This article has been written by Pranjal and edited by Shashwat Kaushik.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Crime in society shows the failure of the government to maintain law and order but it’s not always the government that breaks the law. Laws are broken by individuals who are not abstract entities of society. The reason for committing a crime can be different for every individual; there can be differences in the sociological, economical, psychological and, to some extent, biological development of a person that become the cause of crime in society. Crime has been part of human civilisation since ancient times. Manu, the composer of Manusmriti, recognises some of the crimes, like assault, theft, robbery, false evidence, slander, criminal breach of trust, cheating, adultery and rape. Since then, the ambit of the word crime has reshaped into its modern form and has become a part of every transaction, whether it be social, economic, financial, domestic or intellectual.

What is a crime

Crime has become a part of human society. Generally, crime can be defined as an act made punishable by law. Legislatures pass several laws to regulate affairs and criminalise certain acts, omissions or commissions. Once such activities are criminalised, all those who indulge in them are said to be criminals. It certainly means that if ‘X’ is the offence that has been made punishable by the State at a certain point in time, then the person who is doing any act of such kind is a criminal. The state has prime responsibility for stating what is right or wrong in the country. What is wrong in one place cannot be illegal in another.

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Whereas crime can also be understood as a conflict between individuals and society. Years ago, Aristotle said that “man is a social animal,” but while we move forward and see that every criminal activity is a result of a conflict between the will of the individual and the will of society, there has been a consistent pattern of deviant acts done by men, acts that are against the will of society. These acts proved that man has not yet learned to socialise with each other even at the present modern age, that man is not a social animal but a gregarious one, and that a perfectly social man is still in the making.

A very famous sociologist, Durkheim, suggested that a society without crime is not possible. In his view, the designation of criminality is how society defines it. If all of the members of society decide not to do any act that is considered criminal, the same society will develop new behaviours that are not considered criminal. Crime is a social fact and it contributes to the social dynamics of society. The only difference is that one sees criminality in an individual sense and observes the effect of that criminal activity on society, while the other sees criminality as a policy of public morality, which may or may not have anything to do with the effect on society. 

Although “criminality” and “crime” are both different terms, crime can have different scopes and meanings, but in general, an “offence or a crime is a violation of right, considered in reference to the evil tendency of such violation as regards to the community at large,” while criminality is a state of mind, a temperament, which for the purpose of law can be evidenced by an overt act or provable fact. So far, we have failed to defend our society against crime and our whole focus is now shifting towards defending it against criminals. Thus, there is no definite definition of crime; it is a very complex phenomenon, especially in this modern age, where changes occur across cultures, cultures change over time and behaviours that were not criminalised get criminalised (for example, the ban on alcohol in Bihar).

Theories of crime

As discussed above, crime can be understood as the intentional commission of an act that is deemed to be socially harmful and also prohibited under criminal law. It is also a dynamic concept, and its ambit keeps on changing with the development of new criminal behaviour. There are some criminological theories that are said to be the reasons for crime in society and can be classified into three approaches:

  1. Biological theory
  2. Sociological theory
  3. Psycological theory

Biological theory

In the 19th century, Italian prison psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso drew on the ideas of Charles Darwin and suggested that criminals were atavistic: and the reason for their turning into criminals was the recurrence of traits of their ancestors in subsequent generations. He suggested that their brains were mal-developed or not fully developed. In his review of prisoners, he found that they shared several common physical attributes, such as sloping foreheads and receding chins. In so doing, Lombroso suggested that involvement in crime was a product of biology and biological characteristics.

Lombroso’s work has long since fallen out of favour. However, biological theories have continued to develop. Some modern criminologists do consider genetics and pre-disposition (including testosterone and IQ level) but they look at the interplay between the biological and social conditions of the person rather than focusing on extremely seemingly natural genetic traits. The modern biological theory focuses on bio-social traits rather than Biological Factors.

Sociological theory

The sociological approaches show how external social factors contribute to the occurrence of crime in society. These approaches study the reasons for crime external to individuals, for instance, the society of the person, peer groups, and Family.

  1. Social disorganisation theory: This theory was the result of research conducted by sociologists at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Key proponents of this theory were Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay. They used spatial mapping and examined the residential locations of juveniles appearing in court and found the rate of delinquency is higher in areas with poor survival conditions, poor health facilities and socio-economic disorder. This led them to suggest that crime was part of neighbourhood dynamics and not due to individual actors.
  2. Labelling theory: “Once a criminal, always a criminal” The labelling theory suggests that applying a label, whether that means officially designating a youth as a “bad kid” or troublemaker” or a mere arrest and incarceration, can have long-term effects on a person. Contemporary research shows how labelling can have a profound impact on people and also on juveniles, which can affect their education and job opportunities and have repercussions that can lead to continued criminal behaviour.
  3. Right realism/rational choice theory: This approach by criminologists sees criminals as rational actors. The theory assumes that it is their logical judgement that results in crime.  Such logical judgement is made after calculating the cost and reward of it. They emphasise punishment as the best means to deter individuals from committing crimes.
  4. Left realism/relative deprivation: Left realism theory developed as a response to the influence of right response theory in government policy. Left realists see society as an unequal capitalistic society but they should not be confused with Marxist theorists. Left realists use the concept of relative deprivation to justify and support their view. They criticise sociologists for not taking crime seriously. John Lea and Jack Young did a victim survey in London with the aim of explaining the street crime committed by young people and found that the working class had a fear of street crime. Relative deprivation is a concept where a person feels deprived in relation to other people, and this condition can only be improved by gradual social change. Lea and Young explain that relative deprivation is not the only cause of crime; the real cause is the lethal combination of Relative deprivation and Individualism.
  5. Anomie theory/strain theory: The concept of Anomie has been given by Durkheim to show the breakage of cultural and social norms and it is often accompanied by various social changes. On the basis of the Anomie theory of Durkheim, a famous American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, suggested in the 1940s that crime is the result of an individual’s inability to achieve culturally valued goals (e.g., Material wealth, good living standard, Status). The reason for this inability can be the deprivation of a particular class of individuals from the mainstream of society, which causes frustration and can often lead to deviant and illegal behaviours. There are some similarities between Left Realism and Strain Theory; both talk about how the deprivation of class of people often becomes a reason for them to commit a crime.
  6. Social control theory: This theory does not talk about the causes of crime but instead focuses on why people obey the law. This theory was propounded by Travis Hirschi (1969), an American sociologist who gave the “social bond theory” and suggested that the likelihood of committing a crime is lower if a person has a strong bond with friends and family. The social bond of the person prevents him from doing delinquent acts. Their behaviour has been controlled by external factors. It is because the socialisation of the person has happened in an excellent way and the person has developed a strong attachment to their loved ones. Social control theory does not support the criminal justice system. It does not favour an increase in the police force or the imposition of hard penal punishment; rather, it emphasises the government’s responsibility to create policies that can develop a bond between individuals and society.

Psychological theory

The psychological theory of crime says that criminal behaviour is a result of individual differences in the thinking processes of human beings. Psychologists study the individual perspective and suggest that differences in thought processes cause differences in actions.  There are many psychological theories, but they all believe that it is the person’s thoughts and feelings that dictate their actions and control their behaviour. As such, problems in thinking can lead to criminal behaviour. There are four basic ideas when it comes to psychological theories of crime. These general assumptions are:

  1. Failure in psychological development: Some people commit crimes because they have not developed or grown like others. They have some sort of underdeveloped conscience.
  2. Learned behaviours of aggression and violence: If someone is surrounded by violence and aggression, they are more likely to become violent and aggressive because they have learned that those behaviours are okay.
  3. Inherent personality traits: There are some characteristics that criminals tend to share with each other, and some psychologists believe that certain personality traits predispose someone towards criminal behaviour.
  4. Relationship between criminality and mental illness: Some people with psychological disorders end up committing crimes. At the same time, this isn’t the case for all people with mental illness. There are higher than-standard percentages of criminals with mental illness.

All these psychological factors could have an effect on a criminal.


Now, it has become clear that crime is committed by individuals in society and has become an inseparable part of society. Crime is nothing but delinquent behaviour that can be seen at every point in the history of humankind. Theories associated with crime causation are not absolute; there are loops in every theory propounded and not everyone can be perfectly applied to understand the whole diverse concept of crime but these theories contributed a lot to understanding the concept of crime and its connection to society. As crime is a dynamic concept, the evolution of new criminal behaviours in individuals forces the government to regulate those behaviours by law. Several crimes, like white collar crimes, cybercrime, the Data Protection Bill, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, etc., are evolving with the modernisation of society.




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