Criminology Routine Activity Theories
Per-Olof H. Wikström
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0010


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: 10.2307/2094589

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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