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Crime and Criminality: Social, Psychological, and Neurobiological Explanations

By Ehor Boyanowsky
Toronto: University Toronto Press. 2020. pp. 336.

Crime and criminal behaviour are topics that have captivated and fascinated audiences from scholars to the public at large. Crime and Criminality by Ehor Boyanowsky is informative and interesting, albeit at times challenging book to read. Boyanowsky utilizes an eclectic range of theories, historical and current case studies, and personal anecdotes to enhance the reader’s understanding of the conditions under which crime occurs.

Boyanowsky begins by differentiating between what is a crime and what is not. Using examples from around the world and the concepts mala in se, acts that are bad, and mala prohibita, acts that are illegal because it is against the law, Boyanowsky notes that what is considered a crime is heavily dictated by social, cultural, and community constructs. To further this point, he utilizes case studies ranging from sexual preference to illicit substance use to demonstrate that societies vary in terms of their tolerance to crime. Boyanowsky makes a few alarming assertions that seem to suggest that pedophilia is a type of sexuality, and by banning child, pornography society may promote “more actual predation” (p. 18). Despite claiming this, he does not explain how child pornography can be made where a child is not harmed.

Chapter 2 examines crime through a multidimensional model that differentiates between violence, a naturally existing physical phenomenon, and aggression, a social construct that infers motivation. With these two concepts in mind, Boyanowsky states that the seriousness of different types of crimes can be calculated based on principal components. Cases studies are used to explain the components of the model that are needed to carry out a crime. These are force/energy, intent to harm, harm done, conscious knowledge, and dissemination of the effect of the act (p. 60).

Chapter 3 focuses on four case studies to delve into whether criminality is found in the individual or if environmental factors play a role. A variety of theories are explored from Lombroso’s biogenetic theory of the born criminal, Ellis’ evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory, to Freud’s socialization and upbringing. Boyanowsky concludes that criminality can best be explained from a multidimensional perspective.

Chapter 4 provides an overview of psychopathy. The signature psychopathic traits are discussed concerning Hare’s psychopathy checklist, and a variety of case studies are used to explore psychopath’s effect on society. Karpman’s distinguishing between primary psychopaths, those with a genetic predisposition, and secondary psychopaths or sociopaths, individuals who experienced severe isolation and abuse in early infancy or childhood, are acknowledged. Unfortunately, Boyanowsky states neither type is responsive to change through talk therapy, which is concerning as although psychopaths only make up 1 or 2 percent of the general population, they account for 25 to 30 percent of the prison population (p. 100).

Chapter 5 explores Freud’s psychodynamic theory. The notorious case studies of Ed Gein and Robert Pickton are used as examples of criminals with early childhood trauma. The direction is shifted to Sarbin’s critique of the criminal justice and psychiatric systems for only viewing the poor or mentally ill as criminals, as he believes they do not account for white-collar criminals. Boyanawsky concurs with Sarbin suggestion that criminologists should concentrate on studying factors related to cognitive and moral development, conformity and social support, social role enactment and reference groups, social learning, and the physiological and psychological causes of aggression in order to reduce the commission of a crime (p. 124).

Chapter 6 examines cognitive development and aggression through neurophysiological studies. Boyanowsky notes that ethical issues of amygdalectomy are reasons why surgery is not ideal. On the other end of the spectrum, Delgado showed that stimulation to the caudate nucleus could produce a calm and even affection in monkeys, but as Boyanowsky notes, individual psychosurgical implants are expensive and societal factors can affect the necessary change in many people.

Chapter 7 explores the origins of delinquency. The theories of Akers and Bandura are used to explain criminal behaviour as learned through modelling behaviour, verbal models, and symbolic models. Familial factors, including large family size, inadequate parental supervision, parental conflict, and disrupted families, are also noted as contributing factors. Ecological, physical, and social analyses are conducted on a youth gang scenario to showcase how delinquency can be affected by peer group and gang influences. Boyanowsky studies a variety of gangs in British Columbia, Canada and concludes that because the illegal drug trade sustains them if Canada took the heed of Portugal and decriminalized all drugs, this issue could be combatted.   

Chapter 8 describes how the outlook on aggressive acts can be justified by societies, especially if the state frames the violence for the greater good, such as the Irish Famine. Boyanowsky created a 5-tier model, ‘Pyramid of Crime,’ to explain that society’s structure is a determining factor in the percentage of people who engage in criminal behaviour. Tier-1 societies are described as tyrannical and have maximum homogeneity and control. Thus, a small percentage of the population commits antisocial acts (p.178). Tier-2 societies are socially democratic, and because equality is promoted, citizens do not have to compete for basic needs. Therefore, criminality is kept to a minimum. Tier-3-societies are characterized by right-wing individualistic democracies where those who perceive themselves as part of the in-group are winners. This winner/loser group promotes crime. Tier-4 societies are marked by devolution due to weaker governments and a lack of primary identity groups. In tier-5 societies wars have dissolved civilization, and for people to survive, they must choose to join groups for protection and engage in conflict or be considered the other side.

Chapter 9 examines family violence. Boyanowsky presents a case study about intimate partner violence from a male victim’s perspective. It sheds light on how the criminal justice system needs to improve policies when a woman is a perpetrator. Furthermore, Laskey, Bates, and Taylor (2019) found that violence occurs at similar rates in females and male same-sex relationships.

Chapter 10 explores the link between the physical environment and violence. Geographic, sociological, cultural, and psychophysiological theories allude that ambient temperature, especially heat, causes changes in brain function and is a precursor to antisocial behaviour. In discussing the psychophysiological basis for aggression, Boyanowsky explains that to cool the body, the anterior hypothalamus releases adrenaline, which is the same hormone responsible for fight-or-flight. Thus, in a bid to thermoregulate, hot subjects become increasingly irritable, hostile, angry, and less discerning in terms of the source of their provocation.

Chapter 11 examines crimes against the environment regarding hazardous waste and organized or corporate crime. Boyanowsky poses the question of how to evaluate corporations and governments’ actions, which cut economic corners for financial means with no intention of harm, but potentially deadly situations arise. Boyanowsky proposes an eclectic approach to balance regulation, enforcement, and allowing market forces to operate.

Chapter 12 delves into technology and cybercrime. Technological advancements and case studies of hackers or ‘phreakers’ are used and compared to ‘old-school’ criminals. Boyanowsky notes cybercriminals differ as they avoid physical risk and maintain anonymity.  

Crime and Criminality presents a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates theories from a social, psychological, and neurobiological perspective. It was helpful to read each theory’s perspective of how crime and criminal behaviour develop. However, the material was densely packed, and the sheer quantity of the theories made it challenging to follow along. This was exacerbated by Boyanowsky’s tendency to jump from one theory to another, at times while explaining a theory, which led to some parts being scattered and vague. This book had little explanation or comparative analysis. This led the reader to research external material to figure out each theory’s position and then relate it to the book to decipher what Boyanowsky was trying to convey.

Describing the format of this book proved somewhat tricky, as the overall layout can be likened to a textbook, but not as reader friendly. For example, the end of the chapter summaries seemed like a helpful recap. However, they do not provide a fulsome overview of the chapter, probably because there are too many topics discussed. This book can also be likened to a narrative due to the frequency of personal anecdotes and because of the literary style used for the case studies making them seem drawn out and cumbersome. At times, the anecdotes undermined from the discussion as there was little context as to why they were mentioned. Regardless, this book provided a multidimensional look at crime, and it could be useful as a supplementary text for an introductory university criminology course.


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