Routine Activities Approach Research Paper

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The routine activity approach is a theoretical perspective for describing and explaining how crime rates vary over time and space. The approach applies to variations and changes in both large and small areas, over both short and long stretches of time. The approach differs from many other criminological theories because it looks beyond individual offenders to focus on crime events and emphasizes how these events draw upon a much larger set of legal activities.

Basic Theory Described As Stated In 1979

The routine activity approach began by studying “direct-contact predatory crimes,” namely, those offenses in which one person directly attacks another person or takes the property of another. Crime events normally require a physical convergence of three minimal elements: (1) a likely offender, (2) a suitable target, and (3) the absence of a capable guardian (Cohen and Felson 1979). Routine non-crime activities are central for distributing these elements across space and through time resulting in circumstances in which offenders converge with targets while guardians are absent. A guardian is not normally a police officer or security guard, but rather a citizen or employee whose proximity can discourage a crime from occurring.

While the majority of theoretical criminology focuses specifically on criminal motivation, the routine activities approach focuses on crime incidents, treating criminality as but one feature within a larger system of activities. Without denying that offender motivation is necessary, it is far from sufficient for understanding crime; accordingly, the routine activities approach focuses upon criminal events themselves and the prerequisites required for their occurrence. Variation in these prerequisites can explain changes in crime rates without requiring any changes in the structural or individual conditions that motivate offenders.

The routine activity approach argues that the absence of any of the three elements is sufficient to effectively thwart crime. Because the three elements vary as a result of the normal day to day activities of both criminal and noncriminal individuals, the effects of routine activities can be difficult to recognize. The idea of a guardian provides a straightforward example. Cohen and Felson (1979) note that because guardianship is implicit in everyday life and is often marked by the absence of violations, it is easy to overlook. Whereas police actions are widely analyzed, guardianship by ordinary individuals as they progress through their routine activities was largely neglected in sociological research on crime. However, recent research has begun to analyze the effects of guardians on crime using both experimental and quasi-experimental methods (Hollis-Peel et al. 2011). Because guardianship by ordinary individuals links together seemingly unrelated social roles and relationships to the occurrence of illegal acts, it represents a phenomena not readily explained by sociological theory. However, this phenomenon may be extremely important in understanding crime.

Massive Crime Wave And Inapplicability Of Earlier Theoretical Predictions

The period between 1960 and 1975 was characterized by marked increases in reported rates of crime. Controlling for population size, robbery rates had increased by 263 %, aggravated assault by 164 %, forcible rape by 174 %, and homicide by 188 %. Nonviolent offenses had experienced similar trends with burglary up by 200 % and auto theft increasing by 150 %. These trends represented a sociological paradox, as the conditions generally assumed by sociologists to cause crime had actually improved over the same period. High school completion had risen, unemployment had fallen, median family income had grown, and the number of people living below the poverty line had diminished. Other important predictors of crime had improved as well. The proportion of the population living in the inner city and the percent of foreign born individuals residing in high-crime areas had both declined. Although the percent black had increased slightly during that period, as did the percent of the population widowed or divorced, these changes were in no way sufficient to explain the crime rate trends. Even the influx of the Post World War II baby boom into adolescence could only account for a small part of the crime wave that actually occurred. Although cross-sectional crime analysis seemed to support conventional theories, and although such theories may be useful for explaining crime trends for particular subgroups or specific communities during certain time periods, they could not explain these general crime trends over longer periods. Incorporating micro-level assumptions about individual behavior and macro-level ideas about how crime fits into community life that emerge from human ecology, the routine activity approach offered an alternative and more effective theoretical framework.

Human Ecology Origins

Amos Hawley (1950) propagated a theory of community life, treating communities not simply as units of territory but also as tangles of symbiotic and competitive relationships. These relationships vary as human activities are preformed over both space and time. Hawley identified three important temporal components of community structure that are especially important for the routine activity approach: tempo, rhythm, and timing. Tempo refers to the number of events occurring per unit of time, as exemplified by a crime rate. A rhythm is the regular periodicity with which an event occurs; thus, crime has a daily or hourly rhythm, a weekly rhythm, and a monthly rhythm. For example, in the course of a day, certain crimes go up in the afternoon near schools and in the evening in entertainment districts, reflecting the combined significance of time and space. Timing refers to the coordination or coincidence of different activities and is extremely important for the routine activity approach. The afternoon upsurge in crime corresponds to the daily rhythm of schooling and when school releases likely offenders and suitable targets for crime.

Hawley’s central emphasis was on sustenance activities, upon which all other activities depend. Thus, the structure of work in community life influences leisure and other activities that must draw resources from it. More generally, the structure of illegal activities depends upon the organization of everyday sustenance activities – including work, school, and family life. Accordingly, the rhythms of daily life include the daily journeys to work and school, affecting the locations of offenders and crime targets and their spatiotemporal convergences. Timing leads to questions about the interdependence between crime and noncrime activities, as well as the comovements of likely offenders and suitable crime targets in the course of a day.

Although the routine activity approach considered many temporal features of crime, it emphasized activities within each day and their impact on the specific spatiotemporal convergence of crime’s minimal elements, with offenders finding or stumbling upon targets with guardians absent. The approach supplemented Hawley’s work by including a technological impetus for change as envisioned by William F. Ogburn (1922). As a result, the routine activity approach replaced traditional cultural and social explanations of crime with an approach that brought technological change to the forefront thereby shifting crime rate analysis away from race, divorce, education, and other independent variables which could not in practice explain the crime wave during the 1960s and 1970s.

Central Social Changes Relevant To Crime

Human ecology led to the question, “Where does crime draw its sustenance?” The answer was found in the material goods produced by society and the tangible activities by which society sustained itself. A proliferation of lightweight consumer goods, high in value and low in weight, provided vast new opportunities to commit crime. The new targets for property crime emerged with the technology of plastics and transistors bringing down the weight of electronic goods. Thus, the routine activity approach looked at the increased value per pound for small television sets and the dramatic increases in things to steal. The approach looked also at the female labor force participation rate and the dispersion of activities away from family and household, these making it possible for offenders to find targets away from the security of home or to find people home alone. Intrinsic to the routine activity approach was a detailed statistical review of changes in daily life and documentation of dramatic new exposures to risk of property and violent crime victimization. The development of the victimization survey provided new data about crime events that made the routine activity approach possible, along with some related theoretical ideas developed by others.

Key Links, Developments, And Controversies

Link To Lifestyle Theory

At about the same time as the routine activity approach, similar ideas emerged in the Netherlands (Van Dijk and Steinmetz 1983) as well as Great Britain (Mayhew et al. 1976). However, the most well-known parallel work was the lifestyle theory of Hindelang et al. (1978). Lifestyle theory suggests that differential exposure to offenders results in differential rates of victimization (Fattah 1991). Therefore, understanding variance in exposure is paramount to understanding victimization. Exposure to offenders varies with structural factors commonly associated with sociological theories of crime (e.g., age, race, and neighborhood of residence). However, exposure also varies as a function of the victim’s personal lifestyle. The work and leisure activities of an individual may increase exposure to potential offenders, enhancing risk of victimization. This implies that risk of victimization may be reduced by modifying such exposures.

Although routine activity theory and lifestyle theory are often viewed as identical, that is not the case. On the one hand, routine activity ideas emphasize the criminogenic effects of everyday routines, such as work, school, and family life. In contrast, lifestyle theory gives more attention to personal lifestyle choices in leisure life. The two theories are not, however, completely distinct, since the former includes lifestyles and the latter includes work. The difference is a matter of emphasis, yet it suggests that the two theories should not be treated as one and the same.

Link To Situational Prevention

Originally, the routine activity approach did not offer policy prescriptions. Instead, it simply stated that high crime rates might be endemic in a modern society given the crime opportunities it produces. When Clarke and Felson met in London in 1981, the former suggested that if more crime opportunity makes more crime, it follows that less crime opportunity makes less crime. From that point on, routine activity theory and situational prevention began to interpenetrate, as increasingly evident in subsequent publications. Thus, the routine activity approach developed policy relevance, culminating in the joint publication Opportunity Makes the Thief (Felson and Clarke 1998).

Situational crime prevention is the application of “opportunity-reducing measures that (1) are directed as highly specific forms of crime, (2) involve the management, design, or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent way as possible, (3) make crime more difficult or risky, or less rewarding and excusable as judged by a wide range of offenders” (Clarke 1997, p. 4). Situational prevention advocates surveillance and target hardening through the management and manipulation of the environment which equates to altering the suitability of targets and the presence of guardians. Thus, situational prevention adopts aspects of the routing activities approach.

Link To Other Approaches And The Emergence Of Crime Science

The routine activity approach is increasingly linked to other approaches. Situational crime prevention, which focuses on the circumstances that give rise to specific kinds of crime, seeks to make crime less attractive to offenders by manipulating the situational factors favoring crime (Clarke 1997). Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) takes a similar tack by focusing on environmental conditions and the opportunities that they offer potential offenders (Zahm 2007). Victimology shifts the focus away from criminal motivation and instead focuses on victim-offender interactions and the social and personal settings where crimes take place (Fattah 2000). Environmental criminology recognizes crime as a function of law, offender motivation, and target characteristics superimposed on an unseen environmental backcloth where the rhythms of life interact with environmental constraints (Brantingham and Brantingham 1993).

While each of these approaches considers unique aspects of crime, they share the common thread of explaining crime rather than trying to explain criminal motivation. After focusing attention on crime itself, attention can be given to the problem of reducing crime rather than simply dealing with the criminal (Gottfredson and Clarke 1990). This results in an emerging area of study distinct from mainstream criminology known simply as crime science (Laycock 2003).

Incorporating Social Control

Initially, the routine activities approach simply assumed offender motivation. However, later work addressed this limitation by incorporating the idea of informal social control (Felson 1986). The idea of informal social control adopted within the routine activities perspective represents a simplification of Hirschi’s (1969) control theory. While Hirschi conceived informal social control as involving four specific elements (commitments, attachments, involvements, and beliefs), the routine activities perspective considers a simplified single effect of all four. Felson (1986) described all four of Hirschi’s elements using a single word: handle. Crime is reduced when society gains a handle on potential offenders. This handle on individuals is formed when society establishes a social bond with the individuals. Because individuals might lose this bond if others become upset with their behavior, society is able to exert informal social control and handle potential offenders (Felson 1986).


Routine activities acknowledged from the beginning that the presence of a capable guardian prevented crime. However, little distinction was made between guardians who supervise motivated offenders and guardians who supervise suitable targets. Later presentations are elaborated on this distinction by distinguishing between handlers and guardians. Whereas guardians supervise targets, handlers supervise offenders. The intimate handler emerged as a handler who supervises specific offenders using personal knowledge. Intimate handlers limit an offender’s ability to engage in criminal acts using informal social control. Family, community members, and peers can all act as intimate handlers.


While the routine activities approach has been related to situational crime prevention, Clarke (1992) argues that the routine activities approach would have greater impact on situational crime prevention if it were to incorporate the idea of a crime facilitator. A crime facilitator is anything that comprises an essential tool for the commission of a particular type of crime. Examples of crime facilitators include some items commonly associated with crime such as weapons or lock picks as well as items typically associated with noncriminal behavior such as automobiles, telephones, and computers. Further, crime facilitators can include items that act as disinhibitors such as alcohol and drugs. The distinguishing characteristic of a crime facilitator is the simple fact that the item itself is involved in the criminal act. Because crime facilitators are distributed unevenly throughout space and time, the varying availability of crime facilitators is directly related to the routine activities of individuals both criminal and noncriminal.

Place Managers And Eck’s Triplets

Another contribution to routine activities theory comes from John Eck (1994). Eck incorporates the idea of a place manager into the approach. A place manager is someone who is responsible for a particular space. Unlike a capable guardian who is protecting the suitable target, a place manager protects the place itself. Because the offender and target must converge somewhere in space, an individual guarding a particular space can avert crime even though they are not specifically interested in either the target or the offender. Doormen, security guards, and building superintendents are examples of place managers who can serve to discourage crime.

For Eck, the incorporation of place managers in conjunction with intimate handlers creates a situation where criminal opportunity is strictly limited. Known as Eck’s triplets, this situation occurs when a likely offender is supervised by an intimate handler, a suitable target is supervised by a capable guardian, and the time and space where the offender and the target converge are supervised by a place manager, thus drastically reducing criminal opportunity. However, the effect of the triplet can be viewed in other ways as well. Offenders can be seen as discouraged by the proximity of guardians, managers, and handlers to targets, places, and the offenders themselves. In contrast, the effect can be viewed as relying upon the social ties that guardians, managers, and handlers have with targets, places, and offenders. Either way, the result is the same. A would-be offender must lose his handler and find an unprotected target in a location free of an intrusive manager to commit a successful crime.

Supervision When Offenders Control The Area

Supervision is typically viewed as a process that discourages crime. Capable guardians, intimate handlers, and place managers all serve to limit the criminal opportunities available to would-be offenders by virtue of their familiarity with targets, offenders, and places. However, familiarity does not always reduce crime. Offenders can assume a similar role and actually supervise guardians, handlers, and managers. Offenders may either seek to prevent these individuals from interfering or may actually find suitable victims among them. The process of familiarity generally strengthens the position of whichever group has the upper hand. When adversaries of crime have a stronger position, then familiarity serves to reduce offenders’ ability to commit crimes. However, when offenders have a stronger position, then familiarity serves to enhance their ability to commit crimes. Offenders may have the upper hand in areas that have lost their basic controls. For example, areas with a high ratio of active offenders to others that have large numbers of abandoned properties likely tilt the balance of power to offenders. In such areas, offenders can rely on their familiarity with individuals and locations to commit crimes and evade supervision.

Non-Predatory Offenses

The routine activities approach originally considered only direct-contact predatory violations. These violations were defined as illegal acts in which an individual definitely and intentionally took or damaged another’s property. The offenses were likewise limited to only those that involved direct physical contact between at least one offender and at least one person or object that the offender attempted to take or damage (Cohen and Felson 1979). Later, Felson (1987) developed a crime classification system using four general categories of crime. The categories include crimes which are exploitative (where one person takes or damages the property of another), crimes which are mutualistic (those linking multiple individuals acting in complementary roles such as gambling or prostitution), crimes which are competitive (those involving multiple parties acting in the same role against each other such as fighting), and crimes which are individualistic (isolated illegal actions such as solo drug use or suicide).

Although the original conception of the routine activities approach applied only to exploitative offenses, the basic reasoning of the perspective extends to all four types of crime. All four types require that certain minimal elements converge in space and time for a crime to take place. Whereas predatory violations require an offender, a target, and the lack of a guardian, the other types have similar requirements. Mutualistic crimes require that at least two individuals inclined toward the offense meet in the absence of others who might interfere. An example is prostitution where a prostitute must meet a client in the absence of police and spouse. Competitive offenses have a similar requirement. Fighters must encounter each other in the absence of peacemakers. Even individualistic violations involve a convergence of events. For example, suicides must avoid meddlers.

White-Collar Offenses

Some scholars have argued that white-collar crime can be understood using the routine activities approach (Weisburd et al. 2001). White-collar offenders are offenders who have specialized access to crime targets due to their work role, profession, or organizational position. Therefore, white-collar crimes can be viewed simply as crimes of special access. Viewing white-collar crimes in this way removes the sociological stereotypes associated with the behavior and explains why white-collar crime can be largely understood through the routine activities approach.

The vast majority of white-collar crime is mundane. It is easily accomplished by unskilled individuals and results in little economic return (Wright and Cullen 2000). Further, white-collar crimes rarely involve white-collar workers. Instead, the vast majority of white-collar crimes are committed by low-level individuals seeking material gain (Felson and Boba 2010). Because the motivations for white-collar crime are remarkably similar to those for burglary, there is little evidence to suggest that white-collar crime should be viewed any differently.

The only important feature which distinguishes white-collar crime arises from the specialized access derived from an offender’s work role. The offender’s position can provide greater criminal opportunity because official duties can provide access to targets. All offenders need access to targets, and white-collar offenders are no different. Whereas some offenders such as robbers take advantage of overlapping activity spaces to find targets, others such as burglars may take advantage of personal ties using personal information to determine which residences to burglarize. White-collar offenders take advantage of the unique access afforded them by their employment in their search for suitable targets. Quite simply, white-collar offenders have found a particular solution to the offender’s general problem of finding suitable targets.

Organized Crime

Most organized crime is much smaller in scale and organization than depicted in the media (Reuter 1983). However, the study of organized crime still suffers from a variety of distractions related to the televised image. The degree of planning and sophistication required for offender to cooperate is generally overestimated, while the interaction between criminal cooperation and legitimate activities is typically underestimated (Felson 2006). This has resulted in extant studies of organized crime focusing on social networks in attempts to understand criminal organizations. This myopic approach overvalues linkages within specific groups which limits research into the nature of criminal organizations. In contrast, the routine activities perspective suggests that the important linkages for understanding organized crime are the linkages between events rather than between individuals.

Because offenders are likely to converge in certain settings, these settings allow criminal cooperation to persist even when the individuals vary. These offender convergence settings provide a stage for engaging in a variety of illicit activities. These locations provide a place where offenders can engage in illicit transactions as well as seek out accomplices. While some settings where offenders convergence exist solely for criminal activity, others involve legitimate activities. These places provide a social life for offenders who may generate criminal plans while engaged in otherwise innocuous activities. Thus, the nature of criminal organization may owe more to the routine activities of offenders themselves than to offenders’ social networks.

Cyber Offenses

Cybercrime represents a relatively new topic within the field of criminology. Although few studies have attempted to analyze cybercrime, some scholars have argued that the routine activities perspective may provide a useful theoretical model for such research (Bossler and Holt 2009). The routine activities perspective may be applicable because, like other crimes, cybercrime requires that a motivated offender and a suitable target converge in the absence of a capable guardian. However, others dispute this assertion. They argue that because virtual environments are spatially and temporally disconnected, they are remarkably different than the traditional environments in which the routine activities approach has been previously applied. The disorganization caused by individuals and websites connecting and disconnecting over short periods of time may limit the applicability of the basic constructs of the routine activities approach (Yar 2005).

While this remains an open empirical question, research into cybercrime indicates that risk of cyber victimization is related to the specific tasks an individual undertakes on the internet, not simply internet use itself (Holt and Bossler 2008). For example, malware victimization was shown to be related to computer deviance (Bossler and Holt 2009). This suggests that individuals who choose to engage in deviant cyber acts place themselves in proximity to motivated offenders. Together, this line of research supports the applicability of the routine activities approach to cybercrime as it suggests that cyber victimization may result from convergence patterns of both victims and offenders within cyberspace.

Possible Controversies In The Literature

Two controversies concerning the routine activities approach are noteworthy. The first controversy extends back to the approach’s original presentation. From its inception, the routine activities approach has been criticized as not conceptually distinct from social disorganization theory. However, several differences clearly distinguish between the two perspectives. Whereas social disorganization theory emphasizes broad places, the routine activities perspective concerns much smaller geographies such as specific streets, blocks, and addresses. The temporal emphasis varies between the two as well. Social disorganization focuses on changes over decades, but the routine activities approach focuses on temporal changes from hour to hour. While social disorganization treats offenders as the key personal focus, routine activities include targets and guardians. Finally, social disorganization theory is driven by the impact of social influences. In contrast, the routine activities perspective is driven by the idea of socio-physical convergences.

The second controversy concerns the proper dependent variable for the routine activities approach. Because the approach specifies that certain activities like household and family activities entail lower risk of criminal victimization than other activities (i.e., non-household/ nonfamily), victimization represents the conceptual dependent variable. However, various studies have operationalized victimization in different ways. In the original paper, Cohen and Felson considered risk per billion person hours. Later, Clarke introduced the idea of partitioning risk by time spent in particular categories of activity. This idea resulted in the idea of risk per million hours parked in each place. This concept was later extended by Lemieux (2010) who conducted a more thorough analysis of risk per 10 million person hours in each of a variety of activities. Lemieux included sleeping, shopping, commuting to and from work, commuting to and from other areas, conducting other activities at home, working, commuting to and from school, engaging in leisure away from home, and attending school. Lemieux concluded that sleeping and shopping were the least dangerous activities while leisure away from the home and attending school were the most dangerous.


The routine activities perspective provides an important conceptual tool in the study of crime. Originally conceived to explain the prevalence of a particular type of crime during a specific period of time, the routine activities perspective has been adopted to explain many different types of crime in a wide variety of environments. While this versatility represents one of the great strengths of routine activities, the consistency of the original insights throughout the development represents the approach’s single greatest attribute. This is no doubt the result of the elegant simplicity of the perspective itself.

While the future of routine activities is unclear, the close relationship between routine activities, situational crime prevention, and CPTED will provide a variety of opportunities for continued development. Because routine activities research focuses on micro-level processes, the routine activities approach leads to specific policy recommendations. As a result, the perspective is useful to both scholars and practitioners alike.


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