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Theories About Criminal Behavior

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Over the years, there have been a lot of theories that have tried to explain criminal behavior or criminal deviance. There’s a lot of Psychology that goes into these theories, and as a result the Psychology and Criminal Justice fields often overlap. Criminal deviance has been around for centuries, and ever since it began people have been trying to find reasons why it occurs. What makes a criminal a criminal? What causes a normally nonviolent person to commit a violent crime? To this day, in my opinion, we don’t have an exact answer to these questions but we do have theories as to why these kinds of things occur.

The Differential Association Theory termed and created by Edwin Sutherland, shows us how certain criminal actions become likely to happen depending on the criminal’s standards of living. Most of the time, the people that commit crimes have a certain kind of background. They’re poor, often African American, some are mentally and emotionally unstable, and lack of a stable family (Herman, 1995). Similar to this theory, is the Anomie Theory by Robert Merton. The Anomie Theory focuses on a person’s background to some extent, but its main purpose is to show how a person goes about achieving his or her goals in life. Let’s use fame as an example, some people want to be famous via acting and being in movies or tv shows, while others, want their name to be recognized for years to come due to criminal acts they have committed or will commit.

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Walter Reckless came up with the Control Theory. This says that generally, most people have control over their actions and thus may think about committing a crime, but won’t ever actually act on it. This ties directly into Travis Hirschi’s Social Control theory, which says that most people can control their impulses and know which ones to act on and which ones not to act on (“Theories of Deviance”, n.d.).

Finally, there’s the Labeling Theory, which is basically says that behavior or the way a person lives isn’t considered deviant unless society views it as so (“Theories of Deviance, n.d.). This theory gets a little tricky because, common sense will tell you, it varies based on an individual’s personal beliefs about what is considered deviant and what is considered acceptable. William Chambliss conducted a study in 1973, one group was labeled deviants because of their actions and came from a lower-class background, the other group was able to get away with crimes because they were piolet and came from an upper-class background.

The U.S. is more open minded than most countries when it comes to crime and the circumstance under which said crime occurs. However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most Americans would deem murder as a deviant behavior. The majority of Americans believe that everyone has the right to live and be treated fairly, sometimes regardless of their actions- current or past, or personal beliefs. Murder has been around since the beginning of times, it’s nothing new at all. However, people’s views of it have kind of changed. While the majority of people still believe murder is wrong, there are now ways of rationalizing it and thus it seems to slowly be becoming acceptable given the right circumstances, which is a scary idea.

If a person kills someone for no reason, its deemed unacceptable and that person should be punished. This is an example of a “Bad Murder” (Curra, 2014). However, if a person kills someone that has a well-known criminal history then, most of the time, the murder is considered socially acceptable or even warranted by society. This is an example of a “Good Murder” (Curra, 2014). Murder ties into the Labeling Theory, because it depends on what an individual person believes about what is considered deviant when it comes to the circumstances behind someone murdering another person. Murder can actually tie into the Control and Social Control theories as well. In a sense of the murder should have been able to control his or herself to keep it from happening in the first place, of course, this rarely happens.

The majority of Americans, especially elderly Americans, today would view a couple having a child out of wedlock as deviant. This obviously isn’t criminally deviant, unless a crime such as rape occurred prior to the pregnancy, but it is still morally deviant in elder American’s eyes. Personally, maybe it’s because of the Christian background I grew up in, but I’m inclined to agree- at least to some extent, that this is considered deviant. By now, the majority of girls I went to high school with have at least one child and they are not married yet. Personally, I’d rather be financially stable and have a home of my own before having a child but in my opinion, it seems like most young people today don’t take that into account.

A baby is a lot of responsible and a person has to be ready for whatever complications may come their way when raising a child. Most of the young couples that have children out of wedlock, break up and sadly most young guys won’t do the “right thing” and marry whomever they get pregnant and therefore the woman automatically becomes a single mother. This form of deviance, though not criminal, relates to the Labeling and Control Theories because elderly people see it as a severe religious violation and everyone else sees it as something that could have been prevented but for whatever reason was not.

Most Americans would not consider something like a parent stealing food for their family as deviant. Yes, it’s breaking the law. However, most people understand the need to be able to feed and provide for their family. Personally, I completely understand it- even though I’m not married and I do not have any children. I wouldn’t want anyone in my family to starve, nobody would and so sometimes people commit crimes to be able to provide for their family. This is probably most common after natural disasters and with homeless people. Parents are supposed to provide for their children and if they cannot for whatever reason, some may turn to stealing food and items for their family’s well-being. In a way, this relates to the Social Control Theory, the family member could have prevented this behavior, yet acted out of concern for his or her family and thus committed a crime. Yes, the whole situation could have been avoided if the parent(s) could have or would have kept their jobs, but even then there’s no guarantee that it would have been enough money to pay the bills and feed their family. Today there are government programs that assist families with low income in feeding their families, Food Stamps is a good example of this. There are numerous qualifications that have to be met to get on Food Stamps, so there is a chance that, that family member that stole food for their family was denied Food Stamps and thus literally had no other option.

There are many criminal deviance theories that apply to serial killers. These include: Social Structure Theory, the Strain Theory, the Social Process Theory, and many more. “[The] Social Structure Theory reasons that the socioeconomic forces drive those in underprivileged financial situations to commit crime, and that this is the reason for crime” (Hall, n.d.). The Strain Theory is a subset theory of the Structure Theory. It reasons that “….Discord in the goals a person has and what actual resources one has to attain that goal is the main reason for crime” (Siegel, 2007). The Social Process Theory,

…Claims that all people have the ability to be criminals regardless of class, ethnicity, or gender. The theory claims that if the societal bonds that a person holds are constructive, then the person will be law abiding if these bonds are counter constructive, the person will not be (Hall, n.d.).

Serial killer Jeffery Dahmer is a wonderful example of the Neutralization Theory, a category within the Social Process Theory. Around friends and family Dahmer seemed perfectly normal, he was the kind of guy that could fit in pretty much anywhere and no one ever suspected him to be a killer until evidence was found in his apartment (“Jeffery Dahmer: The Monster Within”, 2013). The Neutralization Theory states that,

…Criminals do not act like criminals all of the time. When they are not committing crime they attend picnics social gatherings, and regular community functions. When they are at these gatherings, however, it is common to find that the attendees are also comprised of criminal and deviant members (Siegel, 2007).

Personally, I think if someone would have been living with Dahmer after his parents divorced he could have been helped and maybe the murders that followed during his 1 year killing spree could have been prevented. Who knows, maybe he would have opened up to someone about his perverted fantasies and maybe that would have been more help than becoming a serial killing alcoholic. It certainly would have helped his victims and their families.

Most people that commit crimes, according to the Cultural Deviance Theory, [Do so] due to burden and societal separation people in lower class areas develop their own subcultures, which do not conform to societal rules. For example, dad is a drunk, and hangs out with other lower class drunks who think that it is perfectly normal to beat their wives. By association, they can reassure themselves that their criminal behavior is normal (Hall, n.d.).

As a result, in my opinion, these people allow themselves to break laws and thus commit a ton of crimes normally before they are ever suspected or arrested for them. They may start off with something petty, like breaking and entering and eventually it could and often does escalate into something that person never though they would be capable of doing.

It’s generally a well-known fact in Psychology that behaviors of people changes based on: who they’re around, if they’re alone, and if they are with a group of people. Criminal deviant behavior occurs in groups and with individuals. Obviously if a group of people is set on committing a crime, violent or not, the people within the group are more likely go along with the plan regardless of their personal feelings about the crime because of who they are around and how this group is influencing them. This is known as the Group Conflict Theory (“Theories of Deviance: Conflict Theory”, n.d.).

Criminals have been around since the beginning of time. These theories, try to help us understand how or why a person commits crimes, especially if it is a violent crime or a series of violent crimes over a period of time. However, we aren’t exactly any closer to actually understanding serial killers and why exactly some of them grow up normal and others grow up under terrible conditions yet, they still go on to commit terrible crimes regardless of how they were raised.

Deviance itself, is determined by what people view as normal behavior (Curra, 2014). As a result, what one person views as deviant may be considered normal to another person. It depends on how the person judging the action views the world or depends on that person’s personal beliefs about the subject. Let’s use same-sex marriage as an example. The younger generation is a lot more open minded about it than the elder generations. There’s tons of debate going on about whether same-sex couple should be allowed to marry in states across the country. Legally, denying them the right to get married is a violation of the constitution, however, due to the separation of church and state laws it is causing tons of drama across the country. Personally, I’m religious, but I have don’t have a problem with same-sex couples getting married. They should get the same rights as heterosexual couples get. The elder generations are generally against it because of their religious beliefs and the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. As a result, same-sex marriage and same-sex couples are viewed as deviants by elder people and it idea and relationship status is becoming more widely accepted by the younger generation.

Criminal deviance theories like the Differential Association Theory, Anomie Theory, Control Theory, Social Control Theory, and the Labeling Theory have helped society a lot with categorizing how and why crimes occur. Deviance will also be around and hopefully at some point we will be lessen the amount of criminal deviance in certain neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries. People are always going to commit crimes, and so police officers, lawyers, and psychologist will pretty much always be needed. Deviance theories have been around for years, hopefully at some point, there will come a time when we will be able to fully explain and truly understand why certain people end up as they do and maybe prevent these kind of things from repeating in the future. That’s a long shot, but hopefully society reaches that point eventually.

Something, criminal or not, will likely always be considered as deviant behavior. For now, we have these theories to help us determine motives behind certain crimes when a killer’s explanation or own personal beliefs falls short of making sense. I’m sure more theories will be made and accepted overtime. Deviance isn’t something that is going to disappear, society as a whole as to work on making that happen.


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