Criminology Situational Action Theory
Per-Olof H. Wikström
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0062


Situational action theory (SAT) is a newly developed general theory of moral action and crime that aims to integrate individual and environmental explanatory perspectives within the framework of a situational action theory. It aims to address and surmount some major shortcomings in prominent criminological theories (such as the poor integration of individual and environmental explanatory approaches) and to provide an alternative to rational choice theory as the preferred action theory in the study of crime. The theory builds upon insights from various conventional criminological theories and research traditions, and it draws upon theories and research from the social and behavioral sciences more generally. SAT is one of few theories in criminology that takes the person-environment interaction seriously, making specific predictions for how the interaction between a person’s propensity and environmental exposure cause acts of crime, and suggesting the causal process through which this happens. The fundamental arguments of situational action theory are: (1) that acts of crime are moral actions (actions guided by rules about what it is right or wrong to do or not do in a particular circumstance) and therefore need to be explained as such; (2) that people engage in acts of crime because they (a) come to see such acts as viable action alternatives and (b) choose (habitually or deliberately) to carry them out; (3) that the likelihood that a person will come to see a criminal act as an action alternative and choose to carry it out ultimately depends on his or her crime propensity (which is grounded in the person’s action-relevant personal moral rules and emotions and capability to exercise self-control) and its interplay with his or her exposure to criminogenic settings (which are defined by their action-relevant moral rules and the level of their enforcement); (4) that the role of broader social conditions and their changes (e.g., social integration and segregation) and the role of individual development and change (i.e., life-histories) should be analyzed as the causes of the causes; (5) that the relevant causes of the causes of crime are only those social conditions and aspects of life-histories that can be demonstrated to influence the development of people’s propensity (morality and ability to exercise self-control) and the emergence of settings conducive to acts of crime (settings whose moral context may encourage acts of crime), as well as people’s differential exposure to such settings.

General Overviews

Wikström 2004 provides the first preliminary outline of the basics of SAT and how it proposes to address key problems of explanation in criminology. Wikström 2006 is the best introductory and most up-to-date overview of SAT and its key foundations and propositions.

  • Wikström, Per-Olof. 2004. Crime as alternative: Towards a cross-level situational action theory of crime causation. In Beyond empiricism: Institutions and intentions in the study of crime. Edited by Joan McCord, 1–37. Advances in Criminological Theory 13. New Brunswick, NY: Transaction.

    Includes a critique of the lack of integration of individual and environmental explanatory approaches in criminology. Discusses what theories of crime causation should explain, as well as the importance of having a proper theory of action. The initial outline of key causal factors and processes in the explanation of crime according to SAT are outlined.

  • Wikström, Per-Olof. 2006. Situational action theory. In Encyclopaedia of criminological theory. Edited by Francis Cullen and Pamela Wilcox. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

    The best introduction to the theory. Provides an overview of the fundamental assumptions and postulates of SAT, including its philosophical foundations, its situational model, the role of propensity and exposure and their interaction, and the role of broader social conditions and individual development in its explanation of crime.

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