Situational Action Theory: Crime and Social Disadvantage

While the relationship between social disadvantage and crime  has long been known, an important question that’s often ignored is why only a relatively small proportion of the socially disadvantaged seem to engage in persistent criminal offending?

Wikstrom’s Situational Action Theory provides an interesting, thought-provoking, possible answer…

The Crime Paradox

Most A-level crime and deviance students will quickly come to understand the relationship between social disadvantage – what Wikström and Treiber (2016) term “the comparative lack of social and economic resources”- and various forms of persistent, mainly low-level, criminality, overwhelmingly committed by young, lower class, males. Crimes that involve relatively small levels of economic reward (arson, vandalism, theft, shoplifting, robbery, car crime and burglary) or which involve routine low-level violence (assault). In basic terms, social disadvantage is generally seen as a cause of crime.

Professor Per-Olof Wikstrom

The problem with this characterisation, however, is that it’s both true – statistically, most persistent offenders do come from a socially-disadvantaged background (at least as far as the kinds of crimes we’ve just listed are concerned) and not true: social disadvantage doesn’t, in and of itself, cause crime because only a relatively small proportion of those classified as socially disadvantaged become persistent offenders. The majority do not. Which is not something we would expect if the relationship was a causal one.

Squaring the Circle of Causality

How, then, do we square a circle that, as Wikström and Treiber argue, is based on “the paradox that most persistent offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but most people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not become persistent offenders.”?

One obvious way to start is by investigating the idea that the role of social disadvantage in crime is both real – there seem to be very few persistent offenders who are socially advantaged – but not directly causal: disadvantage clearly plays some part, but what that part might be is neither  simple nor clear-cut..

For Wikstrom, the problem is that although “social disadvantage has been a key criminological topic for some time, the mechanisms which link it to offending remain poorly specified”. What this means is that while we know there is a relationship between crime and social disadvantage, what that relationship might actually be has tended to be assumed rather than tested. Correlation has all-to-often simply been assumed to be indicative of causation.

While many late-20th – early-21st century explanations for crime, particularly those from a New Right perspective, have (rightly) rejected this idea, they’ve done so in ways that have tended, deliberately one suspects, to throw the offending bathwater out with the socially disadvantaged baby.

So to speak.

Or, to put it less obtusely, New Right perspectives have tended to reject the possibility of understanding the “root causes” of crime by rejecting the notion that criminal offending is underpinned and prompted by social causes (such as social disadvantages).

Something like Routine Activity Theory, for example, avoids the problem of causation by simply taking individual situations and motivations out of the equation. In RAT world “everyone” is capable of committing a crime given the right conditions (such as the absence of anyone or anything to stop them) and so what motivates people to commit crime – their inner psychological demons or outer sociological conditions – are largely (mis)cast as irrelevant.

And while this neatly avoids the “problem of causation” it leads to both notable absurdities (in this instance, crime effectively becomes its own cause) and doesn’t satisfactorily confront the elephant in the room: why are young offenders consistently and persistently drawn from the ranks of the socially disadvantaged?

While social disadvantage may not cause crime the close correlation between the two is surely something that needs to, at the very least, be explored in more detail?

This is the position taken by Wikstrom in that while he recognises the relationship isn’t a straightforward causal one, there’s enough of a relationship present to warrant further investigation.

To this end Wikstrom’s Situational Action Theory seeks to specify the mechanisms that link social disadvantage to offending using two testable concepts:

  • crime propensity: the extent to which different individuals are attracted to and likely to commit, crime.
  • criminogenic exposure: the extent to which individuals experience criminal ideas and behaviours.


Crime propensity is measured in two ways:

1. Personal morality: this refers to the kind of moral outlook everyone develops throughout their life. In this context, if you see nothing morally wrong with criminal behaviour you will develop a higher crime propensity. Similarly, if you’ve been raised to see criminal behaviour as morally wrong you will consequently have a much lower criminal propensity.

Although it’s a significant variable in relation to whether or not an individual is likely to engage in criminal behaviour, propensity doesn’t, of itself, determine criminality. Other factors are also at work here.

2. Self-control can be broadly defined as “the ability to manage impulses, regulate emotions, and exhibit restraint in the face of challenges” and in terms of criminal propensity it relates to two things: firstly, our ability to resist our inner impulses towards criminal behaviour and, secondly, our ability to resist the encouragement of others towards criminal involvement.

In this respect an individual’s propensity towards criminal or non-criminal behaviour is the outcome of a complex interplay between their personal morality and levels of self-control. In broad terms someone with a high moral distain for crime – and hence a low propensity for criminality – and strong self-control in the face of temptations towards crime is unlikely to become an offender.

Conversely, someone who sees nothing wrong with particular forms of criminality and has low levels of self-control in the face of temptation is highly-likely to develop some form of offending behaviour.

It’s important to note crime propensity is not an all-or-nothing quality. Someone who, for example, has few moral qualms about drug dealing might be as appalled by the idea of assaulting or killing someone as those with a low crime propensity.


Criminogenic exposure refers to the extent to which individuals are exposed to criminal temptations through two main sources:

1. Peer-group relationships: this has similarities to Sutherland’s notion of “Differential Associationand holds that individuals who socialise with those, such as friends and family, who are routinely and normally involved in various forms of criminal behaviour have a higher-level of criminogenic exposure than those who do not. This kind of routine exposure – or lack of same – impacts on the two dimensions of crime propensity we’ve previously outlined in various ways. It may, for example, weaken levels of self-control. If crime is something everyone in our social circle routinely commits, it makes it harder for us to resist engaging in this activity. Similarly, if the significant others around us – such as parents, siblings and close friends – see nothing unusual or distasteful about petty crime we’re highly likely to incorporate this view into our personal morality.

2. Criminogenic settings: This idea draws on both ecological theories of space, organisation and disorganisation and Control Theories to argue that some social spaces lend themselves more than others to encouraging criminal behaviour.

A simple example might be the kinds of night-time city centre areas, filled with bars, clubs and fast-food restaurants, that allow individuals and groups to move relatively anonymously through such spaces. This anonymity combined with relatively lax social controls – all kinds of behaviour that wouldn’t be expected or tolerated elsewhere is either ignored or passed-off as normal – lends itself to various forms of deviant and criminal behaviours.

In this respect, the presence or absence of both formal and informal social controls in an area contributes to its criminogenic setting and the extent to which it encourages – or at the very least doesn’t actively discourage – criminal behaviour. Individuals who routinely find themselves in criminogenic settings – either through choice (self-selection) because they represent exotic and exciting spaces, or by following the choices made by their associates (social selection) – are much more-likely to engage in criminal behaviour than peers who shun such spaces and associations.

Social disadvantage

Although we’ll develop the (empirical) relationship between crime and social disadvantage in more detail later, it’s useful to understand two things to complete this section:

Firstly, although we’ve been at pains to point-out social disadvantage doesn’t directly cause crime, that’s not to say it doesn’t have an important role to play in our understanding of those causes. We know, for example, that concepts like personal morality, self-control and peer-group relationships are significantly influenced by social advantages and disadvantages.

In terms of our personal relationships, for example, we know social class – a proxy for different types of advantage and disadvantage – plays an important, probably determining, role in the social relationships we form: to put it bluntly, the socially advantaged tend to mix with those of a similar status and vice versa.

The implication here is that the socially disadvantaged have a much greater chance of forming personal relationships with those involved in crime than the socially advantaged: the circles in which young working-class move, for example, have a high probability of bringing them into contact with people for whom crime is, if not necessarily a way of life, an important aspect of that life.

This isn’t to say socially disadvantaged teens inevitably become offenders because it’s perfectly possible to form non-criminal relationships with similar-minded peers. Compared to their socially advantaged peers, however, there’s a much greater probability that at least some peer relationships will involve criminal offending. This means that compared to their advantaged peers socially disadvantaged youth have a much higher probability of being drawn into persistent offending. And while probabilistic analyses of crime aren’t necessarily causal we need to keep in mind that when explaining criminal involvement it’s not something we should simply ignore.

Similarly, one of the classic distinctions between middle and working class behaviours is that of immediate and differed gratification, the former being a characteristic of the socially disadvantaged. Mischel’s (1972) Marshmallow Test (Mischel, Ebbesen and Zeiss), for example, not only demonstrated this distinction but also showed how differences in self-control revealed by the test translated in later life into things like different academic and social competences, plus greater or lesser resistance to frustration and temptation. Social disadvantage, in this respect, strongly correlates with lower self-control.

Again, this is indicative not conclusive.

Self-control is, for example, something that can be learnt. Young children who seemingly lack self-control don’t necessarily grow-up to be teens and adults who have little or no self-control. It’s also important to note how self-control is in many important respects context-dependent: for lower levels of self-control to result in a greater willingness to give-in to the “temptations of crime” the individual has to necessarily find themselves in a criminogenic situation / context. By avoiding criminogenic exposure, for example, the individual will not have to exercise self-control.

Finally, while concepts of personal morality are just that – particular to each individual – concepts of right and wrong don’t simply develop in a social vacuum. On the contrary, they are influenced by primary sources like parents and peers as well as secondary sources such as social media. In addition, our personal experiences in-and-of the social world influence how our personal morality develops. This, in turn, suggests that advantageous and disadvantageous social experiences play a major part in shaping how we see and think about the world.

In basic terms, therefore, someone who sees certain types of offending as part of the normal run-of-the-mill experience of social life is more-likely to involve themselves in this world than someone who doesn’t have this view or experience. Although it is, of course, possible that the former may be as repelled by that world as seduced by it, the balance of probability suggests the latter is the more-likely outcome.

Secondly, in the broader sense, Wikstrom and Treiber clarify the relationship between social disadvantage and crime by noting how “social disadvantage is linked to crime because more people from disadvantaged versus affluent backgrounds develop a high crime propensity and are exposed to criminogenic contexts”.

In other words, they explain the relationship between social disadvantage and crime as one where the socially disadvantaged are more-likely to engage in criminal activity because social disadvantage leads to a higher crime propensity (people are less-likely to have significant moral qualms about committing crimes) and lower levels of self-control (they are more-likely to be affected by social and economic frustrations such as low-paid, menial, jobs / casual work / unemployment and give-in to the economic temptations of living in a consumer society without the legitimate means, such as highly-paid work, to satisfy their consumer cravings.

This over-representation of the poor and disadvantaged in criminal offending is further explained by two types of selection:

  • social selection refers to the objective conditions of an individual’s life, where young people are born (selected) into disadvantaged families and consequently suffer a socially and economically disadvantaged upbringing.
  • self-selection refers to the decisions made by socially disadvantaged individuals to actually seek-out and engage in opportunities for offending. Offending is, in this respect, something consciously chosen, not automatically given. Although, as we’ve argued, even this kind of individual action is heavily-dependent on situational factors.

These selection processes represent a combination of structural (social selection) and action (self-selection) processes that can be used to explain how and why some individuals and groups come to involve themselves in persistent offending:

Firstly, it explains why the socially disadvantaged have higher rates of offending (“processes of social and self-selection place the socially disadvantaged more frequently in contexts conducive to the development and expression of high crime propensities”).

Secondly, it explains why only a relatively small proportion of socially disadvantaged individuals engage in criminal offending. To take one example, the statistical analysis of offenders shows young males are far more likely to be involved in criminal offending than young females, even where they occupy the same economic positions. Young women have a much lower propensity for crime for a range of reasons, not the least being the kinds of peer group relationships they develop. These are neither conducive to crime nor do they tend to place young women in criminogenic settings that make offending more likely.

An End Has A Start…

Although Situational Action Theory asks important questions about crime and causality and has a certain plausibility (or face validity) in relation to the answers it proposes about the relationship between social disadvantage and crime it would be useful to look at empirical examples of research carried-out in this area.

As luck would have it, Wikstrom’s ground-breaking longitudinal study of youth crime, the Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+) goes some way to providing such evidence.

Crime and Social Disadvantage: The Evidence


Wikström, Per-Olof (2004 – 2015) Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study

Wikström, Per-Olof and Treiber, Kyle (2016) “Social Disadvantage and Crime: A Criminological Puzzle

Mischel, W.,  Ebbesen, E. and Zeiss, A  (1972) “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification

Livesey, C (2020) “Crime as a Cause of Crime? Evaluating Routine Activities

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