Sociological Theories of Crime

Describe the following sociological theories of crime:

-Social control theory
-Strain theory
-Differential association theory
-Neutralization theory

-List the basic premises of each of the theories and how they differ from one another.

Discuss 1 strength and 1 weakness for each theory that is unique to that theory.

-Include the background of the offender assessed when it is relevant to the theory being used to analyze the offender.

-Also, answer the following questions:

-Which of the 2 philosophies (classical or positivist) do you believe explains criminal behavior in a much more complete manner?


Social Control Theory

Social control theory suggests that social learning and socialisation can be used as essential tools to enhance self control and reduce people’s indulgence in deviant behaviour or crime (Grant, 2002). The basic premises of this theory are listed below:

  • There are four types of social control that reduce crime: direct control, internal control, indirect control and needs satisfaction control
  • Human beings are naturally bad and should be controlled so that they become good
  • Strong moral bond between the society and the juvenile system enhances proper socialization
  • Social bonds in societies are developed through attachment, following norms, getting involved in social activities and believing in moral laws and order.

One of the weaknesses of the theory is that social learning may raise questions that are interpreted differently, and motives of socialization may be based on conducting crime. So socialization does not necessarily reduce crime (Grant, 2002). The strength of the theory is that it encourages people to work together and develop social bonds that will enable them to fight against crime.

Strain Theory

Strain refers to the gaps between means and goals of members of a society (Grant, 2002). This theory argues that people may be encouraged by social structures in the society to engage in criminal activities. It was developed by Emile Durkheim, and is based on a few premises as outlined below:


  • Opportunities determine one’s position in the social structure
  • An individual positions himself in the social structure by comparing himself with others
  • Strain can be minimized by developing modes of adaptation, i.e. accepting one’s position in the social structure (Inderbitzin et al, 2013). A conformist accepts, innovator rejects the means but accepts the goals, retreatist rejects both goals and means but remains passive, and a rebel rejects both the goals and the means and tries to create new. The last mode of adaptation, rebel, leads to crime.
  • This differs from social control because social control theory is about interactions irrespective of social status, but social strain theory proposes structural arrangement of the society into classes.

The weakness of social strain theory is that it overemphasizes on the contribution of social structures to crime. It is limited to narrow crimes such as street crimes, theft and pick pocketing (Inderbitzin et al, 2013). Because the lower class people strive to meet their needs in order to achieve their goals. The strength is that it enables people, especially leaders, to provide equality in the society as a means of fighting crime.

Differential association theory

Developed by Edwin Sutherland, the differential association theory suggests that people learn the techniques, attitudes and values of crime through interaction or contact with other members of the society (Grant, 2002). Its tenets or principles are:

  • Crime as a behaviour is adopted through learning
  • Communication and interaction among members of the society yields criminal behaviour
  • Intimate or personal groups intensify the learning process of crime
  • Learning criminal behaviour involves techniques, motives, attitudes and drivers

One of the weaknesses of the theory is that it does not recognize the fact that some people can be rational, so learning criminal behaviour from others is not possible for such people. Its strength is that it enables people to avoid bad groups in order to avoid indulging in crime.

Neutralization theory

This theory suggests that people who engage in criminal behaviour feel guilty and would choose to protect their self-image by developing neutralization techniques to neutralize guilt in order to participate in crime. The delinquent can then drift back using the same neutralizing techniques in order to conform to the law. The principles of the theory include:

  • Criminals/delinquents feel guilty for their criminal actions
  • Delinquents show respect to law-abiding citizens
  • Delinquents have a limit on the people to victimize, and those who should not be victimized
  • Delinquents can give in to the conformity demands

This theory is different from social control theory which argues that people are born as bad people who should be controlled. Neutralization theory suggests that people feel guilty, so they know and conform to laws (Grant, 2002). The weakness of this theory is that it fails to explain why people engage in crime. It only explains techniques of neutralizing criminal or moral behaviour but how such behaviour is developed is not explained. The strength of the theory is that it shows the importance of rehabilitation for people to conform because they can give in to conformity demands.

Classical and positivist philosophies

I think positivist philosophy explains criminology in a more complete manner because it deals with rational and logical ways of interpreting criminal activities. It suggests that people should gather facts and sufficient information to provide evidence of criminal action. On the other hand, classical philosophy relies on heavy punishment without sufficient evidence (Ashley and Orenstein, 2005). Therefore, the process of using facts and information in an empirical manner to address crime makes the positivist approach to become more comprehensive in criminology.


References List

Ashley, D. and Orenstein, D.M. (2005). Sociological theory: Classical statements, 6th ed. Boston, MA, USA: Pearson Education.

Inderbitzin, M.L., Bates, K.A., & Gainey, R.R. (2013). Deviance and social control: A sociological perspective. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Grant, C. (2002). Theories of crime and punishment. Harlow, England: Longman.

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