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Criminology. Routine Activities Theory Essay

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2021


Crime reduction is a process that requires researchers to analyze ways in which particular actions can be disrupted or prevented from happening. To understand why crimes occur, scientists apply various theories that propose the factors contributing to deviant behavior. One of these approaches is the routine activities theory (RAT), introduced by Felson and Cohen in the 1970s. According to this theory, three major components contribute to any crime, including an offender, a target, and the absence of a guardian (Cohen and Felson 588). The authors imply that when an offender meets a potential target at a place and time where a person in a role of a capable guardian is not present, crime is likely to occur. This theory became widely used in criminology since it differed from other strategies that relied on offenders’ socioeconomic background and other personal characteristics.

However, the question of the theory’s reliability remains open since people’s environments change continuously. One may look at the research of “traditional” crimes such as burglary and see how place-time ideology of the RAT applies to such situations. At the same time, a multitude of modern studies aims to apply the theory to crimes that have appeared somewhat recently. For instance, many researchers are now interested in how Felson and Cohen’s framework can be used to analyze and possibly prevent cybercrimes. This report examines criminological studies that use the routine activities theory for different types of offenses in order to see how useful this framework can be for contemporary conditions.


In investigating the effectiveness of the routine activities theory (RAT), one may start with a study that considers crimes that require a physical presence of a criminal and victim in one location. The approach was designed to discuss offenses that happened when the people involved in the incident met in certain circumstances (Cohen and Felson 589). Breetzke and Cohn, for instance, apply the theory to burglaries in the gated communities of South Africa which became popular in the region due to the rising rates of violence and crime (56). The authors aim to find whether gating an area is effective in crime prevention. Their idea may be interpreted through the lens of the RAT since the effect of restricting access to a territory reduces the possibility of likely offenders entering a region with likely victims. According to Breetzke and Cohn, this approach to crime prevention is becoming widely used not only in South Africa but other areas such as the United States and the United Kingdom as well (57). Therefore, the findings of this study are not unique to one location.

By analyzing crime data from the communities of South Africa, the authors come to several conclusions. First of all, Breetzke and Cohn discover that one’s residence in a gated community exposes them to increased burglary rates (70). The scholars explain that this result is based on the region’s history since offenders are ready to travel long distances in order to commit a crime (Breetzke and Cohn 68). This behavior is linked to the country’s sociopolitical past, and researchers have put the use of the RAT into question (Breetzke and Cohn 69). The authors note that the RAT is not wholly ineffective in preventing crimes. It is likely that people in gated communities are more vigilant and prepared not only to stop but also report crimes to the police. Nonetheless, this particular empirical research demonstrates that the situational prevention described in the RAT is not effective for the police in all environments.

A significant part of contemporary research tries to apply the RAT to other types of crimes. In particular, many studies are interested in the results which the theory gives when analyzing offenses that do not require direct contact. Reyns, for example, considers identity theft that often happens online (216). Identify fraud is the use of another person’s identity for financial and other operations both online and in real life. The scholar examines the results of a British Crime Survey with a sample of almost six thousand responders. Reyns applies the RAT to find whether it may be effective in detecting or preventing instances of victimization in online spaces (217). While the original theory considers a contact between the offender and the victim in the right place and at the right time, Reyns hypothesizes that this approach can also show online-related activities in the similar framework (216). The results of the British Survey create a solid basis for testing such assumptions.

The analysis of the respondents’ answers demonstrates how the RAT can be used in researching cybercrime. According to the study, identify fraud rates can be explained by potential victims’ activity online. People who use online banking, emailing, or instant messaging are approximately 50% more likely to encounter identity fraud than less active users (Reyns 229). One can interpret this finding as a part of the RAT’s factors – a victim (an internet user) without a guardian (solid protection of information) is exposed to an offender (a user with malicious intent). Thus, online banking and similar activities become influential factors in the sphere of cybercrime. As an outcome, the study’s conclusions are that the theory can be used in incorporating better crime prevention efforts for the police.

A more recent study by Reyns and Henson returns to the problem of identity theft from the RAT perspective. In it, the authors review the Canadian General Social Survey to consider similar questions that were reviewed before, whether particular online activities contribute to crime rates (Reyns and Henson 1119). Here, however, another point is brought up – the concept of online proximity. In this case, online proximity is the exposure of one’s devices to software that makes private information available to other persons (Reyns and Henson 1130). For instance, hacking, phishing, viruses, and adware gather data and help offenders to pick victims and commit crimes. Using the RAT, it is possible to define these programs as online versions of physical convergence in time and space, a factor that creates an environment of an offense to happen.

Similar to the previous research, this study considers a variety of online activities in their effect on cybercrime. Reyns and Henson agree with the earlier findings that online banking, as well as the use of email and social media, influence the rate of identity fraud (1131). Moreover, they find that such interaction in combination with one’s exposure to malware increases people’s online target suitability, replacing the factor of time and space configuration with online proximity (Reyns and Henson 1132). As a result, people’s victimization depends on the lack of protection and their active participation online. The scholars point out that proper guardianship can decrease the risk of identify fraud, including the use of antivirus software, frequent password changes, and avoidance of spam messages (Reyns and Henson 1133). In regards to police investigations, some aspects of the RAT can be adopted to reduce cybercrimes, but situational prevention is more complicated online because of its global outreach.

Nonetheless, the sphere of cybercrimes includes many different types of offenses apart from identity theft. Leukfeldt and Yar investigate the applicability of the RAT to all online crimes, including bullying, piracy, stalking, sexual victimization, and others (275). The authors argue that only some parts of the theory can be translated into the explanation of online offenses. For example, the idea of inertia which lies at the foundation of the approach is difficult to interpret for a virtual environment. Similarly, the scholars note that the convergence of time and space cannot be applied in these settings since the internet does not have physical spaces and time limitations (Leukfeldt and Yar 275). However, these challenges do not render the RAT useless since the theory still has some value in this area of research.

The authors investigate multiple empirical studies of the RAT and cybercrimes. Leukfeldt and Yar find that each examined article presents different results because of their narrow focus (one particular cybercrime) and small sample. (263) However, some correlations can be found in all types of offenses. For example, visibility plays a substantial role in an offender encountering a potential victim. This finding can be linked to the previously discussed studies – people who are active and visible online are at increased risk of various cybercrimes. Interestingly, the value of the target does not contribute to the rate of offenses – people with the lowest income are endangered as much, if not more than, people with higher incomes (Leukfeldt and Yar 277). Personal guardianship is quite effective in crimes which are linked to hacking and stalking – awareness of personal data safety is vital in evaluating related risks (Leukfeldt and Yar 277). As a contrast, in some cases, one’s presence online is enough for some crimes to happen. Malware victimization and bullying are not challenged by personal guardianship as much as other offenses. Overall, the RAT is identified to be suitable for high-tech crime prevention.

The final study on the application of the RAT to cybercrimes looks at online harassment of young adults. Here, Näsi et al. aim to find whether this theory can be used to predict instances of harassment. The authors use four samples from the US, Finland, Germany, and the UK and inspect the victimization of people aged 15-30 years (Näsi et al. 418). They use logistic regression models and consider such data as socio-demographic characteristics, target suitability, exposure to an offender, and absence of guardianship. As a result, the study finds that about 15 to 20 percent of all young adults have been a victim of this cybercrime at some point in life (Näsi et al. 425). This number shows how such an offense as harassment is common among the young population in different countries.

Apart from the high rate of harassment, the researchers find a link between some aspects of the RAT and victimization. Exposure to offenders significantly affects the crime rates in all four countries. However, other factors such as guardianship are not as ubiquitous in reducing offenses, being important in the US and Germany, but not Finland or the UK (Näsi et al. 418). Hence, the authors come to the conclusion that the theory cannot be fully implemented to prevent crimes without considering particular circumstances of each state. Regional differences play a substantial role in predicting who will be a victim of a crime and which environment is the most impactful. Nonetheless, the study aligns with the previous findings since its results show that the RAT can show how guardianship and offense proximity change the rate of criminal activity.


The use of the routine activities theory (RAT) is common in the sphere of criminological research. The theory implies that a number of particular factors have to align in order for an offense to happen. To be more specific, a likely offender has to encounter a potential victim in a time-space convergence without a guardian. Scholars use this approach to analyze various crimes and show how their situational prevention can be improved to reduce crime rates. The implementation of such a theory in crimes that involve offenders’ physical presence at a crime scene is somewhat successful, showing how proper prevention can stop an incident from occurring. However, studies that look at less involved offenses or consider communities with different socioeconomic history provide other results.

At the present time, research is concerned with applying the RAT to the space of cybercrime. The conclusions of authors vary significantly, with some arguing that the theory is effective in helping the police to implement new guidelines. In this case, the subject of identity theft is brought up as an offense where guardianship and exposure to an offender have an impact on a possible victim. Other scholars show how the RAT fails to address the anti-time and space nature of the internet. These unclear results indicate that the RAT may not be effective in assisting the police to stop modern cybercrime. The research needs to consider each type of offense separately and combine the results to perceive how the approach can be used in general.

Works Cited

Breetzke, Gregory D., and Ellen G. Cohn. “Burglary in Gated Communities: An Empirical Analysis Using Routine Activities Theory.” International Criminal Justice Review, vol. 23, no. 1, 2013, pp. 56-74.

Cohen, Lawrence E., and Marcus Felson. “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach.” American Sociological Review, vol. 44, 1979, pp. 588-608.

Leukfeldt, Eric Rutger, and Majid Yar. “Applying Routine Activity Theory to Cybercrime: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis.” Deviant Behavior, vol. 37, no. 3, 2016, pp. 263-280.

Näsi, Matti, et al. “Do Routine Activities Help Predict Young Adults’ Online Harassment: A Multi-Nation Study.” Criminology & Criminal Justice, vol. 17, no. 4, 2017, pp. 418-432.

Reyns, Bradford W. “Online routines and identity theft victimization: Further expanding routine activity theory beyond direct-contact offenses.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, vol. 50, no. 2, 2013, pp. 216-238.

Reyns, Bradford W., and Billy Henson. “The Thief with a Thousand Faces and the Victim with None: Identifying Determinants for Online Identity Theft Victimization with Routine Activity Theory.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, vol. 60, no. 10, 2016, pp. 1119-1139.

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