The Social Construction of Crime

What is Crime?

The word crime is used consistently in everyday conversation. The manner and extent to which it is used implies that there is sufficient level of common understanding about it. To some extent, this is indeed the case. However, this masks a number of complexities. Identifying the boundary between acts that are crimes, and acts which are not crimes is often far from straightforward. There are certain acts which prohibited, though not really crime or a particular act though legal but may become a criminal act in certain circumstances.

American Sociologist Tappan has defined crime as

Crime is an intentional act in violation of the criminal law . . . committed without defence or excuse, and penalized by the state as a felony or misdemeanour.

The Social Construction of Crime:

The above definition makes it clear that crime is a social construct. Every state in accordance with its cultural norms prohibits certain acts as crime which is perfectly legal in other jurisdictions. For instance, polygamy is strictly prohibited in many European countries and is punishable with a jail term, but it is freely practiced in many Muslim countries. Similarly, homosexuality was outlawed in many European countries and was punishable, but now many jurisdictions allow same-sex marriages and protect gay rights. This led the scholars to view crime as a label applied, under particular circumstances, to certain acts (or omissions), suggesting that crime is something that is the product of culturally bounded social interaction.  As Edwin Schur once noted: ‘Once we recognise that crime is defined by the criminal law and is therefore variable in content, we see quite clearly that no explanation of crime that limits itself to the motivation and behaviour of individuals can ever be a complete one.’ In other words, Schur was basically observing that in the event that we take the criminal law to be the thing that defines what is criminal, at that point the very certainty that the criminal law fluctuates – often very significantly – from nation to nation, makes it abundant evident that there is nothing certain about crime.

A radical version of social constructionism has been outlined by the Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christie in his book, A Suitable Amount of Crime, he argues:

Crime does not exist. Only acts exist, acts often given different meanings within various social frameworks. Acts and the meanings given to them are our data. Our challenge is to follow the destiny of acts through the universe of meanings. Particularly, what are the social conditions that encourage or prevent giving the acts the meaning of being crime?


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