Other theoretical perspectives
Chapter 1: Context and Concepts

Two of the more compelling theoretical perspectives deal with routine activities (Cohen and Felson, 1979; Felson, 1998) and criminal spatial behavior (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1984). In the routine activities interpretation, crimes are seen as needing three ingredients: a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a guardian capable of preventing the criminal act. Guardian is broadly interpreted to mean anyone capable of discouraging, if only through his or her mere presence, or interceding in, criminal acts. The mention of guardians begs discussion of the density paradox. This refers to the idea that, on the one hand, high population densities create a high potential for crime because people and property are crowded in small spaces. There are many likely offenders and suitable targets. On the other hand, surveillance is plentiful, and criminal acts in public spaces are likely to be observed by others, who, however unwittingly, take on the role of guardians. Crime can be prevented or reduced by making people less likely to offend (by increasing guilt and fostering development of the "inner policeman" who tames criminal impulses), by making targets less available, and by making guardians more numerous or effective. The process of making targets less available in various ways has become known by the generic term situational crime prevention (Clarke, 1992).

Putting the routine activities approach and its sibling, situational crime prevention, into a geographic context involves asking how each element is distributed in geographic space. Where are the likely offenders? (What is the geography of the youthful male population?) Where are the suitable targets? (What is the geography of convenience stores, malls, automated teller machines, poorly illuminated pedestrian areas?) Where are the guardians? (What is the potential for surveillance, both formal and informal, of targets or areas that may contain targets? Where are the public or quasi-public spaces that lack surveillance and are ripe for graffiti and other incivilities?)

The perspective that focuses on criminal spatial behavior develops a scenario in which the motivated (potential) criminal uses cues, or environmental signals, to assess victims or targets. Cues, or clusters of cues, and sequences of cues relating to the social and physical aspects of the environment are seen as a template that the offender uses to evaluate victims or targets. Intimately tied to this process is the concept of activity space, the area in which the offender customarily moves about and that is familiar to him or her (Brantingham and Brantingham, 1984).

At the micro level of analysis, these concepts are useful in that it is known that activity spaces vary with demographics. For example, younger persons tend to have constricted activity spaces. They do not usually have the resources to travel far. Historically, women have had more geographically limited activity spaces than men due to the higher probability that men would work farther from home and that their jobs would be more likely to give them greater mobility. This is less true today but is still valid to some degree.

Analysts considering crime patterns from a theoretical perspective might think in terms of putting the crimes of interest through a series of "filter" questions. The most obvious is the question, How important is geography in explaining this pattern? (Is the pattern random, or not? If not, why not?) Can routine activity theory or criminal spatial behavior theory help explain this pattern? Is this pattern normal or unusual for this area? If the pattern is an anomaly, why is this? What resources can be brought to bear to better understand the social and other environmental dynamics of the area of interest? Analysts can take their intimate knowledge of the local environment and develop their own set of diagnostic questions, which could be the foundation of an analytic model.

The basic point of this section is to suggest that a systematic approach to analysis rooted in theory may yield more consistent results with a deeper level of explanation. This is not to say that analysts need to be preoccupied with whether their work is consistent with all the research ever done but, rather, to advocate a thoughtful research design consistent with some of the more widely accepted concepts in the field. As noted, this short explanation cannot do justice to the rich array of material dealing with theory in this realm. Readers who may wish to follow up should consult Eck and Weisburd (1995) and the other references cited previously.

Chapter 1: Context and Concepts
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Mapping Crime: Principle and Practice, by Keith Harries, Ph.D., December 1999