The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary (2008) describes criminology as “the scientific study of crime as a social phenomenon, of criminals, and of penal treatment”. The definition suggests that criminology has a more of a social basis, while some criminal theories posit that crime may have causal factors other than social. This essay aims to briefly cover the various criminological theories in vogue and offer the author’s own assessment as to which theory deserves greater credibility.
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The earliest theories revolved around the Classical and the Positivist approach. The Classical approach theorized that since all humans were endowed with free will and equal rights, “crime was a rational choice based on the pleasures of an illegal act outweighing its pains” (Cullen & Agnew, 2006, p. 8). The Positivist school argued that crime was committed by people who had not biologically ‘evolved’ enough and it also hinted that some are born criminals. Yet another early theory posited that criminals had specific biological and psychological traits which could be identified. These early theories were largely discredited by most experts and the Chicago school of social disorganization came into vogue. According to this theory, crime occurs because of the breakdown of social cohesion in the neighborhoods. Others theorized that criminal behavior is learned through association with anti-social elements. Merton asserts that lack of economic opportunity results in the non-realization of the ‘American Dream’ which in turn forces people to a life of crime to compensate for the lack of opportunity (De Melo, 2001, p. 15). In short, crime had a socio-economic dimension. Others say that socio-economic disparity cause ‘general strain’ which leads to criminal behavior. The control theory posits that lack of self or social control results in criminal behavior. Some theorists giving a modern twist to the classical theory, call a crime a result of rational analysis of ‘Cost-Benefit’ vis-à-vis possible punishment. Others look at crime from a more operative prism that standard human routines make them vulnerable targets at times when they are alone. Theorists also surmise that criminals once labeled as such, continue in that role as the stigma becomes lifelong from which they have no escape. The socialist theorists blame ‘Capitalist’ markets with their social inequities for the rise in crime. The gender-based theory states that crimes occur because men wish to show power over women and thus resort to force. Developmental theorists opine that crime has developmental causes that progress from before birth right through a criminals’ life where the environment plays an important role in determining whether the individual can escape from a life of crime or not. Some others take an integrated approach wherein the basic postulates of some of the theories are put together to explain that criminal behavior occurs in a sequential manner.
Having studied the various theories, the author of this essay opines that an integration of the theory of social disorganization, lack of sufficient socio-economic opportunities together with the effects of the environment are the main causes for criminal behavior. Modern Neurobiological studies have sufficiently proven that all humans are not necessarily ‘born equal’, thus debunking the classical and the positivist approaches. For example, behavioral psychologists have found that the poor judgment performance of adolescents is attributable to “incomplete frontal cortex and cerebellum development” (Hanson, 2006, p. 19). There is some neurobiological truth in stating that injury to the brain either through physical trauma or through biological defects may cause a loss of control over which humans will as no control. The neurobiological concepts are applicable for specific cases, but not the vast majority of criminals who populate America’s prisons. According to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics, as of 30 June 2007,” 2,299,116 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails” (Bureau Of Justice Statistics para 1). Most of these crimes are committed by people out of poverty and not so much as through the need for affluence. It must also be noted that the origins of most gangs and drug mafia started in the back alleys of low-income neighborhoods where the opportunity to earn the ‘honest buck’ was not sufficient. It is equally true that the breakdown of traditional family structures has led to a lack of suitable role models and advice by the elders to moderate the youth which has led to a rise in crime. The logic that the capitalist market with its social inequities leads to crime is not borne out by the fact that the same capitalist markets exist in Europe where the crime graph is much lower than the United States. In the opinion of the author, the gender-based, feminism-inspired criminological theory has no empirical evidence to support its validity.
Thus the personal criminological theory of the author surmises that a breakdown of the traditional family system, lack of adequate job opportunity, and poverty are the breeding grounds for crime to take root. Once a negative environment has been created, young adults who are yet to develop mature thinking get influenced by the elder criminals and take up a life of crime. The correctional environment, with most U.S. prisons filled to over twice the capacity, further accentuates negative reinforcements of criminal behavior leading to creating more hardened criminals rather than reducing them. People are rarely ‘born’ criminals but are made criminals by circumstances, environment, and socio-economic conditions.
- Bureau of Justice. 2008.”Prison Statistics”. Web.
- Cullen, F. T., & Agnew, R. (2006). Criminological Theory Past to Present Essential Readings 3rd edition. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company.
- De Melo, D. M. (2001). Criminological Theory. Web.
- Hanson, M. J. (2006). Towards a New Assumption in Law and Ethics. The Humanist , pp. 18-21.
- Merriam Webster. (2008). Criminology. Web.