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Home arrow Law arrow Defining Crime: A Critique of the Concept and Its Implication


Organization of the Book

What is crime? Our argument is that as a discipline we (criminologists) do not really know the answer to this question because criminologists have not sufficiently studied this question. To be sure, tradition states that crime is a violation of the criminal law. But independently from law, does criminology have a concept called “crime”? It is this issue—the definition of crime and its impact— that makes up the pages that follow.

Our point in this work is to set out to critique the legal definition of crime. More specifically, our goal is to expose the objective and scientific inadequacies of the legal definition of crime and to endeavor to sidestep issues related to the moral context of crime and to avoid relying on a constantly changing concept of crime tied to the political construction of crime in the criminal law. We begin this examination in Chapter 2 where we examine crime as a historical concept and look at the way in which it has been traditionally measured and then statistically analyzed by criminologists—an issue that reemerges in Chapter 8. As part of our analysis of the concept of crime, we suggest that microlevel theories are inconsistent with the legal definition of crime and that there is, therefore, particular reason to be concerned with using the legal definition of crime to test individual-level theories of crime. This investigation sets the stage for the discussion in Chapter 3 that focuses on the objectivity of the definition. Specifically, we question the role criminology plays in defining crime and the implications that accepting an external definition of crime created by the criminal law has for testing major explanations of crime. We assert that it is rather unscientific to base empirical tests of explanations of crime on a definition of crime that lacks scientific rigor or purpose—that is, upon the legal definition of crime. In Chapter 3, we emphasize one of our major points—that because they rely on the legal definition of crime, criminologists cannot estimate the extent to which their empirical results reveal something about the causes of crime because the construct “crime,” as defined by the criminal law, is constantly changing. We believe that this is a serious problem, one that criminologists have not yet addressed.

Chapter 4 explores the role of science in the practice of criminological research and specifically with respect to defining crime. In that chapter, we discuss the basic idea of scientific methods by examining core principles, practices, and assumptions. We argue that all scientific studies should begin with a clear and precise definition of the object of study, which in this case is the concept crime—that is, observations about crime should be directed, focused, and defined by criteria that are prespecified and unchanging. We argue that there is a problem with the validity, objectivity, and scientific nature of the legal definition of crime in this regard.

Chapter 5 examines the criminological search for the causes of crime. We point out that those studies have largely been dominated by microlevel explanations of criminal behavior that locate the cause of crime within individuals or their relationships to others and to social institutions. We note that while these individual explanations may, at first glance, appear to make logical sense, they are inadequate when considered in relation to the definition of crime because of the multitude of variations that influence the definition of crime and cause it to change constantly—that is, we demonstrate that the criminal-law definition of crime is not compatible with microlevel assumptions of “criminal” behavior and that there is a need to account for variables that influence the changing nature of crime over time and place when attempting to explain the causes of crime. In that view, factors that influence the construction of crime need to be addressed so that tests of the causes of crime isolate how the causes affect crime independently from changes in the law.

In the chapters that follow, we explore the creation of an objective definition of crime that can be used by criminologists. We build up to that discussion beginning in Chapter 6, where we examine the rift between the concept and the operationalization of crime. In that chapter, we demonstrate why a definition of crime must narrow that gap between the concept and operationalization of crime if criminological explanations are to be scientifically tested. As a result, we assert that crime can be redefined to be more consistent across time and place. Doing so, we argue, requires identifying the characteristics or nature of crime.

To do this, the concept of crime must be able to identify the “nature of crime” independently from the criminal law. Chapter 7 lays out our search for the nature of crime. The nature of crime suggests that there are specific characteristics of acts that bind those acts together and demonstrate that they are similar. In short, we search for the inherent characteristics that define acts as crime as opposed to those political forces that define acts as crime. We specifically take up the issue of reframing crime according to its natural characteristics and search for a definition of crime suitable for criminological purposes. As a result, we develop a definition of crime that has three dimensions in Chapter 7. Specifically, we assert that the first dimension of crime is composed of behaviors that disadvantage others by preventing them from maintaining their health and livelihood. A second dimension of crime that has been employed in that chapter suggests that behaviors committed through the use of trickery, deception, expropriation and/or force that allow the offenders to take possession of the property, monetary or financial holdings and/or property rights of others ought to be defined as crime. We explore those issues in depth to point out their weaknesses and strengths, and whether those characteristics are suitable for an objective definition of crime. The final dimension of crime that we propose suggests that crimes are behaviors committed by and against states and their organizational entities that harm states or their entities and/or impact the rights of citizens of states as recognized by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We explore the adequacy of this approach.

In the final two chapters of this work, we return to the problem of “What is crime?” by taking a strict scientific approach to the study of crime. In Chapter 8, we focus on the assessment of explanations of crime. We conclude by demonstrating that theory is not simply a set of propositions or hypotheses that explain an outcome. In the sciences, a theory is a substantive explanation that must be created after hypotheses about some relationship have been rigorously tested. We assert that criminology has not generally taken on this scientific role. While we recognize that we draw upon a very strict definition of scientific theory, we also argue that criminology should aspire to a more rigorous theory if it is going to claim scientific status. It is to this end that our definition of crime should be adopted.

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