Criminology Theories

III. Types of Integrated Theories

Although integrated theories have a lengthy history, it is only within the last few decades that these theories have been recognized and accepted as purely integrated theories. This section focuses on the descriptions of some of the more commonly recognized integrated theories. Again, it is not the intention of this section to provide detail on all of the integrated theories; instead, the integrated theories identified in the following paragraphs should provide the reader with an understanding of the various types of these theories.

A. Elliott, Ageton, and Canter’s Integrated Theory

In 1979, Delbert Elliott and his colleagues proposed one of the more widely recognized integrated theories (Elliott, Ageton, & Canter, 1979). Borrowing concepts from strain, social learning, and social control theories, they proposed that individuals follow one of two pathways into delinquency. In the first pathway, individuals with lower levels of social control begin interacting with delinquent peers. In this pathway, the reduction in social control allows individuals to associate with other delinquents, experience peer pressure from these peers, and learn how to commit delinquent offenses. In the second pathway, individuals with higher levels of social control at some point experience the failure to achieve positively valued or conventional goals. As a result of this experience, individuals begin associating with delinquent peers, experience peer pressure from these peers, and learn how to commit delinquent offenses. In short, the theory argues that individuals who experience both low and high levels of social control are capable of becoming delinquent. The central variable that plays an important role in delinquent development in both pathways is one’s exposure and commitment to delinquent peers.

It is important to point out that Elliott et al.’s (1979) theory is an integrated theory because it borrows concepts from three reputable theories (strain, social control, and social learning) and articulates how these concepts relate to one another. More specifically, the social control and strain aspects of the theory are not proposed to have direct effects on delinquency; instead, each of these variables operates through the exposure and commitment to delinquent peers. It logically follows that the exclusion of delinquent peers from the theoretical models would limit the theory’s ability to explain delinquent and criminal behavior. Therefore, it is the integration of these three theories that provides the foundation to understand the etiology of crime and delinquency.

B. Thornberry’s Interactional Theory

In 1987, a similar integrated theory was proposed by Terence Thornberry. Much like Elliott and his colleagues (1979), Thornberry borrowed elements from social control and social learning theories; specifically, he proposed in interactional theory that delinquency is primarily a function of individuals associating with delinquent peers. The opportunities to associate with these peers is argued to be the direct result of the weakened social bonds (i.e., social control) experienced as individuals progress through the life course. Unlike Elliott et al., Thornberry excluded any conceptual involvement of strain theory in the advancement of interactional theory.

Two distinguishing features of Thornberry’s (1987) interactional theory set it apart from other integrated theories, in general, and Elliott et al.’s (1979) theory, specifically. First, interactional theory emphasizes the presence of reciprocal effects in the causal structure of the onset of delinquency. Unlike most theories that assume or identify causal pathways in one direction (typically from left to right), interactional theory assumes that important variables within the model possess reciprocal or feedback effects. For example, although weakening social bonds might lead an individual to associate with delinquent peers, it is also theorized that the association with delinquent peers further weakens social bonds. Second, interactional theory places an emphasis on the developmental nature of the etiology of delinquency and crime. In other words, Thornberry articulated a theory that explains the onset, persistence, and desistence of delinquency and alters the importance of the concepts at these various stages of the life course. It is notable that although parental attachments (i.e., social bonds) are important in the explanation of the onset of delinquency early in the life course, these same concepts become relatively weaker in the explanation of the persistence in delinquency as individuals navigate the adolescent period of development.

C. Agnew’s General Strain Theory

In 1992, Robert Agnew recognized that Merton’s traditional strain theory possessed a variety of limitations that restricted the empirical support it received. In so doing, Agnew reconceptualized traditional strain theory into a general strain theory by shifting the focus from social class or cultural variables, capturing the emotion of the situational context in which delinquency and crime develop.

Agnew (1992) began by recognizing three sources of strain an individual can experience over the life course. First, similar to traditional strain theorists, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated failure to achieve positively valued goals as a source of strain. For example, individuals might feel strain because they cannot achieve economic or financial success, or they may not be able to achieve a particular status within high school. Second, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated removal of positively valued stimuli as a potential source of strain. This strain might occur, for example, when individuals experience the death of someone close to them, when an intimate or dating relationship ends, or when someone is terminated from a job he or she enjoyed. The point is that something they coveted has been removed from their life. Finally, Agnew identified the actual or anticipated presentation of negative stimuli as the final source of strain that could be experienced by individuals. Examples of this last source of strain include residing within an abusive household, attending a dangerous school, or working under the supervision of a supervisor who manifests negative or harassing behaviors.

The primary assumption of general strain theory is that as the levels of strain increase, individuals are more likely to engage in delinquency and crime. However, even in the most adverse or stressful situations that may be caused by strain, some individuals are capable of not responding in delinquent or criminal ways. Recognizing this outcome, Agnew (1992) identified several constraints that might condition individual responses to strain. These conditioning variables fall into two categories: (1) conditioning factors that increase the probability of manifesting a delinquent or criminal response and (2) conditioning factors that decrease the probability of manifesting a delinquent or criminal response. In terms of conditioning responses identified to increase delinquent and criminal outcomes, Agnew highlighted important factors, such as self-control, the association with delinquent peers, and the internalization of antisocial beliefs. Alternatively, in terms of conditioning responses identified to reduce delinquent and criminal outcomes, Agnew directed us to factors such as individual coping strategies, the receipt of social supports from others, the presence of social bonds, and the fear of formal sanctions. In short, the conditioning responses are typically important variables from other prominent criminological theories that are integrated into the articulation of general strain theory.

General strain theory is considered an integrated theory for two reasons. First, Agnew effectively integrated social and psychological constructs; that is, socially (or within certain situations), individuals may experience events or circumstance with which they are unfamiliar (i.e., being fired from a job or losing a parent), but psychologically they must somehow respond to this adverse situation. Second, as highlighted in the preceding text, Agnew included a variety of conditioning responses that are “borrowed” from other competing theories. It is at this juncture that theoretical integration is manifested within the general strain theory.

D. Moffitt’s Dual Taxonomy Theory of Offending

In 1993, Terrie Moffitt proposed a theory that not only integrates concepts derived from biology, psychology, and sociology but also approaches the explanation of delinquency and crime from a developmental perspective. Moffitt began by documenting that concealed under the aggregate age–crime curve are two types of offenders. One type of offender, which she called the life-course-persistent offenders, begins offending early in the life course, persists in offending at high levels during adolescence, and continues a life of crime well into adulthood. In other words, stability of behavior is the key to understanding life-course-persistent offending. A second type of offender, which she called the adolescence-limited offenders, begin their offending careers during the adolescent period of development, offend for a short period of time, and desist as they enter into adulthood. Whereas stability is the key to understanding life-course-persistent offending, discontinuity is the key to understanding adolescence-limited offending. With two distinct types of offenders, Moffitt made an argument that each type of offender is in need of its own theoretical explanation.

The theoretical causes of life-course-persistent offending are found very early in the life course. Specifically, Moffitt (1993) suggested that the co-occurrence of individuals being born with neuropsychological deficits and parents failing at their parenting responsibilities creates an increased likelihood that individuals will begin down a pathway of life-course-persistent offending. It should be noted that experiencing either one of these risk factors in isolation is unlikely to set an individual on a life-course-persistent trajectory of offending; instead, it is the interaction of these two factors that increases the odds of following such a pathway of development.

Compared with the life-course-persistent offenders, adolescence-limited offenders are a more prevalent, yet less serious type of offender. Because the onset of offending for adolescence-limited offenders begins in adolescence, Moffitt (1993) identified risk factors during this developmental stage as the precursors to delinquency. Specifically, adolescence-limited offenders are theorized to begin offending as the result of experiencing the maturity gap (i.e., the gap between reaching biological maturity [puberty] and being socially accepted into adult social roles) or modeling behaviors (at a less serious level) of their life-course-persistent counterparts. In short, adolescence-limited offenders begin offending mainly as a result of environmental causes of delinquency.

Each of these theoretical articulations involves integrating biological predispositions with social conditions that accentuate (or permit) the individuals to offend. In short, Moffitt’s (1993) theory (at least the explanation of life-course-persistent offending) is referred to as a biosocial approach, because it proposes that individuals will become serious offenders when those with a biological predisposition to offend are raised in a social environment that fails to correct bad behavior. It is important to note that the possession of either of these variables (i.e., neuropsychological deficits or poor parenting) in isolation is not determinate of life-course-persistent offending; instead, it is the co-occurrence or interaction of these variables that is particularly detrimental to the individual.

E. Cullen’s Social Support Theory

In 1994, Francis T. Cullen, in his presidential address to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, put forth a theory that focused on the impact of social support and its effects on individual and aggregate rates of criminality. Unlike the more traditional integrated theories that identify important factors from different theories and then integrate them into a single theory, Cullen advanced an integrated theory that identifies a common theme that is rooted within a variety of theories at different levels of explanation; that is, he highlighted the importance of social support and its impact in the implication of delinquency and crime. In so doing, he advanced 13 propositions that link social support either implicitly or explicitly to the explanation of crime and delinquency. Instead of articulating each proposition verbatim, the subsequent text presents the propositions in a thematic format.

First, at the macrolevel, Cullen (1994) predicted an inverse relationship between levels of social support and crime in that cities, states, and countries with more social support are identified as having lower rates of delinquency and crime. Second, individuals who receive and/or provide greater levels of social support are less likely to be involved in delinquency and crime. Third, higher levels of social support are theorized to reduce the impact of other criminogenic risk factors (i.e., strain and exposure to deviant peers). Fourth, and related, higher levels of social support correspond with a higher likelihood of desistance from criminal activity. Fifth, increased levels of social support are theorized to correspond with more effective police and correctional agencies. Finally, higher levels of social support result in reduction in the likelihood to be victimized.

Cullen’s (1994) theory of social support is a unique attempt at theoretical integration, because the theory does not subsume several theories under a general theory. Instead, Cullen highlighted how the construct of social support becomes the central causal process within a variety of competing theories. In short, social support has a direct causal effect on crime, it has a direct causal effect on variables theoretically and empirically related to crime (i.e., social control and strain), and it has a conditioning effect on variables related to crime.

F. Tittle’s Control Balance Theory

In 1995, Charles Tittle proposed an integrated theory known as control balance theory, which attempts to advance traditional control-based theories that proposed that the breakdown in controls (regardless of their source) would lead to delinquency and crime. In doing so, the focus turns to understanding how an individual’s control ratio can predict the likelihood and type of deviance.

In terms of the likelihood or probability of deviance, control balance theory recognizes that individuals are controlled (like most traditional control-based theories), but it also recognizes that individuals exercise control over other individuals. Therefore, the theory predicts that the probability and type of deviance depend on the amount of control to which an individual one is subject relative to the amount of control he or she can exercise over others. In situations where there is control balance (i.e., equal amounts of control within the control balance equation), the probability of deviance is close to or equal to zero. As the control ratio becomes imbalanced (moving in either direction away from being balanced), however, then the individual’s probability of involvement in deviance, delinquency, and crime increases.

Control imbalance can occur in one of two directions. First, as an individual’s control ratio becomes imbalanced in the direction of having more control over others (relative to the amount others have over him or her), and then the individual experiences a control surplus. On the other hand, as the control ratio moves in the opposite direction (being subject to greater levels of control than the individual has over others), the individual experiences a control deficit. In either case, the further one moves toward the extremes of control surplus or control deficit, the more likely he or she will be to participate in deviance, delinquency, and crime.

In an effort to theoretically explain the types of behavior in which an individual will engage, Tittle (1995) again relied on the control ratio. It is theorized that individuals experiencing a control deficit engage in behaviors that are likely to adjust their control ratio back to control balance. Tittle identified three broad categories of behavior that are likely to be manifested by individuals experiencing a control deficit: (1) predatory acts, (2) defiant acts, and (3) submissive acts. Alternatively, individuals experiencing a control surplus engage in behaviors that are likely to accentuate (or further advance) their surplus of control. Again, Tittle identified three broad categories of behavior that are likely to be manifested by individuals experiencing a control surplus: (1) acts of exploitation, (2) acts of decadence, and (3) acts of plunder.

Control balance theory is considered an integrated theory because it captures two important themes related to control and integrates them into a single theoretical explanation of delinquency and crime. Whereas other integrated theories rely on control-based theories as a source of integration, no other criminological theory relies on both mechanisms of the control process to predict delinquent or criminal involvement.

G. Colvin’s Differential Coercion Theory

In 2000, Mark Colvin advanced an integrated theory that shifted the focus from an explanation of the etiology of delinquency and crime to the explanation of chronic offending. Using the concept of coercion as the organizing theoretical construct, Colvin argued that chronic offenders suffer from a variety of social and psychological dynamics brought on by destructive coercive forces.

Colvin (2000) began with the premise that social control has multiple dimensions. The first dimension is the degree of coercion in how the social control is applied. Although there is sure to be a continuum, Colvin provided a typology with two outcomes: (1) noncoercive and (2) coercive. The second dimension is the degree of consistency with which the social control is applied. Again, Colvin provided two potential outcomes to this dimension: (1) consistent and (2) erratic. Combining the elements of coercion and consistency in the application of social control, Colvin created a 2 x 2 matrix with four possible outcomes. Type 1 is identified as noncoercive consistent control, Type 2 is identified as noncoercive erratic control, Type 3 is identified as coercive consistent control, and Type 4 is identified as coercive erratic control.

Colvin (2000) argued that each type of control has its own set of social-psychological outcomes that manifest themselves into behavioral differences. Social-psychological outcomes for Type 1 (noncoercive, consistent) include low anger, high self-efficacy, high self-control, and an internal locus of control. Individuals within Type 1 will also manifest a strong predisposition to behave prosocially and a low probability of criminal behavior. Turning to Type 2 (noncoercive, erratic) social-psychological outcomes, Colvin noted that these individuals will have low anger, high self-efficacy, low self-control, and an internal locus of control. In terms of how these outcomes are translated to behaviors, Colvin predicted that these individuals will have a predisposition for minor nonpredatory street and white-collar crime and a strong tendency to explore deviant pleasures. Individuals identified to correspond with Type 3 (coercive, consistent) social-psychological outcomes are expected to possess high self-directed anger, low self-efficacy, rigid self-control, and an external locus of control. The behavioral outcomes associated with this category include a low probability of prosocial behavior, a predisposition toward mental illness, and some potential for enraged assault or homicide. Finally, social-psychological outcomes for Type 4 (coercive, erratic) include high self-directed anger, low self-efficacy, low self-control, and an external locus of control. Colvin predicted that these individuals will have a predisposition for serious predatory street crime and a strong probability of chronic offending.

In short, Colvin’s (2000) differential coercion theory predicts that coercion leads to social-psychological deficits that translate to consistently disruptive behavioral outcomes. It is expected that these coercive relations can emerge within a variety of environments, including, but not limited to, the home, school, workplace, peer groups, and state bureaucracies. It is also expected that individuals may experience an accumulation of coercion that has been distributed from more than one environment. This accumulation of coercion is expected to further increase the probability of the individual engaging in criminal behavior over the life course.

In terms of the relevance of differential coercion theory as an integrated theory, it should be highlighted that Colvin (2000) relied on the concept of social control and how it is applied to predict several reputable social-psychological outcomes present within extant theory. In so doing, an integrated theory is created that draws on how well-defined social constructs and their influence on social-psychological processes lead to delinquent and criminal behavior.