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Theories of Crime Causation

Throughout the history of criminological thought, various theories on crime causation have been formulated and many questions as to why individuals commit crime still remain unanswered. This essay will focus on psychological and sociological theories in relation to criminological matters. Criminology the study of crime in society arose from sociology and psychology in the late 1800’s. It has three main schools of thought; classical, positivist and Chicago. The Italian criminologist and economist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) the father of classical criminal theory said human beings are free willed individuals who commit crime when they rationally calculate that the crime will give them more pleasure than pain and yield more benefit than loss.

Beccarria was against the death penalty and an advocate that ‘the punishment should fit the crime’ (Carpenter, 2013) Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) created the neoclassical school of criminology who mostly agreed with Beccaria except Bentham believed mitigating circumstances were a cause of crime. Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) the founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology rejected the classical theory of crime associated with Beccaria and Bentham.

It was Lombroso who argued the idea of genetically determined, distinct criminal types. He said criminals were atavistic beings who could be easily recognised by their abnormal physical features. (Tierney 1996) These anomalies included the shape of their skulls, asymmetry of the face and head, large cheekbones, ears and lips, long arms and a twisted nose. (Hoque, 2011)

Hans Eysenck thought that criminal behaviour was the result of an “interaction between certain environmental conditions and features of the nervous system” (Bartol, 2005) He was a firm believer in neurophysiological aspects that relate to criminals.

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According to Hans, extroversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism are included in the personality of the majority of criminals. Extroverts tend to need a great deal of stimulation, change, and excitement which leads them to be impulsive. Like neuroticism, high psychoticism does not mean you are psychotic or doomed to become so only that you exhibit some qualities commonly found among psychotics and that you may be more susceptible, given certain environments, to becoming psychotic. (Boeree, 2006)

The psychodynamic perspective is largely based on the ground breaking ideas of Sigmund Freud. Freud thought that human behaviour, including violent behaviour, was the product of “unconscious” forces operating within a person’s mind caused by early negative childhood experiences that can have an impact on adolescent or adult behaviour. His most important idea was that the human psyche has more than one aspect and is in three parts, the id, the ego and the super-ego. The id consists of all the inherited (i.e. biological) components of personality, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos. It demands immediate satisfaction which produces pleasure such as I want to eat now and I want to sleep now. When the id’s needs are denied it causes displeasure and pain. The ego also seeks pleasure and avoids pain but approaches both more realistically than the id.

The ego works out ways to satisfy the ids demands often by compromising or postponing satisfaction. The super-ego, the conscience consists of values and morals learned from our parents, peers and role models. It develops around the ages of 4-5 and its main function is to control the ids impulses which are forbidden such as sex and aggression. It regulates us and when we do something wrong our conscience makes us feel guilty so Freud believes that those who commit crimes lack the capacity to feel guilt and therefor have an overdeveloped Id. (McLeod, 2008) Another psychodynamic explanation of offending comes from John Bowlby (1951) with his attachment theory. He believed the way a child develops depended on the relationship between a child and the primary care giver. “A child copes better with the world when they are nurtured” (Bowlby 1988) When children feel physically and emotionally safe, receive comfort when in distress and are reassured when they are afraid they develop a secure foundation.

He argued that children who are devoid of affection and unable to bond or connect with other children are delinquents. This theory was born from his study of the effects of “maternal deprivation on personality development” children who are not properly attached to their primary caregiver may have no concern for the well-being of others. The behavioural theorists believed people have no free will and a person’s environment determines their behaviour. When we are born our mind is ‘tabula rasa’ (a blank slate) and that all behaviour is learnt from the environment. Behaviourists assume that the only things that are real are the things we can see and observe. We cannot see the mind, the id, or the unconscious, but we can see how people act, react and behave and as human behaviour is learned, all behaviour can be unlearned and new behaviours learned in its place.

Ivan Pavlov believed humans and animals were similar and he is best known for his work with dogs and his theory of classical conditioning which was taken further by John Watson who declared “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors”. (McLeod, 2008) Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s views were slightly less extreme than those of Watson. Skinner believed that we do have a mind but it is more beneficial to study observable behaviour and to look at the causes of an action and its consequences.

He called this approach operant conditioning which means changing of behaviour by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response and was based on the work of Thorndike (1905) who studied learning in animals and proposed a theory known as the ‘Law of Effect’ (McLeod, 2007) Albert Bandura (1977) in his social learning theory states behaviour is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning. To emphasise this he conducted a study to investigate if social behaviours (i.e. aggression) can be attained by imitation. Under controlled conditions, 24 boys and girls watched a male or female adult behave aggressively towards a toy called a ‘Bobo doll’. In some cases the doll was attacked with a hammer, and in others the doll was threw in the air and shouted at “pow, boom”.

Another 24 children were exposed to a non-aggressive adult and the final 24 children were not exposed to any adult at all. His findings showed that the children imitated what they had seen through watching the behaviour of another person. The moral and intellectual development perspective is the branch of cognitive theory that is most associated with the study of crime. Jean Piaget was one of the first psychologists to argue that people’s reasoning abilities develop in an orderly and logical fashion.

He revealed that children think differently to adults and are born with a very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge is based. His theory is based on three stages; schemas (building blocks of knowledge) processes that enable the transition from one stage to another (equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation) stages of development; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) applied the concept of moral development even further to the study of criminal behaviour. He argued that all people travel through six different stages of moral development.

At the first stage, people only obey the law because they are afraid of punishment. By the sixth stage, however, people obey the law because it is an assumed obligation and because they believe in the universal principles of justice, equity, and respect for others. Marxism criminology is influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx who essentially see crime and deviance as defined by the ruling class and used as a means of social control – if you don’t conform then you will be punished. Institutions such as the police, religion, schools, the justice system and prisons are there to keep the lower classes in check.

They argue that white collar crimes such as tax avoidance are ignored or classed as immoral but not illegal, while crimes committed by the less powerful in society such as burglary are seen as more serious. Marxists believe laws reflect the interests of the bourgeoisie (upper class, law makers,) while hindering the proletariat (working class, blue collar workers). Marxists see crime committed by the lower classes as a natural reaction to a society that offers them a lack of opportunity. Another Sociological pattern of crime is the Feminist theory which examines the study of women in conflict with the law. One of the first known feminists Emmaline Pankhurst was a leading British women’s rights activist, who led the movement to win the right for women to vote.

In October 1903, she helped found the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – an organisation that gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened ‘suffragettes’. British society as a whole was astonished by the demonstrations, window smashing, arson and hunger strikes of the suffragettes and shocked when in 1913, WSPU member Emily Davison was killed when she threw herself under the king’s horse at the Derby in protest of women’s right to vote. ( 2013)

Government statistics reveal a huge rise in the number of women in prison during these times. The feminist theory believes that women commit crimes in retaliation of oppression thrust upon them by society and men in particular. The crimes committed by women are mainly non-aggressive such as shop-lifting, prostitution and benefit fraud and are in an attempt to escape restrictions due to a lack of finances.

The functionalism approach to crime developed in part upon the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim sees everything in harmony and balance and views crime as an inevitable function of society. This is because not everyone buys into what is perceived as normal sentiment of society and by human nature will deviate. Crime and deviance is a normal part of all healthy societies as it is a ‘safety valve’ for someone to express discontent, however too much crime is dangerous for society. Marshall. B. Clinnard said crime served as a warning device to show society as failing and draws attention to problems which can be fixed. (Clinnard, Meier). Evaluation: Biological theory strengths are Lombroso saw crime as an illness caused by pathological inherited factors and said the sources of crime were seen to lie within the individual. Genetic features separated criminals from non-criminals. Functionalists argue crime is a factor of all societies not the individual. Marxists say it is the rulers of a capitalist system that create crime through conflict amongst the classes.

Psychological theory strengths are that people are controlled by their id, ego and superego and therefor despite the self-destructive nature of some behaviour they are unable to control it. Behaviourists argue that Freud ignored external factors such as aggression which can be learned through association and create criminals and deviants. Marxists say crime stems from social inequalities between social classes which divide them and causes conflict and that criminal deviance is defined by the ruling classes. Feminists argue Marxists placed too much emphasis on social inequality and ignored gender. Functionalists say the lower classes commit more crime because they do not take advantage of education which would better their prospects. Feminists say women commit crime because they are powerless in society and have been socialised to conform because of oppression caused by men. Marxists argue it is not patriarchy that encourages women to commit crime but a ruling elitist system.

Strengths of functionalism are Durkheim placed blame for crime on society and not individuals and that crime is needed for society to function. Feminists argue crime is not needed in society and its only function is to maintain patriarchal power. Strengths of behaviourism are we learn what we see through stimulus-response as proved in the ‘bobo-doll’ experiment.

Flaws of this theory are many experiments were carried out in highly controlled environments and did not allow for free will. Strengths of the cognitive theory are it takes into account the internal, invisible thought processes that affect our behaviour and are controlled by our own thought processes, as opposed to genetic factors.

Flaws of this theory are it does not take into account genetic factors; for example hereditary correlations of mental disorders. Human beings are complex, flawed individuals who commit crimes against each other and society, thankfully society is on the right track in looking more closely at what causes humans to commit crime as a means to preventing it. In the last thirty years bio-chemistry has played a big part in linking genetics and crime (Walsh, 1993). Brain imaging has revealed murderers, psychopaths and aggressive individuals have poorer functioning in the pre-frontal cortex and an 11% reduction in grey matter. (Raine, 2013) Long may they continue with their quest to uncover why humans commit crime!

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Theories of Crime Causation. (2016, Jul 02). Retrieved from

Theories of Crime Causation
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