Sociological Versus Psychological Theories of Crime
.. . . sociological theories [of crime] are not usually put in a way that makes them testable. If unemployment is a powerful factor, does it work immediately? Is there a delay, and if so how long – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? Similar questions can be asked about poverty. And how do we define poverty? Is it absolute or relative? Arbitrary assumptions are usually made when sociologists are confronted with contrary evidence, but still there is no theory precise enough to permit exact quantitative predictions. Such facts as are available certainly do not support common-sense ideas of this kind. Differences in personal wealth – a favorite sociological cause of crime – have declined considerably since the turn of the century, but crime has gone up several hundred percent. Poverty? From 1979 to 1987 there has been a particularly steep rise in crime, but poverty has decreased dramatically (Eysenck & Gudjonsson 1989). Unemployment? Some authors have analyzed U.S. crimes and found an inverse relation between unemployment and crime. Gross national product, an indicator of national wealth? Ellis and Patterson (in press) found it to correlate positively and highly with criminality in a sample of 13 industrial nations (.68 with total theft). The evidence, if anything, is strongly opposed to sociological theories. Naturally, poverty, unemployment, and wide differences in wealth are undesirable and ought to be eradicated or at least diminished; however, doing so might increase rather than diminish crime, counter-intuitive as such a prediction, might seem. Possibly, of course, the regression is curvilinear. That is, perhaps great poverty, great unemployment, and great differences in wealth lead to low crime (as, e.g., in the early days of the Weimer Republic?); middling poverty, medium unemployment, and middling differences in wealth lead to high crime (as in the United States of America?); and little poverty, little unemployment, and few differences in wealth lead to low crime (as in Switzerland?). My point is that sociological theories are hunches rather than theories – not based on thorough statistical analysis of historical records, and too inexact to be testable.
The second argument against sociological theories is that social “causes” of crime, even if they could be proved to exist, must act through psychological pathways. Individuals react differently to poverty, unemployment, and inequality; clearly, the personality and intelligence of the individuals concerned filter objective conditions and determine their perception. Poverty may cause some people to rebel against society, blame the government, and seek refuge in crime, while others blame themselves, their lack of cognitive ability, their ignorance, and their lack of skill, and regard unemployment as just punishment. This great diversity to stress is well documented (Lazarus & Folkman, 1989); to disregard relevant factual knowledge is unscientific in the extreme. Ultimately sociology must be a part of psychology, because it studies a limited set of factors that affect human behavior through psychological mechanisms.
Excerpt taken from Personality and Crime by HJ Eysenck. Chapter in Psychopathy – Theodore Millon (editor). All emphasis mine.