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Crime Opportunity Theory is wrong in proposing that opportunity is an objective reality
 
 
 

Can opportunity be an objective reality?

According to Crime Opportunity Theory crime 'opportunity' is a thing that exists as an objective reality in advance of a crime successfully happening. Belief in the 'objectivity reality' of opportunities for crime existing in advance of the crime happening is the premise upon which Crime Opportunity Theory is built. The premise is that a crime happens when (1) a capable and motivated offender exists in time and place with (2) a suitable crime target and (3) a lack of capable guardianship of that target (see Fig 1). This logic has led to widely accepted claims made by leading criminologists that this particular notion of opportunity is the most important cause of crime (Felson and Clarke 1998; Tilley and Laycock 2002).

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Mike Sutton 2012Used only with express written permission

The Classic Crime Opportunity Triangle

Figure 1

Although opportunities of all kinds are not equal in any society we might try to simply consider - as crime opportunity theorists do - that different types of opportunity could still be objective realities, albeit ones that are constrained by differential 'opportunities' of access. For example, in most, perhaps all, societies:

  • Education opportunities are not equal
  • Inherited wealth opportunities are not equal
  • Inherited (and in some cases environmental) health opportunities are not equal
  • Entertainment opportunities are not equal
  • Inherited physical attractiveness opportunities (e.g. symmetry and height) are not equal
  • Opportunities to learn how to burgle, commit other types of theft, and sell stolen goods are not equal

But we cannot leave it at Figure 1 - as crime opportunity theorists do - because such thinking leaves us with a massive unanswered question. Namely, why should we think of all types of crime opportunities as things that are capable of existing objectively in advance of the influence of contingencies otherwise known as known unknowns and unknown unknowns that ultimately can determine their outcome?

Opportunity and the art of war

The problem is that the current notion of crime opportunity as expressed in Fig 1 is very much like the popular literal translation of Sun Tzu's ancient Chinese military treatise: 'The Art of War' where the original text has led to the old saying that “every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought". While it may be compellingly attractive as a rhetorical device, that popular saying is a fallacy, because whoever believes it to be veracious has never won or lost a battle due to, for example, the chaotic and unpredictable vagaries of weather systems or freak tides.And they have never won or lost a war due to the previously unknowable arrival of new technologies, such as the atomic bomb for example that ended Japan's involvement in the second world war.

If victory in battle or war could exist as an objective reality before the start of the first battle of any war then it would have been discovered and capitalized upon by now - surely? Rather, what Sun Tzu was advising was that those seeking to do battle should devise a well-planned strategy of deployment, mapped out to the highest degree of detail and taking account of every conceivable contingency.

The generals of the Empire of Japan who attacked Pearl Harbor without warning on December 7, 1941 certainly rationally perceived that they were more capable attackers of their target - the US Pacific Fleet - than the US was as guardian of it, but until they succeeded in sinking it and sailed home relatively unscathed they could not have known they would succeed. In other words their success did not exist as a predetermined and objective thing in advance of itself. Something could have gone as wrong for them as it did with Nazi Germany's failure to win the Battle of Britain, which was in no small part due to the Germans not knowing that Britain had highly effective coastal radar. This secret technology allowed Britain to deploy and concentrate its faster and more maneuverable aircraft against the superior numbers of German planes in order to take away their advantage of surprise.

But the outcome of the Battle of Britain swung perilously in the balance throughout its course and could not be known by either side until Britain finally came out on top. German leaders thought the opportunity for victory over the RAF existed because they thought their air force was superior to the RAF's guardianship of Britain's airspace. But such perceptions – by warmongers or other everyday offenders - are clearly not the proposed objective reality that is claimed in the RAT triangle in Figure 1.

What we should be thinking about, therefore, when we consider the meaning any kind of opportunity - whether it is committed by aggressive warmongering nations or by solitary thieves - is something resembling the many common dictionary definitions that essentially define the meaning of opportunity as being a convenient juncture of appropriate circumstances upon which a person may choose to seek to capitalize.

The current notion of crime opportunity as defined by Crime Opportunity Theory (see Fig 1) is wrong because neither an offender - nor anyone else - can know that they are more capable than guardians until after the crime is successfully completed (Sutton 2012). Therefore, the notion of opportunity that underpins Crime Opportunity Theory (Fig 1) is simply a wise after the event truism that is a misused description of the data of an already successfully completed crime in commission. In other words it is, like much pseudoscience, merely a truism dressed up as causality.

Seeking Opportunities and Being Deliberately Alert to Capitalize Upon Them

Taking things a stage further, we can draw some useful - if somewhat relatively mundane -comparisons between law abiding motorists and thieves in order to understand how both motoring and theft opportunities do not cause a motorist or thief to do something outside of their preexisting intentions and purposes.

Consider the scenario on Figure 2, which is one that all motorists will be familiar with - although some of our American and other continental cousins may feel the need to draw their own diagrams since they, somewhat perversely, insist upon driving on the right. These readers may wish also to substitute the "Give Way" signs for "Yield".

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All Rights reserved Dr Mike Sutton. Dysology.org 2012 Used only with express written permission

Opportunity is an appropriate juncture of circumstances

Figure 2

  • Most left turning law abiding motorists at junctions should be looking for safe opportunities to get into the lane they need to be in.
  • Motorists wishing to turn right may have to create opportunities to get in the right lane.
  • Prolific thieves set out to aggressively look for and oftentimes need to aggressively create theft opportunities (a bit like a right turning motorist).
  • Those who would define themselves as ‘opportunistic’ thieves are perhaps more likely, due to happenstance, to perceive and then seize upon a certain type of target’s vulnerability to their underlying predatory behavior. Looters who capitlize upon the riotous behaviour of other criminals by following them into commercial premesis,or homes, to steal consumer goods provide an example of such 'opportunism' (a bit like the left turning motorist in Fig. 2).
  • In none of the above cases does an 'opportunity' cause someone to do something they were not already prepared and in place to do. Car 1 creates what may (depending upon the trafic levels and/or the genoristy and aggressiveness of drivers on the highway) be a necessary condition for Car 2 to be able to safely turn left in a timely manner when it does but this is not a sufficient condition for it to do so. Some other cause is needed, which is the drivers need to turn left in order to proceed to a destination and not obstruct the highway behind.
  • Opportunities, as perceived fortunate junctures of favorable circumstances upon which the perceiver may choose to capitalize, are, therefore, necessary but insufficient conditions for opportunity seizing action.
  • Opportunities can be (a) created and capitalized upon (b) looked for and capitalized upon (c) stumbled upon and capitalized upon - or else passed-up.

The Convenient Juncture Issue of Opportunities for Winners and Losers

Consider Fig. 2 further:

  • Car 2 is not breaking the law. If such a maneuver under such circumstances was illegal then the driver would have to be wary of being observed (perhaps recorded on CCTV) and reported.(Note: a similar theft comparison might be the British offence of "theft by finding")
  • If Car 2 seizes this opportunity to turn left it will be getting an advantage over Car 3 and Car 4 that it would not otherwise have.
  • Car 1, by blocking the road in this way, has created an advantage for itself over Car 6.
  • By seizing the ‘opportunity’ to speed-up and not allow Car 1 to pull into the right lane Car 5 has disadvantaged Cars 3, 4, and 7. But it has advantaged itself and Car 2, and possibly Car 8.
  • If Car 6 chooses to speed up (unknown contingency for Car 1) then Car 5 also created an advantage for Car 6.And Car 5 disadvantages Car 7 but advantages Car 8.

In the same way that drivers advantaging themselves, disadvantage some drivers and inadvertently advantage others, thieves who steal in order to recycle stolen goods for cash via illicit markets, disadvantage their victims but also advantage bargain hunting/receptive citizens – many of whom cannot afford to buy commodities at the recommended retail price. They also give inadvertent advantage to drug dealers and scrap metal merchants etc. In this way, dealers in stolen goods are like other drivers who respond to one driver's aggressive tactics for their own advantage, in turn creating advantages and disadvantages for others. Therefore, crime like legal motoring behavior is a complex game of take and give, give and take.

Finally, just like a right turning motorist can never know in advance what other motorists will do (some of whom they may not yet see), potential thieves cannot know what guardians will do next - some of whom they may not yet see (see:Sutton 2012a). This is why Crime Opportunity Theory is wrong. Crime Opportunity Theory is a supermyth founded upon faulty reasoning.

References

Felson, M. and Clarke, R.V. (1998) Opportunity Makes the Thief. Paper No. 98. Police Research Series. London. Home Office.

Laycock, G. (2003). Launching Crime Science. Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. University College London. ISBN 0-9545607-1-X [ since publication and citation this paper has been weirdly deleted ] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/jdi/downloads/publications/crime_science_short_reports/launching_crime_science.pdf

Sutton, M (2012) Opportunity Does Not make the Thief: Busting the myth that opportunity is a cause of crime: Best Thinking.com: http://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/social_sciences/sociology/opportunity-does-not-make-the-thief-busting-the-myth-that-opportunity-is-a-cause-of-crime

Sutton, M. (2012a)Theft, Perception, Expectation, Contingency and Repeat Victimization: Introducing the PEC-TAP-PEC theft hypothesis for repeat victimization. Best Thinking. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton:

http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/science/social_sciences/sociology/mike-sutton?tab=blog&blogpostid=17683%2c17683

Tilley, N. and Laycock, G. (2002). Working out what to do: Evidence based crime reduction. Crime Reduction Series Paper 11. London Home Officehttps://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/193161.pdf

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