The causes of criminal behaviour have been intensively researched over many decades but there is still considerable debate about what it is that makes a person turn to criminal activities. The present study examines some of the main theories which have been advanced to explain the causes of criminal behaviour with a view to establishing whether any single theory on its own is able to explain everything. Social, biological and psychological theories are examined in turn.
The contemporary phenomenon of seasonal maritime crimes being committed by Somali pirates is used as an up to date example to test out the implications of the various theories and illustrate how they apply in practice. Additionally, this paper will be viewed from the perspective of an Offshore Security Manager in East Africa that will apply the determinisms of criminal behaviour to aspects of maritime criminality (piracy).
Influences such as Sutherland’s (1978) Differential Association within this community will be explained and the link between Operant Conditioning Skinner (1957) and Differential Reinforcement Jeffery (2011) are brought together highlighting the maritime criminal interactions with deviants who operate in enforced environments with the universal goal of increasing personal wealth and standing within such a concentrated peer group where violent behaviour is reinforced but does it allow individuals to drift back to the social norms expected in modern society?
Theories relating to routine activity and rational choice (Siegel, 2005 and Akers, 1997) are useful in explaining the perceived needs and motivation of offenders. The credibility of a biological perspective will be considered alongside the merits of genetic inheritance within the family unit. This essay will consider the notion that no single theory when considered in isolation has the capacity to fully explain criminal behaviour in contemporary society. In order to form an opinion this essay will outline and examine a small selection of the available theories concerning the following key determinisms; a) Social Determinism (b) Biological Determinism (c) Psychological Determinism
As a point of note by defining the word determinisms that all events such as criminal behaviour happen for a reason and therefore can be predicted and ultimately changed will be used over the word causes which indicates an event that is responsible for action, for a possible outcome to the original question. To conclude this paper will give a considered opinion as to which theory or theories are deemed the most credible in explaining criminal behaviour and ultimately agree or disagree that one single theory can explain criminal behaviour.
Learning Theory is relevant in considering some of the core sociological theories of crime. It suggests that human behaviour is developed and changed by the social and physical environment of the individual. An advocate of the Chicago School was Edwin Sutherland, and his ideas concerning Differential Association Theory deriving from the idea that criminal activity is simply one form of normal, learned behaviour. How a child grows up and the influences it is exposed to either increase or lessen the chances that they will be presented to partake in crime.
Sutherland’s theory is clearly sociological because it assumes that social forces affect the nature and causes of crime. A criticism of this approach is the cognitive/behavioural orientation aspect which ignores any humanist approaches such as religious beliefs which influence criminality in East Africa. A behavioural analysis approach was taken by B. F. Skinner with his theory of Operant Conditioning, which maintains that behaviour is affected by the environmental consequences for the individual concerned.
Skinner proposed that behaviour which results in a positive outcome is likely to increase in regularity, whereas opposite patterns in behaviour will assumingly decrease in regularity. Feldman (1993) suggests that if the consequences for an individual committing a criminal act are rewarding in terms of respect within their peer group and any financial benefits, it can assume the individual is likely to engage in further criminal activity. However, if the consequences are negative the frequency of future criminal behaviour is reduced.
This point is calcified with increasing crime rates and a non-existent judicial system in Somalia which would suggest that the rationale within the latter part of Feldman’s statement is justified. Sutherland also taught C. R. Jeffery, a sociologist who suggested criminal behaviour is acquired through Differential Reinforcement (cited in Tibbetts, 2011:146). Jeffery’s theory stems from ideas from both Sutherland and Skinner regarding learning as an element of criminal behaviour and also Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning. The theory agrees that criminal behaviour is learned through the groups an individual associates with.
The behaviour continues or is maintained as a consequence of Operant Conditioning Hollin, (1992:61). Hollin also notes that criminal behaviour can result in differing levels of reinforcement and punishment, the behaviour is subject to the individual’s unique learning history. The end result according to Feldman (1993:418) is that criminal behaviour is difficult to eliminate. If piracy is difficult to eliminate it is because it has developed into a complex and profitable micro economy, with the financial benefits motivating its continuance.
Consequently, the perceived need to commit crime is reinforced now through a third generation of intimately close groups. The suggestion that crucial learning takes place through associations within intimate social groups and relationships is also found within the contemporary Social Learning Theory, which according to Adler et al (1995) maintains that delinquent behaviour is learned through the same psychological processes as any other behaviour. It is learned from observation, direct exposure, and reinforced by rewards. These issues confirm the theories mentioned are all relevant and applicable in contemporary society.
Social and class factors aside, there are still unexplained differences between the extent to which individuals participate in criminal acts, or avoid doing so in the first place, or whether, after their initial conviction offenders go on to re-offend or not. According to Sutherland & Cressey (1978:193) an individual who is consistently criminal is not defined as law-abiding if they commit a single law-abiding act, but an individual who is consistently law-abiding is likely to be publicly defined as a criminal if they are caught committing a single criminal act and labelled as criminal.
Labelling Theory Prins (1982:65), whilst not explaining the beginning of criminal behaviour, helps to explain its connection to individuals or groups. Once labelled as a criminal, an individual may find it extremely difficult to disassociate from this label given to him by society. This is because of issues relating to social stigmatisation and it contributes to difficulties offenders experience when they attempt to avoid re-offending.
Aided by advances in understanding and technology, historical theories relating to criminal behaviour have led to early biological criminologists’ work being discredited. Lombroso argued that criminals were a separate species whose personal features determined if they were a born criminal. An obvious argument with his theory relating to physical anomalies would be the socioeconomic background pertaining to the individual. Poverty and deprivation can cause physical defects and so appearance is not solely due to hereditary factors.
Kurtzberg (1978) conducted an American study involving inmates receiving corrective surgery, and found that they were less likely to commit crimes upon release (cited in Marsh & Melville, 2006:25). An apt observation made by Rowe stated no responsible geneticist would argue that a specific gene exists for crime, in the same way that specific genes may be identified for Huntington’s disease or eye colour Rowe (1990: 122). Alongside Lombroso was Sheldon who proposed the quasi-biological theories of Physiognomy and Somatotype.
Sheldon’s idea that general physique rather than specific traits would explain criminality, using a correlational study he found many convicts were mesomorphic Miller (2009:195). Although his research was seen as unscientific and simplistic, it was supported in the area of criminal behaviour by Glueck & Glueck, Miller (2009:194) who partially agreed that mesomorphic types were more likely to be arrested than other body shapes. There is little consensus in research published on Physiognomy and Somatotype Theories.
Wadworth (1979) reported serious crime being committed by smaller than average criminals (cited in Brewer 2005:13), this contradicts Sheldon’s finding that criminals were large and muscular. Equally, West & Farrington (1973) found no association between delinquency and body shape or size (cited in Brewer 2002:13). Some theories are more reliable than others, because there is a weight of evidence behind them. These particular theories have been discredited, based on more reliable evidence. As previously stated biological approaches in behavioural genetics have advanced vastly producing challenging theories.
Rowe states that each of us inherits a biological system that may have a tendency to respond to our environment in a certain way, with the human nervous system the organ of behaviour, and its structure organised by genetic inheritance Rowe (2002). If according to Rowe, our cognitive and learning abilities are dependent upon the functioning of our nervous system and if the nervous system is at least partly genetically determined, then clearly genetic inheritance has a role to play in explaining behaviour of all types.
Osborn & West (1979) carried out studies into family, twins, and adoption to corroborate this theory. They found that 40% of the sons of criminal fathers had a criminal record themselves compared to 13% among the sons of non-criminal fathers (cited in Brewer,2002:15). However, sceptics noted that families share both inheritance and environment and so it is difficult to separate these factors when explaining criminal behaviour. Regarding adoption studies, if a child who was born into a criminal family and subsequently adopted then becomes a criminal would this lend credence to the genetics explanation?
Schulsinger (1972) conducted a study of children and discovered that 3. 9% of adopted children developed criminal tendencies, while 1. 4% of adopted children from non-criminal parents went on to become criminals. The adoption study method provides clear evidence for the relative contribution of heredity as a cause for behavioural traits for genetics and environmental factors. The main criticism of the majority of adoption studies is the inconsistency of the methods used to measure the dependent variable (Plomin 1994, cited in McGue & Bouchard, 1998:14).
The consensus of opinion for the majority of adoption and twins studies is although genetic background has a strong influence on whether individuals will engage in criminal behaviour, environmental factors are influential. Even if individuals retain a strong genetic bias, this does not necessarily mean they will engage in any criminal behaviour if not exposed to all the required environmental influences. The conclusion that an individual’s risk of developing any traits is not determined solely by their genotype, but is also influenced by the environment they experience with their parents and peers alike.
January 9, 2018
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