Essential Criminology Theories

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People who engage in violent activities and criminal behavior impair society by damaging the lives of innocent citizens and by providing the affected communities with a detrimental atmosphere of fearful distrust. The United States has established laws that codify the official values of society and determine the appropriate behavior patterns that citizens must display. Although the American society stigmatizes offenders who violate the laws of society by confining offenders in prison to punish the criminal and deter other citizens from repeating the behavior, the most effective method of preventing crime is to understand and alleviate the motivations that cause people to engage in criminal activities. Because crime is such a detrimental force on the community, many psychologists and criminologists have proposed theories, such as labeling theory, to help understand what causes people to commit crimes. The social structure theory and choice theory are important concepts that help us understand the motivations that can cause different types of people to engage in delinquent behavior, the circumstances that can facilitate crime, and the most effective methods by which society can minimize the rates of crime.

The social structure theory asserts that people who live in poor and disenfranchised communities are more likely to commit a crime. The dramatic economic inequality in the US and the severely uneven distribution of the nation’s wealth has caused some neighborhoods to enjoy an abundance of financial and cultural resources and for many other neglected neighborhoods to struggle from a drastic lack of resources. As a result, a primary reason for the excessive crime rates in low-income communities is that the lack of resources and lack of opportunities available in the communities motivates the people to fulfill criminal activities as an effective means of obtaining financial comfort and social success. For instance, people in middle and upper-class communities generally understand that they can obtain sufficient amounts of money and acquire prestigious positions of employment by attending college, strengthening the mind with knowledge, and acquiring the advanced knowledge and superior skills required to become great at a particular craft. However, many people in low-income communities do not perceive education as a viable option (Sampson and Groves, 2009). The high school systems in these communities often feature dilapidated buildings, insufficient textbooks, inadequate educational resources, overcrowded classrooms and unprepared teachers. As a result, the inferior conditions of the schools impair the ability of the youths in the communities to become passionate about education.

Furthermore, many people in poor communities do not perceive college as an option, for it is unlikely that they can afford or receive a grant to complete a college education. Because they cannot achieve monetary and societal success through the culture’s educational system, people living in impoverished communities tend to instead try to acquire money and achieve a prestigious reputation by participating in criminal activities. Low-income communities also experience relatively high crime rates because of the lack of job opportunities available. The lack of resources and the dilapidated condition of the communities prevents the people in the communities from being able to realistically obtain meaningful employment with reasonable salaries, which encourages people in low-income communities to instead attempt to thrive with successful criminal careers (Sampson & Groves, 2009). Thus, the lack of resources and lack of opportunities for education and employment in disenfranchised communities motivate people in these communities to exercise delinquent behavior as the only method for them to achieve financial success and social prestige.

There are a series of concepts and theories that are associated with the social structure theory. The social disorganization theory was developed by Shaw and McKay, and the theory has been widely supported and utilized by the psychological and criminological communities as a way of understanding how social structure can lead to increased crime rates. According to the social disorganization theory, certain low-income territories experience high crime rates because of the absence of control and the breakdown of communal institutions. For instance, the standard communal institutions of school, family, police and local government generally help establish and maintain a sense of control among the people in an affluent community. However, because several low-income neighborhoods are deprived of adequate social institutions, the communities feature a disorganized lack of control that impairs the relationship between the people and society (Siegel, 2000). Thus, the lack of effective police presence, government institutions, school systems, and strong family relationships facilitates the detrimental disorganization of the community and causes the people to engage in criminal behavior.

Social strain is another concept that often accompanies the social structure theory. The concept of social strain refers to the tendency of certain people to engage in delinquent behavior, such as in criminal gangs, as a reaction to the frustration associated with difficult living conditions and the inability to achieve the expectations of success as determined by society. For instance, the American culture perpetuates the message that becoming wealthy and fulfilling a prestigious job is the method of obtaining financial and social success in our society. However, many people become frustrated when they are unable to reach these goals and when the structure of society restricts their ability to achieve success, which causes people to suffer from psychological distress, to resent the unjust aspects of society, and to commit crimes as a response to the frustration. While many elements of the social structure theory relate to impoverished communities, social strain can be applied to middle-class communities as well. Many members of the middle class tolerate the structure and conditions of society because they desire to eventually gain access to the wealthier class. Thus, when members of the middle class are unable to meet their expectations of success, ascend up the social ladder, or achieve extraordinary wealth, the frustration of social strain can cause these middle-class people to resort to crime (Siegel, 2000). Thus, social strain reflects an important problem in which the American culture permeates a detrimental message that a person must acquire massive amounts of wealth to become successful, and the frustration or social strain that lower and middle-class people experience when they are unable to reach this arbitrary and unrealistic goal can cause people to react with delinquent behavior.

The third important aspect of social structure involves the cultural deviance theory. Because low-income communities have been neglected and deprived of resources by the American society, people in these communities tend to detach from society and to instead establish their own sets of values to govern their communities. Thus, many research reports indicate that disenfranchised communities develop and implement a unique set of standards and expectations that are distinctly different from the typical American standards. For example, because the living conditions are so difficult and survival is so challenging in low-income communities, the people in these communities generally adopt and appreciate the values of toughness, rebellion against authority, animosity towards society, a disapproval of the educational system, and a glorification of criminal activity. Almost all humans strive to be accepted and respected by their peers, and if the peers in an individual’s community appreciate rebellion and violence, then that individual is also more likely to absorb and display those values as a method of acquiring social prestige (Sampson & Groves, 2009). In turn, the unique values of delinquent behavior established by communities that have been neglected by society encourage the people to engage in delinquent behavior.

The rational choice theory is one of the most fundamental and important of all criminological theories. The choice theory of crime expands on the classical criminological theory by contending that every human being possesses complete free-will and has the power to choose whether or not to engage in crime. All people are capable of experiencing situations in which their endeavors to pursue pleasure or avoid pain can motivate them to commit a crime, and in these situations, people conduct a cost-benefit analysis regarding both options, and many people choose to engage in delinquent behavior when the reward achieved by the crime supersedes and outweighs the risk associated with the crime (Myers, 2010). For instance, when the benefit that can be gained from the crime is significant and the chances of being punished or receiving a severe consequence for the crime is minimal, many people will exercise their free will by deliberately choosing to engage in the delinquent behavior. In contrast, when the reward is relatively trivial compared to a realistic possibility of being caught or suffering dramatic consequences, people generally determine that the risk supersedes the reward and refrain from committing the crime.

A beneficial aspect of the rational choice theory is that the concept is a very comprehensive and all-encompassing theory that can apply to every person and that can accommodate almost every possible motivation to commit a crime. There is an abundance of diverse motivations that can facilitate criminal behavior and encourage people to break laws, including money, possessions, emotional outbursts, romantic endeavors, pent up rage, family conflicts, or a sociopathic passion for the surge of adrenaline and excitement that can accompany criminal activities. Although all of these motives can cause a person to harm others and engage in deviant behavior, in each situation the potential offender still performs a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether or not to commit the crime (Myers, 2010). The choice theory is also applicable to all humans, for everybody is capable of committing crimes if they are motivated to violate the law and the reward supersedes the risk. Thus, everybody is capable of choosing to commit crimes, regardless of financial wealth or social standing.

Because wealthy families in affluent neighborhoods possess sufficient resources to receive an education and fulfill prominent employment positions, most financially stable people do not need to break the law to obtain money and generally refrain from taking the unnecessary risk of engaging in street crime. However, wealthy and powerful people can still be motivated to commit crimes due to other factors. For instance, greed is a significant motivation that encourages many people to commit crimes. The motivation of greed causes elite business professionals to commit financial crimes for more profits and causes government figures to commit political corruption crimes for more power. Thus, when the reward is appealing and the risk is relatively minor, even wealthy and prestigious members of society are capable of choosing to commit crimes.

An important aspect of the choice concept of criminology is the routine activities theory. The routine activities theory indicates that crime is caused when any particular situation involves a motivated potential offender, an appropriately enticing target, and the lack of any guardianship or authority. Thus, because these situations are highly conducive to criminal behavior, many people determine that the reward supersedes the risk and choose to commit the crime. People whose daily routines enable them to consistently encounter opportunities to commit crimes with no powerful deterrents are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior (Myers, 2010). Thus, the routine activities theory demonstrates that people are more likely to choose to engage in criminal activity when an opportunity provides the offender with a suitable target and a lack of guardianship.

The social control theory is another crucial concept often associated with the choice theory. The concept of social control was developed by Hirschi, and the theory contends that people choose to commit crimes when their connection or bond to society has been broken. The social control theory also asserts that there are four methods by which we can maximize the strength of the connection between an individual and society to reduce the willingness of the individual to transgress against the values of society with criminal activity. Attachment is one method of solidifying the social bond, for people who possess a strong attachment to society and are concerned about the opinions of others are less likely to engage in criminal activities, for doing so would diminish their reputation, cause them to be stigmatized, and would discourage people from wanting to work or socialize with them. Commitment is the second method of reinforcing the social connection of an individual, and this method relates to consequences being inflicted for criminal behavior. When people have demonstrated commitment by investing a significant amount of time and effort into a productive social or professional endeavor, they are more reluctant to commit crimes and risk losing their investments with the punishments of prison, diminished reputation, divorce, and unemployment. Involvement is the third method that facilitates a strong social bond. While people with an abundance of idle time are more likely to engage in deviant behavior, people who are consistently involved and spending their time in productive activities are less likely to spend their time committing crimes. Additionally, the belief method of social control proposes that, because every culture establishes different laws according to their unique values, the bond with society is strengthened when the individual is passionately devoted to the legitimacy and importance of his particular culture’s laws (Rational Choice Theory). Thus, we can maximize the strength of the social bond and prevent people from choosing to violate the laws by applying the social control methods of attachment, commitment, involvement and belief.

A primary difference between the choice theory and the social structure theory is the types of criminals addressed by the two concepts. The social structure theory generally relates to the reasons that people living in disenfranchised communities with scare resource availability commit crimes, as the lack of money and opportunities causes many people in impoverished neighborhoods to commit crimes as a strategy of obtaining money or achieving social prominence. In contrast, the choice theory relates to every human being and explains how everybody is capable of choosing to commit crimes, regardless of social or financial status (Akers, 1990). Additionally, while social structure emphasizes how income inequality and excessive poverty motivates criminal behavior, the routine activity concept of the choice theory dismisses the impact of social factors and instead asserts that everyone can commit crimes when presented with an appealing situation that is conducive to the fulfillment of criminal activities.

However, a significant similarity between the choice theory and social structure theory of crime is that both rely on freedom of choice and the cost-benefit analysis. For instance, people living in the difficult circumstances of a low-income community do not perceive that they possess advantageous opportunities to receive a high-quality education or meaningful employment, and thus the consequence of imprisonment and being unable to obtain prestigious employment is not perceived as making a dramatic difference from their current disenfranchised condition. As a result, people in these communities do not view the punishments of crimes as being significantly damaging, often determine that the reward of money or prestige supersedes the risk, and consistently choose to commit the crime. Similarly, the choice theory also relates to the cost-benefit analysis in which people of all social classes are capable of determining that the reward of the crime significantly outweighs the minimal risk of being severely punished (Akers, 1990). Both theories also rely on the concept of social control as a means of explaining why people choose to commit crimes. Regarding low-income people who live in impoverished communities, the lack of a connection or bond with society enables them to easily choose to violate laws, harm other people and commit crimes. Likewise, the choice theory also emphasizes the importance of social control, for any individual is capable of committing crimes if the bonds to society have been impaired or destroyed. Thus, both the choice theory and social structure theory emphasize the freedom of choice people exercise when contemplating crime and the reasons why people might choose to commit a respective crime.

Social structure and rational choice are essential criminological theories because both theories illuminate methods by which society can prevent people from committing crimes. According to the social structure theory, we can reduce the need or motivation for people in low-income communities to commit crimes by improving the conditions of the communities, increasing the financial and cultural resources available in the neighborhoods, and by providing the people with sufficient opportunities to receive an education, obtain prestigious employment and contribute productively to society. We can also utilize the choice theory to reduce the number of criminals that our culture produces, for strengthening the bond between people and society will discourage people from desiring to engage in detrimental delinquent behavior. The social structure theory and choice theory help us understand the motivations that can cause different types of people to engage in delinquent behavior, analyzes the circumstances that can facilitate crime, and provides the most effective methods by which society can minimize the crime rates and prevent people from becoming delinquents.


Akers, R. (1990). Rational Choice, Deterrence, and Social Learning Theory in Criminology: The Path Not Taken. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 81(3), 653-676.

Myers, N. (2010, April 27). Rational Choice And Routine Activities Theory. Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

Rational Choice Theory. (n.d.). University of Minnesota Duluth. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from

Sampson, R., & Groves, B. (2009). Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory. The University of Chicago Journal, 94, 774-802.

Siegel, L. (2000). Social Structure Theories. National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 185185, 1-36.