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Criminology Routine Activity Theories
by
Per-Olof H. Wikström

Introduction

Routine activity theory, like the related lifestyle-exposure theory, emerged as a key theoretical approach in criminology in the late 1970s. Routine activities refer to generalized patterns of social activities in a society (i.e., spatial and temporal patterns in family, work, and leisure activities). A key idea is that the structure of routine activities in a society influences what kinds of situations emerge, and changes in a society’s routine activities cause changes in the kind of situations people confront. Another key idea is that people act in response to situations (including when they commit crimes); therefore, the kinds of situations they encounter in their daily lives influence their crime involvement (and, as a result, influence a society’s crime rate), and changes in people’s exposure to situations may lead to changes in their crime involvement (and, consequently, changes in a society’s crime rate). Routine activity theory links a macro-level structural model (spatial and temporal patterns of routine activities in society) with a micro-level situational model that aims to explain why a crime occurs. The situational model stipulates that a criminal act occurs as a result of the convergence of a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a lack of guardianship (control, supervision). Routine activity theory is sometimes combined with rational choice theory, an action theory that explains human action as the result of rational choice (i.e., acting on the best available option perceived). When applied at the individual level, the routine activity approach has generally aimed to explain why a person is victimized, or offends, by explaining how his/her individual routines (lifestyles) bring him/her into contact with (or expose him/her to) situations conducive to crime. Some efforts have been made to integrate the routine activity approach with other criminological theories. In terms of policy and prevention, the routine activity approach has mainly been linked to situational crime prevention and policing (for example, hot spots analysis).

General Overviews

Cohen and Felson 1979 introduces routine activity theory and its role in the study of crime rates and their changes. Felson 2002 provides an argument for and gives a good textbook-style introduction to the key ideas of routine activity theory and its application to crime prevention. Felson 2006 provides a discussion of routine activity theory within the context of life sciences (ecosystems) and some of its suggested key processes. Hindelang, et al. 1978 presents a lifestyle-exposure theory of personal victimization that has individual routine activities at its core. Wortley and Mazerolle 2008 gives an elementary introduction to the routine activity approach and its related theoretical perspectives (rational choice and crime pattern theory) within the overall concept of environmental criminology (of which routine activity theory is a central part). It also introduces its application to crime prevention and policing.

  • Cohen, L. E., and M. Felson. 1979. Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review 44:588–608.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094589Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This seminal paper helped to introduce routine activity theory to criminology. It outlines the theory’s basic assumptions about the role of routine activities in explaining a society’s crime rates; it also specifies the situational model that (according to the theory) explains the occurrence of crime events.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 2002. Crime and everyday life, 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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    Introduces the argument for and outlines the basic assumptions of routine activity theory and specifies its role in crime prevention. Written in a textbook style.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 2006. Crime and nature. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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    Further develops the arguments laid out in Felson 2002, particularly analyzing crime as part of an ecosystem and suggesting key relevant life processes and how they apply to the explanation of crime. Also includes implications for crime prevention.

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  • Hindelang, Michael, Michael Gottfredson, and James Garofalo. 1978. Victims of personal crime: An empirical foundation for a theory of personal victimization. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

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    Includes data on empirical regularities in victimization and provides in Chapter 11 a theory of personal victimization in which lifestyle (individual routine) is a key element.

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  • Wortley, Richard, and Lorraine Mazzerole, eds. 2008. Environmental criminology and crime analysis. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

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    The routine activity approach is at the core of what has been called “environmental criminology.” Gives a good introduction to the field of environmental criminology and its analytical approaches. It includes chapters by most key figures in environmental criminology and covers important topics raised by this perspective.

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Crime Rates and Trends

Cohen and Felson 1979 is an original paper on routine activity theory that focuses on explaining crime rates, and particularly their changes as a consequence of changes in societal routine activities. Most empirical studies of the relationship between routine activities and crime rates have used crude proxy measures of routine activities at the aggregate level (for example, data on nations, regions, or neighborhoods), which are typically sociodemographic features (e.g., indices of household characteristics assumed to indicate levels of guardianship; see Cohen, et al. 1980). A few studies have employed measures of land use as a proxy for area or place routine activities (see Rhodes and Conly 1981, Felson 1987). In a meta-analysis of macro-level predictors of crime rates, Pratt and Cullen 2005 argues that the empirical support for the routine activity approach is moderate. However, it has been claimed that aggregate data cannot be used to test routine activity theory, since its logic requires a test at the micro-level of the influence on crime events by the interaction of its key situational elements, with place as the preferred unit of analysis. Eck 1995 contends the need for testing the situational model of routine activity theory, something that has not really been adequately done. Weisburd, et al. 2009 provides an in-depth treatment of theoretical and methodological issues regarding the problem of selecting a proper unit of analysis in ecological research into crime, generally arguing for the advantages of using small areas or places as units of analysis. Routine activity theory is not only a theory about how situations create acts of crime, but, crucially, is also a theory about how societal routine activities create the situations hypothesized to be conducive to crime (see Felson and Cohen 1980). Few, if any, empirical studies have explored this aspect of the theory (i.e., the macro–micro link).

  • Cohen, L. E., and M. Felson. 1979. Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review 44:588–608.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094589Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses and critiques traditional explanations of crime trends and provides Routine Activity Theory as an alternative explanation of macro-level changes in crime rates.

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  • Cohen, L. E., M. Felson, and K.C. Land. 1980. Property crime rates in the United States: A macrodynamic analysis, 1947–1977: with Ex Ante forecasts for the mid-1980s. American Journal of Sociology 86:90–118.

    DOI: 10.1086/227204Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Good example of a study using proxy aggregate data to explore whether changes in routine activities affect changes in crime rates. Illustrates the crudeness of the measurement of routine activities applied in many aggregate-level studies.

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  • Eck, J. E. 1995. Examining routine activity theory: A review of two books. Justice Quarterly 12:783–797.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418829500096301Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Makes the argument that aggregate data are insufficient to test routine activity theory, because its logic requires testing on the micro level.

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  • Felson, M. 1987. Routine activities and crime prevention in the developing metropolis. Criminology 25:911–931.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1987.tb00825.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents, among other things, property crime frequencies by detailed type of land use in the places where crimes have occurred.

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  • Felson, M., and L. E. Cohen. 1980. Human ecology and crime: A routine activity approach. Human Ecology 8:389–406.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01561001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces the routine activity approach, in which the authors, among other things, argue that the question of how community structure affects the spatio-temporal convergence of offenders, targets, and absence of guardianship is not sufficiently studied.

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  • Pratt, T. C., and F. T. Cullen. 2005. Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: A meta-analysis. Crime and Justice 32:373–450.

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    Presents a meta-analysis of macro-level predictors of crime rates and evaluates the relative predictive power of key proposed variables from different macro theories, including routine activity theory.

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  • Rhodes, W. M., and C. C. Conly. 1981. Crime and mobility: An empirical study. In Environmental criminology. Edited by Paul J. Brantingham and Patricia L. Brantingham: Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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    Study in which area land use is utilized as a proxy measure of area routine activities. Land use is probably one of the best proxy measures of social activities, because it allows one to predict what kind of activities occur at the studied areas or places.

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  • Weisburd, David, Wim Bernasco, and Gerben Bruinsma. 2009. Putting crime in its place: Units of analysis in spatial crime research. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-09688-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A recently edited book focusing on the problem of selecting units of analysis in ecologically oriented research on crime. Includes theoretical and methodological discussions as well as empirical illustrations.

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The Situational Model

Opportunity is a key concept in routine activity theory. The situational model defines what constitutes an opportunity: that is, the convergence of a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the absence of guardianship (supervision, control); Cohen and Felson 1979, Felson and Cohen 1980. The logic of this interactional model requires all three elements to be present for a crime to occur. Felson 2002 talks about the chemistry of crime. However, this dynamic aspect of the theory has never really been properly tested (Bursik and Grasmick 1993).

Rational Choice

Although the situational model defines what constitutes an opportunity and hypothesizes that crime events are caused by opportunity (Felson 2002), it does not in itself explain why the convergence of the model’s three key elements (offender, target, lack of guardianship) would cause people to engage in acts of crime. When such an explanation is sought, proponents of routine activity theory tend to turn to some version of rational choice theory (Felson and Cohen 1980, Cornish and Clarke 1986, Clarke and Felson 1993). Trasler 1993 provides a critique of rational choice theory in the explanation of crime and argues it must be complemented by a dispositional theory. Wikström 2006 has proposed Situational Action Theory as an alternative to rational choice theory in the explanation of the situational mechanisms that generate acts of crime.

  • Clarke, Ronald V., and Marcus Felson. 1993. Introduction: Criminology, routine activity, and rational choice. In Routine activity and rational choice. Edited by R. V. Clarke and Marcus Felson. New Brunswick, Canada: Transaction.

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    A brief comparison and contrast of routine activity and rational choice theory (Clarke’s version) and an argument for their basic compatibility.

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  • Cornish, Derek B., and Ronald V. Clarke. 1986. The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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    Includes a range of papers on rational choice perspectives and their application in the study of crime. Probably the best available introduction to the uses of the rational choice approach within criminology.

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  • Felson, Marcus. 2002. Crime and everyday life, 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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    Claims that the prime cause of crime is opportunity.

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  • Felson, M., and L. E. Cohen. 1980. Human ecology and crime: A routine activity approach. Human Ecology 8:389–406.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01561001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Introduces routine activity theory. Includes the argument that routine activity theory is consistent with theories that individual choices are based on calculations of costs and benefits.

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  • Trasler, B. 1993. Conscience, opportunity, rational choice, and crime. In Routine activity and rational choice. Edited by Ronald V. Clarke and Marcus Felson. New Brunswick, Canada: Transaction.

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    Provides a critique of rational choice theory and argues it has to be complemented by a dispositional theory.

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  • Wikström, P-O. 2006. Individuals, settings and acts of crime: Situational mechanisms and the explanation of crime. In The explanation of crime: Context, mechanisms and development. Edited by P-O Wikström and Robert J. Sampson. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Introduces Situational Action Theory, an alternative action theory to rational choice for the explanation of the situational mechanisms that move people to engage in acts of crime.

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Lifestyles—Victimization

While routine activity theory focuses on explaining crime events, lifestyle exposure theory (Hindelang, et al. 1978) focuses on how differences in individual lifestyles (routines) may explain differences in people’s crime victimization. Lifestyles are defined as routine daily activities, such as daily family, work, and leisure activity patterns. The key idea is that people (and their property) vary in their exposure to situations conducive to crime as a result of their lifestyles (routines), and that this explains variation in victimization. Garofalo 1987 has suggested that the original model should be expanded by also considering relevant individual differences between (potential) victims, such as their propensity to take risks and the physical vulnerability they project to potential offenders. Sampson and Wooldredge 1987 stresses the importance of taking into account the influence of the general routine activity patterns of the community context in which people express their lifestyles (individual routines). Just as in aggregate-level research on routine activities and crime rates, studies of the link between lifestyles (individual routines) and victimization commonly use crude proxies as putative measures of lifestyles, such as people’s sociodemographic characteristics. Even when the measures are more direct, they still tend to be crude: for example, they are often based on time spent at home or outside the home. There is a lack of research based on detailed accounts of people’s daily routines and victimization. Meier and Miethe 1993 provides a good overview and critique of victimization research in the routine activity and lifestyle tradition and argues for an integration of these theories with theories aimed at explaining offending.

  • Garofalo, James. 1987. Reassessing the lifestyle model of criminal victimization. In Positive criminology. Edited by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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    Suggests that the original lifestyle-exposure model should be complemented by the consideration of relevant individual differences, such as the propensity to take risks and projected physical vulnerability. It also argues that structural constraints and reactions to crime should be part of the extended model.

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  • Hindelang, Michael, Michael Gottfredson, and James Garofalo. 1978. Victims of personal crime: An empirical foundation for a theory of personal victimization Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

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    Includes data on empirical regularities in victimization and provides a theory of personal victimization in which lifestyles (individual routines) is a key element.

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  • Meier, R. F., and T. D. Miethe. 1993. Understanding theories of criminal victimization. In Crime and justice. Edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Provides a good overview and a critique of victimization research in the routine activity and lifestyle tradition and argues for an integration of these theories with theories aimed at explaining offending.

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  • Sampson, R. J., and J. D. Wooldredge. 1987. Linking the micro- and macro-level dimensions of lifestyle-routine activity and opportunity models of predatory victimization. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 3:371–393.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01066837Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A study of the influence of community and individual routine activities on victimization. Stresses the importance of the general routine activity patterns of the community in which people express their lifestyles (individual routines).

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Lifestyles—Offending

While routine activity/lifestyle exposure theories have concentrated on explaining the crime event and victimization, some research has also focused on lifestyle (routines) as part of the explanation of why people offend (or why they develop certain crime propensities or are introduced to settings conducive to crime commission). West and Farrington 1977 demonstrates significant differences in lifestyles between offenders and nonoffenders. Riley 1987 shows marked differences in how offenders and nonoffenders spend their time in different activities. Osgood, et al. 1996 finds that those people who spend more time in unstructured socializing with peers tend to be more often involved in crime. Wikström and Butterworth 2006 introduces a space-time budget technique (which enables detailed accounts of activities in time and space) in the study of individual routines (lifestyles) and demonstrates a strong interaction between individual crime propensity and lifestyle in the explanation of crime involvement. Wikström 2009 shows that changes in young people’s crime propensity and (particularly) their exposure to criminogenic settings influence changes in their crime involvement; thus, those with a stronger crime propensity are more influenced by changes in exposure than others.

  • Osgood, D. W., J. K. Wilson, P. M. O’Malley, and J. G. Bachman. 1996. Routine activities and individual deviant behavior. American Sociological Review 61:635–655.

    DOI: 10.2307/2096397Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study demonstrating that those people who spend more time in unstructured socializing with peers tend to be more frequently involved in crime. Data on routine activities are based on questions about “how often” subjects engaged in thirteen different activities (for example, informal get-togethers with friends).

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  • Riley, D. 1987. Time and crime: The link between teenager lifestyle and delinquency. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 3:339–354.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01066835Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares and demonstrates that offenders and nonoffenders spend their time differently doing various activities. Data is based on structured interviews with teenagers and their parents.

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  • West, D. J., and D. P. Farrington. 1977. The delinquent way of life. London: Heinemann.

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    Compares differences in lifestyles of offenders and nonoffenders. Includes a self-reported measure of leisure activities over a “typical week” and finds that offenders tend to have more disorganized and unconstructive leisure time than nonoffenders.

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  • Wikström, P-O. 2009. Crime propensity, criminogenic exposure and crime involvement in early to mid adolescence. Monatsschrift für Kriminologie und Strafrechtsreform 92.2: 253.

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    Demonstrates an interaction between individual crime propensity and individuals’ exposure to criminogenic settings in predicting crime involvement; also finds that changes in propensity (and particularly exposure) predict changes in crime involvement. Space-time budgets, measuring individuals’ hourly activities in great detail and their geographic location, are part of the exposure construct.

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  • Wikström, P-O, and D.A. Butterworth. 2006. Adolescent crime: Individual differences and lifestyles. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

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    Introduces the space-time budget technique for studying lifestyles (individual routines) and demonstrates that the relationship between offending and lifestyle is dependent on young people’s crime propensity.

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Integrative Approaches

Several scholars have suggested that the routine activity and lifestyle approach may benefit from being integrated with other explanatory approaches in criminology. It has, for example, been suggested that routine activity theory is compatible with control theories, and that these theories may therefore be integrated. Felson 1986 utilizes insights from Hirschi 1969 and that work’s social bonds–based control theory to develop the guardianship component of the situational model of routine activity theory. Wilcox, et al. 2003 develops a theoretical account (called a “Dynamic Multicontextual Criminal Opportunity Theory”) in which they aim to integrate routine activity theory and social disorganization theory (its control version) in the explanation of crime events and crime rates. The theory assumes that all people are motivated offenders. Other scholars have attempted to integrate explanations of variation in offender motivation into a routine activity/lifestyle approach to explain criminal events. Miethe and Meier 1994 proposes a so-called heuristic theory, which aims to explain criminal events by suggesting the importance of a wide range of individual risk factors believed to cause offender motivation, victim characteristics believed to provide criminal opportunity, and social context factors believed to influence whether the coming together of a motivated offender and a criminal opportunity will create a crime event. Some scholars attempt to integrate individual and environmental explanatory processes. Wikström and Sampson 2003 develops a cross-level model of how key individual and community explanatory processes interact in explaining crime events and individual pathways in crime. Community and individual routines plays an important but not exclusive role in the model. Wikström 2006 has suggested and developed a theory that demonstrates how the influence of key individual factors (e.g., morality, ability to exercise self-control) and environmental factors (e.g., moral contexts and their enforcement) on crime events can be integrated within the framework of a Situational Action Theory.

  • Felson, Marcus. 1986. Linking criminal choices, routine activities, informal control, and criminal outcomes. In The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. Edited by Derek B. Cornish and Richard V. Clarke. New York. Springer-Verlag.

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    A paper in which Felson aims to integrate routine activity theory with control theory primarily by developing the guardianship component of the situational model.

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  • Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This seminal book introduces Hirschi’s social bonds–based control theory.

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  • Miethe, Terance D., and Robert F. Meier. 1994. Crime and its social context: Toward an integrated theory of offenders, victims and situations. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    Presents a risk factor–based theory that aims to explain criminal events by integrating factors believed to cause crime motivation and factors believed to cause criminal opportunity; also covers social context factors believed to encourage or discourage crime when motivated offenders are exposed to criminal opportunity.

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  • Wikström, P-O. 2006. Individuals, settings and acts of crime. Situational mechanisms and the explanation of crime. In The explanation of crime: Context, mechanisms and development. Edited by P-O Wikström and Robert. J. Sampson, 61–107. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Provides an argument and a theoretical account of the basis for the integration of individual and environmental influences on crime within the framework of a Situational Action Theory.

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  • Wikström, P-O, and Robert J. Sampson. 2003. Social mechanisms of community influences on crime and pathways in criminality. In Causes of conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency. Edited by Benjamin Lahey, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Avashalom Caspi, 118–152. New York: Guilford.

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    Presents a tentative cross-level model of how key individual and community explanatory processes interact in the explanation of crime events and individual pathways in crime. Community rules, resources, and routines, as well as individual propensities and routines (and their interactions) play an important role in the model.

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  • Wilcox, Pamela, Kenneth C. Land, and Scott A. Hunt. 2003. Criminal circumstance: A dynamic multicontextual criminal opportunity theory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    Aims to integrate insights from routine activity and social disorganization theory (its control variant) in explicating the role of opportunity. Argues that people are naturally motivated offenders and focuses on the role of individual and environmental levels of opportunity, contexts, and their interaction in the explanation of criminal acts.

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LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0010

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