Routine Activities Theory Essayscorer

A Theory of Crime Problems

The crime triangle (also known as the problem analysis triangle) comes striaght out of one of the main theories of environmental criminology - routine activity theory.

“Routine Activity Theory” provides a simple and powerful insight into the causes of crime problems. At its heart is the idea that in the absence of effective controls, offenders will prey upon attractive targets. To have a crime, a motivated offender must come to the same place as an attractive target. For property crimes the target is a thing or an object. For personal crimes the target is a person. If an attractive target is never in the same place as a motivate offender, the target will not be taken, damaged, or assaulted. Also, there are controllers whose presence can prevent crime. If the controllers are absent, or present but powerlessness, crime is possible.

First, consider people who are influential in the lives of potential offenders. In the case of juveniles these might be parents, close relatives, siblings, peers, teachers, coaches, and other similarly placed individuals. In the case of adults these people may include intimate partners, close friends, relatives, and sometimes their children. These people are called “handlers” in routine activity theory. Crimes will take place where handlers are absent, weak, or corrupt.

Next consider targets, or victims. Guardians try to protect targets from theft and damage and potential victims from attack and assault. Formal guardians include the police, security guards, and others whose job is to protect people and property from crime. Informal guardians include neighbors, friends, and others who happen to be in the same place as the attractive target. Parents, teachers, peers and others close to potential victims are also potential guardians. A target with an effective guardian is less likely to be attacked by a potential offender than a target without a guardian. If the guardian is absent, weak, or corrupt little protection is provided the target.

Finally, consider places. Someone owns every location and ownership confers certain rights to regulate access to the site and behaviors of people using the site. The owner and the agents of the owner (e.g., employees) look after the place and the people using the place. Owners and their agents are called place managers. Place managers control the behavior of offenders and potential victims. Examples of place manager include merchants, lifeguards, parking lot attendants, recreation and park workers, janitors, and motel clerks. In the presence of an effective place manager, crime is less likely than when the manager is absent, weak or corrupt.

All of the people in this theory use tools to help accomplish their criminal or crime control objectives. Tools that gang members use may include spray paint cans, guns, and cars. Offenders without access to tools are less likely to be able escape handlers, enter unauthorized places, and overcome victims, guardians, and managers. Guardians may use light to increase surveillance, engraving devices to mark property, and other devices to help reduce the chances of victimization. Place managers can use gates, fences, signs and other tools to regulate conduct. With effective tools handlers, victims, guardians, and managers will have a greater chance of keeping crimes from occurring. The tools used are often highly specific to the crime in question. The tools an offender needs for a burglary (e.g., a screw driver) are likely to be different from those needed for a robbery (e.g., a gun), for example.

The relationship of the actors, places and tools is depicted in the problem triangle, shown in Figure 1. Problems occur when offenders are at the same places as targets, without any effective controller. If one or more of the controllers is present, however, the chances of crime are greatly reduced. The effectiveness of the people involved will depend, in part on the tools they have available. Adding or subtracting various elements in this model will alter the chances of crime.

The presence of attractive targets, weak handlers, ineffective guardianship, and indifferent management is not randomly distributed across places. Offenders do not wander aimlessly across the landscape. Like everyone else, offenders have routine behaviors that take them away from handlers and lead them to discover places with attractive targets. Potential victims also follow routines that separate them from effective guardians in places with weak management. The spatial ordering of crime opportunities and the routines of offenders and victims creates many of the crime problems we see.

This theory of crime also suggests ways of preventing these problems. The questions in the guide and the responses list are organized around each of the eleven elements shown in Figure 1. The guide asks problem solvers a series of questions about offenders, handlers, targets, guardians, places, managers, and the tools used by each. The answers to these questions, which will vary by problem, suggest possible responses. Thus, responses are problem specific (for example, a residential burglary problem in a neighborhood of single family residences may require different responses than one in a large apartment complex, and a residential burglary problem in an apartment complex near a heavily traveled highway may require different responses than one in an apartment in a more isolated location).

Though responses are problem specific, there are often several possible responses to any specific problem. Few problems will have unique responses. Instead, the special insight of problem solvers is to choose among possible responses that can be implemented. Further, if one approach does not work, other backup responses are usually possible.

Though it is possible to use the guide and responses list without understanding the basics of routine activity theory, knowing this theory helps use the guide and list with greater flexibility. For example, if someone proposes a potential solution to a problem, it is possible to determine if the solution is appropriate. To do this the problem solver identifies which of the 58 possible responses the proposed solution resembles most closely. The problem solver then works backwards from the solution list to the questions. The questions describe the types of answers needed for the solution to fit the problem. If the answers to the questions are consistent with the solution, the proposed solution may be appropriate. In short, the more familiar one is with routine activity theory, the more adaptable the guide and solution list will be. Additional information on routine activity theory can be found in the references cited below, particularly Clarke (1997) and Felson (1994).


Brantingham, Patricia L. and Paul J. Brantingham (1981). “Notes on the Geometry of Crime.” In Environmental Criminology, edited by Paul J. Brantingham and Patricia L. Brantingham. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Clarke, Ronald V. (1997). Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies. Second edition. Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.

Cohen, Lawrence E. and Marcus Felson (1979). “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach.” American Sociological Review. 44:588-605.

Eck, John E. (1994). Drug Markets and Drug Places: A Case-Control Study of the Spatial Structure of Illicit Drug Dealing. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park.

Felson, Marcus (1994). Crime and Everyday Life: Insight and Implications for Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

This theory is based on Cohen and Felson (1979), Felson (1994), and Eck (1994).

Note that people can fill multiple roles. A father example, can be a handler of a teenager when he prevents his son from accompanying his friends on a drinking spree. He can be a guardian when he accompanies his son in risky circumstances. And he can be a manager when he prohibits his son from having a keg party in his home.

Routine activity theory is a sub-field of crime opportunity theory that focuses on situations of crimes. It was first proposed by Marcus Felson and Lawrence E. Cohen in their explanation of crime rate change in the United States 1947 - 1974.[1] The theory has been extensively applied and has become one of the most cited theories in criminology. Unlike criminological theories of criminality, routine activity theory studies crime as an event, closely relates crime to its environment and emphasize its ecological process,[2] thereby diverting academic attention away from mere offenders.

The premise of routine activity theory is that crime is relatively unaffected by social causes such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment. For instance, after World War II, the economy of Western countries was booming and the Welfare states were expanding. Despite this, crime rose significantly during this time. According to Felson and Cohen, the reason for the increase is that the prosperity of contemporary society offers more opportunities for crime to occur. For example, the use of automobile, on one hand, enables offenders to move more freely to conduct their violations and, on the other hand, provide more targets for theft. Other social changes such as college enrollment, female labor participation, urbanization, suburbanization, and lifestyles all contribute to the supply of opportunities and, subsequently, the occurrence of crime.[1]

Routine activity theory has its foundation in human ecology and rational choice theory. Over time, the theory has been extensively employed to study sexual crimes, robberies, cyber crimes, residential burglary and corresponding victimizations, among others. It is also worth noting that, in the study of criminal victimization, the routine activity theory are often regarded as "essentially similar"[3][4] to lifestyle theory of criminology by Hinderlang, Gottfredson, and Garofalo (1978).[5] More recently, routine activities theory has been repeatedly used in multilevel frameworks with social disorganization theory in understanding various neighborhood crimes.

Theoretical framework[edit]

In routine activities theory, crime is likely to occur when three essential elements of crime converge in space and time: a motivated offender, an attractive target, and the absence of capable guardianship.[1][6]

Motivated offenders are individuals who are not only capable of committing criminal activity, but are willing to do so.[7] Suitable targets can be a person or object that are seen by offenders as vulnerable or particularly attractive. Guardianship can be a person or an object that is effective in deterring offense to occur [6] and sometimes crime is stopped by simple presence of guardianship in space and time.[8] The factors that render a particular target attractive are situational and crime specific.

The analytic focus of the Routine Activity Theory takes a macro-level view and emphasizes broad-scale shifts in the patterns of victim and offender behavior. It focuses on specific crime events and offender behavior/decisions. Routine Activity Theory is based on the assumption that crime can be committed by anyone who has the opportunity. The theory also states that victims are given choices on whether to be victims mainly by not placing themselves in situations where a crime can be committed against them.

Empirical evidence[edit]

Criminologist Lynch (1987), using "domain-specific" models, demonstrates that occupation-related activities generally have a stronger impact on the risk of victimization at work than sociodemographic characteristics. The specific attributes of activities pursued at work exposure, guardianship, attractiveness—were all related to victimization in ways predicted by activity theory.[9] These findings identify specific attributes of occupations that could be modified to reduce the risk of criminal victimization at work. Victimization of workers at work will decline if mobility, public accessibility, and handling of money as part of the occupational role are reduced.

In A Routine Activity Theory Explanation for Women's Stalking Victimizations, criminologists Mustaine and Tewksbury (1999) conducted a self-administered study in the fall of 1996 to 861 college or university female students from 9 postsecondary institutes in eight states. The study reveals that women's victimization risk of stalking can be explained by individual lifestyle behaviors, including employment, location of residence, substance use (drug and alcohol) and self-protection.[10]

Felson and Cohen (1980) establishes that those who live alone are more likely to be out alone and to have little help in guarding their property, they probably face higher rates of victimization for both personal and property crimes. The 30.6% increase in employed and married female’s participation rates not only subjects these women to greater risk of attack to and from work, but also leaves their homes and car less guarded from illegal entry. The 118% increase in the proportion of the population consisting of female college students places more women at risk of attack when carrying out daily activities as students, since they may be less effectively protected by family or friends.

Pratt, Holtfreter and Reisig (2010) using a sample of 922 adults in Florida show that one's online routine activities, shaped by one's sociodemographic characteristics, strongly shape the person's risk of falling victim of Internet fraud.[11] Their findings clearly shed light on the validity of routine activities theory on crimes that targeted at Internet users. Using university computer attack data, Maimon and colleagues (2013) reveal evidence supporting routine activity theory. They find that the risk of computer attacks increases during university official business hours and that foreign-origin attacks are substantially attributed to the number of foreign network users.[12]


Routine Activity Theory is mainly a macro theory of crime and victimization. It requires motivated offenders, but does not explain how such offenders become motivated.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach. American Sociological Review, 588-608.
  • Felson, M. (1994). Crime and everyday life: Insight and implications for society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine.
  • Felson, M., & Cohen, L. E. (1980). Human Ecology and Crime: A Routine Activity Approach. Human Ecology, 8(4), 389-406.
  • Hawdon, J. E. (1999). Daily Routines and Crime: Using Routine Activities as Measures of Hirschi's Involvement. Youth & Society, 30(4), 395-415.
  • Lynch, J. P. (1987). Routine Activity and Victimization at Work. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 3(4), 283-300.
  • Maxfield, M. G. (1987). Lifestyle and Routine Activity Theories of Crime: Empirical Studies of Victimization, Delinquency, and Offender Decision-making. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 3(4), 275-282.
  • Miller, J. M. (Ed.). (2014). The encyclopedia of theoretical criminology (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pratt, T., Holtfreter, K., & Reisig, M. (2012). Routine Online Activity and Internet Fraud Targeting: Extending the Generality of Routine Activity Theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(3), 267–296. 10.1177/0022427810365903
  • Ronald V. Clarke and Marcus Felson M., 1993, « Introduction : Criminology, Routine Activity, and Rational Choice », Advances in Criminological Theory: Routine Activity and Rational Choice, vol. 5, 1–14
  • Rountree, P. W., Land, K. C., & Miethe, T. D. (1994). Macro‐micro integration in the study of victimization: A hierarchical logistic model analysis across Seattle neighborhoods. Criminology, 32(3), 387-414.
  • Smith, W. R., Frazee, S. G., & Davison, E. L. (2000). Furthering the integration of routine activity and social disorganization theories: Small units of analysis and the study of street robbery as a diffusion process. Criminology, 38(2), 489-524.
A graphical model of the Routine activity theory. The theory stipulates three necessary conditions for most crime; a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian, coming together in time and space. The lack of any of the three elements is sufficient to prevent a crime which requires offender-victim contact.
  1. ^ abcCohen, Lawrence E.; Felson, Marcus (1979). "Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach". American Sociological Review. 44 (4): 588–608. doi:10.2307/2094589. 
  2. ^The Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology. doi:10.1002/9781118517390. ISBN 9781118517390. 
  3. ^Garofalo, J. (1987). Reassessing the lifestyle model of criminal victimization. Beverly Hills, California: Sage. 
  4. ^Maxfield, Michael G. (1987). "Lifestyle and Routine Activity Theories of Crime: Empirical Studies of Victimization, Delinquency, and Offender Decision-Making". Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 3 (4): 275–282. 
  5. ^Hindelang, M. J.; Gottfredson, M. R.; Garofalo, J. (1978). Victims of personal crime: An empirical foundation for a theory of personal victimization. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger. 
  6. ^ abCohen, Lawrence E.; Kluegel, James R.; Land, Kenneth C. (1981). "Social Inequality and Predatory Criminal Victimization: An Exposition and Test of A Formal Theory". American Sociological Review: 505–524. 
  7. ^Felson, Marcus; Cohen, Lawrence E. (1980). "Human Ecology and Crime: A Routine Activity Approach". Human Ecology. 8 (4): 389–406. 
  8. ^Felson, Marcus (1995). "Those who discourage crime". Crime and place. 4: 53–66. 
  9. ^Lynch, James P. (1987). "Routine Activity and Victimization at Work". Journal of Quantitative Criminology. 3 (4): 283–300. 
  10. ^Mustaine, Elizabeth Ehrhardt; Tewksbury, Richard (1999). "A Routine Activity Theory Explanation for Women's Stalking Victimizations". Violence Against Women. 5 (1): 43–62. 
  11. ^Pratt, Travis C.; Holtfreter, Kristy; Reisig, Michael D. (2010). "Routine Online Activity and Internet Fraud Targeting: Extending the Generality of Routine Activity Theory". Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 47: 267–296. 
  12. ^Maimon, D.; Kamerdze, A.; Cukier, M.; Sobesto, B. (2013-03-01). "Daily Trends and Origin of Computer-Focused Crimes Against a Large University Computer Network: An Application of the Routine-Activities and Lifestyle Perspective". British Journal of Criminology. 53 (2): 319–343. doi:10.1093/bjc/azs067. ISSN 0007-0955. 

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