Criminal Careers

II. Theory

Some of criminology’s major theories make assumptions, directly or indirectly, about specialization. These statements about specialization and generality in offending patterns derive from the positions that theories take on both criminals and criminal events. In contemporary criminology, two separate bodies of theory hold viewpoints on the existence and nature of specialization in offending. On the one hand, general theories that make few distinctions among offenders in terms of type and the explanation of behavior suggest that offenders do not specialize in particular offenses. Alternatively, taxonomic perspectives of criminal careers that make distinctions among offenders are more accepting of the idea that there may be qualitative differences in offending patterns.

In the general theory of crime, offending is viewed as only one of a host of activities undertaken in pursuit of short-term pleasure or gain at the expense of potential long-term consequences (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). One of its fundamental propositions is that offenders have low levels of self-control, and this leads them to engage in a variety of criminal offenses. Thus, the theory suggests that there should be no discernable patterns of offenses. Criminal acts are seen as providing the potential immediate gains that will be attractive to those who have lower levels of self-control (Britt, 1994). Therefore, in the view of these theorists, offenders are unlikely to demonstrate specialization as this short-term, pleasure-seeking orientation will manifest itself in a variety of distinct deviant activities across different situations and shifting life circumstances. An offender who commits auto theft one week might get involved with a physical fight the next or commit another auto theft. The specific nature of the deviant behavior is likely to arise mainly out of the opportunities presented to the offender and will not reflect a coherent pattern of offending within a particular type.

The criminal career paradigm, outlined by Blumstein and colleagues (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986), suggests that, in addition to onset, continuance, and desistance in offending, the qualitative issue of offense type is also worthy of focus. In short, this framework focuses on individual-level variation in offending over time, arguing that such patterns are worthy of empirical investigation and, potentially, theoretical explanation. The issue of specialization represents one such area of study. Criminal career researchers believe that there may be certain groups of offenders who warrant distinct behavioral explanations and may require some sort of specialized treatment or intervention. For example, there may be a group of serious, generalized offenders who engage in a lifelong pattern of antisocial behavior and will engage in a variety of deviant activities. This reflects the small group of serious, chronic offenders that are often identified in studies focused on criminal behavior in general populations (e.g., Wolfgang’s Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study; see Wolfgang, Figlio, & Sellin, 1972). On the other hand, it is possible that certain individuals tend to engage in less serious deviant behavior during adolescence only and desist from that behavior as they near adulthood. This is the premise of Moffitt’s (1993) taxonomy of antisocial behavior, which provides an example of a theory that outlines subgroups of offenders that may be distinct in terms of the manner and origin of their behavior. For example, Moffitt’s adolescent-limited offenders may specialize in relatively more benign forms of antisocial behavior (e.g., status offenses, substance use), while life-course persistent offenders commit an array of offenses over a longer period of time.

The criminal career view of distinctions in offender type has been criticized by proponents of more general views of crime and criminals. Such criticism extends even to the use of the term career, which implies some coherent pattern of behavior (Gibbons, 1988). Osgood (2005) summarizes this discussion in terms of the emphasis on generality and explanatory simplicity as a means of advancing understanding versus the criminal career alternative that looks at a series of specific benchmarks (e.g., onset, persistence) and considers individual differences in those properties. Specialization and versatility in offending represent one such parameter. The discussion also presents an issue for further consideration in terms of understanding the nature of criminal behavior. Consequently, the question of specialization serves as a touchstone for criminologists who hold different views regarding the nature and etiology of criminal behavior.

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