This area looks at three influences that have been used to explain how people become criminal: upbringing, cognition and biology. It is important to point out that it would be extremely unrealistic to see these influences as mutually exclusive. Instead we must accept that in reality many factors may work together to make a person turn to crime. When looking at the typical profile of an average criminal, we find many common features. They often have very poor literacy and numeracy sklills, haveing left education early after a pattern of traunting and disaffection with school and its rules. At home they will often have a dysfunctional family where they lack attention, guidance and support that would help them stay at school. Using drugs becomes a way of passing time and making money, and this increases the risk of criminal conviction. Their first court appearence is often in their teens and any punishment may be seen as a risk worth taking, or even a badge of honour in the case of tags.

  • Created by: Tashan
  • Created on: 12-02-10 00:03


The two studies we will consider in this section are suggested as an evidence base for the influence of upbringing on criminality; they are not the only studies available, but they provide a starting point for discussion. In considering these studies, we must be aware that it is not possible to seperate out influences. For example, biology will always underlie human behaviour, leading to individual differences that are exceptions to a common pattern of behaviour.

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Disrupted Families - Farrington et al


  • To document the start, duration and end of offending behaviour from childhood to adulthood in families.
  • To investigate the influence of life events; the risk and protective factors predictinf offending and antisocial behaviour; the intergenerational transmission of offending and antisocial behaviour, and the influence of family background.


  • A prospective longitudinal survey. In the last report on the group, data were gathered from interviews at age 48 and searches of criminal records.


  • The study was based upon 411 boys aged 8 and 9 who were born in 1983/4, from the register of 6 state schools in east london.
  • The boys were predominantly white working class.
  • 397 different families were involved and there were 14 pairs of brothers and 5 pairs of twins in the sample.
  • At the age of 48 93% of the original participants were interviewed.
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  • At the age 48, of 404 individuals searched in the criminal records, 161 had convictions.
  • The number of offences and offenders peaked at age 17, closely followed by 18. There were 11 offenders and 17 offences per 100 males at age 17.
  • 91% of those whom started criminal careers at age 10-13 were all reconvicted at least once and committed 9 crimes on average compared with an average of 6 crimes if they started at 14-16. These two groups committed 77% of all the crimes in the study.
  • Self-reported crimes not covered by official statistics indicate that 93% admitted to commiting one type of offence at some stage in their lives.
  • 7% of the males in the study were defined as 'chronic offenders' becuase they accounted for about half of all officially recorded offences in this study. On average, their conviction careers lasted from age 14 to age 35.
  • Most of these chronic offenders shared common childhood characteristics; Farrington describes them as 'persisters' and compared to those with no convictions they are more likely to have: a convicted parent. high daring, a delinquent sibling, a young mother, low popularity. disrupted family, and a large family size. A similar pattern emerges for desisters.
  • The proportion of men leading successful lives [successdul on at least 6 of the 9 criteria of life success] increased from 78% at age 32 to 88% at age 48. Even persisters improved their life success to 65% between age 32 and 48. The most important finding was that the desisters were no different in life success from the unconvicted.
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  • Farrington concludes that offenders tend to be deviant in many aspects of their lives. Early prevention that reduces offending could have wide-ranging benefits in reducing problems with accommodation, relationships, employment, acohol , drugs and aggressive behaviour. The most important risk factors are criminality in the family, poverty, impulsiveness, poor child-rearing and poor school performance. Hence, there is scope for significant cost savings from effective early-intervention programmes targeted on under-10s.


  • Intergenerational transmission - the occurence of [criminal] behaviour through successive generations of the same family.
  • Risk factors - those factors that make it more likely that criminal behaviour.
  • Criteria of life success - a set of nine criteria that are used to judge whether someone has successfuly turned away from crime . They include: no drug use in the last 5 years, no self-reported offence [of 6 specified] in the last 5 years, satisfactory mental health and no convictions in the last 5 years.
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Generalisability - Whilst the study's sample consisted of 411 participants which is extremely large considering the study is a prospective longitudinal study, all participants were males from east london. The study is therefore ethnocentric and thus the lack of cross cultural anaylsis means that the study can not be generalised to the whole of the population. Becuase the study was ethnocentric this also means that the findings of the study can not be generalised to females.

Reliability - The design of the study means that both qualitative and quantitative data can be obtained. This means that the study is relatively reliable as by using a standardised procedure, researchers are able to replicate the study.

Application - The findings of the study suggest that an important policy aim should be to prevent [or postpone] the early onset of offending. According to the study, the most important childhood risk factors for offending are criminality in the family, poverty, impulslveness, poor child-rearing and low school attainment [and also early antisocial behaviour]. Impulslveness can be reduced by cognitive behavioural skills training programmes, child-rearing can be reduced pre-school intellectual enrichment programmes. It would also be desirable to implement measures designed to reduce childhood poverty. All the interventions should be targeted on children before age ten.

Validity - The research methods used by the Farrington et al mean that the study has both high levels of validity and ecological validity for the group studied.

Ethics - When the study began, the participants were aged 8-9 which means that the reasearchers had to obtain informed consent from their parents. Throughout the study participants were given the right/and did withdraw from the study. Whilst the study appears to be ethically sound the findings of the study may lead to the 'labelling' of youths from disadvantaged backgrounds and inevitably could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Reductionalism/Holism - the study takes a reductionist approach; the complex behaviour of criminality is reduced to physiological and social factors.

Determinism/Free Will - the findings and conclusions of the study are rather deterministic; the study suggests that whilst behaviour may be influenced by both physiological and social factors, such factors determine our behaviour leaving little if any room for free will. I.e the findings of the study suggest that factors such as having criminal family members and the area which you are brought up in affects criminality rather than ones free will.

Individual/Situational - The study ignores the fact that whilst some risk factors may be present in an individuals life their is the possibility that they will turn from crime, the study therefore explains behaviour from a situational point of view.

Nature/Nuture - The Farringotton et al study combines the influence of physiological [genetics]and social factors [environmental] on behaviour.

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1. Is this a valid piece of research? If so, what gives it validity?

2. Can it be generalised? If not why not?

3. Give one strength and one weakness of longitudinal research.

4. Most importantly, what can we conclude from this research?

5. Wht should we be cautious when drawing conclusions from correlational data?

6. This study is longitudinal in design. What problems are associated with such designs?

7. This study collects both qualitative and quantitative data. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

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The final version of differential association theory was presented by Sutherland in the form of nine principles.

1. Criminal behaviour is learned.

2. Criminal behaviour is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.

3. The principle part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs within intimate personal groups.

4. When criminal behaviour is learned, the learning includes the techniques of commiting the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalstions, and attitudes.

5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable.

6. A person becomes delinquent becuase of an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of law.

7. Differentionial associations [number of contacts with criminals over non-criminals] may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensisty.

8. The process of learning criminal behaviour by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.

9. While criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, since non-criminal behaviour is an expression of the same needs and values.

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  • Sutherland believed that criminal behaviour was not inherited or a result of any other biological condition [without prior influence of others, the individual is incapable of inventing criminal behaviour.
  • Sutherland believed that such communication usually invlolved verbal interaction, however it could also involve the use of gestures without words. This point supports the first by claiming that individuals cannot become criminal by themselves.
  • Sutherland felt that intimate personal groups provided the largest influence on the learning of criminal behaviour. He felt that impersonal agencies of communication such as newspapers and films [media] played a relatively unimportant role in the 'birth' or criminal behaviour. [Contrast this with modern theories of media influence].
  • A criminal has to learn the techniques of the trade from someone, he also learns the attitudes taken and escuses made for behaving in a criminal fashion.
  • Groups of people may see certain laws as pointless or discriminatory and therefore feel they can flaunt them or that it is right to break them, for example underage drinking laws.
  • This is the principle of differential association. Individuals become criminal due to repeated contacts with criminal activity and a lack of contact with non-criminal activity.
  • According to Sutherland, a precise description of a person's criminal behaviour would be possible in quantitative form by analysing the number of contacts with crimnals, which would lead to a mathematical ratio being reached. Unfourtunately, as he pointed out, an appropriate formula had yet to be developed due to the sheer difficulty involved!
  • In this point, Sutherland claims that criminal behaviour is learned just like every other behaviour. In other word, he felt there was nothing 'special' or 'abnormal' about criminal behaviour, or criminals for that matter, thus going against the claims of of biological and pathological theorists.
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Sutherland's theory is based upon two core assumptions:

1. Deviance occurs when people define a certain human situation as an appropriate occasion for violating social norms of criminal laws.

2. Definitions of the situation are acquired through an individual's history of past experience.

The theory emphasises the social-psychological processes by which people produce subjective definitions of whether an action is criminal. Sutherland argued that it is neccessary to examine the normal learning process whereby a person comes to define a particular situation as more or less appropriate for deviant behaviour. This is what happens in the peer group and the street gang as a young person moves away from parental influence. It seems a powerful explanation for certain types of violence, but falls short when applied to crimes commited by individuals acting alone.

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Generalisability - The study can only be generalised to groups of people or countries which have crime; it is however important to note that opinions of crime are not universal.

Reliability - Becuase the theory has no supporting evidence and is subjective, it lacks reliability. The theory is also reductionistic and vauge.

Application - The study is applicaple to groups of people, the study has a good application in understanding criminal offences committed by groups. However the theory is not necessarily applicable to the individual.

Validity - In order to increase validity of the study the concept of crime and deviance must be operationalised.

Ethical Issues - Ethics of responsibility to avoid labelling people as criminals. The study has been applied to all sets of people regardless of cultural norms and values. Thus the study is rather ethnocentric.

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1. This is a theory that considers behaviour from the social -psychological perspective. What does this mean?

2. What are the strengths of the theory?

3. What are the weaknesses of this theory [hint look at principle 7].

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