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Pauwels, L., Ponsaers, P. , Svensson, R. (2009). “Analytical Criminology: A style of theorizing and analysing the micro-macro context of acts of crime”, Contemporary Issues in the Empirical Study of Crime, Cools, M., De Kimpe, S., De Ruyver, B., Easton, M., Pauwels, L., Ponsaers, P. , Vander Beken, T., Vander Laenen, F., Vande Walle, G., Vermeulen, G. (eds.), Antwerpen: Maklu, Governance of Security Research Papers Series I, 123-156.

  • Ghent University, Faculty of Law and Criminology Co-director Research Group IRCP


Crime can be studied at different levels of aggregation. This contribution deals with the potential of an analytical criminology; aimed at the development of theories explaining crime at different levels of aggregation. The point of departure in our approach is that science should pursuit "accurate" and "precise" improvement of knowledge, whereby theories are used as guidelines for empirical tests. In sociology the analytical point of view is known for a long time, in contrary to the field of criminology. In an analytical approach to the study of crime as proposed by us, the focus does not lie upon "description", but "explanation", and especially the search for mechanism-based explanations. Such mechanisms can be studies at different levels of aggregation. It is especially important to look for social mechanisms that contribute to the explanation of associations between (structural and cultural) characteristics of observable behaviours and attitudes that are attributable to agents. Hence, crime is conceptualized as action. The key message of this contribution is that more efforts are to be undertaken to bridge the gap between the arbitrary empiricism of a variable driven criminology and the abstract writings of grand theorists.
Analytical Criminology:
A style of theorizing and analyzing the micro-macro context of acts of crime
Lieven Pauwels, Paul Ponsaers and Robert Svensson1
Abstract: Crime can be studied at different levels of aggregation. This contribution deals with
the potential of an analytical criminology; aimed at the development of theories explaining
crime at different levels of aggregation. The point of departure in our approach is that science
should pursuit “accurate” and “precise” improvement of knowledge, whereby theories are
used as guidelines for empirical tests. In sociology the analytical point of view is known for a
long time, in contrary to the field of criminology. In an analytical approach to the study of
crime as proposed by us, the focus does not lie upon “description”, but “explanation”, and
especially the search for mechanism-based explanations. Such mechanisms can be studies at
different levels of aggregation. It is especially important to look for social mechanisms that
contribute to the explanation of associations between (structural and cultural) characteristics
of observable behaviours and attitudes that are attributable to agents. Hence, crime is
conceptualized as action. The key message of this contribution is that more efforts are to be
undertaken to bridge the gap between the arbitrary empiricism of a variable driven
criminology and the abstract writings of grand theorists.
Key-words: analytical criminology, social mechanisms, micro-macro issues, middle-range theories,
action oriented theory
1. The importance of theoretical improvement in the study of crime as acts
Why do some individuals commit acts of crime at a higher frequency then other? This
remains a fundamental question for criminology as science and criminal policy. The answer to
this question determines our point of view on crime as a social phenomenon, and the
individuals involved in the commitment of acts (Wikström, 2004). Beyond that, the answer to
this question also influences the way reaction towards crime, measures of criminal policy,
crime prevention, police and justice reaction towards crime is organized. Policy measures
need to be accurate. Applied to the field of crime, this means that policy measures are
1 Lieven Pauwels and Paul Ponsaers are affiliated to the Research Group Social Analysis of Security, Ghent
University. Robert Svensson is affiliated to the Faculty of Health and Society, Malmö University.
supposed to be effective, i.e. that they succeed in reducing crime as a social phenomenon.
Therefore policy measures need to influence factors that are causally related to crime.
Nowadays the formation of etiological theories exists relatively independent of the empirical
analysis of phenomena. This means that there exists a gap between theory and empirical
analysis. The aim of this contribution is to bridge that gap. After all, what is the point in using
theories that lack empirical fundaments? Theories of crime causation should have strong
empirical grounds, i.e. they but should be strongly rooted in the social reality. The role of
theories is precisely to improve our understanding of that social world around us. “Without a
theory, empirical research often lacks wider significance, and without empirical research,
sociological theory easily turns into fictitious storytelling” (Hedström, 2005:114, see also
Elster, 1989:7-8).
Figure 1: The relationship between theory, empirical research and policy
research Policy
Our starting point is that one always needs to balance between theory-empirical research and
criminal policy. If one puts to much emphasis on one of these aspects in figure 1, reification
can be the result. (1) If we emphasize theory too much, and thus neglect empirical research
and criminal policy, scientific activity will be reduced to “l’art pour l’art” or “exercising the
art of science merely for its own purpose”, hence criminology will be reduced to prosaic texts.
A theory-driven criminology that lacks empirical grounds, and policy relevance, depicts the
scientist as a man, incarcerated in his “Ivory Tower”. (2) Putting all too much emphasis on
empirical research, and hereby ignoring theory and policy, leads to blind empiricism, the
reification of science as number crunching and fetishism of the number. Science is then
reduced to a collection of data that are carefully but without meaning nor social and policy-
relevance ranked and reported in a “book of results”. The result is a patchwork of
observations, that grows endlessly, without direction, meaning and use. (3) Science that is too
narrowly related to policy is also a reification. In this situation, science is reduced to an
technical instrument of criminal policy, that takes over implicitly existing and perhaps wrong
policy theories without trying to empirically test the original hypotheses underlying policy
theories. Science then is merely a technical instrument to confirm hypotheses that were
formulated long time ago by policy makers. Criminological research should be relevant for
policy, not per se supportive of policy.
In this contribution we want to bring to attention and stimulate the theoretical study of causes
of offending, i.e. the etiology of crime. Although one can argue that there are too many
theories of offending, and criminologists sufficiently know the “classics” within the field of
theories of offending, we want to present an approach to offending that is deeply rooted in the
fundamentals of sociology. We are convinced that this approach does not only serve the
scientific study of etiological research, i.e. the study of crime as the commitment of acts, but
that our approach also leads to a balanced exercise within the relationship between theory,
empirical research and policy. Therefore this approach does not loose attention towards the
societal reaction on offending.
The point of view that is taken here, is precisely that mechanism-based action orientated
explanations are applicable within the field of criminology. The key philosophy behind this
approach is that a social phenomenon (in the case of etiology the commitment of criminal acts
and attitudes of individuals and organizations) need to be explained from a constellation of
social phenomena, actors and their actions and reactions, that are related to the explanandum
in such a way that they usually bring about the social phenomenon or action that we try to
explain (Hedström, 2005). The concept of action refers to the emphasis on observable actions,
behaviours and attitudes of actors in the social reality. They shape a society.
In this contribution we introduce such an approach that we will define as analytical
criminology. Our approach is a scientific realist approach of crime that is rooted within the
tradition of analytical sociology (for a discussion see Hedström & Swedberg, 1998;
Hedström, 2005). “Analytical sociology seeks to explain complex social processes by
carefully dissecting them and then bringing into focus their most important constituent
components. It is through dissection and analytical abstraction that the important cogs and
wheels of social processes are made visible and intelligible” (Edling & Hedström, 2005:1).
This article is by and large inspired by the analytical approach of theorizing and analyzing in
sociology, and is influenced by scientific realism, today’s answer to the positivist approach.
This will be clarified in the next paragraph.
2. From classic etiology to scientific realism
Within the field of criminology, several paradigms exist. Although following description
holds a risk of simplifying the scientific reality into a dichotomy, paradigms can be
considered rather “etiological” versus “symbolic interactionist”. Within this theoretical
dichotomy the methodological clash between causal nomological and hermeneutic
interpretative traditions in criminology can be situated (Ponsaers and Pauwels, 2003).
Etiological research is in some criminological groups even today still a “nomina non grata
(Edling, 2007). The researcher conducting criminological research would not want to admit
that crime is a reality that is constructed socially (Jupp, 1989; Radzinowics, 1966). It has been
underscored many times that researchers that conduct analyses into the explanation of
(persistent) breaking of moral rules stated in penal laws do not per se see crime as a
characteristic that is exclusively attributable to persons (the ontological point of view on
crime) (Olaussen, 2004; Pauwels, 2007). We are convinced that an ontological view does not
sufficiently recognize the sociological view on “social facts” that was earlier developed by
Durkheim (1969) and that those who favour the ontological view place themselves outside of
the sociological tradition.
Durkheim emphasized precisely that “social facts” had a much more specific meaning than
the phenomena die occur in society and have some general societal importance. Furthermore
he underscored that sociology should be aimed at some kind of facts that share special
characteristics. Durkheim explicitly named three characteristics: (1) objective2, (2) forced
2 Durkheim talks about the “extérieur”, the exterior context. Durkheim discusses obligations that an individual
does not create self, but that he is subjected to, and thus exist outside of the individual.
character3, en (3) specific4. It is without doubt, that, following Durkheim, crime needs to be
seen as a social fact, as a reality of it own or “sui generis”, that also exists outside the mind of
the criminologist. From a methodological point of view we can point to an important
consequence of the above mentioned statement. In the tradition of Durkheim it means that
social facts cannot be studied by means of mere introspection, but that a researcher needs to
take some distance from his own view, and needs to get to known this reality by means of
observations and experiments. It is perfectly possible to conduct etiological research and to
try to answer the question why some people commit crimes, knowing that a reaction of the
police and criminal justice system might follow when this would be discovered, without
simultaneously having to answer the question why some behaviour has been criminalized or
decriminalized, and which processes lie behind criminalization.5
Scientists that try to answer “why” questions do that mainly from the idea that the social
reality is too complex to explain by means of great and abstract theories. Such scientists rather
start from middle-range theories (Merton, 1968)6. In a contemporary etiological sociology
this is mainly done from a scientific realist point of view. Realism refers in this context to the
idea that society exists, independent of scientists and the theories that scientists produce. In
that, realism has its roots in positivism. Today it is quite generally accepted that the research
question, and thus the nature of the knowledge that has to be produced, determines whether
one chooses an etiological or symbolic interactionist point of view. Both points of view lead
to a different kind of knowledge and the researcher needs to explicit ones own choice.
Realism, although influenced by positivism, does not make a negative judgment of
constructivism. Realism recognized the Thomas’ theorem, and even considers Thomas’
theorem as an explanation for why objective conditions are perceived differentially. One
important task of science is to discover how the world is functioning by looking for
explanations and searching for causes. We hold a plea for a realist approach to crime, because
3 Durkheim also uses “impérative et coercitive”, and with these adjectives he refers to the existence of sanctions.
Social facts do have a forcing and ordering power, which makes that social facts are imposed on individuals. The
coercion is intensified when one tries to resist it.
4 With this Durkheim means that they are determined by society. Durkheim introduces the group or groupings. It
deals with facts that are compelling (norms and opinions) that are specific to a group, a society. This is the origin
of he term social facts.
5 It is not per definition necessary to answer the question “why is it forbidden to smoke in a public space”, if one
wants to anwer the question “why do some individuals break that law, knowing that it is forbidden?”. This does
not mean that answering the question of criminalization is of less importance, it is only said that it is a different
6 Mertons most important arguments were that middle range theories could lead to better testable hypotheses and
therefore maybe to more useful knowledge because of their more limited scoop.
we believe this approach can seriously increase the chance that our knowledge of mechanisms
or direct and indirect processes leading to crime can improve. Again, this does not mean that
crime is studied from an ontological point of view. It does mean that a non-constructivist
approach towards a social construction makes it possible to answer questions concerning
“crime as a social fact”. This approach is useful, recisely because crime does not exclusively
exist in the minds of criminologists, but also happens in the real world outside. In the real
world crime leads to suffering of victims, offenders, and society.
From a realist approach causes and explanations are not invented, but discovered by means of
empirical research (Bunge, 2006). A realist approach, such as the one we propose as fruitful
theoretical framework to study crime can not be seen as equivalent of classic etiology, neither
can it be seen as equivalent of “blind empiricism”, the eclectic and arbitrary variable-based7
approach of crime.
The founding fathers of sociology, such as Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, but also Marx,
describe the consequences of the denial of the existence of social facts independent of
ourselves. That denial is typical of social constructivism. In extremis social constructivism,
just like the extreme interpretation of classic positivism, undermines the very essence of
science. If every aspect of the social world around us would be interpreted as social
constructions, then science would be of no use, as it would be impossible to learn something
about the world and how something works (Edling, 2007). In the latter case we would at best
learn how a social construction is constructed. Scientific debate would no longer be possible
because every argument about how the social reality is functioning would be equally valid. In
that situation we lack a standard (the social reality itself) against which we can reflect our
scientific thoughts. Concern that criminology from an extreme social constructivist approach
would undermine its own legitimacy, is the main argument to hold a plea for a realist
approach of crime, at least when the key objective is to get to advanced theory-based
knowledge, which has both feet in the empirical reality, and which has potential to effectively
deal with the prevention of crime.
Typical of both classic etiology and the empiricism of a variable driven criminology, is that
no attention is paid to not-directly observable phenomena. Processes and mechanisms are not
7 Variable-based criminology refers to the a-theoretical multiple factor approach or risk factor approach to crime
and delinquency that has made the study of empirical correlates to an end.
directly observable, but are a part of core business of science. Classic etiologists only studied
relationships between directly observable characteristics, and used a rather deterministic
interpretation of causality. In addition, classic etiologists unconditionally questioned
rationalists’ belief in the free will of individuals.
A scientific realist approach of crime precisely means that attention is paid to mechanisms
and processes leading to crime under certain societal conditions. An analytical criminology
fits the theoretical framework of scientific realism and is in this contribution suggested as a
usefull tool in the study of causes of crime as action at different levels of aggregation. Let us
first uncover what we mean by crime as action.
3. Action-oriented explanations and the rational choice perspective
“Humans have agency, that is, a capability to act upon their environment in a purposeful
way. Action, the expression of agency, may be defined as behaviour (acts) performed under
the persons’ guidance. A theory of action specifies what moves people to act. (Wikström,
Wikström (2004) argues that criminology knows so little about causes of crime, in contrast
with the vast amount of correlates of crime. This contrast is exactly due to the lack of general
theories of action in criminology. Within other field, e.g. sociology and economy, to name but
a few, theories of action do exist. Adapting a general framework of action-oriented theory,
Wikström argues that behaviour of individuals should be seen as a consequence of the
behavioural options that actors have and the actual choices that they make. Those behavioural
options are not taken in a vacuum, but are a consequence of the intersection between moral
attitudes and characteristics of social milieus to which actors belong. The concept of choice
refers to the judgment of situations (Wikström, 2004). Individual characteristics and
characteristics of social milieus can act as causes or causes of the causes of actions that are
undertaken, but only if they influence the behavioural options of individuals such as the
perception of behavioural alternatives and processes of decision making.
Action-oriented theories are often a priori classified as theories that belong to the rational
choice perspective (Edling and Stern, 2005). The rational choice perspective serves only a
framework, which allows for the study of action and is indeed useful because it can give an
explanation of why people consider some choices from a broader variety of options
(Kleemans, 1996; Verwee, 2007). It has been stated that one shortcoming of the rational
choice perspective is that is is not posible to scientifically measure and study every
behavioural option or choice that an individual considers (Elffers, 2005). This is indeed the
frameworks’s constraint. In a less rigorous interpretation of the rational choice perspective, as
one encounters often in the Scandinavian tradition (Edling and Stern, 2003) action is not
merely seen as the outcome of pure rational choices, but additionally as a consequence of
moral and cultural values. From that point of view attention is equally paid to the interaction
between moral values, desires and opportunities that can be seen as important motives for the
actions that actors bring about.
4. Principles of an analytical criminological approach towards crime as action
An analytical approach of criminology as a social science can provide researchers more
theoretically guided and therefore more profound insight in the social world around us. The
analytical criminological approach is rooted in analytical sociology. This approach of
theorizing and research tries to explain complex social phenomena related to crime by
carefully dissecting the problem and emphasizing the central components of which these
phenomena exist. Following Edling and Stern (2003) the analytical criminological emphasizes
the study of social structures, in which mechanisms operate and the explicit orientation
towards action defined as the acts of actors. Therefore, an analytical criminological approach
can make use of the principles of the analytical sociological approach towards the study of
social facts, earlier stated by Hedström (2005): explanation, dissection and abstraction,
precision and clarity.
Explanation as first principle
Explanations have a surplus value compared to descriptions because they answer why-
questions. An analytical criminology brings the message we need to bridge the gap between
the empiricism of a variables-based criminology and the empirical void that characterizes
grand theories. A variables-based criminology runs the risk of getting caught in a vicious
circle of empirical correlates of crime and crime-related outcomes. A mere theoretical
criminology pretends to tell the truth. Such a “thruth” gets a dogmatic status very fast,
because it is not subjected to empirical tests. An analytical criminology needs to aim at
finding explanations for the “why” of criminal behaviour and events, as for the “why” these
social facts differ in time and space, over societies and communities. Elster (1989) argued that
the focus should be on explanation by mechanisms. Furthermore, Hedström and Swedberg
(1998:25) argued that a “mechanism-based explanation seeks to provide a fine-grained as well
as tight coupling between explanans (that hat explains) and explanandum(that what has to be
explained).” The tighter the coupling, the higher the level of clarity.
Dissection and abstraction as second principle
Dissection refers to the decomposition of both a social phenomenon and its causes and causal
mechanisms that explain the outcome. Such a dissection should result in the reduction of a
social phenomenon to its essence. This essential information about a social phenomenon
should be abstracted by the researcher theoretically. The dissection of a social phenomenon
deals with the operationalization of concepts, the translation of theoretical concepts into
observable, operational elements. This necessary empirical translation deserves more attention
in contemporary criminology. Hedström (2005:3) argued that “dissection and abstraction are
two aspects of the same activity, and they are core components of the analytical approach”.
Through dissecting and abstracting our understanding of processes becomes more transparent
and clear.
Precision and clarity as third principle
Precision and clarity should characterize the theory driven hypotheses that are about to be
confronted with the empirical findings. The creation of theory in criminology needs to
demystify, not reify or bring confusion. Thus, theoretical concepts need to be clearly
interpretable, as are relation between concepts, and mechanisms that bring about effects. This
distinction should already be present at the abstract and theoretical level, thus, before starting
empirical analyses, but also at the empirical level.
5. Individual and collective action or the logic of and action-oriented analytical
Criminologists are often interested in the explanation of macro-sociological covariance
between social phenomena and crime-related social outcomes8. Why are offence rates higher
in periods of economic recession? Why are offence and offender rates higher in high-density
neigbourhoods, why is the number of offences per offender higher among ethnic minorities?
The mere connection between population density and crime does not offer an explanation for
this observation. It is highly possible that an explanation needs to be found elsewhere, e.g. at
the micro-level. The study of crime and its causes is rooted in the micro-macro issue. Micro-
macro questions treat the relationship between observed social phenomena that are situated at
different levels of analysis (levels of aggregation), such as individual and their actions, and
the ecological settings in which these actions should be studied.
Time and space are important aggregation levels that shape the structural context of actions
undertaken by individuals. Classic etiological research has known a separate development at
different levels of aggregation, thereby actually ignoring the connection between levels. The
ecological criminology developed knowledge on area patterns of criminal events and the areas
where offenders in general tended to live. Classic etiology also looked at individual patterns
offending (differences between individuals and individual changes over time) from multiple
theoretical angles. Despite this large amount of knowledge on correlates of offending and
offences (criminal events) at these separate levels of analysis, the restrictions of this
bifurcation have been problemized since the 1990s (Farrington, Sampson and Wikström,
1993). Criminologists became increasingly convinced of the surplus value of a cross-level
integrated criminology that paid attention to theoretically relevant factors correlating with
crime both at the level of the individual as offender or victim and the level of the ecological
setting or context in which the individual spends time.
Within the field of sociology, it was especially Coleman (1986) that brought micro-macro
research questions under the attention of scholars. Coleman (1986) strongly supported
methodological individualism. Methodological individualism does not however mean (as
might be insiuated that context does not matter). It means that aggregate level or social
outcomes should be seen as consequences of behaviours of individuals that are part of the
8 In this contribution the terms “social phenomena” and social outcomes both refer to macrolevel phenomena. In
other words, these terms refer to what Durkheim referred to as “faits sociaux”.
aggregate. Let us take a closer look at the micro-macro debate so that we can motivate why
methodological individualism is a defendable a priori statement.
Micro-macro questions in criminology are a consequence of correlations between social facts,
such as structural characteristics of ecological settings and crime and offence rates of these
settings as social outcomes. This macro-level relationship is visualized by the arrow that goes
from A to D in figure 2. In the case that the correlation between A and D in figure 2 is caused
by underlying characteristics measured at a lower level, i.e. at the level of individual actors
and their actions, the ecological correlation is spurious and the methodological individualism
of Coleman is justified. But what if there exist true contextual effects of macro level
characteristics on individual level outcomes (see the arrow from A to C )? In that case causal
mechanisms that explain individual differences and changes, partially operate at the aggregate
level. The contextual effect then is not caused by the differential composition of settings, and
is partially responsible for the observed social outcome D. Also in that case methodological
individualism is supported. Thus, metholodogical individualism does not per se mean that
structure is not important, it means that one needs to be careful and realize that aggregate
outcomes always are a consequence of the action of actors at a lower level., even when the
acts of actors are partly influenced by context itself.
Figure 2 : The logic of an action-oriented analytical criminology
M acro level
M icro level
A: Action of others,
D: social outcome / crime
as collective action
B: individual
characteristics C : in dividual acts/ crim e as
Source: Modification of Edling and Hedström (2005)
In the field of criminology attention for micro-macro problems has precisely been growing as
a consequence of observed increases in urban segregation of poverty, and fear of the negative
consequences of the development of impoverished ghettos. The integration between micro
level and macro level is called cross-level integration (Messner, Krohn and Liska, 1989). The
process of theoretically integrating different explanatory levels of offending has been
acknowledged to be of uttermost complexity. In the criminological debate, the issue of how
and why individual characteristics and settings interact is considered of major importance to
improve our knowledge of juvenile offending. Scholars such as Sampson, Raudenbush and
Earls (1997) consider aggregates as contextual units which have their own characteristics, that
are more then the sum of the different parts they consist of (the composition). Also according
to Bunge (2006) the action of individuals as social actors can not be understood without
taking contexts, networks and even broader structures of individuals into account. On the
contrary, these contexts should be studied together with the individual motivations of actors.
The criminologist that shares a environmental view is wrong, because he does not take
individual characteristics into account, whereas the individualist is wrong for ignoring context
i.e. settings to which one is exposed including broader structures and collective norms.
Individuals are connected with society. Therefore an analytical action based criminology
holds a plea for a clear and precise study of social phenomena by treating these phenomena as
social systems, when studying the causes of crime.
From a methodological point of view, the logic of an analytical criminology remains the only
possibility to avoid aggregation bias. Aggregation bias is the consequence of wrong
assumptions about the relationships between characteristics measured at different levels of
analysis and this is the very essence of micro-macro debates in social sciences. Since
Robinson (1950) it is known that the exclusive attention of macro level relationships and
analyses is not without dangers. Robinson (1950) documented the well-known “ecological
fallacy” and doing that, he also referred to the life-work of Shaw and McKay (1942), those
days’ prominent scholars of ecological criminology.
The discussions of that time dealt with the effects of exposure to ecological settings for
individuals. Shaw and Mc Kay were implicitly convinced of the fact that exposure to ghettos
had negative consequences for children and adolescents. That statement was derived from the
ecological observation of a correlation between neighbourhood poverty and school truancy.
The authors did not question if valid statements could be made about contextual influence of
neighbourhood poverty on individual level outcomes observed among the neighbourhood
residents, such as school truancy or offending. Some were convinced that effects of ecological
settings might be reduced to setting composition rather then setting characteristics as
independent causal mechanisms, such as the level of poverty observed at the individual level.
Hauser (1970) warned against the contextual fallacy already in the 1970s in his famous article
“context and consex: a causionary tale”. The contextual fallacy is thus the incorrect
interpretation of a contextual effect. This happens when one mistakes an individual level
characteristic for its ecological counterpart. Valid causal judgments about characteristics of
environments first need to be identified at the theoretical level and must empirically be
measured and exist independent of intervening mechanisms operating at the individual level.
An analytical criminology can therefore not take methodological individualism (Coleman,
1986) for granted.
6. The clarifying role of mechanisms in an action oriented analytical criminology
The problem of causation is not always well treated in criminological research. The etiology
of crime does especially understand causal mechanisms and processes that are at work when
individual differences and changes in crime are to be explained rather poorly. That is why
there are too many (biological, psychological and sociological) correlates of crime, which
mere obscure a causal interpretation (Farrington, 2002). As a consequence some scholars have
stated that nothing really matters while others have stated that everything matters in the
explanation of crime (Wikström, 2004). This situation does not help theorists nor does it help
practicioners in their attempts to gain knowledge on crime causation.
The basic philosophy behind a mechanism-based explanation is that a social phenomenon is
explained from precisely those mechanisms that bring about differences and changes in a
condition (the explanandum). The Norwegian sociologist Jon Elster (1989: 3-4) argues that
the explanation of an event or act deals with plausible reasons why the event or the act took
The attention for mechanisms is absolutely nothing new to our proposed style of theorizing
and is rooted in the ideas and theories of very influential sociologists such as Robert K.
Merton and Emile Durkheim. Even today we can learn important lessons from these founding
fathers of sociology, as Edling and Hedström (2005) stated earlier, and these lessons go
beyond mere historical lessons. These classic theorists were not always as theoretical
specified and they could not dispose of the most sophisticated tools of analysis to test their
hypotheses. On the contrary, we would argue. The classic theorists deserve respect for their
approach and vision on science. Emile Durkheim is from a historical point of view the
analytical sociologist avant-la-lettre.
Emile Durkheim ([1897]1951) described mechanisms of self-regulation in his analysis of the
balance between individual and groups and the effects of this (un)balance on the suicide rate.
Durkheim never used the word “social mechanism”. The sociological contribution of Robert
K. Merton (1968) was a milestone when it comes to the stimulation of mechanism-based
explanations. Merton (1968) strongly emphasized the fact that theory and empirical research
need to be very closely related. Merton (1968) talked about social mechanisms as fundaments
of sociological middle-range theories and explicitly gave a definition for the word
“mechanism”. Merton (1968) defined social mechanisms as "social processes having
designated consequences for designated parts of the social structure (1968: 43)”. In
contemporary sociology the concept of “social mechanism” can be prominently found in the
writings of Mario Bunge (2006), James Coleman (1986) and Peter Hedström (2005). In the
field of criminology Robert Agnew (1993), Ronald Akers (1998), Per-Olof Wikström (2004),
Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush (1998) can be seen as key-authors that favour
mechanism-based explanations. According to Agnew (1993) a mechanism explains how
something Works, en therefore it gives insight in the relation between social structure and
crime. It is especially in this meaning that criminologists use the concept of mechanism. It
seems that criminologists see mechanisms especially as intermediate variables that need to
make an observed correlation between characteristics plausible. Blalock (1964) described this
elationship as the indirect effct. There is however one danger that one should be aware of
when following this interpretation. One can not consider a variable that represents a mediator
of another variable equally with the underlying mechanisms behind a known association,
without seriously having thought about cause-and-effect relationships. One clear example of
how cause-and-effect relationships have been given seriously argumented from a theoretical
point of view can be found in Wikström en Sampson (2003).
Having read Bunge (2006), Hedström (2005), Hedström and Swedberg (1998), Elster (1998)
and Wikström (2007) we conclude that no consensus exists about precize definitions of
mechanisms. Both philosophers as social scientists give a plenty of definitions. Table 1
illustrates a selective anthology of interpretations of the concept of mechanism by leading
sociologists / criminologists.
Table 1 : A selection of definitions of the concept “mechanism”
Authors Definition Source
Merton Social processes having designated
consequences for designated parts of
the social structure Merton, 1968
Bunge A mechanism is a process in a definite
system that is able to bring about or to
prevent an effect in that system Bunge, 2001, 2006
Mechanisms are frequently occurring
and easily recognizable causal patterns
that are brought about under certain
Elster, 1989
Hedström and Swedberg
A social mechanism is a precise and
abstract action-based mechanism that
shows how the occurrence of an event
or act can explain that same event or
Hedström and Swedberg,
Wikström A mechanism is the process that
connects cause and effect. Wikström, 2007; Wikström
and Sampson, 2003
These definitions, although they differ from each other, do share one common theme: that
they emphasize the need to explain observed regularities and they do that exactly by pointing
at how this happens in detail. Mechanisms are often used as a synonym for processes. The
latter term refers actually more to the dynamic character or time-aspect that is so typical of “to
bring about” in its causal meaning. However, the study of mechanisms offers a theoretical
surplus value to the quantitative explanatory research into individual differences and changes
in the actions of actors. Let us clarify this.
Quantitative research often tries to make statistical inferences of observed phenomena in
samples. Statistical inference is no equivalent for causal inference. Both forms of inference do
have one common denominator. Both try to use exactly localized information to make
conclusions from more general phenomena (Hedström, in press). Statistical inference deals
with the chance that an effect parameter in a population does not differ from a “regression
coefficient” as sample statistic.
In a pure analytical sociological or criminological perspective the aim is to go beyond the
original sample. What we ultimately intend, is the generalization of the process that brought
about an act. The focus is not on the relationship between variables, but on actors, and their
acts as outcome of diverse processes. Of course, we need to operationalize acts of actors as
variables. The point is that causality does not operate at the variable level. It is not because
causal relationships are so hard to detect by means of quantitative analysis (often even further
restricted by the cross-sectional character of most studies in a non-experimental design) that
quantitative analysis should be hindered by this restriction. Each research, be it qualitative or
quantitative, has its own restrictions. It is important to realize correlations never can prove
causality convincingly, but the opposite is true: causality implies the existence of empirical
correlations. Therefore it is possible to eliminate some statistical models that do not fit the
observed data (Blalock, 1964). An important advantage of working with causal models and
path diagrams is that the researcher is obliged to build an analytical argumentation by
thinking well-founded in terms of cause and effect.
In a variables-driven criminology the theoretical argumentation why some variables are
considered in a quantitative analysis is often lacking. A variable-driven criminology just
takes in variables in statistical models without carefully considering why they should even
matter.9 The argumentations of why, and under which conditions mechanisms bring about an
effect, is of primordial importance for both theory and policy.
9 As a consequence, variable-driven research risks of overcontrolling or undercontrolling for the effects of other
“variables”, and therefore make it unclear to assess influences of theoretically relevant mechanisms.
In short, our style of theorizing with its focus on mechanisms helps to explain with respect to
content what actors are doing what they are doing. Even if we are interested in collective
action the study of mechanisms measured at the individual level is of importance because
society is made out of the action of individuals.
7. The role of Bunges systemic approach in an analytical criminology
It is at least praisworthy to let outsiders, i.e. scientists from other disciplines, reflect about
action oriented and mechanism based explanations from their own point of view. Doctor in
physics philosopher of science Mario Bunge (°1919) is well-established representative of
scientific realism as paradigm (Bunge, 2001, 2006). He proposes a systemic approach to the
study of crime as action. Also for Bunge (2006) crime is first of all a social phenomenon. The
definition of systems is rooted in the structural functionalism of Merton and Parsons. We
argue that the approach of Bunge can improve the study of crime as action, and therefore it
fits an analytical approach of crime.
A system can according to Bunge (2006) best be approached as a complex object, that can be
specific or abstract and that is composed of different parts that are connected together. Bunge
(2006) ascribes some characteristics to systems that are not necessarily characteristics of the
different parts of the system. When studying systems one needs to make a distinction between
(1) the composition of the system, i.e. the collection of parts of the system; (2) the
environment of the system or the collection of entities that are not a part of the system but do
have an influence on parts of the system; (3) the structure of the system, i.e. the whole of
structural relationships between the parts of which a system consist10, and (4) the mechanisms
that function within a system. Mechanisms are according to Bunge a collection of processes
that make it possible that a system performs specific functions.
According to Bunge criminologists study three kinds of processes: mechanisms of
development of crime or the whole of pathways that cause some to conduct behaviour
described as acts of crime, mechanisms that urge to really urge to commit acts of crime, and
10 Structure cannot be confused with the composition of the system. Structure refers to the relations between
actors of a system.
finally mechanisms of crime control. These latter mechanisms refer to the societal reactions
towards crime, also called mechanisms of criminalization and decriminalization, but also
prevention, crime fighting and punishment. Stated in other words, the systemic approach of
Bunge (2006) can also be applied to the study of actors other then those that conduct acts that
fall under the common denominator of crime.
8. Methodological consequences of an analytical approach
An etiological approach of crime as action, that takes into account the micro-macro context of
crime as social phenomenon has a profound quantitative orientation. Micro-macro issues can
best be analyzed using advanced multilevel models, which are statistically able to make a
clear and precise distinction between the aggregate level contextual effect and the macro level
compositional effect, of which a theory driven analysis is made. Because multilevel models
have only recently been introduced in criminology, it is important that criminologists that go
deeply into macro-macro issues also go deeply into the methodological consequences of their
theoretical assumptions. To make this statement clear, an example is given below.
Figure 3 : An example for the explanation of individual differences of crime as action: social
mechanisms of ecological characteristics and their effects on adolescent offending behaviour
Collective efficacy
Informal control
Parental support
Adult role mode ls
peers /
sub cultural values
Moral context
Social environments
Characteristics of ecological settings: school, area of residence,
area where one spends his or her time (exposure!)
Adolescent behaviour / action
The study of crime as action requires that one starts from plausible cause and effect
relationships and that one needs to clearly conceptualize, create operational variables, and
develop hypotheses that explain how these relationships are connected to each other. The
example above of the relationship between setting characteristics and offending behaviour
deals with social mechanisms measured at the ecological level and clearly makes a distinction
between setting characteristics and individual level outcomes. Advanced theories thus require
advanced analyses. Methodological innovations and theoretical innovations should go
together. It cannot be denied that the increasing popularity of multilevel modeling has awoken
the theoretical interest of some criminologists, just as method problems have stimulated
methodologists to find new solutions for old theoretical problems. An analytical approach of
crime as acts can not degenerate to a mere empirical matter where the quality of empirical
data used for complex analysis becomes of minor importance. On the contrary, that would be
the opposite of what an analytical approach to develop a middle-range theory. It does not
strike with an analytical approach to collect data with a sledgehammer and to analyze them
afterwards with the finest tools of the trade. An analytical criminology requires a balance
between both.
9. Discussion and conclusion
To stimulate and optimize the further development of advanced theories of crime causation
and research on effects of individual and ecological level mechanisms an analytical approach
of crime has been suggested in this contribution. This analytical approach has been referred
to with the term “analytical criminology”. This approach is rooted within the current field of
analytical sociology. The tradition itself is not new but can be seen as an elaboration of the
visions of founding fathers of sociology such as Durkheim and Merton. In this tradition,
crime, just as any behaviour is seen as the result of the action of individuals. The study of
causes, and not just correlates of crime as action, is prioritized within the analytical approach.
The theoretical explanation needs to make a systematic study of the explanandum, that what is
to be explained, and the explanans, the explaining concept. Thereby theoretical concepts
should be stated clearly and precisely. We need to carefully study the mechanisms that are
connecting causes and effects. This approach to the study of crime has also roots in classic
etiology of crime but is also seriously different from that classic approach. The classic
approach only took directly observable phenomena into account and had a deterministic
connotation, the inheritance of classical positivism, at least from a narrow social constructivist
interpretation. As starting-point Bunge’s scientific realist approach was favored. This starting
point argues that the social world can be studied independently of the scientist, and that the
study of crime causation is perfectly possible without simultaneously paying attention to
processes of criminalization and decriminalization, but recognizes Thomas’ theorem, which is
a central characteristic of symbolic interactionism. A realist approach takes science seriously
and wants to leave the classic methodological conflict behind, in order to increase our
knowledge on social phenomena, which is after all the meaning of science. The study of crime
as acts at multiple levels of analysis is more and more being influenced by such a mechanism
based approach. This can be seen from the writings of internationally renowned scholars such
as Robert Agnew (1995), Ronald Akers (1998), Per-Olof Wikström (2004), Sampson and
Raudenbush (1998). The study of social processes that connect causes and effects at different
levels of analysis are being studied within this approach. The anwer to these “why” questions
can best be given when three principles are taken into account: the principle of explanation,
dissection, precision and clarity. These principles force criminologists to study a social
phenomenon such as crime detailed, and give an explanation that goes beyond the explanation
of relations between variables. We should keep in mind, also with regard to crime prevention
that causality does not operate at the variable level.
Advanced theoretical development in the study of crime causation is necessary if we want to
improve our insight in the complexity of a social phenomenon such as crime, and if we want
to develop prevention projects that allow for the reduction of crime by preventing acts of
crime to happen.
This contribution has some limitations. One such limitation is that it holds a plea for the study
of crime as action at multiple levels of analysis from an analytical approach. To illustrate the
existence of crime at multiple levels Coleman’s approach towards the study of micro-macro
relations was given as example. Methodological individualism can help to determine the
nature of observed correlations at multiple levels. The approach was written to advance
knowledge on the causes of offending behaviour, but it should be possible to extend the
depended variable, while still using the analytical framework. Because this approach has
known some tradition in sociology, we are convinced that this approach could also be applied
to the study of other outcomes than just crime as acts. Our message therefore is that an
analytical criminology should not be interpreted as a paradigm, but as a style of both
theorizing and conducting research.
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Chasing Reality deals with the controversies over the reality of the external world. Distinguished philosopher Mario Bunge offers an extended defence of realism, a critique of various forms of contemporary anti-realism, and a sketch of his own version of realism, namely hylorealism. Bunge examines the main varieties of antirealism - Berkeley’s, Hume’s, and Kant’s; positivism, phenomenology, and constructivism - and argues that all of these in fact hinder scientific research. Bunge’s realist contention is that genuine explanations in the sciences appeal to causal laws and mechanisms that are not directly observable, rather than simply to empirical generalisations. Genuine science, in his view, is objective even when it deals with subjective phenomena such as feelings of fear. This work defends a realist view of universals, kinds, possibilities, and dispositions, while rejecting contemporary accounts of these that are couched in terms of modal logic and ‘possible worlds.