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

What Is Crime?

Most criminologists would probably argue that the definition of crime is defined by the state and is not something that they can do much, if anything, to change or influence. Crime is, in this view, what the law states. Using this legal definition, criminologists simply study the causes of crime to determine why some individuals violate the law—perhaps suggesting how various state agencies may do a better job reducing crime and apprehending offenders. We assert that this is a rather unscientific position on the study of crime that lacks both scientific rigor and academic purpose. In this chapter, we emphasize the point that criminologists cannot estimate the extent to which their empirical results reveal something about the causes of crime and that this situation has something to do with the definition of crime. Moreover, we suggest that what criminology really studies is mostly reflective of politics.

We begin our discussion with the work of Edward Alsworth Ross (1907) who took up one of the earliest academic discussions of the utility of expanding the definition of crime to cover harmful acts by corporate managers, bankers, officials, and others in positions of power—or what he called the crimes of the criminaloid. As a result, Ross believed that there was not enough attention given to this particular class of criminals. He notes, “[t]he immunity enjoyed by the perpetrator of new sins has brought into being a class for which we may coin the term criminaloid. By this we designate such as prosper by flagitious practices which have not yet come under the effective ban of public opinion." Ross’s work was not interpreted as central to the study of crime and was therefore pushed aside. However, Ross’s cause was to be taken up by Edwin H. Sutherland, who encouraged the discipline to more seriously consider white-collar crime in the 1940s. Sutherland’s calls for changing the focus of criminology did not go unchallenged and prompted a debate over the definition of crime with sociologist and legal scholar Paul Tappan.

Sutherland (1940, 3) began the attack on orthodox criminology, noting that the study of crime should be expanded from a singular focus on underclass crime to harmful acts carried out by white-collar and corporate offenders—those individuals engaged in the “misrepresentation of asset values and duplicity in the manipulation of power.” Sutherland’s proposal was an invitation for criminologists to examine business and white-collar crime that is often allowed to go unpunished or treated as a civil and/or administrative violation rather than as a criminal violation. Tappan (1947) responded that this was too biased an approach to criminology—one that was counterproductive to the emerging discipline because it was unfocused and inherently driven by the values of particular sociologists who took on the role of politicians rather than scientists. Specifically, Tappan (1947, 99) noted that the “[v]ague, omnibus concepts defining crime are a blight upon either a legal system or a system of sociology that strives to be objective. They allow judge, administrator, or conceivably sociologist, in an undirected, freely operating discretion, to attribute the status ‘criminal’ to any individual or class which he conceives nefarious.” Tappan (1947, 100) forcefully argued against Sutherland’s position, suggesting instead that criminologists should only be concerned with “criminals who have been adjudicated as such by the courts.” While Sutherland and Tap- pan framed the debate of the scope of criminology, the outcome of the debate is less tenuous—that is, orthodox criminology still pays little attention to the expansion of the discipline into social harm and therefore produces a one-sided view of crime (see Hillyard and Tombs 2007). By one-sided, we mean that orthodox criminology has not taken the definition of crime seriously and therefore has not defended itself against the suggestion that criminology should expand to study social harms, including state crime, corporate crime, state-corporate crime, and/or green crimes (Clinard and Yeager 2011; Kramer, Michalowski, and Kauzlarich 2002; Lynch and Stretesky 2014; Rothe 2009; Simpson 2002). Instead, most criminologists often operate as if these topics do not really matter to the discipline. For example, the Web of Science suggests that out of the last

1,525 articles published in the American Society of Criminology’s main publication Criminology, only 19 articles focused on corporate crime and less than a dozen focused on state crime, state-corporate crime, or crimes of the environment—that is, about 0.02 percent of research published in Criminology focuses on alternative uses of the definition of crime. The most cited corporate crime article by Simpson and Koper (1992) focused on deterrence and was referenced only 33 times (about 1.43 times per year) by other criminologists. Together, corporate crime, crimes of the environment, and state crime articles were referenced a total of 136 times by other scholars (many are not criminologists), never exceeding a dozen cites per year. This provides some limited evidence that criminologists simply do not respond to efforts to expand the scope of the definition of crime or criminology, and thus no debate over the definition of crime, and no effort to explore the definition of crime have emerged in any serious and protracted way in the literature.

We believe that the reason criminologists have chosen to ignore much of the content of the debate concerning the definition of crime is that it does not readily lend itself to empirical testing. For example, how could researchers empirically test whether the social harm approach to crime is better for criminology than the legal definition of crime? As a result, the orthodox response to the critique of the legal definition of crime is nearly always the same—that alternative approaches to defining crime are political and therefore nonscientific. This criticism overlooks the fact that the legal definition of crime is indeed political and results from a political process. In short, the refusal of orthodox criminologists to engage the question of social harm amounts to an effort to reassert the authority of the criminal-l aw definition without providing any serious defense of the legal definition of crime as a scientific indicator of criminal behavior.

Following the Sutherland-Tappan debate, further attention to the expansion of the definition of crime was taken up in tiny installments throughout the 1950s and 1960s by various radical, white- collar, and corporate crime researchers. Richard Quinney (1970) produced one such critique of criminology in his book The Social Reality of Crime. Quinney argued that the definition of crime is created and applied by those classes with the power to do so to ensure that their class interests are represented in the law. These definitions and enforcement behaviors shape behavior patterns relative to crime and reinforce a current understanding of what crime is.

During the 1970s, other radical criminologists followed Quin- ney’s lead and produced their own critiques of the legal definition of crime (Box 1984; Chambliss 1989; Schwendinger and Schwendinger 1970, 1972, 1977). The criminological response to those critiques was more ideological than scholarly, and the defense of the criminal- law definition was at that time cast more as an attack on radical scholarship and its Marxist orientations than on a sound defense of the criminal-law definition of crime as a concept. While critiques of the legal definition of crime have not disappeared (e.g., Chambliss 1989; Kramer, Michalowski, and Kauzlarich 2002 [in their foundational work on state and state-corporate crime]), there is still a need to address this issue in criminology more generally.

 
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