Criminal Theory

There are many theories on crime, some valid, others questionable. Many are valid and in some cases several different theories may blend together to help explain crime. Many theories can be seen as interrelated in trying to explain certain types of crime and the reasons why certain types of people may commit a criminal act. Some of these theories are social learning theory, lack of social learning, heredity, rational choice, economic factors, and opportunity theory. Many other theories are certainly valid as well.

Criminal personalities can be learned. Edwin H. Sutherland, a criminologist, proposed that criminality is not inherited, it is learned. Ronald L. Akers developed Sutherland’s theories into the social learning theory. Akers argues that “criminal behavior is learned. However, the way it is learned, is through direct operant conditioning, and imitation or modeling of others” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 143). Imitation or modeling can play a big part in whether or not a person is likely to commit a crime.
“A number of factors influence the modeling process. For instance, one tends to imitate those one likes, respects, or admires. Imitation is also more likely if the observer sees the model being reinforced, if the model displays pleasure or enjoyment, or if imitating the model in itself is being rewarded. An observer, though, may do the reverse or opposite of what a model does if he or she dislikes the model, sees the model punished, or if imitation of the model is being punished” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 114).

If a person grows up in an environment that encourages or blatantly shows crime as a viable way of life, then certainly that person is going to be more likely to also lead a life of crime. On the other hand, if a person sees deviant behavior being reinforced with punishment rather than reward then a person may learn that deviant behavior will not get them what they want and they may not engage in criminal activity.

Another theory relating to the “learning” of behavior, but taking an almost opposite view is the learning theory discussed in Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi’s A General Theory of Crime. They believe that most criminal activity comes from a “lack of socialization or learning” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 161). Gottfredson and Hirschi cite a person with low self-control as the kind of person to commit a crime. Low self-control stems from “Inaccurate or inadequate socialization” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 161). Lack of parental involvement or supervision can lead a child to develop low self-control, and therefore become more likely to commit criminal acts. With a lack of parental socialization, a child may become socialized by watching television, for example. Socialization by forces other than parental may influence a person’s tendency to become delinquent.
Another theory in crime is hereditary. This theory can be valid for several different reasons. Some of the reasons are very similar to the theory that criminal behavior is learned. If generation after generation of a family is criminal, then the children are highly likely to also become criminals. Early theorist saw a connection between criminal activity and heredity. “More contemporary theorist, however, attempt to take into account how environment factors may interact with hereditary predispositions to produce criminality” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 41). Again, if a child repeatedly see the people the child looks up to committing crimes, the child is fare more likely to end up leading a life of crime.

Rational choice theories also describe the tendency to commit a crime. “Rational choice theory, which was developed most extensively by Derek Cornish and Ronald Clark, accepts the classical position that humans are rational beings who exercises free will in deciding on a course of action” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 11). Common sense suggests that people have the free will to choose whether or not they will commit a criminal act.

Crime can also be caused by economic factors. People in low income areas are likely to be more prone to criminal activities than those earning a higher income. Studies show that “most American, whatever their social position, are dissatisfied with their income” (Cullen & Agnew, 2003 p. 193). People dissatisfied with their income may have a higher tendency to commit a crime. Lower income individuals tend to desire a “Larger increase in income than person in higher strata” (Cullen & Agnew, 2003 p.193). This suggests that income has a significant impact on whether or not a person is likely to commit a crime.
Opportunity theories are another way of looking at crime. Going along with learning theories and rational choice, certain people will commit a criminal act if given enough opportunity to do so. Opportunity theory takes into account the learning to be deviant as well as the economic tendency to commit a crime. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin discuss this in their book, Delinquency and Opportunity. “The potential deviant must be in an environment conducive to learning deviance and, once trained, must have an opportunity to engage in deviation” (Curran & Renzetti, 2001 p. 124). This theory ties learning, economic factors and opportunity together to more completely explain why a person may commit a crime than any individual theory is able to accomplish.

Many different, valid theories have been developed by criminologists through the years. Social learning theory, lack of socialization, heredity, rational choice, economic factors and opportunity theories blend together to help explain why a person may commit a criminal act.


Cullen, F.T., & Agnew, R. (2003). Criminological Theory Past to Present. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
Curren, D>, & Renzetti, C. (2001). Theories of Crime. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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