Reporting: Synthesis

Exercise 34

Read the articles below and, in a paragraph of not more than 250 words, discuss why is it difficult to define crime?

Text 1


In our first chapter we pointed to a popular view which denies validity to sociological explanation by asserting the uniqueness and individuality of human beings - in simple terms ‘we’re all different’ - so that generalisations about behaviour cannot be made. Furthermore, this recognition of individual differences is also reinforced by an approval of the fact: again, the casual observer often maintains that ‘it would be boring if we were all the same’, and generations of men and women have supported the principle of ‘vive la difference!’

But by no means all the people we encounter who are ‘different’ from us are as easily accepted; foreigners, for instance, may cause us embarrassment and irritation by their peculiar inability to speak our native language or to abide by our ‘sensible’ practices like queuing, and some categories of people who are physically different through no fault of their own - whether by infirmity or deformity - can cause us to feel uncomfortable.

So, the toleration of differences between human beings is highly provisional, and this is equally so in the case of individuals and groups whose behaviour patterns generally - or particular aspects of them - differ from what is considered ‘normal’. Such individuals or groups are engaging in ‘deviant behaviour’: that is, behaviour which somehow departs from what a group expects to be done or what it considers the desirable way of doing things.

Assuming for the moment that there exists in a social group some set of shared expectations about what is ‘normal’ behaviour, we have here a conception of deviance as the violation of the accepted norms or social rules of a group or society, and of a deviant as someone who transgresses these (apparently) taken-for-granted standards. Thus nude-bathers, bank-robbers, alcoholics, suicides, shoplifters, adulterers, Marxists, tramps, rapists, ‘tomboys’, skinheads, feminists, murderers and female wrestlers are deviants because they indulge in behaviour which the rest of the society or group regards as socially different, odd, or undesirable.

Most people’s direct experience of or contact with such individuals is often highly limited, yet despite this the reaction to them is invariably one of disapproval, fear, suspicion, hostility or outrage. Why is this? Essentially, deviants are disturbing because they disrupt our picture of reality by behaving in a way which questions our expectations of what ‘normal people’ do - ‘normal people’ only drink in moderation, ‘normal’ women do not indulge in anything so unfeminine as wrestling, ‘normal people’ pay for goods in supermarkets, and so on. Thus our social expectations about behaviour structure for us a conception of stable, orderly, understandable social life. Deviants are awkward people who disturb this, but by identifying them as ‘deviant’ we can place their behaviour in a category outside normality which makes it comprehensible to us and stabilises our perception of social reality.

Our observations so far on deviance have emphasised the reaction of others, and this in itself indicates one very important feature of deviance: what is regarded as deviance is very much a matter of social definition imposed by a community or by groups within that community. Thus a particular pattern of behaviour is not deviant per se, whether it be murder, lesbianism, belching, or whatever, but is defined as such by a social group. In the sociological sense, then, deviance is indeed social behaviour (despite being frequently described in everyday terminology as ‘anti-social behaviour’), since it involves reaction by some actors to the behaviour of others with some kind of sanction such as social disapproval, ostracism, imprisonment or execution.

The socially defined nature of deviance is highlighted even further when we recognise that what is regarded as deviance in one society may not be so (or not so seriously regarded) in another: that is, deviant behaviour is often culturally relative. While sexual intercourse between black and white individuals is, in certain circles in Britain, merely frowned upon, in South Africa it is a criminal activity. Similarly, incest among those of high birth in Ancient Egypt was considered vital for the preservation of the lineage stock, while in modern societies such behaviour is both illegal and a matter of almost universal public revulsion.

Furthermore, within a particular society variations occur over time in what is held to be deviant or criminal: many activities regarded with disapproval in Victorian times (particularly for women) are now commonly accepted with little or no controversy - mixed bathing on beaches is a matter of comparative indifference to even the most ardent moralist in the 1980s. Similarly, professional boxing attracts considerable public interest, yet it was illegal in New York State as late as 1920.

Most societies, too, suspend or modify temporarily their definitions of deviance in particular contexts and circumstances. In Western societies killing is ordinarily regarded as the most serious of offences, but in the defence of the nation it may become an act of heroism and deserving of honour or reward, and even peacetime killing is hedged about with qualifications like ‘self-defence’, ‘manslaughter’, ‘justifiable homicide’, and so on. Similarly, in many pre-industrial societies and traditional rural areas in industrial societies, killing to avenge family honour may be a duty which members are expected to fulfil. Thus deviant behaviour cannot be conceived as something which is absolute or universal but must be seen as socially variable and dependent on what a particular society or social group at a particular time defines as deviant.

Reference to the definitions and reactions of ‘society’ in the application of the label of ‘deviance’ to behaviour must not lead us into the trap of simplistically positing an unambiguous or voluntaristic consensus on what is considered normal or deviant in any society. There may exist a widespread consensus on what is deviant in certain spheres of behaviour, but no such straightforward agreement prevails in all other areas. While child-battering or bigamy would be unequivocally viewed as deviant by the vast majority of people in Western societies, other activities such as the consumption of soft drugs or the use of contraceptives before marriage evoke no clear-cut consensus as to the extent of their ‘deviant’ nature. Such examples as these may sensitise us, therefore, to the fact that the characterisation of some patterns of behaviour as deviant may ultimately depend on the ability of certain groups to impose their definitions of ‘normality’ and ‘deviance’ on the rest of society and hence to manufacture an apparent consensus about what is proper and improper behaviour.


If one accepts a conception of crime or deviance as being the behaviour of individuals who are not like normal or law-abiding citizens, then it follows that there must be some characteristics or propensities which mark off criminals or deviants from non-criminal or normal actors. Thus their behaviour can be seen as a sign or product of some personal or social trait(s) which make them different from the rest of society. Such a conception is certainly sustained in the mass media, where football hooligans, muggers, drug-takers and others are often portrayed as different to the point of being demoniacal. At best, many areas of deviant behaviour, and especially crime, are seen as social problems, about which something should be done, and a basically similar view has traditionally prevailed within the academic study of crime.

Positivist criminology

The study of crime has been a major meeting-point for several academic disciplines, all of which have taken the idea of crime as a ‘social problem’ as given: they have accepted that it is something which has to be eradicated or brought under control, and that any attempt to explain the phenomenon necessarily involves a commitment to a belief in the application of knowledge to practical ends. Thus criminology, according to this view, cannot be simply a matter of ‘armchair theorising’ but must involve putting analysis and explanation to use in developing policies and programmes to combat crime and to ‘reform’, ‘resocialise’ or ‘treat’ the criminal.

This correctionalist stance, with its prevalent emphasis on order and control, is a product of the fundamental assumptions underpinning much of the study of crime. The bulk of this study has been preoccupied with what Matza (1964) has called ‘the search for differentiation’, based on the premise that there is something ‘wrong’ with the criminal, or at least something very different about him as compared with law-abiding citizens, generating his criminal behaviour and inhibiting conformity to conventional norms and legal rules. Thus ‘criminality’ resides in individuals or social groups and can be identified and explained by examining personal biography, background events or circumstances of criminals.

The criminal, then, is someone whose behaviour is determined, the product of some constitutional defect, of some physical or psychological condition or abnormality, or of some social circumstances or subculturally specific experiences. Such explanations of criminality have traditionally centred on the common principle that it is possible to identify causal forces or factors fundamentally distinguishing criminals from the rest of society: that is, that an explanation of criminal behaviour within a positivist scientific tradition is an attainable goal.

We can broadly differentiate explanations into three types:

(1) Biogenic explanations of crime identify motivations to criminal behaviour in the physical or constitutional makeup of individuals. Thus early explanations which posited a link between criminality and physical degeneracy, or which ascribed criminal propensities to personalities or temperaments associated with particular body types or shapes, served as precursors to apparently more sophisticated explanations such as chromosome theories, in which criminality has been linked to the existence of an extra chromosome in the genetic constitution of some males.

(2) Psychogenic approaches identify a causal link between criminal tendencies and psychological characteristics and processes. Freudians argue that very early childhood experiences which disturb or distort the development of a stable personality may result in later childhood and adulthood in anti-social tendencies in behaviour manifesting themselves specifically in criminal activity. Thus the causes of criminal behaviour lie in defective primary socialisation of the child, so that his or her innate anti-social motivations are not brought under control. Notably the failure to develop a warm, loving relationship with one or both parents - as the result of physical separation, deprivation, or harsh or inconsistent treatment - is seen as distinctly criminogenic, and subsequent criminal behaviour constitutes the ‘acting out’ of the feelings of guilt and frustration engendered by these early experiences.

Behavioural psychologists such as Eysenck (1970) suggest that criminal behaviour, like other patterns of behaviour, is the product of an individual’s receptiveness to a process of psychological conditioning, and that a specific genetically determined personality type, the neurotic extrovert, is less conditionable and hence more prone to criminality than others. Deviant behaviour, then, is a product of the individual’s psychological incapacity to respond to the social training experienced in childhood and adolescence which conditions ‘normal’ individuals away from anti-social conduct.

Both biogenic and psychogenic explanations attempt to answer the questions ‘What kinds of people commit crime?’ and ‘How do they get like this?’ They attempt to identify types of ‘maladjusted’ individuals with some defects or pathological characteristics which predispose or impel them towards involvement in criminal activity.

(3) Sociogenic theories, on the other hand, see criminal behaviour as socially acquired and hence focus on the ways in which cultural and/or social structural factors are crime-producing. Thus social environmental influences or subcultural socialisation experiences in family, class and peer group make it likely that some social groups will be involved in criminal activity.

Now, while we can identify fairly easily, even from such a brief résumé as this, major points of divergence between these differing types of explanation, they share a fundamental similarity which we need to reiterate and bear in mind: that is, the belief that a meaningful distinction can be drawn between ‘criminals’ and ‘non-criminals’, and a commitment to the utility of formulating a theory to account for this distinction. This implies, then, that these types of explanation make certain assumptions about the phenomena under investigation - not only about the actors involved but also about the behaviour in which these actors engage.

They assume particularly that their criminal behaviour can be meaningfully viewed as homogeneous and therefore subsumed under some single explanatory umbrella, and that the causes of this behaviour lie outside the actors’ control in peculiar genes, defective personality, distinctive subcultural norms, or whatever. Individuals or groups commit offences because of the peculiar forces acting upon them.

In popular belief and in the eyes of the media, politicians, moralists, and indeed of many of those involved in what we may broadly call ‘social work’ with criminals, non-sociological explanations of criminal behaviour have held sway and continue to do so. While it is our task here neither to examine in detail such explanations nor to account for their relative popularity, we must briefly consider how and why sociologists have found them unsatisfactory and have felt the need for a sociological explanation of crime.

Most sociologists would reject non-sociological explanations of criminal behaviour as being inadequate and incomplete rather than for being necessarily ‘wrong’. Fundamentally, the phenomenon under investigation - crimes - are unavoidably violations of legal statutes, which are not ethereal and absolute but are socially defined rules and hence part of social structural arrangements. Furthermore, even though crime may be individually enacted (which is not always the case anyway), we cannot assume that it is merely individually motivated. We must see criminals as located in a social structure and subject to specific conditions, opportunities and experiences, so that we must ask what it is about social structures which generate criminality and its preponderant incidence within certain groups in society. That is, criminal behaviour is not randomly distributed by genes or personality but follows a consistent social pattern, which must be explained by examining the different structural positions of criminals and non-criminals.


Eysenck, H. (1970). Crime and personality. London: Paladin

Matza, D. (1964). Deviance and drift. New York: Wiley.

(From a textbook called Introductory Sociology. It was written by Tony Bilton, Kevin Bonnett, Philip Jones, Michelle Stanworth, Ken Sheard & Andrew Webster. The book was published in 1981 by Macmillan in London and the extract is from pages 562-569)

Text 2

Crime and civilization

I hesitate to use the word 'crime', because in a way 'crime' does not exist, it is just a social definition of certain unwanted acts. Sometimes there is no official action at all following such acts. Look at family matters – teenagers often act in ways that, if it were outside the family, would be labelled as 'crime', but because it is inside it's just your son, who takes some money from the kitchen table or is hitting his brother. You don't call that 'theft' or 'violence' because you know reasons for his behaviour; but if it were a new neighbour's son you might assume he had a tendency for stealing.

Where people do not know each other they feel a need for having officials fix matters. They don't know a person well enough to say: 'Sometimes he gets drunk, but he is no real danger.' The most obvious case of something becoming a crime is hemp, which was a very useful drug for both Europeans and Americans. The whole drug arena is responsible for the most fantastical growth of prison populations in the US and now in Europe. There is a clear influence from the US which has unhealthy consequences for the rest of the globe. It's not just drugs but a general tendency at work in the industrial world.

We feel it very acutely in the so-called welfare states of Scandinavia. With the economy running free the difference between those with means and those without is constantly growing. A majority of Norwegians is doing better but a substantial minority is doing much worse. So the control of this poor minority is becoming a major preoccupation. In the old days you could see that people who owned something were tied down by their property –they had to live in communities and relate to people who didn't have that much material wealth. It would have been very silly for them not to have shown a minimum of decency. Now people can move their capital and themselves just by pushing buttons. You don't have to be so concerned about your local communities.

(Nils Christie teaches criminology at the University of Oslo. This extract is from his book The Crime Control Industry which was published in New York in 1995 by Routledge. The extract is from page 15.)

 Text 3

Comparisons of the juvenile crime rates in various countries are severely limited by wide variations in national legal systems, categories of criminal behaviour, and methods of reporting crimes; certain similarities are apparent, however. For example, Canadian, Australian, and European victimization studies show the actual number of crimes to be several times those known to the authorities. According to one study in Finland, the larcenies known to the police were only 5 percent of the total that occurred. Also, homicide rates in France, Spain, and Great Britain are far lower than those in such countries as the United States and Mexico.

(From an article in a journal called New Internationalist. The author was S. B. Johns and the title of the article was Juvenile Crime. It was published in August 1996, no 282 on pages 10-12)

Text 4


As Europeans began to make contact with the aboriginal denizens of the American forests and the remote islands of Oceania, much thought was given to what the original "state of nature" must have been like. Two interpretations were offered. There were those who shared the views of Sir Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher, that people lacking a sovereign capable of compelling their obedience would destroy themselves in a "war of all against all." Others, partial to the philosophical speculations of Jean Jacques Rousseau, argued that in "the state of nature" people were peaceful, orderly, honest, and courageous. According to Rousseau, this noble natural endowment was destroyed by the rise of civilization.

Firsthand study of life in small village and band societies has provided little support for Rousseau's idyll. Anthropologists have yet to find a culture that is completely harmonious, peaceful, and happy. Although modern anthropological research has led to the rejection of the myth of the noble savage. it nonetheless has confirmed the existence of a remarkable contrast between the way prestate and state-level societies prevent internal conflicts from threatening the survival of their respective populations. Both Rousseau and Hobbes were wrong, but of the two. Hobbes was further from the truth.

The whole enormous apparatus of "law and order" associated with modern life is absent among village and band-level cultures. Yet there is no "war of all against all." The Eskimo, the Bushmen of the Kalahari. the Australian aborigines, and many other cultures enjoy a high degree of personal security without having any "sovereign" in Hobbes's sense. They have no kings, queens, dictators, presidents, governors, or mayors; police officers, National Guard soldiers, sailors, or marines; CIA, FBI, Treasury agents, or federal marshals. They have no written law codes and no formal law courts; no lawyers, bailiffs, bondsmen, judges, district attorneys, juries, or court clerks; and no patrol cars, paddy wagons, jails, or penitentiaries. People managed to get along without these means of law enforcement for tens of thousands of years. Why are contemporary state-level societies so dependent upon them?

(From: Marvin Harris, Culture, people, nature. New York: Harper and Row, 1975, p. 218.)

Text 5


I want to organize under five simple verbs my own reasons for thinking that the death penalty is a bad thing. If we catch a man who has committed a murder, try him and convict him, we have to do something more with him than punish him, because, although he must be punished, there are several other things that ought to happen to him. I think that the whole theory of what ought to be done to a convicted murderer can be summed up in the five verbs: prevent, reform, research, deter and avenge. Let me take these five things in turn and see how the death penalty now looks as a means of achieving them.

The first is 'prevent'. By this I mean preventing the same man from doing it again, to check him in his career-though, of course, nobody makes a career of being a murderer, except the insane, who are not at issue in the question of the death penalty. I believe that I am right in saying that in the course of a century there is only one doubtful case of a convicted murderer, after his release at the end of a normal life sentence, committing another murder. I think that that means, statistically, that the released murderer is no more likely to murder again than anybody else is. The question of long sentences comes in here. If the sane convicted murderer is not to be hanged, should he be imprisoned, and should the length of his service be determined in a way not the usual one for the actual sentence served? I think this question can be answered only by looking at the statistics of how likely a man is to do it again. In other words, how likely a prison sentence for a given number of years, 15, 20 or 30 years, is to prevent him from doing it again. There is a wealth of statistics available to us on that. I do not think they suggest that the convicted murderer who is not hanged should have his prison sentence dealt with in any way differently from that in which prison sentences are usually dealt with.

To turn to the second verb on my list, 'reform'. That is rather a nineteenth century word, and perhaps we should now say 'rehabilitate', stressing more the helping of a man with his social functions rather than adjusting his internal character; but that is a minor point. It is clear that, whatever we may think about what is able to be achieved in our prison system by treatment in the reformatory and rehabilitatory way - and it is open to criticism for lack of funds and so on-it is obvious that less can be achieved if you hang a man. One man who is utterly unreformable is a corpse; and hanging is out of the question, because you cannot achieve any form of reform or rehabilitation by it.

The next word is 'research'. This is not part of the traditional idea of what to do with a convicted murderer. It is rather a new notion that it may be an appropriate purpose in detaining a criminal and inflicting punishment and other things upon him that research should be conducted into the criminal personality and the causes of crime. At the moment we hang only the sanest criminals. We can get all the research we want into the motives, characters and personality structures of those with diminished responsibility, the insane and those under an age to be hanged. But the one we cannot research into is the man who is sane and who commits capital murder in cold blood on purpose. It might be that if we were to keep this man alive and turn psychiatrists and other qualified persons on to talking to him for twenty years during his prison sentence we should find things that would enable us to take measures which would reduce the murder rate and save the lives of the victims. But in hanging these men we cut ourselves off from this possible source of knowledge of help to the victims of murder.

The fourth word, 'deter', is the crux of the whole thing. Abolitionists, as we all know, have held for many years that evidence from abroad has for long been conclusive that the capital penalty is not a uniquely effective deterrent against murder. Retentionists of the death penalty have been saying for years that we are not like those abroad; we are a different country economically; our national temperament is different; and there is this and that about us which is not so about those in Italy, Norway or certain States of the United States, New Zealand, India, or wherever it may be. Now we have this remarkable pamphlet which in effect closes that gap in the abolitionists' argument. It shows within mortal certitude that we are exactly like those abroad, and that in this country the death penalty is not a uniquely effective deterrent against murder.

The last on the list of my five verbs is 'avenge'. Here the death penalty is uniquely effective. If a man has taken life, the most effective, obvious and satisfying form of vengeance is to take his life. I have no argument against that. I think it is true that if one accepts vengeance as a purpose proper for the State in its handling of convicted criminals, then the death penalty should stay for convicted murderers. For myself - and it is only a personal matter - I utterly reject the idea that vengeance is a proper motive for the State in dealing with convicted criminals; and I hope that, from the date of the publication of this pamphlet onwards, those who wish to retain the death penalty will admit that its only merit is precisely that of vengeance.

(Wayland Young, 1961, The Futures of Europe. Published in London by Longman. The extract is from pages 223-224)

Text 6

Since ancient times enlightened legal systems have distinguished between juvenile delinquents and adult criminals. The immature generally were not considered morally responsible for their behaviour. Under the Code Napoléon in France, for example, limited responsibility was ascribed to children under the age of 16. Despite the apparent humanity of some early statutes, however, the punishment of juvenile offenders until the 19th century was often severe. In the U.S., child criminals were treated as adult criminals. Sentences for all offenders could be harsh and the death penalty was occasionally imposed.

The first institution expressly for juveniles, the House of Refuge, was founded in New York City in 1824 so that institutionalized delinquents could be kept apart from adult criminals. By the mid-19th century other state institutions for juvenile delinquents were established, and their populations soon included not only young criminals but also less serious offenders and dependent children. The movement spread rapidly throughout the U.S. and abroad. These early institutions were often very rigid and punitive.

In the second half of the 19th century increased attention was given to the need for special legal procedures that would protect and guide the juvenile offender rather than subject the child to the full force of criminal law. Massachusetts in 1870 and 1880 and New York in 1892 provided for special hearings for children in the courts. As the U.S. juvenile justice system began to develop, jurisdiction over criminal acts by children was transferred from adult courts to the newly created juvenile courts. The first such court was established in Chicago in 1899. One of the principal reasons for the new system was to avoid the harsh treatment previously imposed on delinquent children. An act of wrongdoing by a minor was seen as an indication of the child's need for care and treatment rather than a justification for punishing that child through criminal penalties. Besides the juvenile court, other innovations in working with juvenile delinquents have appeared in the 20th century, including child-guidance clinics, juvenile-aid bureaus attached to police departments or other official agencies, and special programs in schools.

(From: The Cambridge Encyclopaedia. Published in Cambridge by Cambridge University Press in 1990, p. 334.)

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