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Situational Action Theory

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           Developed in 2004 by Per-Olof Wikstrom, Situational Action Theory (SAT) proposes a way to unify empirical and theoretical concepts with widely accepted sociological, criminological and behavioral sciences in an attempt to explain moral actions.  In short, it attempts to determine just why it is people choose to break the law (Bouhana and Wikstrom, 2011). SAT proposes that “moral rules and emotions” feed into an individual’s perceptions and choices thus providing a moral context to their actions. SAT may explain many aspects of crime ranging from the lowest level of petty street crime to large-scale white collar criminal enterprises and perhaps even international terror organizations to include the social and psychological development of a suicide terrorist. The criminal act, no matter how large or small may be motivated by an individual’s own moral lexicon, and defined by the situational context in determining if an action is a viable option regardless of criminality.

           At its core, SAT purports that by systematically collecting empirical data, social scientists can predict behaviors by correlating an individual’s traits and actions to situational factors that serve as the causation of the act and influences the individual behavior.  Situational SAT also identifies the process in which an individual first becomes motivated and subsequently transforms from a law abiding citizen to an individual, who due to the situation, perceives a criminal act as a viable alternative and a legitimate means to achieve a desired result.  A premise to SAT is that human beings are products of the society in which they live and as such follow the social contract established in their society’s “rules” or “norms.” In order to fully understand SAT, social scientists must first unravel the interworking of what motivates an individual to carry out a particular action. If the motive behind an individual’s action cannot be empirically established, then research to establish the environmental factors resulting from the individual situation will be artificially founded.

           SAT seeks to explain a person’s behavior as a crossroads between a human and their interaction with their environment.  Per-Olof Wikstrom’s work at Cambridge University created a theoretical model based on the five human senses and four SAT key elements as seen in Figure 1 (Wikstrom, in press). </p>

Key Elements of the Situational Model   (Figure 1, Wilkstrom)




Body, biological and psychological make-up, experiences, agency (power   to make things happen intentionally.)


Part of the environment to which the individual is directly exposed and reacts; Configuration of objects, persons and events accessible to the person through his or her senses (incl. any media present)


Perception of Action alternatives and process of choice as the result of a person’s interaction with the setting


Bodily Movements under the person’s guidance

Wikstrom’s contention was that criminological theories either focused on contextual or environmental factors such as culture or community, and explained behaviors through the innate proclivities of the individual.  Through SAT, Wikstrom sought to integrate the individual reactions of a person to a unique situation and believes that the two sets of dynamics are connected.    

By examining this connection, those who study using SAT can use an analysis of variance (ANOVA) based upon the known casual factors as predictive. At its root, the primary act of the perceived crime is a moral action. The causal action is the interaction between the individual and the environment in which the individual is acting. Individuals decide to act when that action becomes a feasible option through their individual “crime propensity” developed through the moral guidelines and enforced within the environment in which they exist (Wikstrom, 2009).  Wikstrom expressed this as the “interplay with his or her exposure to criminogenic settings” (Wilkstrom, 2009).  Wikstrom also developed the idea that it is a perception and choice process that links the participant to the environment in which they act, and that all actions can fall under the outcomes of, (a) what the actor perceives as a rational choice for action and (b) the action of making that choice and carrying through with the desired action (Wikstrom, 2009).            

SAT is also based on the ideas that humans are able to think rationally and are guided by the rules of the society in which they live. In explaining the criminal or deviant acts a person decides to commit, the actions can be explained as the interplay between the perception of the rules of society and the perception of the individual’s personal moral guidelines. People are seen as using internal controls to control individual behavior, and applying external controls when they choose to act for or against the norms of society (Wikstrom, 2009). Sometimes the choice of deviance is based upon a determined preference for the action; however, when an individual is exposed to a particular situation repeatedly, the choice made by the individual is no longer seen as a result of free will and is instead viewed as a habitual act based on a history of repetition which creates an automated tendency of humans to default to a learned action (Wikstrom, 2009).  

            An important question for many social scientists when measuring the validity of a theory is if the theory is able to address fragmented and hard to account for controls such as external influences on the subject being tested. One critic wrote that “theories such as this can be of little help to policy makers due to the inability to control for outside factors affecting the actions of the individual other than the environment” (Vila, 1994). Despite this shortcoming, SAT attempts to build on rational choice theory to explain the mechanisms by which an individual acts, as well as the process which triggers the response, rather than focus on only the outcome of the choices or consequences faced, as many other criminological theories have in the past.  SAT has been tested by allowing for multiple variations of the crime, the propensity of the actors, the moral context of the individual and society, as well as the human and social capital for various situations used for study.  

            Using SAT, Wikstrom conducted a longitudinal study criminal environments found in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  “Criminogenic environments” within disadvantaged neighborhoods were seen as a corollary to offending behaviors by the individuals inhabiting the disadvantaged neighborhood.  Wilkstrom concluded that it was not living in a disadvantaged area that triggered criminality in of its self, but was the prolonged exposure to the disadvantaged and criminogenic environment that led to crime for most individuals (Wilkstrom, 2012). These findings indicate that this data point could be used to combat the growing crime problem within disadvantaged neighborhoods and in the development of programs designed to reduce the level of criminality within a particular neighborhood. Recognition of the correlation between two data points assists criminologists in understanding potential triggers allowing them to work toward amending current policies and developing future legislation for effective community or state programs. SAT could also be used on a national or multi-national level to study the radicalization process leading to terrorist behaviors.  Further, it plays a role in the body of knowledge that seeks to understand the role society plays in promoting or discouraging terroristic activities through its moral context or environment in which the individual operates.             

              By applying this theory to the study of criminal justice, criminologists are better able to unravel avenues towards crime prevention through deepened understanding of the root of the causation of crime.  When elements such as criminal propensity, exposure, and other social criminal correlations can be better understood and identified, methods of crime prevention can be developed and employed in response. 


Bouhana, N (2011) Al-Qa’ida-influenced Radicalisation:  A rapid evidence assessment guided by Situational Action Theory. Report to UK Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. London: Department of Security and Crime Science, University College London. 16.

Vila, (2004). Criminology: A fragmented and poorly integrated dicipline. Retrieved from   

Wikstrom, P.-O. H. (in press). "Explaining crime as moral actions", in S. Hitlin and S. Vaisey, (eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of Morality. New York, pp. 211-239.  Accessed via internet

Wikstrom, P.-O. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2003). Social mechanisms of community influences on crime and pathways in criminality. In B. B. Lahey, T. E. Moffitt & A. Caspi (Eds.), Causes of Conduct Disorder and Juvenile Delinquency (pp. 118-148). New York: Guilford Press. Accessed via internet

Wikstrom, P. (2011). Situational action theory. Retrieved from

Wikstrom, P. (2009). Violence as situational action. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 3(1), 75-96. doi: 0070 -ijcv-2009162

Wikstrom, P. (2012). Breaking rules: The social and situational dynamics of young people's urban crime. Retrieved from

By: Julia Wright, November 29, 2012

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