Synthesizing Biological and Social Theories Research Paper

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The synthesis of biological and social environmental theories is a relatively recent phenomenon in criminology. While the early criminologists focused heavily on biological factors related to criminality, criminology eventually came to be dominated by sociological explanations of criminal behavior in the 1930s, and this continued for several decades. However, starting in the 1970s, criminologists began to reexamine biological findings relevant to understanding criminal behavior.

In modern criminology, there are several prominent attempts to synthesize biological and social environmental theorizing. In particular, these integrated theories in the biosocial and developmental research programs use a combination of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors to explain criminality. These new theories have been successful fusing existing explanations of criminal behavior and explaining interactions between key variables from biology, psychology, and sociology.

The Reemergence Of Biology In Criminology

For many years, biological explanations of criminal behavior were excluded from mainstream criminology. This was largely a product of the domination of sociological and environmental explanations in the study of crime from the 1930s to the 1970s (Ellis and Walsh 2003). However, during the late 1970s, some criminologists began to acknowledge the importance of biology and individual differences in the formation of criminality. The emergence of the biosocial perspective offered a way to synthesize existing social environmental explanations with important biological findings relevant to understanding criminal behavior (Ellis 1990).

Recent attempts to fuse biological and social environmental theories can be found in developmental-life course theories of criminal behavior (e.g., see Farrington 1992; Moffitt 1993) and biosocial criminology (e.g., see Ellis 2005; Robinson and Beaver 2009). The notion of gene-environment interaction is important to these theories. Genes determine the different traits that are passed from parents to offspring. In some cases, these traits lead to the formation of an impulsive or aggressive personality creating a predisposition towards antisocial and/or criminal behavior (Walsh 2009). If the environmental conditions are right, an individual with an impulsive or aggressive personality may become involved in crime.

Many of these recent contributions also rely upon a risk factor approach to theorizing (Bernard and Snipes 1996). The goal of the risk factor approach is to identify important variables from different levels of explanation and explain how they interact with one another (Robinson and Beaver 2009). Before reviewing the key contemporary biosocial theories of criminal behavior, it is important to be familiar with the origin of the biosocial perspective in criminology.

Origin Of The Biosocial Perspective In Criminology

In the late nineteenth century, biological and multiple factor explanations of criminality were quite popular and could be found in the work of many well-known positivist criminologists including Lombroso, Ferri, Garofalo, and Hooton. However, starting in the early twentieth century, these explanations slowly started to lose favor and began to be displaced by theories that emphasized sociological and environmental explanations. Most prominent were theories offered by the Chicago School (e.g., social disorganization and differential association theory) and Merton’s strain theory.

Modern fusions of biological and social environmental explanations can be traced back to Eysenck’s (1964) theory of the criminal personality. He argued that criminality resulted from the interplay between neurophysiological and environmental conditions and that behavior was learned through classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning. More specifically, individual differences in neurochemistry may cause some people to condition less effectively which leads to the formation of various personality types some of which predispose people to criminality. He identified two personality traits, extraversion and neuroticism, as particularly important to proper conditioning. To summarize, Eysenck (1964) suggested that people with high levels of extraversion and neuroticism would have difficulties learning from punishment and other aversive stimuli, making them the most likely to engage in crime.

Eysenck (1964) claimed that extraverted individuals are especially prone to criminality because their behavior consists of attempts to stimulate their underactive arousal systems. The inactivity can be traced to a small bundle of neurons in the central part of the brain known as the ascending reticular activating system (Eysenck 1964). This system is responsible for keeping the cerebral cortex stimulated and alert. Extraverts are thought to have a pronounced insensitivity in this area of the brain. Consequently, they tend to seek out stimulation in their environment by engaging in risky, thrilling, and impulsive behaviors which often equate to various forms of criminal and/or antisocial behavior.

Neuroticism refers to how one reacts to stress. People with high levels of neuroticism are very sensitive to stress and have difficulties recovering from stressful situations. People with low levels of neuroticism tend to be calm and emotionally stable even when stressors are present and recover quickly after experiencing stressful events. According to Eysenck (1964), high levels of neuroticism are connected to high baseline levels of activity in the autonomic nervous and limbic systems in the brain. These systems are responsible for triggering one’s fight or flight response in emergencies and other dangerous situations. Neurotics are thought to be more prone to criminality because the emotional instability created by the high activity in these areas can cause overreactions or inappropriate reactions to stressful situations which may result in criminal and/or antisocial behavior.

  1. R. Jeffery (1978) was another early proponent of the biosocial perspective in criminology. He noted that for nearly a half century, criminologists had ignored the findings of the biological sciences that were an important part of a full explanation of criminal behavior. While he was clearly a pioneer in the field of biosocial criminology, Jeffery failed to produce a specific theory of criminality that synthesized biological and social environmental factors. However, he did suggest the application of systems theory to the field of criminology (Jeffery 1990). The systems approach would become a key component of Robinson and Beaver’s (2009) integrated systems theory of antisocial behavior which will be discussed later in this research paper.

Another early example of an attempt to synthesize biological and social environmental explanations can be found in Wilson and Herrnstein’s (1985) Crime and Human Nature. Wilson and Herrnstein argued that certain biological predispositions (e.g., aggression, impulsivity, and low IQ) affect how people respond to punishment and, consequently, their propensity to commit crime. In this theory, biological predispositions are thought to affect the operant (instrumental) learning process; this is in contrast to Eysenck’s (1964) theory which stressed classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning. In other words, one’s susceptibility to deterrence is affected by individual differences in biology. According to Wilson and Herrnstein (1985), behavioral problems begin with parents who fail to discipline their children properly and continue with the criminal justice system which, in their view, had become overly lenient on criminals during the 1960s and 1970s.

It is clear that the work of both Eysenck (1964) and Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) are attempts to combine biological factors (i.e., predispositions) and social environmental factors (i.e., learning and conditioning) to explain criminality. One major shortcoming of these theories was a failure to seriously consider social factors involved in criminality outside of the family and psychological learning processes. In addition, these theories focused exclusively on explaining more serious crimes involving violence like murder and robbery while ignoring corporate and white-collar crime and other crimes common in the middle and upper classes (e.g., driving under the influence, tax evasion, and minor theft). It is interesting to note that early twin studies conducted by Mednick and his colleagues (1977) found stronger connections between heredity and petty crimes than between heredity and violent crimes. Finally, both theories seem to be geared towards explaining chronic and persistent forms of offending rather than sporadic or infrequent criminal behavior.

Contemporary theorists have attempted to address these issues by broadening the scope of their theories and by specifying interactions between key variables in their theories. These more recent theories will be reviewed in the following section.

Contemporary Syntheses

Farrington’s (1992) integrated cognitive antisocial potential theory is one example of a recent attempt to fuse biological and social environmental explanations of criminal behavior. His theory also incorporates a developmental-life course approach meaning that it attempts to account for within-individual change as well as between-individual differences in offending. The key construct in this theory is the notion of antisocial potential (AP) which assesses one’s potential to commit antisocial acts. In addition, AP serves as a vehicle for integrating existing biological and sociological explanations of criminality.

Two types of AP are identified: long term and short term. Long-term AP refers to between-individual differences in individuals that are relatively stable over time. Factors that contribute to long-term AP include low cortical arousal, impulsivity, high levels of strain, weak attachments, and exposure to antisocial models (Farrington 1992). This is a clear attempt to combine variables derived from key biological findings with prominent sociological theories of criminality (e.g., strain, social control, and social learning). Short-term AP focuses upon within-individual variation in criminality. Factors for this dimension of AP are situational (e.g., anger, boredom, and intoxication) and are drawn out of the rational choice, routine activities, and opportunity theories (Farrington 1992).

Like Wilson and Herrnstein (1985), Farrington’s (1992) theory addresses street crime committed by lower-class males, so the scope of the theory is quite limited. In other words, like its predecessors, this theory fails to account for middle-class and elite forms of crime and “normative” crime committed by adolescents. The main advancement here is the use of a developmental-life course approach and the focus on within-individual change in criminality. This emphasis allows the theory to account for changes in offending patterns over time.

Another theory that incorporates a developmental-life course approach is Moffitt’s (1993) developmental taxonomy. She posits the existence of two types of offenders: life-coursepersistent (LCP) and adolescence-limited (AL) offenders. According to Moffitt (1993), LCPs offend frequently throughout their life and account for approximately 5–10 % of all offenders. LCPs are thought to suffer from neuropsychological deficits that affect verbal (i.e., speech, reading, and writing) and executive (i.e., impulse control and attention span) functioning. These deficits also cause problematic social interactions, especially with parents, school officials, and other authority figures. Family interactions are particularly problematic since, in many cases, parents tend to have similar neuropsychological deficits making interaction all the more difficult. In addition, these deficits predispose the individual to engage in risk-taking and impulsive behavior which often results in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior. Finally, these neuropsychological problems impede the learning of prosocial alternatives to crime, and eventually LCPs become ensnared by the consequences of crime (e.g., negative labeling and a reduction in legitimate opportunities that often lead to desistance from criminal activity). This portion of the theory is a clear attempt to explain how individual differences in biology (i.e., neuropsychological deficits) interact with various environmental factors (i.e., family and school interactions and negative labeling) to produce chronic offending patterns (Moffitt 1993).

Individual differences are thought to be much less important in explaining AL offending patterns; the key factors in AL offending are primarily social and environmental. AL offenders compose the vast majority of offenders (about 90–95 %) and commit crime during adolescent years but eventually desist by their early 20s. Moffitt (1993) argues that this type of crime is normative and is not the result of special traits or biological factors. Instead, AL offending occurs through a process of social mimicry of LCP behavior.

According to Moffitt (1993), modern society has created a “maturity gap” for teenagers in which they lack true roles. This also means that they are prohibited from engaging in adult activities like working, driving, voting, and living on their own until their late teens and early 20s. This role vacuum causes teens to search for other ways to feel mature and independent. For some of these adolescents, maturity and independence are defined as engaging in adult behaviors including drinking alcohol and having sex. Eventually, some of these individuals observe the LCPs getting rewards for their delinquent behavior (e.g., premarital sex, underage drinking, drug use, and possessions obtained through theft). For the ALs, these rewards symbolize freedom and autonomy. In order to obtain feelings of independence, the ALs begin to mimic the delinquent behavior of the LCPs.

AL offending has very little to do with individual differences per se; however, biological factors are still taken into account. Moffitt (1993) claims that societal changes have effectively lengthened adolescence by limiting or delaying roles that require responsibility and maturity. The factor of maturity and its role in development is the biological component in this part of the theory, while the notion of social mimicry and societal changes affecting developmental patterns of youth represents the social environmental component.

Ellis’s (2005) evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory attempts to explain why sex is the strongest correlate of crime. To do this, Ellis (2005) suggests that high levels of testosterone give rise to competitive/victimizing behavior. Competitive/victimizing behavior is conceptualized along a continuum. On one end of the continuum are “crude” or criminal forms of behavior, which refer to attempts to injure people or deprive them of their property; in most cases, these acts have been criminalized by modern governments. Notably, white-collar or elite forms of crime are also addressed here as well. On the other end of the continuum are “sophisticated” or commercial forms of behavior, which include acts that “make no profits on the sale of goods or services, although those who administer and maintain the organization under which they operate usually receive much higher wages than do those who provide most of the day-to-day labour” (Ellis 2005: 288). According to this theory, the most serious criminality will be concentrated among adolescent and young adult males of low social status. Victimless forms of crime are left unaddressed by this theory.

This theory consists of two interrelated propositions. The evolutionary proposition suggests that aggressive and acquisitive criminal behavior evolved as an aspect of human reproduction. In short, females are thought to have mating preferences for higher status males that are capable of providing resources. These preferences have been observed in other mammalian species and are thought to hold true in humans as well. Consequently, the theory predicts that rape will always be more common among males who are unable to be stable providers.

The neuroandrogenic proposition identifies three important aspects of brain functioning that play a role in criminal behavior. First, high perinatal testosterone levels can alter brain functioning in ways that promote competitive/victimizing behavior. This is because higher levels of testosterone can affect brain development and may lead to suboptimal arousal levels, may make one prone to seizures, and may cause a rightward shift in neocortical functioning. These are all correlates that appear in other research on serious criminality (see, e.g., Eysenck 1964). Second, one’s ability to learn or IQ can serve to inhibit criminal behavior. Third, executive functioning or planning ability is thought to inhibit “crude” or criminal forms of behavior. After adolescence, those with higher levels of learning and planning ability will move quickly from “crude” to “sophisticated” forms of behavior (Ellis 2005).

Because on it focuses upon testosterone and brain development, Ellis’s (2005) evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory may appear to be a purely biological theory of criminality. However, the evolutionary proposition considers the role of social environmental factors relating to sex and social status. In contrast to some of the other formulations presented here, mainstream theories from the control, strain, and differential association/cultural deviance trajectories in criminology do not play a role in Ellis’s (2005) evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory.

Robinson and Beaver’s (2009) integrated systems theory is a wide-ranging and holistic attempt to combine biological and social environmental explanations into a unified theory. The approach used is composed of two key influences.

First, the theory itself is derived from the evolutionary-ecological paradigm proposed by Vila (1994). Vila claimed that ecological, micro-, and macro-level factors form the basis for the formation of personality (referred to as “strategic style”) which determines the likelihood of criminal behavior.

Second, Robinson and Beaver’s theory (2009) incorporates a systems theory perspective into the evolutionary-ecological paradigm. This is an interdisciplinary biosocial approach, meaning that it seeks to synthesize findings from a variety of disciplines. Systems theory posits six levels of analysis: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, and community/society. Each of these levels represents an individual system, and all of these systems interact with other systems above and below them. This is essentially a risk factor approach similar to the one offered by Bernard and Snipes (1996) and used by the developmental-life course theorists (Farrington 1992; Moffitt 1993).

The biosocial basis of Robinson and Beaver’s (2009) formulation is made clear in the first proposition of the theory:

All behaviours are the result of gene-environment interaction. Genes do not cause behavior; they predispose individuals to react to environmental stimuli in certain ways, meaning some will be more likely to behave in an antisocial manner. Genes are linked to numerous factors relevant for antisocial behavior, including but not limited to personality, drug use and abuse, IQ, violence, and mental illness. (367-368)

The rest of the propositions explain how various criminogenic factors contribute to antisocial and criminal behavior. A variety of factors and explanations from different disciplines are discussed and grouped into the various levels of analysis proposed by systems theory. Biological and psychological factors are considered to be part of the cell, organ, and organism levels. The cellular level of analysis refers to how genes may impact behavior and provide certain predispositions for antisocial behaviors. For example, genes determine IQ, neurotransmitter, and hormone levels all of which are connected to the brain. The main emphasis of the organ level is the brain since it plays a prominent role in behavior. The organism level is focused on the formation of personality which is considered to be a result of gene-environment interactions. This level also accounts for factors relating to diet and nutrition, drug consumption, and mental illness (Robinson and Beaver 2009).

The social and environmental factors are placed into the group, organization/community, and societal levels. The group level deals with small group interactions and incorporates explanations from sociological and social- psychological criminology like the social learning and social control theories. Community variables are derived from sociological theories like social disorganization, routine activities, and lifestyle theory which focus on how certain areas and neighborhoods produce high levels of crime. This level of explanation also considers the impact of organizational level variables proposed by deterrence and labeling theories (i.e., related to the criminal justice system and societal reaction) might have on criminal activity. Finally, societal level explanations are drawn from macrosociological explanations of crime and incorporate variables from strain, anomie, subcultural, and culture conflict theories.

Robinson and Beaver (2009) also attempt to specify how the levels and variables within them interact with each other. Other theorists (Eysenck 1964; Farrington 1992; Moffitt 1993) have identified some of these interactions, especially those at the biological and psychological levels, but none have done so with the level of rigor applied here. For example, Robinson and Beaver (2009) explain that abnormal neurotransmitter, enzyme, and hormone levels impact the formation of the brain and personality, which can later lead to problems in social interaction with parents, friends, peers, and teachers. However, they identify other variables like destructive labeling, economic stress, diet, and pollution that can also affect brain development and may influence subsequent behavior. In addition, larger socioeconomic factors (e.g., tax and corporate policies) may contribute to social disorganization in certain communities. Levels of social disorganization can influence incidences of family conflict, which can also affect biosocial development. Further, social disorganization often gives rise to unsupervised peer groups which play role in the formation of criminal and antisocial behavior (Robinson and Beaver 2009).

Robinson and Beaver’s (2009) theory does an effective job of organizing the important findings from a number of disciplines. The attempts made to specify the relationships between the different variables are also useful; however, further research will be needed to truly understand, identify, and refine all of these relationships. Problems in previous theories (Farringon 1992; Moffitt 1993) are also avoided because the scope has been broadened, allowing this theory to more seriously consider how white-collar and corporate crime may be explained.


The biosocial and developmental approaches have proven to be extremely useful as a starting point for synthesizing biological and social environmental explanations of criminal behavior. However, there are still a number of lingering controversies and contentious debates that should be discussed. First, early biosocial theories (Eysenck 1964; Wilson and Herrnstein 1985) generally downplayed the role of social and environmental factors in criminality. Much of this was related to an implicit emphasis on identifying serious and violent chronic offenders rather than explaining more common types of crime committed by youth or less serious offenders. Again, it is important to bear in mind that early studies of twins found biological connections to petty, and not violent, crimes (Mednick and Christianson 1977). This disjunction between theory and research indicates that there is still an interesting puzzle for criminologists to solve.

Later theories (Farrington 1992; Moffitt 1993; Ellis 2005; Robinson and Beaver 2009) attempted to address this problem by more directly incorporating social factors into the mix of variables. However, biological factors and individual differences still play a central role in these formulations. Further, many of these theories fail to account for white-collar and corporate forms of crime, so their scopes are somewhat narrow. Notable exceptions here include Ellis’s (2005) evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory and Robinson and Beaver’s (2009) integrated systems theory.

Second, some commentators have suggested that there is currently an overreliance on the risk factor approach in criminology (Moffitt and Caspi 2006; Wikstrom 2008). Specifically, these critics charge that simply assembling lists of key risk factors does not advance the state of criminological theory. The underlying issue here is confusion between correlation and causation; in other words, many risk factors are based on correlates of crime rather than causal factors. In order to break free of this problem, theorists have attempted to specify interactions between different variables and more specific causal processes that exist within theories (Robinson and Beaver 2009). Unfortunately, many of these relationships and causal mechanisms remain somewhat unclear and unspecified.

Despite these problems, biosocial and developmental-life course theories have done an admirable job of advancing criminological theories past the point of purely sociological explanations of criminal behavior. Recent attempts to integrate biological and social environmental explanations have clarified the relationships that variables have with one another and have identified some interactions that may exist between these variables. However, more unified theories will require more research that clearly specifies all of the potential relationships the various biological and social environmental factors may have with each other.


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