions. This may result in part from disparities in criminal justice deci­
sions. But it may also result from a tendency for relatively small
numbers of serious, chronic offenders who commit a large number of
offenses, and who are the most likely to be caught up in the criminal
justice system, to come from lower-class and minority groups. (See
Chapter 8.)

Other Social Structural Correlates of Crime
Correlating crime with social class as a test of anomie conforms to

Messner’s (1988) argument that Merton’s anomie theory is a theory of
social organization, not a theory of individuals’ criminal motivations.
Therefore, the proper test of the empirical validity of anomie theory is
to determine the social structural correlates of rates of crime. Bernard
(1987) also contends that anomie theory is a structural theory that
makes no direct predictions about individual criminal behavior, and
anomie theory cannot be verified or falsified by individual-level tests
(see also Burton and Cullen, 1992; Bernard and Snipes, 1995). There
have been a number of macro-level studies testing the effects on city,
region, and state crime rates of such structural factors such as class,
poverty, inequality, unemployment, family instability, and racial het­
erogeneity. Although there are inconsistent findings in these studies,
some have found fairly strong effects of these structural variables on
both property and violent crime rates. (For a review of these studies
and a report of new research on structural correlates of crime that
resolves some of the earlier inconsistencies, see Land et al., 1990).

Much of this research is not presented as a test of anomie theory,
and none of it provides a direct measure of anomie as malintegration
of cultural goals and societal means. In this sense, no structural version
of anomie has yet received substantial empirical support. Nevertheless,
it is reasonable to infer anomie from conditions of inequality (and

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 127

burglary, homicide, and robbery arrest rates in the United States since
1957 were related in the expected direction to indicators of economic
well-being among white males but not among black males. The unem­
ployed are expected to experience the greatest strain of blocked oppor­
tunities and are more likely to commit crime than the gainfully
employed. There is mixed support for this hypothesis. It is also proposed
that offenders who are apprehended and imprisoned are more likely to
come from the ranks of the unemployed (Chiricos, 1991). However,
there is little evidence that unemployment motivates people to commit
criminal acts. Moreover, crime is as likely to affect unemployment as
vice versa (Thornberry and Christenson, 1984; Cantor and Land, 1985).

Self-report studies find class and race variations in criminal and
delinquent behavior, but they are not as great as the class and race
differences in officially arrested, convicted, and/or imprisoned popula­
tions. This may result in part from disparities in criminal justice deci­
sions. But it may also result from a tendency for relatively small
numbers of serious, chronic offenders who commit a large number of
offenses, and who are the most likely to be caught up in the criminal
justice system, to come from lower-class and minority groups. (See
Chapter 8.)

Other Social Structural Correlates of Crime
Correlating crime with social class as a test of anomie conforms to

Messner’s (1988) argument that Merton’s anomie theory is a theory of
social organization, not a theory of individuals’ criminal motivations.
Therefore, the proper test of the empirical validity of anomie theory is
to determine the social structural correlates of rates of crime. Bernard
(1987) also contends that anomie theory is a structural theory that
makes no direct predictions about individual criminal behavior, and
anomie theory cannot be verified or falsified by individual-level tests
(see also Burton and Cullen, 1992; Bernard and Snipes, 1995). There
have been a number of macro-level studies testing the effects on city,
region, and state crime rates of such structural factors such as class,
poverty, inequality, unemployment, family instability, and racial het­
erogeneity. Although there are inconsistent findings in these studies,
some have found fairly strong effects of these structural variables on
both property and violent crime rates. (For a review of these studies
and a report of new research on structural correlates of crime that
resolves some of the earlier inconsistencies, see Land et al., 1990).

Much of this research is not presented as a test of anomie theory,
and none of it provides a direct measure of anomie as malintegration
of cultural goals and societal means. In this sense, no structural version
of anomie has yet received substantial empirical support. Nevertheless,
it is reasonable to infer anomie from conditions of inequality (and

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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128 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

perhaps other structural variables). Thus, the findings on structural
correlates of crime can be viewed as consistent with anomie theory.
They are also consistent with social disorganization theory, because
the variables included in the research are very similar to those measured
at the local community or neighborhood level in research on social
disorganization theory.

Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1994) propose that the im­
pact of anomie fostered by economic inequality is conditional on the
strength or weakness of non-economic social institutions that provide
normative restraints against achieving material success by deviant
means. The ability of the family, school, religion, law, and the political
system to control the use of deviant means and support the utilization
of legitimate means may be undermined by malintegration of cultural
ends and social means. Therefore, the rate of crimes that offer monetary
rewards, such as property offenses, may not be affected by expansion
or contraction of economic opportunity without concomitant changes
in other social institutions. Chamlin and Cochran (1995:415) provide
partial support for this hypothesis that “the effect of economic condi­
tions on instrumental crime rates will depend on the vitality of non-
economic institutions.” They found that the effect of poverty (as an
indicator of economic inequality) on state rates of property crime are
dependent in part on levels of church membership, divorce rates, and
percentage of voters participating in elections (as indicators of strength
of noneconomic institutions).

Gangs and Delinquent Subcultures
There can be little doubt that gang delinquency continues to be con­

centrated in the lower-class, black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Los
Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and other large cities. Yet, there
is considerable doubt as to how closely these urban gangs fit the theo­
retical specifications of Cohen and of Cloward and Ohlin. (See Schrag,
1962.)

Lower-class and non-white gang boys perceive more limited legiti­
mate and more available illegitimate opportunities than middle-class,
non-gang white boys. But whether these perceptions precede or result
from gang membership is not clear (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965). More­
over, neither gang members nor other delinquents sustain a distinct
subculture that promotes values and norms directly contrary to con­
ventional culture. They are more likely to agree in general with con­
ventional values and to “neutralize” or excuse their behavior that
violates those values. Such excuses themselves come from the general
culture and are conceptually linked to the concept of definitions in
social learning (Sykes and Matza, 1957; Matza and Sykes, 1961). (See
Chapter 4.)

128 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

perhaps other structural variables). Thus, the findings on structural
correlates of crime can be viewed as consistent with anomie theory.
They are also consistent with social disorganization theory, because
the variables included in the research are very similar to those measured
at the local community or neighborhood level in research on social
disorganization theory.

Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1994) propose that the im­
pact of anomie fostered by economic inequality is conditional on the
strength or weakness of non-economic social institutions that provide
normative restraints against achieving material success by deviant
means. The ability of the family, school, religion, law, and the political
system to control the use of deviant means and support the utilization
of legitimate means may be undermined by malintegration of cultural
ends and social means. Therefore, the rate of crimes that offer monetary
rewards, such as property offenses, may not be affected by expansion
or contraction of economic opportunity without concomitant changes
in other social institutions. Chamlin and Cochran (1995:415) provide
partial support for this hypothesis that “the effect of economic condi­
tions on instrumental crime rates will depend on the vitality of non­
economic institutions.” They found that the effect of poverty (as an
indicator of economic inequality) on state rates of property crime are
dependent in part on levels of church membership, divorce rates, and
percentage of voters participating in elections (as indicators of strength
of noneconomic institutions).

Gangs and Delinquent Subcultures
There can be little doubt that gang delinquency continues to be con­

centrated in the lower-class, black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Los
Angeles, Chicago, Det.roit, New York, and other large cities. Yet, there
is considerable doubt as to how closely these urban gangs fit the theo­
retical specifications of Cohen and of Cloward and Ohlin. (See Schrag,
1962.)

Lower-class and non-white gang boys perceive more limited legiti­
mate and more available illegitimate opportunities than middle-class,
non-gang white boys. But whether these perceptions precede or result
from gang membership is not clear (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965). More­
over, neither gang members nor other delinquents sustain a distinct
subculture that promotes values and norms directly contrary to con­
ventional culture. They are more likely to agree in general with con­
ventional values and to “neutralize” or excuse their behavior that
violates those values. Such excuses themselves come from the general
culture and are conceptually linked to the concept of definitions in
social learning (Sykes and Matza, 1957; Matza and Sykes, 1961). (See
Chapter 4.)

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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129 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

As yet, researchers have been unable to verify Cloward and Ohlin’s
three major types of delinquent subcultures located in specific kinds
of neighborhood opportunity structures. Recent research shows that
there is some tendency for offense specialization by delinquent groups
(Warr, 1996). However, this specialization does not conform closely to
the types of subcultures identified in differential opportunity theory.
Delinquent gangs can be very versatile, committing a wide range of
violent, criminal, and drug offenses. Though some gangs and gang
members are heavily involved in drug trafficking, there do not appear
to be any “retreatist” gangs as described by Cloward and Ohlin, organ­
ized around the need for drugs. Drug use is high among all gangs, but
then so is fighting and theft. (See Short and Strodtbeck, 1965; Spergel,
1964; see also Empey, 1967; Huff, 1990.)

School Dropout and Delinquency
According to anomie theory, particularly Cohen’s version (1955), the

school is an important arena in which lower-class youths are confronted
with the failure to live up to the conventional standards for status. It is
there that they continually face the realities of their academic and social
liabilities. The school experience, therefore, is often filled with failure
and a strain toward delinquency. If this is true, then dropping out of
school would reduce the strain and the motivation to commit illegal
acts. Elliott and Voss (1977) found some support for this hypothesis by
comparing officially detected crime (up to age 19) for high school gradu­
ates with that of youngsters who had dropped out of school. The school
dropouts had fairly high rates of delinquency while in school, but they
reduced their offenses considerably after dropping out. However, the
dropouts still had higher rates than the school graduates. It is also
unclear how much of the decline in their delinquency resulted from
leaving a stressful school situation and how much stemmed from the
tendency for law violations to decline after age 17 among all groups.

Thornberry et al. (1985) found that arrests among school dropouts
increased the year after leaving school and remained higher than the
arrest rate for high-school graduates through age 25. Controlling for
social class and race does not seem to change the findings (Thornberry
et al., 1985). A later study with a national sample of adolescents found
that dropping out of school sometimes increases delinquent involve­
ment and sometimes lowers it. The effects of dropping out of school
depend on the reasons for doing so and other factors such as race, age,
and gender. When these other variables are controlled, most of the
relationships between dropping out of school and delinquent behavior
become statistically non-significant (Jarjoura, 1993).

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 129

As yet, researchers have been unable to verify Cloward and Ohlin’s
three major types of delinquent subcultures located in specific kinds
of neighborhood opportunity structures. Recent research shows that
there is some tendency for offense specialization by delinquent groups
(WaIT, 1996). However, this specialization does not conform closely to
the types of subcultures identified in differential opportunity theory.
Delinquent gangs can be very versatile, committing a wide range of
violent, criminal, and drug offenses. Though some gangs and gang
members are heavily involved in drug trafficking, there do not appear
to be any “retreatist” gangs as described by Cloward and Ohlin, organ­
ized around the need for drugs. Drug use is high among all gangs, but
then so is fighting and theft. (See Short and Strodtbeck, 1965; Spergel,
1964; see also Empey, 1967; Huff, 1990.)

School Dropout and Delinquency
According to anomie theory, particularly Cohen’s version (1955), the

school is an important arena in which lower-class youths are confronted
with the failure to live up to the conventional standards for status. It is
there that they continually face the realities of their academic and social
liabilities. The school experience, therefore, is often filled with failure
and a strain toward delinquency. If this is true, then dropping out of
school would reduce the strain and the motivation to commit illegal
acts. Elliott and Voss (1977) found some support for this hypothesis by
comparing officially detected crime (up to age 19) for high school gradu­
ates with that of youngsters who had dropped out of school. The school
dropouts had fairly high rates of delinquency while in school, but they
reduced their offenses considerably after dropping out. However, the
dropouts still had higher rates than the school graduates. It is also
unclear how much of the decline in their delinquency resulted from
leaving a stressful school situation and how much stemmed from the
tendency for law violations to decline after age 17 among all groups.

Thornberry et al. (1985) found that arrests among school dropouts
increased the year after leaving school and remained higher than the
arrest rate for high-school graduates through age 25. Controlling for
social class and race does not seem to change the findings (Thornberry
et aI., 1985). A later study with a national sample of adolescents found
that dropping out of school sometimes increases delinquent involve­
ment and sometimes lowers it. The effects of dropping out of school
depend on the reasons for doing so and other factors such as race, age,
and gender. When these other variables are controlled, most of the
relationships between dropping out of school and delinquent behavior
become statistically non-significant (Jarjoura, 1993).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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130 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Perceived Discrepancy Between Aspirations and Expectations
The gap between the cultural ends and social means proposed by

anomie theory at the structural level implies that individuals in anomie
situations may perceive this discrepancy. At the social psychological
level, then, anomie can be directly measured by the difference between
an individual’s aspirations and expectations. Aspirations refer to what
one hopes to achieve in life, economically, educationally or occupation-
ally (e.g., how much schooling one would like to complete). Expecta­
tions refer to what one believes is realistically possible to achieve (e.g.,
how much education one would expect to get). Anomie theory would
hypothesize that the greater the discrepancy between aspirations and
expectations, the higher the probability of law violation.

There is not much empirical support for this hypothesis, however.
The delinquent behavior of those youths who perceive a great discrep­
ancy between their educational or occupational aspirations and their
expectations do not differ much from the delinquency of those who
perceive little or no gap between their aspirations and expectations. A
bigger difference in delinquent behavior is found between those who
have low aspirations and those who have high aspirations, regardless
of the level of their expectations (Hirschi, 1969; Liska, 1971; Elliot et
al., 1985; Burton and Cullen, 1992). Strain theory receives less empirical
support than either social learning or social bonding when all three
theories are directly compared (Akers and Cochran, 1985;McGee, 1992;
Benda, 1994; Burton et al., 1994).

Farnworth and Leiber (1989) claim that these studies do not correctly
measure anomie because they concentrate on gauging the difference
between educational aspirations and expectations and between occu­
pational aspirations and expectations. They propose that a better indi­
cator would be the “disjunction between economic goals [the desire to
make lots of money] and educational expectations” (Farnworth and
Leiber, 1989:265). Their research found that the discrepancy between
economic goals and educational expectations was a better predictor of
delinquency than economic aspirations alone or the gap between the
two. Contrary to their argument, however, the best predictor in the
study was educational aspirations alone, without regard to expecta­
tions.

This suggests that the low level of empirical support for ano-
mie/strain theory is not simply a matter of using poor measures of the
concepts. This is underscored by research reported in Burton et al.
(1994). They used the Farnworth-Lieber measure of the gap between
economic aspirations and educational aspirations and included two
other measures, perceived blocked opportunities and relative deprivation,
in an adult white sample. They found that the gap measure was not related
to self-reported crime. The other two measures were weakly related to

130 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Perceived Discrepancy Between Aspirations and Expectations
The gap between the cultural ends and social means proposed by

anomie theory at the structural level implies that individuals in anomic
situations may perceive this discrepancy. At the social psychological
level, then, anomie can be directly measured by the difference between
an individual’s aspirations and expectations. Aspirations refer to what
one hopes to achieve in life, economically, educationally or occupation­
ally (e.g., how much schooling one would like to complete). Expecta­
tions refer to what one believes is realistically possible to achieve (e.g.,
how much education one would expect to get). Anomie theory would
hypothesize that the greater the discrepancy between aspirations and
expectations, the higher the probability of law violation.

There is not much empirical support for this hypothesis, however.
The delinquent behavior of those youths who perceive a great discrep­
ancy between their educational or occupational aspirations and their
expectations do not differ much from the delinquency of those who
perceive little or no gap between their aspirations and expectations. A
bigger difference in delinquent behavior is found between those who
have low aspirations and those who have high aspirations, regardless
of the level of their expectations (Hirschi, 1969; Liska, 1971; Elliot et
al., 1985; Burton and Cullen, 1992). Strain theory receives less empirical
support than either social learning or social bonding when all three
theories are directly compared (Akers and Cochran, 1985; McGee, 1992;
Benda, 1994; Burton et al., 1994).

Farnworth and Leiber (1989) claim that these studies do not correctly
measure anomie because they concentrate on gauging the difference
between educational aspirations and expectations and between occu­
pational aspirations and expectations. They propose that a better indi­
cator would be the “disjunction between economic goals [the desire to
make lots of money] and educational expectations” (Farnworth and
Leiber, 1989:265). Their research found that the discrepancy between
economic goals and educational expectations was a better predictor of
delinquency than economic aspirations alone or the gap between the
two. Contrary to their argument, however, the best predictor in the
study was educational aspirations alone, without regard to expecta­
tions.

This suggests that the low level of empirical support for ano­
mie/strain theory is not simply a matter of using poor measures of the
concepts. This is underscored by research reported in Burton et al.
(1994). They used the Farnworth-Lieber measure of the gap between
economic aspirations and educational aspirations and included two
other measures, perceived blocked opportunities and relative deprivation,
in an adult white sample. They found that the gap measure was not related
to self-reported crime. The other two measures were weakly related to

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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131 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

criminal behavior. However, when variables from social bonding (mari­
tal status and family attachment), self-control (low impulse control),
and social learning (definitions and differential association) theories
were added the effects of anomie/strain variables disappear.

While Merton’s anomie theory is broad in the sense that it can be
applied to a fairly wide range of deviance, it is primarily designed as
an explanation of one phenomenon, namely, concentration of crime in
the lower class. Its scope is limited principally to ordinary property
crime among the lower class or relatively disadvantaged. Later vari­
ations on the anomie theme, such as Cohen’s and Cloward and Ohlin’s
theories narrow the scope of the theory even further by focusing only
on lower-class, male, subcultural delinquency. Therefore, there seem
to be limitations of theoretical scope and empirical verification in ano­
mie/strain theory. Recognition of these limitations has led to reformu­
lations of anomie theory to render it more general and empirically valid.
I have mentioned examples of conceptual and empirical modifications
in structural anomie theory. But the major revisions of anomie theory
have been in social psychological strain theory.

Agnew’s General Strain Theory
of Crime and Delinquency
The most notable of these is the revision by Robert Agnew (1985;

1992). His approach is primarily to broaden the concept of strain, be­
yond that produced by the discrepancy between aspirations and expec­
tations, to encompass several sources of stress or strain. According to
Agnew’s theory, crime and delinquency are an adaptation to stress,
whatever the source of that stress. He identifies three major types of
deviance-producing strain: the failure to achieve an individual’s goals,
the removal of positive or desired stimuli from the individual, and the
confrontation of the individual with negative stimuli.

Failure to Achieve Positively Valued Goals
Included within this are three subtypes. First is the traditional con­

cept of strain as the disjuncture between aspirations and expectations.
Agnew expands this slightly to include not only ideal or future goals
but more immediate goals. He also includes failure based not only on
blocked opportunities but also on individual inadequacies in abilities
and skills. Second is the gap between expectations and actual achieve­
ments, which leads to anger, resentment, and disappointment. The third
subtype results from a discrepancy between what one views as a fair
or just outcome and the actual outcome. In this subtype, the positive
consequences of an activity or relationship are not perceived as com­
parable to the amount of effort put into it and are viewed as unfair
when compared to others’ efforts.

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 131

criminal behavior. However, when variables from social bonding (mari­
tal status and family attachment), self-control (low impulse control),
and social learning (definitions and differential association) theories
were added the effects of anomie/strain variables disappear.

While Merton’s anomie theory is broad in the sense that it can be
applied to a fairly wide range of deviance, it is primarily designed as
an explanation of one phenomenon, namely, concentration of crime in
the lower class. Its scope is limited principally to ordinary property
crime among the lower class or relatively disadvantaged. Later vari­
ations on the anomie theme, such as Cohen’s and Cloward and Ohlin’s
theories narrow the scope of the theory even further by focusing only
on lower-class, male, subcultural delinquency. Therefore, there seem
to be limitations of theoretical scope and empirical verification in ano­
mie/strain theory. Recognition of these limitations has led to reformu­
lations of anomie theory to render it more general and empirically valid.
I have mentioned examples of conceptual and empirical modifications
in structural anomie theory. But the major revisions of anomie theory
have been in social psychological strain theory.

Agnew’s General Strain Theory
of Crime and Delinquency
The most notable of these is the revision by Robert Agnew (1985;

1992). His approach is primarily to broaden the concept of strain, be­
yond that produced by the discrepancy between aspirations and expec­
tations, to encompass several sources of stress or strain. According to
Agnew’s theory, crime and delinquency are an adaptation to stress,
whatever the source of that stress. He identifies three major types of
deviance-producing strain: the failure to achieve an individual’s goals,
the removal of positive or desired stimuli from the individual, and the
confrontation of the individual with negative stimuli.

Failure to Achieve Positively Valued Goals
Included within this are three subtypes. First is the traditional con­

cept of strain as the disjuncture between aspirations and expectations.
Agnew expands this slightly to include not only ideal or future goals
but more immediate goals. He also includes failure based not only on
blocked opportunities but also on individual inadequacies in abilities
and skills. Second is the gap between expectations and actual achieve­
ments, which leads to anger, resentment, and disappointment. The third
subWe results from a discrepancy between what one views as a fair
or just outcome and the actual outcome. In this subtype, the positive
consequences of an activity or relationship are not perceived as com­
parable to the amount of effort put into it and are viewed as unfair
when compared to others’ efforts.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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132 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli
This source of strain refers primarily to the individual’s experience

with the stressful life events that can befall adolescents, such as the
loss of something or someone of great worth. The loss of a girlfriend
or boyfriend, the death or illness of a friend or family member, suspen­
sion from school, or changing schools can all produce anomie feelings.

Confrontation With Negative Stimuli
This type refers to another set of stressful life events that involve the

individual’s confrontation with negative actions by others. An adoles­
cent may have been exposed to child abuse, victimization, adverse
school experiences, and other “noxious stimuli.” Since adolescents can­
not legally escape from family and school, legitimate ways to avoid
stress from parents or teachers are blocked. This motivates the indi­
vidual to react in a deviant way.

Deviant actions may be taken to deal with stress by getting around
it, seeking vengeance against the perceived source of the strain, or
retreating into drug use. Deviance is most likely to occur when the
response to strain is anger Anger results when the system or others,
rather than oneself, are blamed for the adverse experiences (see also
Bernard, 1990).

As in previous strain theories, Agnew’s general strain theory views
crime and delinquency as only one of several possible adaptations to
strain. Whether a conforming or deviant mode is adopted depends on
a number of internal and external constraints on the individual. These
constraints, such as peer associations, beliefs, attributions of causes,
and self-efficacy, affect the individual’s predisposition to select a delin­
quent response to strain.

Agnew’s theory represents a significant advancement beyond tradi­
tional strain theory. He has given more viability to strain theory, which
should better facilitate its purpose to explain crime and delinquency
than earlier strain theories. Its focus remains primarily on negative
pressures toward deviance which, Agnew claims, clearly distinguishes
it from social bonding and social learning theories. Moreover, since the
various strains are experienced by individuals in any class or race, there
is no need for strain theory to be tied only to class or race differences
in delinquent behavior. Since strain is not confined only to the disjunc-
tures between means and ends, a number of other measures beyond
the discrepancy between aspirations and expectations can now be used.
In specifying the types of strain (especially the second and third) and
outlining factors that influence each adaptation, Agnew moves strain
theory closer to social bonding and social learning theories, thereby
incorporating a number of explanatory variables from those theories.

Agnew and White (1992) reported empirical support for general
strain theory. They found that a summary measure of various sources

132 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

Removal of Positively Valued Stimuli
This source of strain refers primarily to the individual’s experience

with the stressful life events that can befall adolescents, such as the
loss of something or someone of great worth. The loss of a girlfriend
or boyfriend, the death or illness of a friend or family member, suspen­
sion from school, or changing schools can all produce anomic feelings.

Confrontation With Negative Stimuli
This type refers to another set of stressful life events that involve the

individual’s confrontation with negative actions by others. An adoles­
cent may have been exposed to child abuse, victimization, adverse
school experiences, and other “noxious stimuli.” Since adolescents can­
not legally escape from family and school, legitimate ways to avoid
stress from parents or teachers are blocked. This motivates the indi­
vidual to react in a deviant way.

Deviant actions may be taken to deal with stress by getting around
it, seeking vengeance against the perceived source of the strain, or
retreating into drug use. Deviance is most likely to occur when the
response to strain is anger. Anger results when the system or others,
rather than oneself, are blamed for the adverse experiences (see also
Bernard, 1990).

As in previous strain theories, Agnew’s general strain theory views
crime and delinquency as only one of several possible adaptations to
strain. Whether a conforming or deviant mode is adopted depends on
a number of internal and external constraints on the individual. These
constraints, such as peer associations, beliefs, attributions of causes,
and self-efficacy, affect the individual’s predisposition to select a delin­
quent response to strain.

Agnew’s theory represents a significant advancement beyond tradi­
tional strain theory. He has given more viability to strain theory, which
should better facilitate its purpose to explain crime and delinquency
than earlier strain theories. Its focus remains primarily on negative
pressures toward deviance which, Agnew claims, clearly distinguishes
it from social bonding and social learning theories. Moreover, since the
various strains are experienced by individuals in any class or race, there
is no need for strain theory to be tied only to class or race differences
in delinquent behavior. Since strain is not confined only to the disjunc­
tures between means and ends, a number of other measures beyond
the discrepancy between aspirations and expectations can now be used.
In specifying the types of strain (especially the second and third) and
outlining factors that influence each adaptation, Agnew moves strain
theory closer to social bonding and social learning theories, thereby
incorporating a number of explanatory variables from those theories.

Agnew and White (1992) reported empirical support for general
strain theory. They found that a summary measure of various sources

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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133 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

of strain are positively related to delinquency and drug use. The effects
of strain are conditioned by, but not wholly dependent on, variables
taken from social learning and social control theories. However, they
also found in their study that the variable with the strongest effect on
delinquency and drug use is the delinquency of peers. Brezina (1996)
tested the hypothesis from general strain theory that delinquency is an
adaptive response that reduces the “negative affect” (anger, resentment,
fear, and despair) generated by stress in the family and school. The
hypothesis was supported with cross-sectional data but not with lon­
gitudinal data. General strain theory should fare better empirically than
the more limited strain theories of the past, but additional research is
needed before adequate assessment of its empirical validity can be
made.

Summary

Anomie/strain and social disorganization theories hypothesize that
social order, stability, and integration are conducive to conformity,
while disorder and malintegration are conducive to crime and deviance.
Anomie is the form that societal malintegration takes when there is a
dissociation between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal
means to those ends.

The more disorganized or anomie the group, community, or society,
the higher the rate of crime and deviance. Merton proposed that anomie
characterizes American society in general and is especially high in the
lower classes because they are more blocked off from legitimate oppor­
tunities. High levels of anomie and social disorganization in lower-class
and disadvantaged ethnic groups, therefore, are hypothesized to be the
cause of the high rates of crime and delinquency in these groups. At
the individual level, the strain produced by discrepancies between the
educational and occupational goals toward which one aspires and the
achievements actually expected are hypothesized to increase the
chances that one will engage in criminal or delinquent behavior. Re­
search provides some support for these hypotheses in regards to class
and race, but the relationships are usually not strong. Other structural
variables are more strongly related to crime rates. Self-perceived aspi­
rations/expectations discrepancy seems to be only weakly related to
delinquency.

Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin, modified Merton’s theory to apply
anomie to lower-class delinquent gangs. Miller theorized that the de­
linquency of street corner groups expresses the focal concerns of lower-
class culture. Research shows clearly that gang delinquency continues
to be concentrated in the lower-class and minority neighborhoods of
large cities. But research has not verified that urban gangs fit very well

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 133

of strain are positively related to delinquency and drug use. The effects
of strain are conditioned by, but not wholly dependent on, variables
taken from social learning and social control theories. However, they
also found in their study that the variable with the strongest effect on
delinquency and drug use is the delinquency of peers. Brezina (1996)
tested the hypothesis from general strain theory that delinquency is an
adaptive response that reduces the “negative affect” (anger, resentment,
fear, and despair) generated by stress in the family and school. The
hypothesis was supported with cross-sectional data but not with lon­
gitudinal data. General strain theory should fare better empirically than
the more limited strain theories of the past, but additional research is
needed before adequate assessment of its empirical validity can be
made.

Summary

Anomie/strain and social disorganization theories hypothesize that
social order, stability, and integration are conducive to conformity,
while disorder and malintegration are conducive to crime and deviance.
Anomie is the form that societal malintegration takes when there is a
dissociation between valued cultural ends and legitimate societal
means to those ends.

The more disorganized or anomic the group, community, or society,
the higher the rate of crime and deviance. Merton proposed that anomie
characterizes American society in general and is especially high in the
lower classes because they are more blocked off from legitimate oppor­
tunities. High levels of anomie and social disorganization in lower-class
and disadvantaged ethnic groups, therefore, are hypothesized to be the
cause of the high rates of crime and delinquency in these groups. At
the individual level, the strain produced by discrepancies between the
educational and occupational goals toward which one aspires and the
achievements actually expected are hypothesized to increase the
chances that one will engage in criminal or delinquent behavior. Re­
search provides some support for these hypotheses in regards to class
and race, but the relationships are usually not strong. Other structural
variables are more strongly related to crime rates. Self-perceived aspi­
rations/expectations discrepancy seems to be only weakly related to
delinquency.

Cohen, and Cloward and Ohlin, modified Merton’s theory to apply
anomie to lower-class delinquent gangs. Miller theorized that the de­
linquency of street comer groups expresses the focal concerns oflower­
class culture. Research shows clearly that gang delinquency continues
to be concentrated in the lower-class and minority neighborhoods of
large cities. But research has not verified that urban gangs fit very well

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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134 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

into the theoretical specifications of Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, and
other subcultural versions of anomie theory.

Messner and Rosenfeld suggest that the crime effect of economic
inequality is dependent upon the strength of non-economic institutions.
Agnew has proposed a modification of anomie/strain theory, primarily
by broadening the concept of strain to encompass several sources of
strain, failure to achieve goals, removal of positive or desired stimuli
from the individual, and exposure to negative stimuli. Research offers
some support for this modified strain theory, but there has not been
enough done as yet to assess its empirical validity.

134 Criminological Theories: Introduction and Evaluation

into the theoretical specifications of Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin, and
other subcultural versions of anomie theory.

Messner and Rosenfeld suggest that the crime effect of economic
inequality is dependent upon the strength of non-economic institutions.
Agnew has proposed a modification of anomie/strain theory, primarily
by broadening the concept of strain to encompass several sources of
strain, failure to achieve goals, removal of positive or desired stimuli
from the individual, and exposure to negative stimuli. Research offers
some support for this modified strain theory, but there has not been
enough done as yet to assess its empirical validity.

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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135 Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories

Notes

1. See the studies in Lander (1954), Shaw and McKay (1969), Voss and
Petersen (1971), Wilson (1987), and Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz
(1986). For recent reviews of theoretical issues and research on social
disorganization that address and offer solutions to some of the prob­
lems inherent in the earlier theory, see Bursik (1988), Sampson and
Groves (1989), and Warner and Pierce (1993). See also the introductory
reviews of social disorganization theory and research in Void and Ber­
nard (1986), Shoemaker (1990), Holman and Quinn (1992), and Curran
and Renzetti (1994).

2. Others have used the concept of subculture as a specific explanation
of violence. Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1982) relate the violence of lower-
class, young, and disproportionately black males to a subculture of
violence. Others have attempted to explain the high rates of homicide
in the southern region of the United States by referring to a regional
subculture of violence. Research casts doubt on the subculture of vio­
lence thesis of both the regional and class type (Erlanger, 1974; 1976).

Social Disorganization, Anomie, and Strain Theories 135

Notes

1. See the studies in Lander (1954), Shaw and McKay (1969), Voss and
Petersen (1971), Wilson (1987), and Simcha-Fagan and Schwartz
(1986). For recent reviews of theoretical issues and research on social
disorganization that address and offer solutions to some of the prob­
lems inherent in the earlier theory, see Bursik (1988), Sampson and
Groves (1989), and Warner and Pierce (1993). See also the introductory
reviews of social disorganization theory and research in VoId and Ber­
nard (1986), Shoemaker (1990), Holman and Quinn (1992), and Curran
and Renzetti (1994).

2. Others have used the concept of subculture as a specific explanation
of violence. Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1982) relate the violence of lower­
class, young, and disproportionately black males to a subculture of
violence. Others have attempted to explain the high rates of homicide
in the southern region of the United States by referring to a regional
subculture of violence. Research casts doubt on the subculture of vio­
lence thesis of both the regional and class type (Erlanger, 1974; 1976).

Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
Created from usf on 2023-03-03 03:16:18.

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Akers, Ronald L.. Criminological Theories : Introduction and Evaluation, Taylor & Francis Group, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/usf/detail.action?docID=1273212.
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