Criminal Behavior Theories

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Criminal Behavior Theories

Criminal Behavior Theories


It has been said that there are as many theories of crime as there are criminals. This is, of course, an overstatement, but social scientists certainly have not been at a loss in their attempts to explain criminal behavior. Nevertheless, all theories of criminal behavior can be classified as one of three types: biological/physiological theories, which look for the causes of criminal behavior in the biological or physical make up of individual offenders; psychological/psychiatric theories, which look for the causes of criminal behavior in the mental or emotional make-up of individual offenders; and sociological theories, which look for the causes of criminal behavior in factors external to individual offenders, including the environments in which they live, their relationships with others, and others' reactions to their behavior as well as their sex, social class, and racial/ethnic identification.

Differential Association Theory

One theory that can account for crime among all social groups was developed in the 1940s by sociologist Edwin H Sutherland. Sutherland's theory, differential association theory, maintains that criminal behavior is learned, and it is learned the same way any other behavior is learned: through interpersonal communication and social interaction in small, intimate groups. What is learned through this socialization process is not only the techniques for committing specific types of crimes, but also the attitudes and motivations that justify and encourage criminal offending. However, simple exposure to criminal techniques, attitudes, and motives is not enough to cause an individual to commit crime. Rather, crime results when an individual receives an excess of situational definitions favorable to law violation over definitions unfavorable to law violation. The process of social interaction by which these definitions are acquired Sutherland called 'differential association'.

The term 'differential association' underlines Sutherland's point that individuals receive both kinds of definitions, but not all interactions through which the definitions are received are equal; some carry greater weight and, therefore, have more influence on a person. According to Sutherland, associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Associations that occur often (frequency) and are long-lasting (duration) have a greater impact than those that are infrequent and brief. Associations that occur early in a person's life have a greater impact than those that occur later in life (priority), and associations with people one respects or admires have a greater impact than those with people for whom one has little regard (intensity).

Differential association theory is generally considered one of the most influential theories of criminal behavior of the twentieth century. It accounts for various types of criminal activity by members of various social groups, even those who are financially successful. However, critics of differential association theory argue that it is essentially untestable, since there is no way to validly measure associations, much less determine frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, while controlling for other intervening variables. Nevertheless, the idea that criminal behavior is learned in much the same way other behavior is learned remains a central principle of sociological theories of crime, and many contemporary theorists have revised and ...
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