Crime, in the strictest sense, is the willful commission and/or omission of established codified laws of a society, nation, or culture. A less formalized understanding of crime includes the committing of any commonly recognized prohibited act worthy of punishment as established by the norms, mores, and values of a given population. Crime has been widely studied because it is considered a phenomenon when members of a community knowingly commit offenses either against another citizen or against the community or state. The study of crime is essentially grounded in two different perspectives, which are environmental based and biological based. Biological-based theories are concerned with all potential influencing external forces endemic to the social world.
To better understand crime, one must have some understanding of the fundamental social-based theory regarding the power dynamics behind the creation of law and how laws impact crime. Most people think of laws as a means to create fairness and equality for all members of law; however, law may also reflect the controlling interests of the sovereign (government) or those with influence in that society. For an act to be relegated to the status of a crime, it must generally have the condemnation of the majority or those in authority to mandate it into law. In any society, there are those who have greater personal power, due to their wealth, class, official position, or social affiliations. Such persons have the ability to influence the creation of laws that satisfy a personal need or augment and strengthen their social status. This is to say, laws can favor the powerful and actually serve to keep other members of a society at a disadvantage. An act or specific behavior cannot be a criminal offense and the offender cannot be punished unless the act has formal criminal status.
The creation of laws or governing rules within any population of people must therefore be understood as a social process with potentially complex interrelationship and motivations. Consequently, committing crimes and casting certain members of a society as disobedient offenders can have very serious outcomes. Consider how the Christians were effectively labeled as both social deviants and enemies of the state by the ancient Romans. The wholesale persecution and execution of an entire group of people followed solely due of their spiritual beliefs. Such persons, in the current common parlance of criminology, are referred to as a criminal “subgroup.” Many contemporary studies of deviants as a criminal subgroup have been examined as an outcome of social power with respect to who does the labeling, who generates the label, and how the labeled persons are affected. One of the findings is that a key determinant of the labeling process is how effectively those in power can apply the deviant label so the majority population reacts to and the subgroup in question accepts the label.
Consistent with the influence of social power differences is the effect of social structure. Social structure theories maintain that members of the lower class are involved in more crime than those of the upper or middle class. Social structure theories are divided into three areas: strain theory, cultural deviance theory, and social disorganization theory. Strain theory emphasizes that persons of the lower class are unable to attain higher goals or values and this restriction is due to their economic limitations. Their inability to achieve these goals causes strain, which leads some people to reject the established social standards of behaviors. The inability to cope with strain causes some individuals to proceed through life without norms or values to guide their behavior, leading to eventual criminal transgressions. Social disorganization theory maintains there are geographic areas within urban centers that are far more transitional with respect to establishing a sense of community. Such transitional neighborhoods are characterized by light industry and lower-class worker residences that tend to be in a deteriorating and disorganized condition. The disorganization leads to juvenile delinquency and juvenile gangs and ultimately to increased levels of crime. Cultural deviance theory holds that criminal behavior is simply an act of conformity to lower-class values based upon their differences with the dominant cultural norms and standards. For members to obey the laws and rules of the dominant culture, lower-class members (usually racial and ethnic minorities) are placed in conflict with their class peers.
Social interaction theories address crime from four perspectives: social learning, social control, symbolic interaction, and labeling. Social learning theories maintain criminal behavior is the result of socialization, where peers are taught criminal acts are not only acceptable, but preferable to socially approved acts. Social control theories begin with the belief that human nature is the motivating force behind criminal behavior. The presence of some form of social control keeps humans within the range of acceptable social behavior. However, in the absence of suitable controls, humans are permitted to engage in criminal conduct. Symbolic interaction theories place emphasis on the perception and interpretation of situations, which influence the response. It is theorized that humans will respond in the role or demeanor that others have characterized them. Within the scope of this theory, then, all behavior is a function of self-perception as individuals believe others perceive them.
Biological theories address factors that are not within the environmental-based family of explanations of crime. Beginning with the work of Richard Dugdale in 1877, researchers have sought a biological explanation to criminal behavior. Dugdale’s early studies focused on heredity to establish a genial connection of family degeneration. He researched families with histories of criminal involvement, poverty, and mental health problems. His belief was that the family lineage was defective and persons of degenerated criminal stock would produce similar socially defective offspring. His work was sharply criticized as incomplete and unreliable.
An Italian physician named Cesare Lombroso developed a theory known as atavism, which held that criminals are predisposed at birth to criminal behavior. Criminals were considered genetic throwbacks to primitive man, with underdeveloped brains. In addition, Lombroso identified several physical characteristics that were indicative of a distinct “criminal type.” Some examples of these include large jaws or cheekbones, unusually small or large ears, abnormal teeth, long arms, fleshy lips, and receding chins. Following Lombroso, Charles Goring conducted comparisons of English convicts and noncriminal citizens. He concluded that criminals were shorter and weighed less. This research was challenged because Goring failed to account for the differences in environment. In 1939, Ernest Hooten’s study found that convicts tended to have physical characteristics such as low foreheads, long necks, and crooked jaws. Like Goring’s research, Hooten’s work was criticized for being methodologically flawed.
The efforts of William Sheldon to establish a biological connection to crime is especially significant because it was the first time that a quantitative grading system was developed to gauge the physical traits of criminality. Sheldon found that all people have some elements of three distinct body types: endomorphic, ectomorphic, and mesomorphic. The mesomorphic qualities or traits were determined as especially representative in criminals. His quantitative approach assigned a number on a scale with a 7-point maximum. The three body types were each assigned a number depending on how strongly or significant traits were exhibited in a given individual. This quantification is called a soma type and might look like this: 4.6 2.1 5.4. The center figure is always the mesomorphic figure. Naturally, the shortcoming of this approach is that the body type assessment is very dependent upon the interpretation of the assessor and is therefore subjective and unreliable.
There have been a number of other approaches to studying potential biological relationships to criminal behavior. One that was popular for a while was the belief that those who committed crimes were less intelligent than other individuals. This generated research into the intelligence test scoring of delinquencies. The standard IQ test score comparisons created a great deal of controversy because the tests were considered invalid across racial and class lines. Studies also explored chromosome abnormalities with respect to the “XYY” syndrome’s relationship to violent crime. It was theorized that the Y chromosome is the designated “male” chromosome and that males are far more violent than females; the extra Y chromosome in some males may reveal an increased proclivity toward violent behavior. However, the studies were unable to confirm any such relationship.
- Denno, D. (1985). Biological, psychological, and environmental factors in delinquency and mental disorders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Downes, D. (1982). Understanding deviance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Guenther, A. (1976). Criminal behavior and social systems. Chicago: Rand McNally.
- Johnson, E. H. (1974). Crime, correction, and society. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.