The Evaluation of Social, Structural and Subculture Theories of Crime

Social structural and subcultural theories of criminal behaviour (by scholars like Clifford Shaw, Thorsten Sellin, Bonger, Quetlet, Sutherland, Merton, Cloward and Ohlin, Cohen, etc.) have been in existence for more than fifty years.

These criticised the physiological, biological, and psychological theories of crime etiology and focused our attention on environment-economic, geographical and social.

Thus, the emphasis shifted from the personality of the deviant to the social milieu of the criminal. However, these theories have not been free of methodological errors (as discussed in earlier pages) because of the serious problem in defining terms, specially the development of operational definitions.


Secondly, the empirical base of these theories is questionable. Sampling problems exist in most of researches. Further, some of the theorists did not conduct any empirical research.

The assumptions of some of the theories have also been questioned by later empirical research. Some scholars focused their researches on lower-class populations. Control groups and follow-up studies were usually not a part of the research design.

Finally, in many of the theories, unwarranted assumptions and generalisations have been made, e.g., poverty as the cause of crime or broken homes as the cause of juvenile delinquency, or learning crime from criminals in intimate groups, etc.

Thus, though these theories have taken the focus off the individual criminal who earlier was presumed to be ‘defective’ in some way, yet these (structural theories) have failed to explain why those persons who are exposed to the type of the structure being associated with crime do not become criminals, or, how so many persons, who are not exposed to those social structures, do become criminals.


It, therefore, becomes necessary to look beyond the social structure as well as the culture and seek an explanation of the process by which people become criminals. Perhaps, emphasis on holistic approach, including the role of various types of environment and personality characteristics, could help in understanding law-violating citizens.