THEORIES OF CRIMINOLOGY

Edited by – Mudit Goswami


This article is written by Sampoorna Saha, a law student at Sudrendranath Law College.


The term criminology was first coined in the year 1885 by Italian Law Professor. Criminology is defined as the study of crime or criminal behavior by evaluating various aspects involving their mindset, why does one commit a crime, the biological aspect, the behavioral aspect, the social perspective, how to prevent them, etc. this study is done by Criminologists.

For years now criminologists have been researching and analyzing all the different possibilities which enforces a man to commit a crime and mainly how crime can be handled and prevented, several theories explain the crime to be a part of a human. Numerous theories have emerged in recent years and continue to grow and be explored. I will further take you through some of the key theories in criminology.

But first, let us understand the major question involving crime;

Why does one commit a crime?

The causes of crime are complex, generally, a crime is committed because of social factors like poverty, peer pressure, parental neglect, low self-esteem, a victim of drug abuse and other kinds of addiction, unemployment, etc.

 Various theories define the reason behind why a person does what he does, but no particular theory that can adequately explain all the variations of crime. The integration of these theories is the combination of various possible theories into a single theory.

Some of the major theories in criminology are Biological Theories of Crime, Social Disorganization Theory, Criminal Justice Theory, Social Learning theory, Labelling theory, Rational Choice Theory, Cultural Transmission Theory, Psychological Theories of Crime, Self-Control Theory, Social Construction Theory. Why people commit a crime and how it can be prevented is an ongoing debate in society.

Here is an overview of a few Theories in Criminology;

Biological Theories in Crime:

Cesare Lombroso was an Italian criminologist, physician, and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology. He proposed the Theory of Deviance where the bodily constitution indicates whether he/she is a born criminal or not, this theory brought great interest and created controversies in the 1890s. William Sheldon gained support in the mid-20th century for his theory which stated that criminal behavior was more common amongst athletes, muscular people rather than in thin and tall people. Although all these biological theories tended to fade away with time there was ongoing research that continued to be explored.

Studies have found a common link of biology as well as criminality between twins and adoptees. It is most likely that the rate of criminality is higher in the adopted child whose either of the biological parent is a criminal than to either of adoptive parents being criminal, children whose both biological and adoptive parents are criminals have the highest possibility to commit a crime. Altogether the Biological Theory of Crime explains that some people who are physiologically different from non-criminals but are born criminals. There can also be various underlying factors like poor diet, mental illness, the influence of environmental factors.

 Social Disorganization theory:

 Society plays a major role in Criminology, almost all theories in criminology emerge from studying and exploring an individual’s societal behavior. This theory seeks to explain how the differences in a society influences in increasing crime rates. It is more likely that the rate of crime will emerge more from an economically deprived society. According to criminologists Clifford Shawn and Henry D. McKay’s theory of Social Disorganization, poverty, residential mobility, and racial heterogeneity are the major elements affecting social disorganization.

“Poverty is the mother of crime.” … Marcus Aurelius.

This theory suggests that when activities related to crime a person’s residential location is more important than the person’s characteristics. Hence, location matters the most in this theory.

Criminal Justice Theory:

The answer to “What is Criminal Justice theory?” is surprising. Despite numerous research works dedicated to studying criminology and seeking ways to prevent this one question remains the least asked and researched theory. Dantzker’s viewpoint on criminal justice was; Criminology is the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon—that is, the theoretical application involving the study of the nature and extent of criminal behavior. Criminal Justice is the applied and scientific study of the practical applications of criminal behavior—that is, the actions, policies, and functions of the agencies within the criminal justice system charged with addressing this behavior. (Dantzker, 2002)[1]

Criminal justice involves police, Juvenile Justice, Correction Homes,

It is critical to theorize Criminal justice, but it is necessary to normalize the theoretical representation of this theory.

Social Learning Theory:

Ronald L. Akers proposed the Social Learning theory in the year 1973, over the past few years this theory has been one of the most tested contemporary theories in crime.

This theory explains the effects of socialization on self Social Learning theory looks at the formation of self, due to the societal influences.

According to this theory people engage in crime themselves because they are associated with the ones who are engaged in crime.

As it is commonly said ‘People learn from what they see’. And that defines Social Learning Theory.

 Labeling Theory:

Howard Becker a famous theorist published his work on the labeling theory in the year 1963. Labeling theory answers what makes a man act like a criminal. This is one of the most important theories which provides a brief understanding of deviant and criminal behavior.

We generally tend to label a person by his key characteristics. What we consider as deviance or crime is subjective decisions based on moral and social grounds. These are agents of the society who decide what behaviors are to be labeled deviant or criminal.  When a person is labeled by a certain term like a criminal or deviant he thinks of himself to be alike and adopt this as their societal status, which leads to an enforced mindset and is bound to live up-to-the labeled status.

Even though the statistics in labeling theory have been dismissed by interactionists this theory seeks more attention because once you socially label a man it affects his mental state and behavior towards society. 

Rational Choice theory:

In criminology, rational choice theory adopts a utilitarian belief that humans are reasoning actors who weigh means and ends, costs and benefits, to make a rational choice. This method was designed by Cornish and Clarke to assist in thinking about situational crime prevention (Clarke, 1997)[2]. the Rational choice theory originated in the mid-18th century and was propounded by Cesare Beccaria. This theory explains how criminals think rationally and take decisions based on their thoughts without caring about the consequences. Rational choice Theorists clarify that this theory Predicts the outcome of the choices made instead of explaining the choice process.

Psychological theories of Crime:

Every individual is different from the other, personality plays a very vital role in one’s life. The key factors in the Psychological Theory of Crime are incomplete psychological development, inherent personality traits, Violent or aggressive surroundings. When a person is exposed to extreme conditions of stress it usually turns out that rather than adapting to the situation he begins to retaliate and hence gradually becomes antisocial, the antisocial trait further pushes him to mental illness which drives him to choose the path of crime.

Like the Biological theories, Psychological theories look into understanding the causation and also focuses on the identification of the problems and treating the traits of an individual which may lead to crime or deviance.

Self-Control Theory:

Travis Hirschi a famous criminologist proposed the theory of Self-control. The sense of doing or not doing an act comes from within. Unlike the rest of the theories that emphasize on understanding why people commit a crime, this theory focuses on how people obey certain rules. It emphasizes developmental factors during childhood which is the most crucial time to develop constraints. People have an understanding of the crime they commit and are well aware of the consequences of such acts. According to the Self-Control Theory people are neither inherently criminals nor do they commit crimes due to exposure to certain adverse surroundings but they tend to develop self-control and attend to the controls to inhibit crime. Once developed, self-control remains stable throughout the lifetime.

Social Construction Theory:

According to social constructionists what counts as crime depends upon the one who is defining it, definitions may vary from person to person. It is a theory which is influenced mainly through cultural and social norms as a result there were many things considered legal but now illegal under social construction.

Conclusion:

Amongst all the ongoing exploration and researches of conflicting philosophies and theories, certain conclusions are inescapable. Theories are proposed for a better understanding of the crime and to look for ways to prevent the crime, but how far have these theories been able to prevent crime is still questionable. No matter how much these theories sound practical, even today proper treatment of convicted criminals follows the traditional methods. The brutalities that were once part and parcel of the punishment may be accounted fading gradually, could yet not be eradicated. What has never been noticed or brought into light is the repayment that the offender is compelled by quid pro quo in suffering. These theories do not talk about post punishment when the offender is set free he faces fear to walk down in society as another individual and that risks the chances of repetitive crime by one. Lastly, these theories continue to evolve but what must be brought into practice will be the modernistic approach towards crime and convicted.  It is hoped that these theories grow in ways where an individual does not have to go through disturbances and complexities in his daily life. One day these theoretical briefs will be overpowered by practicalities and the society will become a better place for all.


[1] R.D Hunter, Crime and Criminality: Causes and Consequences (2002).

[2] R. Clarke, Situational Crime Prevention (1997).


Written by –

Author Name – Sampoorna Saha

Published on – 05/08/2020