“It is not one or two factors which turn a man delinquent, but it is a combination of many more factors which cumulatively influence him to follow criminal conduct.” — Prof. William Healy

I. Introduction

Crime may be defined as an act or an omission punishable by the law. It is considered to be a result of deviance from the standard norms established by the society and prescribed by the law. The modern world is plagued with a plethora of crimes of various kinds. Therefore, it would be in the collective interest of the society, if crimes could be prevented or at least, be reduced considerably. Consequently, it becomes incumbent for criminologists and sociologists to pinpoint the exact causes of crimes.

As a result, over a period of time, many theories have been propounded to determine the causes of criminality. The biological theory analyses and discusses biological and genetic explanations of crimes and explores the idea of “born criminal” on the premise of Darwinian atavism. On the other hand, the sociological theory asserts that criminals are a product of the society. Eventually, sociologists and criminologists made use of multiple factor approach to explain crime causation. The supporters of this approach believe that criminality is a product of combination of factors such as culture, religion, political ideologies, family background, neighbourhood, economic conditions, topography and media to name a few. As a result of the wide acceptance of this approach, the study and analysis of ecology of crime gained importance in the field of criminology.

II. Ecology of Crime

Ecology may be defined as the study of relationship between organisms and their physical and social environments. According to Donald Taft “ecology of crime may be studied in terms of location of criminal or residences of delinquents or some supposed influence upon crime which has distribution in terms of space and topography.”[1] Social (or human) ecology of crime may be defined as the study of the social and behavioural consequences of the interaction between human beings and their environment. It explores how the exposure to different environments influences human development and action. It focuses on the role of environment in the development of people’s differential propensity to engage in crime and their differential exposure to settings conducive to engagement in acts of crime. From these definitions, it can be inferred that ecology of crime includes the analysis of the role played by family background, neighbourhood, area of residence, values and socio-cultural patterns, topography, etc. in breeding criminality. For the purpose of evaluating the role played by these factors, the following theories have been propounded within the broad framework of ecology of crime.

Theory of Social Disorganisation                     

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess of Chicago School defined social disorganisation as “the inability of a group to engage in self-regulation”.[2] They used Chicago as a concentric zone model by dividing the city into five concentric zones emanating from the center of the city. They focused on how the communities in the “zone of transition” (Zone II, located near the center of the city and business/industrial area) had become unsettled and disrupted due to repeated waves of immigration and continuous conflict, which led to social disorganisation, which in turn led to criminal conduct. Based on their research, Park and Burgess came to the conclusion that the breaking of traditional social bonds was one of the major factors causing criminal conduct.[3]

This idea was further developed by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay in their study “Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas”, in which, by using the concentric zone model, they made an attempt to explain juvenile delinquency in Chicago. They proceeded on the hypothesis that people develop their behaviour on the basis of their perception of the prevailing norms and values in their “area of residence”. This means that if a person, especially a child or a juvenile, perceives that committing crimes is the norm in his area of residence/neighbourhood, and has no repercussions largely, he will inadvertently replicate the criminal behaviour. Additionally, the existence of gambling dens, brothels, gangs, etc. in neighbourhood makes things much worse.

Based on their study, Shaw and McKay found that juvenile delinquency rates were unevenly distributed across the city, the highest rates of delinquency were in the “zone of transition”, and the delinquency rate decreased as one went outward from the center of the city.[4] They observed that these areas of high rates of crime were characterised by poverty, residential instability, racial heterogeneity and repeated waves of immigration and emigration.[5] Like Park and Burgess, they concluded that the social disorganisation, which existed within the “zone of transition”, was the root cause of high juvenile delinquency rate. They reasoned that this social disorganisation was due to the absence of a settled and stable community and lack of social control by the institutions of family, school, churches, etc. which led to weak social bonds and virtually no control over the behaviour of the people in these areas.[6] Interestingly, they also found that that social disorganisation existed perennially in areas within this zone due to cultural transmission, which resulted in high crime rates, in spite of a complete turnover in population.

This theory offers explanation to crimes like theft, burglary, gambling, prostitution, blackmailing, extortion, etc. in areas characterised by the poverty, residential instability and racial heterogeneity in any urban city.

Theory of Cultural Transmission

Shaw and McKay are also credited for developing the theory of cultural transmission, through which they explained the perpetuity of delinquency caused by social disorganisation. However, it can also be used to explain perpetuity of criminal conduct resulting from factors such as cultural outlook, customs, norms, religion, etc. This theory provides that, “traditions of delinquency are transmitted through successive generations of the same region just as languages, customs and attitudes are.”[7]

In India, certain values and traditions such as dowry system, untouchability, caste system, prohibition on inter-religion/inter-caste marriages, etc. are prevalent due to their cultural transmission through successive generations, although they are prima facie illegal and/or even contrary to constitutional values.

The operation of this theory is perhaps best seen in the crimes committed by tribals, who are engaged in certain activities by virtue of traditions and practices that are deep-rooted in their age-old customs.  For example, the Bhils and Bhilalas of the Jhabua tribe in Madhya Pradesh customarily practice marriage by elopement.[8] Similarly, the Kanjar tribe in Rajasthan, widely known as the “caste of thieves”, practise thievery as a trade since they believe that it is their age-old vocation. They also sacrifice children to blood-thirsty goddesses.[9] By engaging in these activities, which have been a part of their culture since time immemorial, these tribal groups inadvertently commit crimes.

Theory of Differential Association

Prof. Edwin Sutherland has propounded the theory of differential association. According to this theory, criminal behaviour is “learnt” due to the association of the delinquent with other persons in his intimate personal groups, who have a strong influence on him. This learning includes not only the ways and techniques of committing crimes but also their motives, rationales and justifications.[10]

Merely having a bad association does not make a man turn towards criminality. It takes something more, an alteration at a very basic level of one’s moral perception of right and wrong. This theory asserts that delinquents learn to rationalise unaccepted behaviour into accepted behaviour. Let us consider the following examples for a better understanding:

  1. People may commit theft of life-sustaining items to fulfil their basic needs due to poverty and unemployment.
  2. Corruption in public offices is rampant in India due to bureaucracy and red-tapism. Common man believes that it is impossible to get things by public servants without bribing them.
  3. Vigilantism and mob-lynching results in crimes such as assault, battery, murder, etc. People take the law in their hand because they believe that the criminal justice system has failed to protect their right and liberties and in providing timely justice.
  4. Ecological studies of prisons have revealed that sexual offences are common in prisons since prisoners do not get to enjoy family life for a prolonged period of time.
  5. Cultural outlook also results in the commission of crimes as seen earlier.
  6. Some people commit crimes just for the sake of “fun” or “entertainment”.

These justifications of poverty, unemployment, absence of family life, culture fun, etc. far outweigh the moral definition that “violating the law is wrong under any and all circumstances”. By attributing “bad association” as a factor of crime causation, this theory also offers explanation to most organised crimes in any part of the world.

Sutherland also gave prime importance to the influence of one’s family background on his delinquent conduct, perhaps as a direct consequence of his theory of differential association. Children tend to learn criminal behaviour from their parents and relatives. Family itself can be a bad association. Further, a child’s predisposition to criminality due to bad association (in the area of residence/neighbourhood) may go unchecked and uncorrected due to lack of parental control and supervision. Similarly, Donald Taft suggests that, a child is more likely to turn towards delinquency if his parents are dead or divorced and if he has been subjected to physical punishments and abuse in his childhood.[11]

Theory of Criminal Opportunity

It is observed that the aforementioned theories neither consider the mens rea of the offender nor do they explain spontaneous crimes. These aspects are covered by the theory of criminal opportunity which asserts that crimes are caused due to the circumstances that a criminal finds conducive to commit them. For instance, dacoity is rampant in the forest regions and ravines of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh; rape is widespread in Delhi; and theft is common in bus stands, railway stations, temples, etc. in Mumbai. Therefore, the primary focus is on the characteristics of physical environment that encourage and enable the criminals to make a rational choice to offend. Motivated offenders look for suitable targets which are not supervised by a capable guardian in areas where fast means of escape are available easily.

This theory explains that crime rates are higher in urban areas since:

  1. Urban areas provide more opportunities to commit crimes.
  2. The people in urban areas spend less time in routine-based activities, leaving their property and children unguarded (routine activities theory).
  3. Urban areas have faster means of transport and communication which aids in swift escape.

As a result, urban cities are ravaged by crimes such as rape, theft, burglary, kidnapping, economic offences, terrorism, corruption, etc. In the same vein, Donald Taft suggests that crime rate in rural areas is substantially lower than that in urban cities because of greater homogeneity of rural population, lesser mobility and absence of adequate opportunities to escape.[12]

III. Conclusion

It is apparent that the first three theories bear some similarity, intersecting at certain points. However, the factors that they attribute to criminality are substantially different. The theory of social disorganisation focuses on weak social bonds, and lack of supervision, social control and moral guidelines; the theory of cultural transmission focuses on deviant and delinquent values, traditions and cultural outlook transmitted through successive generations; and the theory of differential association focuses on bad association of, and rationalisation of the unacceptable behaviour by the delinquent. These theories primarily describe influence of social environment on criminality.

The major demerit of the abovementioned ecological theories is that they place overemphasis on the “social environment” and in doing so they overlook the “individual”. By focusing primarily on the effect of social institutions and social disorganisation, they fail to account for the influence of individual psychology, distinctive biology, biological predisposition or personal choice and will on criminal conduct. However, the theory of criminal opportunity does overcome this demerit to a certain extent by placing emphasis on the “motivated offender” who tends to commit crimes if the physical environment provides opportunities to do so. According to the author, to overcome this demerit substantially, ecological theories must be studied along with biological theory to ascertain the simultaneous and cumulative influence of biological and social factors in crime causation.

On a final note, it is imperative to allude to the fact that, as a result of the growing complexities of the modern urban life, the acts which were and are considered to be immoral, illegal and offensive have gradually crept into our society and become a part of the system. Therefore, the author submits that, in spite of all these theories it will be impossible to prevent, or even reduce crimes, unless there is a paradigm shift in moral values of the society at the most basic and fundamental level. Consequently, this shift has to begin at one’s home for transforming and reconstructing cultural and social outlooks of the future generations. This argument holds water, especially in case of India, where many communities with diverse values, moral, norms and customs live together.

Advocate, Gujarat High Court

[1] N.V. Paranjape, Criminology and Penology with Victimology 83 (Central Law Publications, Allahabad, 15th edn., 2012).

[2] Supra note 1at 108.

[3] Looking Inside Zone V: Testing Social Disorganization Theory in Suburban Areas, Western Criminology Review 9(1), 1–16 (2008).  <http://westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v09n1/roh.pdf>.

[4] C.R. Shaw and H.D. McKay, Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas; A Study of Rates of Delinquents in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities, American Journal of Sociology (University of Chicago Press) 1942.

[5] J. M. Byrne and R. J. Sampson, The Social Ecology of Crime <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275996748_The_Social_Ecology_of_Crime>.

[6]Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews <http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/professionals/oyap/roots/volume5/chapter04_social_disorganization.aspx>.

[7] Supra note 1 at 104.

[8] Supra note 1 at 83.

[9] <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0069966715578046>.

[10]Sutherland, Edwin H., Differential Association Theory and Differential Social Organisation <https://study.sagepub.com/system/files/Sutherland%2C_Edwin_H._-_Differential_Association_Theory_and_Differential_Social_Organization.pdf>

[11] Supra note 1at 79.

[12] Supra note 1at 85.

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