Sociological Explanations

Sociological explanations of crime look at criminal behaviors as emanating from environmental influences. Early and influential sociological theories were proposed beginning in the 1930s. For example, Edwin Sutherland suggested that delinquent behavior is learned in much the same way that people learn other things—by observation, role modeling, and reinforcement.

Sutherland called his learning process theory differential association, and he proposed that an individual becomes a criminal by associating with people who condone violation of the law. In effect, criminal attitudes are learned from others (Cole and Smith, 2007).

While Sutherlands differential association was an early sociological explanation of crime, there are several others, including the following:

  • Blocked opportunity: Criminal behavior results from lack of access to legitimate means for achieving goals.
  • Labeling theory: When society reacts negatively toward an individual or labels him or her, the person acquires a negative self-image and acts accordingly.
  • Social bonding: If an individual has weak bonds to society, then that person is less likely to respect the customary social rules or laws.
  • Social strain: These theories focus on social disorganization, anomie (a state of normlessness in society), and subcultures that focus on negative social structures and relationships. Developed most completely by Robert Agnew, it is believed that in some individuals, crime may provide an effective short-term solution to strain (Siegel, 2006).
  • Subculture theories: These theories focus on an identifiable segment or group characterized by specific patterns of behavior. These identifiable segments could include gangs and some lower social-class neighborhoods.
  • Conflict theories: These views of the causation of crime look at how powerful groups in society make the laws that confer criminal status on the least powerful members of society.
  • Critical or radical criminology: The emphasis in these theories is on social class inequality and economic conditions, rather than on the characteristics of the individual criminal.
  • Gender-based: These theories focus on why women are not strongly represented in crime statistics—or even in theories about crime causation. The gender-based theories support the idea that it is how the justice system responds to women’s criminal offending which explains why there are fewer arrests and less incarceration of women.

There are also social process theories within the broad category of sociological theories. These theories concern themselves with the process by which people become criminals. The social process theories include the following:

  • Learning theory: While learning theory can be viewed as a psychological theory in which people learn by using other people as models, it is also a social process theory. As a social process theory, criminologists look at how individuals might become criminal by learning from the media, including—and perhaps most importantly—television. Whether the process is learning or imitation, the end result is the same: what people see on TV, in the movies, or in video games may influence how they behave (Reid, 2009).
  • Control theories: In these approaches, the focus is on explaining why people obey the law. People who follow the law are said, by these theories, to do so because they respond to appropriate social controls. For instance, Travis Hirschi’s (2004/1969) control theory emphasizes social bonds. The basic concept of control theory is the individual’s bonds to the family and other social institutions.

Finally, there are a number of so-called integrated theories.These theories of the causation of crime attempt to explain delinquent and criminal behavior from several points of view. The integrated approaches try to combine various schools of thought regarding crime causation to explain criminal offending.The major integrated theories are the following:

  • • Developmental and life course theories: These approaches take the position that age-related variables explain the changes in delinquent and criminal behavior best.The life course approach is based on the premise that development is an ongoing process that unfolds over the entire life span.
  • • Age-graded theory: Sampson and Laub developed a theory which contends that people are inhibited from offending by their social bonds to the age-graded institutions (such as school, work, and marriage) at various stages of their lives (Siegel and Welsh, 2009).
  • • General theory: Robert Agnew contributed a general theory (in addition to his strain theory) which argues that such factors as personality traits, types of social support, and peer relationships must all be taken into account to determine why people offend. In addition, Gottfredson and Hirschi proposed a general theory of crime which suggests that it is a lack of self-control caused by inadequate child-rearing practices by parents, along with various inborn traits, that leads to impulsiveness and risk-taking behavior (Siegel and Welsh, 2009).
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