Explaining Crime Social Control Theory Exam 1 Criminology Essay

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1. Based on all of the theories you have been exposed to so far in the course, choose the one theory that you think is the best at explaining crime. Compare it to at least two other theories and discuss how the theory you chose represents an improvement over the other two. Be specific and be sure to cite the empirical research to support your argument.

Based on all the theories I have been exposed to in this course so far, social control theory is the best at explaining crime. "Social control theory explains crime in terms of the individual's social relationships and focuses on the absence of significant relationships with conventional others and institutions" (Agnew, 1992:48). The theory utilizes issues of conformity, so instead of theorizing about the motivations of criminal behavior, the social control theory ask, "Why do people conform?" In this theory people believe that society's ability to control social groups affects whether an adolescent turns to a life of crime or not. Social control theory comes from the learning theories which are developed from family ties or other social circles that individuals interact with so as to learn what is right and what is wrong. When these controlling influences are weak or rendered ineffective and absent, society frees the individual to deviate from legal and moral norms; therefore, crime often does occur. In particular, crime is most likely to when (1) when the adolescent is not attached to the parents, school, or other institutions; (2) parents and others fail to monitor and effectively sanction deviance; (3) the adolescent's actual or anticipated investment in conventional society is minimal; and (4) the adolescent has not internalized conventional beliefs (Agnew, 1992:49).

Although strain, social control, and differential association theory/social learning theory are all sociological theories, strain theory is distinguished from social control and social learning theory in its specification of (1) the type of social relationship that leads to delinquency and (2) the motivation for delinquency. Strain theory focuses explicitly on negative relationships with others: relationships in which the individual is not treated as he or she wants to be treated. Agnew's developed a new theory, general strain theory that defines measurements of strain, the major types of strain, the links between strain and crime, coping strategies to strain, the determinants of delinquent or non-delinquent behavior, and policy recommendations that are based on this theory which introduced a new perspective on the original theory that was written off a few decades ago. While social control theory rests on the premise that the breakdown of society frees the individual to commit crime, strain theory is focused on the pressure that is placed on the individual to commit crime (Agnew, 1992:49). According to the strain theory, individual deviance is caused as a result of negative relationships or treatment from others; and this result in anger and frustration (Agnew, 1997a:31). Agnew's strain theory was developed from the work of Durkheim and Merton and addressed many of the criticisms of the original strain theory, however; it lacked the supporting data and still had several flaws like the original strain theory. Strain theory can cause many negative feelings in an individual including defeat, despair, and fear, but the feeling that is most applicable to crime is anger. For example, an increase in strain would lead to an increase in anger, which may then lead to an increase in crime. Social control theory represents an improvement over the strain theory as it explains that if an individual has certain morals and social values that they live by and grew up believing that they are more likely to seek a socially acceptable way of achieving their goals and not let feelings of defeat, despair, fear, and anger lead them to respond to strain with crime. The strain theory affect creates pressure for corrective action which may lead adolescents to (1) make use of illegitimate channels of goal achievement, (2) attack or escape from the source of their adversity, and/or (3) manage their negative affect through the use of illegal drugs (Agnew, 1992:49). Social control theory, by contrast, denies that outside forces pressure the adolescent into crime but rather, the absence of significant relationships with other individuals and groups frees the adolescent to engage in delinquency in response to inner forces or situational inducements.

Social learning theory (SLT) is distinguished from strain and control theory by its focus on positive relations with deviant others (Agnew, 1992:49). Social learning theory focuses on the general principles that (1) people can learn by observing the behavior of others and the outcomes of those behaviors (If people observe positive, desired outcomes in the observed behavior, they are more likely to model, imitate, and adopt the behavior themselves), (2) learning can occur without a change in behavior, and (3) cognition plays a role in learning. This theory incorporates aspects of behavioral learning (assumes that people's environment cause people to behave in certain ways) and cognitive learning (presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves) factors that are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning theory outlines three stages for people to learn and model behavior include (a) attention: retention (remembering what one observed), (b) reproduction (ability to reproduce the behavior), and (c) motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behavior (Agnew, 1992:49). The social learning theory claims that the relationship with illegal peers will lead to a criminal lifestyle that changes the values of achieving success in a legit way. Reiss's theory of personal and social control states that "delinquency results when there is a relative absence of internalized norms and rules governing behavior in conformity with the norms of the social system to which legal penalties are attached (Lilly, 2007:85)". One disadvantage of the social learning theory is that it does not account for what may be considered positive it focuses more on the factors perceived as negative by the learner. Social control theory represents an improvement as it seeks to direct and guide social learning toward obedience specific to an agenda outside the learner's. Social learning is a change in behavior that is controlled by environmental influences rather than by innate or internal forces that occurs through observing the consequences of others and by determining if such behavior is worth replicating. The theory of social control emphasizes on the role of society in the control of criminal behavior and proposes social learning with the help of 'social control' which is why I chose the theory of social control over the social learning theory. The Theory of Social Control is widely cited in criminology in addition it has also been explored by the realist philosophers and represented by Travis Hirschi, a pro-pounder of Right Realism. While no single theory can explain why everyone commits crime social control theory does look at the causations of crime from learning theories. They teach us that morals are taught in families and other social circles and that these morals keep individuals from committing crimes they are taught are wrong. The main premise of control theories is that "When controls are present, crime does not occur; when controls are absent, crime often does occur (Beaver, 2010). Social control theory does give explanation by teaching us that when people hold tightly to certain morals and social values they are more likely to seek a socially acceptable way of achieving their goals.


3. During our course discussion, many of you pointed out that the criminological theories that we discussed have both strengths and limitations. This is a view that is held by many criminologists. One way to overcome this problem is to integrate theories into a single perspective. You are responsible for creating an integrated theory that incorporates elements from at least three theories. Be sure to provide a detailed analysis of this theory, including how you were able to integrate components from other theories.

During the history of criminological thought, various criminological theories on crime causation have been put together into a single perspective. One way to overcome this problem is to create an integrated theory that incorporates elements by combining the ideas expressed by the concepts of differential association theory developed by Edwin Sutherland, Merton's theory on deviance from his 1938 analysis of the relationship between culture, structure and anomie, and Robert Agnew's general strain theory to provide a more accurate and comprehensive explanation as to why some individuals commit crime where others do not.

Although many criminologists have viewed the criminological theories to have both strengths and limitations, it is by no means one single theory but the ideas from the three slighted altered theories that will help in providing a better explanation and understanding of criminal behavior. The first theory, differential association by Sutherland (1949:75) explains that criminal behavior is learned just like any other behavior through interactions with others. Sutherland's differential association predicts that an individual will choose the criminal path when the balance of definitions for law-breaking (unfavorable) exceeds those for law-abiding (favorable). Ultimately, the theory focuses on how individuals learn how to become criminals, which is due to an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law. Along the lines of differential association the theory of criminal desire holds that every human behavior is learned through interaction with the environment (Sutherland, 1949:76). From a researcher's perspective, an individual will view society differently if they are gainfully employed as opposed to unemployed, if in a supportive and loving family or abused by parents. However, individuals might respond differently to the same situation depending on how their experience predisposes them to define their current surroundings (Sutherland, 1949:77). However, the integrated theory learning process is not limited to just differential associations, as is the case with Sutherland's theory, instead acknowledging the influence of both humans and non-human (i.e. money and social gain) objects.

The second theory drawn upon the present formulation is Merton's theory on deviance from his 1938 analysis of the relationship between culture, structure and anomie. Merton's theory involves the interactions and importance between culturally defined goals and what social arrangement make possible. According to Merton, anomie, derived from Emile Durkheim, if such cultural goals are not achievable through legitimate practices than individuals are likely to illegitimate means available for reaching them. In short, overemphasis on material success (i.e. the American dream as an emphasis on the goal of monetary success) and lack of opportunity for such success leads to crime. Institutional anomie theory, as published by Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld, proposed that the American societal pursuit of monetary success leads to anomie, or a departure from normal, sanctioned behaviors and a break from institutional social controls (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball, 2007:90). As anomie increases, so does the level of criminal behavior used by individuals to obtain monetary success (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball, 2007:90). As such, the integrated theory provides a more accurate and comprehensive explanation on the concepts established by Merton by providing adequate explanations of them including classifying each one as learned phenomena. Additionally, Merton's theory is proposed as the source of agitation, thereby leading one to commit crime, when the culturally defined goals of individuals are likely not to be achieved through legitimate processes. 

Last, the general strain theory revised by Robert Agnew was developed from the work of Durkheim and Merton and taken from the original theory of anomie. According to the original strain theory, an increase in aspirations and a decrease in expectations should lead to an increase in delinquency; however, this was not found to be the case (Agnew, 1985:152). Also, the original strain theory predicted a concentration of delinquent behavior in the lower class, but research proved that delinquency was also common in the middle and upper classes (Agnew, 1985:152). Other variables are also neglected by this theory of strain, such as the abandonment of crime in late adolescence and the quality of family relationships (Agnew, 1985:152-153). Agnew's general strain theory broadened the scope to include many more variable that were not addressed in the original strain theory as he attempted to explore strain theory for a perspective that accounted for goals other than monetary success and that considered an individual's position in social class, expectations for the future, and associations with criminal others (Agnew et al., 1996:683). General strain theory is a broad theory that can be applied to many different aspects of delinquency (ways of measuring strain, the different types of strain, and the link between strain and crime), however; in the integrated theory an individuals must also be taught how to cope without the help of others through involvement in social skills improvement, problem-solving training, and anger control programs which should lead to a decrease in delinquency.

The integrated theory that incorporates elements by combining the ideas expressed by the concepts of differential association theory, Merton's theory on deviance from his 1938 analysis of the relationship between culture, structure and anomie, and Robert Agnew's general strain theory, serves to explain all types of criminal behavior, both violent and non-violent. The crimes could involve economically driven crimes (theft, robbery, etc.) or white-collar crimes which each are the direct result of a need to satisfy desires due to an inability to do so through legitimate means. I believe the integrated theory provides an accurate and comprehensive analysis defining delinquency with an explanation as to why some individuals commit crime where others do not. The integrate theory can be utilized to implement policies geared towards helping to lessen crime and help in providing a better explanation and understanding of criminal behavior.