The concept of crime is not a new term especially even in laymen’s word. It is an act committed in violation of the law. Indeed, it is an omission forbidden by criminal law. And in the commission of a crime, it can be punishable through imprisonment or by a fine. In some cases, there are also other forms of punishment imposed by the government or other governing bodies which aims not only in reprimanding the violator but as well as in their reformation.
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However, this is not the case for defining the word ‘crime’. It has been perceived that by giving definitions, one significantly outs or assigns limitations to the concept. According to Savage and Brearly (2007, p. 23), it is quite common to define crime as an act that contravenes the criminal law and is therefore punishable in law. But this should not be the case because crime is a concept that should be treated with caution and not taken for granted.
The focus on crime is more evident in the study of criminology. In the definition of criminology, it has been described as the “systematic study of the nature, extent, etiology and control of law-breaking behavior” (Henry, n.d.). The focus on the assessment of the concept of crime is dealt by the aspect of ‘criminology’. The concept of criminology is considered to be a broad science that involves various kinds of crimes as well as societies and cultures in which the crime takes place. In addition, criminology covers the aspect of law that is made by the society in order to address the various crimes that have been committed in a given area (Info Boulevard, 2008).
Thus, in the science of exploring the interaction of crime and society, there has been a range of theories formulate in an attempt to explicate what causes such reactions from individuals. Similarly, theories have been created as a reaction to the judicial or social challenges which have been created (Info Boulevard, 2008). With this, one can say that concept of crime is a very complex matter such that, it cannot be explained in a single theory alone. There have been a remarkably high number of theories which attempt to explain the concept of crime in relation to people and the society.
Indeed, the nature of crime is increasingly changing largely because of the changes in the society and the environment. Today, a crime cannot be viewed on a single perspective alone. The concept of crime is explained on the basis of different contending perspectives or theories. Two of the most popular perspective that explains the nature of crime is its condition as being a social construct and being an individual criminality.
In the concept of crime as a social construct, it has been believed that criminality could have been avoided if there are only prerequisites. Among these prerequisites include presence of very good living conditions, real free will, not maltreatment from the direct and indirect environment, family with principles and a job which can be considered as dignified. In the absence of the noted prerequisites, it is likely that problematic or troubled individuals can be lured into becoming criminals.
On the other hand, there is also the perspective that the individuals’ criminality is not a question. Scholars and the researchers alike argue that genetic factories such as the wrong genes and chromosomes can drive the individuals to absence of self-control, aggressive attitudes as well as generally criminal behavior. Because of this, there is a need for the society to all the members the favorable living conditions. If not, it would be almost unavoidable for the individuals to commit criminal acts.
In this paper, it will look into the theories that explain these two most argued perspectives on the concept of crime. Primarily, it will provide a separate discussion on the two perspectives. After elucidating on these perspectives, this paper will present an analysis by comparing and contrasting it. In this way, one can critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the two perspectives thereby helping in the decision-making process as to whether the concept of crime is a social construct or just plainly an individual criminality.
Crime as a Social Construct
Generally, the basis for explaining crime as a social construct is the social environment. While crime is committed by an individual, it is still highly relevant to the society such that, the society is attributed to the actual realization of the crime. Through the environment, it is believed that it can influence the tendency of an individual to commit or engage in crime.
This perspective is highly related to the aspect of knowledge as a social construct also. in the context of different dominant values or perspectives, it is believed that the values that come to be accepted are contingent upon the knowledge that is privileged. Undeniably, knowledge in itself is believed to be subject to being socially constructed and even subject to various forms of politically motivated construction (Savage and Brearly (2007, p. 9).
Throughout the history, one can see that in the beginning, it is perceived that criminality is a result of the choice on the part of the offender. However, this belief was replaced by positivism wherein it suggests that rather than crime being a matter of choice, it was a matter of pathology or some kind. In short, crime is a result not of the individual’s choice of the offender but of something being wrong with them. Indeed, they were bound to commit crime and not able to exercise choice in the matter (Garland, 2002, pp. 10-11).
The Role of the Laws and the Government
The development of crime as a social construct can largely be attributed to the role of laws and the government itself in the society. In fact, the punishment on the commitment of crime is left on the hands of the government. This governing is being guided by the policies and rules that have been promulgated to protect the welfare of the majority or the greater good.
Welsh (2005) is highly critical of the formation of crime in relation to the nature of the government and its policies. He said that majority of the crimes are created by the government by choosing to outlaw something. For instance, the non-violent drug offenses are considered as crimes because it declared by the government. Indeed, it would have not been a crime if the government did not categorize drugs as something illegal. In this context, people are considered as ‘moral entrepreneurs’. By believing that drugs are evil, or adultery is bad or even sodomy is evil, they try to convince their society’s authority to make violating their mores a crime.
Indeed, in this form of government construction of crime, the public play an important role in the prohibition or in the process of making something illegal. For example, in the process of prohibiting gay marriage or alcohol drinking, the coalition of the public is necessary. Another aspect of the construction of crime is when crime is constructed for its own interest such as the case of tax evasion and money tracking laws. On the third, a crime is constructed by the government when it acts to enforce the privilege of an oligopoly or even monopoly. It has been a long standing practice that can be observed in the government the enforcement of state monopoly whether it is in the form of labor, good or service (Welsh, 2005).
As such, taking into considerations the only few exceptions, it can already be generalized that crime is what the society chooses it to be and the crime rate is what the society chooses it to be. This phenomenon explains why the U.S. has the highest prison population in the contemporary world. Indeed, they are the highest because they chose to be so. Until now, they still continue to dictate how their people should live their lives, when their actions are either harming only themselves or are harming those who have consensually agreed to be harmed or because it is enforcing a monopoly for those who have power or who kick back into the system
It is in this context where the aspect of labeling comes to fore. Sutherland (1999) avows that it is derived from the sociological dimension of symbolic interactionism. Further, it is explained that in the labeling theory, the human actions are understood in the light of the meaning of those actions. It is believed that it is the people who provide the meaning for the different situations. Consequently, the definitions given to situations are derived from various particular situations.
In other words, an image is constructed in the process. Through their interaction with other people, they are able to create an image which in turn is necessary in the giving of meaning to situations. In the case of criminality, the concept of image is deemed to be indispensable. Sutherland (1999) explains that it is the people and the society that creates the image of a criminal. As a matter of fact, criminals do not perceive themselves as criminals. Through the criminal justice system, it utilizes the stigma as a way of controlling behavior. It then notifies other people in order to enhance the image.
Undeniably, there is a great distinction between the black and the white races. There is higher likelihood that the blacks will be convicted for crimes than the whites. Welsh (2005) reveals that in the United States, being black or Hispanic means that there is chance of being charged or convicted with the same crime as a white individual. In addition, being poor situates an individual to a greater chance of being convicted that being rich or middle class.
Thus, there is a tangible manifestation of the concept of labeling is the US social environment setting. There are severe consequences when one has acquired a criminal record in the United States. Holding a criminal conviction on one’s record means that there is little or no chance of getting a decent job. As a result, they are absorbed by the black or gray economy, wherein there is a greater chance of committing a crime. The likelihood of committing further crime can be attributed to one’s economic necessity since being marked means that the unmarked will not associate with him or her. In other words, it is expected that one will fall into bad company (Welsh, 2005).
The Conflict Perspective
The conflict perspective was the basis of explaining the differences of society and culture in perceiving behaviors. It elucidates on the way societies perceive and define what is to be an unacceptable behavior. This perspective is highly important in explaining the social construction of crimes because it presents that the nature and definition given to the concept of crime is relative to cultures and societies.
According to Lundberg (n.d.), in the nature of crime as a social construct, it involves not only of the end result (defined crime), but also of the component forces from inside and outside a society which result in that definition. In line with this, the conflict perspective declares that the definitions of unacceptable behavior differ according to whether or not the definition is in the interests of the ruling class. With this, the focus of this structural perspective is on the organization of the society as well as its effect on behavior.
A concrete example of the statement given above is the opposing attributes of what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviors between the European cultures and the aboriginal cultures of Canada. Indeed, the fundamental difference that can be found on European and aboriginal cultures is a reflection on their differing philosophies on the justice system.
In the aspect of cultural ethics, the European culture is governed by the concept of guilty and not guilty while in the aboriginal cultures, these words are not to be found in their language. The North American aboriginal societies stress on the role of the elders in the formation of the standards of justice. With this, the basis of their cultural norms is the holistic perspective. Being holistic is true not only on the individual context but as well as in the world in general. The assessment of the physical and mental state of an individual takes into consideration the body, mind and spirit. Moreover, the aboriginal cultures stress on the near-equality of humans and animals (Hamilton and Sinclair, 1991).
Overall, the culture of the aboriginal people in North America is developed in such a way that it can adapt constantly to meet the changing circumstances. For instance, this adaptability on the case of aboriginal culture is evident on the commitment of murder. In the culture of Europe, it is not a question that murder is a crime. But in the culture of the Aboriginal societies, it is not always the case. In their culture, the nature of crime is measured based on the severity of the living conditions of the people. This means sanctions may vary depending on the situation. For example, the living conditions which can be considered as unsurviveable, infanticide or abandonment of the sick or elderly is not considered a crime in times of food shortage. In this context, the most valuable member of the group or even in the family would be the hunters wherein they are the last to starve (Hamilton and Sinclair, 1991).
Countries’ Crime Rates
To further consolidate the perspective of crime as a social construct, there is a need to look into empirical data such as the condition of living among various countries and the rate of their crimes. Through the living condition of the people and the society, one can point into the necessary elements of the social environment that help shape the development of crime and criminality.
Based on the findings of the net industries (2008), the pattern on crime rates among various regions differs. Specifically, it is in Africa and Latin America where there is a high rate of crimes. On the other hands, the Western Europe and the New World are considered to have a relatively low crime rates. In the aspect of victimization, it is found put that the areas in Asia have the lowest and Latin America and Africa incurred the highest. Meanwhile, the New World and the Western Europe are considered to be close to the mean.
With this finding, it is asserted that there is a decline on the victimization rates in the most industrialized countries. On the other hand, this decline is not evident on the other parts of the world. What has been observed is the simple division of the world into developed and developing countries (Net Industries, 2008). The developed countries tend to have a lower rate of crimes while the developing ones are higher.
Crimes as an Individual Criminality
In general, human individuals as considered as the basis of explaining crime as an individual criminality. As compared to the theory of crime as a social construct, the focus of the concept of crime as an individual criminality is already on the individual. Rooting from the person, it looks into the innate or inherent factors that can significantly influence the making of a criminal.
In the perspective of individual criminality, it can be asserted that a criminal is born or can be made. In the claim that a criminal is born, it can be traced on the studies regarding the importance of heredity. On the other hand, the claim that a criminal is made, it is traced on an individual’s environment- one’s diet and even the environment. While, the aspect of environment is still included in the theory of individual criminality, it is still geared towards the study of the individual.
On one hand, the concept of a ‘born criminal’ can be traced with the studies that show the importance and power of oneself in the development of one’s criminality. Being a born criminal is also equated to being hereditary. A person is more likely to become criminal is it is already in their blood to become one. In heredity, it includes the elements like physical appearance, modern genetics theory as well as learning theory.
Researchers argue that criminality is a genetic trait. Or at some point, criminality is also deemed that it is a result of the individual innate psychological make-up (Savage and Brearly, 2007, p. 77). On being a born criminal, it was Cesare Lambroso who emphasized on this concept. It was said that the born criminal is the one who was pre-destined for criminal behavior due to his physical configuration. People were categorised on the basis of five dimensions: skull shape; jaw and nose shape; head size; and the degree of sensitivity to pain. The category to which a person was assigned depended on the ‘goodness’ of a match to predetermined characteristics of those dimensions (Crime Library, 2007).
One the other hand, a criminal is made through his/her environment. In this case, the claim suggests that a criminal is made instead of being born. It is a consequence of the environmental factors which have negative effect on the people. According to Rutter and Giller (1993), the family is an important environmental which shapes the criminality of an individuality. Various scientists like Bowlby and Fry (1953) and Rutter and Giller (1993) have elucidated on the significant role of the family.
There is a place in the Philippines where it has a minimal or even zero crime rate yet the living conditions are not that high or good (Malej, 2004). The people practice honesty, non-violence and other form of positive attitudes at all times. This is in spite of their very poor living conditions. As a matter of fact, their society is very ‘backward’. Almost no modern technologies are present in the said province yet they are able to live a life with dignity and harmony.
The situation described above is a reflection of the theory that individual criminality is not at question. The government may not provide even the basic needs of the people yet they are able to avoid criminality. Indeed, the commitment of crime is largely dependent on the part of the individual. Ultimately, he/she is the one who makes decisions. In other words, he is the one in control of his/her life.
Crime as a Social Construct and Individual Criminality
While the two perspectives are considered to be at both ends, it can also be reconciled in order to come up with a better explanation on the concept and nature of criminality. In other words, it the two perspectives will be integrated so as to provide a holistic explanation about crime. It is perceived that when one utilizes only a single perspective, it can never suffice to explain the nature of crime. Hence with the combination of the two, crime can be said to be rooting on the individual make-up as well as the social construct.
Undoubtedly, there is a wide array of factors that can explain criminality and thus predict crime. Jones and Connelly (2002) categorized the different factors that influence criminality based on the different spectrums. On one end of the spectrum, criminality is explained through the biological and psychological point of view. The biological theorists claim that due to the genetic composition or even heredity, some people are more predisposed to engage in criminal activity as compared to others. On the perspective of the psychological theorists, criminality can be attributed to the personality characteristics of a person. It is believed that criminality can be traced on the personalities of the offenders rather than on biology.
Meanwhile, on the middle of the spectrum, the criminal behavior is explained through the point of view of theorists who are developmental, age-graded, engaged in the concept of social control and even social disorganizations. Toward the end of the spectrum, crime is explained by radical, structural and conflict criminologists. These scholars assert that crime is a result of the inequalities among class and race. In addition, the conflicting values as well as interests significantly affect the engagement into criminal activities (Jones and Connelly, 2002).
On the table below, it presents the different risk factors on the commitment or involvement on crime. It asserts here that the factors affecting as well as shaping an individual transcends the personal level. It even goes further to the community or its external environment.
Table 1: Risk Factors
(Jones and Connelly, 2002)
Parental supervision/Management practices
Early involvement in problem behavior
Peer involvement in problem behavior
High proportion of unsupervised time with peers
Lack of skills
Unemployment or low income
Opportunity for crime
High percentage of children and/or single-parent families
Indeed, the causes of crime cannot be attributed to one factor alone. The different factors play a significant part in the development of the individual of a person, especially his/her tendency to commit crime. The idea that a criminal is born into crime can also be linked to the sociological causes of crime. In short, while it is possible the certain persons a born to become criminal, the realization of this fate can also be dependent on the role of its society. For instance, a ‘born criminal’ can be suppressed of his/her nature as a criminal is he/she has been raised in the right environment.
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Hence, “it is possible to say that explanations which emphasize environmental factors, in other words that crime is linked to things that happened after birth, have become more prevalent. However, such approaches can still be based on emphasis on the human individual” (Savage and Brearly, 2007, p. 63). Indeed, it is evident here that there is a link between the two perspectives. To say, these two theories are interdependent with each other.
The development of the two perspectives in explaining can be traced in the history of crime and the formation of criminal laws and punishment. The development of the concept of crime throughout time is largely shaped by different factors. More importantly the disparities on the perception of crime on different societies are a reflection of the relativity of the criminality.
When one talks about modern concept of crime, it is usually associated with the western ideas and notion of criminal justice. Indeed, majority of the criminal justice system today is shaped towards the western ideas of criminality. As a result, majority of the societies are western-oriented. With this increasing trend is an implication of the need to examine the nature of criminality as a social construct.
On the other hand, the theory that individual criminality is not a question can be considered as a traditional form of looking into the nature and meaning of crime. Since the individual is the focus of this criminological endeavor, one can say that the influence of the society in this perspective is not as pervasive as the scholars perceive to be. Indeed, in the traditional sense, the society would not be of highly influence to individual criminality. But today, there are so many intricacies in social interactions such that the individuality of a person is highly shaped by its society or the environment.
Overall, the bottom line of determining the nature of crime is to attempt in reducing or eliminating its occurrence. One can only stop the prevalence of crimes by looking into the deeper context of the concept of crime. Through the opposing perspective that crime is a social construct and that individual criminality is not at question, this paper was able to examine crime on a greater vista.
On the social construction of crime perspective, it suggests that the easiest as well as the simplest manner of lessening the rate of crime is eliminate or reduce the criminalization of victimless crimes. The crime rate is considered to be a choice made by the society except in case of an anarchic situation. More importantly, the people in the prisons tell a lot about what kind of society one has (Welsh, 2005). In other words, there is a need to redefine the word and crime thus to give a new meaning or image to it. The society and the government need to explore the deeper context of crime and see where criminality can be situated.
The commitment of crime is almost an inevitable activity nowadays. Only few places are now considered to have a zero crime rate. In almost any place, the existence of crime can be observed. Its prevalence can be attributed to the kind of judicial system or the kind of government laws and policies that the place has. It can also be that the society per se is the main culprit on the existence of crime. Lastly, the role of individuals in the making of crime is inevitable. Being the main instrument in the realization of any crime, one’s individuality cannot be set aside in the examination of criminality.
Overall, the concern of this paper has been addressed through the critical reflection of the concept of criminology. Particularly, it emphasized on the idea that crime is a social construct as well as the individual criminality being not in question. The scope of this reflection includes the examination of the state practices, the society and the individuals. By looking into the different perspectives based on this scope of reflection, one is able to conclude that all perspectives tend to seek the liberation of those people whose lives have been affected by injustice.
In the personal perspective or point of view of the author of this paper, it is believed that the nature of crime can be highly considered as a social construct. Indeed, the contemporary society has presented the people with the phenomenon of interconnectedness. Human beings are now closely connected with each other in one way or another. As such, they can be highly influenced by his/her fellow human beings as well as its surroundings.
It is believed that there is a complex web of connections or interactions between men and its surroundings. Especially in the modern days, the study of one’s individuality or personality cannot be complete without looking into the external factors or the society. The same is true with the case of criminality. It is not enough to study the meaning and concept of crime if it is on the context of the individual only. Especially in the modern world, the role of the environment is highly critical in the conduct of lives of every individual.
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