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Comparing Sociological Theories of Criminal Behavior

Sociological theories are at the heart of explaining the causes and development of criminal behavior patterns and is particularly valuable in creating an empirical understanding that could be applied in the early determination of risk of criminal and violent behavior, implementation of appropriate intervention methods, and supporting public safety.

 The social disorganization theory of crime focuses on the relationships between neighborhood structure, formal social control, and criminal activities (Kubrin, & Weitzer, 2003), and specifically considers the breakdown in “traditional social control and organization in the society, community, neighborhood, or family” (Akers, & Sellers, 2004, p. 29) and the effect on criminal behavior. Conflict, on the other hand, is a key concept in interpersonal and intergroup relationships, could occur in most situations, and is characterized by resulting patterns and processes of behavior (Fink, 1968). The conflict theory of crime holds the view that society is divided into groups that hold competing beliefs and values, and that groups who does not have formal power, might hold on to their own accepted behavior patterns, which could be deemed inappropriate or criminal in the formal society. It is significant that the conflict theory gives a perspective on the conception of the legal definitions of crime, as well as the cause of criminal behavior of individuals and groups. According to the rational choice theory, an individual will contemplate criminal behavior by weighing expected rewards and penalties associated with the act. The theory assumes at its core that an individual has the ability to make a rational choice to engage in criminal activities, or avoid it. The rational choice theory is contradicted by most other theories of criminal behavior, such as biological and psychological theories, but remains of interest as it implies that the individual is solely responsible for his choices and actions.


Conflict theory, social disorganization theory, and rational choice theory have in common the relationship between the individual, his or her immediate social environment, and the larger social environment, and the resulting influence on behavior. This is however where most of the similarity ends, as the developmental and decision-making process and motivation differ considerably between these theories. According to the conflict theory individuals engage intentionally or unintentionally in criminal behavior that is in accordance with their own accepted habits and values. They are either inconsiderate or ignorant of formal laws and might operate in cultural or socio-demographic enclaves. Extreme examples are cannibalism and ritualistic violence, which still occur in small remote communities as an expression of internally accepted group beliefs and values. The rational choice theory involves a conscious decision-making process not evident in most other criminological theories, and is often economically motivated and rationalized. Behavior is an individual choice, which might be influenced by social factors such as the expectation of scorn or social rejection, but is largely determined by the comparison of tangible benefits and risks (Mehlkop, & Graeff, 2010). According to Seipel and Eifler (2010), the level of self-control an individual displays also plays a role, and “predicts deviant action in low-cost situations, whereas utility predicts deviant action in high-cost situations” (p. 167). Examples of crimes where the rational choice might be valid are house burglary where the expected financial gain often outweighs the punishment when caught or fraud and computer crime where the certainty of punishment could be construed as low. Key elements of understanding a law’s ability to control human behavior, is the expectation and experience of the swiftness, severity, and certainty of punishment (Keel, 2000). Social disorganization theory places more emphasis on the individual’s relationship with his or her community and environment, and how a lack of formal structure and order in the latter perpetuates criminal behavior. Enforcement of controls and laws are lacking, and members of a neighborhood or community form their own set of values and approved behavior patterns. These developmental processes of criminal behavior have usually a high correlation with poor socio-economic conditions and cultural phenomena, such as high concentration of immigrants or migrant workers. Examples of criminal behavior caused by social disorganization are vandalism, some instances of arson, public indecency, and general public unlawfulness, such as littering, drinking and urinating in public. The reciprocal relationship between social disorganization and crime has to be considered as each part fuels and worsens the other (Jensen, 2003).

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