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


Crime and the Individual

Within criminology, there is a long history of the search for the causes of criminal behavior being dominated by microlevel explanations focused on the individual—that is, criminology is strongly associated with and influenced by microlevel studies of crime that direct attention to locating the causes of crime within an individual’s psychology or biology or their individual relationships to others and to social institutions. The assumption that the causes of crime are found in the individual may seem to make logical sense. After all, people and their offending patterns are different and crime varies across individuals. Thus it would appear that variability in crime across individuals must have something to do with individuals themselves. The focus on the individual, especially in a historical era dominated by the economic, social, and political relations of capitalism as a world economic system and its emphasis on individual-level achievement and success, appeals to the basic socialization experiences of people who live in most economically advanced nations (Turner 1988). From an early age, mechanisms of socialization and social institutions label and divide individuals into categories of achievement tied to them as individuals. The idea that those who fail to achieve and possibly become criminals also reinforces common beliefs that criminals and noncriminals are different kinds of people and that individual efforts and choices have something to do with their criminal behavior and status.

However, criminologists seem to forget that the study of crime did not begin with a focus on the individual. Early explanations of crime focused, instead, on society and social relationships. Andre Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet performed some of the earliest statistical studies of crime (see Beirne 1987). As Quetelet noted in 1835, “society contains the germs of all crime.” Early crime statistics focused attention on the geographic regularity and distribution of crime, the differential distribution of crime, and social factors correlated with crime. Those studies drew attention to a pattern that remains evident in official crime statistics today—the cooccurrence, for example, between measures of poverty or economic disadvantage and officially defined crime. And while modern criminologists continue to focus on the geography of crime, and important schools of thought have emerged around that theme (e.g., the Chicago School and the social disorganization approach), most modern studies of criminal behavior focus on individual or microlevel causes of crime and analysis.

This chapter begins by examining the notion that there are major differences between criminals and noncriminals. We turn our attention to the problems associated with microlevel approaches that try to explain the difference between criminals and noncriminals. We argue that because we rely on the state to define crime—as opposed to developing a scientific definition of crime—statistical and methodological problems may be the result. We end with a discussion suggesting that when criminologists explain crime, they are not explaining crime in the limited sense of behavior that violates the law but focus instead on behavior. It is this notion of studying behavior that we believe holds back the discipline of criminology.

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