Crime Theory Comparisons

What causes crime? Why do people do such horrible things? These are questions that have been on the lips of men and women for ages. Yet, today they are more frequent, more public and more pervasive in that crime has grown and evolved as our society has grown and evolved. In an attempt to answer these questions, theorists have worked long and hard to find explanations that would allow a non-violent, non-criminal individual to understand what goes on in the heart, mind, body and soul of a criminal violent or otherwise. In the next few pages, we will explore four of these criminological theories: Anomie Theory, Psychological Modeling Theory, Conflict Theory and Biochemical Theory, by defining them, then attempting to bring them together to make a connection. These selected theories fall into four categories of theories:

�· Social Organizational
�· Psychological Learning and Developmental
�· Labeling and Conflict
�· Biological and Biochemical

Durkheim’s Anomie Theory, first presented in his book The Division of Labor in Society, asserts the idea that unstable relationships evolve when society moves from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity (Anonymous, 2005). When simpler societies based on familial relationships and common beliefs become more complex and lose their cohesion or “collectiveness,” society is less able to instill a sense of unity or oneness within its members. As a result, society requires an artificial “glue” which is manifested by the State in its role as “social monitor.” In this more complex society, individual appetites (unrestrained ambition) can become problematic when the social equilibrium becomes unbalanced, when a state of anomie exists. During an absence or confusion of norms and rules, individuals may exhibit deviant behavior and crime may rise until a new balance is achieved. Any sudden change causes a state of anomie, be it positive or negative, during a great prosperity or a great depression (Greek, 2003). Example: When the English came to America, they were a small group of individuals, many of whom were related, with a common set of beliefs and understandings and there was little conflict. As hardship increased, there was an increased need to focus on survival and beliefs and understandings were sometimes overridden or forsaken.

Psychological Modeling Theory is a blend of reinforcement theory and cognitive psychology. Humans learn vicariously through a four-step process: attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivations or reinforcements. Bandura identified the primary models as family members, members of one’s subculture and symbolic models provided by mass media. Therefore, “treatment” to prevent aggressive and potentially criminal behavior must be invoked during childhood. All behavior is learned in response to stimuli so, to change behavior, the stimuli must be changed. Social learning models appear to be deterministic, having their roots in behaviorism. Such models tend to treat human beings like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats and oversimplify the complexity of the human animal. Example: A boy watches his father routinely beat his mother. The boy grows up, marries and beats his wife.

Culture Conflict Theory states that conduct norms express the group’s cultural values. Society conduct norms require people to act in a certain way. In a homogenous society, conduct norms represent the consensus of the group and few disagree with what is right and wrong. However, in a heterogeneous society, there may be considerable disagreement about what is right and what is wrong. There are two forms of culture conflict, primary and secondary. Primary conflict exists when the established norms of the culture in “control” (the majority) are imposed on people socialized in a different culture. Secondary conflict exists when a subculture develops within the dominant culture that is at odds with the norms of the dominant culture. According to Turk there are six propositions governing the transformation of differences into legal conflict. Conflict is most probable when:

�· behavioral differences between those in authority and those subject to that authority are compounded with cultural differences
�· resistors (subjects) are well organized
�· subjects are less sophisticated than authority
�· cultural and behavioral norms of the authorities become more similar
�· resistors (subjects) have low power
�· norm violators (resisters/subjects) have low realism

It is unlikely that any complex society could ever achieve equilibrium. Cultural differences will inevitable provoke reactions. There will always be a group in power and that group will impose their values on those subject to that power (Keel, 2003). Example: When the Europeans came to America and began their expansion, they imposed their norms on the indigenous people. This resulted in open conflict, oppression, then an attempt to assimilate�submit or die.

Biochemical Theories are relatively new, as criminological theories go, and revolve around the concept that the human body is a chemical factory that must remain in balance. When a chemical imbalance occurs, deviant or criminal behavior is possible. Some of the issues studied in relation to chemical imbalances include: substance abuse, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, monoamine oxide, foods, toxins, hormones and brain dysfunction. Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances. It creates a chemical change in the body and the brain and lowers any natural inhibitions as well as diminishing judgment. The condition created by the introduction of this chemical into the existing chemical system of the body may facilitate the commission of a crime. Drunk driving causes around 16,000 deaths annually, more than 60 percent of homicides involve alcohol and 65 percent of aggressive sexual acts against women involve alcohol. Biochemical theory is not all encompassing and there are people who do not fit into the generalized picture, exceptions to the rule. For example, some people are more likely to become addicted and re-addicted than others. Biochemical theorists also concede that there are potentially non-biochemical factors that can increase or decrease the likelihood of relapse and re-addiction. One again, we see that it is not a single theory ruling the outcome (Brecher, 1972). Example: A woman takes drugs, puts her baby in the tub for a bath, forgets the baby is in the tub and the baby drowns. There is a biochemical “reason” for her crime.

Starting with Anomie Theory we have a condition in which society is out of balance due to a lack of controls or norms. Looking at this theory, there seems to be a correlation with Conflict theory. Conflict Theory espouses that cultural conflicts exist and that those setting the norms create imbalance through the imposition of their accepted norms on the less dominate or subcultures within that society. These theories would seem to lend support to each other yet, in the case of either, it seems “balance” is not something achievable. If we were to accept these theories, it would mean crime was inevitable and with us to stay in ever increasing amounts as cultures continue to clash and globalization increases. Let’s add Psychological Modeling Theory to the mix and take this a step further. If “we learn what we see and live” then we are preconditioned for conflict and potentially criminal behavior because we live somewhere in the midst of anomie and cultural conflict. If we belong to a subculture, we learn from that subculture and will tend to perpetuate the conflict we see on a daily basis. If we belong to the authority group, we are likely to be involved in conflict with the opposing group because we are “taught” to believe in the “status norm.” One more stir of the pot as we add Biochemical Theories. Biochemical theories have risen out of disenchantment with the practical failure of the psychological and sociological theories and further attempt to define the “reason” for crime. If we haven’t blown ourselves up with this mix of theories, we can now look at how our society (the controlling group at least) has established drug abuse as a norm, even though we attempt every day to deny that fact. For years alcohol consumption has been encouraged and promoted as the “sophisticated,” “cool,” socially acceptable thing to do. The abuse of this drug has turned into the “excuse” of this drug with biochemical theory. This theory promotes the idea that individuals commit crimes because of the chemical imbalance created by the consumption of alcohol (as one example). So here we have an imbalanced society in a constant state of conflict, setting a bad example for its youth, while making excuses for its misbehavior. Under these conditions, crime is inevitable, probable and it is a wonder there isn’t more of it.

None of these theories are complete in themselves. They all attempt to offer perfect insight into cause and effect, yet they all fall short because there is no absolute. Within each category of theories, the theorists have attempted to build on or tear down the work of theorists who came before them. It would be interesting to take each of the existing theories and create a map showing where they converge, intersect or propel away from each other. We would need a very large piece of paper�and we would need to leave space for the next generations of theory.

There is no empirical evidence for any of these theories and it is doubtful that there will be any in the near future. What these theories do offer is an opportunity to think about what causes crime and attempt to make correlation with past crimes, while attempting to predict future crimes. Some of the theories are entirely too broad for a single individual to make practical application, while others put forth a more focused idea which may offer an individual a starting point to explain at least some crime.


Anonymous, 2005. Durkheim’s Anomie, retrieved from the Internet on March 19, 2005 from

Brecher, Edward M. 1972. The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, retrieved from the Internet On March 19, 2005 from

Greek. Cecil E., Dr. 2003. Anomie, retrieved from the Internet on March 20, 2005 from

Keel, Robert. 2003. Culture Conflict Theory, retrieved from the Internet on March 20, 2005 from

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