Describe some of the characteristics of a good theory.

Describe some of the characteristics of a good theory.

Objective 1.1: Describe some of the characteristics of a good theory.

Objective 1.2: Summarize the various ways to classify criminological theories.

Objective 1.3: Explain the difference between a macro- and a microtheory.

Describe some of the characteristics of a good theory.
Describe some of the characteristics of a good theory.

Objective 1.4: Discuss the relationship between theory, research, and policy.

Objective 1.5: Explain what is meant by the social context of a crime theory.

IntroductIon to theory

The study of criminological theory is an opportunity to analyze and critique the way others have looked at crime through history. Today, the quest to understand crime is as close to us as the latest newspaper headlines and television reports. As we will see, however, theory is not just a popular belief, opinion, or value-driven explanation. Instead, theory as we will discuss it here is a product of the scientific approach.

The effective use of theory is found in the everyday activities of the criminal justice system. Police departments have designed their patrol patterns around various theories that predict criminal events. Each day judges hand down sentences based on their understanding of the character of a defendant and the environment in which that defendant lives. Jurors decide whether to give the death penalty based on their assumptions about the future dangerousness of the defendant. Probation officers send their clients to treatment programs to improve work skills or to resolve their use of drugs or alcohol. Prison authori- ties attempt to instill discipline, teach proper work habits, and deter inmates from future criminality. Finally, as reflected in the media, the public seems to attribute criminal behavior to such things as drug use, a depressed economy, poor family life, the influence of bad friends, and, sometimes, even the immi- gration and ethnic status of people. All of these activities and explanations are found in the implications of various criminological theories over the past century.

As you can see, theory does not have to be abstract. Furthermore, and despite public opinion to the contrary, theory is applicable to the “real world.” We all use theory as part of everyday life but normally not the scientific versions of it. When you see a dark cloud in the sky and say that it is going to rain, you have just expressed a theory. To be sure, it is a relatively simple theory, but it does express the relation- ships among clouds in general, clouds that are dark, and the falling of drops of water from the sky. This simple explanation meets two criteria for the simplest version of theory: (1) the use of objective evidence and systematic observation and (2) a rational explanation of that evidence. In other words, we know from many observations that dark clouds are systematically associated with rain, and a rational person could assume that if dark clouds occur first, then rain will follow. Similarly, if you have ever been about to go in a door when someone on the other side of door bursts through (and you were then hit in the face by the door), you associate the sound of someone on the other side of a door as a reason to be cautious. Here, you are theorizing on the basis of evidence (your past experience) that sounds indicating the pres- ence of someone could be followed by their opening the door.

2 Chapter 1 • Introduction

Theories can be very simple or very complex, depending upon the number and types of relationships expressed by them. A more complex theory of rain would be that, under certain circumstances, surface water evaporates and rises into the atmosphere. Certain atmospheric con- ditions cause the water to condense, first into “clouds” and ultimately into drops of rain. The complexity in this version of a theory of rain is in specifying the conditions and processes involved in evaporation and condensation.

Theories can also be concrete or abstract. Theories about rain tend to be concrete, even if complex. Theories about simple behaviors such as throwing a ball through a window also tend to be concrete. Abstract theories, however, are more difficult to tie directly to reality. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity is an abstract concept. We have difficulty in directly testing the concept that time gets slower the faster one travels, and certainly we cannot test velocities beyond the speed of light. Similarly, theories about the effect of social structure on crime rates are abstract. Social structure is an invented concept (we doubt that you have ever seen a social struc- ture), and crime rates are a mathematical concept derived from dividing the number of crimes by some standard population size.

The most important thing about theories is that we need them to live or to live better. Theo- ries allow us to develop and test potential solutions to problems we encounter in life. True, some of the problems are more critical than others, for example, addressing global warming versus predicting who will win an Oscar. But we do need the many theories we have learned about our environment to accumulate knowledge and effectively allocate resources. Imagine what life would be like if you could never generalize about things, if every time you saw a cloud you had to get wet to conclude that it was going to rain. And suppose you could not assume that a door represents a way to enter a building. Theories, then, are really generalizations of a sort; they explain how two or more events are related to each other and the conditions under which the relationship takes place. For example, the statement that seat belts reduce deaths in automobile accidents expresses a relationship between two events. The seat belts alone will not reduce deaths, however. There must be a condition that they be worn (we could also add that the seat belts have to be installed properly, worn correctly, etc.).

The way we express these generalizations, or think about things, depends on the form of knowledge we are using at the time. We know things through experience (often referred to as “empirical knowledge”), intuition, common sense, or science, or because someone important to us (or even an important book) has told us so. The causes of crime, for instance, are assumed to be “known” by everyone. They include broken homes, lack of religion, hanging around with the wrong crowd, poor upbringing, and so forth. While you probably don’t think of these explana- tions as theories, they all are. At the same time, they are not good theories because they are too simplistic. If they were correct, then everyone whose life has these causes would be criminal (or delinquent), and, of course, we know that is not true. Even more important is the fact that such theories also imply the reverse; that is, people who are raised in a good family environment, who are religious, and who associate with the right people will not do anything criminal (or delin- quent). This is not true either, since self-report studies (Akers, 1964; Gold, 1970; Reiss & Rhodes, 1961; Short & Nye, 1958) tell us that most young people at one time or another do things that are against the law. Unfortunately, public “theories” such as these are derived from concepts of “good” and “bad” and contribute to the way we view others. One of the basic crimi- nological truths is that there is generally no such thing as noncriminals and criminals. Every person who has committed their first criminal act was previously a noncriminal and at the time of that commission was not necessarily any different than previously. Thus, the assumption that we know who is criminal and noncriminal is patently false.1 From this, you can imagine the com- plexity required of any theory that purports to be a good explanation of behavior.

The problem with most of our day-to-day theories is they are often illogical or they are the product of selective observations. They may work some of the time and even often enough to be used as a general rule of thumb for making decisions. But when we need to be accurate or more

1 As with all statements, this is not universally true. There is a small group of people (criminological studies have consis- tently put the percentage at 6% or so of the population, and mostly male) who consistently engage in criminal behavior. Even so, predicting who they are and when their first delinquent/criminal act will occur is very difficult. Finally, there is an exceedingly rare group of individuals who are simply dangerous and criminal; but, again, predicting who will be one of these individuals is not within our capabilities.

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