Sociological Theories of Crime: Overview & Features

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  • 0:04 Criminology
  • 0:46 Sociological Theories
  • 2:47 Public Policy
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why do crime rates vary from community to community? In this lesson, we'll take a look at sociological theories of criminology, including the social learning and social conflict theories and sociological programs to prevent crime.


Gemma looks around her and sees lots of problems with her city. There is a high unemployment rate and lots of crime. She wants to do something to make it better, but isn't sure what. Why is crime so high in her city, and what can she do about it?

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. Criminologists try to answer the question, why do crimes happen? Just as Gemma is trying to figure out why crime is high in her city, criminologists study crime rates and try to figure out the elements that make people turn to a life of crime. Let's look closer at sociological theories of criminology, including how they affect public policy.

Sociological Theories

Gemma wants to know why her city has a crime problem. Why do people commit crimes?

There are several different theories about why people commit crimes. On one hand, some people believe that crime is a rational choice, and criminals weigh the pros and cons of committing a crime before doing it. Others believe that criminals are biologically - or psychologically - different from law-abiding citizens.

The one thing that both of these approaches has in common, though, is that they focus on the individual. That is, they look at crime as an individual problem, not one that involves an entire community. But sociological theories of criminology say that society creates conditions under which a person commits a crime. That is, people are influenced by society to commit crimes. The words 'sociological' and 'society' are linked, so you can remember that sociological theories look at crime as a social problem, not an individual one.

There are many different sociological theories. For example, perhaps Gemma's city has a crime problem because people are learning from each other how to commit crimes, a theory known as social learning theory. Or, perhaps the problem is that there is a big gap in wealth, and class warfare is causing the problem, which is known as social conflict theory.

One key idea that the sociological theories have in common, though, is the idea that criminal behavior is not innate to humans and circumstances affect how people act. That is, people aren't born criminals, it is the environment in which they live that influences how they will turn out.

Gemma understands this. She has noticed that unemployment and poverty are both high in her city. Not only that, she's found that the higher those two things are, the higher crime rates go. It's as if when circumstances get worse for people, they become more likely to turn to a life of crime.

Public Policy

Gemma is starting to see that the crime problem in her city might be partly due to the sociological aspects of her city, like the fact that unemployment and poverty are both at high levels. But what can be done about it?

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