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The science of criminology studies one vital question – What makes criminals do what they do?

Although the question appears simple. The answers are exceptionally complex. For centuries, criminologists have grappled with the intricate and troubling relationship between criminals, their behavior and the overall societal impact.

Through observation and study, criminologists have developed a plethora of theories. Some of these modern theories are centered around the individual actor. While other contemporary theories focus their attention on society.

Here are 9 of these theories–

Critical Theory

The central tenant of this theory is simple. Society’s elite have created the laws. And, those who commit the crimes disagree with these laws (which were essentially enacted to control them).

Critical theorists believes that crime is a by-product of oppression. Most notably, the oppression of society’s less advantaged. Such as ethnic minorities and the poor.

The theory states that these oppressed sections of society suffer due to racism, sexism and classism. And, as a result, the laws that govern our society disproportionally impact these groups of people, and their struggle to remain competitive in a divided world.

Positivist Theory

The positivist theory holds that individuals do not make a conscious choice to commit a crime. Rather, the criminal actor is compelled to commit the crime due to something beyond their control. Such as low intelligence or societal rejection.

To that end, the theory states that these individuals generally do not possess the moral comprehension to grasp the wrongfulness of their actions in the same way a person of average intelligence could comprehend.  Essentially, the minds of these individuals have been negatively affected to the point where they are incapable of making a rational choice to obey the law.

Conflict Theory

This is a particularly interesting concept. Under this theory, laws only arise out of necessity due to the continuous conflict between societal classes – such as rich versus poor. Our laws only exist because of the innate tension that arises from the evident social and economic disparities found in society.

The theory purports that the entire criminal justice system exists to serve the affluent and powerful in their quest to control the poor and disenfranchised. The theory further suggests that the middle-class generally sides with the elite out of self-preservation and the goal of climbing the socio-economic ladder.

Choice Theory

A choice theorist believes that human beings decide whether to commit a crime by simply looking at the opportunity and weighing the benefit versus the punishment. Once that analysis is completed, the person then decides whether it is worth committing the crime.

This theory, based on a cost benefit analysis, simply holds that most people do not choose to go forth with the criminal action because of the ultimate deterrent – penal punishment.

Routine Activity Theory

This theory proposes that criminal activity is inevitable if the target is attractive enough. Basically, if a store is stocked with priceless jewels, criminals will eventually attempt to steal those items.

In turn, the only way to stop the criminality is to ensure measures are put in place to deter or stop the crime from occurring.


Life Course Theory

Criminologists who subscribe to this theory believe that, in order to understand why a person committed a crime, one must understand the history of that individual. Under this approach, a person’s life must be examined from cultural, structural and societal contexts.

Once a person’s life history has been fully assessed, then it can be determined what prompted this person to commit their crime. This theory focuses on how an individual’s life unfolds in the context of their own personal history.

Social Control Theory

Expanding on the Routine Activity Theory, the Social Control Theory holds that society has a responsibility to maintain a degree of stability in the life of individuals. Essentially, society must create clear rules and responsibilities for its members, and design activities to prevent criminal behavior.

This theory is evident in impoverished areas. Under this theory, society bears some responsibility for ensuring that people are not so poor that crime is their only option.

Labeling Theory

The Labeling Theory is just that – a label. Those who are told they are criminals, will become criminals. This theory follows the adage that a person will eventually become what society believes them to be.

If a person is treated like a criminal their entire life, then they will naturally act according to this label.

Classical Theory

The Classical Theory believes that criminal actions are committed after an individual thinks about their actions. A criminal will only commit a crime if the result is to their advantage. The criminal is fully aware of the potential punishment, but has pursued the crime under their own free will.

This theory is rooted in John Locke’s “The Social Contract,” which states that we are all equals with mutual rights and duties. And that if a person commits a crime, they are breaking the unwritten social contract.

These are all exceptionally interesting theories concerning how our society functions. There seems to some truth to all of them. Is there a particular theory that strongly resonates with you?


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