Sample Essay on Criminological Theories

Criminological theories


Criminology is the scientific study of the causes of crime. Criminology studies are guided by several theories mainly from sociology; biology and psychology fields. The scientific study of the causes of delinquency and crime has been historically guided by theories. A study conducted by Weisburd, Groff & Yang (2012) reveals that the rate of crime in the current world is rising by the days, partly due to technological advancements and globalization. The authors describe the criminal activities as a threat to the social, economic and political development of the society. It is thus crucial for governments to formulate and implement measures that help control criminal activities. Particularly, it is important to consider the causes of crime in the society so as to develop effective strategies to control the same. In this study, different social disorganization and cultural deviance theories are discussed, with an aim of developing knowledge about criminology.

First, the study begins with a brief summary of the book the code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city by Elijah Anderson. The paper notes the main points discussed in the text. Second, the study critically discusses three criminological theories including Agnew’s general strain theory, Concentric Zone Theory and Institutional Anomie Theory in relation to Elijah Anderson’s book, the code of the street. Third, the study provides a critical analysis of behaviors discussed in Anderson’s book, applying the Institutional Anomie Theory. Finally, the study provides a brief and comprehensive review of the major points highlighted in the paper.

 The code of the street

Anderson (2000) examines and discusses the standard of living in Down Town German Town Avenue in Philadelphia. The author discusses the inner city African American and the norms that led them to be impoverished. He applies two theories; Agnew’s General Strain Theory and Institutional Anomie Theory to explain the tough situation of the inner city African American. Below are the key characteristics of the inner-city African American as discussed in the book.


The author discovered that the more he went towards the inner city; the neighborhood became tougher, more rough and impoverished. The inner city is characterized by aggression and interpersonal conflicts, which make the environment unsafe. Explaining the cause of criminal behavior in the region, Anderson cites that the nature of environment where individuals are brought up greatly influences their behavior.

Rules and Norms

According to the author’s findings, there is a ‘code of the street’ depending on the part of the German town one is living and especially in the impoverished areas. The language, mode of dressing, walking style, among other characterizes the people living in those areas.

Lack of confidence in social control system

People in these low classes do not trust the judicial system and the police therefore they are left to solve social problems on their own street ways. They feel that the judicial system and police are prejudiced towards them. In most of these areas, the inner-city street life is characterized with high levels of crime, something that the police find it difficult to tackle. In fact, the culture code in these places makes it difficult for law enforcement. Most of the people feel that their state of livelihood has been caused by the government and the law enforcement authorities.

Classification of the people

The people in this area can be classified into decent and street people. Decent people are older and very positive with life. They believe hard work can enable them live a decent life same as the middle class white society. Street people on the other hand are mostly unemployed and believe racial discrimination is to blame. Most of the street parents are addicted to drugs and cannot take care of their kids, something that makes it difficult for proper upbringing of children. There is no close supervision of the younger children because of their addiction to drugs. As the parents indulge in drugs, decent people work hard to keep their children at school. They also control activities of their children in order to avoid bad company on the street.

Code switching

Learning the code of street is very important especially by the decent people. This helps them in learning the survival tactics on the street and protects them from the Street people. Schools and other social areas such as parks are the main areas kids from decent people learn the street code from. Street life pushes the people to adopt a certain lifestyle. In most cases, peer influence plays a major role into recruiting others into the street life.

Violence and drugs

Lack of blue collar working jobs results to drugs selling. Drugs sellers earn a lot of money and hence command respect in the community. Violence is inevitable in drug trade. It is a form of social control in drug trade. Drug traders would do anything to protect their business including murder. It is apparent that drugs and violence go hand in hand, something that affects the day to day operations of the people in the neighborhood.


Unlike in normal conventional society, the men in this setting command respect to their peer by having as many sexual relations as possible. Women want to have stable families but men wouldn’t settle down because they do not have jobs. This causes a lot of strain.


With a strong and effective social control system, such as the police and judicial system, positive change is experienced. For example, former criminals get out of prison changed people and live decent lives away from crime.

Social Disorganization and Cultural Deviance Theories

Concentric Zone Theory

The theory suggests that the social structure extends outwards from the central business district (CBD). The lower classes live closer to the city while the upper classes settle farther away from the city Centre. The inner-city housing is largely occupied by immigrants and people of low economic status. The theory states that people in the inner city (mostly immigrants) experience the most anomie and discrimination and thus struggle in adapting to the stresses and demands of their new society, in this case, the African Americans. According to this theory, crime is more prevalent in the inner city due to the breakdown of institutional and community-based controls such as schools and religion. This results to unemployment, disintegration of family life, low wages, among others. These factors lead to social disorganization and chaos in the community. Crime thrives in such environment as people try to substitute for what the society have failed to provide for them.

Anderson (2000) explains the various zones in the Inner City, indicating that as one approaches Germantown Avenue, the area is high affluent, nice and peaceful. There are few African American is this side of the town. However, as one approaches the inner-city the neighborhood seems rough, less wealthy and with more African American. The neighborhood is characterized by unemployed youth, drug addicts and poor housing. One of reasons for inhabiting the Inner City is the proximity to the town in order to do menial jobs available. At the same time, the younger generation find themselves adapting to the street life and the chaos that comes with it. On the other hand, the upper-class citizens tend to inhabit suburb areas that are away from the CBD because they can easily afford the transport. Probably, all these people have means of transport they can use to and from their work places. On the same note, they may not like the noise and the chaotic neighborhood.

However, the life within the street family neighborhood seems to be the reason for the kind of life that involves drugs. According to Anderson (2000), street families struggle with life on a daily basis, but unfortunately, mainly relying on the crime in order to survive. The inner-city life is majorly characterized by some disorganization, limited resources and lack of well-paying jobs. The frustrations of life by these people lead to addiction towards alcohol, crack and crime. Women in these who live in the inner city are also not spared such addictions that include involvement in complicated relationships with men who abuse them. In fact, the people associated with street inner city life are considered low life, a bother and bad influence to their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Anderson (2000) talks of some decent people who still live with the street people within the same neighborhoods; these are the people who feel the impact of the crime by the street people.

Anderson (2000) gives an example of Joe Dickens who is a thirty-two-year man with three children- two girls and a boy. He lives in a house who is not well- maintained while spending most of his time playing loud rap music, drinking alcohol and partying the whole day and night. Apparently, her wife had left him after an addiction to crack, something that led her to prostitution to help her get money to maintain the habit. According to his neighbors, Joe seems to be conducting some unusual business in his house, going by the many visitors who flock inside the house for partying. Other than the loud music that has become a nuisance to the neighbors and the drug dealings, Joe seems to be neglecting the young children by allowing them to play on the streets without proper supervision. These children are also joined by some other children from the neighborhood for games on the streets without adult supervision. In fact, sometimes they are told to wait outside of the house as the father makes some secret dealings in the house. However, it goes without saying Joe’s children observe most of the happenings in their house. These children are learning how life should from within their house, a life that they will adopt as they approach adulthood.

This is an important story because it shows the kind of life brought about by staying in the inner city where street life in normal. The life led by such people is majorly characterized by crime and chaos. First, Joe’s wife has decided to abandon her family to the streets; nevertheless, the husband also does drugs and keeps disturbing the neighborhood with his loud music and visitors who come in at odd hours. The neighbors who seem ‘decent’ are afraid of making a confrontation because they are afraid of what Joe is capable of doing. This illustration justifies Concentric Zone Theory, which suggests the low-class people occupy the inner city while the organized and decent ones live away from the city. The inner-city life is characterized by the crowded neighborhood where misbehavior of one person affects the whole neighborhood. The same neighborhood encourages crime and drug abuse. Crime is a factor of environment and as Concentric Zone Theory proposes, it is less likely to register crime in the suburbs or single family units.

Strain Theory (Merton)

This theory states that crime is as a result of the conflict between the goals people have and the means they can use to legally obtain them. While goals are the same, the ability to obtain these goals is class dependent. The lower class feels anger, frustration and resentment which are referred to as strain. These people can either accept their condition and live out their days as socially responsible but un-rewarded citizens, or they can choose an alternative means of achieving success, such as theft, violence or drug trafficking. According to strain theory by Agnew, there are three manifestations of strain including “strain as a failure to achieve positively valued goals, strain as removal of positively valued stimuli, and strain as presentation of negative stimuli”.

People have dreams they seek to achieve in life, either for themselves or their children. The American society has been modeled in a way that success only comes to the person who works hard. Therefore, people are busy doing everything to ensure that they achieve success in the society. In America, money and properties play an important role in defining success in a person’s life. These are the motivation for the people, irrespective of their status to wake up and find something to do. To the low-class neighborhood like that presented by Anderson in his book. However, the low-class people have to work extra hard in order to make ends meet, sometimes by taking more than one jobs. Unfortunately, it becomes a problem to those households that cannot afford to meet the goals. The required component that drives people towards achieving their goals is education; meaning that lack of education is likely to cause more frustrations on people.

Strain Theory (Merton) works to explain some of the reasons for the increased crime in mow class neighborhoods. Anderson notes that most of the families living across the streets lack basic education with majority having failed to complete high school. Therefore, lack of education seems to be a major contributor towards crimes because many of the children in these neighborhoods are taken to public schools where they are faced with numerous challenges like suspensions and expulsions from the school. Many of these children join their buddies in selling crack and other drugs. In Anderson’s The Code of the Streets, gives numerous stories of parents who work tirelessly to ensure a brighter future for their children. There are numerous challenges, especially from other children in their neighborhood to join in the vices; however, some children manage to avoid bad influence.

Unfortunately, the strains become too much, people still want to achieve their goals, through any means available; this is where the problems begin. Majority of the low class black neighborhoods are full of teenagers and adults who engage in crime on a daily basis in order to survive. Many of the young people have no education to help them secure stable jobs, thus leading to their lack of jobs. These people have no option but to engage in petty crime in order to make ends meet. What come out in Anderson’s work is the increased use and selling of drugs by the teenagers because it offers quick money that may not be found easily through other methods. Because money is the best indicator of success in the society, crime and drug abuse increases because people have to overcome certain strains in place.

A good illustration from the text is Angela’s story. She gets addicted to Cocaine and end up on the street due to the strain. Angela’s mother was a decent person, religious and wanted the best for her daughter. Angela felt pressured to achieve middle class goals of financial freedom, competition and individuality. However, this was in conflict with the environment she was living in whereby the use of drugs such as marijuana was considered a norm (removal of positively valued stimuli). Angela was also strained due to some negative stimuli such as the fact that she grew up without a father and also lack of a permanent home.

Angela’s story offers an important example of some of the strains that may block a person from achieving goals. Angela had very good intentions of ensuring success in life; however, she is overwhelmed by the numerous challenges she faces.  Therefore, Angela easily slips into drug abuse because of the negative influence of the environment. Nothing seems to offer any positive stimuli to help her work towards achieving her goals in life of being successful and becoming a middle class. The American Dream is one of the factors that drive numerous people to work hard and be judged by the society as being successful. On the contrary, it remains that most people have failed to achieve this stage of life in America, leading to the disillusionment by people. Those who fail to achieve the American Dream, in most cases. Hold to the fact that other people must pay for their upkeep, through whichever way. This is where crime becomes a lifestyle by the younger generations who fail to go school and adopting street life.

Institutional Anomie Theory

Messner & Rosenfeld links the source of crime to culture and social organization. Culture is defined by aspects such as beliefs, norms and goals. Within the context of culture, criminal activities are brought about the strong desire by individuals to achieve the set goals. The social structures on the other hand refer to the organization of people in social institutions. According to the theory, both culture and social structures play a vital role in understanding crime in the society. The theory holds that high crime rates are brought about by the inability of social institutions to control the aggression of individuals to pursue their economic goals. Among the factors that motivate individuals to pursue economic goals is the American Dream, an ideology that encourages people to work towards success regardless of their current economic or social status.

It is sad to note that the American society has been left regulate itself, leading to the disillusionment and the disintegration of the social fabrics. This is like the common market forces that are left to balance accordingly. In the current society, unless a person gets empowerment from other quarters, it is difficult to make it though, in terms of achieving life goals. The general perception assumes that those who do not have the ability to achieve their goals are lazy. In effect, there seems to be some disconnect between people who have been empowered to achieve their goals versus those with little abilities to do so. However, is prudent to appreciate the American society for the individual optimism it offers to the citizens. Every person is guaranteed success as long as there a will to work hard enough towards a certain life goal.

Institutional Anomie Theory advanced by Messner & Rosenfeld presents certain positive and negative consequences in the society. As mentioned above, positive influences include the ability for individuals to set goals and achieve their life dreams, irrespective of their backgrounds, in the process contributing to the growth of economy. The US economic growth can be attributed to the hard work by individual persons in the country; everybody does something towards individual growth while contributing to the general economic development. However, the theory has led to the increased individualism and neglect of the social fabrics that help control behaviors. Socialization aspect of life how it contributes to development has been neglected, leading to the lawlessness in the society. On the same note, there is less attention to the social order, something that has led to failure of the law enforcement on the deviant behaviors in the society. Crime has increased because people who live in the ghetto fail to catch up with the American dream; nevertheless, they have to make ends meet. They therefore, resort to crime and drug trafficking.

A story is given by Anderson in his work of various people in the low class black neighborhood who resign to their fate of helplessness because they lack a way out of their conditions. On the same note, it seems that the African American neighborhood is characterized by a situation where violence and lack of morality is the code on the streets. It becomes very difficult. It has become difficult for a number of young people to complete school in order to lead decent lives, bringing a situation where young people resort to a culture of living on the streets, terrorizing other people.

Critical Analysis of Criminology Theories

In his opinion, Anderson (2000) explains that culture plays the most influential role in determining the behavior of individuals. Based on the ethnographic study of the youth in America, the author associates delinquency to cultural influence. The inner city where the study is conducted has a high crime rate, which is associated with a culture that tolerates violent behavior. In the region, one is expected to pay violence with an equal measure because conflict avoidance is viewed as a sign of weakness. The primary issue with obeying the rules or the culture of the people is that it affects the future of the young population. The young people grow up believing that violence is the most effective way to solve issues and this only makes the level of crime in the Inner City uncontrollable. In addition to interpersonal conflicts, the society conditions the youth to be disrespectful and this affects the ability of the social institutions to control the high rate of crime in the society.

The argument by Anderson (2000) about the link between culture and crime is consistent with the theory of institutional anomie. The approach holds that cultural pressure is the primary motive that leads individuals to commit crimes as they strive to fit in the society. Based on the institutional theory approach, it is clear that the behavior of the young people at the Inner City is influenced by the cultural values that the society holds. The young population yearns to be rich and to accomplish their economic goals, regardless of the means used to achieve the goals. This explains why the youth are involved in criminal activities such as drug-related murders and burglary. The primary issue with the desire by the youth to achieve economic success is the nature of national economy. Majority of the young individuals cannot secure decent jobs because of the high rate of unemployment in the Inner City.

Messner, Thome & Rosenfeld (2008) reveal that the high unemployment rate is among the factors that frustrate the efforts of individuals to achieve economic success. A survey conducted by Ajimotokin, Haskins & Wade (2015) indicates that the rate of unemployment in the United States and other nations across the world is increasing by the days, leading to increased crime rates. The survey reports that the annual rate of unemployment increases by every year since the global financial crisis in 2009. The authors argue that the high unemployment has an adverse effect on the disposable income of the society, forcing the people to engage in criminal activities that help them sustain their lifestyle. The argument by the authors agrees with the institutional anomie approach, which links unemployment to high crime rate. Anderson (2000) also links high unemployment rate in the Inner City with the high crime rate, explaining that the youth who engaged in burglary and drug-related shootings are the unemployed lot.

Apart from culture and high unemployment, the inefficiency of the law enforcement institutions is the other cause of high crime rate at Inner City. The Code of the Street indicates that the social institutions such as religious organizations, schools and law enforcement agencies are unable to control the high rate of crime in the city. A similar perception is proposed by Messner, Thome & Rosenfeld (2008) in the institutional anomie approach where they explain that social structures within the society impacts the behavior of the people greatly. The theory holds that the social institutions in a given society play an important role in changing the cultural perceptions that people have about varying aspects in life. Crime thrives in such environment as people try to substitute for what the society have failed to provide for them. To be perceived as successful individuals in the Inner City, the youth are involved in criminal activities that guarantee them good monetary returns.

This implies that the institutions can be used to champion cultural changes in the society for a safer environment. Jackson et al (2012) indicates that legal agencies are among the social institutions that have a direct influence on the level of crime in the society. The authors further reveal that the education sector also has a role to play in changing negative cultures that encourage high crime rates. The study derives from the institutional anomie approach, which emphasizes on the significance of social structures in influencing behavior.

The American Dream

The institutional anomie theory suggests that individuals who strongly believe in the ideology of American Dream are more likely to be involved in criminal activities, especially if they have low-income backgrounds. In the Code of the Streets, Anderson describes the struggles that the young population encounters to make ends meet. The behavior of the youth in the ethnographic study is motivated by the need to achieve economic prosperity. In the American Dream, all individuals have the potential to prosper regardless of their economic status and this is the idea that convinces the youth in the Code of the Street that they should strive hard by all means to achieve economic prosperity.  One of the aspects that characterize the ideology is individualism, where individuals strive to be successful regardless of the impact of their activities on the other parties. For example, in the Code of the Streets, the author explains that the youth in the Inner City are engaged in criminal activities such as car hijacking and drug-related shootings, which indicate individualism. The criminals only care about enriching their lives but do not consider the cost of their activities to the victims. The other aspect of the American Dream is the obsession of money where success is determined by the amount of money that individuals have. To be perceived as successful individuals in the Inner City, the youth are involved in criminal activities that guarantee them good monetary returns.

Crime Mitigation

Anderson (2000) cites that the criminal behavior in the Inner City does not only affect the residents in the streets, but the entire nation. This indicates the necessity to ensure that effective strategies are implemented to reduce the high crime rate. Justifying the need to mitigate crime in the society, Iyer & Topalova (2014) argue that high crime rates are associated with poverty and slow pace of economic and social development. The authors explain that high crime rates discourage economic activities and undermine the social ties that exist within the community.  Based on the institutional anomie approach, the mitigation of crime entails revising the institutional structures and cultural values in the society. To achieve this, it is crucial to involve the social institutions in the society so that they influence the young generation to change the cultural aspects that promote crime. According to Forsyth (2014), the efficiency of crime mitigation measures depends on the extent to which the authorities understand the causes of criminal activities in a given region. The author proposes the involvement of sociologists in formation of crime mitigation policies as they understand the causes of criminal behavior better, leading to the development of effective measures. The proposal by Forsyth (2014) is consistent with the institutional anomie approach that proposes the integration of culture and social structures to reduce crime.

The Best Theory: Strain Theory (Merton)

From the discussion and analysis above, it is apparent that Anderson’s work largely rests on the Strain Theory of criminology. In his work, Anderson presents a situation where most of the people live in a common neighborhood. He seeks to find out the reality of the black Americans and the code of the street. Therefore, he never brings what happens in the suburbs and other posh areas of the town versus the inner-city life. In most of his stories, he presents a neighborhood that is within the inner city and at the same time presenting both the street family life and the decent city life within same areas. According to Strain Theory, class is an important factor towards achieving life goals. Anderson presents a neighborhood where black Americans who lead street lives as well as decent lives are neighbors.

Most of the stories presented by Anderson show people who have been frustrated by their inability to keep up with goals of the life. Street life is characterized by certain code of life, especially when it comes to the behaviors and way of life. Education remains a fundamental aspect of achieving life goals; however, Anderson’s work shows street life that has been affected by lack of education, with many young people resorting to staying on the streets. On the same note, it comes out clearly that the strains towards achieving life have led to lower standards of life. In fact, it seems people have accepted their fate as noted by a story where a girl from a decent home is envied by other aunts and cousins because of her achievement at school. It comes out that the inner-city life has already developed a way of life where all young people are expected to behave in a specific way. Those who refuse to adopt the street way of life are seen to be proud in a way.

Crime is a serious thing, though it is part and parcel of life in this society. Boys and girls seem to have resorted to the street culture, spending less time with their parents in their houses. This is proven by the stories of the children from the decent families who are seduced by the other counterparts to join the street culture, characterized by the drug peddling and other forms of crime. Inner city street life has made people to resign to their state of helplessness, only managing to do activities that barely cover basic needs. Regrettably, most of the activities by these people do not seem to be legal.  For instance, the street neighborhood presented by Anderson has numerous families who earn their daily bread from the illegal trade of drug trafficking.

Understanding crime requires that all the strains be put in perspective, especially on the social issues of life. One thing that Anderson brings is the number of children who are brought up by either women or their grandmothers. Many women bear the burden of fending for their families, amidst chaos in the street. Violence is inevitable in drug trade. It is a form of social control in drug trade. Drug traders would do anything to protect their business including murder. As stated above, women want to have stable families but men wouldn’t settle down because they do not have jobs. The inner city is characterized by aggression and interpersonal conflicts, which make the environment unsafe. Explaining the cause of criminal behavior in the region, Anderson cites that the nature of environment where individuals are brought up greatly influences their behavior.

This causes a lot of strain to the people who should be having certain pattern of life.


Based on the various criminological theories discussed in the study, it is evident that the high rate of crime in the society results from both the internal and external factors in the environment. The former is indicated by aspects that are within the society such as beliefs, while the latter is presented by issues such as unemployment. The findings by Anderson relate to various criminological theories, including the concentric zone theory, institutional anomie theory and strain theory. Although the theories have varying explanations about the causes of criminal behavior, they all agree that high criminal activities are linked to one’s environment. Anderson expresses his concern that the high rate of crime at the Inner City may be uncontrollable due to the influence it has on the youth. If the young people in the region are brought up in culture that supports peace and respect, criminal activities would not be as high. Particularly, it is important to consider the causes of crime in the society so as to develop effective strategies to control the same. In this study, different social disorganization and cultural deviance theories are discussed, with an aim of developing knowledge about criminology. The adverse effects of criminal behaviors on the economic and social developments of the society necessitate the need by the authorities to identify and implement measures that mitigate crimes. The inner city is characterized by aggression and interpersonal conflicts, which make the environment unsafe. Explaining the cause of criminal behavior in the region, Anderson cites that the nature of environment where individuals are brought up greatly influences their behavior. Based on the primary causes of criminal behavior as explained by the criminological theories, the most effective method of mitigating crime is by sensitizing the society about the need to do away with unhelpful cultures that promote violence. Additionally, the social institutions in the society need to be engaged in mitigating crime to enlighten the society about the need to end crime.


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