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The Legal Definition Of Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1204 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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'Explain how crime can be considered as a social construction and contrast this with legal definition of crime.'

'Our nation, from the start, has been divided by class, race, national origin and has endured class conflicts throughout history' (Zinn as cited in Welch, 2009). The purpose of this essay is to show that crime is constructed socially rather than individually. In order to do so, I will focus on describing how crime can be viewed as a product of social construction, explaining different factors contributing to the way people perceive particular behaviour as criminal as well as contrasting concept of crime being socially constructed with its legal definition. After discussing theories created by Howard Becker and Karl Marx , it will conclude that criminal behaviour and its consequences are indeed socially constructed.

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Reaching consensus over an appropriate term defining crime has undoubtedly been challenging for criminologists as "there are no purely objective definitions; all definitions are value laden and biased to some degree" (Barak, 1998, p.21). Hence, it is not an easy way to give an exact definition to something so diverse. However, the legal definition of crime suggested by Tappan (1947) is agreed by many to be the most precise and clear so far. It states that "Crime is an intentional act in violation of the criminal law (statutory and case law), committed without defence or excuse, and penalized by the state as a felony or demeanour." Although, it has also met with criticism from others who believe that it is too narrow definition (Milovanovic, D.). Only harms defined as such by state are considered in Tappan's theory which is also limited to those crimes "legally" guilty (Milovanovic, D.). It is also vital to mark that legal definition of crime not only excludes white collar crime but also fails to acknowledge cultural and historical context of law, such as on gambling and prostitution that may be different depending on state or nation (Henry, S. 200). Essentially an act becomes a crime when it breaks the law established by the government of particular society. Of course what accounts as crime varies depending on different cultures, laws and religions, although there are three main elements determining crime which remain consistent: harm, social agreement and their reaction. The way society responses to the particular harmful behaviour may differ depending upon the society. For example, theft conducted in UK may result in getting a warning or minor sentence, whereas in Muslim societies the same person would have his hand cut off for such an offence. Looking also from historical perspective, attitudes towards certain acts considered then as criminal have also changed as many of those are no longer viewed as crimes. Therefore it is clear that the definition of crime has undoubtedly gone through changes and most probably will continue to change.

The main aspect which legal definition of crime seems failing to consider is that some behaviours are considered as crimes whilst others not. This brings us to the social construction of crime, an idea created and essentially developed by society in terms of held perceptions, morals, beliefs and values of individuals living within it. These shape the way we are such as personality, character and our roles within the society. As people are 'measure' beings, they often judge themselves and people around them. The concept of social construction sees criminal behaviour as a mutual interpersonal activity involving actors and audiences (Henry,S.2009). Therefore, the way someone is identified and located within a scope of the society has significant consequences for the way we act towards others (Becker, 1963). Societies define crime by their own norms, believes and rules. Whereas rules, which govern everywhere, determine as well correct and incorrect behaviours within the society. „Criminal law often mirrors a fairly extensive point that particular behaviour violates some social standards and values (murder, rubbery, etc.). However, actions considered as criminal may vary depending on different cultures, laws or religions. In short, crime is what particular society chooses it to be.

Furthermore, crime is a fundamental part of deviance, theory suggested by Howard Becker. Deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather the consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an 'offender'(Becker, 1963). It is not only a result of humans actions but also depends on the audience judging particular behaviour as negative or positive. Becker argued that deviance can be defined as a kind of behaviour which differs from the normal, rule-breaking behaviour that is unacceptable in society and depends on what people see as unacceptable. In such situation where society labelled particular person as a deviant, it often results in isolation of this person who eventually finds the only way to survive through involving in criminal activity. Most importantly, crime often arises where the obvious segregation of the rich and poor occurs. Karl Marx, on the other hand, suggested that 'class struggles' are underlying problems in societies where the basis of power is wealth and which as a result leads to injustice and inequality. Sheptycki (2006) says that "the roots of crime lie in the social structural inequalities of wealth and power." This viewpoint perceives capitalist societies as ones which choose individual interest over social welfare. Therefore, from the social constructionist point of view, crime is a behaviour defined by powerful and privileged people with authority to make laws that recognise some acts as offensive. Once more, regarding Becker, powerless people, no matter how bad the damage they done could be, they are likely to be arrested and judged. People who hold more power create then some kinds of illusions that people at the lower levels of social hierarchy (measured on the basis of their income, education degree or even race)- are seen as dangerous to the society. It not only creates place where people are dependent on state but also discriminates people one way or another. Government, could also be an example here. It defines what crime is by choosing to outlaw some particular act. For instance, the issue with drugs which government made illegal. Money tracking laws or tax evasion fall into different category, which relates to government who creates crime for their own interests. This suggests that crimes are created by lawmakers who limit citizen's freedom on the ground of their own moral standards.

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Taking into account all of the aforementioned factors, we can conclude that crime has inevitably been a product of social construction. Notwhistanding the fact that crime is a complex and diverse concept without one, accepted definition, what accounts as criminal varies depending on cultures, laws and religions which proves that crime is a product of social sonctruction. Definitions of crime are constructed by both cultural norms and values as well as power relations. In adition to that we socially shape the meanings of behaviours and their consequences.


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