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4.6 Agency explanations: rational choice theory

The work of the Chicago School, despite the potential pitfalls of participant observation, does demonstrate that if you want to know why people commit crimes it makes sense to ask them. In his memoir of a criminal career in the early twentieth century entitled Jail Journey, Jim Phelan wrote:

The robber is a tradesman who, from economics or other motivation, chooses a trade with greater rewards and dangers than navvying. All men in dangerous jobs … will readily understand the thief-convict … Yet no one speaks of hereditary test-piloting. No semi-neurotics rush into print about the movie-stuntman's characteristic nose or jaw.

(Phelan, 1940, p. 178)

Phelan's point is simple. Crime (property crime at any rate) is a career decision, a way of life, a way of making your living, one of a range of options. There is no need for recourse to complex cultural and structural biological arguments to explain it. The social science model of explanation that most closely parallels this way of thinking is rational choice theory (see, for example, Clarke and Coleman, 1980).

The key premises of rational choice theory are strikingly simple.

  1. Most criminals are normal-reasoning people. The mode of reasoning that everyone displays, perhaps except the mentally ill, is rational.

  2. Rationality is a contested idea, even within rational choice theory, but in essence it is a mode of thinking in which individuals are able to accurately distinguish means and ends. What they want and the ways that are available to them for obtaining those ends. For example: ends – possessing a certain amount of money for a certain amount of work; and means – paid employment, buying a lottery ticket, stealing it.

  3. For each of the different means available to them, rational actors are also able to calculate the likely costs (things they don't want to happen) and benefits (how many or how much of their ends they can achieve) of following a course of action.

  4. If benefits outweigh costs, do it. If costs outweigh benefits, don't do it.

  5. So, according to rational choice theory, it is not necessary to consider prior causes, antecedents and structures. All that matters are the rational judgements and calculations facing a given person, with their particular set of ends and preferences, in a given situation.

Activity 8

Since the 1950s there has been a huge growth in recorded property thefts. This growth has coincided with the proliferation of new mass market commodities – cars, TVs, videos, stereos, etc. – which most people now consume as a normal, routine feature of life.

How might rational choice theorists explain the relationship between more consumer goods and more property thefts?


Given that rational choice theory views most crimes as the actions of reasoning and autonomous agents making individual judgements or calculations in response to specific situations or circumstances, the rise in property crime can be attributed to: increasing opportunities to steal consumer goods; declining costs associated with stealing them (i.e. less chance of getting caught, less chance of conviction or imprisonment); and an increasing gap for an increasing number of people between their wants and aspirations (their ends) and their capacity to fulfil those at low cost by non-criminal methods (their means).

Rational choice theory has real strengths. It takes the immediate motivation of actors and their own understanding of their situation seriously. It has a cold but persuasive economic logic to it. But a number of questions immediately arise in our minds. First, can we really describe all human motivations and behaviour, all criminal acts, in terms of rationality? What about crimes of violence? The impulse to commit crimes may come from rather more emotional sources. There may be a high or a buzz to certain criminal pursuits which are not so dissimilar from the thrill of dangerous pursuits elsewhere in life, be it sport, adultery or driving fast in a car.

Even within its own narrow field of vision, how can rational choice theory explain how people acquire their preferences? Is it a given of human nature to want modern consumer goods? Even if agents can accurately gauge the costs and benefits of different courses of action, why is it that the current balance of costs and benefits prevails? We might know, for example, the likelihood of a conviction, but that tells us nothing about why current sentencing policy is as it is. Focusing on agency has its virtues, but it is hard to think about agency for very long without coming back to structures.

And that takes us back to our first three explanations. How can we use these different explanations of crime to explore the claims and concerns of this chapter?

Activity 9

What bearing might these four models of criminal behaviour have on our common-sense narrative of the crime problem? Do they have any bearing on it? In particular, how might they shape our understanding of the core claims of the common-sense narrative?

Jot down a few notes.


We came up with this:

Biological. The statistical evidence for some kind of biological component to criminal behaviour seemed strong, but why has this biological potential been unleashed only in the last 50 years?

Familial. The cycle of poor parenting creating anti-social personalities leading to criminal careers and more bad parenting seems plausible, but it begs the question what is good and bad parenting? Wasn't there a lot of poor parenting in the past? Why should there suddenly be more problem families, the cycle has to start somewhere? How, if at all, can these kinds of family cycle be linked to other changes in the post-war UK?

Cultural. This explanation focuses on gangs and their distinct sub-cultures. Do we have any evidence that the rise in crime has been accompanied by a rise in gangs? We certainly have evidence that young men are frequently involved in criminal activities. Can we apply this model to other criminals? Does it help us think about the development of normative definitions of crime?

Rational choice theory. This explanation helps us think about the way criminal behaviour is motivated, it doesn't rely on notions of abnormality, and it helps us think about individual criminal acts and careers. But how can it be used to help us think about why so many individuals all suddenly seem to have arrived at the same decision? To understand that we need to look at the economic and cultural structures which shape preferences and judgements.

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