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University of Cambridge
UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE
Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study


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Situational Action Theory

People’s crime involvement depends on who they are (their personal characteristics and experiences) and where they are (the characteristics of the environments to which they are exposed. Contemporary criminological theories have contributed significantly to our understanding of individual and environmental differences in crime causation, but few have developed an integrated framework to model how they interact.

Situational Action Theory (SAT) (Wikström 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2007, 2009a, 2009b) is a newly developed general theory of moral action which aims to explain how specific personal and environmental characteristics interact in influencing acts of crime. It builds upon insights from conventional criminological theories and research traditions as well as knowledge from other social and behavioural sciences.

Below we cover in detail the following SAT-related topics:

Crime as moral action The importance of causal interaction
The situational mechanism The principle of moral correspondence
Deliberation and habit The principle of the conditional relevance of controls
The role of motivation Development and change
Person and propensity The role of broader social conditions and life event
Environment and exposure  


The fundamental arguments of SAT are (Wikström 2010):

  1. Acts of crime are moral actions (actions guided by rules about what it is right or wrong to do)

  2. People engage in acts of crime because they (i) see acts of crime as viable action alternatives and (ii) choose (habitually or deliberately) to carry them out

  3. The likelihood a person will see crime as an action alternative and choose to carry it out depends on his/her crime propensity and his/her exposure to criminogenic settings

  4. The role of broader social conditions and individual development should be analysed as the causes of causes

  5. Relevant causes of the causes are only those social conditions and life events that influence the development of people’s crime propensity and the emergence of and people’s differential exposure to criminogenic settings

 

SAT model


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Crime as moral action

A comprehensive definition of crime is difficult to develop as any action, in principle, can be an act of crime. The common characteristic which all acts of crime have in common, however, at all times and in all places, is that they break rules of conduct defined by law (Wikström 2006, Wikström & Treiber 2007). Why certain acts are regarded as crimes while others are not is an important question, but the key question SAT is concerned with is why people commit (or do not commit) acts regarded as crimes (Wikström 2004, 2006).

SAT defines acts which are guided by rules prescribing what it is right or wrong to do as moral actions (Wikström 2006). Acts of crime break moral rules defined by law, and therefore constitute a subset of moral actions.  As a general theory of moral action, the theory presents a framework for explaining not only acts of crime, but also acts which break other less formalized rules of conduct. The process which explains all of these actions is the same; what differs is the content (the relevant moral rules).

SAT is based on explicit assumptions about human nature and its relation to social order: humans are seen as rule-guided actors and social order as based upon adherence to common rules of conduct. Consequently, human moral action can be explained by understanding the interplay between rules of conduct and people’s personal moral rules, both in shaping people’s moral development and providing a context for their moral action (Wikström & Treiber 2009a, 2009b).

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The situational mechanism

SAT proposes a perception-choice process as the situational mechanism which links people and the environments to which they are exposed to their actions (Wikström 2004, 2006). According to the theory, all action can be understood as the outcome of (i) what action alternatives a person perceives and (ii) what action choices he/she makes.

 

Perception choice process

 

Unlike other criminological theories, which focus on why people choose to commit acts of crime, SAT stresses the importance of understanding why some people see crime as an alternative in the first place. Consequently, it sees the perception of action alternatives as more fundamental to explaining action than the ensuing process of choice.

 

Perception vs choice

 

SAT posits clear criteria for determining which personal and environmental factors are potential causes of crime: only those factors which can be chosen to (directly or indirectly) influence a person’s perception and choice of action alternatives are pertinent to the explanation of moral action, and therefore acts of crime (Wikström 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007a).

 

Propensity, exposure and action


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Deliberation and habit

SAT recognizes that acts of crime may be committed habitually or deliberately (Wikström 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2007, 2009b). People act habitually when they respond automatically to a setting, letting their previous experience with that or similar settings guide their action. People act deliberately when they actively choose between action alternatives, consciously using action-relevant information, including moral rules, to guide their action. Habitual action is oriented towards the past and previous outcomes, while deliberate action is oriented towards the future, anticipating potential outcomes.

Action process

 

Most actions will involve elements of both habitual and deliberate choice. The extent to which actions tend to be habitual or deliberate depends on the familiarity of the setting: people acquire habits when they are repeatedly exposed to particular circumstances; people act deliberately when they encounter novel or uncertain circumstances (see Wikström 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2007, 2009a, 2009b).

Only when deliberating do people exhibit free will and are therefore able to exercise self-control (internal controls) and respond to deterrent cues (external controls) (Wikström & Treiber 2007). Because much of human action is arguably driven by habitual processes, controls may not play the more universal role often attributed to them in the explanation of crime (see below, Wikström & Treiber 2009 and Wikström 2010 on the conditional relevance of controls).

 

Habit vs deliberation

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The role of motivation

According to SAT, motivation is a necessary but not sufficient cause of action. Motivation plays an integral part in the process that moves people to action and has a directional influence on what kinds of action a person perceives and considers. Motivation arises as an outcome of the interaction between a person and a setting. Two key forms of motivation are temptation and provocation (Wikström 2006).

Temptation arises when a person perceives an opportunity to fulfil a desire or commitment. Provocation arises when a person experiences negative effect as a result of their sensitivity to a friction (an unwanted external interference) (see Wikström & Treiber 2009b). The interplay between a person’s morality and the moral context will determine whether or not a person perceives a particular action alternative as an appropriate response to a temptation or provocation. This moral filter will consequently influence whether he/she acts upon that temptation or provocation (Wikström 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

 

Moral filter

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Person and propensity

Crime propensity refers to a person’s tendency to see and choose crime as an alternative. Because people differ in their crime propensity, they will respond differently when exposed to different settings. People vary in their crime propensity depending on their personal moral rules and emotions (Wikström 2004, 2006, 2009). Personal moral rules refers to what a person thinks it is right or wrong to do, and moral emotions refers to how much a person cares about doing the right thing (following a particular rule). Key moral emotions include shame and guilt, which may be regarded as a measure of the strength of personal moral rules.

People also vary in their crime propensity depending on their ability to exercise self-control (Wikström 2004, 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2007). Self-control can be seen as one’s ability to act in accordance with one’s morality when faced with temptations and provocations. It is influenced by relatively stable individual factors (executive capabilities) as well as situational factors such as intoxication and stress (Wikström & Treiber 2007). Self-control influences action through the process of deliberate choice, and therefore only plays a role in acts of crime when a person perceives crime as one of several causally effective alternatives for action; self-control does not play a role in the explanation of crime when a person does not perceive crime as an alternative, or perceives crime as the only causally effective alternative and therefore commits it out of habit. This differs from traditional conceptualizations which see self-control as playing a central role in the explanation of all acts of crime (see Wikström & Treiber 2007, 2009a).

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Environment and exposure

In order to be expressed, a person’s crime propensity needs to be activated by an environmental inducement (Wikström 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2009a). A person’s action (and development) can be directly influenced only by the settings, and features of the settings, in which he/she takes part. A setting refers to the parts of an environment that a person can access at a given moment with his/her senses (Wikström 2004).

Settings which contain factors which may activate a person’s crime propensity may be seen as criminogenic settings (Wikström 2004). Settings are criminogenic if they present a moral context conducive to crime. Moral context refers to the moral rules which apply to a setting and their level of enforcement; this level of enforcement may be interpreted as the strength of the moral context (Wikström 2006). People differ in how often they are exposed to criminogenic settings.

The fact that settings differ in their criminogenic features means that the same person (with the same crime propensity) will respond differently to different settings, and will be more likely to commit an act of crime in some settings than other. The configuration of settings a person takes part in over a period of time in represents his/her activity field (Wikström 2005).

Moral contexts present opportunities and frictions, which may tempt or provoke people with particular desires, commitments or sensitivity. However, the moral context will interact with a person’s morality and ability to exercise self-control, which may act as a moral filter, to determine how a person responds to these motivators (Wikström 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2009b).

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The importance of causal interaction

All human action results from the interaction between people and environments. Acts of crime result from the interaction between personal and environmental factors which lead people to see and choose crime as an action alternative. Thus according to SAT, all acts of crime are an outcome of the interaction between a person’s crime propensity and exposure to environmental inducements (criminogenic features of settings) (Wikström 2009a; Wikström & Treiber 2009a):

 

Crime Propensity x Exposure to Criminogenic Settings = Crime

 

Causal Interaction

 

The theory posits that specific combinations of propensity and exposure should predict specific levels of crime involvement (Wikström 2009; Wikström et al. 2010).

A person’s action relevant propensity refers to personal moral rules and emotions (supported by the ability to exercise self-control) pertinent to a particular type of action. For example, a person’s violence relevant propensity refers to the personal moral rules and emotions which influence whether he/she perceives and chooses violence as an action alternative (Wikström 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2009b).

Action relevant exposure refers to the criminogenic features of a moral context which may activate his/her action relevant propensity. For example, violence relevant exposure refers to the features of a moral context (e.g., opportunities and frictions) which motivate (e.g., tempt of provoke) a person to commit an act of violence, and the features of the setting which influence the perception of violence as an alternative and its selection for action (Wikström 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2009b).

The causal process linking propensity and exposure to action is that of moral perception–moral choice. Depending on the circumstances, this process may be predominantly habitual or deliberate.

 

Moral decision making

 

Propensity and exposure cause action by setting the context within which people exercise agency. People exercise agency through the perception–choice process; propensity and exposure provide the input for this process, but do not determine how that input is utilized (Wikström & Treiber 2009a, 2009b). Propensity and exposure are causes of action because changing a person’s propensity and exposure will lead to changes in his/her action by affecting the perception–choice process.

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The principle of moral correspondence

A person’s morality can encourage or discourage a particular action, just as the moral context of a setting can encourage of discourage a particular action. If a person’s moral rules and those of the setting correspond to the moral rules defined by law, he/she is unlikely to commit an act of crime. If a person’s moral rules and those of the setting do not correspond to the moral rules defined by the law, he/she is likely to commit an act of crime (Wikström 2009; Wikström et al. 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2009b). If there is a discrepancy between a person’s moral rules and those of the settings, controls will influence his/her choice of action (Wikström 2009; Wikström et al. 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2007; Wikström, Tseloni & Karlis forthcoming).

 

 

Moral correspondence


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The principle of the conditional relevance of controls

Internal controls, in the form of self-control, play a role when a person’s morality discourages a particular action but the moral context encourages it, for example, by presenting opportunities and frictions which tempt or provoke him/her. In this case, self-control helps an actor suppress or redirect his/her motivation (goal-directed attention) and act in accordance with his/her personal morality. Self-control originates within the individual and therefore plays a role in propensity (Wikström 2009; Wikström et al. 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2007, 2009a, 2009b).

External controls, in the form deterrence, play a role when a person’s morality encourages a particular action but the moral context discourages it through enforcement. In this case, deterrence also suppresses or redirects a person’s motivation so that he/she acts in accordance with the rules of the setting. Deterrence originates in the environment and therefore plays a role in exposure (Wikström, 2007c, 2009; Wikström et al. 2010; Wikström & Treiber 2009a, 2009b; Wikström, Tseloni & Karlis forthcoming).

Importantly, according to SAT controls only play a role in acts of crime when there a person’s morality conflicts with the moral rules of the setting. There must be something to control, and a person must therefore be motivated to act in a particular manner; if he/she does not see crime as an alternative, controls will not play a role in explaining his/her action (Wikström 2007c; Wikström & Treiber 2007; Wikström, Tseloni & Karlis forthcoming).

 

Conditional controls


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Development and change

Changes in action occur when a person’s propensity changes (his/her morality and ability to exercise self-control) and/or his/her exposure changes (the time he/she spends in criminogenic settings) because they lead to changes in his/her action perception and choice (Wikström 2005; Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

(Change) Propensity + (Change) Exposure = (Change) Action

Changes in propensity and exposure are interrelated. Changes in exposure may lead to changes in propensity through processes of socialisation and habituation. Spending time in moral contexts which encourage certain kinds of moral rule breaking may lead to changes in a how a person perceives action alternatives and makes action choices by influencing their personal moral rules and emotions and/or leading them to develop certain moral habits. Changes in propensity may lead to changes in exposure through processes of selection. If a person comes to find certain kinds of moral rule breaking morally acceptable, he/she may be more likely to seek out and take part in settings which support that kind of action (Wikström 2005, Wikström & Treiber 2009a, 2009b).

Why people are exposed to certain settings and how those settings influence their action are different questions; the former is a question of the indirect causes of the causes, while the latter is a question about the direct causes of action.

Development and Change


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The role of broader social conditions and life events

Knowing what moves people to commit acts of crime helps use identify which broader social conditions and life events may serve as indirect causes (causes of the causes) of crime (Wikström 2004, 2005, 2006; Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

Broader social conditions (e.g., disadvantage, integration and segregation) influence action if they influence the emergence of particular kinds of settings (with particular moral contexts) in which people develop and express their propensities. For example, societies differ in their social and moral integration; those with higher degrees of integration can expect less moral rule breaking because their will be greater correspondence between individual and collective moral rules (Wikström & Sampson, 2003; Wikström 2007b; Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

Life events influence action if they influence the development of people’s propensities and their exposure to settings which activate those propensities. For example, life events may disrupt moral habits or affect people’s desires, commitments and sensitivity to friction (Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

Changes in the broader social environment (e.g., political, economical and social changes) may affect the moral contexts present in a society and therefore the exposure of different groups of people. This may in turn affect the moral development of the population, or segments thereof, and the moral contexts in which they act. This may also impact upon certain life events, such as those related to family and school structure, which are also closely tied to moral development and exposure to different moral contexts (Wikström 2005; Wikström 2007b; Wikström & Treiber 2009a).

 

Causes of the causes

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References

Wikström, P-O H., 2004. Crime as alternative: Towards a cross-level situational action theory of crime causation. In: J. McCord, ed. Beyond empiricism: Institutions and intentions in the study of crime. Advances in Criminological Theory, Volume 13. New Brunswick: Transaction, pp.1-37.

Wikström, P-O H., 2005. The social origins of pathways in crime. Towards a developmental ecological action theory of crime involvement and its changes. In: D. Farrington, ed. Integrated developmental and life-course theories of offending. Advances in Criminological Theory, Volume 14. New Brunswick: Transaction, pp.211-246.

Wikström, P-O H., 2006a. Individuals, settings and acts of crime. Situational mechanisms and the explanation of crime. In: P-O H. Wikström & R. Sampson, eds. The explanation of crime: Context, mechanisms and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-107.

Wikström, P-O H., 2007b. In search of causes and explanations of crime. In: R. King & E. Wincup, eds. Doing research on crime and justice, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.117-140.

Wikström, P-O H., 2007c. The social ecology of crime: The role of the environment in crime causation. In: H. Schneider, ed. Internationales handbuch der kriminologie. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp.333-358.

Wikström, P-O H., 2009. Crime propensity, criminogenic exposure and crime involvement in early to mid adolescence. Monatsschrift fur Kriminologie und Strafrechtsreform, 92, pp.253-266.

Wikström, P-O H., 2010. Situational Action Theory. In: F. Cullen & P. Wilcox, eds. Encyclopedia of Criminological Theory. London: SAGE Publications.

Wikström, P-O H., Ceccato, V., Hardie, B. & Treiber, K., 2010. Activity fields and the dynamics of crime. Advancing knowledge about the role of the environment in crime causation. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(1), pp.55-87.

Wikström, P-O H., & Svensson, R., 2010. When does self-control matter? The interaction between morality and self-control in crime causation. European Journal of Criminology, 7(5), pp.1-16.

Wikström, P-O H. & Treiber, K., 2007. The role of self-control in crime causation: Beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime. European Journal of Criminology, 4(2), pp.237-264.

Wikström, P-O H. & Treiber, K., 2009. Violence as situational action. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 3(1), pp.75-96.

Wikström, P-O H. & Treiber, K., 2009. What drives persistent offending? The neglected and unexplored role of the social environment. In: J. Savage, ed. The development of persistent criminality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.389-422.

Wikström, P-O H., Tseloni, A. & Karlis, D., (in press). Do people abide by the law because they fear getting caught?

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