Causes of Crime - Sociological Theories


Classicism & Positivism


  • Crime is determined by biological/psychological/sociological factors; can distinguish between criminals and non-criminals
  • Lombroso - criminals are a sub-species/genetic throwback, social Darwinism, atavistic form
  • Garofalo - advocate for scientific methodology, social Darwinism, wanted offenders treated harshly as they are the worst of society
  • Ferri - considered social and environmental factors, much more than Lombroso


  • Humans have free will/rational choice
  • Locke - challenged brutal nature of punishment and inequality of CJS, social contract - give up some of our freedom in return for protection/safety under the law
  • Beccaria - against capital punishment, believed sentences should be equally for everyone convicted of a certain crime, CJS should be fair, speedy, certain and exactly the right punishment
  • Bentham - utalitarianism, designed panopticon; control of minds rather than bodies 'all-seeing eye', influential prison design still used today 
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Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

  • Top-down labelling from those in authority to groups seen as deviant/undesirable
  • People seen as deviant have to be defined as such; has to be recognised/agreed upon so is subjective
  • Acceptance of label as deviant can create more deviant behaviour (identification) + may replicate deviant behaviours once they learn about them, e.g. jazz musicians smoking cannabis (deviancy amplification)

Cohen (1972)

  • Moral panics created through identification of folk devil, grabbing attention of public, prediction that things will get worse + symbolism 
  • Activity overreaction (paedophilia), numerical overreaction (ecstasy), escalation of minor offences (grime music) + amplification of serious offences (terrorism)

Hall (1978)

  • Term 'mugger' associated with black youths in certain areas of London during perceived street robbery crisis
  • Excessive media attention led to overpolicing which in turn caused the Brixton riots
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Strain, Anomie & Social Control


  • Anomie = people living without laws; form of derangement; deviance as a normal phenomenon
  • People take shortcuts to get to where they want to be, e.g. stealing
  • Crime as a social barometer - cannot be eradicated; more crime = more advanced the society is; pushes society towards advancement and is functional


  • Strain occurs when there's a lack of fit; leads to tension
  • Deviance typology - 4 deviant adaptations for those who don't conform: innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion
  • Means-end theory - people forced into crime as they lack intellectual/social/economic means to achieve goals


  • Crime = result of weakness in institutions, e.g. certain family types, lack of trust in police/government
  • 4 bonds of attachment: attachment, commitment, involvement and belief
  • Focus on motivation - strain as a state of mind
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Differential Association

Sutherland (1934)

  • Crime as a learned behaviour/adaptation; what is learned rather than how
  • Learn the attitudes of peers, family, media etc - the balance between favourable and unfavourable attitudes towards crime determines whether a person will offend or not
  • Conflict of cultures = key to explaining crime, e.g. peer pressure - can also be conflict of values
  • Book White Collar Crime seen as anti-American/capitalist so censored until 1983
  • Affected by high levels of poverty and organised crime in Chicago

Crimes of the Powerful

  • Criminaloid - powerful, rare, outwardly respectable with connections to society (Lombroso)
  • 1920s - crime increase of 25% as prohibition duty diverted police attention
  • 2 types of organised crime: 'Bonnie & Clyde' vs 'Al Capone'

Croall (1992)

  • White collar crime = low visibility, complexity, diffusion of responsibility and diffusion of victimisation
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The Chicago School


  • Founded in 1892 - first major sociology department
  • Chicago = 2nd largest city in US, huge population increase due to industrialisation, melting pot

Theory of Zonal Development & Zone in Transition (ZIT)

  • City = body with different organs
  • Grows in concentric circles - each circle defined by a certain form of residence, e.g. China Town, Little Italy
  • Crime rates reduce the further away from the ZIT - population increases each year meaning there is a lack of social control; fight for resources leads to poverty and cultural conflict (racial/ethnic hetergenity); broken window theory (crime is evident so people more likely to accept it and potentially contribute to it)

Shaw & McKay (1942)

  • Areas with high crime rate stay that way for a significant amount of time
  • Found strong link between poverty and criminality and higher crime rates amongst working class
  • High infant mortality, high rates of mental illness and high rates of disease, e.g. tuberculosis
  • Chicago Area Project aims to reduce juvenile delinquency by improving community life
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Subcultural Theories

Cloward & Ohlin (1961)

  • Illegitimate opportunity structure combines anomie/strain theories with subculture
  • Rejection from legitimate culture can cause someone to look at illegitimate culture for acceptance - importance of position in society and performance at school
  • Three subcultures: criminal (profit making), conflict (violence resulting from frustration and desire for respect) and retreatist (rejection from both legitimate and illegitimate cultures, 'double failures', alcohol/substance abuse)

Cohen (1955)

  • Attempted to explain how a subculture begins - response to frustrations of lower class as they don't have the rewards of the middle-class, middle-class measuring rod creates frustration
  • Almost exclusively working-class men in urban slums; subcultures = transient, adaptable, versatile
  • Female delinquency = frustration at double standards/sexism

Wolfgang & Ferracuti (1967)

  • Street crime and drug-influenced culture in black communities in Philadelphia - feel the need to be tough
  • Youths seen as reactive and violent due to Civil Rights and anti-war movements
  • Violence is learned as an adaptation (socialisation)
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