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

In Sum

We conclude this work in Chapter 9 by pointing out that the traditional, legal definition of crime has no scientific qualities. The criminal law simply tells us which behaviors lawmakers identify as illegal. Because the criminal-law definition of crime has no rules about the operationalization of crime beyond political life, it cannot be considered a scientific concept but rather a reflection of lawmakers’ choices about behaviors they call crime. Scientifically speaking, we conclude that there is no reason to accept the choices that lawmakers make as the basis for directing the discipline of criminology. In short, a scientific field of study needs scientific concepts, and as it currently stands, the traditional definition of crime does not meet that standard. As a result, we are struck by the fact that behaviors can be defined as unacceptable by several types of law and yet still not be identified as crimes within criminology. It is well known, for instance, that there are numerous kinds of laws in society, and that these laws exist to define a range of unacceptable behaviors in different social and historical contexts (Nader 1997; Vago 1997)—that is to say, the criminal law is not the only mechanism for identifying harms, and historically, crime emerges as the political construction of the behaviors lawmakers decided to call crimes. Whether criminologists ought to adopt this definition is the primary theme developed throughout this book.

Our general argument suggests that criminologists have allowed the primary dependent variable of interest—crime—to be defined externally and, as we conclude, unscientifically. Prior to our investigation, we return to Robertson’s (1847) observations about crime. We, like Robertson, believe that if crime is a political product that measures behaviors that the criminal law disallows, the definition must be too limiting for the discipline (see also, Quinney, 1970). Under such restrictive conditions, criminology can only search for explanations of crime in the conscious choices that people make to violate the structure of law. Thus the only explanation of crime that is compatible with that legal definition of crime is one that is focused on individual-level decisions. This is the criminology that Robertson feared because it focuses almost completely on detection, capture, processing, and punishment. At issue here as well is a question about the individual-level decisions people make about engaging in crime. Should we, given the limitations of the legal definition of crime, assert that individuals decide to commit crime? Or, given the nature of the definition of crime in the law and its political construction, should we frame this question differently and ask whether people consciously choose to violate the law? These, we suggest, are two very different questions.

 
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