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Theories of Crime | Introduction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2674 words Published: 18th May 2017

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There are many theories of crime which fit into four different models each explaining crime through varied approaches, in this essay I will be discussing the weakest of these theoretical explanations of crime and the strongest. The weakest theory of crime is Biological Positivism which is part of the Predestined Actor Model which is a positivist model explaining criminal behaviour based on scientific factors beyond a person’s control. Biological positivism has been heavily criticised by many criminologists due to their explanations that the internal factors of a person is what causes crime, this will be explored further and proven to be the weakest theory throughout the essay. The strongest theory of crime is Left Realism, which is an integrated explanation. This theory takes into account elements of other approaches and realises that there are multiple causes of crime therefore making it one of the strongest theoretical explanations, this will be elaborated on in the body of the essay and will be further proven why it is the strongest of all the theories. Throughout the essay I will be addressing the main points, the key thinkers, their explanations of crime and why it was chosen for each theory, which will then conclude in support of my claim of the weakest and strongest theories.

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Lombroso was the founding father of biological positivism and his theory suggested that people were born criminal; this explanation was influence by Darwin’s work on evolution and atavism. Although he was a biological positivist his work gradually turned towards environmental factors therefore suggesting that biological factors as the cause of criminality was not enough of an explanation and poverty for example also became influential. Lombroso was interested in criminal behaviour and categorized criminals as born criminals, insane criminals, occasional criminals and criminals of passions. He set the scene for all positivist work and other biological positivists based their work on Lombroso’s findings. However Lombroso’s work has been criticised, as it used outdated methodology which was very basic therefore he was unable to create any meaningful conclusions. Furthermore he did not consider female offenders, any criminal acts which were carried out by women he disregarded and stated that the men were responsible for the female involvement, therefore lacking in validity (Burke, 2009).

Matza in 1964 went on to say that a criminal is a specific type of person, that is different to those that are not criminals and that crime occurs due to factors outside of their control. However, this then ignores the aspect that humans have free will to commit crimes therefore disagreeing with theories in the rational actor model like Classical theory, which states that people choose to commit crimes. There are many theories in biological positivism which all state that individuals are compelled to commit crime as it is part of their biological make-up, such as physical factors, theories related to the body, chromosomal anomalies, etc. however these have be criticised as you will see below.

Physical type theories were the first to come out and this was based on the idea that criminals stand out based on of their appearance. Lombroso did research on atavism as mentioned above, that criminals are born criminal and show signs of criminal throwbacks for example long ears and sloping foreheads. As a result of this, people speculated that those with physical atavistic characteristics were criminals and used it as a prevention tactic. However this only related to a small amount of criminals and therefore is not very reliable and many with these characteristics could be wrongly accused of criminality. In today’s society Lombroso’s work is considered outdated and discredited due to the theory that a person’s physical appearance increases the likelihood of them being a criminal, this is seen as absurd and meaningless, hence perceived as a weak theory.

Phrenology, which is the study of skulls was also used to explain crime, Gall stated that by looking at the shape and bums of a skull can indicate a person’s character and specified that the area above the right ear determines how violent that person is. This theory has been criticised immensely along with physiognomy, which tells a person’s character through facial featured, due to its lack of credibility. There is not enough substantial evidence to prove this theory amongst a vast population because people are individuals with an individual biological make-up (Maguire, 1997).

Sheldon has done some similar work on linking body shape to behaviour, (his theory of somatypes) and identified three forms of body types which relate to certain personalities. He established that offending behaviour and crime is linked with mesomorphs, who are muscular and athletic with an aggressive personality. However it does not consider that these types of people may be targeted by the police more than the other two body types therefore is supporting his theory as those athletic built individuals are getting caught, where as other body types are not. These physical theories are very weak as they are ‘ignoring different aspects of the interaction between the physical characteristics of the person and their social circumstances.’ (Burke, 2009:74) People from poor families and areas may have a poor diet therefore causing them to be small, while young people working manual jobs are more likely to be muscular. These people are over-represented with criminals, which could be explained by socio-cultures not via biological factors (Burke, 2009).

Furthermore, to support the statement that biological positivism is a weak theory, Sheldon’s work was follow up by a Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development and found there was no physical difference between offenders and non offenders, therefore suggesting there is no reliability due to the inconsistency. Further criticisms of this theory are based on its methodology, as the sample of offenders and non offenders are not representative to society as mentioned above it does not account for those who do not get caught, it ignored the sifting process in the criminal justice system. It also disregards interaction with the environment, as those individuals with physical stigmas may retaliate against their social environment and labels given to them therefore living up to the expectation leading to a self fulfilling prophecy (Taylor, Walton, Young, 1973).

Chromosomal Anomalies is another category of biological theory criminologists have used to explain crime, it looks at the link between abnormal chromosomes and criminal behaviour. A normal female complement is XX and male is XY, an abnormal complement is when there are chromosomes missing or there are too many for example the XYY. Brown in 1962 found that those with sex chromosome abnormalities had higher rates of delinquency than his other patients. Casey et al (1966) followed on from his work and did the first major studies at a secure hospital and found supporting results for men with an extra Y chromosome as well as them being taller and having low intelligence (Taylor, Walton, Young, 1973).

The limitations for this theory are similar to that of the body type category, for example those with an extra Y chromosome may be taller and well built therefore targeted and treated harsher by agents of the criminal justice system like the police and judges. Further limitations which makes this theory the weakest, is that there are many individuals that are normal and do not behave criminally in society that have extra chromosomes, therefore suggesting that others factors have to be involved. In addition this theory also ignored the fact that those young men with an extra Y chromosome came from a working class background, therefore the cause of criminality could be due to their exploitation from the ruling class not because of chromosomes. Marxist theory would agree that the cause of criminality was a result of capitalist society and not chromosomes that are not identifiable and unable to predict criminal behaviour.

Biological positivists also explained criminality as genetically inherited; they suggested that a criminal gene can be passed on through the family just like physical characteristics. To test this theory they used three sources of data, studies of criminal families, studies of twins and studies of adopted persons. All three sources claimed that criminal behaviour was inherited rather than environmental, however family studies did not considered the effect of an absent parent lending to criminality. In twin studies they could not identify whether criminality was influenced more by environmental or biological factors however did mention that biological theory on its own to explain crime is not enough, therefore is a weak theory to base criminal explanations on. This was also reiterated in adoption studies emphasising that environmental factors play a role and add to the reliability of the theory, therefore showing the weaknesses of the biological theory when it is used to explain crime on its own (Wiley, 1996).

There are many weaknesses in the categories within biological theory, from the methods used by criminologists to their shortcomings in ignoring certain aspects including the three data sources that explained inherited criminal characteristics. The main limitations in biological positivism occur throughout all the categories even biochemical explanations such as hormone imbalances and substance abuse which has not been discussed in detail. The reason this theory was chosen as the weakest is due to it many limitations; criminologist largely discredit this approach as it is nowadays seen as outdated and not relevant, therefore there are many better explanation to crime that can be proven. Biological theory only looks at criminality from one approach which is seen as a very over determined view of human actions and a more integrated approach would explain crime better for example the more recent socio-biological explanation of crime. It only explains criminal behaviour effectively in a minority of offenders and has considerably more limitations as mentioned above. This weakest theory also cannot explain the variation in crime rates and offers no explanation to why and how laws arise. A further reason it was chosen as the worst, was due to the unethical and harsh treatments to prevent crime which in the USA, even results in death, genetic selection and sterilisation.

The strongest theoretical explanation of crime is left realism. This theory is chosen as the strongest because unlike biological positivism it does consider other factors and is an integrated model which recognises that there are many causes of crime and contains essential parts from all three models of crime.

Jock Young had a major turnaround which altered criminological thinking to the emergence of left realism; when crime rates were meant to decrease due to economic restructuring and improved conditions and instead actually increased, with the increased awareness of victims of crimes and crimes that were previously invisible, and finally a growing public demand and disapproval in efficiency of public service (Newburn, 2007). This new criminology from the left political view, with criminologists such as Young, Lea and Matthews believed crime is a real issue and not socially constructed therefore it needs to be addressed. Left realism is the strongest theory as it ‘takes into account the immediate fears that people have and seek to deal with them’ (Burke, 2009:264), such as street crimes in high offending areas as those living there are caught right in the middle of it.

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As mentioned above this theory is seen as theoretically strong as it recognises various causes of crime that are credited. The relationship individuals have with the police could be a cause of crime, if the police are harassing people therefore causing them to retaliate or feel helpless; this will drives them to offend. This theory is supported by labelling theory which makes it stronger because instead of theories disagreeing with the causes it agrees therefore creating validity. The police can also cause moral panics in society which can lead to further criminal behaviour; this could be a distraction by capitalist so that the working class are not aware of the real issues that they should be concerned about, this strength allows the individual to be aware of the capitalist system and the exploitation by the ruling class therefore can avoid crime.

A key element of left realism is relative deprivation as a cause of crime. People measure their situation for example what they have got, (money and jobs) against the expectation that society creates. When individuals are unable to reach that expectation they may turn to crime in order to achieve it, this is the theory of anomie suggested by Merton. This explanation adds to the strength of this theory as it highlights economic and social factors of crime.

Another key element is subculture, Lea and Young’s subcultural model explains how subcultures are used as a response to problems. Those who are unable to adapt to middle class values create subcultures that include people that share their norms and values so they are no longer frustrated. This therefore can be a response to the problem for the working class individuals; however this subculture may create norms and values to suit the group which may include criminal acts as a way of rebellion against the system (Lea, 2002). The final key element is marginalisation, as certain groups lived on the margins of society and are not accepted by others, consequently turning to crime. All these explanations of crime are some of the best from other theories and now under one theory therefore this is the strongest theoretical explanation of crime.

An additional reason this is chosen as the strongest theory is because it provides a solution to crime and not just the causes, this is shown with the square of crime. Left realists state that crime is a gathering of the following four factors and the relationships between the four factors determine the effectiveness of that relationship to preventing crime. The first of the four factor, is the state; where the agents of the system label individuals as offenders which is a major factor of recidivism, the second is the victim; who may encourage criminal behaviour due to lack of defence or through repeated lifestyle (routine activity theory), the third is society; where formal and informal social controls occur and the fourth is the offender; how often they commit crimes and the type of offences, etc. (Burke, 2009).

To prevent crime, you have to interfere at each point of the square. For example, in the state the police should have more effective policing and the courts should not make preconceptions. The victim should be more responsible for their protection and maybe change their daily routines regularly. The public (society) to ensure that the required socialisation is taking place in primary years and finally the offenders should exercise their free will and decide not to offend.

A criticism of left realism, is that the theory is mainly based on previous approaches. However this can be considered as a positive factor, as the theory is hard to criticise due to the fact it has elements from all modules therefore accounts for many explanations and was chosen as the strongest theory. Further advantages includes how it seeks realistic policies to tackle crime problems and how left realism is about prevention not control, therefore left realists believe that if you punish it will lead to marginalisation, so consequently prevention is better.


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