Criminology Theories

V. Critiques of Integrated Theories

Although integrated theories have been important in providing an arguably more complex, yet complete, understanding of the causes of delinquency and crime over the life course, they are not without their limitations. To place these limitations into context one needs only draw on the literature documenting the characteristics of a “good” or “effective” theory. This section identifies and elaborates on some of the criticisms waged against integrated theories.

First, some scholars have claimed that some of the components of theories used in theoretical integration are based on opposing or competing assumptions. For example, a foundational assumption of social-control-based theories is that involvement in delinquency and crime is natural and thus individuals do not need any simplistic or elaborate means through which to learn the behavior. On the other hand, a foundational assumption of social learning theories is that individuals can manifest the behavior only once they have participated in a process through which the behavior was learned. Integrated theories that have used components of each of those two theories (i.e., Elliott et al.’s [1979] integrated theory and Thornberry’s [1987] interactional theory) have endured extensive scrutiny as to which of those two assumptions prevails in the theory’s development. It is clear that both of those assumptions cannot be true, because assuming one denies the existence of the other.

Second, the rise in theoretical integration is based on somewhat questionable assumptions. For example, compared with the approach of theoretical competition to advance scientific knowledge, some scholars argue that integrating criminological theories will result in the advancement of knowledge about the causes of delinquency and crime at an exceedingly faster rate. This assumption, however, is relatively shaky at best. Scholars have argued that theoretical competition is superior because it forces theorists to search for innovative ways of developing theoretical models.

Third, and related, theoretical integration, if not carried out carefully and thoughtfully, could potentially lead to sloppy theorizing. The integration of concepts into a theoretical framework must make logical and intuitive sense. If concepts are integrated only because they have been found to be strong predictors in isolated theories, then scholars risk jeopardizing theoretical parsimony, at best, and confounding theoretical principles, at worst. To provide an analogy, if individuals chose food from a buffet only because it was tastefully delicious without giving thought to whether the food was healthy, then individuals sacrifice a well-rounded, nutritionally balanced meal. In short, although integrated theories have been helpful in providing an arguably more complete understanding of the causes of delinquency and crime, their complexity makes them susceptible to a variety of potential limitations.

VI. Conclusion

This research paper has not explored all of the sources or types of theoretical integration. In fact, a school of integration that is more eclectically based and approaches theoretical integration from a constructivist and postmodern stance was not discussed. The purpose of this exclusion is not because of an absence of scholarly interest in these approaches within the criminological community; instead, the exclusion is primarily based on the necessity to offer readers a variety of the testable modernist approaches that have at their focus a vision of the application of deterministic approaches to understanding the development of delinquency and crime.

It is often recognized that the world in which we live is becoming increasingly complex, and future generations face challenges unlike those that were faced by our predecessors. It should logically follow that the increasing complexity potentially impacts the causes of delinquency and crime by further opening up new fields of inquiry and recognizing and reconsidering the impact of risk factors from a variety of sources. Coexisting with the changes in society is a growth in the complexity of the theoretical articulations attempting to explain delinquency and crime. Although traditional theories have approached the development of theories within an intradisciplinary fashion or from a single level of inquiry (i.e., macro vs. micro), more recent theoretical attempts have integrated concepts from a variety of disciplines, at multiple levels, and have recognized the reciprocal nature of relationships between concepts.

The development of integrated theories has primarily relied on concepts within sociological criminology to provide an integrative foundation; that is, many of the integrated theories listed in this research paper (and those not listed) have generally had a strong reliance on concepts germane to learning and control theories while having secondarily relied on strain theories. On one level, these efforts demonstrate the field of criminology’s strong 20th-century tradition of limiting the causes of delinquency and crime to factors existing within the environment. As the field of criminology has matured, however, a significant emphasis has more recently been placed on integrating theories across disciplines. Isolating components of biological and psychological determinism and theoretically explicating how these factors could potentially interact with or become accentuated within the environment in which we live has proved to have a profound effect on the explanation of delinquency and crime over the life course. Moffitt’s (1993) work is perhaps the most blatant example of this type of interdisciplinary theoretical integration.

In closing, it is expected that future efforts at theoretical integration will continue to cross disciplinary boundaries, include multiple levels of analysis, and rely on more advanced statistical and methodological tools to impact the testability of the theory. It is hoped that future integrated theories are capable of capitalizing on the complexities and nuances that are experienced within an individual’s daily life. The increased precision associated with the refinement of existing, and the development of future, integrated theories, are likely to result in theoretical and empirical validity associated with the explication of delinquency and crime.

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