Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Surveillance & Opportunity

Published onJan 04, 2023
Surveillance & Opportunity

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Surveillance / Opportunity theories

  2. Identify the development of Surveillance / Opportunity theories

  3. Distinguish between Surveillance / Opportunity theories and theorists

  4. Apply Surveillance / Opportunity theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Surveillance / Opportunity theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Surveillance / Opportunity theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Surveillance / Opportunity Overview

Read Bentham; Foucault; Clarke

Complete Study Guide Surveillance / Opportunity

Watch Theorist Video-Clarke

Annotate Theorist Video-Clarke

Answer Theorist Video-Clarke quiz questions

Watch “Missoula' Rape Victim Secretly Records Rapist Confession: Part 1”

Annotate “Missoula' Rape Victim Secretly Records Rapist Confession: Part 1”

Explain how Opportunity theory applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Opportunity theory operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Surveillance / Opportunity

Theorist Video Quiz-Clarke

Video Discussion-Opportunity


Given that this is a criminological theory class, I can’t reiterate the following enough. So, you’ll keep seeing the following:

Theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Scientific theory states how something empirical (an independent variable) affects something else empirical (the dependent variable).

Something is empirical if you can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste it.

The reason it is good for theories to be empirical is they can be tested and falsified.

Indeed, whether a theory is good isn’t only about being valid. Also, a theory is better if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Criminological theory states how something (an independent variable) affects crime (the dependent variable).

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about why communities, individuals, and situations are more likely to have or commit crime.

Note that criminological theories rarely, if ever, only focus on empirical somethings, but let’s ignore that.

There are a lot of criminological theories that differ in a lot of ways. Mostly though, you should think of criminological theories as being based in one or more disciplines, such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on.

Criminology, to be clear, is not a discipline. It’s a field of study; that is, the study of crime.

Current Course Section

After the introductory material, this course has seven sections reflecting major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

The current section focuses on economic and ecological theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, “economic” and “ecological” have different meanings. In this class, economic simply refers to benefits and costs, and ecological simple refers to the influence of the physical environment on behavior. Together, these make up an approach in criminology referred to as “surveillance” or “opportunity” theory, though it is called by other names, too.

For this section, you will read three works that are examples of that approach to theorizing crime.

Before briefly going over those works, I’m obliged to remind you that we won’t examine every criminological theory of this sort. But if you want to see further examples, you should either do a Wikipedia search or, maybe better yet, browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

First, you should read an excerpt of another work by Bentham: Panopticon Letters. Because it is can be difficult to comprehend, I’ve written short summaries of each section like I did for An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

For me, some of the takeaway points are the following:

The physical environment, such as a building’s architecture, affects what people do.

Bentham’s focus is coming up with the best design for “inspecting” – meaning surveilling – behavior in order to increase control.

The design he proposes is a “Panopticon,” the details of which you’ll read about it.

Because of its design, Bentham thinks the Panopticon is the best possible building for inspecting and thereby controlling people, including not only prisoners (and students, workers, sick people, etc.) but also for controlling the inspectors.

If you want to know a little more about the Panopticon, see this page:

Second, you should read an excerpt of Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. I’ve assigned a chapter on “Panopticism.” Before this work, Bentham’s Panopticon had been more or less forgotten by criminology.

For Foucault, the Panopticon exemplifies a type of control, or power, of discipline – which largely is a matter of surveillance – that is now ubiquitous in society. He refers to this as panopticism. This chapter talks about how this power evolved and what it entails.

As a warning, Foucault is quite difficult to read, though also very interesting. Thus, you will need to give yourself more time than usual to read this work and complete the related bits of the study guide. If it makes you feel better, it is the most difficult work to read during this course, which is to say it will get easier from there.

Third, you should read Clarke’s “Situational Crime Prevention.” As the title suggests, this work focuses on how to prevent crime by shaping the situations in which it occurs, rather than trying to change individuals or communities.

Clarke gives examples of situational crime prevention, and considers the political prospects and problems associated with it. Also, he talks at length about the theoretical basis for that approach. This includes rational choice theory, which you already learned about, and also other “opportunity-based” theories of crime.

When reading the above, I want you to consider the following: Bentham talks about situational control. Recall that one type of situation is a small place, like a building. Thus, what Bentham proposes, basically, is a situational theory of control and, by extension, of crime. As you’ll see in the Clarke article, Bentham’s idea of inspection is practically synonymous with what criminologists now call “guardianship.” Guardianship is one way of reducing the opportunity to commit crime. Whereas those ideas are focused on situations, Foucault expands the notion of surveillance to the community-level. In truth, he isn’t exactly proposing a “criminological theory” as defined in this course. With that said, Foucault’s emphasis on surveillance puts Clarke’s situational theory of crime control in an interesting light.

Bentham, Jeremy. 1843. Panopticon Letters. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 4, ed. John Bowring. Edinburgh: William Tait.

Foucault, Michel. XXXX. Discipline & Punish. New York: Vintage. (Fair use of pp. 195-228.)

Clarke, Ronald V. 1995. Situational Crime Prevention. Crime and Justice 19:91-150. (Paywalled here.)

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Ronald Clarke. He is one of the world’s top researchers on the situational control of crime, including how it is affected by rationality and opportunity/surveillance. Among other topics, he discusses what sparked his interest in that area of research; an, why he thinks prevention is more important than responses to crime, like punishment.

Ronald Clarke - Oral History of Criminology

Crime Video Discussion & Gist of This Section

Recall that you’re doing video discussions to see whether you can apply the theories to the real world. Some theories can be complicated, but their fundamental points don’t need to be. People, including you, may disagree with me (this is what makes academia fun), but I think the gist – or essence – of the theories examined in this section is as follows:

  • The dependent variable is crime, meaning acts prohibited by law.

  • Crime is theorized to be affected by opportunity.

  • In part, the opportunity to commit crime is defined by the amount of surveillance present in the situation.

  • Surveillance is defined as watching.

In theory, people commit more crime if there is less surveillance. That theory can be thought of as operating at the community-, individual-, and situational-level of analysis. In other words …

  • A community is more likely to have crime therein if there is less surveillance.

  • An individual is more likely to commit crime if they are less surveilled.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if there is less surveillance.

  • A small place, like a bar, has more crime therein if there is less surveillance.

If you truly understand the above, you’ll be able to do very well on the video discussion. If you don’t get it right now, don’t worry about it. The readings, video, study guide, and quizzes will get your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

'Missoula' Rape Victim Secretly Records Rapist Confession: Part 1

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?