Understanding important theories in criminology

Criminology studies why people commit crimes and behave in a certain way. Criminology theories explain why people commit crimes, look into the risk factors involved in committing crimes and why some laws are created and enforced. Understanding why people commit crime plays a great role in controlling crime and rehabilitating criminals. 

Over the years, there have been many theories that have evolved. Some theories attribute crime to an individual; they believe people decide whether to commit a crime after weighing the pros and cons. Others believe that society is responsible for providing its citizens with secure and safe places to live ensuring they don’t commit crimes. While others believe that individuals have traits that determine how they behave when placed in negative conditions. 

Studying all these theories and applying them helps psychologists, and probation/correction officers rehabilitate criminals and stop them from repeating the same mistake. Currently, there are many criminology courses online to help you acquire a deep understanding of these theories, as well as, equip you with real-world experience in the criminology and justice field – Wilfrid Laurier is a great place to start. 

What makes a good criminology theory?

As we’ve discussed above, there are many theories that attempt to explain why individuals commit crimes. So what makes one theory better than the other? According to Akers and Sellers, the validity of criminology theories can be based on their scope, testability, logical consistency, empirical validity, parsimony, and usefulness. 

Logical consistency refers to whether makes sense while the scope checks the range of applications the theory covers. Does it explain both male and female crimes? Does it apply to just property crime or all crimes? Does it explain juvenile and adult crimes? If a theory has a wider range of explanations, it’s deemed better. Empirical validity refers to theories that are supported by evidence, those that can be verified through empirical research. Parsimony refers to a theory being simple, concise, and elegant. One without so many hypotheses and constructs. Finally, all theories have to be useful enough to suggest how to prevent, control, and reduce crime. They have to be able to guide policymakers. 

This isn’t to say that different theories can’t be used to reach the same conclusion. So one theory doesn’t eliminate another. They are thinking avenues that might lead in different directions, without being mutually exclusive. 

Let’s dive in and see the 4 main criminology approaches. 

Biological theories of crime

This theory states that the biological nature of an individual determines whether or not they commit a crime. The biological characteristics of an individual such as neurology, genetics, or the physical constitution influence a person to commit a crime. These theories focus on internal factors that are beyond the control of an individual. As a result, they are used to address the root causes of crime and educate parents or teachers of high risk to avoid falling into some pit holes. They are also used to teach conflict resolution as an alternative to violence. 

However, they also consider physical trauma that alters the neurological composition of a person. For example, repetitive head injuries have been proven to increase a person’s violent tendencies. People who experienced head injuries at a young age and continued to do so throughout adulthood are well-documented to develop violent tendencies. 

Basically, biological crime theories are those that explain the cause of criminal behavior as inherent to a person’s neurological or physical makeup, therefore, unavoidable. There are multiple biological theories but we’ll have a look at the two most popular and far-reaching theories. 

  • Biological Positivism

Cesare Lombroso, an Italian prison criminologist and psychiatrist in the 19th century came up with this theory. He based the theory on anthropology and genetics, claiming that some people were simply born criminals. He suggested that some people are predisposed to criminal behavior at birth thanks to their biological composition way before the environmental factors and personal choices arise later in life. This ideology of biological inferiority is still widely applied and used today. 

Factors that come into play in Biological Positivism include brain function, chemical and hormonal imbalances, diet, and even vitamin deficiency. However, factors like alcoholism are not ruled out as they make a physical contribution to the body and they can be an influencing factor in criminal behavior. Alcoholism directly influences a person’s mental health which leads us to our next biological theory, Psychological Positivism. 

  • Psychological Positivism

Also theorized in the 1800s, French criminologist Alexander Lacassagne attributes Psychological Positivism to a mental ailment rather than it being a physical or biological ailment. Both Biological and Psychological Positivism agree on the inherent predisposition to criminal behavior. The difference is that Psychological Positivism states that mental illnesses and personality disorders are the factors that largely contribute to a person’s criminal act rather than personal choice. 

For example, people suffering from personality disorders, bipolar, depression, neuroticism, and schizophrenia are more predisposed to criminal behavior than those without these conditions. And this isn’t to say that everyone suffering from a mental or personality disorder is an inherent criminal or prone to criminal acts.  

Sociological theories of crime

These theories look into how social and environmental factors influence a person’s propensity to crime or violence. The crime patterns are viewed from a sociological perspective rather than a biological one as we’d discussed above. Sociology differentiates criminal from deviant behavior.  Criminal acts are those behaviors that social laws while deviant behaviors are acts that violate social rules and norms but they might not be necessarily criminal. The two aren’t mutually exclusive as they can overlap at times. 

We’ll dive in and look at the four main Sociological theories of crime.


  • Structural Functionalism

This theory states that deviant behavior provides a structure to the society and community at large. Without deviance, there is no understanding of what’s acceptable in the community and what’s not. It helps create rules and regulations bring people together and create peace in society. Yes, deviant acts cause unrest, social disturbances, and imbalances but they lead to realignment and a new understanding of the rules and social balance. People in society understand what unacceptable behavior is therefore creating social cohesion and promoting social policing. 

  • Conflict Theory

This theory points out that some deviant acts are caused by unrest and not vice-versa like in Structural Functionalism. Social-political inequalities create deviant behavior in society, pointing out social imbalances and drawing attention to the areas that need correction and balancing. People outside the social-political elite groups are more likely to cause deviant acts than their privileged counterparts who reap the benefits of the inequalities. 

  • Social Strain Typology

This theorizes that people might result to deviant behaviors as they pursue some socially acceptable life goals or paths. For example, a religious group may ask its members to behave in a certain socially acceptable pattern but those outside the religious group may consider this a deviant behavior. Some of these acts may include ritualism, rebellion, conformity, innovation, and retreatism. 

  • Labeling Theory

In this theory, people are often labeled as deviant even before they commit a deviant act. As a result, the individual labeled is already pre-disposed to committing a deviant act thanks to the label on him/her. For instance, during the Satanic Panic of the 80s, many kids in the U.S. who wore black and listened to deviant music were labeled deviant despite their innocence. The label put on the teenagers made them more likely to behave in perceived deviant ways. However, this theory needs a second person to come and push the labeled deviant person into action. 

Psychological Crime Theory

These theories explain how individuals thinking process determines whether or not they commit a crime. While there are so many psychological theories, they all believe that an individual’s feelings and thoughts dictate how they act. As a result, if one has problems in their thinking process, they are more predisposed to committing a crime. Failures in psychological development have led people to run into criminal behavior as their conscience is underdeveloped. Also, one can learn behaviors from those who surround them. So if aggressive or violent people are around, one learns and begins to think that violence is okay behavior. 

Let’s have a look at 3 major psychological theories of crime:

  • Psychodynamic Theory

Sigmund Freud a renowned psychologist came up with this theory. He pointed out that everyone has instincts that demand gratification. Our morals and ethics regulate these instincts and later on as people grow into adulthood, they develop a rational personality that mediates between our instincts and ethics/morals. Based on this theory, criminal behavior is caused by the failure of morals and ethics codes. The theory sees criminal behavior as a conflict between instincts, morals, and rational personality. This conflict pushes individuals to develop delinquent behaviors. 

  • Behavioral Theory

This theory believes that experience is the best behavior teacher. It believes that the reaction a behavior gets from the people around a person encourages people to develop behavior or not. It’s a form of conditioning, where behavior is taught and reinforced by punishment or reward. If a person’s behavior is condoned or rewarded, they continue to behave that way. 

  • Cognitive Theory

This theory focuses on how people perceive the world around them and how this perception controls their emotions, thoughts, and action. There are three levels of moral development; pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional level. Pre-conventional levels apply to children and how they learn the consequences of their behavior. The conventional level applies to teenagers and young adults who base their actions on society’s expectations and views. The post-conventional level applies to over 20-year-olds who judge the worth of societal values and rules and how they affect their human rights and welfare. 

This theory believes that people who didn’t develop past the pre-conventional level are most likely to develop criminal behavior. Research has shown that children’s brains aren’t as developed hence they are prone to make reckless and impulsive decisions without rational thinking the way adults do. This is why there is a Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth in the U.S. 

Environmental Crime Theory

This theory explains that an individual’s criminal behavior is influenced by their spatial or geographical environment. The immediate location of a person makes it possible for people with varied personal traits and attributes to commit a particular crime.  Environmental criminology has helped a great deal in fighting crime within geographical areas. It helps in crime mapping as crime incidences can be pinned on maps giving a visual image of crime frequency in certain geographic areas. This makes it easier for strategies to be formulated to combat crime in those areas. Here are the common environmental theories. 

  • Routine Activity Approach

Cohen and Frlson(1979) stated that for crime to take place, there needs to be a suitable target, a motivated offender, and no capable guardian converging in time and space. They argued that the crime rate will increase if these three factors converged. They found that changes in routine contributed to an increase in crime patterns and convergence of the 3 factors. For instance, women who had an opportunity to join the workforce and spend more time outside the protective home environment, are a higher risk of convergence of the 3 factors. Individuals who spend more time away from their normal activity patterns were at a greater risk of victimization and violent crime.


  • Geometry of Crime

This theorizes that our routine activities are presented by awareness spaces and activity spaces. Activity spaces are the places we tend to spend most of our time while our awareness spaces extend beyond the activity space as we sometimes need to deviate from the traditional paths. We often have to share our activity spaces and pathways with others. Places like shopping centers, entertainment zones, and central business districts. Criminal activities occur when the activity spaces of suitable targets overlap with those of motivated offenders. People are often victims of crime when they are in areas they routinely spend their time. Motivated offenders often adjust their awareness and activity spaces to take advantage of suitable targets. 

  • Rational Choice Theory

This is assumed to be an aspect of both the routine and geometry approaches to crime. Withing rational choice theory, motivated offenders weigh the pros and cons and make a decision about whether they should act or not. Different individuals have different constraints, resources, and preferences that lead them to make different choices. As a result, what’s rational for one person might not be for another. People make the best choice they can to reach their goals, putting into consideration constraints relating to money, time, and so on. 

Rational choice theory is often applied in crime reduction and prevention. It was used to show that criminal opportunities were not functionally similar and if the easy targets were removed, the second-best targets may not necessarily be worth the effort for most offenders. So this perspective focuses on changing opportunity structures that in due course change the offender behavior. 

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