The Criminal Act: The Role and Influence of Routine Activity Theory

Editors: M.A. Andresen & G. Farrell
Publisher: Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 273p.
Reviewer: Danielle M. Reynald | March 2016

In this Festschrift honouring Marcus Felson, 14 chapters from Felson’s closest colleagues, collaborators and former students highlight the value of routine activity theory’s contribution to criminology by presenting current innovative applications of the theory and promising directions for further development in the future. The book highlights the significant contributions of Felson’s work in criminology—with the dominant focus on Routine Activity Theory (RAT) and its evolution, including extensions of those ideas taken from Felson’s books Crime and Everyday Lifeand Crime and Nature. This is a Festschrift that celebrates good ideas. This book showcases important ideas from the distant past that have laid the foundation for current clever thinking, and evolved into bright new proposals for the future. The editors Andresen and Farrell have put together a collection of chapters which successfully exhibit the various ways in which RAT ideas have been applied—firstly to different aspects of the crime event including victimization and offending; secondly to provide the foundation for analytical and investigative tools in crime analysis and police investigative processes; and finally to develop our understanding of various types of crime including cybercrime, property crime, violent crime and workplace victimization.

The authors pay tribute to Felson by first highlighting some of the golden nuggets in his original ideas. In fact, one of the contributions of this book is that several chapters remind readers of the core original ideas from RAT which are sometimes lost or shrouded in applications of the theory. Most studies that cite RAT focus on the “chemistry for crime” and its central concepts being the convergence of the offender and suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. Rossmo and Summers (chapter 3) and Bowers and Johnson (chapter 9) draw attention to the importance of space and time in determining the rhythms and cycles of daily activity patterns that result in this convergence. Brantingham and Brantingham (chapter 10) explain how vital this is for understanding crime and crime patterns. Empirical support for these ideas is provided by Lemieux (chapter 13), as he reaffirms the importance of time-use—what people do, where they go, who they spend their time with—in explaining and understanding victimization. Using the example of bicycle theft patterns in Sweden, Knutsson (chapter 12) also uses data to illustrate how crime patterns can be dependent as well on cyclical weather and climate variations. Turning the focus to routine activities and space, Chamard (chapter 11) reveals the importance of land-use when considering factors associated with homeless camp locations in Anchorage, Alaska, and the concentration of crimes at these sites.

The book emphasizes how these early ideas have developed over the last 36 years. In the first line of their chapter, Bichler and Malm (chapter 4) explain: “If Cohen and Felson (1979) is the only version of Routine Activity Theory (RAT) you are familiar with, you are sadly out of date” (p. 33). In chapter 2, Eck and Madensen chart the evolution of the theory succinctly, from its original form through to its fourth (current) iteration which they refer to as RAT 4. Bichler and Malm denote this current iteration as the “Neo-RAT,” providing useful conceptual insights about the underexplored area of the inter-dependence of the chemistry for crime’s central concepts. In particular, the book discusses the advancement of several core RAT ideas, including: the role of routine activities in explaining crime rate trends (chapters 5 & 6); target suitability (chapter 5); patterns in offending (chapter 7, 9, 15); and the role and function of crime controllers (chapters 2, 4, 7, 14).

Macro crime trends are explored by Tilley, Farrell and Clarke (chapter 5), and Ignatans and Pease (chapter 6), both of which examine factors related to the crime drop in Western countries that began in the 1990s. While RAT was initially put forward to explain increases in crime in the 1960s and 1970s, Tilley, Farrell and Clarke explain how routine activities and changes related to target suitability explain the reduction in crime in industrialized countries. Ignatans and Pease examine the crime drop from a different angle by concentrating on whether it resulted from an increase or decrease in the equitable distribution of crime across households using data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. They argue that this type of repeat victimization analysis is important for clarifying the origins of the crime drop and for assessing the merit of the numerous theories that have been put forward to explain it.

RAT has often been criticised for being an overly simplistic theory. Eck and Madensen turn this critique on its head with a clever discussion about the value of RAT as an “outwardly simple,” “tinker toy theory” with “few parts and simple connections” (p. 7) which makes it expandable. This is echoed by Tilley, Farrell and Clarke (chapter 5) who argue that the “apparent simplicity” of the routine activity framework and its concepts “belies their strength and flexibility” (p. 59). Indeed, one of the current strengths of the theory brought to the fore in the book is its flexibility. This is evident in its broad application. The chapters showcase this breadth by revealing the utility of the theory, not only in its explanation of different types of crime and crime patterns in different contexts, but also as a fundamental tool to aid in crime detection, prevention and control.

Rossmo and Summers (chapter 3) emphasize the connection between RAT and crime pattern theory, and how their integration can be used as the foundation for an analytic framework for criminal investigation. In doing so, they highlight how the application of the routine activities crime equation in a dynamic context can aid police investigators in understanding spatio-temporal crime event patterns. Boba Santos (chapter 8) suggests that routine activity theory is not only useful to police detectives but also to police crime analysts. She explains that Felson’s work has contributed to the development of key criminological concepts including hot spots, repeat victimization and near-repeat victimization, which are vital tools for crime analysis. With this in mind, she argues that routine activity theory is “one of the cornerstones of police crime analyst work and that Marcus Felson can be touted as one of the architects of modern crime analysis” (p. 108).

Several chapters highlight significant developments in our understanding of the various roles of crime controllers. In chapter 14, Wortley’s innovative study fuses together some of the key tenets of RAT and rational choice theory to uncover what makes whistleblowers capable guardians. Using survey data from employees in organizations across Australia, he highlights the overlap between whistleblowing and guardianship, and examines demographic, organizational and situational factors that predict reporting of wrongdoing observed by employees. Other chapters focus on important developments in our understanding of routine activities and criminal location choice and offender journey to crime. Rengert, Lockwood and Groff (chapter 15) present some interesting findings from the first study that looked at the effect of social barriers on the spatial distribution of residential burglaries in a segregated major US city. They find that the race of the burglar and the dominant race in the targeted area determine the effect of social barriers, suggesting that different crime control strategies are likely required in different communities. Bowers and Johnson (chapter 9) examine time-of-day variations in the journey to residential burglary taken by “insiders” or local offenders, compared to “outsiders” who travel further to commit offences. They found evidence to support their hypothesis that crime committed overnight in residential neighbourhoods is more likely to be committed by “insiders,” but this effect was much weaker in commercial neighbourhoods with more varied land-use.

For those of us currently working on developing research ideas with their roots in RAT, the most exciting contributions of this book are the various avenues set out for upgrading these ideas and advancing our knowledge about crime. In chapter 10 the Brantighams focus on how RAT “can be actively transformed into a powerful tool for understanding the growing crime problems of the 21st century” (p. 136). They explain how the central ideas of RAT, which are rooted in urban proximity space, will need to be adapted and conceptually expanded to include hyperspace if they are to successfully explain new, changing crime patterns such as those exhibited in cybercrime. Transforming these physical concepts to adapt to hyperspace is also the focus of Bichler and Malm’s chapter (chapter 4) on the routines involved in transnational crime. They explain that the first steps to applying routine activity theory to transnational crime and illicit market systems is to reconceptualise convergence in time and space by including new dimensions related to virtual space. They illustrate how this reconceptualization facilitates the necessary examination of the interdependence and interactions between the actors and elements in those systems which will most likely result in crime. Eck and Madensen (chapter 2) also highlight the need for clarification of the human elements in RAT 4 as roles which often overlap and can be conflated. They argue that future research will benefit from developing theories of routines, and theories and research further explicating the concept of capabilities within the various RAT roles. Though not an environmental criminologist, Felson’s brother Richard offers insightful suggestions for future research that will help develop the ambiguous concept of the motivated offender, specifically in the context of dispute-related violence (chapter 7). He proposes an extension of routine activity theory by incorporating ideas from literature on the social psychology of violence to examine the routine activities that lead to provocations, and to better understand opportunities for violence that are generated by disputes.

As a good Festschrift should, this one is punctuated with personal references to Felson, allowing readers to learn about more about the man through his work. The editors include a final chapter of Letters to Marcus Felson which features a fine collection of reflections about Felson in the form of letters and limericks (there’s even a crosstab in there from Rossmo and Summers) that celebrate Felson’s greatest professional and personal contributions to the field. The letters are a great personal touch that provide some insight into his colourful character and why he is so highly valued and appreciated by those who have worked closely with him, both as a colleague and as a friend.

Danielle M Reynald, Senior Lecturer, School of Criminology & Criminal Justice / Griffith Criminology Institute (GCI), Griffith University, Brisbane AUSTRALIA

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