Sociological Theories of Crime and Delinquency

Sociological theories of crime in the United States began to develop in the early 20th century at the University of Chicago. Social disorganization theory proposed that the breakdown of social bonds and failure of social institutions causes of crime. Sociologists who studied concentric zone theory found that delinquency in transitional zones flourished, and its prevalence was inversely related to the zone’s affluence and distance from the central business district. Collective efficacy measures the amount of social cohesion and informal social control in a community and found that a higher collective efficacy means a lower crime rate.

Learning theories suggest that antisocial behavior is learned like any other behavior. Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory has nine main propositions explaining why some people adopt attitudes and behaviors favorable to law violation. Ronald Akers’ social learning theory expands upon differential association by including the concept of operant conditioning. Sykes and Matza’s neutralization theory suggests that delinquents generally believe in the law and only break the law when they can rationalize their actions and neutralize moral blame. Walter Miller suggests that lower class youth have a set of focal concerns that encourage them to commit delinquent acts. Wolfgang and Ferracuti suggested that some neighborhoods have a subculture of violence in which members believe in the values of the dominant culture but also believe that violence is an appropriate response to many situations. This concept was extended by Elijah Anderson’s view that there is a “code of the street” that requires people to respond quickly with violence if they do not receive proper respect.

Strain occurs when one’s culture promotes a certain way of life but one does not have the means to achieve that life. Robert Merton’s classical strain theory suggests that adults are committed to the goal of economic success but not to the culturally approved means of achieving that goal, resulting in multiple adaptations that help them deal with their inability to achieve goals in a culturally approved manner. Albert Cohen suggested that juveniles turn to delinquent subcultures when they are unable to achieve desired middle-class status. Cloward and Ohlin expanded upon this by suggesting that there are actually several types of delinquent subcultures, giving youths multiple ways to adapt to the lack of legitimate opportunities. Rosenfeld and Messner focused on institutional anomie which occurs when people’s commitment to social institutions becomes less important than their desire to achieve the cultural goal of wealth. Robert Agnew’s general strain theory includes multiple types and levels of strain, explains why some strain is more likely to result in crime, and shows why some people are more likely to respond to strain through crime.

Control theories focus on why more people do not break the law. Reckless’s containment theory suggests that internal factors push people into crime, and external factors pull them. In addition, everyone has an external structure that contains their behavior and a protective internal structure. Travis Hirschi’s social bond theory suggests that youths are kept from violating the law by social bonds to conventional society, and that crime occurs when these bonds are weakened or broken. John Hagan’s power-control theory focuses on the gender differential in antisocial behavior and demonstrates how the family environment can produce delinquency.