An Overview of the Chicago School Theories of Criminology

William Menna's image for:
"An Overview of the Chicago School Theories of Criminology"
Image by: 

The Chicago School of criminological theory aimed to move past the simple hard-line classical explanations of crime. Early theories of criminal behavior focused on the individual, touting such ideas as crime as a rational choice, born criminals, and physical features such as forehead size as predictors of crime. The Chicago School introduced the idea of socialization as an explanation for criminal activity. These theories hold that people are not simply born good or bad - they are influenced by the people, social situations, and other external forces that surround them.

Social Disorganization Theory:
The main point of social disorganization theory focuses on the disproportionate amount of social and economic hardship as well as the level of criminal activity that occurs in inner cities compared to other areas. Social disorganization - the constant influx of people and businesses into inner cities combined with the highly transient environment and widespread poverty - leads to a breakdown of families, schools, and other social institutions that encourage conformity.

Along with a breakdown of positive social influences, social disorganization theory explores the negative influences that lead to delinquency and criminality. In places with a high degree of social disorganization, criminal values are far more sustainable than in areas with high social cohesion. As criminal cultures take precedent over legitimate institutions, they encourage deviant behavior among the people of the city.

Differential Association Theory:
The concept of differential association is an expansion of social disorganization theory. Differential association looks at the differences in social groups - those that support criminal activity and those that counter it. These two cultures compete within the community to retain or recruit other members. Differential association holds that criminal behaviors are learned when those groups that support criminal activity are given more clout than those institutions that counter criminal activity. The difference between those people who engage in delinquency and those who conform can often be traced back to the peer groups people interact with the most.

Social Learning Theory:
Social learning theory is an expansion of other Chicago School theories like differential association. The central tenet of this theory deals with learned delinquency or imitation. Consider, for example, kids who grow up observing their parents cheat on their taxes, spending time with friends who engage in delinquent behaviors, and living in a neighborhood that is poor or slummy and conducive to criminal activity. They are exposed to a constant barrage of criminal behavior during the times of their mental and emotional development. As a result, they are far more likely to imitate and repeat the types of behavior that they have been exposed to. They often start with minor juvenile offenses and can move on to greater criminal activity down the road.

In addition to the concept of imitation, social learning theory focuses on the resulting social reinforcements that respond to these delinquent behaviors. The response to delinquent activity has a strong effect on whether it continues. If early delinquent activity is rewarded with enhanced social status and the spoils of crime without sufficient negative reinforcements, the delinquency will usually continue. However, when criminality is caught early and discouraged through counseling, reduced social status, and punishment of some sort, it is likely to be curbed.

These theories are not meant to be viewed individually as absolute explanations of the causes of criminal activity. Rather, each provides a partial account of the big picture. Combining theories to devise more in-depth explanations tends to be the most accurate means of explaining both individual crimes and criminality in general. For some criminals, however, other explanations (sociopathy, neurochemical issues, etc.) will hold more accuracy than sociological theories. Still, inevitably, the Chicago School holds that it is simply inaccurate to assume rational choice and the false concept of free will are able to explain behaviors that are continually perpetrated predominantly by the socially and economically disadvantaged.

More about this author: William Menna

From Around the Web