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Routine Activities Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Jan 11, 2022

Takeaway Definition & Meaning
  • Routine activities theory says that offenders make choices about whether or not to commit a crime based on their access to a suitable target and the presence — or lack thereof — of capable guardianship that could potentially bring repercussions to the offender.
  • The criminologists' Collin and Felson devised routine activities theory, assuming that the motivation of offenders is always present. This sets routine activities theory apart from other criminological theories, which seek to examine why offenders are motivated in the first place.
  • Suitable targets, as well as capable guardians, can be human or nonhuman, and capable guardians can be either formally organized (such as law enforcement) or informal (such as neighbors and civilians). The susceptibility of a target depends on how well it can be taken and concealed and its value relative to its concealability.

History and Overview

Routine activities theory is an approach in criminology which examines the ways in which the everyday behavior of individuals exposes them to more or less risk of being a victim. The exploration of such routine activities allows the criminologist to identify 'hot spots' where criminal activity is likely to be concentrated.

Rather than being an extraordinary event requiring deep psychological analysis, crime, in this view, is the result of how offenders live their everyday lives.

For a crime to occur according to routine activities theory, there must be three elements: firstly, a motivated offender; secondly, a suitable target; and, thirdly, the absence of capable guardians. The combination of these three factors leads to crime.

Routine Activities Theory

The motivated offender

Cohen and Felson assume that a motivated offender is present, rather than attempting to explain what motivates the offender. This differentiates routine activities theory from other theories of crime.

According to routine activities theory, there are not necessarily deep psychological motivations for committing a crime; an otherwise ordinary person can be convinced to commit a crime easily. Instead, the theory focuses on victimization.

Routine activities theory also assumes that a perpetrator's motivation to offend is constant. There are no set of circumstances in this view that will make an offender more or less likely to commit a crime except for those that make the offender more able to carry out his intentions (Branic, 2015).

The suitable target

For a crime to happen in routine activities theory, a motivated offender must identify and engage a suitable target. The concept of a suitable target can take on a number of different forms that depend on the nature of the crime and the situational context.

That is to say, the particular intent of the offender and the available opportunities, for instance, can lead to an offender seeking out a different suitable target.

Suitable targets can be nonhuman. Objects such as a gold necklace or a valuable home can become targets of burglary, for instance. Nonetheless, another person — say, someone wearing flashy jewelry and holding a new smartphone — can catch the attention of a robber.

Criminologists consider suitable targets at various levels of analyzing crimes, and Cohen and Felson (1979) suggest how large-scale societal changes can influence how many suitable targets criminals see at a national level.

Despite academics' focus on broad criminal trends, the way that an offender evaluates what is and is not a suitable target largely depends on their individual perceptions and preferences.

The absence of capable guardians

The final aspect of routine activities theory involves capable guardianship. Capable guardians can dissuade or prevent crime even when a motivated offender has selected a suitable target. This guardianship can be formal or informal.

For example, police officers, bodyguards, the military, and other types of law enforcement can be seen as a form of protection from crime and victimization, and thus prevent crimes from happening.

Many potential offenders, although motivated to commit a crime, would be hesitant to do so with a police officer nearby. Capable guardianship can also be informal.

Community connections within a neighborhood, for instance, could offer protection from criminal behavior within the community. This form of protection, Cohen and Felson (1979) suggest, can be even more potent than that of law enforcement, as there are fewer police officers patrolling neighborhoods than there are citizens.

As a result, citizens are more likely to provide informal guardianship against potentially criminal behavior. For instance, a neighborhood watch association may patrol their neighborhoods, civilians may intervene during confrontations, and those in a neighborhood may, consciously or unconsciously, maintain surveillance in order to prevent crime and promote social order by passing through an area at a particular time.

Just as potential targets are not limited to people, potential guardians are not, either. A nearby security camera or a sign indicating that there is a home burglary alarm may cause an offender to hesitate committing a crime.

Physical barriers, such as walls around a community or fencing around a home could constrain where the offender can intrude. These barriers can even exist on a large level.

Felson and Boba (2010), for instance, suggest that proper urban planning and neighborhood layout can physically and symbolically "design out crime."

The convergence of variables

Routine activities theory also examines social context as a way to understand crime.

Cohen and Felson (1979) explain how certain social conditions affect the nature of people's day-to-day behaviors and therefore influence whether motivated offenders, suitable targets, and capable guardians will be in the same place at the same time.

For example, during major holiday shopping days, such as Black Friday, malls will be crowded, money will change hands frequently, and homes will be more likely to be vacant.

This seasonal shift in routine activities offers motivated offenders increased opportunities for crimes through providing suitable targets such as shoppers carrying money and valuables and unattended homes to burglarize.

Cohen and Felson discussed large-scale social trends and their implications on American crime rates as a way of testing their theory. The first of these trends was that of women entering the workforce in greater numbers following World War II.

As women took on jobs outside the home, many households were left vacant for longer periods of time. Because of this, Cohen and Felson (1979; Branic, 2015) argued, there were increased opportunities for certain types of crime, such as burglary.

Additionally, as activities moved from outside the home to the public, the likelihood of motivated offenders coming in contact with suitable targets also increased.

Thus, according to routine activities theory, crime rates rose following the second World War. Cohen and Felson (1979) also argued that the type of objects that people carry influences how much crime happens in wider society due to the changing suitability of targets.

For example, a thief may be more likely to take a wallet than a piano because the wallet is portable, concealable, and more powerful relative to its weight than a piano (Branic, year).

Cohen and Feelson observed that, over time, many expensive valuables such as televisions and computers reduced in size and weight, increased in monetary value, and were owned by more people.

For example, computers — which once took up the size of an entire room, making theft extremely difficult — shrunk to a size concealable in a backpack, or even a pocket.

In modern times, computers are so portable, commonplace, and valuable that they have become prime targets for theft (Branic, 2015).


Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger's police call study

Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger (1989) analyzed calls to police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, identifying the 3% of places in the city where 50% of all calls to the police occured.

This evidence showed that crime is not distributed randomly. Instead, Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger argue, there are certain types of areas where crime is distributed, and the types of areas that experience crime can even vary from block to block.

Other studies support Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger's conclusion that crime rates are variable.

For instance, the researchers reference a study that found that houses in Salt Lake City, Utah with well-tended hedges were less likely than others in the same neighborhood to be burglarized.

Another that observed that apartments in Tallahassee, Florida that were near the entrance to the complex and not facing another building were more likely to be burglarized (Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger, 1989).

Osgood's study on criminality in young adults

Routine activities theory has been applied to understand deviance at both the macro and micro levels.

Osgood and his colleagues (1996), for example, examined the activities of adults between the ages of 18 and 26 years old and found that those who socialized in an unstructured way with peers without the presence of an authority figure were more likely than others to engage in criminal and deviant behaviors.

Besides criminality, these deviant activities included heavy alcohol use, the use of marijuana and illicit drugs, and dangerous driving.

The researchers argued that the presence of peers makes deviant acts easier and more rewarding, the absence of authority figures reduces the potential for social control responses to deviance, and the lack of structure leaves young adults with time to carry out deviant behavior.

Routine activities theory and the internet

The ubiquity of the Internet has ushered in opportunities for online criminality. A number of researchers have been conducting studies on how routine activities theory applies to such deviance.

Reyns, Henson, and Fisher (2011), for example, attempted to explain cyberstalking in the context of Cohen and Felson's (1979) original arguments.

The internet offers a slightly different context for routine activities theory. Namely, the digital ecosystem abstractified the idea of victims and offenders meeting in time and physical space to carry out crimes.

A cyberstalker on social media, for instance, may interact with a victim who is offline, and whom they have never met in-person.

Despite the recontextualization of Cohen and Felson's theory, Reyns, Henson, and Fisher found connections between online proximity to motivated offenders, online guardianship, and online target attractiveness and the likelihood of cyberstalking.

Lifestyle Theory vs. Routine Activities Theory

Lifestyle theory, often confused with routine activities theory, is the idea that people have a high risk of becoming crime victims if their patterns of behavior expose them to victimization. These behaviors can be influenced by demographic profiles.

For example, a person who works a night shift at a convenience store in a high-crime neighborhood may be particularly likely to become the victim of a crime because they are more likely to be exposed to potential offenders without effective restaurants that could prevent a crime.

Like routine activities theory, lifestyle theory holds that crime depends on three variables: incentive, opportunity, and choice. In contrast to the theory, however, lifestyle theory focuses on how criminal incentives change over time.

During each phase of a criminal lifestyle, incentive, opportunity, and choice have different values and meaning. The initial phase of a criminal lifestyle is triggered by existential fear; and, once initiated, the fear of losing out on the benefits of crime becomes the incentive for continuing the criminal lifestyle.

By the time someone has entered the third phase of a criminal lifestyle, incentive changes to a fear of change. Finally, the burnout or maturity phase of the criminal lifestyle changes the incentive to the fear of death, illness, or incarceration (Walters, 2006).

Routine activities theory and other theoretical perspectives on crime

There are many other theoretical perspectives that echo the thesis of routine activities theory: that there is a need to minimize criminal activities, bolster social control, and reduce the likelihood of crime.

This field is known as environmental criminology, and concepts that fit in it include the situational crime prevention and crime prevention through environmental design models.

Both of these theories emphasize how changing offenders' environments can dissuade offenders and reduce the opportunities for crime to happen. Routine activities theory is not without criticism.

One major point of critique is routine activities theory's dis emphasis on the motivation of offenders. Clarke and Cornish (1985), for example, discuss how motivations can vary across offenders.

Other scholars have argued that routine activities theory fails to address exactly which circumstances cause motivated offenders and suitable targets to converge in the absence of capable guardians. These are called criminal opportunity contexts (Wilcox, Land, and Hunt, 2003).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, Jan 11). Routine activities theory. Simply Psychology.

APA Style References

Branic, N. (2015). Routine activities theory. The encyclopedia of crime and punishment, 1-3.

Clarke, R. V., & Cornish, D. B. (1985). Modeling offenders' decisions: A framework for research and policy. Crime and justice, 6, 147-185.

Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American sociological review, 588-608.

Felson, M., & Boba, R. L. (Eds.). (2010). Crime and everyday life. Sage.

Osgood, D. W., Wilson, J. K., O'malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Johnston, L. D. (1996). Routine activities and individual deviant behavior. American sociological review, 635-655.

Reyns, B. W., Henson, B., & Fisher, B. S. (2011). Being pursued online: Applying cyberlifestyle–routine activities theory to cyberstalking victimization. Criminal justice and behavior, 38(11), 1149-1169.

​​Sherman, L. W., Gartin, P. R., & Buerger, M. E. (1989). Hot spots of predatory crime: Routine activities and the criminology of place. Criminology, 27(1), 27-56.

Walters, G. D. (2006). Lifestyle theory: Past, present, and future. Nova Publishers.

Wilcox, P., Quisenberry, N., & Jones, S. (2003). The built environment and community crime risk interpretation. Journal of Research in crime and delinquency, 40(3), 322-345.

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