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Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Chapter 3 reviews traditional and new theories of crime that attempt to describe the variety of deviant and criminal behavior.

Ideas about Theories of Crime

  • Crime is socially defined. What is considered a crime at one place and time may be considered normal or even heroic behavior in another context.

  • The earliest explanations for deviant behavior attributed crime to supernatural forces. A common method to determine guilt or innocence was trial by ordeal.

  • Although theories of crime causation and the workings of the legal and criminal justice systems are of limited utility, there are theories that can explain some crime.

  • Many theories of crime have failed to provide reasonable explanations.

The Classical School of Criminology

  • The classical school of criminology, which argues that people freely choose to engage in crime, is embodied primarily in the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.

  • Beccaria presented nine principles that should guide our thinking about crime and the way society responds to lawbreakers.

  • According to Bentham’s utilitarianism theory, people are guided by a desire for pleasure and aversion to pain.

The Positivist School of Criminology

  • The positivist school of criminology uses scientific techniques to study crime and criminals and focuses on what factors compel offenders to commit crimes.

  • The positivist school comprises many types of theories of crime, including biological, psychological, sociological, and critical sociological.

Biological Theories of Crime

  • Many biological theories of crime have been discredited. These include phrenology, Lombroso’s atavisms, Hooton’s work with physiology, Sheldon’s somatotyping, and XYY syndrome (as a causal factor of criminal behavior).

  • Cesare Lombroso used the term atavisms to describe the physical differences he believed he found between offenders and non-offenders.

  • Earnest Hooton also studied the relationship between physiology and crime. He claimed that the physical features of offenders were different from those of non-offenders.

  • William Sheldon used the term somatotyping to describe three variations of the body, endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph, and claimed that body type was an indication of behavior.

  • Currently, researchers are examining three areas to determine whether some people commit crimes for physical reasons: hormones, brain structure, and brain chemistry.

Psychological Theories

  • Sigmund Freud developed a psychological paradigm that focused on unconscious forces and drives. He contended that the personality comprises three parts: the id, ego, and superego.

  • B.F. Skinner’s theory of behaviorism, based on the psychological principle of operant conditioning, states that behavior is determined by rewards and punishments.

Sociological Theories of Crime

  • Sociological theories focus on the social situation or environment as a cause of crime.

  • Chicago-school researchers concluded that social disorganization causes crime.

  • Edwin Sutherland developed differential association theory, which claims that crime is learned.

  • Ronald Akers contends that crime is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning.

  • Robert Merton’s strain theory of delinquency was influenced by French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s theory of anomie or “normlessness.”

  • Travis Hirschi’s social control theory explores why most people do not commit crimes.

  • Gresham Sykes and David Matza developed neutralization theory to describe how offenders deflect feelings of blame and shame.

  • Edwin Lemert helped develop labeling theory, which contends that people commit deviant behavior because they consider themselves “outsiders” and attempt to live up to that label.

Critical Sociological Theories of Crime

  • The term “critical theory” describes a range of perspectives that consider social justice a legitimate end.

  • Criminologists who study Karl Marx’s ideas of social control point out that those in power control the making and the enforcement of the law.

  • Feminism examines how women are treated differently from men in a society dominated by male power structures.

  • Much of what is reported about female offenders and female criminal justice system practitioners is based on the study of males.

  • Critical race theory observes that people of color are over-represented in the criminal justice system and suggests that race is a crucial variable for scholars to examine when attempting to explain the dynamics of the criminal justice system.


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