Important Theories in criminology


Theories in Criminology: From Demonology to Biological Theories of Crime


 Crime does not evolve from any single source.There can be several reasons behind a person’s criminal behavior or multiple origins of crime. The theorists in criminology have tried to explain these reasons through several theories.

From Demonology to the Born Criminal theory, several theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain criminal behavior. To grow a better understanding of crime and deviant behavior, it is important to know these theories. They provide different perspectives on crime. These theories are important for understanding the sources of motivation or circumstances which may lead to criminal behavior.


Demonology is one of the earliest theories in criminology. In the ancient times, people believed that evil spirits or demons entered the human soul and made people commit sins. This was the earliest explanation given regarding crime and criminal behavior. Terms like demons, witches and windigo were used for people who had turned criminals under demonic influence. The society thought that it all happened due to evil spirits. Supernatural powers were considered the best explanation behind crime and sin then. It was believed that a person did not commit crimes of his own free will but because he was under the influence of evil.

Still, demonology is not a suitable or proper explanation for criminal behavior since instead of relying on real factors, there are unreal or mythical facts in its foundation. Several theories have followed demonology that provide newer and better perspectives on crime. However, demonology has not still grown totally irrelevant. In many parts of the world, people still believe in the existence of evil spirits. Such people or communities try to explain sinful or criminal behavior as the wrongdoings of Satan. IN the ancient times, science and technology had not advanced as much and therefore  everything evil was committed  under the influence of demons and satanic powers. Due to a lack of education, no proper explanation was available for criminal behaviour.  Demonology provided generalized  explanations that did not offer a suitable basis for criminal behavior. 

Classical theory

The origins of Classical theory of crime can be found in the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Cesare Beccaria was an Italian criminologist and Jeremy Bentham was from England. The basic concept underlying this theory was that the humans did not act according to God’s will or under the influence of any other supernatural power. They acted as per their own free will. They acted after having judged the rewards and punishments of an act. Any individual has the ability to calculate the outcome of his own actions and can consider the pleasure and pain to result from his activities. Every person can judge his gains and losses before trying to act in a specific manner. Based on his judgement, a person can avoid the acts that he thinks would result in a loss for him, his family, society or nation.

An important strength of this theory is that it considers both juveniles and insane people as unable to commit crimes since they cannot rationally calculate the outcomes of their actions. Our current criminal and juvenile justice system are based on the basic propositions of this approach.

Rational Choice Theory

The Rational Choice theory is also somewhat similar to the classical theory in its approach towards crime. The rational choice theory also stresses upon a rational choice made after consideration of the rewards and punishments before committing a crime. A major strength of the rational choice theory is that it emphasizes the use of rational thoughts, scientific laws and an empirical approach to develop policies for tackling crime. Apart from that, this theory promotes the tough on crime attitude through the application of rational thought.

Deterrence theory

The Deterrence theory is considered an extension of the classical approach. The focus of this theory is the link between punishment and behavior at both individual and group levels. Deterrence can be of two types. It can be specific or general. Specific deterrence is aimed at the wrongdoer and tries to deter him from crime by punishing him. General deterrence is aimed at everyone. It deters everyone from crime by punishing the criminal and thus establishing an example. Still, a major weakness of the deterrence theory has been noted. It is that the theory does not clearly consider the impact of punishment on people which have not committed but might be ready to commit crime. In several cases, there are people who are about to commit crimes but do not weigh the possibility of being punished.

Routine activities theory

Routine activities theory suggests something different about crime and criminal behavior. It suggests that crime is a product of people’s daily activities. However, it suggests a number of factors that can become the motivation behind crime. Living in the company of delinquent peers or being to places frequently rounded by offenders can motivate anyone to become one of them. Initially, this theory had been used to explain the changing trends in crime. Its one important strength is that it has been used to understand as well as control crime.   

Positivist school of theory

The Positivist school of theory came into being during the second half of the 19th century. Its founder was Cesare Lambroso. He believed that empirical or scientific study of crime, criminals and criminal behavior was essential. Apart from it, his emphasis was on determinism against free will. This theory also suggested that the environment could be a causal factor behind criminal behavior and that empirically studying crime could provide important insights into its causes. This can help at planning effective prevention strategies. The Positivist school did not employ a highly sophisticated or effective methodology according to the modern standards to study crime. Nevertheless, it played an important role in the development of modern criminology. Positivists held that environment and hereditary factors could be important causal factors behind crime.

Biological Theories

The Biological theories in criminology were mainly based on the belief that delinquency could be inherited. A delinquent father could make his children delinquent. However, it does not become clear if children become delinquent because they are his offsprings or because they live in his company, adopt the delinquent attitude or are forced to follow.

Apart from it, the approach highlights some physiological differences between the criminals and the non-criminals. It noted factors like racial heritage, nutrition, learning disabilities etc to be possible explanations behind criminal behavior and the tendency to get involved in crime. In this regard, the biological theories were considered more credible than many of the previous theories. The biological theories are also used with sociological theories to explain criminal behavior and the factors causing it. Over time, the biological theories gained more credibility than most of the other theories in criminology.

Born Criminal Theory

Cesare Lembroso also gave another theory called the Born Criminal theory. He believed that there were some external features that differentiate the criminals from normal people like enormous jaws and large ears. He believed such people could not suppress the urge to indulge in criminal behavior.  However, this theory also has a major weakness. It does not recognize the importance of the social factors. However, Lembroso later modified his theory and included social factors. Based upon his emphasis on biological causes, several theorists after him felt encouraged to find similar causes for explaining crime and criminal behavior.

Labelling Theory

The Labelling theory is another important theory in the context of criminology. As per this theory, deviance is not inherent to an act but instead a result of labelling. A person becomes a deviant after being labelled a criminal. Similarly, acts are not inherently deviant but do become deviant acts after being labelled so. Moreover, once a person has been labeled as deviant, the other aspects of his life and personality become secondary. Once deviance becomes central to a person’s identity, a deviant career follows. The most important concept underlying this theory is that of self identity and how people’s lives and behavior are influenced by labelling.  In this way, what the labelling theory tries to explain is that  the labels applied on people can change the course of their lives and careers and turn them into criminals. However, this also provides insufficient explanation related to criminal behavior. Apart from labelling, there can be several other reasons of deviance that labelling does not appropriately explain.

Humanistic psychological theory of crime

Another important theory of crime is the Humanistic psychological theory of crime given by Maslow and Helleck. One important strength of this theory is its explanation of crime and criminal behavior in terms of human needs. People tend to adopt criminal behavior because they do not have other options available for sustaining their lives. Crime for such people can be a way of adapting and fulfilling their needs. People have physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs as well self esteem needs. However, several times these needs remain unfulfilled and people feel helpless because of suppression. People may need to adapt when they feel helpless. In such situations, they adopt criminal behavior as an option for release from suppression and the resulting helplessness. Crime can release someone from the stress born of oppression.

In history there are several examples of people having adopted deviant behavior solely to free themselves.  There are several historical figures that turned criminals to fight oppression. For example, Pancho Villa of Mexico. One reason that Maslow and Helleck’s theory is more relevant than the others is for it explains crime in real terms. It provides explanations as to how criminal behavior is born of people’s needs. In this regard Maslow and Helleck’s theory has provided a much better explanation of deviance than most other theories. One basic assumption underlying this theory is that people are basically good but tend to adopt criminal behavior to fulfil unfulfilled needs. This theory considers both physical and psychological factors to explain  criminal behavior. 

Thus, you can identify several factors that tend to cause crime. From genetic to psychological, environmental and social there are many factors that can be a reason or motivation behind crime. Crime can also be born of insecurity whether physical or economical. While crime and deviant behavior cannot be fully understood based on just one of these theories, it is important to note that these theories have still proved significant in terms of explaining criminal behavior and helping with designing prevention and control strategies.

 References: [Sagepub]

Written by Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.

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