24 February 2024

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Theories of Crime

Theories of Crime: Approaches To Criminological Theories and Criminal Behaviour


Crime in society demonstrates the government’s failure to preserve law and order, yet it is not always the government that breaks the law. Individuals who are not abstract entities of society break the law. The motivation for committing a crime can range from person to person; there can be variances in a person’s sociological, economic, psychological, and, to some extent, biological development that become the cause of crime in society. 

Crime has been an element of human culture since the dawn of time. Manu, the composer of Manusmriti, acknowledges some crimes like assault, theft, robbery, false evidence, slander, criminal breach of trust, cheating, adultery, and rape. Since then, the definition of crime has evolved into its present form, becoming a component of every transaction, whether social, economic, financial, domestic, or intellectual.

What is a crime?

Crime has become ingrained in human culture. In general, a crime is defined as an act that is punishable by law. Legislators enact a variety of laws to govern society and criminalise specific acts, omissions, or commisions. When such actions are criminalised, all people who engage in them are considered criminals. It obviously implies that if ‘X’ is the offence made punished by the State at a certain point in time, then the individual who does any act of this nature is a criminal. The state bears the primary responsibility for determining what is right and wrong in the country. What is illegal in one location cannot be illegal in another.

Crime, on the other hand, might be viewed as a struggle between individuals and society. Years ago, Aristotle stated that “man is a social animal,” but as we progress and see that every criminal activity is the result of a conflict between the will of the individual and the will of society, there has been a consistent pattern of deviant acts committed by men, acts that are contrary to the will of society. These activities demonstrated that, even in the modern day, man has yet to learn to socialise with one another, that man is a gregarious rather than a social animal, and that a perfectly social man is still in the making.

Durkheim, a well-known sociologist, believed that a society without crime is not feasible. In his opinion, the label of criminality is how society defines it. If all members of society decide not to commit any illegal acts, the same community will create new non-criminal behaviour. Crime is a social phenomenon that adds to society’s social dynamics. The sole difference is that one sees crime in an individual sense and observes the impact of that illegal action on society, whilst the other sees criminality as a public morals policy that may or may not have any impact on society. 

Although “criminality” and “crime” are both different terms, crime can have different scopes and meanings, but in general, a “offence or a crime is a violation of right, considered in reference to the evil tendency of such violation as regards the community at large,” whereas criminality is a state of mind, a temperament, which can be evidenced by an overt act or provable fact for the purpose of law. We have failed to defend our society against crime thus far, and our entire effort is now moving to defending it against criminals. 

As a result, there is no definitive definition of crime; it is a very complicated phenomenon, especially in this modern age, where changes occur across cultures, cultures change with time, and formerly uncriminalized habits become criminalised (for example, the alcohol ban in Bihar).

Theories of crime

As previously stated, crime can be defined as the intentional conduct of an act that is both socially injurious and illegal under criminal law. It is also a dynamic idea, with its scope evolving with the emergence of new criminal behavior. There are three approaches to criminological theories that are believed to explain the causes of crime in society:

Biological theory

In the 19th century, Italian prison psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso drew on Charles Darwin’s views and proposed that criminals were atavistic, with the cause for their becoming criminals being the recurrence of qualities from their ancestors in succeeding generations. He speculated that their brains were underdeveloped or did not fully mature. During his review of convicts, he discovered that they all had sloping foreheads and receding chins in common. In doing so, Lombroso implied that criminal activity was a result of biology and biological features.

Lombroso’s work has long been out of fashion. Biological hypotheses, on the other hand, have continued to evolve. Some current criminologists include genetics and predisposition (including testosterone and IQ level), but they emphasize on the interplay between the person’s biological and social conditions rather than on extremely obviously natural hereditary features. Instead of biological factors, current biological theory focuses on bio-social features.

Sociological theory

Sociological methods demonstrate how external social forces influence the occurrence of crime in society. These approaches investigate the causes of crime that are external to individuals, such as the person’s society, peer groups, and family.

Social disorganisation theory: In the 1920s and 1930s, sociologists at the University of Chicago performed research that resulted in this idea. Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay were key proponents of this viewpoint. They analyzed the residence locations of juveniles appearing in court using spatial mapping and discovered that the rate of delinquency is higher in places with low survival conditions, poor health facilities, and socioeconomic disarray. This led them to believe that crime was caused by neighborhood dynamics rather than by individual players.

Labelling theory: “Once a criminal, always a criminal” According to the labeling theory, attaching a label, whether it is legally classifying a teenager as a “bad kid” or “troublemaker” or a simple arrest and incarceration, can have long-term consequences on a person. Recent research demonstrates how labeling can have a tremendous impact on people, including minors, affecting their education and work possibilities and having ramifications that can lead to persistent criminal behavior.

Right realism/rational choice theory: Criminals are viewed as rational actors in this criminological viewpoint. According to the theory, it is their rational judgment that leads to crime.  Such reasonable decisions are made after weighing the costs and benefits. They emphasize punishment as the most effective strategy of deterring criminal behavior.

Left realism/relative deprivation: As a reaction to the influence of right response theory on government policy, left realism theory emerged. Left realists regard society as an unequal capitalistic system, although they are not the same as Marxist theorists. To justify and reinforce their position, left realists employ the concept of relative deprivation. They accuse sociologists of failing to take crime seriously. John Lea and Jack Young conducted a victim survey in London to explain the street crime committed by young people and discovered that the working class was afraid of street crime. 

Relative deprivation is a state in which a person feels disadvantaged in comparison to other individuals, and it can only be addressed by progressive social transformation. According to Lea and Young, relative deprivation is not the only cause of crime; the true cause is the fatal combination of relative deprivation and individualism.

Anomie theory/strain theory: Durkheim introduced the term “Anomie” to describe the violation of cultural and social standards, which is frequently accompanied by a variety of social changes. Based on Durkheim’s Anomie hypothesis, a well-known American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, proposed in the 1940s that crime is the outcome of an individual’s incapacity to accomplish culturally valued goals (e.g., material prosperity, a good standard of life, and status). 

The reason for this inability may be the exclusion of a specific group of people from society’s mainstream, which generates irritation and can often lead to deviant and unlawful behavior. There are several parallels between Left Realism and Strain Theory; both discuss how people’s deprivation of class often becomes a motive for them to commit a crime.

Social control theory: This theory does not discuss the reasons of crime, but rather why individuals obey the law. Travis Hirschi (1969), an American sociologist, proposed the “social bond theory” and proposed that having a strong link with friends and family reduces the risk of committing a crime. The person’s social bond keeps him from committing delinquent acts. External influences have influenced their behavior.

It is because the person’s sociability was outstanding and the person acquired a deep relationship to their loved ones. The criminal justice system is not supported by social control theory. It does not advocate for increased police force or harsh punitive punishment; rather, it emphasizes the government’s role to promote policies that foster a relationship between individuals and society.

Psychological theory

According to the psychological theory of crime, criminal behavior is the result of individual disparities in human thought processes. Psychologists investigate individual perspectives and contend that differences in mental processes result in differences in behavior.  There are numerous psychological theories, but they all agree that a person’s ideas and feelings dictate and control their behavior. As a result, cognitive issues might lead to criminal behavior. When it comes to psychological explanations of crime, there are four major ideas. These are the general assumptions:

Failure in psychological development: Some people commit crimes because they have not developed or grown like others. They have some sort of underdeveloped conscience.

Learned behaviours of aggression and violence: If someone is surrounded by violence and aggression, they are more likely to become violent and aggressive because they have learned that those behaviours are okay.

Inherent personality traits: There are some characteristics that criminals tend to share with each other, and some psychologists believe that certain personality traits predispose someone towards criminal behaviour.

Relationship between criminality and mental illness: Some people with psychological disorders end up committing crimes. At the same time, this isn’t the case for all people with mental illness. There are higher than-standard percentages of criminals with mental illness.

All of these psychological elements could influence a criminal.


Crime is now clearly done by individuals in society and has become an integral element of society. Crime is nothing more than delinquent behavior that can be found throughout human history. Theories on crime causation are not absolute; there are loopholes in every theory proposed, and not every theory can be completely applied to grasp the entire diverse concept of crime; however, these theories have helped significantly to understanding the concept of crime and its relationship to society.

Because crime is a dynamic notion, the emergence of new criminal behaviors in individuals pushes the government to regulate such behaviors through the legal system. Several crimes, such as white collar crimes, cybercrime, the Data Protection Bill, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, and others, are emerging in tandem with society’s modernization.

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