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Positivist Models of Criminal Behavior

Rebecca has a bachelor's degree in sociology and enjoys studying the different reasons why people do what they do.

An analysis of positivist theories of crime

An analysis of positivist theories of crime

Positivist Theories of Crime Explained

The positivist models of criminal behavior attempt to explain why people commit crimes. What motivates some people to commit crime at different stages in their life, and what motivates some people to continue to commit crime their entire life. Social learning, strain theory, and control theory are all theories that fall under the positivist model in that that all explain why people commit deviant acts.

The theory of social learning states that social learning is taught at a very young age and continues on into adolescence. I would like to expand on this theory and state that all the positivist theories are dependent on this theory and that the initial social learning of a child is paramount to the outcome of choices through social learning in respect to choices made under the strain theory and control theory.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory was developed by a psychology professor, Albert Bandura, in 1977. His theory stated that children model behavior that they observe. Social Learning Theory states that a person’s experiences and upbringing will either lead to crime or it will not. Outside sources would include parents, siblings, community, teachers, peers, and media.

“The power of the messages a person receives depends on the authority of the source, the intensity of the message, the frequency of the message, and the consistency of the message. More positive crime messages will lead to crime, and more negative crime messages will lead to less or no crime. If aggression is not punished or rewarded, the message is positive for continued aggression. “Albert Bandura argued that aggression in children is influenced by the reinforcement of family members, the media, and the environment.”

There are many aspects of child development that affect the social learning of a child. Attachment to a parental figure begins at birth, and security and trust follow. According to Newman and Newman in Development Through Life, “infants showing a disorganized attachment appear to have serious problems in the preschool period.” (Newman p. 196). This disorganized attachment is linked back to the parent or caregiver.

Newman and Newman tell us that statistics show that up to 71% of these children showed deviant hostility in later years. Studies also showed that the greater the disorganized dysfunction, the greater the risk for “subsequent social and cognitive dysfunction.” (Newman p. 197). This leads to the theory that social learning begins at birth with something seemingly as simple and as early as the attachment process.

Early moral development begins when a child takes parental values and internalizes them as his own. Children often learn these values in the early school years by “learning the moral code of the community and making judgments about whether something is good or bad, right or wrong.” (Newman p. 313). The child takes the moral lessons from his parents and from his teachers and peers and develops his own moral code. It is easy to see that a strong parental upbringing and a good community can help to develop a strong moral code.

What causes crime?

What causes crime?

Strain Theory

Merton’s strain theory contends that crime is a result of the strain between the different classes in our culture. Society sets standards of living through media, marketing, and education, yet it cannot supply the means for all classes to achieve these goals.

Strain theory assumes that all people are good; but that they are pushed to achieve these goals and that they want to achieve these goals so they will commit crime to get the results they want. “According to Merton, a society that emphasizes goals over the means to obtain these goals, and that restricts access to opportunities for legitimate advancement, is establishing the conditions for anomie and future criminality.”

Merton talks about the different modes that people adopt to deal with strain: conformity, innovation, rebellion, retreatism, and ritualism. Conformity is the mode that people use to accept their position in life and use convention methods to achieve success. Innovation is the mode people take to find other means to achieve success. Rebellion is the mode people use when they reject the societal means of achieving goals and look for ways such as overthrowing conventional methods of society. Retreatism is the mode most drug addicts and alcoholics are in. Ritualism is the mode of acceptance that people reach when they realize that their goals cannot be met. It is in the mode of innovation that most crime is committed.

In Eric Goode’s book, Deviant Behavior, Goode explains Strain Theory as values we expect living in a contemporary culture. Although emphasis is certainly on wealth and power, a somewhat smaller emphasis is on legitimate ways of achieving these goals. Goode states that motive “is based on the notion that the desire for material success must be socialized into us for deviance to take place”. (Goode p. 62). This speaks to the fact that social learning is again a factor in Strain Theory. Socialization begins with the family and continues on with school, teachers, peers, church, and media.

Robert Agnew received a Ph.D. in sociology with his dissertation titled “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency” in 1980. Agnew noted that the link between strain and crime was very dependent on social learning. He noted that the original Strain Theory showed a concentration of crime in the lower classes, but that in reality, research showed that crime was also very common in the middle and upper classes.

In part, his research proved that Social Learning played a big factor in whether or not strain affected a decision to commit crime or not. Agnew stated that negative stimuli can affect strain. “Some examples of negative that an adolescent might face are child abuse, neglect, adverse relations with parents and teachers, negative school experiences, adverse relations with peers, neighborhood problems, and homelessness”.

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In James Henslin’s Essentials of Sociology, Henslin tells how society creates strain in order to get the most qualified people for career paths in the future. “It does this by arousing discontent – making people dissatisfied with what they have so that they will try to ‘better’ themselves”. (Henslin p. 143). This is an important fact as it states that Strain Theory is created by the people that hold the power in society.

Richard Quinney talks in part about strain theory in his book Bearing Witness to Crime and Social Justice as he tells of the effects of media on the oppressed as far back as the early 1900s. His book is an extreme look at capitalism and how the message of goals came from the upper class in order to control the oppressed. His message tells of shows like The Lone Ranger and the myth it portrayed that if we work hard and fight evil we can obtain anything.

Quinney states about the show The Lone Ranger “I finally realize that you were part of the hegemony established by those who would benefit from our ignorance. You were the creation of a commercialized image, an image that made both of us believe that reality was something other than what we experienced. They made a world, those that ruled, and they manipulated our minds just as they determined our conditions. They made us believe that America was something other than it really was”. (Quinney p. 84).

Control Theory

Hirschi’s control theory assumes that people are bad and would commit crime and asks the question “Why don’t people commit crime?” Social control theorists believe there are constraints that stop people from committing crime. The first constraint is attachment or caring what other people think about you, having feelings for other people. Respect for what others think about you is reason enough to not commit a crime. The second constraint is commitment or what a person has to lose by committing a crime.

A coworker of mine has three DUIs, and driving is a requirement for our job. If he gets another DUI, he loses his job and does mandatory jail time. This is a strong enough commitment to make him take a cab anytime he drinks. The third constraint is involvement. Involvement in community sports is said to be a great determent from crime. A peak time that crime is committed is between the hours of after school and before parental work hours end. The fourth constraint is belief. A strong belief in something good is also shown to prevent crime.

It is important to acknowledge control theory as being very real, as the elite do make the laws to benefit their own lives and control the lower classes. When, however, we recognize media control, as Quinney talks about, and we do not have positive messages in the social learning phase, we are apt to turn to crime.

Although Hirschi was not the first sociologist to write about social control, his theory and doctoral research, Causes of Delinquency (1969) made him one of the most respected control theorists. He argued that personal control is what stops people from committing crime and that personal control is defined by “the ability of the individual to refrain from meeting needs in ways that conflict with the norms and rules of the community” while social control was “the ability of social groups or institutions to make norms or rules effective”.

Walter Reckless, a follower of Hirschi, argued that self-image was important to decisions on whether to commit crime or not. If a person had a strong self-image he or she was less likely to follow deviant peers. Studies show that juveniles that described themselves as being “good kids” were less likely to commit deviant acts. In addition, studies show that juveniles with low self-esteem or low self-image are much more apt to follow the crowd to feel better about themselves. This can mean becoming involved with delinquent youths in order to feel accepted. It is easier for them to bond with other antisocial juveniles and make their own group of outsiders or outcasts. Self-image comes from social learning.

The constraints that control theory speaks to are social learning constraints. Control theory speaks more to why people do not commit crime, but its primary focus is on social relationships. It attributes criminal behavior to the absence of social bonds. Social bonds and socialization are key factors in answering the question of why we do not break the law. We desire respect from people we respect and care about. Commitment or what we may lose are things that we are taught that we do not want to lose. Involvement in healthy community activities is a social learning trait we are raised to respect. Beliefs are also social learning tools our parents and community instill in us as values, and that we embrace.

Hirschi argued that “human beings are active, flexible organisms who will engage in a wide range of activities, unless the range is limited by processes of socialization and social learning.” His theory is an extension of social learning. The part that differs and can be argued is that Hirschi states that people are basically bad and social learning theory assumes a blank slate.

Ronald Akers developed a social learning theory in response to Hirschi’s control theory in the late 1960s. His response was that a youth’s behavior was attached to relationships and the consequences of that relationship should he commit a criminal act. He tied control theory and social learning theory together.

What Are the Implications?

The implications of this analysis about these three social theories are that if it is true that social learning is the basis for the positivist model of criminal behavior that answers “why,” then more studies need to be done in this direction. Sociology theories do nothing but answer the questions of why or why not. That is their purpose and their findings are important in deciding how to fix a broken society.

If social learning is the key to answering these theories under the positivist model, then we need to incorporate it more into the findings and the studies. Social learning needs to be looked at from a psychosocial approach as well as from a sociological based approach. These are the needed approaches for finding solutions that address this problem.

There are many good programs out there that focus on lower-class oppressed neighborhoods and education, such as the UNCF and the Programs for Education Opportunity or P.E.O. These are a start for future generations. These and other education programs give many the opportunities to a good education that otherwise would have no opportunity to go to college. P.E.O. promotes education for women. The empowerment of women is a big step in reducing oppressed neighborhoods as single parenting is very unbalanced in these neighborhoods and traditionally women are the primary caregiver or parent.

UNCF promotes education for underprivileged minorities. United Negro College Fund was first just for education for black minorities, but they now include all minorities and underprivileged whites too, although primarily African-Americans. The people that use these programs tend to already be from good homes with good parents, as these programs do nothing to get the children ready for further education.

There are also many programs that feed, clothe, and provide shelter for many, but these programs are just a band-aid on a broken system. We spend billions of dollars every year trying to fix a broken society and to try to even out the classes a bit. All we do, however, does very little to fix it. We spend so much money providing affordable housing that we have none left to provide programs that actually could make a difference. We cut sports and after school programs, and leave the children on the streets trying to find something to do, which is usually unlawful activities.

We need to fix the problem from the start. I know many people frown on the idea that education is the key to fixing the problem, but if we do not attempt to fix the problem before the problem begins, we will never succeed.

Additional studies in answering the question of why some children do NOT commit crime from a social learning perspective is a good start. We agree that it is social learning tools that make them “good kids” but what are the good social learning practices that actually work. What makes a good parent? What makes a good community? What makes a good school? Answering these questions will teach us what we need to teach to make better parents and communities, and what kind of people we need in place to make these programs work.

If social bonding begins at birth and is vital to the future of a child, then teaching parenting skills begins before a baby is born. We teach parents how to feed their children a healthy, balanced diet; how to dress them appropriately; and how to teach them to read and write. We teach schoolteachers how to educate children and to recognize an emotionally troubled youth, but by the time these children enter the education system, they are already broken. We do very little in teaching parents how to develop an emotionally healthy child.

Although we do not live in a perfect world, additional studies can lead to programs that revolve around parenting skills, caregivers’ skills, and community skills that will ultimately lead to a healthier community with solid citizens and less crime. Let’s face it—putting a band-aid on the broken system is not working. It is time to focus our billions of tax dollars on programs that work, and we need the studies to find out what is missing to create these programs.

Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

— Author unknown

Works Cited

"Crime Causation:Sociological Theories." Http:// Web. 14 Mar. 2010. <>.

Goode, Erich. Deviant Behavior. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.

Henslin, James M. Essentials F Sociology--a Down-to-earth Approach, Sixth Edition

Boston: Pearson Education USA, 2008. Print.

Newman, Barbara M., and Philip R. Newman. Development Through Life a Psychosocial Approach. 6th ed. New York: Brooks/Cole Company, 1995. Print.

"Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory." Research Brought To Life : Florida State University College of Criminology & Criminal Justice. Web. 07 Apr. 2010. <>.

Sandon, Andrew. "Juvenile Delinquency Theories." Free Articles Directory | Submit Articles - Web. 10 Mar. 2010. <>.

Quinney, Richard. Bearing Witness to Crime and Social Justice. Albany: State University of New York, 2000. Print.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Rebecca Shepherd Thomas

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