Sociological Theories of Crime

SociologicalTheories of Crime

SocialControl Theory

Socialcontrol theory suggests that social learning and socialisation can beused as essential tools to enhance self control and reduce people’sindulgence in deviant behaviour or crime (Grant, 2002). The basicpremises of this theory are listed below:

  • There are four types of social control that reduce crime: direct control, internal control, indirect control and needs satisfaction control

  • Human beings are naturally bad and should be controlled so that they become good

  • Strong moral bond between the society and the juvenile system enhances proper socialization

  • Social bonds in societies are developed through attachment, following norms, getting involved in social activities and believing in moral laws and order.

Oneof the weaknesses of the theory is that social learning may raisequestions that are interpreted differently, and motives ofsocialization may be based on conducting crime. So socialization doesnot necessarily reduce crime (Grant, 2002). The strength of thetheory is that it encourages people to work together and developsocial bonds that will enable them to fight against crime.


Strainrefers to the gaps between means and goals of members of a society(Grant, 2002). This theory argues that people may be encouraged bysocial structures in the society to engage in criminal activities. Itwas developed by Emile Durkheim, and is based on a few premises asoutlined below:

  • Opportunities determine one’s position in the social structure

  • An individual positions himself in the social structure by comparing himself with others

  • Strain can be minimized by developing modes of adaptation, i.e. accepting one’s position in the social structure (Inderbitzin et al, 2013). A conformist accepts, innovator rejects the means but accepts the goals, retreatist rejects both goals and means but remains passive, and a rebel rejects both the goals and the means and tries to create new. The last mode of adaptation, rebel, leads to crime.

  • This differs from social control because social control theory is about interactions irrespective of social status, but social strain theory proposes structural arrangement of the society into classes.

Theweakness of social strain theory is that it overemphasizes on thecontribution of social structures to crime. It is limited to narrowcrimes such as street crimes, theft and pick pocketing (Inderbitzinet al, 2013). Because the lower class people strive to meet theirneeds in order to achieve their goals. The strength is that itenables people, especially leaders, to provide equality in thesociety as a means of fighting crime.

Differentialassociation theory

Developedby Edwin Sutherland, the differential association theory suggeststhat people learn the techniques, attitudes and values of crimethrough interaction or contact with other members of the society(Grant, 2002). Its tenets or principles are:

  • Crime as a behaviour is adopted through learning

  • Communication and interaction among members of the society yields criminal behaviour

  • Intimate or personal groups intensify the learning process of crime

  • Learning criminal behaviour involves techniques, motives, attitudes and drivers

Oneof the weaknesses of the theory is that it does not recognize thefact that some people can be rational, so learning criminal behaviourfrom others is not possible for such people. Its strength is that itenables people to avoid bad groups in order to avoid indulging incrime.


Thistheory suggests that people who engage in criminal behaviour feelguilty and would choose to protect their self-image by developingneutralization techniques to neutralize guilt in order to participatein crime. The delinquent can then drift back using the sameneutralizing techniques in order to conform to the law. Theprinciples of the theory include:

  • Criminals/delinquents feel guilty for their criminal actions

  • Delinquents show respect to law-abiding citizens

  • Delinquents have a limit on the people to victimize, and those who should not be victimized

  • Delinquents can give in to the conformity demands

Thistheory is different from social control theory which argues thatpeople are born as bad people who should be controlled.Neutralization theory suggests that people feel guilty, so they knowand conform to laws (Grant, 2002). The weakness of this theory isthat it fails to explain why people engage in crime. It only explainstechniques of neutralizing criminal or moral behaviour but how suchbehaviour is developed is not explained. The strength of the theoryis that it shows the importance of rehabilitation for people toconform because they can give in to conformity demands.

Classicaland positivist philosophies

Ithink positivist philosophy explains criminology in a more completemanner because it deals with rational and logical ways ofinterpreting criminal activities. It suggests that people shouldgather facts and sufficient information to provide evidence ofcriminal action. On the other hand, classical philosophy relies onheavy punishment without sufficient evidence (Ashley and Orenstein,2005). Therefore, the process of using facts and information in anempirical manner to address crime makes the positivist approach tobecome more comprehensive in criminology.


Ashley,D. and Orenstein, D.M. (2005). Sociologicaltheory: Classical statements,6thed. Boston, MA, USA: Pearson Education.

Inderbitzin,M.L., Bates, K.A., &amp Gainey, R.R. (2013). Devianceand social control: A sociological perspective.Los Angeles: SAGE.

Grant,C. (2002). Theoriesof crime and punishment.Harlow, England: Longman.