How Individuals Become Criminals?

The criminal justice field has been largely dominated by result-driven theories that favor practical solutions. Even if the contemporary approach to criminal justice does not focus on understanding criminal acts, it does not mean that such theories do not exist. Thus, the current paper presents an overview of major sociological theories of crime that explain how individuals become criminals.

The social control theory postulates that individuals, through the processes of socialization and internalization, learn certain values, norms, and customs that help them exercise self-control and avoid antisocial behaviors. It is based on the social learning theory that states that people learn not only from direct instruction but also from observation. Through learning, individuals not only internalize the existing norms and values but also gain strong ties to their community. Consequently, they are reluctant to commit crimes as it can interfere with their relationships and commitments (Williams & McShane, 2013). An advantage of this theory is that it helps explain the gender differences in offending as girls and boys are typically raised to different standards. For instance, the risk-seeking behavior is usually encouraged in males to a greater extent that in females (Lilly, Cullen & Ball, 2014). At the same time, many findings in support of this theory are based on self-reported data which often undermines the credibility of these studies.

While the social control theory perceives the influence of the society on individuals as a positive force, the strain theory, on the other hand, posits that social structures and imbalances may, in fact, force people into criminal behavior. Certain processes and experiences in the society may influence the individuals’ perception of their needs, means, and opportunities, prompting them to seek retribution or even revenge to express their frustration with inadequate structures and perceived injustice (Hay & Meldrum, 2010). For instance, someone experiencing systemic racism and indiscrimination may seek to punish the individuals they believe to be the source of it. This theory may help explain certain patterns of crime, such as teenage violence as a response to bullying. However, its main deficiency is that it does not provide a comprehensive explanation for all criminal behavior: while a lot of people are under the same form of strain and stress, only a minority of them adopts criminal behavior to combat it.

Similarly to the social control theory, the differential association approach to criminology is based on the assumption that people learn and adopt certain values, behaviors, norms, and motives. While the social control theory looks at how social learning contains people from antisocial behavior, the differential association theory looks at how one’s interaction with other delinquent individuals is likely to encourage criminal behavior (Williams & McShane, 2013). The strength of this theory is that it helps understand why some juvenile diversion programs are counterproductive as they not only fail to reduce delinquency but even increase it. Teenagers, being more vulnerable to peer pressure, may find support and reinforcement of criminal behavior when exposed to their delinquent peers (Siegel & Welsh, 2015). Nevertheless, the drawback of this theory is that it does not take into consideration individual personality traits, such as independence, that explain different degrees of vulnerability to external influence among different people.

The neutralization theory lies at the interception of the social control and differential association theories. It claims that, while individuals do not fully abandon the socially accepted norms and values, they are able to violate them by neutralizing the feelings of guilt and shame that typically accompany antisocial behavior. Several specific neutralization techniques have been described to explain how delinquent individuals cope with their moral controls and limits (Shoenberger, Heckert & Heckert, 2012). The neutralization theory is particularly useful to explain the crimes of those individuals that drift between antisocial and conventional behavior as it provides them with episodic relief. However, the theory received several important criticisms as it does not fully explain the causes of crime. Principally, it relies on the assumption that the feelings of guilt are typical for all crime-committing individuals while this is not always the case.

These theories represent the positivist school of thought within the field of criminology. The positivist approach presumes that criminal behavior is caused by a variety of social and individual characteristics and factors that explain why some people commit crimes while others do not. Although they attribute criminality to different causes (for instance, social interaction in the differential association theory and social learning in the social control theory), they all believe that one’s background and environment define whether the person will choose to commit a crime. Thus, they reject the assumption of the classical school of thought that draws from the rational choice behavioral theory (Tierney, 2013). It presumes that people are rational beings who choose to commit a crime after assessing its advantages and disadvantages, such as punishment.

I believe that the positivist school of thought provides a more thorough and comprehensive explanation of criminal behavior: while it does not reject the personal responsibility of individuals deciding to commit a crime, it also examines the intricate and complex influences of the society on their behavior. Consequently, it seeks to address and eliminate the underlying causes of criminality, focusing not only on punishment but also on prevention.


Hay, C., & Meldrum, R. (2010). Bullying victimization and adolescent self-harm: Testing hypotheses from general strain theory. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 446-459.

Lilly, R.J., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R.A. (2014). Criminological theory: Context and consequences (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Shoenberger, N., Heckert, A., & Heckert, D. (2012). Techniques of neutralization theory and positive deviance. Deviant Behavior, 33(10), 774-791.

Siegel, L.J., & Welsh, B.C. (2015). Juvenile delinquency: Theory, practice, and law (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Tierney, J. (2013). Criminology: Theory and context (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Williams, F.P., & McShane, M.D. (2013). Criminological theory (6th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson.

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