Criminology Theories

II. History, Rationale, and Methods of Integrating Theories

The history of integrated theories can be traced back to the work of Cesare Lombroso, who in the late 1800s and early 1900s refined his earlier work on the criminal man and argued that a complete understanding of crime and delinquency requires that we account for biological, psychological, and sociological variables. Despite Lombroso’s assertions, most theorizing in criminology over the first half of the 20th century focused primarily on the influence that the environment (i.e., sociology) had on the explanation of delinquency and crime.

In the latter half of the 20th century, and in partial response to the growing literature documenting that some theories explained some delinquent and criminal behavior some of the time, scholars began integrating theories in hopes of providing a more complete picture of why individuals violate the law. To achieve this, they began by first isolating the variables that received support across theories and, second, formulating relationships among these variables. As such, theoretical integration is more than just borrowing concepts from a variety of theories; it is the elaboration of how these concepts influence (and are influenced) by the remaining concepts.

During the past three decades, we have arguably observed the most significant growth in the development of integrated theories. The more recent approaches continue to draw primarily on factors within the environment (i.e., family and peers); however, efforts have also been made to integrate theoretical constructs from other disciplines (i.e., biology and psychology). The result of these efforts has been a variety of integrated theories that have received an increasing level of empirical attention and that have provided a baseline of knowledge from which future integrated theories could expand.

After recognizing that theoretical integration is simply one form of theorizing, what becomes a logical question of concern is whether theoretical integration is a more useful method of theoretical growth. As new theories continue to emerge and offer a unique perspective on the explanation of crime and delinquency, opportunities to integrate these theories will follow. The most promising and recognized alternative to theoretical growth in this regard is often referred to theoretical competition; that is, including constructs of two or more competing theories and examining which one makes more logical sense and receives greater empirical support. It remains to be seen whether theoretical competition and theoretical integration will continue to coexist as methods of theoretical growth.

Because there is no perfect way to develop a theory of delinquency and crime, there is also no perfect way to develop an integrated theory. In fact, there exists a variety of strategies to develop an integrated theory. For example, one such strategy is referred to as the end-to-end approach, whereby scholars combine theories while taking into account the temporal ordering of the variables included within the theory. This method allows variables to act both as causes (independent variables) as well as effects (dependent variables). A second strategy, referred to as the side-by-side approach, partitions cases of delinquency and crime into theories that are best at offering an explanation. For instance, one might want to use characteristics of deviants (i.e., race, class, age, and gender) or characteristics of deviance (i.e., violent crime, property crime, and drug crime) as points where partitioning makes intuitive sense. The subsequent process would be to integrate a variety of theoretical constructs to best explain the cases in each of these empirical typologies. Finally, up-and-down integration (also known as deductive integration) is accomplished by identifying a unique level of abstraction that will allow the incorporation of other theories. For example, portions of Theory B can be subsumed into Theory A because the latter contains more abstract or general assumptions about why a particular behavior exists. Although these three methods do not account for all types of integrated theories, they are arguably the methods on which theoreticians typically rely when combining theories.

In short, it is apparent that multiple methods exist to integrate the constructs of various theories into a uniquely integrative theoretical approach. The purpose of the next section is to offer insight into the many different integrated theories that have emerged over the past two to three decades.