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

Let’s Think about Crime

We begin our discussion of crime by examining the measurement and definition of crime within the field of criminology and the widely accepted, traditional assumptions criminologists make about crime and its definition. Criminology can be traced to different origins (Becker and Wetzell 2006; Beirne 1993, 1991, 1987; Lynch 2000; Rock 1994). Some connect the development of criminology to Cesare Beccaria’s (1764) well-known work Of Crimes and Punishment, and this is a common theme found in the majority of criminological textbooks. In that work, Beccaria’s main concern was that crime was arbitrarily defined by ruling authorities and that punishment has certain purposes or goals when it came to responding to criminal offenders. In the context of the current work, we interpret Beccaria’s concern about the arbitrary nature of crime within the context of the development of a criminological concept called crime. If, as Beccaria suggested, there was (and perhaps still is) something arbitrary about the legal construction of the concept “crime,” can this be a good place to ground a “scientific” criminology? We will get to that issue in due time.

Beccaria’s interest in the arbitrary nature of crime involves some moral conceptions and philosophical position about justice. Other early researchers, however, began to study crime in a new context using statistical analysis and overlooked issues related to the definition of crime. Nearly 75 years after Beccaria, two researchers independently published the first empirical studies of crime: Adolphe Quetelet (1831) and Andre-Michel Guerry (1833). Both researchers employed the first crime statistics published by the French government to examine the distribution of crime and its relationship to the distribution of other social measures. These works, one could argue, established a basis for accepting the legal definition of crime as the most appropriate way to define crime for the emergent discipline of criminology.

The works of Beccaria, Quetelet, and Guerry, though of historical significance, were not defining moments in the history of criminology to the extent that they did not, at that point in history, produce the discipline called criminology (Lynch 2000). That distinction is often given to Cesare Lombroso (1876), whose biological and medical approach to the study of crime stimulated interest in the scientific study of crime and criminals and established the basis for an emerging discipline. His work gave rise to the Italian school of criminology and, in the years that followed, to competing explanations such as the sociological approach to the study of deviance and crime that would emerge at the University of Chicago (Rafter 2011).

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw significant interest in crime and criminals (Rock 1994). As a result, the discipline of criminology began to develop as “the scientific study of crime and criminals.” At that point in history, the boundaries of criminology as a discipline were poorly defined and were not marked by any detailed analysis of criminology as a discipline.

Criminology was still an immature discipline in the early twentieth century and had no academic identity. The discipline also suffered from a lack of shared concepts and ideas. In large part, much of the early work on crime and criminals took an approach that suggested that criminals were biologically different than noncriminals. Criminologists often describe this infancy period as the era of “biological positivism” (Akers and Sellers 2004). Biological positivism began to generate critical commentary that eventually led to the development of psychological and sociological examinations of crime and criminals and to psychological and sociological explanations of the causes of crime as alternatives to biological explanations of crime (Rock 1994). Throughout these early years, there was debate about the causes of crime, but no one seemed too concerned with the concept of crime itself. The answer to the question “What is crime?” seemed self-evident—it was a violation of the criminal law. And no one in the “discipline” really debated that point extensively until Edward A. Ross (1907) published his book Sin and Society. In that work, Ross suggested that there were behaviors beyond the criminal law that had the same attributes as crime but were not defined as crime in the criminal law. As examples, he drew attention to a specific kind of offender: the criminaloid or the businessperson who was engaged in behaviors that looked much like the crimes to which the criminal law objected.

Over the next hundred years, the discipline of criminology grew, its methods were defined and enhanced, and a plethora of empirical studies of crime and criminals were produced. Though new explanations of crime were introduced throughout this time period, the various explanations of crime can typically be divided into two parts: microlevel studies that examined how the characteristics of individuals influenced their participation in crime and macrolevel studies that suggested that the causes of crime were found within society and social relationships that might be localized in the community or of larger origins such as in the economic structure of society. These two approaches for explaining crime—the micro and the macro—formed the two opposite ends of the spectrum of explanations for crime (Bernard and Snipes 1996).

In both the micro and macro approaches to crime, there was a tendency to define crime as a violation of the criminal law. Both approaches helped cement the idea that the appropriate way to define crime was as a violation of the criminal law. This definition of crime has an important implication, especially for microlevel explanations that attempt to explain the causes of crime.

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