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A theory is simply a set of abstract principles or a body of facts used to explain a given phenomenon. Thus, theories are important tools that enable us to “understand and explain the world around us” (Siegel, 2011). Criminological theories try to explain why people commit criminal or felonious acts. They enable us to understand how the criminal justice system operates and the actors involved in the system. Criminological theories can explain crime at the macro level or at the micro level. At the macro level, criminological theories provide a holistic explanation of crime across the society. In this case, the theories attempt to explain the variations in crime across the globe. At micro level, criminological theories explain crime among small groups or individuals. In this case, the theories try to explain why some persons are more likely to commit crime than others. The characteristics of a credible theory include logical consistency, scope, validity, and parsimony. This paper seeks to compare various criminological theories. It will also shed light on the weaknesses and strengths of the discussed theories.
The control theories of crime were developed by Hirschi, Reckless, Gottfredson, and Hogan. Their theories attempts to explain why individuals do not engage in crime. Their theories assume that the motivation to commit crime is widespread. Thus, the existence or the non-existence of control is the main factor that determine occurrence of crime. According to Travis Hirschi, a person is not likely to become a criminal if he has four characteristics namely, “attachment to others, belief in moral validity of rules, commitment to achievement, and involvement in conventional activities” (Siegel, 2011). Those who do not possess these characteristics are, thus, likely to become criminals. Similarly, individuals with low self control are more likely to be involved in crime. The controls that deter crime are embodied in social bonds, and in an individual’s personality.
This theory is similar to the subculture theory since the aforementioned characteristics that define individuals who are less likely to commit crime are influenced by culture. This means that culture defines systems of social control (Newburns, 2007). Thus, it determines the level of crime in the society. For example, in a culture where individuals do not believe in moral validity of laws, the level of crime is likely to be high. The control theory is, however, different from other criminological theories such as rational choice theory and subculture theory since it aims at explaining why people do not commit crime rather than why they commit such crimes.
The main strength of the control theory is that it identifies the factors that prevent crime. Consequently, the society can use it to prevent crime by promoting self control among its members, and encouraging individuals to develop characteristics such as engaging in conventional activities in order to avoid crime. The main weakness of this theory is that it does not explain societal factors that lead to crime (Siegel, 2011). Besides, it is more focused on the individual than groups. Despite these weaknesses, the theory has merit in explaining crime, particularly, at the micro level.
Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory was developed by Stafford and Warr, Patternoster, Cornish and Clarke, and Matsueda. Stemming from the classical theory, the rational choice theory, asserts that crime is a choice that is made based on the costs and befits associated with it. As a rational being, a criminal will engage in crime if the benefits are high (Cote, 2002). However, he will avoid crime if the costs are high. Thus, crime can be prevented if the costs of committing it are certain and immediate. The information concerning costs and benefits of crime are obtained through past experiences, and observations.
The rational choice theory is similar to the control theory since the punishment for crime (cost) represents the control which is considered to be the main deterrent to crime in the control theory . However, the rational choice theory differs from the control theory on the ground that it considers rationality to be the most influential factor in committing crime.
The main strength of the rational choice theory is that it explains the relevance of an individual’s decision to engage in crime. Besides, it highlights the importance of punishment as a way of preventing crime. However, this theory fails to explain why irrational persons such as those suffering from mental illnesses may commit a crime. Besides, criminals might not engage in cost benefit analysis before committing a crime. This is because the information on costs and benefits associated with a given crime might not be readily available (Margit, Capaldi, & Patterson, 2003). Despite these weaknesses, this theory is important in explaining crime since it highlights both personal and societal factors that contribute to crime, as well as, how crime can be prevented.
Subculture/ Differential Association Theory
This theory was developed by Sutherland and Cressey, Sykes and Mutza, Wolfgan and Ferracuti, and Akers. According to the differential association theory, “crime is learned through associations with criminal definitions” (Cote, 2002). The criminal definitions usually approve crime, and encourage their peers to engage in deviant behaviors. Criminal behavior becomes chronic if it is reinforced. When criminal behavior is repeated over time, it develops into a subculture of crime. The existence of a subculture of crime enables many people to learn how to commit crime. Consequently, crime rates will be very high in areas with a subculture of crime.
The subculture/ differential association theory is similar to control theory since in both cases, culture is central to the development of attributes, and norms that promote crime. The difference between them is found in the fact that differential association/ subculture theory explains crime from a group perspective while the control theory focuses on the individual (Siegel, 2011). The differential association theory also differs from rational choice theory since the former explains crime as a learnt behavior while the later explains crime as a rational choice behavior.
The main strength of subculture/ differential association theory is that it explains the role of group members in the development of criminal behavior. Besides, it explains how criminal behavior is developed through the learning process. The weakness of this theory is that it ignores the fact that crime can be committed without being learned through differential association (Sellers, Cochran, & Winfree, 2003). For example, a person who has never associated with criminals or practiced crime may commit a crime such murder due to his inability to control his tempers.
This theory is important in explaining crime since it explains crime as a behavior. It is a fact that most criminal behaviors are learned over time by associating with deviants. Besides, conforming to the norms associated with deviant groups promotes crime.
This theory was developed by Robert Merton. Merton argued that conventional culture, especially in USA, is full of aspirations for opportunity, and prosperity. The dream for prosperity is associated with the majority of the populace. Such a dream, thus, turns into “an influential cultural and psychological motivation” (Siegel, 2011). When social structures present unequal opportunities to individuals, and deter some people from achieving the prosperity dream, some individuals resort to illegal means to realize their ambitions. This means that those who fail to achieve their dreams or ambitions through legitimate means are likely to embark on crime in order to realize their dreams. Failure to achieve personal goals or dreams normally leads to pressure or strain. When individuals are unable to control the strain, they respond to it through crime.
Close similarities exist between the strain theory and subculture/ differential association, and control theory. In these theories, the norms associated with the culture of a society play a critical role in determining the occurrence of crime. For example, in control theory, cultural norms shape an individual’s perspective on crime while in strain and subculture theories, culture acts as the main motivational factor behind crime (Cote, 2002). The strain theory differs from the rational choice theory in that the later explains crime as a personal choice while the former explains crime as a product of a popular cultural influence.
The main strength of this theory is that it explains the contribution of individual failures to crime. Besides, it points out how ideology, in terms of the vision of the society, can lead to crime. However, the strain theory fails to offer explanations on how crime can be controlled. Nonetheless, the strain theory is important in explaining crime since personal failures and unachievable dreams are, indeed, factors that promote crime in society.
Criminological theories help us to explain the causes of crime, and other deviant behaviors in the society. Besides, they provide a framework for formulating social policies that help in preventing crime. The theories discussed above explain crime from different perspectives. The subculture/ differential association theory explains crime as a behavior that is learned through associating with deviant groups. The strain theory considers crime to be a product of personal failures. In rational choice theory, crime is considered to be a personal choice that is based on costs and benefits. The control theory asserts that people will not commit crime if they are able to exercise self control. Despite these differences, the theories offer important insights on crime as discussed above.