Essay: Criminology Theories

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Identify two criminological theories covered in this course that operate at multiple levels of analysis. Compare and contrast those theories with respect to how well they explain criminality at the different levels. Which theory do you think is more effective at this task? Why?

One of the most meaningful remarks made about criminological theories is that "each theory says something new and/or different about crime. For a theory to make it mark on criminology… it must make a point that other theories have not made previously. Again, theories tend to build upon one another and thus typically are not completely novel. Still each theory tries to carve out its own special niche -- to make the case that previous works were mistaken, omitted a key cause of crime, and/or can be interpreted in a new way" (Cullen & Agnew, 2010).

For instance, one of the prominent theories that arose in the textbook Criminological Theory is the social-control theory; this theory operates at multiple levels of analysis. The criminologist Travis Hirschi created Social-control theory in 1969 and it is a variant of subcultural theory (Lynch, 2000). "While social-structural or strain theories assume that people share similar values and differ only with respect to access to resources, subcultural theories assume that certain groups have values quite distinct from those of the rest of society" (Lynch, 2000). What's so influential about these values is that they can be incredibly enduring and powerful; thus, a certain social group values warfare and sees violence as honorable, they're likely to have a higher rate of crime. This means that within a subcultural theory, crime does not occur because people are socialized in an improper manner, but because they've been socialized within deviant groups: the issue of values and their acquisition is of primacy (Lynch, 2000). The theory of social control is so distinct from so many of the theories which came before it because it focuses on the law-abiding citizens of society, trying to determine why these people do not commit crimes, instead of focusing on criminals (Lynch, 2000).

Another truly remarkable aspect is that social control theory is founded on the notion that all people are programmed towards criminal behavior; whether or not an individual engages in this behavior is largely connected to the ties the individual has to particular groups in society -- family, school and community groups (Lynch, 2000). "People with such attachments initially hold certain values because they fear sanction from these groups. Gradually, however, the values are internalized and followed because of a belief that to do otherwise would be morally wrong" (Lynch, 2000). It's the people who don't have these connections that generally end up being criminals: there are the ones who don't internalize legitimate norms.

However, as we've already seen another theory -- that of the social structural approach is more focused upon the strata of society that an individual occupies, rather than the deviant group with which they have attachments. A person's social strata, according to this theory impacts the way they see the world and the way they see themselves. "According to this model, all members of society subscribe to the same moral code but some people -- because of their position in society -- are more able than others to follow that code" (Lynch, 2000). This directly negates the social-contract theory -- which believes that the code is only internalized by those who form connections to groups of people who also have internalized the collective moral code. Those who don't have connections to such groups thus engage in deviant, criminal behavior, as stated by the social-control theory. Whereas those who support the social-structural theory see crime as a reaction to the limits and narrowness that one's social position places on individual behavior.

Social-structural theories are correct to focus on socioeconomic status as being a member of the lower class does create strain -- and this is something that these types of theories focus on. Most notably, structural strain theory was developed by Robert Merton which asserted that "crime is not simply a function of deprivation but the result of a disjuncture (lack of connection) between ends (goals) and the means to attain those ends" (Lynch, 2000). This demonstrates a certain degree of overlap between social structural theories like social strain and subcultural theories like social control. In each there is a notion of the importance of connection. Social control theory sees the lack of a connection to a law-abiding group as reason for crime. Social strain theory, on the other hand, sees crime as a result of a lack of connection between goals and the way in which one would go about achieving goals (Lynch 2000).

Turning back to social strain theory, it's true that those in disadvantaged social positions don't always commit crimes and Merton acknowledges this by explaining that there are essentially three reactions to this form of disadvantage (Lynch, 2000). Innovation, retreatism and rebellion are the three potential reactions to this disadvantage that Merton acknowledges (Lynch, 2000). Innovation refers to the use of illegitimate means, like stealing in order to enjoy the repercussions of success (Lynch, 2000). Retreatism refers to when the individual gives up on working for success or elevating their status and withdraws from society, often engaging in drug abuse (Lynch, 2000). Rebellion is the third response "identified the response of rebellion, wherein the person abandons the culturally dictated goal of economic achievement and engages in revolutionary activities or in attempts to reform the system" (Lynch, 2000).

While critics of this theory assert that poor people don't commit nearly as many crimes as people think they do, this simply is not accurate. Prisons are disproportionately full of African-American men from lower socioeconomic strata: the evidence is in America's prisons. "Over the past three decades, the average socioeconomic status of African-American males has deteriorated, absolutely and relative to men from other racial and ethnic groups…the relative earnings of black men have stagnated since the mid-1970s" (Raphael, 2004). However, it's not just adverse labor market trends which impact blacks, but the significant jump of black men in the criminal justice system in some way: from the decades within 1970 to 2000 the jump from black men incarcerated went from 3% to 8% (Raphael, 2004).

Thus, while the social contract theory and the social strain theory take dramatically different perspectives of the same issue, they're both focused on the fact that when there's a disconnect present within the human condition, crime can occur. For the social contract theory, the disconnect is with groups of moral-upholding people. For the social strain theory, the disconnect is with finding a means to achieve one's objectives.

Find a recent (from the past 12 months) article on the New York Times website ( regarding a contemporary crime or criminal justice issue. Briefly summarize the content of this article. You should also include a full reference including URL. Next, select two criminological theories from those that you have learned in this course. Discuss how each of these theories would contribute to understanding the issue in the article and/or refute the claims made in the article. Be sure to fully explain the theories and how they relate to your article. Which theory do you think is more relevant to your article and why?

The New York Times article that I read was entitled, "From Terrorizing the Streets to Making them Safer" by Kia Gregory discusses how Dedric Hammond, age 34, a former gang member and shooter in central Harlem (formerly known as "Bad News") is currently reformed and works now for a non-profit organization where he is known as a "violence interrupter." Basically, the philosophy behind this non-profit group dictates that individuals who've been incarcerated not only have a deeper understanding of violence and what causes people to be violent, but they have the experience and background ("street cred") to be taken seriously when they attempt to stop violence. The article discusses the rough and disadvantaged upbringing that Hammond experienced along with his decision to reform and his desire to promote good and to promote change -- tenets of his new value system.

The article demonstrates clear facets of the social structural theory -- particularly that of social strain. So much of what introduced Hammond to crime was the fact that he originated from a place where the socioeconomic status was low and where crime was already rampant -- in this sense, crime was in some ways an opportunity for people to elevate themselves within this neighborhood, as backwards as it seems.

For instance, even the story of Hammond's first gun fight demonstrates the accuracy of the social structure theory: Hammond is a disadvantaged young adult, who grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood who does not even possess a high school diploma. His chances now for success or for accomplishing goals which would allow him to escape this neighborhood are becoming ever bleaker. From this perspective, crime becomes an ever appealing option for the young man, particularly since his neighborhood… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Criminology Theories.  (2013, April 27).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from

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"Criminology Theories."  April 27, 2013.  Accessed July 18, 2019.