The Cause of Crime is Elementary Dear Watson

By C J Oakes

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The social sciences developed in the 18th century as a natural consequence of a growing industrial society.  As cities grew, crime increased.  In response to the growing need for law and order, Sir Robert Peel convinced Parliament to establish the London Metropolitan Police in 1829 (Villiers, 2006).  About the same time, many of the concepts and ideas that would later form modern Sociology and Criminal Justice began to develop (Credo, 2001).  Policing in the Western world grew rapidly (Walker-Katz, 2008) and before the turn of the next century, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance.  Holmes was a reflection of the public interest in crime as well as a sociological study of Western society such that even today the stories are relevant (Menes, 1981).  Like blind men examining an elephant, theories began to surface.

Classical Theories of Crime Causation

Years before the first police department Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham were gaining fame for their positions on crime and punishment.  Beccaria argued strongly against the death penalty and physical forms of punishment and said that the punishment ought to be more suitable to the crime.  For this position, Beccaria is considered the father of the Classical theories of criminal justice.  Bentham added that free will was involved in the commission of crimes.  He further asserted that for punishment to be effective, it had to be “swift and certain” (Schmalleger, 2009, p. 82).  In general, the Classical theories have formed the basis for the modern criminal justice system.

Neoclassical Criminology

Cesare Beccaria (1738 - 1794) was one of the g...
Cesare Beccaria (1738 – 1794) was one of the greatest writers of the Italian Age of Enlightenment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the later part of the 20th century, Neoclassical theories began to appear.  Two such were Rational Choice and Routine Activities.  Rational Choice theory holds that people make conscious decisions to engage in criminal behavior depending upon whether they believe the risks outweigh the benefits.  In 1979, Cohen and Felson introduced Routine Activities theory that went further by suggesting that crime is caused by victim’s routines; criminals simply take advantage of these (Schmalleger, 2008).  For example, a woman who walks home from work every night, following the same path is encouraging a would-be rapist to strike.  The concept was not intended to shift blame for the crime on the victim however, but rather to show how society can be more proactive in making crime difficult for would-be offenders.  In the case of each theory there is certainly some measure of accuracy, but there exists some holes.

Holes in the Whole of Criminal Behavior

Numerous other theories attempt to explain criminal behavior such as biological, psychological, sociological, and psycho-biological.  Again, each theory fails to provide a complete picture of why some people commit crimes whereas others do not (Schmalleger, 2008). Sherlock Holmes may have called the reason elementary.

Detective Holmes was so appealing because he had the characteristic habit of noting the simplest of details and forming a complete picture in his mind based on what the details presented.  He often asked the simple question why.  This one simple question can lead anyone to the truth if one is persistent in repeatedly asking.  By assembling tiny details in his mind as if solving a jigsaw puzzle, Holmes could form a complete image of the world he was attempting to understand, the world of the criminal.  By asking why, Holmes could keep digging until only truth remained.  The question led him in the right direction.  The same can be done regarding the search for the roots of criminal behavior.

This is the same question all social scientists have been asking for centuries:  Why do people do what they do?  The simple answer is motivation, which is the key to understanding human behavior.  What is motivation?

“A simple definition of motivation is the ability to change behavior. It is a drive that compels one to act because human behavior is directed toward some goal” (Graves, 2001, p. 615). So people are driven toward some goal criminal or otherwise.  Ask why again to dig deeper.

Whole of the Hole of Crime and Needs


English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...
English: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed, and cropped version of File:Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abraham Maslow suggested as early as the 1950s that people are driven to satisfy needs, a hole within requiring fulfillment.  Humann and Danielle demonstrated a link between motivation and needs while researching craving levels in substance abusers (2008).  Graves indicates with respect to business that managers understanding this link can help their employees perform better and marketing companies have been using this concept successfully for years (2001).  So the link between human need and motivation is clear.  The question then regarding the criminal is why does he make the choice to use criminal means to satisfy needs?  Restated:  Why does anyone make the choices of means to satisfy needs?

The answer is values.  The concepts and ideals that a person considers as valuable will direct choices.  For years, the teaching of values has been absent from the public school system and many are concluding that this is part of the reason for many of the social ills facing the nation today.  A movement to begin teaching values in the classroom is thus gaining considerable attention (Lang & Evans, 2006).  Lewis (2003) has isolated six value systems that people use to make the choices affecting their lives.  In the case of criminals, the values they hold clearly differ from society.


Since the first thinkers began to develop theories regarding human behavior including criminal acts, many theories have been proposed.  All the theories contain some truth but no single theory tells the complete story.  This is reminiscent of the old story of six blind men each touching a different part of an elephant and all arguing that each is correct.  In fact, all are correct, but none are seeing the complete picture.  This well-describes theories of behavior today.  The theorists are each seeing part of the elephant (a trunk, a tail, a leg, a belly, an ear, and a tusk) but none are seeing the entire beast.  To see the whole picture of crime, one must consider the hole, that is, what is missing? Sherlock Holmes may have sighed and merely said, “It is elementary.”


  • Graves, P. (Jan 1, 2007). Motivation. Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, 2(), 522-527.
  • Humann, M., & Danielle, K. (2008). The Relationship between Motivation, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Time, and Craving Levels in the Mandated Substance Abuse Treatment Popluation. California School of Professional Psychology, (), .
  • Lang, H., & Evans, D. (2006). Models, Strategies, and Methods for Effective Teaching. : Allyn and Bacon.
  • Lewis, H. (2003). A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices That Shape Our Lives (3rd ed.). Mount Jackson, VA: Axios Press.
  • Menes, B. (Winter 1980-1981). Sherlock Holmes and Sociology. American Scholar, 50(101), 101-105.
  • Schmalleger, PhD, F. (2009). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century (10th ed.). : Prentis Hall.
  • Sociology, History of. (2001). Retrieved from
  • Villiers, P. (2006). World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Gale.
  • Walker, S., & Katz, C. (2008). The Police in America: An Introduction (6th ed.). : McGraw-Hill.

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