Lecture 6: Early and Classical Criminological Theory

Early and Classical Criminological Theory: Lecture Overview

Congratulations on completing your exams! I hope to begin and finish grading these soon.  There can be delays as exams are gathered and mailed, sometimes across the country; as of Sunday October 2 I have received only 3 exams, believe it or not; nevertheless, I will return grades to you as soon as possible. The completion of your first exam marks a turning point for the class: until now, we have been considering the general question of exactly what it means to talk about and measure crime and victimization. From this point forward in the course, we will focus on theories of crime. A theory, as you’ll recall from our third week of class, is an attempt to explain some phenomenon by developing a general account of the way the world works. If we’re interested in explaining why some people commit crimes and others don’t, there are many, many theories to consider. So many competing theories of crime exist that it will take us a full five weeks to cover them all. This week, we start from the very beginning (which, as Julie Andrews reminds us, is a very good place to start). Even before criminology developed as a formal field of study within the broader field of sociology, demonological and rationality-based theories of crime informed the activities of both armchair philosophers and powerful policymakers. We begin with such classical theories this week.

Before you review this lecture, be sure to complete your reading assignments: Chapter 5 from the Frank Hagan Introduction to Criminology text and de Haan, Willem and Jaco Vas. 2003. “A Crying Shame: The Over-Rationalized Conception of Man in the Rational Choice Perspective.” Theoretical Criminology 7: 29-54. I also strongly suggest you listen to Frank Hagan’s podcast for Chapter 5, available for listening through this link.

Our lecture subjects this week are:

A Walk Through the Woods: Spirit, Reason, Circumstance or Happenstance?

This week I’d like to introduce the week’s lecture with a little walk in the woods:

Why was I walking through the woods in the above video when it involved a greater expense of effort than sitting in a chair? I could tell you that I was walking through the woods shooting a video at that moment because the sky was clear and that I wouldn’t have walked through the woods when a rainstorm hit shortly thereafter. That choice seems to make rational sense, but it doesn’t explain why I was walking through the woods at all.

The full explanation for my walk through the woods is more complicated. My walk through the woods this year was precipitated by an earlier walk through the woods in February of 2013, when the snow was falling and the deadline for a delivery of a lecture to another semester’s set of students loomed large. As I remember it, I had a bit of spare time on the Friday before a blizzard was scheduled to hit and thought it might be a good day to shoot a video, but I didn’t want to use the same settings I had before. I looked around, saw some woods close by, and decided they looked nice. After having made the decision to head into the woods, I came up with a story that would connect the woods to a criminology course (it’s the story I’m telling you now). There is a story to tell in the woods, a story about the question of rationality, but that story is not the reason why I went to the woods. I first went into the woods to shoot just because I liked the look of the woods in the snow.

There are more reasons involved in that original video. For instance, I wore a hat in that video. Why did I wear a hat when walking out into the snow? Well, I could tell you a number of tales involving good-sounding, rational-seeming reasons. Perhaps it was cold. Perhaps I wanted to avoid squinting into the camera as snow. But no, I pretty much made those stories up; it was neither that cold nor that heavily snowing when I shot the video. The truth is embarrassing to me: I hadn’t washed my hair yet that day and it was sticking up all over the place. I needed to finish shooting a video and I didn’t have much time left. In order to quickly shoot a video while avoiding an embarrassing revelation, I covered it up with a hat and made it part of my costume. When I shot my video, I hadn’t even planned to tell you that.

So why shoot another video in the woods, then, the one you see above? That decision has two sources. The first reason is that upon reflection, I thought the first video introduced questions of rationality rather well. The second reason is more related to image: I think it’s important that students know my lecture materials are up to date, but the first video was shot in snow and it’s not snowing in Maine right now. I hoped to cover up the fact of an earlier video covering much the same subject, making it appear that I was creating entirely new material for you this semester. But that wouldn’t be an honest story, would it? If I am to be honest, I have to admit that I’ve covered the same subject before at an earlier time.

The differences between what I could tell you about my decisions and how I recall actually making those decisions highlight central problems of rationality for social scientists. The first problem is the distinction between an actual rational reason and a rationalization. De Haan and Vos (2003) describe “rationalization” in Week 4′s reading as a way that a person tries to make sense of their action after the fact. As we’ll see below, people can be very good at coming up with a “true story” about their history and how it relates to their “true self,” a story that they come to feel is real despite the fact that their story is not their initial story, but rather the result of many retellings that drop inconvenient facts and replace them with new emphases or even new fabrications. The result seems rational, but a load of nonsense justifications lies behind the rational facade. The creation of a rationalization is a social process, a creative process undertaken in response to a community of other people and imaginings about what they might want.

In the act of rationalization, we might come up with new stories to explain what we’ve done, stories that are wildly different from our original stories, but that we might nevertheless sincerely believe now. We become involved in acts of deception, sometimes even deceiving ourselves into believing that our actions make some kind of rational sense when they really don’t.

This dynamic applies to the study of crime. When we think about the reasons that people commit crimes, can we come up with rational explanations for what they do. Are those explanations the same as the actual reasons people commit crimes, or are they after-the fact rationalizations?

From PreClassical to PostClassical Theories of Crime

What was crime before it was thought of as crime? What was the intellectual break that brought crime down to Earth? How well does the Enlightenment idea of rational deterrence of crime match observable reality? Let’s talk about it:

Perhaps the first approach to explaining crime was not to set aside a particular act as reprehensible, but to think about a person’s act as a sign that they have a reprehensible spirit — that they are, in essence, demonic. In additional reading suggested in Hagan’s textbook, you’re directed to a study of Nigerian supernatural superstitions to find a contemporary demonological account of crime (Odo 1981). But I don’t think we need go nearly so far in physical or cultural terms to find demonological explanations of crime; we can find them in the modern United States, in moral panics imagining heinous crimes and blaming them on evil, corrupted spirits engaged in cult activity:

When a Maine State Police detective says of criminals he has encountered, “I’ve interviewed people who are just evil. Jeff Cookson is one of the most evil people you could meet. Joe Albert is another one. They’re just evil people. They have no souls,” he is articulating a demonological theory of crime that attributes criminality to the condition (or the lack) of a person’s spirit (Harrison 2013). When you hear certain criminals referred to as “monsters” in American society, the demonological theory of crime is articulated again.

More Guns, Less Crime? Testing the NRA hypothesis

In the above video, we considered the theory of deterrence, which predicts that punishment of crime that is certain, swift and severe should lead rational individuals to avoid committing future crimes (Beccaria 1764[1963]). Two kinds of deterrence are specific deterrence, in which an act of punishment against a particular individual is supposed to convince that particular individual to stop committing crimes, and general deterrence, in which an act of punishment against a particular individual is supposed to convince others aware of that individual’s punishment to avoid committing crimes.

An interesting deterrence argument is currently playing out in the United States today, drawing on assumptions of rationality among people who would commit crime. In the Triad Blog of North Carolina, blogger “Hartzman” writes — without citing a source — that “In right-to-carry states, the violent crime rate is 24% lower than the rest of the U.S., the murder rate is 28% lower, and the robbery rate is 50% lower.” The implicit assumption of this declaration involves general deterrence — that potential criminals, knowing people might well be packing weaponry in “right-to-carry” states allowing concealed firearms, rationally decide it’s not worth the risk.

Is the “Hartzman” claim true? Finding out is a relatively simple matter. First, we can consult the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action web page, which features a map describing “Right-to-Carry” laws for firearms by state :

NRA's right-to-carry map for the 50 states of the USA

According to this map, the only states that are not “right-to-carry” are California, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Second, we can visit the FBI for 2015 uniform crime statistics for the 50 states. Until just this past Monday, this data was unavailable to the public.  As of October 2, 2016, the data is pretty fresh: just 6 days old in public release.

Third, we need to figure out crime rates for the “right-to-carry” states and the other states of the union, and in previous course lectures we’ve discussed how to determine such rates. To obtain the violent crime rate per 100,000 population for the 42 “right-to-carry” states, take the number of violent crimes reported in all of those states (874,310 according to our FBI source), divide by the population of those states (230,915,032, again according to our FBI source), and multiply by 100,000. The result is a violent crime rate of 378.63 per 100,000 population in “right-to-carry states.”

Following the same method for the 8 other states (332,290 reported violent crimes and 82,366,685 population), the violent crime rate is 403.43 per 100,000 population. Now we have our first result: for the most recent year, the violent crime rate is 6.1% lower in “right-to-carry” states, not 24% lower. This is a weaker level of support for the deterrence claim made in the “Triad” blog.

We’re not done, though, since there are claims about other forms of crime. Let’s repeat the process for the murder rate per 100,000: in the 42 “Right-to-Carry” states (11,173 murders and 230,915,032 population), the murder rate is 4.84 per 100,000 population. In the 8 other states (3,566 murders and 82,366,685 population), the murder rate is 4.33 per 100,000 population. The murder rate is 11.8% higher in “right-to-carry” states, not 28% lower. This result runs directly contrary to both deterrence theory and the claims of the “Triad” blog.

What about the robbery rate? In the 42 “Right-to-Carry” states (233,987 robberies and 230,915,032 population), the robbery rate is 101.33 per 100,000 population. In the 8 other states (116,499 robberies and 82,366,685 population), the robbery rate is 141.44 per 100,000 population. The robbery rate is 39.6% lower in “right-to-carry” states, not 50% lower. This result provides weaker support for the deterrence claim made in the “Triad” blog.

Taken together, the most recent data regarding “Right-to-Carry” states provides mixed support for the deterrence claim. Further muddying the waters, it turns out that the ultimate source for this claim is the National Rifle Association (National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action 2013), which made the claim about the United States in the year 2007: “In 2007, RTC states had lower violent crime rates, on average, compared to the rest of the country (total violent crime by 24%; murder, 28%; robbery, 50%; and aggravated assault, 11%”

Let’s just not talk about what’s going on now. Let’s look back in time, too. Was the deterrence claim accurate in 2007? Let’s visit Table 5 from the FBI’s Crime in the United States 2007 and find out using standard Uniform Crime Reports data.

In 2007, “Right-to-Carry” laws regarding firearms were in effect in 39 states (including the 2 “unrestricted” states in the map below). Those states allowed concealed weapons to be carried without vetting by law enforcement officials. 11 states, in contrast, had some form of limited or full legal restrictions regarding guns:

2007 Right to Carry Gun Laws Map

We know how to obtain the violent crime rate per 100,000 population for the 39 “Right-to-Carry” states: take the number of violent crimes reported in all of those states (931,088) in the 2007 Uniform Crime Reports, divide by the population of those states (199,779,684) in 2007, and multiply by 100,000. The result is a rate of 466.1 violent crimes per 100,000 population.

Following the same method for the 11 other states (468,929 reported violent crimes and 101,253,181 population), the 2007 violent crime rate was 463.1 per 100,000 population. The violent crime rate in 2007 was 0.6% higher in “right-to-carry” states, not 24% lower.

Repeat the process for the murder rate per 100,000: in the 39 “Right-to-Carry” states (11,520 murders and 199,779,684 population), the 2007 murder rate was 5.77 per 100,000 population. In the 11 other states (5,228 murders and 101,253,181 population), the 2007 murder rate was 5.16 per 100,000 population. The 2007 murder rate was 11.7% higher in “right-to-carry” states, not 28% lower. The deterrence again fails to check out.

Repeat the process for the robbery rate per 100,000: in the 39 “Right-to-Carry” states (272,966 robberies and 199,779,684 population), the 2007 robbery rate was 136.63 per 100,000 population. In the 11 other states (167,898 robberies and 101,253,181 population), the 2007 robbery rate was 165.82 per 100,000 population. The 2007 robbery rate was 17.4% lower in “right-to-carry” states, not 50% lower. This is the closest the NRA comes to being correct, but the NRA’s claim is still far off.

Repeat the process for the aggravated assault rate per 100,000: in the 39 “Right-to-Carry” states (579,317 aggravated assaults and 199,779,684 population), the 2007 assault rate was 289.98 per 100,000 population. In the 11 other states (272,853 aggravated assaults and 101,253,181 population), the 2007 assault rate was 269.48 per 100,000 population. The 2007 aggravated assault rate was 7.6% higher in “right-to-carry” states, not 11% lower. The claim about the deterrent effect of concealed weapons is wrong yet again.

I’d like to dig deeper, because there’s something more that gnaws at me. The four components of the Uniform Crime Reports violent crime rate in 2007 were murders, robberies, aggravated assaults and rapes. Why didn’t the NRA include the rape statistic in its report? We don’t know, but it is an odd omission considering that rape statistics are available from the same source. According to the Uniform Crime Reports (use the method I’ve cited here and check my facts) the rate of rape in “right-to-carry” states was actually 48.6% higher in right-to-carry states than other states.

One last fact: counts of violent crimes aren’t all the FBI collects with its Uniform Crime Reports. It collects counts of property crimes, too. It turns out the rate of property crime in “right to carry” states was 29.9% higher than in other states in 2007.

The deterrent claim by National Rifle Association regarding right-to-carry states is not confirmed; it appears that crimes aren’t lower where people have the right to carry concealed weapons. But let’s not stop there. What do the results mean? There’s another possibility that must be considered. It’s possible that higher crime rates in some states have actually led those states to pass “right-to-carry” laws in an effort to reduce crime through a deterrent effect; perhaps the states without “right-to-carry” laws haven’t gotten around to it because they don’t have high crime rates to worry about. This kind of possibility means that although the NRA claims clearly aren’t supported, deterrence isn’t utterly disproved by this sort of evidence either.

Activities: a Quiz, a Survey

Remember to keep an eye on the course syllabus each week for a description of activities you need to carry out to succeed in the course. This week, the syllabus asks you to carry out two activities:

1. Complete a quiz on the material in Hagan’s Chapter 5. This quiz is graded according to both completeness AND correctness, and you must complete it in a single sitting, so you should make sure to set aside a long block of time when you know you’ll have the ability to start and finish the quiz.  HOWEVER, THIS IS ALSO AN OPEN-BOOK QUIZ.  Unlike your exams, you may take the quiz with your open textbook at hand.  My goal is for you to use the quiz to read this theoretically-dense chapter at a good level of detail.  If you’re careful, you should be able to do rather well!

2. Complete a course survey. As we near the middle of the semester, I’d like a chance to hear from you about the aspects of the course that you are finding to be useful, and also to hear from you about the aspects of the course that you might find less than satisfactory. You will be graded for completing this survey (100 points if you take it by October 8), but you will not be graded for the answers you provide. Indeed, the survey answers will be anonymous — that is, the Blackboard survey software will not allow me to find out who has provided what answers.

Both the quiz and the survey are available in the “Activities” folder of our course Blackboard page.


Beccaria, Cesare. 1764 [1963]. On Crimes and Punishment. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Harrison, Judy. 2013. “Brian Strout Encountered Criminals ‘Who Are Just Evil’ During 25 Years with Maine State Police.” Bangor Daily News: July 30.

National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action. 2015. “Gun Laws: Did You Know?” Accessed at http://www.nraila.org/gun-laws/did-you-know.aspx on March 5, 2015.

Ojo, JD. 1981. “Supernatural Powers and Criminal Law: A Study with Particular Reference to Nigeria.” Journal of Black Studies 11: 327-348.

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