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Analysis of Sociological Factors Motivating Crime

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The mind of a criminal is a very interesting one. Many may wonder what motivates a criminal to commit the acts they do. It has always been debated whether crime originates from the individual or the environment. In this paper, I am going to discuss the environmental factors that motivate crime. This paper will be split into first discussing the differences between nature versus environment, looking into the Sociological theory, specifically the General Strain Theory, and addressing any factors that the general strain theory does not account for.

Different circumstances create a criminal. Some believe that it is the individual’s choice to commit a crime and they are well aware of the choices they are making. Others believe that it is the biological makeup of one, that forces them into crime. I strongly believe that some criminals do not have a choice in what they are doing and that different situations create such a force in their lives that they are forced to step into the crime world. The Sociological Theory of Crime specifically looks at the influence social factors have on a criminal’s behaviour. This theory puts ones living situation into perspective to determine what was the primary factor that leads someone into the life of crime. I will specifically discuss why someone commits a crime through the General Strain Theory. This theory essentially states that different strains humans feel, compel them into committing crimes in hopes of reducing or escaping the strain.

Many theorists have their own perception of The Strain Theory. In particular, Robert Agnew, in particular, developed a theory that was more progressive and broadens the definition of strain. This theory particularly outlines three areas that may cause strain; failure to reach a goal, removal of a positive stimuli, and a presence of a negative stimuli.

Crimes in the workplace are very common. It ranges from petty theft to large scale fraud and blue-collar to white-collar, it is inevitable in a business. However, the question goes back to why employees feel the need to commit a crime. A lot of this has to do with employees trying to reach a goal that seems unattainable or failing to get a promotion. In a study conducted to determine the correlation between goal difficulty and promotion to employee fraud. It was found that employees feel compelled to commit theft and crime to meet a goal imposed by their supervisors in order to obtain a promotion (Clor-Proell, Kaplan, Proell, 2015). The strain in this situation is a negative stimulus provoked by employers that make employees feel pressured into reaching unattainable goals that they feel can only be done through cutting corners. A similar situation is applied when employees do not receive the promotion they worked towards. Fraud in a workplace composes of opportunity and incentive. When the opportunity of a promotion arises and an employee does not receive it, they tend to feel a burden of trying again, even if it means committing delinquency. A lot of this has to do with experiencing the feeling of not attaining the goal an employee worked hard towards, so to avoid the emotion, committing criminal acts such as fraud, makes it easy to abstain from failure again. Such situations evoke strain on an individual, that like Agnew’s theory states, one feels the need to escape the pressure (Agnew, 2001). Other examples include the strain of social class. Those who are on the lower end of the spectrum feel an immense amount of strain due to not moving up the social ladder. This sense of failure further increases as individuals around lower-class individuals continue to succeed and attain the goals that the lower class cannot achieve (Cheteni et al., 2018). Low-income individuals will commit crimes to improve their social class. The more inequality one suffers the higher the strain, the greater the probability of committing a crime.

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A lot of students also commit delinquent activities. School plays a very prominent role in generating stress. A stressful environment harbours criminal behaviour as it acts as an escape from the strain students feel. The majority of the crimes student commit range from shoplifting to illegal drug usage. One of the components of the General Strain Theory explains that the presence of a negative stimuli, stress at school, results in criminal behaviour. A study in China conducted a test to understand the relationship between the stress at school and how it results in deviance in students. Through experimentation, it was found the likelihood of a student committing a crime was higher in a school with high-stress levels (Zhang, Liu, Wang, Zou, 2018). The study also found that schools with a higher population also reported a greater probability of students committing a crime (Zhang, Liu, Wang, Zou, 2018). When a group has more people, it is harder to regulate. The group becomes more diverse which means more strained individuals are in the mix and that strain transfers onto other adolescents. This partially touches on the Social Learning Theory, which is about learning and “copying” behaviour from groups one may be associated to, with school being a cultural association. The study found that “Schools hosting strained student populations also serve as illegitimate opportunity providers” (Zhang, Liu, Wang, Zou, 2018). The illegitimate opportunities were defined as the chances a student has to learn criminal behaviour and the chances to embrace the role of a criminal. Once again, referring back to the Strain Theory, the presence of a strained environment increased the chance of criminal behaviour. Another situation, with crime present, is in poverty. Crimes under homelessness were reported to be more property related than violence. The root cause of these property crimes is from the strain homeless individuals feel from not meeting their basic survival needs, such as shelter and food. This incredibly heavy burden creates a huge strain on homeless people which motivates them into committing crimes to make ends meet. In a study conducted by the Institute for the Prevention of Crime it was found that the longer someone experiences poverty, the greater the exposure they have to crime (Prevention of crime, n.d). Fundamentally, this means that a person that is homeless for six years has a higher chance of committing a crime compared to someone homeless for three years because they carry more strain.

Many different scenarios further prove that due to the environment, criminals commit crime. Another situation is the relationship between childhood abuse and crime. Childhood abuse creates a lot of trauma towards an individual. Such trauma is found to have lasting consequences that have factors leading to crime. Agnew argues strains that are unjust and high in scale are some of the characteristics that most likely result in a crime (Agnew, 2001). Abuse is something that will always be unjust, and it is something that causes a great amount of strain. With that being said, abuse victims are highly susceptible to crime. Many criminal justice studies have also found that majority of criminals have a history of abuse (Watts, McNulty, 2013). Furthermore, abuse develops many emotions such as depression, anxiety, anger, which if not dealt with correctly leads to crime. Other environmental theories such as the Control Theory tie into this as individuals with higher amounts of control can handle strain a lot better. However, for those who give in to the strain respond to it through crime. Through studies conducted it was found individuals who suffer depression due to childhood trauma, have a high rate in offending (Watts, McNulty, 2013). The data also supports the fact that victims of early trauma will surrender to criminal behaviour later on (Watts, McNulty, 2013). Unfortunately, this means that those who have been exposed to childhood trauma such as abuse, suffer from a significant amount of strain. This strain then creates negative emotions that play a role in motivating criminal activities. The presence of the negative stimuli is the greatest motivator that pushes one towards crime, in hopes of escaping that strain.

While the General Strain Theory makes a very convincing argument to answer the question of what motivates crime, it does have its limitations. Biological theorists would argue that the General Strain Theory does not account for individuals that suffer biological harm. Some examples of biological harm would include substance abuse, a poor diet, or a head injury. For situations where someone suffers an injury that alters the way they think, unfortunately, the Strain Theory does not have enough evidence to back up why an injury may lead someone into the life of crime. However, a lot of mental illnesses come from abuse, neglect, death, etc. and the Biological Theory does not take into consideration that social factors may have to do with some illnesses. All these roots are different types of strain that an individual suffers from and the General Strain Theory does take all of that into account when determining what motivates a criminal. Substance abuse is also something a biological theorist would say that the Strain Theory does not account for, however, studies have shown that substance abuse comes from individuals feeling strain. Going back to the homeless situation, the Institute for the Prevention of Crime found that the strain of social class leads people into substance abuse (Prevention of crime, n.d).

Overall, it is quite evident that the environment is what motivates people into crime. It is what pushes them into such behaviour, the General Strain Theory by Robert Agnew helps take a deeper understanding to determine why people feel compelled to commit crimes. It was found that various types of strain such as failing to achieve a goal, the remove of a positive incentive, and the presence of an unfavourable stimuli resulted in crime. This was seen in various situations such as workplace promotions, social structure, and childhood trauma. Ultimately, to answer the question of why a criminal commits a crime is it because of the environment they are in.

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Analysis of Sociological Factors Motivating Crime. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
“Analysis of Sociological Factors Motivating Crime.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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