Routine Activities, Criminal Opportunity, and Ecology

Routine activities theory is one of the few theories that is crime-specific. Cohen and Felson (1979) simply described the necessary components for a direct-contact predatory offense (a motivated offender, a suitable target, coming together in the absence of a capable guardian), and subsequent research has applied the theory to many crime types. While a “suitable target” for burglary might be an unattended home or business, a suitable target for robbery is more likely to be a person who is carrying money and walking alone at night. The motivated offender for burglary is likely to be a little bit different from a robbery offender, as well. Burglary is a nonviolent crime, and it is commonly committed by younger teenagers and adults; it is also commonly a first major crime for a young adolescent boy. Robbery, in contrast, is considered a very serious offense. Robbery is seen by some as a very risky crime of desperation. It requires the willingness to take a great personal risk of physical harm, since the victim may be inclined to fight back. The willingness to use force sets this type of theft apart from nonviolent forms of theft. So the patterns that we see in burglary and robbery may have similarities (for example, both are more likely to occur in a disadvantaged neighborhood), but there are very significant differences between the few individuals who will turn to robbery as a way to supplement their income and the many who will confine their offending to nonviolent burglary.

Routine activities theory has its roots in the ecological view of human behavior. An ecological analysis of violent behavior differentiates it from other forms of offending like stealing and drug dealing. Ecologists view human behavior in much the same way that they see the behavior of other organisms. Cohen and Machalek (1988) discuss how eagles find food; sometimes they fish and sometimes they steal fish from other eagles. No ecologist would predict that an eagle in a given situation is equally likely to steal a fish, fight with another eagle over a mate, or kill a baby from another nest. Nor is the ecologist likely to say that whether an eagle fishes, steals a fish, or fights with another eagle is unpredictable. These are distinct behaviors that are going to occur under very different circumstances, and the basic point should not be lost in the study of humans.

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