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Routine activity theory

Andresen, M.A., & Ha, O.K. (2017). Routine activity theory. In A. Brisman, E. Carrabine, & N. South (Eds.), Routledge companion to criminological theory and concepts (pp. 536 – 539). New York, NY: Routledge.

Published onJan 06, 2017
Routine activity theory

During the 1950s and 1960s, Western society underwent substantial social and economic improvements, particularly in the United States. Income levels were rising, education levels were increasing, particularly for women, poverty levels were decreasing, and unemployment was relatively low. Despite all these positive changes, crime rates were skyrocketing—by 150 to 250 percent, depending on the measurements—which Cohen and Felson (1979) referred to as a “sociological paradox”. Routine activity theory was developed to explain these co-occurrences in a way that sociological theories could not.

Routine activity theory begins by stating the importance of understanding the spatial component of crime patterns put forth by the Chicago School. We frequent particular places and not others and visit those particular places at particular times. When we travel to the same place at the same time on a regular basis, these activities can be considered “routine activities”, defined by Cohen and Felson (1979:593) as “any recurrent and prevalent activities which provide for basic population and individual needs, whatever their biological or cultural origins” . Because these activities will normally take us out of the relatively protective environment of the home, if we alter the frequency and/or timing of these routine activities, we will alter our risk of criminal victimization; if these routine activities change en masse at a societal level, we will alter crime rate trends.

In its original formulation, routine activity theory considered only direct-contact predatory violations in which the offender and the victim or target were tangible; subsequent development of the theory, however, has extended it to other violations that include white collar crime. In order for one of these violations/crimes to occur, Cohen and Felson (1979) stated that there must be a motivated offender, a suitable target, and the lack of a capable guardian. They sought to explain the changes in the crime rate trends based on suitable targets, through one of two mechanisms: (1) changes in the routine activities of people; and (2) the presence of more suitable targets. They argued post-war social and economic developments meant people had more time and money for shopping and recreation; related to this was the increase in young adults leaving home for a post-secondary education and, particularly for women, increases in the rates of working outside the home. This was also a time of rapid increases in the availability of valuable lightweight consumer electronics: some have stated we are seeing another, more subtle, but comparable crime wave from increases in mobile electronic devices (e.g., phones, tablets) (Mailley et al., 2008).

These changes, though not present for all individuals and communities, were significant enough to impact societal levels of being outside the relatively protective environment of the home. Outside of the home, an individual is more vulnerable to property and violent offences, and his/her home (and everything in it) is more vulnerable because no one is there guarding it. Cohen and Felson (1979) pointed out that economic conditions can impact crime in indirect ways: changes in disposable income have an impact on routine activities that then impact crime, and increases in societal wealth leads to increases in the opportunities to steal from others. The resulting theory of crime trend changes is consistent with increases in social and economic development and crime. Therefore, if support was found for the theory, there would be no sociological paradox. Using national level time series data, Cohen and Felson found strong support for their theory, particularly for any variables that related to changes in routine activities for the following offence categories: non-negligent homicide, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, and burglary.

As developed, routine activity theory was an aggregate level theory that sought to explain societal changes in crime rates. At the individual level, the classic evaluation of routine activity theory was conducted by Kennedy and Forde (1990) , using data from the Canadian Urban Victimization Survey that considered routine activities and criminal victimization of individuals in major urban centers across Canada (from west-to-east: Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax-Dartmouth, and St. John’s). This study investigated the role of individual level routine activities relative to the following crime types: breaking and entering (residential burglary), automobile theft, robbery, and assault. Kennedy and Forde (1990) not only considered routine activity theory-based variables, but a series of control variables that are considered important in sociological theories of crime, such as age, income, marital status, single-parent households and unemployment.

These researchers found that spending time at a bar or pub was positively associated with being a victim all four crime types; sporting activities, working or going to school, spending time walking of driving, and having a full-time job were all positively related to residential burglary; working or going to school was positively associated with automobile theft; working or going to school and spending time walking or driving was positively associated with assault; and spending time walking or driving was positively associated with robbery. All of these results make perfect sense within routine activity theory. Essentially, spending time outside of the relatively protective environment of the home increases the risk of one’s home being burglarized, as well as the risk of personal victimization outside one’s home.

One aspect of routine activity theory that has gone relatively untested is the concept of capable guardianship, or the lack thereof. Capable guardians have the ability to prevent a crime from occurring, playing an important role in routine activity theory. Reynald (2011) has investigated this dimension of routine activity theory through the concept of guardianship in action. Guardianship in action measures the intensity of guardianship in a residential area using a three stage typology: 1) occupancy, noting the actual presence of people in the residential space; 2) monitoring, noting whether or not residents in the area actually monitor local behavior; and 3) intervention, noting whether or not residents actually directly intervene (saying or doing something) when they observe activities that are not approved (Reynald, 2011).

In her research on this topic, Reynald (2011) directly observed these three aspects of guardianship in action at the street segment level. She sought to investigate which factors in an area (physical, social, spatial, and demographic) predicted the intensity of guardianship and, subsequently, how well guardianship in action predicted crime rates in an area. The empirical research found that guardianship intensity plays a significant role in predicting (decreasing) property crime in an area. Moreover, the traditional measures of guardianship, such as target hardening and territoriality, have positive relationships with property crime. This research suggests that the more traditional measures of guardianship (target hardening and territoriality) are largely reflections of areas with high crime rates. Consequently, guardianship in action is a better construct for measuring the ability of guardianship to repel crime. In sum, routine activity theory is a simple theory to understand but contains many complex ideas that are still undergoing refinement. This theoretical framework worked well in understanding the changing crime rate trends in post-World War 2 United States and continues to provide insight into today’s changing nature of crime.


Andresen, M.A. (2014). Environmental criminology: Evolution, theory, and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cohen, L. E. and Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 588 – 608.

Kennedy, L. W. and Forde, D. R. (1990). Routine activities and crime: an analysis of victimization in Canada. Criminology, 28(1), 137 – 152.

Mailley, J., Garciab, R., Whitehead, S. and Farrell, G. (2008). Phone theft index.

Security Journal, 21(3), 212 – 227.

Reynald, D. M. (2011). Factors associated with the guardianship of places: assessing the relative importance of the spatio-physical and sociodemographic contexts in generating opportunities for capable guardianship. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 48(1), 110 – 142.

Further reading

Farrell, G., Tseloni, A., Mailley, J. and Tilley, N. (2011). The crime drop and the security hypothesis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 48(2), 147 – 175.

Felson, M. (2006). Crime and Nature. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Felson, M. and Eckert, M. (2016). Crime and everyday life (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Hawley, A. H. (1950). Human ecology: A theory of community structure. New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company.

Reynald, D. M. (2009). Guardianship in action: developing a new tool for measurement. Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 11(1), 1 – 20.

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