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The Occasion Makes Us Thieves, Or We Are Thieves Looking For Opportunity?

Mikesell, M. (2016). The antelope. Kay Fine Art. [Painting].

Just as we do not agree on what motivates our socially and legally accepted behavior, neither do we agree, in this case from criminology, on what causes criminal behavior.

Why do we commit crime? There are many theories, sociological, psychological and biological, that work better together than separately to explain a phenomenon as complex as it is substantial.

The belief in a criminality determined exclusively by biology, Lombroso's born criminal, is as old and false as the belief that crime does not pay. Here is one of the many explanations, in this case from sociology, of criminal behavior.

Why do more robberies occur in tourist areas compared to rural areas?

Why does a thief return to the scene of the crime?

Why there are more robberies among office colleagues than among strangers?

E. Cohen and Marcus Felson were the authors of this theory, which was supported by the notion of the rational offender, in other words: Any of us can commit a crime if the circumstances are conducive to it. Crime is not something extraordinary that requires a deep psychological analysis, say its founders.

It also defends the idea that crime is the result of our daily behavior, where victim and victimizer meet and interact, both roles being interchangeable; sometimes we are the victim and other times we can be the victimizer, depending on the motivation and context.

As we said earlier, this theory does not allude to psychological issues, but neither does it consider biological or social variables. Its focus is the thorough analysis of the environmental issue, the context. What does it say about it?

For a crime to be committed, three variables must converge at the same time and in the same place:


The person who is going to commit a crime must be motivated to do so; without that incentive, the illegality does not occur. Besides, anyone can have that desire; you don't have to have a mental disorder to commit a crime, says Felson.

But, if it is not due to a psychiatric disorder, why would someone want to commit a crime, what stimulates them to do so? This theory does not elaborate on this point, it does not address it. Instead, it focuses on victims and prevention.


There are three categories that encompass the definition of "convenient target" and they are:

  • Person,

  • Object,

  • Place.

These categories, in addition, must possess certain attributes that make them desirable and suitable for the crime. These attributes are:

  • Value: This may refer to economic (how much money a certain object is worth) or to the status value conferred by the possession of a certain object.

  • Inertia: This refers to the ease or difficulty of moving, transporting, and moving a certain object or person/s.

  • Visibility: The greater the exposure of an object/person, the easier it is to steal it, compared to hidden objects/persons.

  • Access: Public spaces are easily violated compared to private spaces.


At this point we refer to two types of mechanisms: On the one hand the informal ones that refer to the influence of people to watch, watch and defend other people. But also to any object or system used to frighten potential criminals. Among the latter we find the following: Lights, dogs, fences, alarm systems and community alarms, landlords in second homes, surveillance cameras, razor wire fences, security booths at the entrance of housing developments...

The other mechanism is the formal one and refers to police, parapolice, military forces, which are given a deterrent power per se.

In short, an appropriate surveillance is anything or anyone that prevents the convergence between the two previous elements: A person motivated to commit a crime and a suitable target.

Mikesell, M. [Painting]. Artsy.


This theory has two possible applications: The micro level, which includes all the activities, schedules, places, people and routines that describe the daily life of a victim of bullying, for example.

And, on the other hand, a macro-level that refers to the analysis of more general spaces among which they should investigate opportunities, possible offenders and victims and security systems. The analysis of a neighborhood, a school, a public building, a community, a country, a region...

Mikesell, M. (2020). The twins. [Painting]. Artsy.


We are talking about a theoretical model that was first presented in 1979 as a result of the situation in the USA during the Second World War: Men in the battlefield and women who had to go out to work, left their homes alone for several hours each day and without any kind of surveillance. At first, Cohen and Felson linked these two situations and believed that they were mutually explanatory: The greater the poverty, the greater the theft. However, with the early economic recovery that followed the post-war period, crime increased again. Now, men and women left home together to work, earned more money and spent it on the thousands of household appliances that began to be produced with the technological advances of the time. In the houses there were televisions, radios, washing machines, refrigerators and a long etcetera of appetizing objects, but also easily transportable because they made them smaller and smaller.

Mikesell, M. [Painting]. Artsy.


This theory is about opportunities and, consequently, about prevention. It is part of the theoretical body that emphasizes the environment above all else, since it places the sole emphasis on those activities that we carry out on a daily basis and the spaces in which we perform them. It does not consider the origin of criminal motivations because it assumes that we can all be criminals. We are all motivated offenders.

Nowadays we live plugged into, more and more, mini-devices, disposable, and of great value. In this context it is not surprising now to understand why theft and robbery are skyrocketing in the most populated areas of the planet. The level of consumption is always a suitable target. It is also not difficult to establish a certain predictability in our daily lives: What time we wake up, how long we stay at home and what time we return home, where we work, what we do on weekends...

Routine Activities Theory is a simple and straightforward intervention model that covers the essentials of surveillance and victimization. However, it falls short on issues of treatment and rehabilitation of offending behavior. It does not expand on what motivates someone to offend, while another person, with the same opportunities, chooses not to do so.




Author Photo

María José Puebla

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