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Contemporary Theories of Crime

Info: 2932 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 3rd Jul 2018 in Criminology

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According to the history and development of the criminological theory, the knowledge of crime theory has a tendency to include the past criminological theory that has been developed before. For example the labeling theory has a great influence from Chicago school, Durkheim theory and concepts, and symbolic interactionism (Plummer) Theory has the particularity of being the subject of constant renewal, like most of the knowledge in our society. One way of expressing this characteristic is by Thomas Kuhn in his book: structure of scientific revolutions. What he express in his theory is how the knowledge considered as “normal science”, is in a continuum spiral, according to how theory explains reality inside the framework of paradigms. Once these paradigms reach a point in which they cannot explain reality, normal science reach the point of a crisis. To explain this crisis the paradigms of the normal science must change, summarizing what is usable by the anterior normal science and adding the new knowledge in form of paradigms that explains reality (Kuhn). This is exactly what happens with criminological theory, but still, besides all the progress theory has done, crime is still something hard to attach to a whole theory, and the combination of theory perspectives seems to be the most viable way to express the phenomenon of crime.

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On the contemporary criminological theory, one the perspectives that has a good approach to the actual context of crime is labeling theory. The labeling theory refers to the attachment of labels to a specific person in society according to the role he has on it. For example someone who commits a crime is recognized by the group of people around him as a criminal. But is not only the person who commits a crime, someone who is accused of committing a crime, doesn’t necessarily have committed that crime, but still he gets the label. Labeling theory refers to the identity that other people confer to one person. This identity is expressed as a label. The labels are stigmas inside society[1] that people must carry. This leads to the other part of the theory.

Labeling theory, besides confer a stigma to the members of a society, also tries to explain another aspect of criminological behavior by opening the possibility of change in criminal behavior[2]. The stigma is hard to remove, but this theory proposes a way of reintegrating the members considered abnormal[3]: shaming is the process in which the person submit himself to a treatment or circumstance in which he resigns socially to crime, allowing him to reintegrate to society as a normal subject. The support of this theory is that bring an enormous quantity of material observation in other aspects of society, providing and using the concepts that society uses to determine the subjects inside it. For example the use of labels that are not only related to crime.

Another contemporary theory with a wide perspective and more accurately related to actual crime is the environmental theory. This theory has a very situational approach to crime, because it is based on the characteristics that a special place must have for crime to be something executed. Crime occurs within the intersection of a space, time, a motivated offender, an attractive target, and lack of guardianship (Francis T. Cullen). The approach of this situational context has also the inclusion into theory of the daily activities of society, demarking the situation and the possibility of decrease crime by nullifying the situations in which crime can be committed, according to the routine people has.

This theory has an opening to set crime as something different from the theories used before the 60’s. The possibility of seeing crime as something that may happen in every context, changes the relations of a stigmatized person to a situational expression of crime. Crime becomes the main subject of study, not the context[4] or the person who commit crime. When in this theory it is said that the focus is on crime, still a lot of concepts and ideas are part of the theory. For instance, the influences of Chicago school of mapping and characterizing crime zones. One contemporary expression of the applications of this theory is the broken windows theory[5].

The third analyzed theory in this text is the Developmental theory. This theory proposes the approach on how crime is explained by the whole history of one subject, group, and society. Crime is attached to every life expression that has happened since birth. Having a research of the main aspects of one person’s life, the individual expression and social values get mixed as the theoretical approach explains crime. This mixture of social and individual behavior is what allows this theory to be one of the most wider and contemporary (Paris). This theory is most applied to young people[6] and it takes into account the perception of the people who commits crime and the people who are victims of a crime.

As other contemporary theories, there is possibility of change in the criminological behavior, allowing the criminal to be a normal individual. Some authors explain three ways in which this theory is applied to specific situations. The first one is the continuity of behavior in life course. The second one is that life course behavior might change or continue during time and on its characteristics. And the third one is that the life course behavior continues and changes. This theory is a multiple perspective to analyze crime, by studying the things to take into account to set an idea of how crime develops inside society by the life course of individuals, making a reciprocal analysis of the individuality and collectivity.

All together

These three theories provide a wide range of analysis, if the three of them are put together there are a lot of factor that would be covered by these theories. Still is not like just mixing the three theories. Each theory has a valid point and perspective to take into account. For example, the developmental theory takes into account the life course, which is an abstraction of the material and real life of the people. It is really a manifestation of the influence of all the material aspects under the mirror of time. This approach is quite accurate to study specific phenomenon because the analysis is deeper in context and it show the influences of society altogether with the individual tendencies. The approach of this theory at certain ages is what restrains this theory to be used. Because of its focuses on age, their analysis perspective loses weight when it is tried to be used in studying different groups, and in the theory itself. This loss of weight is because one of the main cores of this theory is the social development related to biological development.

One of the tendencies of these three theories is to provide an option to explain how crime can be changed. Proposing a solution, like the shaming theory[7], or proposing new safety procedures to secure the environment. All these three theories keep the opportunity of becoming a normal[8] citizen or member of a society. Still, besides of the solutions proposed, the praxis of a theory can be very different from what the expectations are. One of the characteristics of these theories, is that are short in context matters. This means that theoretical explanations are only based as maximum to a nation level[9], provoking that many of the structural and contextual representations in politics, economics, culture, education, etc., in the world, cannot be part of the theoretical analysis. But still these representations have their manifestations even in small communities. This is impossible to not take into account macro-tendencies, but it is possible just to focus in micro-tendencies, even if this does not explain a complete context.

Labeling theory, as the developmental theory, is not a completely sentence of explanation, but the analysis perspective that is valuable of this perspective is precisely the idea of a label. With the consent or without it, people always make judgments and make labels to identify other people, and to be identified among society as an individual. What criminological theory does is to focus on the labels related to crime. This is a much attached way in which theory explains reality with constructions of reality from society. One of the characteristics of this theory is also that label is just a value granted for the people participant in society, and because of that, according to the social capital[10] and possibilities of change that people have, they might change their label at will. Another fact of this theory, but no so attached to social reality is one of the manifestations of this theory, because of the idea of shaming, not because is not possible, but because is sometimes a motor to commit more crimes in certain contexts.

The environmental theory has the possibility of treating crime as a situation with a specific context and circumstances that must be accomplish for the crime to be committed. The focus on the crime as a main subject allows this theory to be the bond for the combination of the other three theories, increasing the possibility of explanation and praxis that these theory have in total. These theoretical perspectives allow taking into account the elements of developmental theory, and use them together in the same explanations or theory. Of course in this conjunction of works, the aspects that restrain developmental theory must not be taken into account. The same goes for the labeling theory. Environmental theory has the possibility of being the connection between the individual perspective of crime in labeling and developmental theory, but at the same time it takes into account the idea of generality prescribed in both.

Together with the perspective that environmental theory uses of situational context, crime becomes a definition with a lot of defined perspectives. Using the idea of label and the identity factor to set inside society, and as a representation to the outside society, the idea of crime explains one side of the individual behavior, by the representation that people has during a certain act. The environmental theory explains the event expressed as crime according to the material context in which people lives, but also making reference to another expression of behavioral crime conduct. Using some perspectives of the developmental theory, the factor explained before is part of a whole construction of life, providing a deeply analysis of a crime event, circumstance, conduct, behavior, context, social representation, and manifestation.

Contexts and explanations

The idea of the scientific revolutions explained at the beginning of the text, is to express one of the situation in which crime theory can be expressed more attached to explain reality. In case of the criminological theories, the perspectives are as many as a bunch. In the whole package of theories, the time has played a main role to develop each theory as the knowledge in crime situations and circumstances becomes wider. But there is a moment, and had happened before, that theory needs a new view and perspective. The citations and influences of the theories in the XIX are immersed in the theories of the XX, and now the contemporary theories are making improvements to explain by new paradigms the new circumstances that involve crime in our society. This, according to Kuhn’s idea, is the traditional process of making the scientific revolution. That is why is importance to pose a new circumstance that provokes a crisis in the criminological theory.

Using these three theories may provide a great angle of perspective to analyze a concrete situation. But still the theories are short when it comes to practice. For example: the Mexican context. At first sight is a country like any other, but their main economic and political relations are with United States. The country has a first sight corruption; the police[11] are one of the main actors in these situations and are colluding with the narco[12]. The country is subject of constant violence, but the government is unable to solve the situation, because of the illegal trades and agreements that had surpassed the government power politically and economically. This is at macro-scale, but a micro-scale is almost the same, with the addition that is the poor people who gets involved in this violent context to have something to eat every day.

So, how can these three theories make an approach to the context of Mexico? Evidently the crime is on one of the highest rates of Mexican history nowadays. But what is the work of the criminological theory when the established law steps aside and leaves the path to the everyday survival law? Criminological theory must be applied to the context in which it must[13] be an explanation that requires a reaction from people. Criminological theory as it is right now, does not have the possibility of explaining the events that are happening in the world like Islamic State, Mexico’s violence, Ukraine war, and more. Criminological theory is being insufficient for the fast and changing environment in the world. The implications are every time wide in economy, politics, culture, etc. Using the actual theories to explain crime[14] may explain some aspects of reality, but recovering just the important aspects of each theory does not lead to a complete explanation and possibility of change of the real context. Being transdisciplinary is one of the new paradigms that criminological theory can use. Not closing the explanations of the criminal world to just the criminal theory. The possible revolution that criminology as a theoretical science can have is to be at the time of the context.


Francis T. Cullen, Robert Agnew, Pamela Wilcox. Criminological theory: past to present. New York: Oxford university press, 2007.

Kuhn, Thomas. Estructura de las recoluciones cientificas. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2006.

Paris, Jessica. “Environmental criminolgy and crime prevention.” n.d. http://legacy.usfsm.edu/academics/cas/capstone/2010-2011/criminology/paris-environmental criminology intel led policing.pdf?from=404. 29 09 2014.

Plummer, Ken. Labeling theory. University of Essex, United Kingdom, 29 09 2014. http://www.sjsu.edu/people/james.lee/courses/soci152/s1/ajreading10labeling.pdf . 27 09 2014.

[1] According to the criminological theory, this is focused on crime.

[2] This is an implication that this theory has when is applied to explain crime. The results vary, because of personal behavior, situations, and social strains. Even, instead of reducing crime, these implications can even increase it.

[3] Those who are consider criminals.

[4] This does not mean that context is not taken into account.

[5] The maintaining and safety control of urban environments may be a big influence to stop crimes.

[6] There is a graphic that represents the main ages in which crime occur that set the age of 10 as the beginning and 20 when the young people stop committing crime.

[7] Emphasize on social punishment to provoke shame. It focuses on the behavior on the offender.

[8] According to the establishments of what normal is, and also if crime is considered as something abnormal.

[9] Contextually, this is a big spectrum, but the political tendencies, economics, society and culture, in which crime is a subject of constant representation, are bigger than the idea of a nation.

[10] Explained deeply in “Two concepts of social capital: Bourdieu vs. Putnam” By Martti Siisiasen, Department of Philosophy, Trinity College, Dublin Ireland. From: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.istr.org/resource/resmgr/working_papers_dublin/siisiainen.pdf

[11] The public force that most stop the crime and apprehend the offenders.

[12] Production and commerce of drugs, and traffic of people.

[13] The using of this word emphasizes a moral reaction against crime. This must be included as a factor that may change according to the context.

[14] Under the look of a moral conception of good and evil.


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