Chicago School of Criminology

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Criminological theories attempt to make sense of why people commit crimes and why they react the way they do in certain situations. There is no one theory that can, by itself, completely explain criminal behavior. Instead, the best explanation for deviance can be found by using a variety of theories. The Chicago School of criminology proposed social structure theories as a means of moving beyond the ideas of the born criminal and free will used by classical criminologists. Instead of focusing on the individual, social structure theories consider that people are influenced by social interactions and other environmental forces around them.

According to social structure theories, a person’s socioeconomic status is a good predictor of whether or not a person will commit a crime. The basis for these theories is the goals individuals set for themselves and the resources and opportunities they have to attain them. Social structure theory also looks at why some people commit crimes while others in the same or similar situations do not.

Social Disorganization Theory

The Social disorganization theory is used as a means of explaining differences in crime rates in urban areas. It holds that it is not the motives of the criminal that lead to crime but rather social decay or a lack of social controls. The transient environment and prevalent poverty coupled with the constant inflow of people into urban areas leads to a breakdown of church, school, family and other social organizations. When these become weakened, they are no longer able to serve their intended purpose of social conformity. Residents become less vested in community activities and begin turning their attention toward leaving the area.

 Once the traditional values break down, gangs and other deviant groups begin to form. The result is that of the conventional values being replaced by a new set of values. As these criminal groups grow and thrive, they inspire criminal behavior among other members of the community. A large number of young people will mature and turn their attention to that of raising a family but there are some who continue a life of crime.

Differential Association Theory

The premise of differential association theory is that criminal behavior is not inherent but rather it is learned through interactions with others. This learning occurs within intimate personal groups which have the most influence on how a person interprets what is going on around them. From the intimate groups, the individual learns the drives, attitudes, and rationalizations of criminality that can be either simple or complex and are learned from the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable. If a person has an excess of favorable definitions, they are less likely to commit a crime. Likewise, if the unfavorable definitions are dominant, they are more likely to commit crimes.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory is based upon learning or imitation of deviant behavior. According to this theory learning is possible through observation of another person's behavior and attitudes. By watching the behaviors of others, a person forms an idea of how to perform new behaviors and stores the information for later use as a guide for action.

 If a child grows up watching their parents or other important people in their life engage in criminal activity, they will most likely consider this behavior normal and imitate it. The earlier a person is exposed to deviant behavior, the higher the chances that they will imitate the behavior. This typically begins with minor juvenile offenses and moves to bigger crimes later. Social learning theory acknowledges that a learned behavior will not always result in a changed behavior. A criminal act may be a single occurrence. However, if the delinquent behavior is rewarded, it may continue. If the behavior is caught early and is rewarded with punishment and other negative consequences, it can be stopped.

Just as there is no single type of criminal, there is no single theory that will explain why people commit crimes and other deviant acts. Each of these theories is but a smaller piece of a bigger picture. Perhaps the best explanation for crime can be found by combining different theories. Still, for some there are other explanations that lend more insight into why people behave as they do. Even so, the Chicago School of criminology contends that it is inaccurate to ignore the influence of environmental factors and rely solely on the idea of free will when it comes to explaining crime.


Schmalleger, F. (2009). Social structure theories. In Criminology Today: An intergrative Introduction (5th edition) (pp. 260-278). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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