Lesson Five: Social Process Theories of Crime

Lesson Overview

In this lesson we examine the major social psychological or micro-level theories of crime, which emphasize the ways in which people influence each other in the direction of deviance or conformity. .

Lesson Objectives

1. Identify the background, as well as the strengths and weaknesses, of the following social process theories of crime:

A. Learning theories

1. Edwin Sutherland: Differential Association Theory

2. Contemporary learning theories by Glaser, Bandura, Burgess and Akers

B. Control theories

1. Reckless: Containment Theory

2. Sykes and Matza: Neutralization and Drift Theory

3. Hirschi: Control Theory

4. Gottfredson and Hirschi: Self-control Theory

2. Develop a point of view about the implications of multiple and competing theories in sociology:

a. Is a general theory possible? What would be its advantages?

b. Why are there so many competing theories and how are the useful(if they are)?

3. Be able to select the theories from this lesson and the last that are most useful in understanding the deviant behavior of the young people profiled in the video, "Children of Violence"

Reading and Viewing Assignment

Barkan, chapter 7
Video: "Children of Violence"

Study Notes

Differential Association Theory

The first important sociological theorist to develop a theory of deviance that applies at the micro level (face-to-face interactions and small groups) was Indiana University's Edwin Sutherland. In his book, Principles of Criminology, published in the 1930s, Sutherland set out to develop a theory which would have the same characteristics as other scientific theories, namely, that "the conditions which are said to cause crime should be present when crime is present, and they should be absent when crime is absent." Sutherland recognized that while some types of crime are more prevalent in minority communities, many individuals in those communities are law-abiding. Similarly, among the powerful and privileged, some are lawbreakers; some are not. His theory is intended to differentiate at the individual level between those who become lawbreakers and those who do not, whatever their race, class, or ethnic background.

His theory gives priority to the power of social influences and learning experiences and can be expressed in terms of a series of propositions, which are presented in detail in your text, pp. 176-177. But I believe most of what's important in his nine propositions can be reduced to just four:

1. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

2. That learning takes place primarily in intimate personal groups (what Cooley called "primary groups") and includes not only the techniques of committing crime but the motives, rationalizations, and attitudes which accompany crime.

3. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity, and a person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.

4. The learning process involves the same mechanisms whether a person is learning criminality or conformity.

Thus it isn't a lack of social organization that characterizes communities and neighborhoods high in crime, but a differential social organization--a set of practices and cultural definitions that are at odds with the law. What's more, Sutherland recognizes the complexity of this process; many of us are exposed to a combination of conformist and deviant influences and it's the relative balance of these influences that Sutherland sees as determining the outcome in individual cases.

The movie, Boyz 'n the Hood, provides a good example. Trey is exposed to street values, but his father, Furious, is an overwhelming influence in a more positive direction. Likewise with Trey's girlfriend (I can't remember her name; tell me and I'll add it here); her mother and grandmother are on-her like glue, and her life is encircled by activities related to school and church. The two brothers, Ricky and Darrin, are another example. At the time he is killed, Ricky is about to receive word of a football scholarship to college. Ricky's friendship with Trey and probably with his coaches, as well as the fact that his mother has always expected great things of him, have kept him on a relatively positive track. On the other hand, the 'hood has also had an influence, as we see by his early fatherhood. His brother Darrin has a quite different set of primary influences, some of them the result of his early arrest. His mother has seemed to see him more negatively from his early childhood; the buddies with whom he hangs out are the classic dead-end kids; and his early arrest has exposed and time in juvenile detention have shaped him into a drug-dealing gang-banger.

An autobiography called Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall provides another compelling example of differential association. McCall finds himself exposed to competing values through his parents and peers. Sociologists would probably categorize his parents as being part of the lower middle-class (his father has a career in the military), and clearly McCall is exposed to a strong dose of conventional values, but by the time he was in junior high, communication with his parents was minimal. It was the male peer group in his school and in his neighborhood that provided the "motives, drives, rationalizations and attitudes" that I think turn McCall in the direction of crime and violence.

It begins with sex. In a chapter called "Trains," McCall describes his transformation from sexual inexperience and naivete into sexual predator. A "train" is a gang rape, and the first train in which McCall participated marked a turning point in his life. "We weren't aware of what it symbolized at the time, but that train marked our real coming together as a gang." (McCall, 1994, p. 47) After the first one, trains became commonplace. Tthe whole experience wasn't primarily about sex:

Like almost everything we did, it was a macho thing. Using a member of one of the most vulnerable groups of human beings on the face of the earth--black females--it was another way for a guy to show the other fellows how cold and hard he was. (McCall, 1994, p. 47)

Eventually McCall inadvertently sets up his girlfriend for a train, which caps his transition to "cold and hard." The ultimate in respect among McCall's peer group was to have a reputation as a "crazy nigger. " which meant that when you were involved in a conflict, you were restrained by no bounds of compassion or common sense. In McCall's neighborhood, the model of a crazy nigger was Scobe. When Scobe got into an argument on the basketball court, for example:

He'd return, cussing, foam forming in the corners of his mouth, the veins in his neck bulging like they were about to snap, and that flaming red Afro would look like it was on fire like the rest of him. He'd open fire, tat, tat, tat, tat, sending everybody scattering. Guys would leap over the tall fence or dive to the ground when he started shooting. It was some sight to see one dude make hundreds of people scramble for cover in all directions like that. That was power. (McCall, 1994, p. 61)

At first McCall is just playing the role. "I hadn't thought how far I'd go with the crazy-nigger act. You don't think like that when you're in that frame of mind." (McCall, p. 63) But he finds himself on the verge of shooting someone in the head at point blank range. Although he stops himself this first time, he eventually becomes the part he started out just playing, shoots someone, and ends up in prison. He has become many people's worst fear--a young man who is unpredictably violent and who seems to suffer no remorse whatsoever.

But clearly in his case, he has become this kind of person as a result of a combination of social influences and role models, and in fact, the changes he has undergone turn out to be reversible. In his account of his years in prison, we eventually see that McCall is actually still involved in a balance of opposing tendencies, that more conventional values like compassion still have some hold on him, and finally he is influenced by the people who are important to him to set aside his "crazy nigger" persona. McCall is now a journalist working for the Washington Post.

As the first criminologist to give sustained attention to white collar and organizational crime, Sutherland is also concerned that his theory apply to those from more privileged class backgrounds. To understand the behavior of the corporate criminal, or for that matter the corrupt cop, Sutherland would direct us to the values and mores of that person's immediate social circle. "Most communities," says Sutherland, "are organized for both criminal and anticriminal behavior." Sutherland's theory directs us toward the network of key social relations that differentiates the deviant and the conformist, and he recognizes that many people experience pulls in both directions.

Sutherland's original hope was that we could put variables like the "frequency, intensity, and duration" of exposure to deviant and nondeviant definitions on a quasi-mathematical basis. Even if this isn't possible, and so far it has proved highly resistant to such specification, the real challenge of applying Sutherland's theory is to develop concrete criteria for these variables that are not after-the-fact. We have to be able to specify in advance of major law-breaking activities the networks and relationships that are propelling one individual toward crime and the other toward conformity. The two brothers, Darrin(Doughboy) and Ricky, in Boyz 'n the Hood, are a good example. At the time he is gunned down, Ricky is just hours away from learning that his test scores have qualified him for college, while Darrin is clearly destined for life in the "hood." At that point, we can pretty readily specify the exposures and relationships that have pointed each brother in a different direction. Ricky's best friend, Trey, is also college-bound; coaches probably play a role, because of Ricky's football skills; and the boys' mother has always related to Ricky in terms of what she believes will be his eventual achievements. On the other hand, Doughboy's friends are the classic dead-end kids, and his mother regards him much more negatively than Ricky.

What complicates our ability for a straightforward differential association explanation are the scenes earlier in the movie, for example, when Darrin and Trey and Ricky encounter older kids who take away Ricky's football. Already then Darrin is the one who is ready to take them on, while Ricky seems willing to accept the loss of his football. Have they already been shaped by differential associations? Ultimately what perhaps makes the greatest difference between the two brother's are Darrin's encounters with the police and his incarceration in a juvenile reformatory. That's where we might want to supplement Sutherland's differential association theory with another theory in the symbolic interactionist tradition, namely labeling theory.

. Notice that all of the sociological theories of crime analyzed in chapter 6 tend to focus on adolescents and particularly boys. This reflects what I have called the classic correlations. Based on official crime data, a disproportionate share of the crime in American society is generated by males, age 15-25, from poor and often minority backgrounds, living in urban areas. Your viewing and writing assignment involves exactly this combination of factors, as you look at a poor, mostly Latino neighborhood of East Oakland.

One of the most influential "second generation" (since 1960) theories of crime is control theory, particularly as developed by Travis Hirschi(Livingston, p. 387). Hirschi's initial presentation of the theory was in conjunction with a large-scale survey study of the causes of delinquency at Richmond High School, Richmond, California, in the early 1960s.

Control theory begins with the assumption that we are all tempted to break society's rules, but that we are usually constrained by what Hirschi calls the social bond, which is the connection between ourselves and our society. This is a pretty abstract concept and it needs to be operationalized. In other words, how are we going to specify and measure this concept? Hirschi says we should think of the social bond in terms of four elements, each of which can be measured separately and their results added together. Those four elements are the following:

1. Attachment represents our ties of love and affection to other people. Livingston shows you how Hirschi operationalized this concept for teenagers, but I'm going to show how the same element is defined for adults. Usually ffor adults attachment refers to our family relationships, especially our spouses (partners) and our children. We are less apt to be deviant if we believe our deviant behavior will hurt or embarrass people we care deeply about.

2. Commitment refers to the investment we have made in conventionally approved activities, especially those that have an economic payoff. For adults, this means especially job seniority and any educational degrees that help us in obtaining jobs. If I think about committing a burglary, for example, I have to realize it jeopardizes the value both of my years in graduate school and my years at UMD, since academic employment would be much less accessible to a convicted felon. Someone who has dropped out of high school and never held a long-term job has less to lose.

These first two elements together constitute what control theorists would call our stake in conformity.

3. Involvement refers simply to the time spent on conventionally approved activities. As I do self-report surveys of deviant behavior in my introductory criminology classes, I sometimes think about the differences between some of the nontraditional students, who may have full-time jobs and families to support, and some of the more traditional 18-22-year-olds, who probably will never again in their lives have as much discretionary time as they have in college. Some people owe a life of virtue to the fact that they are too busy to get into trouble, and of course, this is one of the beliefs many parents share, when they encourage their kids to get involved in after-school sports and the like.

4. Beliefs. Some control theorists would not give this fourth element much weight, since we are (almost?) all familiar with the experience of acting contrary to our beliefs. Otherwise we'd never feel guilty. The whole weight of control theory, really, is to emphasize that beliefs are not enough. Control theorists tend to believe that in the absence of elements 1-3, beliefs are insufficient to keep most of us from giving way to temptation.

Control theory turns out to be the key to understanding a puzzling situation that emerged in the study of domestic violence. The initial research question was a practical one, with important individual and societal consequences. What kinds of police interventions, if any, are more apt to reduce the amount of domestic violence in American society? In particular, would a more aggressive arrest policy result in less repeat violence in families where violence comes to the attention of the police?

In the original study, Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk enlisted the Minneapolis police in an experiment. When the police were called to a scene of domestic violence, after they had determined that the evidence supported an arrest, they contacted police headquarters and were randomly assigned either to make an arrest or to handle the situation informally. It turned out that offenders who were arrested were less apt to repeat their violence in the future. (Sherman and Berk, 1984) This research contributed importantly to the passage of mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence that were in enacted in many cities after 1984.

This, by the way, was contrary to their own recommendation. In the original article, Sherman and Berk cautioned against taking any policy action until their experiment could be replicated elsewhere. Replication refers to the process of duplicating a study under new conditions, and it is a key part of the scientific process, providing a safeguard against errors, bias, or simply generalizing from unusual conditions. In this case, the authors' caution proved well founded. Their research was subsequently replicated in Milwaukee; Dade County, Florida; Colorado Springs; Omaha; and Charlotte, North Carolina. In Colorado Springs and Dade County, replications confirmed the same deterrent effects of police arrest, but in the other three cities, not only were there no deterrent effects, arrests actually had the opposite effect--an apparent escalation of violence. Apparently at least some of the time being arrested so angered the offender that he actually increased his future level of violence.

That left policy-makers in a tough position. On the one hand, the feminist movement was insisting that violence against women be taken more seriously. There was also the issue of the message that a mandatory arrest policy sends to the more general population of potential offenders (what we will call general deterrence in lesson ten). But what if the mandatory arrest policy was actually increasing the overall level of violence against women in the society? At the very least, this was a phenomenon that cried out for further explanation. And when the explanation was found, in 1992, by Sherman and Smith, it involved one of the central concepts of control theory, namely, stake in conformity.

How could arrests for family violence produce less recidivism (repeat offending) in one locality and more in another? Sherman and Smith hypothesized that it might have to do with stake in conformity, which they thought would be a reflection of two additional variables, marital status and employment status. When they reanalyzed the data from the cities that had been involved in the mandatory arrest research, their hypothesis was supported:


If we ask whether arrest influences the subsequent violence of those arrested, the answer is that, in general, it depends on the arrested person's stake in conformity... Arrested persons who lacked a stake in conformity were significantly more likely to have a repeat offense than their counterparts who were not arrested. Conversely, among those who were married and employed, arrest deterred subsequent violence. (Sherman and Smith, 1992, p. 686)

The difference, then, between a city like Colorado Springs, where mandatory arrest had an overall deterrent effect, and Milwaukee, where it did not, had to do with the relative percentage of marriage and employment among the population involved in domestic violence calls to the police. In Colorado Springs, a substantial majority of the cases involved couples that were married and in which the offender had regular employment; in Milwaukee, the reverse was true.

In the conclusion of their article, Sherman and Smith look at the implications of their research for what they call the replacement hypothesis, which says that as informal social control systems break down, more and more formal social control is needed. Their research casts doubt on this hypothesis. Where the informal social control that comes from committed relationships and steady employment are lacking, formal social control is less effective and perhaps sometimes even counterproductive. Sherman and Smith also recognize that their research doesn't resolve the underlying policy issue Are we going to arrest married people who commit domestic violence and not arrest the unmarried? Arrest the employed and not the unemployed? Obviously not. "Yet a policy of arresting all offenders may simply produce more violence among suspects who have a low stake in conformity." (Sherman and Smith, 1992, p. 688)

Notice how complex things have become. Family violence, as we saw in chapter 4, did not become a national issue until it was taken up by the feminist movement, and at least part of the feminist program to reduce violence against women was for the criminal justice system to take a much harder line with violent offenders. I see an irony here, in that this is very much the same approach to crime that is advocated by the more conservative elements in American society, who are generally opposed to other parts of the feminist agenda. Now in the Sherman and Smith research, we see that the get tough approach may work, but only for populations that are not generally marginalized in the society. People who have little to lose are not readily deterred from violence by the punishments of the criminal justice system. In order, then, for the get tough approach to really be effective, we need to see a more general strengthening of family ties (usually claimed by the conservatives as their issue), but also an improvement in job opportunities for the poor (usually claimed by the liberals as their issue).

Why can't the research process give us simpler answers? Most if not all of the theories you have been reading about in lessons six and seven were intended by their creators to serve as general theories that would ultimately simplify our understanding of crime and criminals. Certainly control theory was intended that way. Its creators hoped it could be used to explain everything from domestic violence to juvenile delinquency, from crime in the streets to crime in the suites. But as Livingston points out in your text, even in Hirschi's initial research with high schoolers in Richmond, California, some of his hypotheses were not supported. Hirschi expected, for example, that youths with part-time jobs would be less delinquent because of their greater stake in conformity. But it turned out that youths with jobs were actually more likely to be delinquent, although the correlation was rather weak. Livingston highlights other shortcomings in Hirschi's theory that came to light with the accumulation of research based on the theory. Eventually Hirschi gave up on control theory and turned his efforts in a new direction. .

Self-Control Theory

In the late 1980s, Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson proposed a theory that sounds like an offshoot of control theory but really is not. Where control theory emphasized how social ties and commitment to societal institutions create a stake in conformity, the new theory emphasizes the personality type of the deviant. Deviants are people who pursue "short-term gratification in the most direct way with little consideration for the long-term consequences of their acts." (Hirschi and Gottfredson, 1987, p. 959)

The great appeal of self-control theory is its claim finally to have identified the universal element in deviant behavior. Violent husbands, greedy corporate executives, street muggers, and corrupt officials--all are marked by this characteristic lack of self-control. The particularities of their criminal history depend on their opportunities, but they are basically the same types of people. What's more, their lack of self-control will show up not only in criminal activity, but in other aspects of their lives--problems in school, unstable job histories, failed marriages, drug and alcohol problems, and the like.

What are the sources of this lack of self-control? Hirschi and Gottfredson relate it primarily to ineffective patterns of child-rearing. This is what makes their theory sociological or at least social psychological. They are not talking about inborn traits but about a trait which reflects a breakdown of parenting (and perhaps also schooling).(1)

Michael Benson and Elizabeth Moore (1992) have taken one of the central claims of self-control theory, namely the insistence that white collar criminals are basically the same type of people as street criminals, and subjected it to an empirical test. Their data comes from a project that was examining sentencing patterns in federal district courts. For eight federal court districts between 1973 and 1978, they were able to get information on 2,462 individuals sentenced for white collar crimes and 1,986 individuals sentenced for what they call common crimes(basically the same as what I have been calling street crimes).

The Hirschi and Gottfredson theory argues that white collar offenders, like street criminals, will not specialize in their crimes, but will tend to have a diverse history of criminal offenses and problems in adjustment that reflect their lack of self-control. Benson and Moore were able to get information on prior arrests, drug and alcohol use, and academic performance and adjustment in high school. They find that there is a small subset of white collar offenders, about 16%, who are very similar to the street criminals. But overall the differences are more striking than the similarities.

Thus 81% of the common criminals, but only 39% of the white collar criminals have prior arrest records. The common criminals have 5.63 mean average arrests overall, compared with 1.79 for the common criminals. Almost half the common criminals had problems in school adjustment, compared with less than one fourth of the white collar criminals. Almost half of the common criminals are reported to have used illegal drugs, compared to only 6% of the white collar criminals.

Benson and Moore conclude:

It is easy to agree with Gottfredson and Hirschi that persons with little or no self-control probably are prone to engaging in a wide variety of criminal and deviant acts. However, as our research and that of others shows, the majority of those who commit white-collar offenses do not display this kind of generalized deviance... these offenders have at least moderate, if not considerable, self-control. (1992, pp. 265-266)

Benson and Moore find that there are three distinct routes to white-collar crime. The first route reflects individuals with low self control and for these offenders, Gottfredson and Hirschi are right that it makes no sense to differentiate them from other common criminals. The second route involves individuals with high self-control, who build on the "culture of competition" that seems to be a part of American capitalism to justify the pursuit of their own self-interest at any cost. These are the Michael Millikens and other big-time white collar criminals. The third, and probably most common route, picks up on a different aspect of the culture of competition, the need to protect one's position in the face of the threat of failure. "Self-reports from white-collar offenders suggest that they often are motivated not so much by greed as by a desire merely to hang onto what they already have." (Benson and Moore, 1992, p. 267)

A General Theory of Crime?

Is it possible to create a general theory of crime? One of the problems is the sheer diversity of crime, which becomes even more apparent when we look at crime cross-culturally. One society may criminalize theological nonconformity; another treats people as criminals based on their political activities; a third has a legal system that rejects religion and politics as areas of criminal sanction but has used its criminal justice system to punish people who defied its racial segregation laws. Hirschi and Gottfredson try to deal with this issue by creating a definition of crime that transcends culture:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx I loaned out my book and will get it back for the next revision.

There's something intriguing about this definition, but finally, by divorcing the definition of crime from what is actually processed by the criminal justice system in a particular country, Hirschi and Gottfredson have lost a great deal of conceptual precision. In particular, where is the basic distinction between norms and laws? What if I lie outrageously in order to have sex with a woman, or even to get her to marry me? What if I change the ratings on my student course evaluations to enhance my job security or my chances of promotion? These are selfish actions, accomplished by deceit, but they don't qualify as crimes according to the criteria laid out in the first lesson.

Does this mean that a general theory of crime is impossible? I don't expect criminologists will ever give up this search. The basic wellspring of sociological theorizing is probably the desire to create simple and elegant explanations of what is really an incredibly complex reality. My own favorite candidate for a general theory of crime is a variation of the Matza and Sykes treatment of neutralizations early in chapter 12. In their research with juvenile delinquents, Matza and Sykes find that juvenile delinquents mostly support conventional norms, but the delinquents see their own behavior as an allowable exception to those norms. A neutralization is a self-justification which allows the violation of a norm that you would ordinarily uphold. This same idea has been elaborated by Sculley and Marolla in an interview study of 114 convicted rapists serving time in prison. Only 8% of the group reported feeling any guilt after the rape, and only 2 of 114 expressed any concern or feeling for the victim. How is it possible for these men to commit such heinous acts without being wracked by guil? Although they do not use the Matza/Sykes terminology, Sculley and Marolla find several widespread neutralizations that are used to justify rape. The most common, which closely parallels "denial of the victim," emphasizes the rape as an act of revenge. This woman deserved to be raped because of some evil, real or imagined, that the man's wife or girlfriend committed on him in the past. A second common theme is like the Matza and Sykes category, "Denial of Injury." Women who are picked up at a party or in a bar or while hitchhiking have signaled their sexual availability and have no right not to submit. A third theme, related to gang rape, parallels the Matza/Sykes "Appeal to Higher Loyalties." The rapist's loyalty to the male peer group wipes out any possible concern with the victim as a person: "We felt powerful, we were in control. I wanted sex and there was peer pressure. She wasn't like a person, no personality, just domination on my part. Just to show I could do it--you know, macho."(Sculley and Marolla, 1985, p. 260)

I see the work by Matza and Sykes, as well as the work by Sculley and Marollis, as closely related to a theoretical tradition that emerged in social psychology in the mid-1950s. At that time Leon Festinger was researching a doomsday cult whose predictions about the end of the world failed to come true. How do people handle such a fundamental disappointment in a belief system to which they seem deeply committed? Festinger found that the ability of the human mind to generate rationalizations to cover up unpleasant realities is astounding. He coined the term cognitive dissonance to refer to a powerful pressure that is created when people try to maintain in their minds two or more beliefs, attitudes, or emotions that are psychologically inconsistent. One of Festinger's proteges, Elliott Aronson, elaborated the original theory, noting that 1)the dissonance is particularly strong when it directly involves our self-esteem; and 2) that we typically resolve such dissonances through a process of rationalization or self-justification. In his book, The Social Animal, Aronson describes an experiment by David Glass in which individuals who consider themselves good and decent people are induced to give a series of electric shocks to other people in a laboratory setting. These people convince themselves that the shocks are deserved, and this dynamic is strongest among those with the highest self-esteem. Aronson puts it this way: "It is precisely because I think I am such a nice person that, if I do something that causes you pain, I must convince myself that you are a rat." (Aronson, 1995, p. 220)

Unlike the Gottfredson and Hirschi hypothesis about lack of self-control, this self-justification dynamic clearly reaches across the gap between street crime and white collar crime. Remember Donald Cressey's analysis of embezzlers from lesson three. Cressey argued that one of the prerequisites for embezzling is a rationalization that allows the embezzler to take from his/her employer without thinking of himself/herself as a thief. Thus it's not juvenile delinquents and rapists but also white collar criminals who have this need to justify what they're doing, even when it's illegal, or perhaps especially when it's illegal.


Cressey, like Matza and Sykes, argues that the rationalization actually precedes the act and is not simply an after-the-fact rationalization. This is an area that probably deserves more investigation. One common distinction in criminology is between crimes that are impulsive versus crimes that involve at least some degree of planning. This is not so much a dichotomy as a continuum, with criminal acts showing various degrees of planning. My suspicion is that rationalizations are developed in advance for those crimes that are closer to the planning end of the continuum and probably also for impulsive crimes that are repeated.

Even if rationalization turned out to be a universal aspect of crime, it would clearly be only part of the story. In a way it just takes us back to differential association theory, since it would probably turn out that most of these rationalizations are part of a subculture and not something that the individual offender invents for herself/himself. In the closing section of chapter 12, Livingston argues that it is probably most fruitful to view the theories you are reading about in lessons six and seven as addressing different questions and therefore at least somewhat complementary, rather than competing directly with each other. One of the distinctively American contributions to the philosophy of science and knowledge is known as Pragmatism. The pragmatists believe that the best test of the truth of a particular theory or proposition is its usefulness. This seems a particularly appropriate theory in an area like criminology, where one of the primary motivations in theory building is doubtless the desire to reduce the amount of crime in a particular society. You will remember that in the early 20th century, the popular theory of crime among the general public and to some degree among early sociologists was that it reflected the genetic and biological inferiority of the new immigrants. The solution was quite straightforward, implemented on a national basis in the 1920s: Keep out the foreigners, particularly the Jews and Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe. The earliest truly sociological theories of crime developed in opposition to these racist theories, but they too had a practical bent, as University of Chicago criminologists sought to reduce perils of the City. Ultimately I suspect that is also the criterion you will want to use in sorting out the appeal of the theories you have been studying. Which ones point you toward changes and interventions that will create a society in which people are more secure in their property, and especially their persons?


Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal. 7th edition. W.H. Freeman. 1995.

Benson, Michael, and Moore, Elizabeth. "Are White-Collar and Common Offenders the Same? An Empirical and Theoretical Critique of a Recently Proposed General Theory of Crime." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. Vol. 29 No. 3. August 1992. pp. 251-272.

Hirschi, Travis, and Gottfredson, Michael. "Toward a General Theory of Crime." Explaining Crime: Interdisciplinary Approaches. edited by Wouter Buikhuisen and Sarnoff Mednick. Brill. 1987. pp. 8-26.

Sculley, Diana, and Marolla, Joseph. "Riding the Bull at Gilley's: Convicted Rapists Describe the Rewards of Rape." Social Problems, vol. 32 no. 3, 1985, pp. 251-263.

Sherman, Lawrence, and Berk, Richard. "The Specific Deterrent Effects of Arrest for Domestic Assault," American Sociological Review, vol. 49, 1984, pp. 261-272.

Sherman, Lawrence and Smith, Douglas. "Crime, Punishment, and Stake in Conformity: Legal and Informal Control of Domestic Violence." American Sociological Review. Volume 57, October 1992, pp. 680-690.

Written Assignment: 10 points possible

Create a list of 10 recommendations for reducing crime in American society. The first five should be ambitious changes that might be difficult to implement but which you truly believe could create a society in which people are safer and more secure from crime. The second five should be more practical in the sense that they are perhaps less costly or more likely to really be implemented. Justify each recommendation with a discussion of the relevant portion of one of the theories you have studied in lessons six and seven.

1. 1Their theory could readily be modified by including physical conditions, like Attention Deficit Disorder, as additional sources of low self-control.