Random Activities Theory: The Case for ‘Black Swan’ Criminology

Abstract

In the United States, infamous crimes against innocent victims—especially children—have repeatedly been regarded as justice system “failures” and resulted in reactionary legislation enacted without regard to prospective negative consequences. This pattern in part results when ‘memorial crime control’ advocates implicitly but inappropriately apply the tenets of routine activities theory, wherein crime prevention is presumed to be achievable by hardening likely targets, increasing the costs associated with crime commission, and removing criminal opportunity. In response, the authors argue that academic and public policy discourse will benefit from the inclusion of a new criminological perspective called random activities theory, in which tragic crimes are framed as rare but statistically inevitable ‘Black Swans’ instead of justice system failures. Potential objections and implications for public policy are discussed at length.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This has often been instigated by Fox Network News personality Bill O’Reilly. On his news talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, the famous journalist and commentator has criticized state governments that have hesitated in adopting Jessica’s Law and lambasted specific judges for apparently lenient sentences for sex offenders, and often with great effect. It is likely that the passage of Jessica’s Law in Ohio in particular was to some extent a result of O’Reilly’s influence (Griffin and Wooldredge in press).

  2. 2.

    However, in employing this figurative language, it is extremely important to distinguish Random activities theory, which we propose as an additional framework criminologists could use in the public discourse about crime policy, from the recent and intriguing arguments for the application of chaos theory or complex systems science (CSS) in explaining crime and justice system phenomena. While the former is simply a statement about the future of crime (“bad things will happen—whatever the reason”), criminologists’ employment of CSS represents sophisticated efforts to use the various aspects of chaos theory (such as the systemic interdependence among system components, patterned outcomes or “fractals”, or the importance of initial conditions) to explain the complex, nonlinear, and often multidirectional relationship between crime and social factors or variations in system behavior (Walker 2007; Arrigo and Barret 2008; Milovanovic 1997; Walters 1999). As an effort to inform more populist discussions, random activities theory is of necessity a plainer animal.

  3. 3.

    Besides being applicable to problems such as heinous crimes against children or serial killers, Random activities theory is applicable to the crime of terrorism in essentially the same way as Taleb employed ‘Black Swan logic’ in explaining the 9-11 terror attacks. The current “war on terror” with its implied notions of an epic struggle of good versus evil and “us” versus “them” that will result in a terminal defeat of the “enemy” is unrealistic. In invoking military imagery and encouraging often counterproductive military incursions, the “war on terror” metaphor is highly analogous to the failed draconian efforts by policymakers to eradicate, for example, the intractable crime of child abduction and murder. The war mentality implies that only complete eradication is acceptable. Consider the commonly forwarded mantra that, “We have to be right every time; the terrorists only have to be right once.” This statement is exactly as sensible as saying, “The police have to be right all the time; the car thieves only have to be right once.” The mindset enables terrorists to consider one fortuitously successful strike as a strategic victory. Rather than being seen as acts of “war”, terrorist attacks should be seen as another category of unusual crime. They occur when routine intelligence and surveillance defenses are foiled and a terrorist is able to commit his intended act. In other words, a successful terrorist attack is an example of random activities at work.

  4. 4.

    We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting we address this issue.

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Griffin, T., Stitt, B.G. Random Activities Theory: The Case for ‘Black Swan’ Criminology. Crit Crim 18, 57–72 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-009-9088-6

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Keywords

  • Justice System
  • Activity Theory
  • Crime Control
  • Random Activity
  • Routine Activity Theory