Abigail Kennedy

What is crime?

Crime is a fluid word that’s defining characteristics change with the society and government bodies as to where you live. Defined by the dictionary, crime is an “action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law”.Crime is governed by formal social control as it is typically violent and inflicts upon the rights of other citizens. Specifically, in the United States our government constitutes three types of laws including a federal statute, state, and local government. Crime usually requires that you complete such affirmative act before it is punishable, although some crimes are a result of omission which occurs when someone fails to preform an act that is legally required. Since crime has a flexible definition, how do we define it in the interpretation of our society?

Crime occurs in reflection to social norms, the “behaviors that are deemed acceptable in a society or group” (Glasgow). Social norms aid lawmakers and judges in determining in which acts they define as crime forming a legal guideline.Since social norms and values are ever changing based on the moral standards of a geographically area or time period, the acts we label crimes change as well.Based on the fluidly of labels, there is no reasoning behind which acts are categorized as crimes its often “a political response to social norms” (Glasgow).The argument goes even further to state that crime is purely a social construction, an objective reality constructed through our culture.So, who gets the authority to decide what is a crime?This perspective that criminals are deemed “‘different’ or ‘deviant’ by mainstream society, rather than simply protecting harms” derived from sociologist Howard Becker in the 1960s (Glasgow).From this standpoint, laws serve as social construct in order to manage and identify the individuals that the government considered threatening. This begs the question that if typically, white male legislators are deciding which actions are crimes, is crime biased?In Becker’s book Outsiders, he claims that “all social groups make rules” to “define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate” “specifying some actions as “right” and forbidding other as “wrong”” (Becker).  When these rules are imposed, the individuals who break these rules are no longer to “be trusted to live by the rules agreed on by the group” and they are therefore “regarded as an outsider” (Becker).Stemming from the European invasion of the land that is now modern day United States, white colonial settlers set the standard for what we define as crime. The “Doctrine of Discovery” became the foundation of the Europeans proclaimed “entitlement” to the Americas setting the basis of norms in our civilization (more on this later in History) (Gilder). If white settlers have set the standards for the norms in our current society, then inherently crime is biased.

If you only define crime by the standards of the government authorities, then you ignore the broader harms in place in our society such as poverty and inequality. From a more contemporary angle, Hillyard and Tombs follow an approach called zemiology, “the study of social harm as opposed to crime” (Glasgow). They argue the we overlook the standard definition of crime that is created by the positions of authority as it “fails to consider crimes committed by the State, war crimes, and forms of environmental damage” (Glasgow). We ignore corporate white collar crimes, because our media coverage is dominated by money. Those with money control what is focused in our media coverage, and therefore have the power to focus on blue collar crimes over white collar. With zemiology in mind, when thinking about crime we must consider how the media’s perceptions alter the way citizens view crime.These methodologies highlight the branch of studying crime referred to as critical criminology. Critical criminologists follow the approach that crime tends to focus on small interpersonal crime disregarding the crimes inflicted by organizations and states inflicting harm towards large numbers of people. Why is it that we view an individual stealing cars as criminal while doctors committing medical insurance fraud simply as an unfortunate mistake when insurance fraud is fiscally greater? This method of criminology reflects upon the structural inequalities in place in our society and intense focus of working class and minority groups when analyzing crime.

Heavily perpetrated by the media minorities are associated with criminality.Many historical accounts display have how “myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence in a post-Reconstruction era” enforcing the substantial increase of Black male incarceration in our modern day (Smiley and Fakunle). Prejudice has been produced through the media including with implementation of “brute” image of Black males. In the rise of the 21st century, imagery of Black males associated with the terminology “thug.We have been seen a rise of deadly force against Black males who “allegedly considered to be “suspects” or “persons of interest” without reasonable cause. Through the exploitation of these “often-targeted victims’ criminal records, physical appearances, or misperceived attributes” it has been used to validate their unlawful deaths (Smiley and Fakunle).Even though the connection between criminality and Blackness withstands in our society, “little research has been done on how unarmed Black male victims, particularly but not exclusively at the hands of law enforcement, have been posthumously criminalized” (Smiley and Fakunle). When you have a country founded on White Supremacist values, its no wonder we repeatedly criminalize minorities.

The History of Crime

            Crime is essentially a counterproductive of the labels produced by our society.From the beginning of time humans have committed harmful offenses, but there were only labeled crimes with the development of organized civilizations. One of the first responses to crime was revenge where the victim would decide what they considered an appropriate response to the offense committed against them. However, revenge is unmeasurable and often disproportionate to the crime committed which frequently generational blood feuds. In response to this problems, codified laws were formalized to maintain order in societies,

Codified laws are were a fundamental element of developing civilizations as they help to maintain social order.One of the first documented guides for punishment was the Code of Hammurabi which was described as the “law of retaliation” (Roufa). Religion played a prominent role in categorizing the behaviors defined as crime. Specifically, in western cultures the Old Testament in the Bible set guidelines for criminal offenses, such crimes were acts that offended God. Early philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle also played a popular role in describing crime. Plato contested that crime was a result of poor education where responses should be assessed on the degree of the fault. In addition, Aristotle established the idea that the responses to crime should be to prevent future acts and therefore punishment should function as deterrent for crime. The first secular comprehensive code of laws determining criminal code was formed by the Roman Republic. Rome was the first documented civilization to view crime as a violation of societal function as opposed to an offense to God.With the development of Christianity, the values of compassion and forgiveness infiltrated crime and punishment influencing modern day rehabilitation theorist (Roufa).As Christianity is the most common religion in the United States, we must realize that the norms and values of Christianity heavily infiltrate our definitions of crime.

            When we think of the norms associated with our country we habitually associate it with the values propagated by white European settlers.We often overlook the fact that the United States was stolen from the Native Americans.The Doctrine of Discovery was used to facilitate the exploration and colonization of indigenous lands, which was used to validate white supremacy. However, these “principles were based on racist, unscientific assumptions” “used by States to justify the “theft” of native lands, territories or natural resources” (United Nations).When the European settlers conquered the lands that is now the US they perpetuated European Christian beliefs setting the standards for which acts are defined as crime.This may have some explanation as to why minorities are repeatedly criminalized.

Why does crime occur?

Biological Theories

We can use several sociological perspectives to evaluate on a profound level why crime occurs. The Biology explanations of crime makes the assumptions that people are ‘born criminals’ with physiological characteristics that differ from the non-criminals.Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso theorized that criminals are “evolutionary throwbacks” suggesting that they have underdeveloped brains that results in a tendency to commit crime. He identified that the prisoners he studied shared some common physical traits including sloping foreheads and receding chins resembling primary humans. Lombroso’s theory lost its popularity yet biological theories still exist linked to biochemical, neurophysiological, and genetic conditions to prove the linkage between criminals.Analyzing this perspective we can assume that criminalization is unbiased as it controlled by genetic factors, however the biological perspective upholds many flaws.If we decide that someone, is predisposed to crime based on physical characteristics, are we further perpetuating crime?

Social Disorganization Theory

Sociological perspectives propose that crime is a result of external factors including one’s peers, family, and neighborhood. The theory of Social Disorganization arose from Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay when they used spatial mapping to determine patterns of the residential locations of prisoners. Their observations displayed that “patterns of delinquency were higher in areas characterized by poor housing, poor health, socio-economic disadvantage and transient populations” (Glasgow).This discovery drew shocking conclusions that crime may not be a result of an individual actor but a response to socialization and neighborhood dynamics.When witnessing the patterns of crime associated with the wave of immigrants in Chicago, they pointed to the fact that this was no fault of the immigrants but a conflict of “social norms due to ethnic diversity and competing cultural traditions” (Glasgow).Pointing out the element of socialization involved with crime, the Social Disorganization Theory highlights the potential that crime may be the result of structural problems within society as opposed to individual factors.This view point provides a more productive basis in changing the structural flaws of our society versus the so called criminals themselves.

Anomie/Strain Theory

            Described by one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, the Anomie theory “explain[s] the breakdown of social norms that often accompanies rapid social change” (Glasgow). Robert Merton drew on this theory that criminality in the US transpires when there is “a gap between the cultural goals of a society (e.g. material wealth, status) and the structural means to achieve these (e.g. education, employment)” (Glasgow). This strain forces individuals to achieve their goal through alternative means, illegal means.Interpreting this theory, we can theorize that individuals who commit crimes, are not in fact deviants as they are trying to obtain the cultural goals of society yet they simply do not have the resources to achieve these societal goals.

Rational Choice

            As discussed in the LSJ 200 lecture, the Rational Choice theory views people as rational actors who weigh the benefits and disadvantages of each of their actions.In reference to the “Eliminating the Enemy” reading discussed, individuals must evaluate whether the ends justify the means.The article displays how individuals weigh the cost of serving time in prison to be minor in comparison to the Pell grant they could receive giving them free college education.The Rational Choice theory places the blame on the individual versus society as people must weigh the benefits and costs of such crime.Nonetheless, we can still interpret this theory through a societal lens, as people are driven to commit crimes because their current lifestyle (ie. in poverty or subjects of discrimination).  

How we deter crime?


            Deterrence uses the threat of punishment to prevent crime from occurring. Deterrence heavily relies on the Rational Choice Theory as people are forced to weigh the cons of the punishment with the benefits of the crime they plan on committing. Deterrence theorists believe that if we instill harsher punishment it will increase the disadvantages of crime and therefore reduce crime rates. This methodology lower’s judge’s discretion the enhance the legitimacy of codified laws. If we continue to strengthen the pain of incarceration, then theoretically the disadvantages of crime will increase as well (lecture).


            From a different perspective rehabilitation promotes personal change in hopes of decreasing recidivism rates.Rehabilitation uses methods such as education, a secure environment, mental health resources, addiction counseling, and opportunities to mix with outsiders to ease prisoners back into society with hope that they will change (lecture).Supporters of rehabilitation believe that crime is a result of improper socialization where criminals failed to internalize the norms of proper behavior. Rehabilitation theorists allocate string discretion to judges to allow indeterminate sentences without fixed duration to provide incentive to change. Fundamentally, rehabilitation takes a modern angle in reducing criminal activity by attacking crime at its root, and altering the structural failures that allow for social inequality in the first place.


Incapacitation intends to inhibit future crimes by removing the offender’s ability to commit offenses differing from the theory deterrence where an offender is punished in order to understand the specific consequences of their offense (US Legal).At its core incapacitation assumes that criminals have something innately wrong with them and that they are evil beings who have committed heinous acts. Therefore, if criminals are evil beings they must be locked up and removed from society to prevent them from committing future crimes and harming society. This method gives judges little to no discretion when sentencing as this theory focuses solely in getting prisoners of the streets (lecture). Incapacitation however can be ineffective as we cannot afford to house all the deviants of our society.At is core, incapacitation aims to reduce crime, by removing the deviants from society all together.


            Retribution fundamentally theorizes that crime represents a harm to society.From this perspective criminals are formerly functional members of society that have done damage to society. These individuals must therefore face punishment as payback in order to repair the damage they have created in society. Punishments focus on bettering the outside world through community service, fines, court mandated counseling, and serving time in prison. This method follow a “just desserts” philosophy that criminals get what they deserve based on the level of harm caused by their crime (lecture).Essentially retribution aims to force individuals to weigh the costs of the actions, and the punishment that will ensue if they harm society.

In conclusion,  crime has many different lens under which it can be interpreted.  In order to properly define crime, we must look at it from the personal, social, and historical constructs that manage our society.

Works Cited

“’Doctrine of Discovery’, Used for Centuries to Justify Seizure of Indigenous Land, Subjugate 

Peoples, Must Be Repudiated by United Nations, Permanent Forum Told | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, United Nations,

“Five Things About Deterrence.” National Institute of Justice,

Fogg, Ally. “What Is Crime? We Can’t Measure It Because We Haven’t Defined It | Ally 

Fogg.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Jan. 2014,

Roufa, Timothy. “An Early History of Crime and Criminolgy.” The Balance Careers, The 

Balance Careers,

“Theories and Causes of Crime.” The Scottish Center for Crime & Justice

US Legal, Inc. “Incapacitation [Sentencing] Law and Legal Definition.” Fraud Law and Legal 

Definition | USLegal, Inc.,

VI, Alexander. “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” Historical Context: The Global Effect of World War I | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,

“What Is a Crime?” FreeAdvice,

“What Is CRIME OF OMISSION? Definition of CRIME OF OMISSION (Black’s Law 

Dictionary).” The Law Dictionary, 28 Mar. 2013,