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Routine Activity Theory

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Written By: Jordanne Morrow

Routine Activity Theory states that in order for a crime to be committed, three specific criteria must be involved.  These criteria are that there must be a motivated offender, a suitable target, as well as the absence of a capable guardian.  This theory attempts to show that crime rates are not generally affected by macro changes such as economic recessions and unemployment rates.  While researching crime rates after World War II it was discovered that even though America was economically prospering compared to the pre-war depression, crime rates were still high, and showed no signs of decreasing.   The general lifestyle of an individual plays an important part in the definition of routine activity theory.  The more one is exposed to criminal behavior in their everyday lifestyle, the higher the likelihood that a person will commit criminal activity.  Many experiments and surveys have been conducted to test this theory.  They attempt to find empirical evidence supporting the assumption of the Routine Activity Theory, specifically that macro social causes do not play as big a role in the causation of crime as personal lifestyle does. 

Cullen, Henson, Reyns, and Wilcox conducted a study to determine whether there is a difference in gender involvement in crime as it relates to the Routine Activity Theory.   They examined over 500 high school students, and whether their daily routine and activities seemed to be structured or unstructured.  What was found was “that gender’s effect on both minor and serious victimization was substantially mediated by one measured lifestyle, in particular the delinquent lifestyle,” (Cullen et al, 2010, pg 303).  Their discovery meant that gender does play a role in opportunity to commit crime, because men generally have a more risky lifestyle than women.  According to the study, girls tend to have a more structured lifestyle.  This means that there is more supervision of activities, and therefore girls are sheltered more from criminal activities.  This idea can also be extended to age.  The group with the highest propensity to crime is between the ages of 15 and 20.  This can be attributed to the fact that adolescents have more of an unstructured lifestyle than adults who hold jobs and have more responsibilities.     

In order for a theory to be considered useable, it must be empirically valid.  This validity is determined by testing the theory in different circumstances using experiments to either prove that the theory is correct, or figure out if there are any holes in the theory.  Elizabeth Groff tested routine activity theory, and reported her findings in her article “Simulation for Theory Testing and Experimentation: An Example Using Routine Activity Theory and Street Robbery.”  She started off with the hypothesis that as time spent away from the home increases, so does the chance that the person will commit a crime.  Rather than using real people in this experiment, Groff used a computer simulated model incorporating different geographical information as well as crime rates from these areas. What was found from this experiment was that crime follows at least 5 specific crime patterns.  These patterns are a “high degree of clustering [of crimes], concentration of crime in relatively few places, relatively few offenders responsible for most of the crime, rather few victimsaccounting for most of the victimization and non-static patterns of crime overtime,” (Groff 2008).  The people in the simulation were tracked based on how much time they spent away from home, from 30% of their time to 70%.  It was determined that those who spent 70% of their time away from home were more involved with the police.  Using this information and other information found in her study, Groff discovered that her hypothesis was correct, and that the experiment encouraged the idea of the Routine Activity Theory. 

This theory was also tested again, but in relation to a different type of crime.  Jasinki and Navarro attempted to use the Routine Activity Theory to figure out who has the highest risk to participate in cyberbullying.  Cyberbullying came to the public’s eye in 2006 after a 16 year old committed suicide after he had been the victim of bullying through an online social networking site.  When looking back at the three things required for crime according to the Routine Activity Theory (“RAT”), it can be seen that all of these things are present while online.  It has been found that “Concerning motivated offenders, RAT theorists generally accept that there are plenty ‘out there,’” (Jasinki & Navarro, 2012).  People are then made more vulnerable when online, and there becomes an abundance of “suitable targets.”  The third and final aspect, lack of guardianship, is also found online.  Parents tend to assume parental controls installed on a computer can act as a replacement guardian; however this is not the case.  Parental controls cannot filter what young people say on websites that they are allowed to access, such as their email or social networking sites such as Facebook.  In this way, Routine Activity Theory can explain why cyberbullying has become such a prevalent crime. (Jasinki & Navarro, 2012)

There has been some criticism of Routine Activity Theory, especially regarding how simply this theory addresses crime.  This theory only presents three factors for crime, and neglects to address social aspects of committing a crime, such as personal education, socio-economic status, etc.  It has also been said that this theory is simply a “description of crime not an explanation,” (Jeffery, 1993, pg. 492).  While these issues have been pointed out, there is no doubt that the Routine Activity Theory works when used to explain why crime is more prevalent for certain groups, as well as why certain types of crime occur more often. 

In terms of policy implication that comes along with the Routine Activity Theory, it is suggested that if one simply reduces the three factors, they will be able to reduce crime.  An increase in guardianship as well as time spent at home decreases the ability and opportunity to commit crime.  How to accomplish this through law is difficult.  It is not possible to mandate how much time a person spends away from home.  Attempts to encourage youth to stay home during prime criminal hours have included creating a curfew for everyone under the age of 18.Another option is after school programs.  These programs provide safe alternatives where children are given outlets for their aggression, such as midnight basketball games.  They provide suitable guardians when parents are not available, and give children something to occupy their time during peak criminal hours, which are after school as well as at night.  The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has also suggested increasing “the certainty, severity and celerity (speed) of legal sanctions,” (Ontario), in order to increase deterrence of youth from committing crime.  By making crime unappealing, you are decreasing the first aspect of crime, the motivated offender.  The final aspect, suitable targets, is more difficult to decrease, but through community policing, both officers as well as public organizations are taking the initiative to address the problem.  Community policing is the idea that getting the community involved in crime solving as well as crime prevention will increase the safety of the community as a whole.  Citizens are being taught how they can keep an eye out both for themselves and their neighborhoods in order to lessen the likelihood that they will become a victim. 

In conclusion, Routine Activity Theory can be used as a way to explain why crimes occur, and to predict who has the highest likelihood of committing crimes based on three requirements; a willing offender, a target, as well as the lack of proper guardians.  This is assuming that, when presented with the situation where they have the ability to commit a crime, people will generally take the opportunity.  There are downfalls to this theory, as it does not take into account any other aspects of the individual committing the crime.  However, using the Routine Activity Theory, we can effectively create programs that make it more difficult not only for people to commit crime but also make them less easy to victimize and cause harm to our society.

Cullen, F., Henson, B., Reyns, B., Wilcox, P (2010). “Gender, Adolescent Lifestyles, and Violent Victimization: Implications for Routine Activity Theory,” Victims and Offenders Vol. 5 pg 303-328, 1 October 2010 

Groff, E. (2008). Adding the temporal and spatial aspects of routine activities: A further test of routine activity theory. SECURITY JOURNAL, 21(1-2), 95-116. doi:10.1057/

Jasinki, J., Navarro, J. (2012) “Going Cyber: Using Routine Activities Theory to PredictCyberbullying Experiences.” Sociological Spectrum. Vol 32, Issue 1, 2012.  Pg 81-94

Jeffery, C.R. (1993). Obstacles to the development of research in crime and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, 30:491-497.

Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services “Review of the Roots of Youth Violence:Literature Reviews,” Vol 5 Ch 3. youthandthelaw/roots/volume5/chapter03_rational_choice.aspx

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