Rational Choice Theory in Criminology - A Research Paper

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University of Richmond
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Research paper
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Rational choice theory is a unique phrase applicable to various fields including political science, sociology, and economics (Hodgson, 2012). This unique approach presents an important perspective for contextualizing behavior choice whenever presented with social, psychological as well as material options. The Rational choice theory has been used as an approach to determining why people make certain choices in life. For instance, a person will only choose to fight in a situation where he or she feels that fighting is capable of satisfying a certain degree of anger. In this case, the rational choice is made based on the anger this person feels. Different people exhibit different rationality in making choices whenever presented with the same situation (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1997). Consider a situation of robbery with violence and robbery without violence. In this case, a robber choosing to use violence probably believes that violence is a tool for intimidating a target to surrender their possessions. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the rational choice theory has become one of the most important theories in studying criminology. This paper will delve into the concept of rational choice theory and how the concept applies in the field of criminology.

Fundamentals of rational choice theory

The traditional approach used by sociologists to study criminology based on internal and external controls in society (Burns & Roszkowska, 2016). According to this approach, sociologists argued that an individuals behavior within a society is a factor of internal norms, values, and attitudes within a society. Another argument suggested that an individuals behavior within a society is a factor of external controls that include threats and sanctions. However, this perception does not take into account the ability of people to make different choices under different circumstances. Rational choice theory is a model of understanding human approaches to making choices that were derived from the expected utility model often used in economics (Ogu, 2013). The approach has so far gained a lot of significance and relevance in the fields of sociology, political science, and criminology. Two rational choice models exist; which include the macro-rational and the micro-rational.

It has always been argued that criminal motives emerge from two primary aspects which are conditioning and environment (Walters, 2015). From the psychological understanding of this point of view, it can be argued that individuals exposed to criminal gangs are likely to join the gangs and engage in crime. Also, it can be claimed that exposure to life challenges such as poverty and unemployment can compel a person to the crime. A child exposed brought up in a neighborhood where crime and drug peddling is the odd of the day is likely to end up on the wrong side of the law. However, there have been a lot of variances in the choices people make whenever faced with the three situations presented as examples. This proves that people have an individual approach which they use to make choices and this brings to the picture the rational choice theory (Hayward, 2007). Technically, it can be argued that this approach involves analysis of situations a person faces whenever presented with a particular environmental challenge or temptation. It is a similar approach that an entrepreneur uses before venturing into a risky business with a mind that there is a possibility of making a profit or a loss. In an occasion where profit is made, this entrepreneur stands to benefit. Similarly, criminals tend to use this approach in assessing crime actions that are most beneficial. A criminal will always conduct a cost-benefit analysis before making a rational decision to engage in crime. It is important to recognize the fact that the term rational in this case is relative since it is used to refer to a decision regardless of whether such decisions are wrong or right.

Individual action

Several authors including Burns and Roszkowska (2016) have approved the rational theory approach as a perfect model for conceptualizing a variety of human behavior. In social science, the model provides a perfect instrument for analyzing individual action as compared to group action. Human beings are believed to be complex and capable of making independent decisions. Despite the fact that peer influence may seem controversial, it is only an individual who is responsible for making a particular choice. Burns and Roszkowska (2016)argue that the decision-making process, an individual considers part or all alternatives presented in a particular situation. In addition, the decision-making process is characterized by lining actions to particular consequences. The next step involves ranking of consequences to determine the best option; the option with the most benefits. This approach to understanding human rationality assumes that decision-makers are aware of all alternatives at their disposal. An actor engages his or her mind in assessing the possible means of achieving an end. For instance, an actor chooses money as an end then evaluate available options of accessing money. These options may include working or stealing, and the actor will choose the most appropriate option. It is one of the choices (stealing) that amounts to a crime. Choices are made depending on the ease of accessing money, time, opportunities and risks.

All choices made by an actor are motivated by various factors which can be attributed to self-interest. Social scientists have established that different people have different approaches to conducting cost-benefit analyses and that some alternatives that are evidently viable may not apply to some actors. The rational approach theory also assumes the fact that an actor is well informed of all the consequences of a particular action.

Rational choice theory and environment

Steele (2016), the rational choice theory in criminology studies is an improvement in the traditional understanding of causes of crime. As mentioned before, the previous studies argued that crime was influenced by external or internal dynamics of society. The rational choice theory does not eliminate this possibility but rather creates a new understanding. According to the rational choice approach, individuals choose to subscribe to these internal and external triggers of crime. The theory upholds the principle of rationality or free-will that every individual enjoys whenever tasked with making choices. It has been indicated that the rational choice theory in criminology gained a lot of significance between 1980 and 1990. During this period, the topic was extensively studied to unravel criminal behavior. Criminal offenses are not driven by the conditions in their social environment but rather; an individual takes the initiative to believe that criminal acts can fail to lead to personal harm or consequences. This makes the idea of establishment criminal behavior similar to establishment of legal behavior. It may not be sufficient to infer that crime is predominantly an individual problem since incentives have been established to play a role in decision-making. However, it is a fact that criminality is an aggregate of consequences emanating from actors under different social conditions. From a sociological perspective, criminality is recognized as a conscious behavior that disregards the criminal law, which implies that offenders are always aware when committing a crime.

An actor or offender is always aware whenever contravening a law that is well recognized in society (Hodgson, 2012). This makes sense because offenders make efforts to conceal their identity and/or criminal offenses. It implies that the cost-benefit analysis adopted by criminals considers two fundamental factors. After a criminal considers a goal, he or she identifies two options for achieving this goal. One, spend time, time resources and legal approaches recognized within a society to achieve this goal. Two, spend less time, fewer resources and contravene social or legal norms. Actors do not choose a criminal act because they possess a difference from other people in the society regarding motives. Thus the main difference between criminal actors and non-criminal actors lies in the fact that these two parties have different approaches and preferences resulting from differential cost-benefit analysis. An actor only makes a choice which he or she determines to have the optimum potential of maximizing benefits.

Criminals tend to measure the utility of a given action against the costs such as legal penalties, possible detection, and detention (Masucci, 2013). I this case, the probability is recognized as a subjective expectation of an actor and not exogenous quantity. This parameter has been established to vary from one individual to another. The assessment or recognition of risks among criminal actors always consider risks such as penalties and possible detention as limited to change a criminal objective. Sometimes, an actor may develop an under-estimate or an over-estimate of risks. For instance, a robber may under-estimate a probability of being netted by police officers. Experience of actors is also a factor whenever conducting a cost-benefit analysis. A hardcore criminal may not hesitate to strike familiar decision situation, which they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis before. A former convict is also likely to have a different cost-benefit analysis given the fact that he or she has experienced similar cost before. A former convict who regrets a jail term will hesitate to engage in crime. On the other hand, a former convict who was never humbled by a jail term is likely to strike if given a chance. This difference arises from the fact that the cost evaluation of these two individuals greatly varies. Another example can be drawn from homicide cases witnessed among couples. An individual who chooses to kill a cheating couple considers a conviction to weigh less compared to a cheating couple.

Collective action

Some instances of crime require the collective action by a gang to implement a certain criminal activity. Despite the collective decision, rational theory recognizes the fact that every individual can express self-interests, self-calculations as well as self-maximization. This point of argument may present a situation that rules out a possibility of collective action. In the perspective of crime and politics, rational choice models are always adopted by every individual member during the formation of a coalition. A coalition is always intended to enhance mobilization of resources as well as strengthening the impact of a collective group. Whenever coalitions are made, every members rational choice is tied to the rational choice of the collective group. For instance, a gang may make a collective decision to strike and disregard individual rational choices. According to Congleton (2015), Olsons model provides a perfect approach of understanding the logic of collective thinking. Olsons model also respects the fact that every individual bears self-interests that resembles that of the cost-benefit analysis. According to Congleton (2015), Olson used various assumptions to present his arguments. One of the assumptions is that; relevant private cost-benefit analysis is influenced by the sizes of groups or gang.It is further argued that the groups can be divided into three categories. The same categories have been discussed by Ogu (2013) who recognizes three types of groups which include the privileged groups, latent group, and the intermediate groups. This three types of groups have bee...

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