From a sociological perspective, explanations for criminal-
ity are found in two levels which are the subculture and the
The sociological explanations emphasize aspects of societal
arrangements that are external to the actor and compelling. A
sociological explanation is concerned with how the structure of
a society or its institutional practices or its persisting
cultural themes affect the conduct of its members. Individual
differences are denied or ignored, and the explanation of
the overall collective behavoir is sought in the patterning of
social arrangements that is considered to be both outside
the actor and prior to him (Sampson, 1985). That is, the
social patterns of power or of institutions which are held to
be determinative of human action are also seen as having been
in existence before any particular actor came on the scene.
In lay language, sociological explanations of crime place the
blame on something social that is prior to, external to, and
compelling of any particular person.
Sociological explanations do not deny the importance of
human motivation. However, they locate the source of motives
outside the individual and in the cultural climate in which he
Political philosophers, sociologists, and athropologists
have long observed that a condition of social life is that not
all things are allowed. Standards of behavior are both a pro-
duct of our living together and a requirement if social life
is to be orderly.
The concept of a culture refers to the perceived standards
of behavior, observable in both words and deeds, that are
learned, transmitted from generation to generation and somewhat
durable. To call such behavior cultural does not necessar-
ily mean that it is refined, but rather means that it is
cultured– aquired, cultivated, and persistent. Social
scientists have invented the notion of a subculture to describe
variations, within a society, upon its cultural themes. In
such circumstances, it is assumed that some cultural prescrip-
tions are common to all members of society, but that modifica-
tions and variations are discernible within the society.
Again, it is part of the definition of a subculture, as of a
culture, that is relatively enduring. Its norms are termed a
style, rather than a fashion, on the grounds that the former
has some endurance while the latter is evanescent. The quarrel
comes, of course, when we try to estimate how real a cultural
pattern is and how persistent.
The standards by which behavior is to be guided vary among
men and over time. Its is in this change and variety that
crime is defined. An application of this principle to crimin-
ology would find that the roots of the crime in the fact that
groups have developed different standards of appropriate
behavior and that, in complex cultures, each individual is
subject to competing prescriptions for action.
Another subcultural explanation of crime grows readily out
of the fact that, as we have seen, social classes experience
different rates of arrest and conviction for serious offenses.
When strata within a society are marked off by categories of
income, education, and occupational prestige, differences are
discovered among them in the amount and style of crime.
Further, differences are usually found between these social
classes in their tastes, interests, and morals. Its is easy
to describe these class-linked patterns as cultures.
This version of the subcultural explanation of crime holds
that the very fact of learning the lessons of the subculture
means that one aquires interests and preferences that place him
in greater or lesser risk of breaking the law. Others argue
that being reared in the lower class means learning a different
culture from that which creates the criminal laws. The lower-
class subculture is said to have its own values, many of which
run counter to the majority interests that support the laws
against the serious predatory crimes.
One needs to note that the indicators of class are not
descriptions of class. Proponents of subcultural explanations
of crime do not define a class culture by any assortment of the
objective indicators or rank, such as annual income or years of
schooling. The subcultural theorists is interested in pattern-
ed ways of life which may have evolved with a division of labor
and which, then, are called class cultures. The pattern,
however, is not described by reference to income alone, or by
reference to years of schooling or occupational skill. The
pattern includes these indicators, but it is not defined by
them. The subcultural theorist is more intent upon the variet-
ies of human value. these are preferred ways of living that
are acted upon. In the economist’s language, they are
The thesis that is intimated, but not often explicated, by
a subcultural description of behaviors is that single or
multiple signs of social position, such as occupation or educa-
tion, will have a different significance for status, and for
cultures, with changes in their distribution. Money and
education do not mean the same things socially as they are more
or less equitably distributed. The change in meaning is not
merely a change in the prestige value of these two, but also
betokens changes in the boundries between class cultures.
Generally speaking, whether one believes tendencies to be good
or bad, the point of emphasis should be simply that the
criteria of social class that have been generally employed-
criteria like income and schooling-may change meaning with
changes in the distribution of these advantages in a popula-
tion. Class cultures, like national cultures, may break
A more general subcultural explanation of crime, not
necessarily in disagreement with the notion of class cultures,
attributes differences in crime rates to differences in ethnic
patterns to be found within a society. Explanations of this
sort do not necessarily bear the title ethnic, although they
are so designated here because they partake of the general
assumption that there are group differences in learned prefer-
ences-in what is rewarded and punished-and that these group
differences have a perisistence often called a tradition.
Such explantions are of a piece whether they are advanced
as descriptions of regional cultures, generational differences,
or national characteristics (Hirschi, 1969). Their common
theme is the differences in ways of life out of which differ-
ences in crime rates seem to flow. Ethnic explanations are
proposed under an assortment of labels, but they have in
common the fact that they do not limit the notion of sub-
culture to class culture (Hirschi). They seem particularly
justified where differences in social status are not so highly
correlated with differences in conduct as are other indicators
of cultural difference.
Thus many sociologists in this field argue that in the
United States economic and status positions in the community
cannot be shown to account for differences [in homicide rates]
between whites and Negroes or between Southerners and
Northerners (Freeman, 1983). In relevance, an index of
Southerness is found to be highly correlated with homicide
rates in the United States. Therefore, there is a measureable
regional culture that promotes murder.
The hazard of accepting a subcultural explanation and, at
the same time, wishing to be a doctor to the body politic is
that the remedies may as well spread the disease as cure it.
Among the prescriptions is social action to disperse the
representatives of the subculture of violence. Quite apart
from the political difficulties of implementing such an en-
forced dispersion, the proposal assumes more knowledge than
what is available. We, as a society, do not know what pro-
portion of the violent people would have to be dispersed in
order to break up their culture; and, what is more important,
we do not know to what extent the dispersed people would act
as culture-carriers and contaminate their hosts.
While sociologists acknowledge the plausibility of med-
leys of causes operating to affect crime rates, their atten-
tion has been largely diverted to specific kinds of social
arrangements that may affect the damage we do to each other.
Among the more prominent hypotheses stress the impact of
social structure upon behavior. These proposals minimize the
facts of subcultural differences and point to the sources of
criminal motivation in the patterns of power and privilege
within a society. They shift the blame for crime from how
people are to where they are (Sampson). Such explanations
may still speak of subcultures, but when they do, they use
the term in a weaker sense than is intended by the subcultural
A powerful and popular sociological explanation of crime
finds its sources in the social order. This explanation
looks to the ways in which human wants are generated and
satisfied and the ways in which rewards and punishments are
handed out by the social system.
There need be no irreconcilable contradiction between
subcultural and structural hypotheses, but their different em-
phases do produce quarrels about facts as well as about
remedies. An essential difference between these two explana-
tions is that the structuralists assume that all the members
of a society want more of the same things than the sub-
culturalists assume they want (Herrnstein, 1985). In this
sense, the structural theses tend to be egalitarian and demo-
cratic (Herrnstein). The major applications of structuralism
assume that people everywhere are basically the same and that
there are no significant differences in abilities or desires
that might account for lawful and criminal careers. Attention
is paid, then, to the organization of social relations that
affects the differential exercise of talents and interests
which are assumed to be roughly equal for all individuals of a
Modern structural explanations of criminogenesis derive
from the ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim.
Durkheim viewed the human being as a social animal as well as
a physical organism. To say that a man is a social animal
means more than the obvious fact that he lives a long life as
a helpless child depending on others for his survival. It
means more, too, than that homo sapiens is a herding animal who
tends to live in colonies. For Durkheim, the significantly
social aspect of human nature is that human physical survival
also depends upon moral connections. Moral connections are, of
course, social. They represent a bond with, and hence a bond-
age to, others (Christiansen, 1977). Durkheim states that it
is not true, that human activity can be released from all re-
straint (Christiansen). The restraint that is required if
social life is to ensue is a restraint necessary also for the
psychic health of the human individual.
Social conditions may strengthen or weaken the moral ties
that Durkheim saw as a condition of happiness and healthy
survival. Rapid changes in one’s possibilities, swings from
riches to rags and, just as disturbing, form rags to riches,
may constitute an impulse to volutary death. Excessive hopes
and unlimited desires are avenues to misery (Christiansen).
Social conditions that allow a deregulation of social
life Durkheim called states of anomie. The word derives
from Greek roots meaning lacking in rule or law. As used by
contemporary sociologists, the word anomie and its English eq-
uivalent, anomy, are applied ambiguosly, sometimes to the
social conditions of relative normlessness and sometimes to the
individuals who experience a lack of rule and purpose in their
lives. It is more appropriate that the term be restricted to
societal conditions of relative rulelessness for our purpose.
When the concept of anomie is employed by structurlists
to explain behavoir, attention is directed toward the strains
produced in the individual by the conflicting, confusing, or
impossible demands of one’s social enviroment. Writers have
described anomie in our schizoid culture, a culture that is
said to present conflicting prescriptions for conduct (Ferr-
ington, 1991). They have also perceived anomie in the tension
between recommended goals and available means. It is import-
ant to keep the word anomie in mind to all explanations
The American sociologist R.K. Merton has applied Durk-
heim’s ideas to the explanation of deviant behavior with part-
icular reference to modern Western societies. His hypothesis
is that a state of anomie is produced whenever there is a dis-
crepancy between the goals of human action and the societally
structured legitimate means of achieving them. The hypothesis
is simply, that crime breeds in the gaps between aspirations
and possibilities. The emphasis given to this idea by the
pattern of social arrangements. Its is the structure of a
society, which includes some elements of its culture, that
builds desires and assigns opportunities for their satisfac-
tion (Herrnstein). The emphasis given to this idea by the
structuralists is that both the goals and the means are
given by the pattern of social arrangements. It is the
structure of a society, which includes some elements of its
culture, that builds desires and assigns opportunities for
their satisfaction. This structural explanation sees illegal
behavior as resulting from goals, particulary materialistic
goals, held to be desirable and possible for all, that motive
behavior in a societal context that provides only limited
channels of achievement. It is a thesis that has appropriately
been named strain theory (Hirschi).
Sociologist R.K. Merton devised another theory dwelling in
delinquency. This type of explanation sees delinquency as ad-
aptive, as instrumental in the achievement of the same kinds
of things everyone wants. Its sees crime, also, as partly
reactive–generated by a sense of injustice on the part of
delinquents at having been deprived of the goof life they had
been led to expect would be theirs. This hypothesis, which may
with accuracy be described as the social worker’s favorite,
looks to the satisfaction of desires, rather than the lowering
of expectations, as the cure for crime. To be sure, it ap-
proaches the satisfaction of desires not directly but indirectly,
through the provision of expanded opportunities for legitimate
In closing on the oppurtunity-structure thesis, this thesis
as a whole sounds plausible, closer attention to its assumprions
lessens confidence in its explanatory power.
Finally, the proposal that differences in the availability
of legitimate opportunities affect crime rates is only one
version of the structural style of explanation. The weaknesses
of this particular hypothesis do not deny the validity of the
structural notion in general. There are features of the struc-
ture of a society that seem clearly and directly antecedent to
varying crime rates. Culture conflict is one such general
aspect of a society’s structure that seems to promote criminal-
ity. This theme locates the source of crime in some division
within a soicety that is associated with differential accept-
ance of legal norms. All sociological explanations, at bottom,
assume culture conflict to be the source of crime. Durkheim’s
anomie, the deregulation of social life, may be another such
feature, as yet inadequately applied to the explanation of
crime. Merton’s application of the idea of anomie to the pro-
duction of criminality seems plausible in general, particulary
if one avoids translating anomie into opportunity. This more
general use of the notion of anomie predicts that serious crime
rates will be higher in societies whose public codes and even
mass media simultaneously stimulate consumership and
egilitarianism while denying differences and delegitimizing
More concretely, the age distributions and sex ratios of
societies or of localities can be interpreted as structural
features and related to differences in crime rates. Thus it
comes as little surprise to learn and comprehend that situa-
tions in which sex ratio is greatly distorted result in dif-
ferent patterns of sexual offense. Homosexualality, including
forcible rape, increases where men and women are kept apart from
the opposite sex, as in prisons (Blumstein, 1979). Prostitution
flourishes where numbers of men live without women but with the
freedom to get out on occasion, as from mining camps or mili-
tary bases (Blumstein).
These more concrete features of the social structure seem
at once more obvious and less interesting, however, than the
class structure of a society by the way in which its wealth
and prestige are differentially achieved and rewarded. It is
among these differentials that sociologists and many laymen con-
tinue to look for generators of crime.
The opportunity-structure hypothesis is one way of attending
to class differences and attempting to show how they breed crime.
It views criminality as adaptive, as utilitarian, as the way de-
prived people can get what everyone wants and has been told he
There is yet another type of explanation that looks upon the
pattern of rewards in a society as causing crime. This theory
differs from the opportunity-structure theory in its emphasis.
It interprets crime as more reactive than adaptive to social
Reactive hypotheses are related to other structural schema in
emphasizing the role of the status system of a society in producing
crime and delinquency. As one kind of sociological explanation,
these formulations also partake of some of the subcultural ideas
and may even speak of delinquent subcultures. The reactive
hypotheses, however, describe criminal subcultures as formed in re-
sponse to status deprivation. They see criminality as less tradi-
tional, less ethnic, and more psychodynamically generated
They interpret delinquency as a status-seeking solution to
straight society’s denial of respect. The reactive hypotheses
are, then, a type of structural theory that carries a heavy burden
of psychological implication (Ferrington).
The pure reactive hypothesis claims that the social structure
produces a reaction formation in whom its rules disqualify for
status. Reaction formation, or reversal formation, is a psycho-
analytic idea: that we may defend ourselves against forbidden de-
sires by repressing them while expressing their opposites
(Ferrington). In this tense, the behavoirs of which the ego is
conscious are psychoanalytically interpreted as a shield against
admitting the true urges that have been frustrated. For example,
if one says that if I can’t have it, it must be no good. Thus,
it is held, if one can’t play the middle-class game, or won’t be
let into it, he responds by breaking up the play (Ferrington).
The denial is proof of the desire and when put into the present
topic, this results in an unlawful act of criminality.
Where the subcultural theorists see delinquent behavior as
real in its own right, as learned and valued by the actor, and
where the social psychologists agree but emphasize the training
processes that bring this about, the proponents of reactive hypo-
theses interpret the defiant and contemptuous behavoir of many de-
linquents as a compensation that defends them against the ego-
wounding they have received from the status system (Ferrington).
In scientific work there is a criterion, not pointly adhered
to, which says that the simple explanation is preferable to the
complex, that the hypothesis with few assumptions is preferable to
the one with many. There are simpler explanations of criminal
hostility than the reactive hypotheses. One such theory holds that
violence comes naturally and that it will be expressed unless we
are trained to control it. Another theory calls envy a universal
and independant motive (Herrnstein).
Some social psychologists believe that children will grow up
violent if they are not adequately nurtured. Adequate nurturing in-
cludes both appreciating the child and training him or her to ac-
knowledge the rights of others. From this theoretical stance, the
savagery of the urban gangster for example represents merely the
natural outcome of a failure in child upbringing.
Similarily, on a simple level of explanation, many sociolo-
gists and anthropologists believe that hostile behavior can be
learned as easily as passive behavior. Once learned, the codes
of violence and impatient tendencies of the mind are their own
positive values. Fighting and hating then become both duties and
pleasures. For advocates of this sociopsychological point of view,
it is not necessary to regard the barbarian whose words and deeds
laugh at goodness as having the same motives as more lawful per-
It needs no radical vision to agree that the school systems of
Western societies presently provide poor aprenticeship in adult-
hood for many adolescents. A poor apprenticeship for being grown
up is criminogenic.
In this sense, the structure of modern countries encourages
delinquency, for that structure lacks institutional procedures for
moving people smoothly form protected childhood to automonmous
adulthood. During adolescence, many youths in affluent societies
are neither well guided by their parents nor happily engaged by
their teachers. They are adult in body, but children in responsi-
bility and in their contribution to others. Now placed in between
irresponsible dependence and accountable independance, they are
compelled to attend schools that do not thoroughly stimulate the
interests of all of them and that, in too many cases, provide the
uninterested child with the experience of failure and the mirror
of denigration (Herrnstein). Educators are conceiving remedies.
This engages a dilemma–a dilemma of the democratic educators.
They want equality and individuality, objectives that thus far in
history have eluded societal engineers. Meanwhile, the metro-
politan schools of industrialized nations make a probable, but
measurable, contribution to delinquency.
Some crimes are rational. In such cases, the criminal way
appears to be the more effecient way of satisfying one’s wants.
When crime is regarded as rational, it can be given either a
structural or a sociopsychological explanation. The explanation
is structural when it emphasizes the conditions that make crime
rational. It becomes a sociopsychological explanation when it
emphasizes the interpretations of the conditions that make crime
rational, or when it stresses the training that legitimizes il-
legal activities. No one emphasis need be more correct–more use-
ful–than another. Conduct, lawful and criminal, always occurs
within some structure of possibilities and is, among normal
people, justified by an interpretation of that structure. Both
the interpretation of and the adaptation to a structure of
possibilities are largely learned. It is only for convenience
that we will discuss the idea that crime may be rational as one
of the structural, rather than one of the sociopsychological,
The most obvious way in which a social structure produces
crime is by providing chances to make money illegally (Herrnstein).
Whether or not a structure elevates desires, it generates crime by
bringing needs into the view of opportunities.
This kind of explanation does not say that people behave
criminally because they have been denied legitimate opportunities,
but rather it says that people break the law, particulary those
laws concerning the definition of property, because this is a
rational thing to do. the idea of rational crime is in accord
with the common-sense assumption that most people will take money
if they can do so without penalty.
Obviously there are differences in personality that raise or
lower resistance to temptation. These differences are the concern
of those sociopsychological explantions that emphasize the
controlling functions of character. However, without attending
to these personal variables, it is notable that the common human
proclivity to improve and maintain status will produce offenses
against property when these tendencies meet the appropriate situa-
tion (Ferrington). These situations have been studied by crimin-
ologists in four major contexts. There are, first, the many
situations in civil life in which supplies, services and money are
available for theft. Theft is widespread in such situations. It
ranges from taking what isn’t nailed down in public settings to
stealing factory tools and store inventories to cheating on expense
accounts to embezzlement. Second, there are circumstances in which
legitimate work makes it economical to break the criminal law.
Third, there are able criminals, individuals who have chosen
theft as an occupation and who have make a success of it. These
expert thieves are sometimes affiliated with musclemen or
organizers in a fourth context of rational crimes, the context in
which crime becomes an economic enterprise fulfilling the demands
of a market (Ferrington).
Now specifically on these contexts, crime has been seen as a
preferred livelihood. The conception of some kinds of crime as
rational responses to structures indicates that in the struggle
to stay alive and in the desire to improve one’s material condi-
tion lie the seeds of many crimes. some robbery, but more
burglary; some snitching, but more boosting; some automobile
theft by juveniles, but more automobile transfers by adults
represent a consciously adopted way of making a living. All
organized crime represents such a preference. The organization of
large scale theft adopts new technologies and new modes of opera-
tion to keep pace with increases in the wealth of Western nations
and changes in security measures. Such businesslike crime has
been changing form craft crimes to project crimes involving big-
ger risks, bigger takes, and more criminal intelligence.
Conversations with successful criminals, those who use intel-
legence to plan lucrative acts, indicate considerable satisfaction
with their work. There is pride in one’s craft and pride in one’s
nerve. There is enjoyment of leisure between jobs. There is ex-
pressed delight in being one’s own boss, free of any compelling
routine. the carefree life, the irresponsible life, is appreciat-
ed and contrasted with the drab existence of more lawful citizens.
Given the low risk of penalty and the high probability of
reward, given the absence of pangs of guilt and the presence of
hedonistic preferences, crime is a rational occupational choice
for such individuals (Sampson).
On a level of lesser skill, many inhabitants of metropolitan
slums are in situations that make criminal activity a rational
enterprise. Young men in particular who show little interest in
school, but great distaste for the authority of a boss and the
imprisonment of a predictable job, are likely candidates for the
rackets. Compared to work, the rackets combine more freedom,
money and higher status at a relatively low cost. In some organ-
ized crimes, like running the numbers, risk of arrest is low.
the rationality of the choice of these rackets is therefore that
much higher for youths with the requisite tastes.
In summary, the structuralist emphasis on the criminogenic
features of a stratified society is both popular and persuasive.
The employment of this type of explanation becomes political.
If the anomie that generates crime lies in the gap between desires
and their gratification, criminologists can urge that desires be
modified, that gratifications be increased, or that some compro-
mise be reached between what people expect and what they are
likely to get (Christiansen).
The various political positions prescribe different remedies
for our social difficulties. Radical thinkers use the schema of
anomie to strengthen their argument for a classless or, at least,
a less stratified society. Conservative thinkers use this schema
to demonstrate the dangers of an egalitarian philosophy. At one
political pole, the recommendation is to change the structure of
power so as to reduce the pressure toward criminality. At the
other pole, the prescription is to change the public’s perception
Criminologists are themselves caught up in this debate. The
major tradition in social psychology, as it has been developed
from sociologists, emphasizes the ways in which perceptions and
beliefs cause behavoirs. Between how things are (the structure)
and how one responds to this world, the social psychologist
places attitude, belief, and definition of the situation. The
crucial question becomes one of assessing how much of any action
is simply a response to a structure of the social world, and how
much of any action is moved by differing interpretations of that
reality (Sampson). Social psychologists of the symbolic-inter-
actionist persuasion attempt to build a bridge between the struc-
tures of social relations and our interpretations of them and, in
this matter, to describe how crime is produced.
1. Blumstein, Alfred. 1979. An Analysis. Crime and
Delinquency 29 (October): 546-60.
2. Christiansen, K.O. 1977. A Review of Studies of Crimin-
ality. In Bases of Criminal Behavoir, ed. S.A.
Mednick and K.O. Christiansen, p. 641, 654-669 New
3. Ferrington, David P. 1991. Explaining the Beginning and
Progress. In Advances in Criminological Theory, ed.
Joan McCord, vol. 3, p. 191-199,New Brunswick, N.J.:
4. Freeman, Richard B. 1983. The Relationship Between
Criminality and the Disadvantaged. Ch. 6 In Crime
and Public Policy, ed. James Q. Wilson, p. 917-991.
San Francisco: ICS Press.
5. Herrnstein, Richard J. 1985. Crime and Human Nature. P.
359-374, New York: Simon and Schuster.
6. Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. P. 30-31,
89-102, Berkeley: University of California Press.
7. Sampson, R.J. 1985. Neighborhood Family Structure and the
Risk of Victimization. In The Social Ecology of
Crime, ed. J. Byrne and R. Sampson, 25-46. New York: