IX. Explaining Robbery
Understanding robbery patterns and the motivations of robbers through a single theory is unlikely to be fruitful, as the phenomenon operates on many levels and involves many questions. It may be most useful to consider different elements of the robbery and apply theories about crime, offender actions, and choices to different analytical questions. For example, one might consider how robbery is distributed in terms of rates of robberies across neighborhoods. Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) opportunity theory is beneficial in that it helps to understand how robberies come to be distributed in the poorest neighborhoods. That theory posits that crime will be distributed in relation to the availability of legitimate means to attain success in society. More simply, in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and economic mobility out of poverty seems to be a remote possibility, one would expect to find higher rates of robbery. This results from such places having the lowest level of legitimate opportunities, and therefore robbery becomes a plausible illicit opportunity for success.
Social disorganization theory offers a similar perspective. This theory argues that neighborhoods with high poverty and population heterogeneity tend to lack strong, informal social control. Social disorganization theory may be useful for understanding how robbery distributions across geographic space are associated with larger structural dynamics in society. In sum, one may expect to find higher robbery rates in neighborhoods with fewer legitimate opportunities and with lower levels of social control. Overall, such theories help explain why robbery is more concentrated in some places when compared with others.
In terms of explaining how individuals come to be involved in robbery, those theories that address individual traits such as low self-control, or differential association theory, are probably most useful for understanding how one initiates and maintains a robbery career. With regard to traits such as low self-control, it is argued that a trait established in childhood, that could be considered similar to impulsiveness, is linked to offending when combined with opportunities. Thus, robbers, described in ethnographies as those who seek a “fast living” and who tend to not dwell on the long-term consequences in favor of short-term gratification, would likely fit the bill as having low self-control. Similarly, differential association is essentially a learning theory that argues that humans learn their behaviors, even criminal ones. Thus, one might expect that robbery tactics and behaviors could be transferred across individuals. Both of these theories might help to account for individuals who choose to become involved in robberies—one by arguing that individual traits such as low self-control or impulsiveness make robbery an activity that is acceptable to the individual, and the other by arguing that one must learn how to conduct a robbery from peers or mentors.
A very different question that one may pose is this: What targets do robbers choose, and why do they choose them? With respect to target choices, routine activities theory and ideas from situational crime prevention are very useful for understanding robbers’ behaviors, especially those of commercial robbers. Routine activities theory relies on three elements: absence of capable guardians, suitable targets for committing a crime, and motivated offenders. Routine activities theory, as applied to convenience stores, suggests that one can increase capable guardianship (through surveillance) and reduce the suitability of the target (less cash in the till advertised), and thereby reduce the likelihood of being chosen as a robbery target. Evidence from security researchers and criminologists points to the fact that, indeed, increasing surveillance around a business reduces the opportunity for surprise, and decreasing the money in the till decreases the reward and thus reduces the risk of robbery. Manipulation of risks by changing the environmental features, such as lowering shelf height to increase visibility and staffing stores with multiple clerks, is an additional example of tactics that reduce the likelihood that a robber will choose a particular target for a robbery.
A final area where one might consider theory useful for understanding robbery is the victim–offender encounter itself. This is probably best understood as a contest of coercive power in which injury, resistance, and completion of the event could all be outcomes of interest in the context of the robbery transaction. Social interactionist theory, for example, would be useful for understanding why robbers choose guns but tend to not use physical force. In the context of this theory, the gun represents overwhelming coercive power and reduces the need to do more than verbalize the threatening potential to gain compliance from the victim. Conversely, unarmed robbers are less likely to be perceived as having overwhelming coercive power, and therefore they may be less apt to complete a robbery and more likely to use physical force since they need to convince the victim that they can coerce them into compliance.