Crime classification generally falls into two categories: either violent crime or nonviolent crime. Examples of violent crime include assault, homicide, armed robbery and similar crimes; whereas nonviolent crime includes crimes such as fraud, embezzlement, possession and more. Nonviolent and violent crimes are not always mutually exclusive and often overlap.
Unlike the classification of the actual crimes, the theories involving what causes or leads to the crime is much more convoluted. Each theory is just that – a theory, a tool to use in the pursuit of knowledge. Nothing is set in stone and nothing is cut and dry. However, there are schools of thought and approaches to theory that make this journey more approachable.
There are two main approaches to crime: biological theories and sociological theories. Biological theories refer to those theories that are based on the biological aspects of the criminal, such as neurology, physical and mental health. Sociological theories refer to external factors that drive individuals to become criminals.
Approaches to Crime Theory
While there are a variety of theories in regard to crime, there are two main approaches. These theories fall into two deciding categories, biological and sociological.
However, before addressing these approaches, it is crucial to define what a “theory” is in the context of criminology. In criminology and sociology, theories are “perceptual tools [used to] order, name and shape a picture of the world” (National University).This means that differing theories can be used to reach the same conclusion.
That is to say, one theory does not eliminate another theory and vice versa. They are simply avenues of thinking that lead in varying directions, not mutually exclusive.
While there are many biological theories in the world of criminology and sociology, the basis of a biological theory is that there is an internal drive to commit the crime that originates from within the individual.
Whether that internal drive is physical or mental, it is biologically determined within the individual and is not due to the external environment that the individual exists in. However, biological theories do not exclude physical traumas that alter the neurological makeup of an individual.
For example, a head injury or repetitive head injuries are known to cause violent criminal behavior in many individuals. This is well-documented in individuals who have suffered a head injury at both a young age and repetitive head injuries throughout adulthood.
In sum, biological theories encompass those theories that suppose the cause of the criminal behavior is inherent to the individual’s physical and/or neurological makeup and is basically unavoidable. While there are many biological theories, two of the most well-known and far-reaching are biological positivism and psychological positivism.
Biological Positivism stems from the late 19th century by way of an Italian prison psychiatrist and criminologist, Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso based his theory in anthropology and genetics, essentially making the claim that some criminals are simply born criminals.
Lombroso proffered that some individuals are born predisposed to criminal behavior due to a variety of biological factors rather than environmental factors later in life or, simply, personal choice. The idea of biological inferiority leading to criminal behavior is still widely theorized and applied today.
Some factors in play, when it comes to Biological Positivism, include physiological factors like brain function, diet, hormonal and chemical imbalances, in addition to vitamin deficiency.
This means that Biological Positivism does not rule out alcoholism, as a physical factor against the body, as a possible factor in criminal behavior. However, alcoholism also contributes massively to an individual mental health status which then leads into the theory known as Psychological Positivism.
As with Biological Positivism, Psychological Positivism was also theorized in the late 1800s. French criminologist Alexander Lacassagne posits that, in contrast to Biological Positivism, the root cause of an individual’s criminal leanings was not a physical ailment but rather a mental ailment.
However, Psychological Positivism and Biological Positivism hold similar roots in that they theorize that an individual is inherently born with the predisposition to commit criminal acts. Psychological Positivism theorizes that personality disorders and mental illness are often the determining factor in an individual’s likelihood to commit crimes rather than by personal choice.
For example, individuals with psychopathic personality disorders, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders, antisocial personality disorders, depression and neuroticism may be more predisposed to criminal acts than those without. However, that is not to say that all individuals suffering from mental illness are inherently criminal or prone to criminal behavior.
In contrast to Biological Theories of criminology, the Sociological Theories of criminology are rooted in environmental and social factors that influence an individual’s propensity for violence and/or criminal behavior. Patterns of crime through the sociological perspective are viewed differently than through a biological perspective.
Through the view of sociology there is a difference between criminal behavior and deviant behavior. Criminal behavior involves the act of a crime that “violates social laws” whereas deviancy “violates social norms and rules” but does not necessarily denote criminal behavior (National University). However, criminal behavior and deviant behavior are not mutually exclusive and can certainly overlap.
It is worth noting the difference between “crime” and “deviance” as Sociological Theories deal in both. Within the realm of Sociological Theories there are a number of theories pertaining to criminal behavior. Meanwhile, Sociological Theories pertaining to deviance are built into four main approaches: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, Social Strain Typology and Labeling Theory.
Structural Functionalism theorizes that deviance provides structure to society at a large scale. It creates an understanding of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Without deviant behavior, there is no accepted behavior.
Indeed, deviant behavior is often the cause for unrest, disturbance and social imbalance, but it also leads to the realigning of social norms and a new understanding of social balance. Deviant behavior brings together individuals that realize deviant behavior as unacceptable, thus creating “social cohesion” (National University).
Likewise, Conflict Theory posits that some deviant behavior is often caused by social unrest. Deviant behavior as a consequence to socio-political inequalities also creates social imbalance in a way that draws attention to where rebalancing socially is needed.
Those that are determined outside the socio-political elite are much more inclined to what is deemed deviant behavior by the latter group as the former is not awarded the benefits and privileges of the latter.
Social Strain Typology
Meanwhile, Social Strain Typology suggests that deviant behavior is sometimes the action taken by individuals while pursuing a socially-acceptable goal or life path. For example, a ritualistic or religious rite may call for behavior that is socially acceptable to those within the religion, however, for outsiders it may be considered deviant behavior.
The main forms of social deviance include ritualism, innovation, retreatism, conformity and rebellion.
Labeling Theory is a very relatable form of deviant behavior that requires the individual to be labeled as deviant prior to actual deviancy. This form of Sociological Theory posits that individuals who are first called deviant by another are then pre-disposed to become deviant due to that labeling.
For example, during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s in the United States, many teenagers who simply dressed in all black and listened to loud music were labeled as deviant individuals despite being innocent young adults. Due to this labeling, those teenagers were more likely to act out and behave in perceived deviant ways because of that label put upon them.
Labeling Theory is, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy as it requires a second party to put the would-be deviant individual into action.
A Third Approach: Rational Choice
In addition to Biological Theories and Sociological Theories, there is also the theory of Rational Choice. Rational Choice puts forth that some individuals are simply driven to criminal and/or deviant behavior by choice.
That choice may be the consequence of greed, lust, anger, or simple disregard. Often crimes committed by Rational Choice are those crimes that financially or materially benefit the individual committing the crime. Likewise, deviant behavior enacted for an audience is also considered Rational Choice.
Final Thoughts – Different Theories of Crime
Whether studying criminology, sociology or psychology, these theories of crime are only the surface of crime theory. Both Sociological and Biological approaches to crime theory are ever evolving areas of study.
At the core of the matter, Biological Theories propose that individuals are born with the predisposition to commit criminal acts or behave in a deviant manner. In contrast, Sociological Theories posit that individuals are not born with deviancy in their veins but are rather formed by socio-political and environmental factors that contribute to their likelihood to commit criminal and/or deviant behavior.
Meanwhile, Rational Choice is, perhaps, the most terrifying of all as it requires an individual’s complicity in the action taken and the crimes committed. There is no reason beyond their own.
The study of criminology is ever expanding and requires deep dives to even begin to grasp an understanding of criminal behavior. These Theories of Crime are the foundation of criminology and will pave the way to greater understanding of this field.