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criminology

The Nature and Causes of Crime

Many criminologists regard crime as one among several forms of deviance, about which there are conflicting theories. Some consider crime a type of anomic behavior; others characterize it as a more conscious response to social conditions, to stress, to the breakdown in law enforcement or social order, and to the labeling of certain behavior as deviant. Since cultures vary in organization and values, what is considered criminal may also vary, although most societies have restrictive laws or customs.

Hereditary physical and psychological traits are today generally ruled out as independent causes of crime, but psychological states are believed to determine an individual's reaction to potent environmental influences. Some criminologists assert that certain offenders are born into environments (such as extreme poverty or discriminated-against minority groups) that tend to generate criminal behavior. Others argue that since only some persons succumb to these influences, additional stimuli must be at work. One widely accepted theory is Edwin Sutherland's concept of differential association, which argues that criminal behavior is learned in small groups. Psychiatry generally considers crime to result from emotional disorders, often stemming from childhood experience. The criminal symbolically enacts a repressed wish, or desire, and crimes such as arson or theft that result from pyromania or kleptomania are specific expressions of personality disorders; therefore, crime prevention and the cure of offenders are matters of treatment rather than coercion.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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