Notes on Multiple-factor Approach (Theories of Criminal Behaviour)

Early theories of criminal behaviour have been criticized because they emphasised a single factor as the cause of crime. Factors like inherited physical traits, biological inferiority, feeble-mindedness, emotional disturbances, or poverty were described as the single cause of crime.

The multiple-factor approach in criminology grew out of discrepancies in single-factor approach. Its adherents argued that crime should be understood in terms of varied contributions made by a variety of factors.

The assumption was that crime is the product of many factors biological, psychological, economic and social and those different crimes will be the result of different combinations of factors. Hence, ‘proper’ approach in criminology is an eclectic one emphasizing identification and analysis of multiple factors. Scholars who believe in this approach are William Healy, Cyril Burt, and Sheldon and Glueck.


On the basis of his study of 1,000 juvenile delinquents, William Healy (The Individual Delinquent, 1915) identified 138 factors and classified them as psychological, biological and social-environmental factors in the causation of delinquency. Influenced by Healy’s work in the United States, Cyril Burt (The Young Delinquent, 4th edn.1914) pursued a similar investigation in England in 1925.

He found no less than 170 factors which he classified into nine major categories. Sheldon Glueck (“Theory and Fact in Criminology”, British Journal of Delinquency, October 1956) in his study of 500 delinquents and 500 non-delinquents in 1950 extensively analysed social background, home-life, physical characteristics, intellectual ability, psychiatric states, emotion and temperament of the respondents and identified socio-cultural, biological, and psychological factors in delinquency.

He concluded that while a host of different factors show associations with delinquency, the major causes of delinquency are “problems in the home” (parental separation, parental drunkenness, physical or mental ailments, poor home management, lack of child supervision, little show of affection), and so forth.

The multiple-factor approach has been criticised by scholars like Albert Cohen and many others. While recognising that the multiple-factor approach made a useful contribution to criminology through the compilation of factors associated with delinquency, Cohen (1955: 5 -13) mainly gave three arguments against it:


(1) The advocates of multiple-factor approach have confused a single theory with single-factor explanations. A single theory does not necessarily explain crime in terms of a single factor.

Theories are concerned with ‘variables’ and ‘factors’ and a single theory usually incorporates a number of different variables. To explain crime, we need theories which consist of logically related propositions asserting particular relationships among a number of variables.

(2) Cohen objected to a major assumption of the multi-factor approach, namely, that factors have intrinsic crime-producing qualities. Factors found statistically associated with crime are often asserted to cause crime, or to be one cause among others.

Each factor is presumed to carry a fixed amount of criminogenic power. But Cohen argues that not only the factors have no intrinsic crime-producing qualities but also they should not be confused with causes. Causal power cannot be assumed on the basis of a discovery that a certain factor, or combination of factors, shows a statistical association with crime.


(3) Many, if not most, multi-factor studies talk of ‘evil causes’. The fallacious notion is that evil consequences (crime) must have evil precedents (biological pathologies, low IQ, pathological mental states, poor living conditions).

Sutherland (1965: 61) has also referred to this argument against explaining crime or any other social problem. He says: “When we explain crime, we tend merely to catalog a series of ugly circumstances which any ‘decent citizen’ would deplore, and attribute causal power to those circumstances.

In criminology, this fallacious procedure might stem from a desire to eradicate crime without changing other existing conditions which we cherish and esteem; that is, criminologists tend to identify with the existing social order and seek ’causes’ of crime in ‘factors’ which might be eliminated without changing social conditions which they hold dear, or which may be safely deplored without hurting anyone’s feelings.”