Crime Causation Theories

The crime level has been a severe issue for society since the genesis of the world’s earliest civilizations. However, it was only in the 19th century when various scholars decided to examine patterns of behavior and social environment of the criminals in order to establish regularities between those factors and their direct implications. In such a way, numerous theories of crime causation have appeared. In the 19th century, various European mathematicians and statisticians decided to scientifically establish the interdependence of crimes and location, social conditions, and psychological patterns of behavior (Bruinsma, 2016). The most notorious approaches are Situational Action Theory, Strain Theory, and Social Learning Theory. As the number of such theories is steadily rising, researchers started to question their adequacy through a series of empirical examinations. The purpose of this paper is to provide a contrastive analysis of the three aforementioned crime causation theories in order to define the most prevalent one.

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One of the most widespread theories in this context is Situational Action Theory (SAT), developed in the late 20th century by Wikstrom. According to the method, the nature of the crime is always individual because humans tend to be influenced by their perception of reality and a particular situation (Hirtenlehner & Reinecke, 2018). Hence, much attention should be paid to the environment and precedents, which could potentially lead to such a result. The idea of the SAT is closely connected to the concept of self-control, which is a highly individualistic matter difficult to be appropriately measured. Thus, the theory cannot be considered exhaustive as the empirical studies provided on the topic tend to be summarized (Hirtenlehner & Reinecke, 2018). In such a way, they contradict the idea of situational patterns of human reaction.

The second well-known crime causation theory is called Strain Theory (ST). This theory primarily pays attention to the so-called strains, which mean any negative events or feelings humans receive and experience (Slocum & Agnew, 2017). Strains consist of stressful events such as loss or argument or various negative emotions connected with misunderstanding or unacceptance by society. As a lot of people suffer from strains on a daily basis, it is evident that not all of them tend to lead to illegal actions or acts of violence. According to the theory, it is also the coping skills and social surroundings that play a crucial role (Slocum & Agnew, 2017). Although modern researchers cannot define exactly which negative emotions can potentially lead to violent behavior, criminals still prove anger and desire for revenge to be the main implicit crime motivation.

The third theory, called Social Learning Theory (SLT), presupposes that the individuals who commit crimes are imitating the behavior of people that surround them. Such learning is mostly motivated by the acquiring of either reward or punishment for the particular action (Cochran, Maskaly, Jones, & Sellers, 2016). Thus, if a person sees that he or she can theoretically escape the punishment for a particular action and even achieve a certain reward for it, then the action is subconsciously considered to be safe.

The aforementioned theories, by all means, have the right to exist in modern criminology as they dwell upon the human cognitive characteristics, which may potentially encourage individuals to act violently. However, if to choose the most prevalent one, SA and SL theories lack objectivity on the empirical level and thus, cannot be applied universally. ST, on the other hand, is based upon the notion of triggers, which are frequently equated to the universal concept of crime.

To sum everything up, the field of theoretical criminology is steadily developing during the last decades, which can be considered to be both beneficial and questionable. As many theories arise from the crime examinations, it is now quite hard to establish which of them are valid. Regarding the SAT, ST, and SLT approaches discussed in the paper, despite the fact of incompleteness, Strain Theory should be considered prevalent. Such a conclusion is made due to the theory’s ability to adjust to most criminology cases on the ground of stressful experience as a crime predecessor.


Bruinsma, G. (2016). Proliferation of crime causation theories in an era of fragmentation: Reflections on the current state of criminological theory. European Journal of Criminology, 13(6), 659-676.

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Cochran, J.K., Maskaly, J., Jones, S., & Sellers, C. S. (2016). Using structural equations to model Akers’ social learning theory with data on intimate partner violence. Crime & Delinquency, 63(1), 39-60.

Hirtenlehner, H., & Reinecke, J. (2018). Introduction to the special issue with some reflections on the role of self-control in situational action theory. European Journal of Criminology, 15(1), 3-9.

Slocum, L.A., & Agnew, R. (2017). Strain theory, violence, and aggression. The Wiley Handbook of Violence & Aggression, 1-12.

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