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Microlevel Explanations of Crime and the Legal Definition of Crime

Microlevel theories of crime begin with an assumption that the causes of crime can be located by examining the differences between criminal and noncriminal populations. Theoretically, this assumption can, if we follow the rules of scientific research, be examined to determine the utility and adequacy of microlevel explanations of crime. In the criminological literature, there is no shortage of individual-level studies. For example, to date and according to the Web of Science, there are nearly 1,525 studies published in the journal Criminology and nearly 1,000 published in the Journal of Research in

Crime and Delinquency. Most of these studies are focused on the individual as the unit of analysis. While there is nothing inherently objectionable to the hypothesis that the causes of crime vary across individuals and can be discovered by employing scientific methods, the problem is the way that these studies are carried out.

Specifically, there are two central issues that criminologists must address to test hypotheses regarding the individual-level variation in the causes of crime as defined by law. First, we must address how we empirically identify the causes of crime. Second, we must ask if crime should really be defined solely as behavior that violates criminal law. To the best of our knowledge, these issues have not been addressed by criminologists. We argue that it is necessary to attend to these two questions in order to translate the hypotheses about the individual-level causes of crime into sound, scientific form. Both questions refer to the kind and quality of empirical evidence and empirical results that are required before one can definitively state that a test of a microlevel explanation of crime has sufficient empirical support to be accepted as a scientific discovery. In addressing these issues, we also need to consider how the legal definition of crime inserts itself into the question of the necessary empirical standards required from tests of microlevel explanations of crime. Let us begin our discussion with the simpler empirical question and work our way around to the more difficult problem posed by the use of the legal definition of crime in microlevel studies.

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