Theories of Criminality

When an individual pursues a course in criminology, be it in law practices or forensic psychology, their explanation understands various theoretical frameworks that might present overarching views. What might these theories be?


Different theories of criminality are proposed over time to define someone’s criminal actions or behaviors. Every theory has focused on some point and missed or been less attentive to some other points, which might be equally important. Therefore, here we will discuss some of the significant theories to better understand them.

Theory of Containment

Focuses on an internal and external management mechanism

Theories of Conflict

Claims the existence of inverse relationship between authority and primal crime rates

Theories of Criminalization

Explains power relationships between the underprivileged and the social elites and how sociocultural norms inculcate criminality

Theory of Containment

W.C. Reckless (1961) first suggested the containment theory, which is premised on an internal and an outside management system. The fundamental elements of containment theory are internal and exterior impulses and attractions to deviant or compliant conduct. Crime will happen if internal and external forces are in favor of it. Good self-control, egocentric fortitude, a well-developed superego, a colorable claim for annoyance, excellent resistance to distractions, a high sense of obligation, goal orientation, the capacity to locate alternative pleasures, and tension-relieving justifications are all necessary for inner containment. The organizational barrier in a person's proximal social environment that keeps them inside social norms is known as outer confinement. Containment is influenced by a variety of attributes, including the maintenance of a constant moral façade, the presence of a sensible collection of social requirements, proper child scrutiny and diligence, the arrangement of a plausible range of activities, the chance for acquiescence, channels for the release of pressure and annoyance, individuality, and possessions. Between the demands of a person's exterior surroundings and inner urges, internal and external containment appear to be pivotal.

Conditions linked to poverty or hardship, strife, external constraints, minority-group status, restricted access to prosperity in a powerful framework, and other challenges are examples of environmental pressures. Among the tugs of the environment include obstructions, lures, enticement, trends of deviance, and advertising. Maintaining a successful home life and expressing interest in community engagement, affiliation with institutions, and the enjoyable company includes external containment. Internal containment includes controlling one's motivations, impulses, disappointments, agitation, dissatisfaction, resistance, hatred, and inferiority complex, and exercising freedom of expression, and one must be able to bear pressure. To successfully settle disputes, prevent people from taking exhilarating risks, and keep them out of danger. In a fluid society, internal containment is more crucial as alienation makes it difficult for people to engage in group activities that can keep them in check.

In a chapter titled "The Pressures and Pulls Underlying Involvement in Crime," Reckless (1973) elaborates on his idea and offers the following seven tests of authenticity

  • The containment hypothesis is recommended as the explanation that best accounts for the vast majority of middle-range delinquent and criminal instances.

  • It defines both crimes against people and crimes against property, i.e., the mine run of homicide, abuse, and rape is classified as larceny, burglary, and vandalism.

  • It is a framework that a host of practitioners may utilize effectively; these professionals all search for aspects of internal and external fortitude and can define these capabilities in their terminology. Most psychiatrists and psychologists are uninterested in differential association and environmental influence, while most sociologists are uninterested in push theory. However, the specialists can unite around internal and external faults and strengths.

  • Specific case investigations can reveal inner and outside containment, and there are identifiable flaws and advantages. One of the few theories—the containment theory—shows how the components of the macrocosm (the general formulations) are reflected in the microcosm (individual case histories).

  • It is a legitimate pragmatic theory for caring for offenders, reshaping a person's environment, or fortifying himself. The most competent correctional personnel concentrate on aiding adolescent or older felons to explore different aspirations, adopt new behavioral models, and strengthen their egos. Additionally, they are concentrating on the person's social ties, anchors, connections, boundaries, and potential choices to assist in re-create a new confining environment for them.

Another useful operative paradigm of containment theory concerns deterrence. Early detection of youngsters with poor continence is possible. Programs designed to protect at-risk kids from becoming delinquent must focus on internalizing stronger self-components and improving the enclosing framework surrounding the youngster. It is possible to evaluate and estimate internal and exterior containment, and these evaluations can be quantified and standardized.

All conduct, especially criminality, may be explained by containment theory, which strikes an equilibrium between internal pressures and external restraints. The scope of containment theory serves to downplay the significance of specific methods used in criminal restraint. Due to the tugs and drags of mass communication, criminal cliques, remorse sentiments, destitution, unemployment, and other elements that are not under the control of currently available treatments, crime prevention and rehabilitation programs are necessary. It cannot be tested practically since there are too many unpredictable factors. As a result, they are much simpler to investigate in a forecasting model than in a therapy model.

Conflict Theories

According to the consensus perspective, a community is believed to be founded on a set of core values, and the sovereign is supposed to be set up to safeguard the interests of the entire populace. The structured state is believed to arbitrate among these contending factions and symbolize the values and desires of the community as a whole, as societies are made up of organizations with divergent ideals and values.

Conflict criminology's central claim is the existence of an inverse association between authority and formal crime statistics: those who have less authority are more inclined to be identified and prosecuted as criminals. At the same time, those with greater influence are less prone to do so.

Sellin's Theory of Cultural Conflict

Thorsten Sellin proposed a jurisprudence theory in 1938 that was concerned with the contradiction between "Conduct Norms." Conduct conventions are sociocultural guidelines that dictate how specific sorts of individuals should behave in specific situations. He referred to disputes between two distinct cultures as "Primary Cultural Conflicts." These disputes may arise at the borders of two different cultures, during colonialism when one culture's rules are introduced into another's jurisdiction, or through immigration when adherents of one cultural community move into someone's region. When a specific culture fragments into numerous distinct subgenres, each with its own social rules, "secondary cultural conflicts" result.

Group Conflict Theory by Vold

The foundation of Vold's thesis is a notion of human character that maintains that humans are social creatures whose affiliations influence and shape their experiences. When members of a group have wants and objectives in commonality that may be best addressed via collective action. As novel interests emerge, new organizations are constantly being established, and when a current group's mission is no longer viable, the unit begins to deteriorate and eventually dissipates. There is a greater or lesser constant fight to keep or strengthen one's position in the interplay of groups. Hence, one of the main and crucial discursive practices in a dispute's current and continual societal functioning. Parliamentary affairs, which is mostly a question of forging workable bargains amongst opposing parties in society, is where the fight amongst organizations seeking their respective objectives is particularly evident.

Theory of the Social Reality of Crime by Quinney

The six dimensions that make up Richard Quinney's thesis of "the social reality of crime" is

Crime Ontology

Sanctioned actors define criminality as unacceptable human behavior in a formally ordered society.

The Development of the Criminal Definition

Criminal ontologies define actions that go against the interests of the social groups with authority to influence public policy.

Criminal Definition Implications

The social groups that can influence how criminal law is enforced and administered apply criminal definitions.

Developing Behavioural Patterns in Connection to Felony Classifications

In a distensible integrated society, behavioral patterns are arranged in terms of criminal definitions, and individuals act in ways more likely than not to be considered criminally motivated.

Development of Criminal Concepts

Crime ideas are developed and disseminated throughout society's sectors using various communication methods.

Crime's Social Reality

Establishing behavioral patterns associated with criminal terminology, implementing criminal interpretations, and creating criminal concepts all shape the social actuality of criminality.

Turk's Criminalization Theory

Austin Turk presented a disputed assessment of how ruling elites attain societal credibility and dominance. Turk contended that the authorities' maintenance of a compromise between unanimity and coercion is the foundation of social order. Turk's criminalization theory outlined "the prerequisites whereby societal and cultural disparities among officials and content areas will presumably lead to tension, the circumstances within which criminalization would then probably occur during discord, and the situations where the extent of scarcity affiliated with the emergence of an offender will likely be bigger or less." Turk made the first distinction between cultural and social norms. Cultural traditions are connected to language expressions of ideals (such as the codified constitution), while social norms are connected to actual action trends (e.g., the enforced law). He disputes three points

  • The significance that the forbidden conduct or trait has in terms of theories of crime will be the dominant drive for the cops, who serve as the first line of enforcement, and the measure to which the senior authorities and attorneys who deal with level enforcement concur with the assessment of the law.

  • The relative strength of the government will be the second element impacting criminalization enforcers and opponents.

  • "Pragmatism of the dispute moves" is the third element influencing the criminalization rate, which measures the likelihood of a subject's activity and that authorities might increase the likelihood of their successful outcome.


While each theory may have merits and demerits, it is quintessential to pick out necessary elements from each approach to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of delinquent behavior. Thus, it is rather difficult to arrive at a conjecture of criminal behavior without acknowledging the basic tenets of each theory of criminality.

Updated on: 22-Dec-2022


Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started