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

In Sum

We have suggested that the results of tests of microlevel explanations of crime tend to produce weak/moderate results. We posit that this interpretation of the state of microlevel explanations is fair given that no single individual-level explanation of crime works well enough to have become “the explanation” for the causes of crime. No specific individual-level explanation of crime is preferred based on its empirical strength alone. The result is that criminologists rarely reject individual-level explanations. For example, between 1997 and 2010, we were unable to locate any single article that “rejected” a theory of crime in the journal Criminology. Thus individual theories of crime appear to simply “pile up.” There are dozens of individual- level explanations of crime. More than a century of testing explanations of crime should have clarified which of these theories work well, which do not, and which should be rejected. While criminologists continue to look for “the right theory” of crime, we are “stuck” with the explanations that exist—none of which are dominant enough to supplant the rest.

We have suggested that it is possible that the weak to moderate results from microlevel explanations have more to do with the definition of crime than the assumptions the explanations make about the causes of crime. Maybe these explanations fail because the concept of crime that microlevel explanations focus on is not captured well by the legal definition of crime. Perhaps microlevel theories and the legal definition of crime are inconsistent with one another— that is, microlevel theories and the criminal-law definition do not fit well together. In short, our hypothesis is that the legal definition of crime is insufficient for the purpose to which it has been put within criminology—testing individual-level explanations of crime. Or, stated as a question, why should the political/legal definition of crime, which after all is a structural concept, be employed to test explanations and hypotheses about those individual-level factors that cause people to commit crime? In order to address these questions, we must turn our attention to the definition of crime. What exactly is crime? What are its weaknesses? And how might those weaknesses affect efforts to test explanations of crime?

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