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The Explanation of Crime When Crime Is Defined as a Violation of the Criminal Law

As noted, there is a significant logical error contained in approaches that test a microlevel, behavioral explanation of crime with a legal definition and measure of crime. That explanation of crime typically is not designed to handle the fact that the criminal law varies. As a result, the explanation of crime is being assessed with a dependent variable containing variation that is potentially unrelated to the causes of crime. That variation in the law needs to be controlled for in order to claim that the test of the microlevel explanation of crime is adequate.

To explain the meaning and consequences of this error in logic more fully, we must envision what is happening when criminologists test behavioral explanations with a criminal-law definition and measure. The variability in the definition of crime makes the boundaries of crime move, changing the measure of crime and its definition across time and place and likely impacting the variation in crime across individuals. Most criminologists do not account for this. The criminologist imagines that the criminal law is an objective, scientific definition and measure of crime. They are also ill- prepared to consider that when they try to explain crime, they are trying to literally explain a moving target that is moving independently from the explanations they are devising.

With few exceptions, criminologists think abstractly about crime—that is, they do not think of crime in place A at time Q and create an explanation that only fits place A at time Q. Rather, they think of a general explanation that applies everywhere, across time, and as an abstraction that is not a true reflection of the world. As an abstraction, this idea about crime has little utility, since the abstraction and reality are far removed from one another. Given that criminologists have not yet raised this issue, and they have not been trained to think of this as a logical problem that needs to be addressed (i.e., align the abstract theory of crime with its measurement as a violation of law), one can posit that much of the history of criminology is affected by this logically recurring problem. This ignored issue mucks up the effort to test explanations of crime and to discover a well-defined, unchanging set of factors that can be said to explain crime.

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