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Revisiting a Classic: A Qualitative Analysis of Differential Opportunity Theory and Its Utility in Explaining Residential Burglary

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Published onOct 01, 2018
Revisiting a Classic: A Qualitative Analysis of Differential Opportunity Theory and Its Utility in Explaining Residential Burglary


Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) differential opportunity theory made several significant contributions to criminology, including the emphasis on illegitimate means and the idea that social structure influences criminal opportunity. The problem, however, is that the field largely misinterpreted Cloward and Ohlin’s intent as a simple variation of strain theory instead of a critical refinement of the existing perspective. Generally, the theory has not received much scholarly attention in terms of testing of its key propositions. Using semi-structured personal interviews with 105 active residential burglars in St. Louis, Missouri during 1989-1990, the current study uses qualitative measures to analyze differential opportunity theory as it applies to residential burglary. Results show support for the theory, including access to criminal learning environments and mentoring, the importance of criminal connections, neighborhood influence on offenders’ risk perceptions, and the overall salience of neighborhood context on what are termed “front-end” and “back-end” opportunity structures. Emerging themes, practical implications, and directions for future research are discussed.


The importance of social structure in explanations of crime and delinquency has risen and waned over time. Early criminologists from the Chicago school emphasized the role of neighborhoods and groups in social control and social organization (Shaw & McKay, 1942). These ideas were later adopted by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) during the development of their differential opportunity theory. Soon after this publication, however, the field of criminology moved away from the neighborhood and group traditions. Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory shifted attention to the individual-level correlates of offending, providing the impetus for a changing disciplinary trend that would last through the next few decades. Although the focus on social structure and neighborhood context would eventually reemerge due to a number of influential works in the 1980s and 1990s (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Sampson & Groves, 1989; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997), the true value of seminal works like that of Cloward and Ohlin (1960) may have been skipped over and undervalued during these transitions.

Aside from the shift toward individual-level predictors during the late 1960s, two other significant reasons exist for the relative neglect of scholarly attention that differential opportunity theory has received. Cullen (1988) touches on the first factor in his criticism of the field of criminology for its misinterpretation of differential opportunity theory. According to Cullen, Cloward and Ohlin are largely viewed as simply proposing a variation of Merton's (1938) anomie theory; thus, reducing the authors to strain theorists. He goes on to argue that Cloward and Ohlin were offering a critique of existing strain theory, due to its incompleteness and failure to observe that the responses to strain are socially structured and constrained. Cullen (1988: 224) reiterates what he perceives to be the central message of differential opportunity theory, that “the illegitimate opportunity structure, not strain, regulates the content and form of deviant adaptations.” Secondly, Cloward and Ohlin took divergent career paths to pursue their professional endeavors shortly after the 1960 publication. All of the aforementioned factors likely contributed to why differential opportunity theory lost intellectual steam not long after it originated.

The current paper aims to refocus scholarly attention on differential opportunity theory. In doing so, the purpose is to examine whether social structure matters in giving rise to residential burglary. A growing body of empirical work has discovered that neighborhood characteristics are associated with residential burglary (e.g., Bernasco, Johnson, & Ruiter, 2015; Chamberlain & Boggess, 2016). For example, factors such as an area’s level of residential instability and concentrated disadvantage appear to influence target attractiveness. What is less clear, however, is the process by which an offender selects a location for a residential burglary (see Wright & Decker, 1994; Wright, Logie, & Decker, 1995 for exceptions1), how individuals initially get involved in residential burglary, and how neighborhood context influences offenders’ perceptions of risk. Using semi-structured interviews with 105 active residential burglars from St. Louis, Missouri in 1989-1990, qualitative methodology is employed to assess the central tenets of differential opportunity theory as they apply to this particular type of crime. Special attention was paid to themes that emerged regarding how illegitimate means, as well as specific neighborhood characteristics, facilitated the successful completion of burglaries for those offenders under study.

Outlining differential opportunity theory

Cloward and Ohlin integrated two distinct theoretical perspectives into their differential opportunity theory (see Kornhauser, 1978 for a discussion of the mixed model as well as a critique). More specifically, they merged the concept of anomie/strain with the Chicago school. The anomie tradition, influenced by Durkheim and later articulated by Merton, places attention on the economic pressures that could lead to deviance. Anomie/strain develops because of a breakdown in the relationship between monetary goals and the legitimate avenues to accomplish them (Merton, 1938; Messner & Rosenfeld, 1994); often, the means to legitimately achieve monetary goals are limited. Additionally, Cloward and Ohlin presented elements of the Chicago school and its emphasis on social structure and learning (Shaw & McKay, 1942; Sutherland, 1937).

Cloward and Ohlin’s theory introduced the utility of social structure when examining the anomie perspective (see Cullen, 1988). For example, persons located in various levels of social hierarchy (i.e., socioeconomic status) have different chances of reaching common success goals. Because the legitimate means to attain goals are limited for those in disadvantaged positions, the pressure to engage in delinquency, due to strain, will be highest in lower levels of society (see also Cohen, 1955). Therefore, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) posit that delinquent subcultures will typically (but not exclusively) be encountered by young minority males in lower class, urban areas. They were most interested in discovering why delinquent subcultures arise in certain locations of the social structure. Still, as Kornhauser (1978) discussed, anomie/strain is not enough to lead to delinquency.

Illegitimate means

Perhaps the most important contribution of Cloward and Ohlin's (1960) theory was the emphasis they placed on the availability of illegitimate means. Many criminological theories center on the notions of either propensity/motivation or constraint. In fact, Tittle (1995) takes issue with a number of these perspectives (e.g., social bonds, differential association/social learning) for their lack of theoretical comprehensiveness or the inclusion of relevant causal variables, one of which includes opportunity. When they introduced their perspective, Cloward and Ohlin found existing theories unsatisfactory because they ignored the availability of illegal alternatives or opportunity. Similar to legitimate or conventional means, illegitimate means are also socially structured and not freely available to all. They were concerned with differences in access to illegitimate means within the lower class.

The notion that illegitimate means are limited and not readily available to everyone was not a new idea developed by Cloward and Ohlin. They make clear that the idea dates back to the work of Edwin Sutherland. While reconstructing the life history of a professional thief, Sutherland (1937) discovered the salience of tutelage and mentoring from older, more experienced thieves (see also McCarthy, 1996; Sullivan, 1989). According to Cloward and Ohlin, it is not enough to have the motivation to commit crime; it is also imperative to have access to a learning environment and people to acquire knowledge from.

Neighborhood context and criminal learning environments

Certain neighborhoods play a key role in fostering criminal learning environments for potential young offenders. Environments where stable patterns of crime already exist allow for the integration of offenders of different age levels (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). Young adolescents converge in time and space with older, more experienced offenders where they are exposed to differential associations (Sutherland, 1939) of criminal values and skills. Again, it is the social structure (i.e., neighborhood context) that offers young, potential offenders opportunity and access to both learning and performance structures. In this way, differential opportunity theory sounds like a precursor to Akers’ (1998) Social Structure Social Learning (SSSL) theory,2 which is an attempt to place micro-level learning dynamics into a broader, more macro-level context. Perhaps influenced by Cloward and Ohlin, Akers proposed that social structure has an indirect effect on both criminal and conforming behavior through the social learning variables of differential association, differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation (see also Akers & Jensen, 2008). The social structural contexts in which those social processes are nested provide a more complete description of learning. Akers' theory, however, continues to suffer from the same shortcomings, particularly neglecting to discuss variability in the availability of illegal alternatives and access to a learning environment (i.e., opportunity).

Early qualitative research highlights that, at a young age, children learn to admire and respect older criminals. For instance, Shaw’s (1966) depiction of the criminal career of Stanley in The Jack-Roller illustrates this cultural transmission of youth looking up to the “big shots” in the neighborhood as role models. Additionally, quantitative work suggests that exposure/time spent with delinquent peers, one’s loyalty to friends, and the importance placed on peer relations peaks in the early-to-late teens (Warr, 1993). In sum, conditions favorable to learning a role (i.e., differential opportunity) depend on features of the social structure in which delinquency arises, and criminal subculture is likely to arise in a neighborhood milieu characterized by close bonds between different age-levels of offenders (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960).

Neighborhood context and residential burglary

Recent quantitative studies have examined the neighborhood characteristics associated with residential burglary and the role that community context contributes to target attractiveness.3 Aside from the short distance between an offender’s home location to the crime (Barker, 2000; Rengert, Piquero, & Jones, 1999; Wheeler, 2012), which suggests the home location has a strong impact on target selection, research has also found that residential burglaries are more likely to occur in neighborhoods with higher levels of residential instability (Bernasco et al., 2015), racial/ethnic heterogeneity (Bernasco & Luykx, 2003; Bernasco & Nieuwbeerta, 2005), and concentrated disadvantage (Chamberlain & Boggess, 2016; Nobles, Ward, & Tillyer, 2016).  Chamberlain and Boggess (2016), in particular, uncovered evidence that offenders chose to burgle in neighborhoods with greater economic disadvantage compared to their home neighborhood. Disadvantaged areas lack informal social control, cohesion, and collective efficacy (Sampson & Groves, 1989; Sampson et al. 1997), which potentially affect burglars’ perceptions of target attractiveness/selection. Offenders, for example, might be more willing to choose these neighborhoods because they believe residents have a reduced capacity to identify outsiders; therefore, allowing burglars a greater chance of avoiding detection. Still, scholars are left to merely speculate as to why such patterns exist. More qualitative work and in-depth interviews with offenders may be able to shed light on and supplement these findings.

Criminal connections and co-offending

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) also emphasized that "connections" are essential to be successful in the criminal world. Not every person with a desire to engage in crime will be able to sustain his or her criminal lifestyle over time. Those who cultivate appropriate relationships in the criminal underworld have a better chance of succeeding. This is where apprenticeships and ties to older, more experienced offenders come into play. Cloward and Ohlin specifically examined the types of connections needed among burglars. They proposed that it is important to possess close and dependable ties with income-producing outlets for stolen goods, such as fences. Shover (1972), for example, found that most men are introduced to a fence by friends who have already established a relationship with one or more criminal receivers and that this initial contact with a fence often leads to introductions with other fences and burglars. Moreover, criminal connections might serve to further one’s involvement in crime, as knowledge of the illegitimate world is deepened, new skills are acquired, and the opportunity to engage in new types of illegitimate activity is enhanced (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). In keeping with the consistent theme of social structure, criminal elements like fences may be more prevalent in some neighborhoods compared to others. If a motivated offender cannot form these connections, then the possibility of attaining a long-lasting criminal career is reduced.

Closely related to criminal connections is the phenomenon of co-offending (Reiss, 1980). Although the discussion of co-offending dates back over a century (Breckenridge & Abbott (1912), and despite the fact that one of the most consistent findings in criminology is the association between delinquent peers and one's offending (Pratt et al., 2010; Warr & Stafford, 1991), there are relatively few studies on the topic (see Andresen & Felson, 2012). Prior active offender research has found residential burglary to be a particularly social type of crime. Offenders typically work in groups to commit burglaries, and they use relationships and interactions to gather/share information about potential targets (Mullins & Wright, 2003; Shover, 1972; Steffensmeier, 1983; Wright & Decker, 1994). While newer studies with larger sample sizes have questioned the prevalence of co-offending relative to solo offending for crime in general (Andresen & Felson, 2010; 2012; Carrington, 2009; Stolzenberg & D’Alessio, 2008; van Mastrigt & Farrington, 2009), this work has consistently shown that co-offending rates for residential burglary are higher than other types of disaggregated crime classifications (e.g., violent and drug-related offenses). Furthermore, Sarnecki (2001) uncovered that younger offenders tend to find their co-offenders in their immediate neighborhoods. Differential opportunity theory and a focus on neighborhood context more specifically may be a fruitful avenue for furthering our understanding of co-offending as it relates to residential burglary.

Neighborhood context and markets for stolen goods

More recent research has found that markets for stolen goods, or "hot items," can contribute to property crime like residential burglary (see Felson & Boba, 2010). And it is the general population of a community that largely drives these markets. Regardless of whether hot items travel through fences or are sold directly to people, it is the public’s willingness to buy stolen property that truly matters. When disposing of stolen goods, a burglar depends on the public; people must be interested in the items. According to Felson and Boba (2010), evidence is growing that the demand for these goods drives property crime, more so than the other way around.

Because burglars rely on the public to exchange stolen property for money and the demand for goods has been shown to be a driving factor, social structure emerges once again as a salient feature for why some neighborhoods are more likely to generate or even attract property crime. Low-income areas might be more susceptible to property crime, even though their residents are not especially criminally inclined. Sutton (1998), for example, found that low-income areas were offered stolen goods more frequently than higher-status areas. Simple features of life in disadvantaged communities, such as people’s interest in cheap, second-hand goods, provide a sizeable market for property offenders to unload/discard stolen items for two reasons (see Felson & Boba, 2010). First, the financially disadvantaged are more prone to favor used and secondary merchandise for obvious economic reasons. Second, and relatedly, goods that are stolen can be easily mixed in with legitimate second-hand items and sold at shops selling used appliances, pawnshops, thrift stores, sidewalk merchants, etc. In fact, because stolen goods can be camouflaged with other legitimate second-class merchandise and sold within the secondary market, research has uncovered that the line between a fence and a legitimate merchant is often thin (Cromwell, Olson, & Avary, 1991; Johns & Hays, 2003; Klockars, 1974). Disadvantaged low-income areas provide both buyers of second-class goods and the avenues to dispose of such items.

The categorization of illegitimate opportunities

While the idea was not explicitly expressed or articulated by Cloward and Ohlin, there may be two general types of illegal opportunities—especially in regard to the crime of burglary. The two types include front-end versus back-end illegal opportunities. Front-end opportunities represent all of the illegitimate means one receives and possesses before and/or during the commission of the burglary itself, such as access to a criminal learning environment and the mentoring/tutelage gained from these relationships. By contrast, back-end opportunities represent all of the illegitimate means that allow for the successful disposal and sale of the stolen property, like connections to income-producing outlets (e.g., fences) as well as the ability of one to sell and people’s willingness to buy stolen items.

Current focus

The scholarly attention placed on neighborhood context and the broader social structure has been cyclical, dating back to the early twentieth century and the Chicago school’s dominance. Within the last few decades, the field has witnessed a renewed interest in social context. In his Sutherland Award address, Sampson (2013) emphasized the importance of place, especially as manifested in neighborhoods, as a fundamental context for criminology moving forward. Sampson (2013: 2) went on to describe the world as “profoundly uneven and inequality by place is itself ubiquitous.” Such a statement is consistent with the underlying theme of differential opportunity theory. Often, scholars studying inequality focus heavily on legitimate means and opportunities. What has been largely neglected from these discussions is that there is inequality in the distribution of illegitimate opportunities; not all neighborhoods present similar prospects or situations for crime to take place—both at the front and back ends.  The current study addresses this shortcoming by examining how neighborhood context may influence residential burglary. Particular attention is paid to a theoretical perspective that has not received much attention throughout the years—Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) differential opportunity theory.


Data and sample

The data come from in-depth personal interviews with 105 active residential burglars, not incarcerated at the time, operating in St. Louis, Missouri between 1989 and 1990 (publically available through ICPSR). It should be noted that the data have been used extensively in past research; however, there are a number of reasons why this choice in datasets is appropriate. For one, there is a lack of datasets that provide qualitative interviews with active offenders and even fewer that are publicly available. Next, this urban, inner-city context makes for an ideal research setting to examine differential opportunity theory due to its focus on relatively disadvantaged communities. After all, and consistent with the theory, it is due to the lack of legitimate opportunities for financial gain or earning status that some turn to crime (Merton, 1938; Messner & Rosenfeld, 1994). The interviews were semi-structured, tape-recorded, and later transcribed verbatim to facilitate analysis. In terms of richness and depth, interviews ranged from one and a half to three hours long and were conducted in a way to allow participants to speak freely and informally with the interviewers. Broadly, the data covered the behaviors and attitudes of the offenders under study, including risk perceptions and methods used to carry out the crimes.

The sample is comprised of 105 active residential burglars currently engaged in committing these specific types of offenses. A large majority of the sample is male (83%; n=87) and African-American (69%; n=72). Both adults (74%; n=78) and juveniles (26%; n=27) are represented. At the time of the interviews, twenty-one (20%) of the subjects were under community supervision (i.e., probation or parole). The recruitment of participants began with a trained field ethnographer—an ex-offender who had retained ties to St. Louis street life (see Decker & Smith, 2015 for a further discussion). “Snowball” sampling techniques were employed (Sudman, 1976; Watters & Biernacki, 1989; Wright, Decker, Smith, & Redfern, 1992), whereby initial offenders known to the field ethnographer and the principal investigators were asked to refer other offenders; this process continued until a suitable sample size was reached. No referrals from law enforcement or other criminal justice personnel were used, in an effort to prevent the sample from consisting of a disproportionately high number of offenders who had been previously apprehended. More detailed information on the data and sample, including the recruitment strategies for the participants, are provided by Wright and Decker (1994).

Coding system and analytic techniques

The qualitative data were analyzed using a combination of a priori (i.e., deductive) and grounded (i.e., inductive) approaches (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The process began with an a priori coding of topics related to differential opportunity theory's conceptual framework, such as criminal learning networks fostered by older or experienced offenders, criminal "connections," and other instances where neighborhood context may influence illegitimate means. There were a number of open-ended questions from the semi-structured interviews that were directly relevant in assessing Cloward and Ohlin's (1960) theory. For example, participants were asked about their first residential burglary and further probed about who they were with, whose idea it was, etc. Another set of questions dealt with how the subjects disposed of stolen items once they completed residential burglaries. Moreover, the data were also assessed using grounded theory to look for other types of emerging themes related to Cloward and Ohlin's propositions.

The interview transcripts were thoroughly and systematically examined to assign codes to identify themes that emerged repeatedly. Each subject’s interview was read in full, and a line-by-line text analysis was performed. In addition to the two types of coding, the Constant Comparison method (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used to determine whether codes and themes generated in one case were consistent across other cases in the sample. This step allowed the researcher to analyze the qualitative data with some quantitative measures, by getting a sense of measures of central tendency and dispersion on certain ideas/themes (i.e., simply adding a step to quantify the qualitative data). At times, it was difficult to organize the findings because certain themes seemed to run across topics, not an uncommon finding in qualitative research.


Lack of legitimate opportunities

 A good starting point for any examination of differential opportunity theory is the lack of or limited access to legitimate opportunities for monetary gain. It was difficult, however, to analyze and code for these themes because the original research team did not necessarily include questions about the underlying motivations4 behind both initial and continued involvement in burglary. Instead, the participants were asked about the situational circumstances surrounding their first residential burglary (e.g., age; who they were with; where it occurred). Nonetheless, twenty-one interviewees explicitly articulated the lack of legitimate opportunities, specifically being unemployed and in need of money, as a contributing factor to their involvement in residential burglary.

But I wanted me some dough. I didn't have no money. Didn't have no ride. So I got up one morning, and I sat there and watched them leave and then went on in. Went around the back and went on in and got my merchandise and stuff. Took it out to the alley. (No. 16)

Well, I wasn't workin', and I couldn't hold no job. (No. 20)

For the money. Not for the thrill or excitement of doing it. Just for the money … it's just that my kids need this or I'm broke. (No. 23)

This theme also emerged when the participants were asked to recall any extended periods of time, usually six months or longer, when they did not engage in residential burglary. In most of these cases, stable employment was mentioned as the primary reason for their hiatus from offending.

I was working. Money was plentiful at the time. I didn't have to want for anything. (No. 25)

Workin. I was workin'. Why should you bother anything if you workin'? That's all I wanted to do anyway was work. I don't mind work. (No. 35)

When I was working. I didn't really have no reason to do it then. Because I knew I got paid every week or every two weeks so I have my own money to buy my own things. (No. 79)

These quotes illustrate that it is the lack of well-paid employment that led, at least in part, to their offending, and how increased legitimate opportunities for work caused them to temporarily desist from burglary.

Introduction to residential burglary

Because participants were asked specifically about the situational conditions surrounding their first residential burglary, the interviews were able to shed light on the proximate process in which one initially becomes involved in such a crime. Consistent with the findings from previous work (Mullins & Wright, 2003; Wright & Decker, 1994), more than eighty percent (n=85) of the interviewees in the sample reported that they had committed their first residential burglary with other people—highlighting the prevalence of co-offending for this particular crime. In close to three-quarters of these cases (n=59), participants mentioned that they were with friends. The remaining interviewees who indicated that they had participated in their first residential burglary with other co-offenders specified that they had done so with family members. Brothers were named in most of these cases but uncles and male cousins were mentioned as well. Such patterns of entry into one’s first burglary via interactions with intimate groups (e.g., friends and family) support prior research.

By contrast, a little less than fifteen percent (n=15) of the active offenders specified that they committed their first burglary alone. Even when these situations occurred, participants expressed knowing burglars (e.g., friends and/or family) and discussing this type of crime with them beforehand.

Most of my friends do it, so I said hell I try it too. They can get away with it; then I can too. (No. 20)

As he would teach me how to break in these houses, I just started pickin' it up by watchin' him. So I decided one day that I had this thought in my mind, all day long. Could I do this? He can do it. So what I did was go by myself, and I knew what I needed. (No. 48)

Older and experienced burglars

When taking part in a first residential burglary with others, a significant percentage of the time this occurred with people who were older and/or had experience carrying out such crimes. In more than half of these cases (n=44), participants indicated that they had partaken in the crime with older offenders.

Well, I was with a couple of older buddies of mine in high school. (No. 25)

Yeah. That's what pulled me into it. They was into it more than I was. They was older fellah's. I always hung out with older fellah's when I was growing up. Basically, that's what they were into. (No. 37)

Moreover, the interviewees engaged in their first offense with experienced burglars in more than one-third of cases (n=32) when they were in a group. Evidence from the transcripts points to the convergence in time and space between younger offenders and older, more experienced offenders—a tenant of differential opportunity theory discussed by Cloward and Ohlin.

Following the lead of older and experienced burglars

Furthermore, the richness of the narratives allowed for a deeper look at the subjects’ initial involvement in burglary rather than just a simple count or description of who one was with. When committing their first residential burglaries with other people, participants often (n=40) used words like “followed” and “went along with,” indicating that they were neither the one with the idea nor were they in charge of planning the crime.

They knew 'bout it. I was always a follower, not a leader. (No. 1)

Well at that particular time I was just following somebody, so I just went along with them. (No. 41)

Sometimes, subjects even articulated that they had “looked up to” the older and/or more experienced residential burglars with whom they were interacting.

Yeah. I was running with a little crowd. This one little guy had just gotten out of Boonesville (Juvenile Correctional Center). He taught us. That's how it first got started. He had been doing time, and he influenced us real good. We looked up to him. (No. 24)

I wanted to hang out with the big guys like I said. (No. 104)

Lastly, there were also a handful of instances (n=7) where interviewees touched on elements of peer pressure by others, usually from older and/or experienced offenders, prior to their first burglary.

I kind of got talked into it; I had talked to people who said, oh it's your first offense, nothing will happen, nothing will go wrong, don't worry about it, we'll get in, we'll get out. (No. 72)

Oh yeah, and oh I didn't really want to, but they kinda talked me into it. (No. 76)

These quotes shed some light on the concept of co-offending, particularly as it relates to the subjects’ initial involvement in burglary. They suggest that differences in age, with younger individuals being influenced by people who are older and more experienced, might be worthy of further study.

Mentoring and learning

Taking it a step further than simply following one’s lead, a portion (n=21) of the subjects explicitly acknowledged being mentored by older and/or more experienced offenders—a topic introduced by Sutherland and elaborated on by Cloward and Ohlin in their discussion of illegitimate means. The interview narratives display that these participants had access to a criminal learning environment, specifically “front-end” opportunities both before and during the commission of the crime. They talked about learning from others who taught them how to carry out the actual burglary. Topics included target selection and steps to take pre-burglary.

Yeah. He showed me how to pick it out and what was good about the houses. (No. 31)

Well, my brother had told me what to do. You sit in front of a house, and you watch the people and see how many people you see comin' in and out of the house. (No. 46)

Interviewees also commented on being schooled in the best way to gain entry into a dwelling.

Yeah. He just showed me how it won't make so much noise. Take a wet newspaper and put it on the window and hit it. (No. 29)

And they told me it was best to pry it in between the door and the lock and just push in on the door and the door will come open. So that's what I did. (No. 46)

I watched him and see how he would get in, and I would go right in behind him. That's how I started learning how to get in the majority of the houses, following him. (No. 55)

In addition, participants discussed learning about search techniques once inside the residence.

I would say he had the experience more so than I did. He was the one that taught me instead of going through the whole house to just hit the bedroom and get out. (No. 35)

Others commented on learning and mentoring in a more general sense.

They were still doing stuff like that, and I was learning from them and learning from them. It was like I had a book of knowledge on this crap. (No. 72)

They gave me all this information. They gave me enough information for me to write a book. (No. 80)

There was also a learning/mentoring quality regarding how to get rid of stolen items once the burglary was completed—what have been termed and proposed as “back-end” opportunities.

He was older than us so he knew more about this stuff. Where to take it to and all that. (No. 64)

He knew right where to sell it at. He had good connections and stuff too. Later on, I got good connections, and I learned how to do all this. (No. 83) 

Criminal connections

As previously discussed, illegitimate opportunities are socially structured (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Schaefer, Rodriguez, & Decker, 2014). Not everyone who decides to engage in a criminal lifestyle is going to be successful. Success in these illegitimate markets, similar to conventional employment, requires “connections” and key relationships with others. By far, the strongest theme that surfaced throughout the qualitative interviews was the importance of and reliance on “connections” to carry out residential burglaries. Almost three-quarters of the active offenders in the sample (n=74) explicitly discussed connections or working relationships with people that they associated with, whether it be with a fence, a lax pawn shop that did not require identification or receipts, or a person that tipped them off to vulnerable occupancies.

Connections and the disposal of stolen goods

Connections were fundamental to the disposal of stolen goods once items were removed from a residency. After all, the burglary process is generally not fully complete until the stolen items are discarded and the offender has cash (or drugs) in hand. The majority (n=74) of the subjects sold stolen property to people that they knew personally, compared to random strangers on the street (n=26).

No. You go to the people you know. (No. 31)

Nah, I'm not like that. I sell it basically to people who know me and know that I can get something that they need. (No. 59)

I just sell them to the people I know. (No. 74)

In a non-trivial portion of cases (n=17), respondents articulated that their established connections referred them to or set up buys with other people who wanted to purchase stolen goods (i.e., third-party go-betweens).

When the interviewees discussed disposing of goods through connections or known buyers, they usually talked about the legal risk involved with selling stolen property to people that they did not know. Often, these narratives included sub-themes of trust and risk. Burglars, generally, do not need to worry about selling stolen items to an undercover cop or being set up by a police informant when they have already established working relationships with the people they dispose their goods to.

If you sell it to somebody you don't know, you don't know what they might be a cop. (No. 74)

People you know. You never sell it to people you don't know. (No. 92)

Cause it's easier, and it's people I know and people I know that's you know that's not gonna snitch me out. People I know that aren't gonna bring heat around the house, cause I don't need that, you know, who does. (No. 95)

Specific types of connections for the disposal of stolen goods

Participants provided more specific information about how they got rid of stolen items. It is important to note that many of the active offenders in the sample used a variety of methods/connections for discarding goods, further showcasing how deep their criminal networks ran. Over one-third of the subjects (n=39) expressed going through known fences. In fact, some respondents discussed having a number of fence connections that they trusted. This allowed them to shop around for the best payout.

If you are going to do it all the time, you have to have a fence. You need more than just one too. If one won't give you the right price, what you want for it, you can go see three or four different ones and they know that so they are all going to give you a decent price and they are going to buy what they can. (No. 83)

Pawnshops were another popular venue for disposing of stolen goods (n=47), although there were some interviewees (n=17) who avoided pawnshops due to risk perceptions and fear of getting caught. The participants who did utilize pawnshops often commented on personal connections and lax conditions that put them at ease.

Well, (pawnshop name removed) knows me and his workers know me too. So I bring it in, and he knows that I ain't gon' snitch on him. (No. 10)

They don't care where you got it from. It's certain pawn shops in St. Louis that won't ask you no questions and no I.D. They don't even take pictures of you. (No. 64)

Because the interviewers picked up on recurring names of pawnshops listed by the interviewees, they began asking the offenders about those specific businesses.

You know about (pawnshop name removed) don't you? (Pawnshop name removed) might give you the money for it and he won't ask no questions. And you don't need no ID. (No. 11)

It appears as though some of the pawnshops with lax conditions facilitated residential burglary by providing respondents with a risk-free avenue to shed their stolen property for quick cash.

Connections and the pre-ordering of items

Another theme that emerged was that of known buyers putting in requests and essentially “pre-ordering” certain items. Slightly one-third of the subjects (n=30) indicated that they had engaged in this type of relationship with prospective buyers. Such a relationship is significant for a number of reasons, and each is illustrated by quotes from the active residential burglars in the sample. First, having these connections of known buyers placing orders/requests for items seemed to provide an impetus for the respondents to go out and commit burglaries.

I usually have certain people that tell me that they need something. And then I get it going, you know. (No. 38)

But this is what I'm sayin'. A lot of people put in an order, and then I get it. (No. 45)

Well, some people I know. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to get it because they said they could use one. (No. 63)

Having a connection to a buyer and knowing that they already wanted a specific item (e.g., jewelry, television) assists the offender in quickly disposing of that item. This greatly reduces the risk involved in holding on to stolen property for too long; the more time a burglar has a stolen item increases the chances of law enforcement officials catching the offender.

Hey you want a diamond ring, give me 200 dollars, I'll have it tomorrow. I get back tomorrow with the diamond ring and get my 200 dollars. (No. 12)

Normally, somebody be already askin' me for them. Then if I cross it, I take it right to 'em. (No. 15)

Once I know somebody that wants one I might be able to get a hold of one for them. I just go get it and bring it back to the person. (No. 40)

At times, knowing people who put in a specific request caused members of the sample to "offend switch," changing from robbery and drug dealing to burglary. The next conversation highlights this point.

Q: Why do you sort of mix it up? Why do you do all three (drug dealing, robbery, and burglary) instead of just doing one of them?

INT: Because on a burglary, when I get something, it mostly be a TV or VCR or jewelry. But on a robbery, I'm lookin' for some money. I ain't lookin' for really nothing else but some money.

Q: So burglary because you know somebody who wants something.

INT: Right.

Q: But with robberies, that's more of your day to day living. INT: Right. (No. 50)

Neighborhood influence

Another broad theme that appeared was how neighborhoods influenced residential burglary. It relates back to some of the previously discussed findings regarding co-offending during one’s first residential burglary and knowing people/having connections to fences and other offenders from the “hood” or “block.” For example, this participant commented on how he knew the experienced offender he committed his first burglary with.

We all just grew up in the neighborhood as kids; we grew up together. He was a burglar at heart. (No. 84)

In regard to connections, the following quotes were responses to questions about how the subjects knew the fences they did business with.

That's another crook. That's a known criminal in the neighborhood. He been a known criminal all his life. And I asked him were I could get rid of it at. So he took me to this dude. And he took it and gave me money for it. (No. 11)

He was in the neighborhood, so everybody in the neighborhood knew him. (No. 38)

Several other sub-themes also emerged. They include risk perceptions of police presence or the lack thereof, the importance of drug dealers and the drug trade, and the overall ease with which burglars could dispose of stolen items in some neighborhoods.

Risk perceptions of police presence or lack thereof

As discussed, recent quantitative research has found burglary to be more “attractive," comparatively, in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Yet, scholars have been left to speculate about these patterns, where they propose that such findings might be related to offenders’ perceptions of risk.  The qualitative data used here can speak to this issue, and they provide more detail than past studies that have examined target selection in the immediate environment (i.e., occupied vs. unoccupied, containing something of value; see Mullins & Wright, 2003; Wright & Decker, 1994). It appears that certain neighborhoods may be more conducive to residential burglary due to actual and/or perceived levels of police presence or the lack thereof. Many active residential burglars discussed how the visibility of police officers varied by neighborhood context. The following exchange highlights the perceived disparities in law enforcement intensity on the part of offenders.

Q: The police don't come by?

INT: No. That's why it's so easy. I bet you this, in my home, you can call the police and call Pantera's pizza and see which one get there first. The pizza people will get there in thirty minutes the police will get there in two hours.

Q: I guess out in (name removed) where I live it's a little different.

INT: Yeah they work different in different areas. (No. 37)

Subjects brought up levels of police vigilance (n=16) while conversing about the topic of risk. Burglars tended to avoid areas/neighborhoods with a heavy police presence. Here is quick conversation outlining these perceptions of risk.

INT: I got about two or three friends that do burglary. So it's like he'll come and ask me if I want to do this with him. I'll say it depends on where it's at. Like somewhere in Jennings (a St. Louis suburb), I wouldn't go.

Q: How come?

INT: Cause the police ride real tough out there. (No. 58)

A few other examples of excerpts include:

I avoid an area where more than two police patrol within a half an hour. (No. 44)

Yeah, that's a big influence. If the police patrol is like the cops ride up and down the neighborhood all the time, then I will not mess with it. (No. 88)

Conversely, participants made mention (n=12) that in some areas there was a lack of or even a nonexistent police presence. These observations reduced subjects' perceived level of risk and affected their decisions to select/target that specific neighborhood.

And by it bein' a predominantly black neighborhood, police don't patrol as much as they do a white neighborhood. (No. 44)

Because police are very scarce. Well, it's a quiet neighborhood really. They don't really pay attention and watch out for each other's house. (No. 48)

Yeah, I might sit for like two hours and say just sit for a while and see how many and see just sit here and if I don't see no cop coming past I say let’s go. (No. 78)

All of the aforementioned exchanges and quotes seem to support the hypotheses outlined by previous scholars (e.g., Chamberlain & Boggess, 2016) regarding why burglars select more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to offend in.

Concentration of drug dealers and the prevalence of the drug trade

Neighborhoods differ in opportunities for legitimate employment. In areas where opportunities for conventional employment are limited, illegitimate methods such as drug dealing become much more viable.

One sub-theme that emerged regarding neighborhood influence on burglary involved the salience of drug dealers. Drug dealers seemed to contribute to residential burglary in a few different ways. For one, drug dealers or the “dope man” as they were commonly referred to were popular recipients/buyers of stolen property. Close to one-third (n=31) of the participants indicated that they disposed of goods to the dope man. Drug dealers tended to buy guns, jewelry, and clothes—items associated with street credibility (e.g., Anderson, 1999).

First stop is the dope houses. If no dope man want any of my items, I would get on the phone and make some calls and ask who need what. (No. 14)

Soon as I get the stuff and I'm out the house, I'm going straight to the dope man. He buys it off the back. (No. 20)

The dope man. We would always sell it to the dope man. (No. 36)

A large number of the offenders in the sample heavily abused drugs (see Wright & Decker, 1994). Frequently, the subjects engaged in residential burglary to "keep the party  going" and would use the money made from disposing of stolen goods to purchase drugs. Some members of the sample cut out unnecessary steps and sold their goods to the dope man in a direct exchange for drugs.

Or most of the time I want to buy drugs, so I take the stuff to the drug man instead of giving me money he don't wont to give out money cause he's making money. So he'll trade you the merchandise for his merchandise. Color TV, uh, say about 20 or 21 inch, might run you $3 or $4 hundred dollars, I'm a give it to him for 125 dollars. Just trade it and get me a 16 (an ounce) for it. 16 will run you 125 dollars. That's what I'm goin' do with the money anyway is buy drugs. So I might as well check with the drug man first to make a trade. So nine out of times he takes it all. (No. 9)

Drug man. Get some of his products. (No. 21)

Oh, we take it to the dope man, and he buys it off us for dope. (No. 87)

But drug dealers played another role in contributing to residential burglary aside from just being an outlet to sell stolen property. The dope man offered an additional opportunity for offenders to take advantage of. Interviewees saw little legal risk in burgling drug dealers because of the perception that this population could not go to the police.

Because the type of burglary we doing man … Here is this drug dealer and who can he tell? So he ain't gone call the police. (No. 24)

Yeh. They can’t call the cops either. (No. 89)

On a few occasions, participants expressed that they burgled drug dealers and subsequently sold the stolen product (i.e., narcotics) to other drug dealers.

We divide it up among us. Find us another drug dealer and sell the (expletive removed) jewelry to his little (expletive removed). Until he pisses off and go back and take it back. So it's just a 360-degree circle. From drug dealer to drug dealer to drug dealer. (No. 24)

Yeah, this was the dope man. All we did was stole his stuff and sold it to another dope dealer. (No. 36)

Overall, neighborhoods with a large number of drug dealers may be conducive to and actually facilitate residential burglary for a number of reasons.

Strangers/street buyers

Felson and Boba (2010) have described how markets for stolen goods contribute to property crime such as residential burglary. The following excerpts display a neighborhood component of these markets. An adequate number of active burglars in the sample expressed not using connections or known buyers to discard stolen goods. Instead, approximately one-quarter of the subjects (n=26) sold stolen items to strangers and random people on the street.

Sold it to anybody that came along. You know, I don't quite remember, but uhm, he offered a good price, and I sold it to him. (No. 2)

Nah, just you know, you want to buy a TV or sell it to anybody that want to buy it. (No. 6)

Basically just about anybody that was looking for it. (No. 102)

A number of participants were a bit clearer about dealing stolen goods on the street in specific neighborhoods.

Just basically go around the neighborhood and ask different people. (No. 52)

Cause they're easy to get rid of in the neighborhood. (No. 86)

I take them down to (area name removed) and sell em. (No. 90)

Take them to my partner, and he sells them. He goes to the (area name removed). (No. 97)

The ability of the offenders to dispose of stolen property on the street may be a function of neighborhood context and social structure. It might be easier to find random or stranger buyers on the street in some areas compared to others. Most of the participants in the sample resided in disadvantaged inner-city communities. As a result, they came into contact and interacted with others from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Ease of selling stolen items and the demand for bargains

Picking up from the previous section, most of the respondents who sold their stolen goods to random buyers on the street discussed the relative ease it took to do so and how quickly it could be done. It is important to recall that the quick disposal of items, as it relates to legal risk perceptions, was a theme that ran throughout the entire sample. Often, interviewee quotes about the ease of sale and quick disposal were coupled with phrases like “bargain.” There appeared to an interest in cheap goods from members of these communities.

Because it's easy and everybody's lookin' for a bargain, and I know if I go and sell this 300 dollar TV for 75 dollars, I know they gon' jump on this. Cause everybody's lookin' for a bargain. (No. 13)

Well growing up in my part of the neighborhood, it wasn't hard to get rid of stuff. Because everybody had a little money. Whatever you had that they see they can buy from you, they'll get. So it wasn't hard. I just figured hey, I'll take it around the neighborhood and ask people if they would buy it. So it wasn't hard to get rid of. No problem. (No. 32)

The demand for stolen goods and the relative ease with which they were sold appears to be a function, at least in part, of the social structure and neighborhood context.


The current paper was an attempt to return scholarly attention to differential opportunity theory. Despite being more than fifty years old, the theory has not received much in the way of testing of its core hypotheses. Cloward and Ohlin (1960), influenced by the work of Sutherland (1937) and the Chicago school, made significant contributions to the field with their clarification and further articulation of concepts like illegitimate means and criminal connections. Aside from a small number of perspectives such as routine activity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) and situational crime prevention (Clarke, 1997), most criminological theories take the element of opportunity for granted and treat it as a constant (see Tittle, 1995). Illegitimate means and opportunities are not distributed evenly throughout neighborhoods and the larger social structure. The interview transcripts provided a theoretical lens into the neighborhood contexts in which residential burglary seemed to flourish.

Overall, the qualitative analyses found support for differential opportunity theory across a number of different areas—including the proposed front-end and back-end illegitimate opportunity structures. Such support reinforces the central message that Cloward and Ohlin (1960) delivered more than 50 years ago: that illegitimate means/opportunity, rather than strain, is integral to understanding deviant adaptations and involvement in crime (see also Cullen, 1988). The findings also suggest that any discussion of the pressures to engage in crime, specifically financial strain/frustration (Agnew, 1992), or criminal motivation due to differential association/social learning might be incomplete without the inclusion of opportunity. Much of the initial involvement in residential burglary could be linked to co-offenders who were older and/or more experienced with that specific crime type. Access to criminal learning networks and receiving mentoring in the areas of target selection, gaining entry, search tactics, and the disposal of stolen property were found to play a substantial role. The importance of criminal connections, particularly regarding ties to income-producing outlets (e.g., fences), was another major theme running throughout the interviews. Neighborhood context appeared to influence all of these aforementioned illegitimate means, while also contributing to legal risk perceptions and providing unique opportunities for offenders to carry out residential burglaries successfully.

The interview data yielded important information, and they present potential suggestions for practical implications, especially from a crime-prevention standpoint. For one, the active burglars in the study displayed perceptual concerns for legal risks. One finding briefly mentioned in the results section but not elaborated on was that of seventeen respondents expressing that they avoided disposing of stolen property at pawn shops for fear of getting caught. These subjects were frightened at the prospect of walking into a place of business with cameras and being made to show personal identification. On the other hand, a large number of interviewees preferred selling stolen property to pawn shops because of lax conditions (e.g., not having to fill out paperwork or show identification). Stricter, more consistent, and better-enforced requirements/regulations might be able to increase perceptions of legal risk, thus reducing the belief that pawnshops are viable avenues for discarding hot items. Given that nearly half of the burglars in the study utilized pawnshops at some point, such actions may put a dent into available markets for stolen goods.

Relatedly, the participants seemed to consider police presence or the lack thereof when calculating risk and making decisions about whether to perform a burglary; they avoided neighborhoods with a strong and consistent police presence. These findings point to the fact the burglars might be deterrable and more responsive to police visibility, compared to offenders considering other types of crime. Recent quantitative research has come to a similar conclusion (e.g., Fagan & MacDonald, 2014; Zimring, 2012). For example, Fagan and MacDonald (2014), using a quasi-experimental design, examined crime in New York City before and after the NYPD placed extra officers into certain “impact zones” (compared to similarly matched control areas without more police). They discovered that burglary was reduced in the impact zones after extra police were added; however, there were no such reductions in overall crime or violent crime. Tactics like hot spots policing might be of particular utility to crimes of burglary, particularly where officers make a show of being present and visible.

Some may view the time period covered in the study as a limitation. However, while the data were collected over twenty years ago, most of the same neighborhood and social structural conditions from 1989-1990 are present today. Communities still differ in both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities, levels of police presence, poverty, etc. There may be some slight differences in terms of the CRAVED (concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable) items (Clarke, 1999) over time. The most popularly burgled item throughout the interview transcripts was the VCR. Currently, small electronic devices like digital cameras, iPADs, cell phones, and laptops might be the more desired products. The core elements of the theory (e.g., mentoring/learning environments and criminal connections), however, should be impervious to changes across time periods.

A number of directions for future research exist. Because it has largely gone untested, Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) theory is ripe with scholarly opportunity, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as well as further theoretical development. In terms of theoretical contributions, criminologists should continue to ponder the similarities between differential opportunity theory and Akers’ (1998) Social Structure Social learning Theory—which has received more empirical attention and far greater support (e.g., Bellair, Rosciago, & Velez, 2003; Jensen, 2003; Jensen & Akers, 2003), particularly in recent decades. However, differential opportunity theory has, arguably, a higher degree of theoretical comprehensiveness (see Tittle, 1995) due to its inclusion and focus on criminal opportunity (i.e., illegitimate means) in addition to motivation. If there were room for theoretical integration between the two perspectives, the addition of such components to the social learning framework would be a worthwhile improvement.

More active offender research has the potential to uncover valuable insight into co-offending (see Moule, 2014, for a discussion), especially since co-offenders were integral to getting involved in a first burglary for the subjects in this study. Next, there is little scholarship on mentorship in the context of criminal careers (DeLisi & Piquero, 2011; Morselli, Tremblay, & McCarthy, 2006).  As a result, there remains much to learn about the role of criminal mentors and how these relationships influence learning, risk perceptions, and other illegitimate opportunities. Last, there appears to be a role for qualitative research in gaining insight into neighborhoods and how this type of context influences illegitimate means and opportunities for offending. The data here were able to elucidate the patterns found in recent quantitative work regarding neighborhood context and residential burglary (Chamberlain & Boggess, 2016; Nobles et al., 2016). According to the narratives, it was evident that neighborhood characteristics affected illegitimate opportunity structures, particularly through offenders’ perceptions of lower risk generated by the lack of police visibility. Future work should continue to examine how offenders view certain places and how the characteristics of an area, such as disorder or the percentage of minority residents, influence what individuals think about said place. After all, neighborhood context represents something much more complex than a number of Census indicators in a concentrated disadvantage index.


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John A. Shjarback is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at El Paso. He earned his Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Arizona State University in 2016. His research interests center around policing and criminological theory. His recent work has been featured in Crime & Delinquency, Journal of Criminal Justice, Police Quarterly, and Policing: An International Journal.


Publicly available data from “Exploring the House Burglar’s Perspective: Observing and Interviewing Offenders in St. Louis, 1989-1990” (ICPSR 6148) were used for this study. The author would like to thank Scott Decker and Rick Moule for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript.

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