Sociological Theories of Crime and Criminological Psychology   no comments

Posted at 11:06 pm in Criminology

Source: The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (3rd Ed.) by Maguire, Morgan and Reiner

Chapter 2. Sociological Theories of Crime

This chapter provides a broad summary of the various sociological theories of crime which seek to examine the relationship between crime and society.

Anomie theories

Robert Merton’s theory of anomie is caused as a socially-fostered state of discontent and deregulation that generated crime and deviance as part of the routine functioning of a society which promised much to everyone but denied them equal access to its attainment .

In a society where failure is interpreted as personal rather than social weakness, where failure tended to lead to guilt rather than political anger, the pressure to succeed may be so powerful that it impelled people thus disadvantaged to bypass legitimate carers and take illegitimate careers.

Control theory

To control those who seek to commit crime because it’s “profitable, useful or enjoyable” and will certainly break the law if they have to. Travis Hirschi believes the question is not “why do they do it” but should be – “why don’t we do it?”

Four chief elements were held to induce people to comply with rules:

  1. Attachment – a person’s sensitivity to the opinions of others
  2. Commitment – investment of time, energy and reputation in conformity
  3. Involvement – engrossment in conventional activity
  4. Belief – mirrors a person’s conviction that he or she should obey legal rules

Steven Box’s list of variables that were held to affect control:

  1. Secrecy (the delinquent’s chances of concealment)
  2. Skills (knowledge and techniques needed for the deviant act)
  3. Supply (access to appropriate equipment)
  4. Symbolic support (the endorsement offered by accounts available in the wider culture)

It is believed that the greater the access to each of the above, the greater the likelihood to commit crime.


Symbolic interactionism and phenomenology (labelling theory) which insists that people do not and cannot respond immediately, uncritically, and passively to the world “as it is”.

Deviance itself was to become more generally likened to  a moral career consisting of interlocking phases, each of which fed into the next, each of which presented different existential problems and opportunities; each of which could distinctively mould the self of the deviant. Not every phase was inevitable or irreversible and deviants could often elect to change direction.

Relevance to the cybercrime

The pressure to succeed in the world today is indeed overwhelming and it is obvious that some will be prepared to gain success through illegitimate ways, as proposed by Robert Merton. Obviously, in the age of the internet, the faster way to gain success would be to exploit the internet platform as it  gives the offender potential access to multi-millions of connected users all across the globe. In fact, when compared with Steven Box’s list of variables, it becomes obvious why cybercrime occurs. A high degree of secrecy (ignoring the technical details) can be achieved over the internet with little skill required since a lot of the techniques are well published. Supply to equipment is easy since all one needs is a computer whilst there is a symbolic support in the sense that cybercriminals are always portrayed  as smart and cool. Such a sequence of steps to commit a cybercrime is also described in symbolic interactionism and phenomenology that each step feeds into the other but each step is not irreversible nor inevitable.

Chapter 5: Criminological Psychology (Forensic Psychology)

In this chapter, the authors attempt to bring forward to the reader some of the few behavioural and cognitive criminological theories.

Differential Association Theory

Sutherland proposed that criminal behaviour is in fact a learned behaviour. He speculated that learning occurs in close social groups and hence behaviour is acquired through such contacts.

Product of learning is not just the skills of committing crime but also the attitudes that outweigh conformist attitudes and so are conducive to breaking the law.

Differential Reinforcement Theory

The theory of differential reinforcement theory: a criminal act occurs in an environment in which in the past, the actor has been reinforced to behaving in this manner, and the aversive consequences attached to the behaviour have been much of such a nature that they do not control or prevent the response. (Hence, the individual’s history of reinforcement and punishment can be used to explain his/her criminal behaviour.

Personality and Crime

Eysenck’s theory seeks to offer an explanation of crime based on an interaction of biological, social, and individual factors. He proposed three dimensions of personality: extraversion (E), neuroticism (N) and psychoticism (p). He saw E, N and P as a continuum in which the majority of the people fall in the centre of the continuum. He believes and empirically proven that offenders demonstrate high N, P and E scores.

Cognition and Crime

Kohlberg argues that offending is associated with a delay in the development of moral reasoning : when the opportunity for offending presents itself, the individual does not have the reasoning that would allow him or her to control and resist temptation.

Empiracal proof (Blasi 1980, Nelson, Smith and Dodd 1990) that offenders do typically show lower levels of moral reasoning.

Social problem solving skill:

  1. To understand the situation
  2. To envisage potential courses of action
  3. To consider and evaluate the outcomes that might follow the various actions
  4. Finally to decide on a  course of action and plan its execution to achieve a desired outcome

Again, there is empirical proof that offenders (both male and female) give less socially competent responses to social problems.

The reasoning criminal

Personal benefit is the primary motivation of crime and in pursuit of personal gain, individuals make decisions and choices that are more/less rational in nature.

Social factors, including family/peer group, play a background role in an individual’s development in growing up with an association with crime. However, the rational “event decision” at the point of committing the offence is predominant.

Frequency of crime is associated with increased opportunity and when confronted with opportunity, offenders do make rational choices about their behaviour

Relevance to cybercrime

It would be interesting to attempt to study the psychological characteristics of cybercriminals to see whether Eysenck’s theory holds in cybercrime and whether their moral reasoning and social problem solving skills are lacking. Also, whether cybercriminals are reasoning criminals is difficult to conclude because the scale of crime could be so great that it would be difficult to envisage the consequence of committing a cybercrime.

Written by my2e09 on February 26th, 2010

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