The role of the brain in urban violent offending: integrating biology with structural theories of ‘the streets’

Publication Title

Criminal Justice Studies

Document Type


Department or Program


Publication Date



allostatic load, cognitive functioning, stress, subcultural theories


Some of the most enduring structural theories of crime center on the existence of a criminal subculture. Several ecological theories have attempted to explain the etiology of subcultures, but few have endured the rigors of empirical investigation, and shortcomings of these perspectives remain. To date, subcultural theories have neglected to examine biological influences in explaining the formulation of criminal subcultures and their direct and indirect relationships with criminal behavior. This article offers a ‘new’ look at subcultural theories of crime by integrating biological factors into existing theories of social ecology and criminal behavior. Specifically, we focus on how the structural pressures of poverty, discrimination, concentrated violence, and high rates of emotional abuse lead to stress on the brain in the form of high allostatic load, over-activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and an imbalance of cortisol levels. These stressors, subsequently, lead to violence and aggression often associated with delinquent groups and gangs. Our efforts seek to spur more research on how biology affects behavior in conjunction with the environment. This is essential not only in continuing to specify criminological theories but also for developing effective prevention and intervention programs that home in on all relevant factors implicated in criminal behavior.