Evaluation of Criminal Theory




The study relating to the causes of, and reasons for, crime has long been an interest to criminologist and psychologist.  Since the mid 1800’s different aspects of the scientific community have explored the question of why people commit crime.  This paper will discuss several theories that have developed over the years, how those theories have grown and changed and which theories seem to be the most prevalent today.  The theories that will be discussed revolve around the biological and psychological study of crime, the strain and cultural deviance studies of crime and the social control aspects of crime.  All of these studies and theories will be compared and examined to understand the standing of criminology today.

The first study of why people commit crime revolved around the belief that criminal behavior resulted from a persons’ abnormal psychology.  These theories suggest that criminal behavior is caused by some underlying physical or mental condition.  These conditions separate the societies criminals from the non- criminals (Adler et. al, 2007 p.116). The first people to study this rationale where called Positivist Criminologist and believed that;

Human behavior is determined by forces beyond individual control and that is it possible to measure those forces…{They} view criminal behavior as stemming from biological, psychological and social factors.

(Adler et. al, 2007 p.60)


In the late 1870’s, Cesare Lombroso developed the theory that some people are just “born criminal” and have certain traits called atavistic stigmata that distinguish them from non-criminals. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.68)  This theory soon lead to similar theories including the somatotype school of criminology.  This theory was based upon a persons’ physical build. Psychiatrist such as Ernst Kretschner, William Sheldon and Sheldon Glueck all theorized that criminal behavior could be determined from an individuals’ body.  This school of thought was abandoned shortly after World War II due to the similarities with eugenics. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.68)   Another theory that introduced in this time period was the belief of inherited criminology.  Richard Dugdale (1841- 1883) researched a family, the “Jukes, for several generations and found a large number of family members who had been either criminals or paupers.  The conclusion of Richard Dugdale was later reinforced by the research of Henry Goddard (1866-1957).  Henry Goddard researched a separate family and found results similar to Dugdales'. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.73)  Many of these studies have since been discredited for various reasons, but in 1927 one Supreme Court Justice also felt strongly in favor of the issue.  Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. submitted a written opinion that included the following statement.

It is better for all the world, in stead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind… Three generations of imbeciles are enough. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.73)


Even though there were strong supporters of this line of research, the idea of physical traits or characteristics quickly passed and the idea of psychological characteristics began to see a more prominent focal point.

            The ideas and theories of the positivist criminologist began the study, but quickly gave way to the newer ideas of various psychoanalytic theories.  Psychologist are those who study the human mind and attempt to determine how people form emotion, where emotional disorders originate and which social or personality attributes may lead to crime. The basis for most psychoanalytic theories were derived from three basic causes:

Ø      A conscious so overbearing that it arouses feelings

      of guilt

Ø      A conscious so weak that it cannot control individual’s impulses

Ø      The need for immediate gratification

                                                (Adler et. al, 2007 p.85)


The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, made several suggestions involving individuals’ id, ego and superego.  He proposed that it was an imbalance of these three parts of the psyche that caused a person to commit criminal acts.  Since Freud, several other psychologists have reevaluated his findings, and have developed variations on this belief.  Lawerence Kohlberg pioneered the moral development theory and argued that;

Basic moral principles and social norms are learned through social interaction and role- playing

(Adler et. al, 2007 p.88)


Supporters of this belief, Joseph Hickey and William Jennings,  have taken this research and applied it in various school systems around the country.  Reviewers of these programs agree that the approaches suggested in these studies help to reduce recidivism rates among the offenders. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.88)  Other primary theories that have originated in the psychological area are the social learning theory, behavioral modeling, differential association theory, Eysencks Conditioning Theory, and the Psychological Causation theory.   All of these theories believe that criminal behavior is a direct reaction to the social environment in which the individual was raised.  These theories revolve around the belief that criminal behavior is learned through direct and observed experiences.  The most difficult aspect of these theories is the effect of lumping human characteristics into groups simply based on the condition of the persons’ environment.  The aspect that certain conditions cause crime is completely different from those that are a source of crime. 

            Another aspect for discussion in this area is topic of biocriminology.  Bio-criminology is the “study of the physical aspects of psychological disorders” (Adler et. al, 2007 p.101).  Various studies in the physical composition of individuals involved with certain types of criminal behavior have led to many revelations in the past several decades.  Many doctors have studied the effect of various relationships within the criminal institutions.  The XYY Chromosome is one theory that has been explored.  Even though the initial findings for this study where incorrect:

It is nevertheless possible that aggressive and violent behavior is at least partly determined by genetic factors.

(Adler et. al, 2007 p.103)


Other studies that have explored the relationship between genetics and crime include the Twin Studies, Adoption Studies, and The IQ Debate.  None of these studies have been able to determine conclusively that there is a direct relationship between violence and genes.  Along with heredity and genes, there are other biological characteristics that have been shown to have significant effects on human behavior.  Biocriminology also focus on factors such as food allergies, diet, hypoglycemia, hormones, brain lesions, brain abnormalities and brain dysfunction in conducting research.  There is a significant difference between regular food allergies and those food allergies that have the potential to cause extreme or uncharacteristic behavior in certain individuals.  Researchers have determined that foods and chemicals such as phenylethlamine, tyramine, and monosodium glutamate along with certain sensitivity to preservatives, sugar, corn and dairy products can possibly adversely affect the emotional and behavioral characteristics of some individuals. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.107)         

            Other research that has been done in regard to food allergies involves the artificial food coloring and preservatives used in a majority of food today.  Dr. Ben Feingold is a pioneer in the study of behavior and artificial dyes in food.  After several double-blind test, and countless hours of research, chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT and TBHG in food have been found to have the greatest affect on children’s behavior (Beseler 1999 p42). Other chemicals that have been proven to have a direct affect on behavior include artificial coloring such as Yellow No. 5 and Red 40.  Test have concluded that these chemicals, among others, have the affect of possibly causing and enhancing ADD symptoms in young children. (Hersey, 2003). 

            The critics for biocriminology have several arguments against the belief.  One reason that critics rebuke the study is that the option of free will is taken away from the individual.  Their argument is that if some individuals are predisposition for crime, then a sense of hopelessness could develop in the individual (Adler et. al, 2007 p.111).  Another issue that has been introduced with the genetic composition model is that there could be racist leaning regarding the research.  If certain ethnic groups of people portray the disposition to commit crime, then  those ethnic groups of people could all be considered criminal. Finally, what are the ramifications of identifying a “criminal gene”?  psychologist Jerome Kagan believes that in the next 25 years,   genetic test could make it possible to determine who may, and may not have criminal intent.  This information must then be used to create more effective and efficient crime prevention strategies. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.105)  The study and use of this science must be examined to ensure that the most widely accepted and humane manner in which to deal with those individuals who may inherit any of the possible traits.

            More recently than the study of psychoanalytical criminal justice, a new set of theories have been introduced to the study of criminology;  The Strain, the Cultural Deviance and Social Control theories.  These theories were introduced in the early 1900’s and are still of common thought today.  These theories focus on the “social forces that cause people to engage in criminal activity” (Adler et. al, 2007 p.116).  Primarily, the function of these theories is to understand and explain why crime rates are different in different social environments, and how the social institutions are affected by these crimes.

            The man responsible for beginning this avenue of study in the field of criminal justice was Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).  Durkheim believed that crime is a normal part of society and that it is a reflection of the society itself.  Durkheim believed that as a society grew, the social bonds would eventually breakdown and individual behavior would become unpredictable.  He theorized that sudden changes in society, good or bad, might cause a social withdrawal by the individual. When this breakdown in society occurred, he called this situation anomie (Adler et. al, 2007 p.116).  Durkheims' beliefs lead to the research by Robert Merton who enhanced on the idea and developed what was later called the Strain Theory.  Merton’s’ Strain Theory suggest that:

All members of society subscribe to one set of cultural values- that of the middle class

The Strain exist when under great pressure law abiding people will resort to crime. 

Disparity between goals and means provides that pressure.

(Adler et. al, 2007 p.118). 


Merton’s’ ideas explained that crime occurred partially due to the wide range of wealth between the various social classes.  The desire for the lower class to obtain the same goals as the middle and upper class is the catalyst for crime to occur. Merton also identified five ways that individuals could adapt to societies goals.  He stated that the manner in which an individual approaches these options decide whether that individual will develop into a criminal.  The five options for conforming to society are:

Ø      Conformity

Ø      Innovation

Ø      Ritualism

Ø      Retreatism

Ø      Rebellion


Even though this theory is sound in today’s’ society, it has been challenged over the years.  The debate over the effect of institutions on the individual’s life and how different economic goals drive society constantly bring this theory into debate.  Freda Adler has done research in 10 countries where the institution of economics has not over ridden the values of family, community or religion and has found that the crime rates in these countries are relatively low and stable (Adler et. al, 2007 p.125).  Along with Adler, Messner and Rosenfield believe that:

High crime rates are intrinsic to the basic cultural commitments and institutional arrangements of American society.  In short, at all social levels, America is organized for crime.(2007 p6)


This belief of social strain was a leading theory in the field of criminology for a significant time, but like all theories, it is subject to change.

            One sociologist, Robert Agnew, wanted to make Merton’s theory more relevant to all criminal behavior.  With the adoption of a few changes, Agnew formalized Merton’s work into the General Strain Theory.  Agnews’ theory states that:

The failure to achieve material goals is not the only reason for committing crime. Criminal behavior may also be related to the anger and frustration that result when an individual is treated in a way he or she does not want to be treated in a social relationship (Adler et. al, 2007 p.126)


These two theories, along with Durkheims’ theory of social anomie, turn the source of crime back on the actions of the society. Merton once stated, “a cardinal American virtue ‘ambition’ promotes a cardinal American vice, ’deviant behavior’” (Messner and Rosenfield, 2007 p. 8).  This statement is intrinsic in the idea of strain with the meaning that those individuals who are not able to acquire the economic virtue through legal means, will possibly turn to illegal means for economic satisfaction.

            The idea of social strain is still relevant in today’s study of criminal justice.  There have been several other theories that have been derived from these basic ideas.  Theories such as Social Disorganization Theory, Differential Association Theory and Culture Conflict Theory all revolve around the initial beliefs of Durkheim and Merton.  Criminologist such as W.I Thomas, Robert Park, Clifford Shaw and Edwin Sutherland expanded on the Strain Theories and suggest that the environment, society and individual interaction also play significant roles in the formation of criminal behavior (Adler et. al, 2007 p.136).  One of the new theories suggested that it is not the learning of criminal behavior, but the actual conflict that occurs between two (or more) social classes.  Thorsten Sellin stated that different social groups have different social rules and norms.  He stated that:

Individuals may commit crimes by conforming to the norms of their own group if that groups norms conflict with those of the dominant society (Adler et. al, 2007 p.139)


This belief, along with the others of General Strain and Deviance, combine to form the axis which most current theories develop.  These theories all suggest that the basic source for committing crime revolves around the social standing of specific groups.  The goals and motivations that drive this country also cause individuals to commit crimes to achieve those goals.  The social boundaries that separate the economic class system and the behavior that is learned within those separate boundaries interact in an often-criminal manner with the rest of society. 

            The Strain and Behavior theories revolve around why an individual may commit crime.  One reason relates to the idea that the social control governing these individuals is not sufficient to guide them in the appropriate direction.  The Social Control Theory suggests that human behavior is related to conformity, or obedience, to societies rules. One of the founders of American sociology, E.A. Ross, stated the idea that:

Belief systems ‘ family and school, religious beliefs, moral values, friends and even beliefs about government’ rather than specific laws guide what people do and universally serve to control behavior. (Adler et. al, 2007 p.168)


This is reinforced by the sociologist Donald Black who stated “social control is found whenever people hold each other to standard” (Adler et. al, 2007 p.168).  The idea of social control relates to how people live together.  Travis Hirschi has developed four types of bonds that are effective for promoting social conformity.  The bonds he suggests are: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief (Adler et. al, 2007 p.169).   These social bonds are explored to find how individuals interact with society and explore why there is no stake in social conformity.  Walter Reckless looks more deeply into the social control and suggest that all individuals have two types of containment that provide “defense, protection or insulation against delinquency” (Adler et. al, 2007 p.177).   The idea of personal containment has been presently examined from both the individual and social level at various age intervals.  Robert Sampson and John Laub examined the relationship of social control and containment at various levels of life.  Their results suggest that:

Family, school and peer attachments were most strongly associated with delinquency from childhood to adolescence.  From the Transition to middle adulthood, attachment to work, and family appears most strongly related to crime causation. (They) found evidence that these positive personal and professional relationships build a ‘social capital’ in otherwise vulnerable individuals.          


This realization shows that with the right moral values in individuals’ home and society, the desire or ability to commit crimes may decline.  This information also enforces the belief of institutional anomie established by Durkheim.  With the correct social guidelines and institutions (family, religion, education) an individual may be able to establish their social capital at an earlier age.  The attempt to prevent crime relies on the societies mission to assist in the creation of attachment (family) bonds to society (school) and participation in conventional activities that promote good moral and social values before the child becomes a deviant individual.

            With the examination of how criminology has progressed over the decades, it is also possible to see how society has grown and changed.  The research and study of the psychological positivist and the biocriminology has adapted over the years to become as advanced as technology allows.  The examination of how drugs, food, and heritage affect the human body can now be more adequately researched and studied by more sensitive and accurate machines.  The strain and cultural deviance theories are still relevant in today’s’ society. The social ramifications and implications may lead to establishing legislation or programs that are able to benefit those individuals in our society that have the desire to improve their current status.  The ideas behind social control suggest that the institutional anomie facing currently facing society is having a significant impact on the formation of deviant behavior.  With the possibility of repairing the social damage to modern institutions (family, religion) and removing the emphasis on the institution of economy, the criminal behavior that originates at this level could be diminished.

            The results from the studies and theories listed in this paper only show that nothing is absolute.  There are character traits common to all criminals just as there are character traits common to all presidents.  The factors of psychology, physiology, biology, strain, differential association, causation and others all have effects on how all individuals mature.  One thing that has been determined is that:

We can stop asking whether nature or nurture is more important in shaping us, we are the products of both.

                        (Adler et. al, 2007 p.102)


The belief that there is any one factor present in a delinquents reasoning is just as naïve as believing the all crime is from rational choice.  There have been times in everyone’s life when the opportunity to commit a deviant (criminal) act was available.  It is a combination of goals, ethics, morals, family and society that prevent most individuals from acting on those opportunities.  The research and theories presented in this paper show that crime is a result of several aspects in a persons’ life.

Work Cited


Adler, Freda, Mueller, Gerhard O.W. and Laufer, William S. Criminology. 6th Ed. McGraw Hill 2007


Beseler, Lucille. MS, RD, CS, LD; Effects on Behavior and Cognition: Diet and Artificial Colors, Flavors and Preservatives. International Pediatrics, Vol. 14. No. 1, 1999


Hersey, Jane.  The Feingold solution: assessing the role of diet in children’s behavior.  Mothering, May 2003.


Messner, Steven F., & Rosenfeld, Richard.  Crime and the American Dream. Fourth edition. Thomas Wadsworth 2007.