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Why Criminology’s Explanation of Crime Is a Problem (on a Microlevel)

We have laid out some objections to the concept of explaining crime as a violation of law and examined problems that definition imposes related to objectivity and validity in the attempt to practice criminology scientifically. It is now possible to turn our attention to the description of an additional problem: the contradiction between the legal definition of crime as a concept, the measurement of crime, and the causal processes criminologists test when they examine explanations of crime at the individual level. This is a central problem that relates to the logical inconsistency of criminology with respect to the intersection of how criminologists think about and test explanations of crime. We propose that when most criminologists think about explaining crime, they are not thinking about their dependent-variable crime in the limited sense of behavior that violates the law. Instead, when criminologists conceptualize crime and its causes, they think about crime more abstractly and in terms of individual behavior—that is, they mix up the law and behavior.

If criminologists did think about crime only in relation to the criminal law, the body of criminology would be characterized by statements about violations of the law and not criminal behavior, and as a discipline, criminology would likely be much different. To be sure, if criminologists conceptualized their explanations of crime with respect to the violation of the law and not just with respect to the behavioral dimension of crime, they would discuss the factors that motivate people to violate law (e.g., “Why do some people ignore the state’s definition of robbery?”) and not the more general idea of factors that motivate criminal behavior (i.e., “Why do people engage in a behavior called crime?”). Criminologists thus “convert” their explanation of violations of law to explanations of criminal behavior. As a result, criminological explanations of crime explain why people engaged in crime in the abstract, not why they violate the law. We suggest that these are really two different concepts. When the criminologist asks “Why do people commit crime?” should they really ask “Why do people violate that particular criminal law at that particular point in time?” The larger issue here is that since the criminal law—and hence the definition of crime—is a social construction, we face a serious problem and question. That problem/question has to do with the difference between behaving criminally and behaving in ways that violate the social construction of crime. Stated in this way, this question appears somewhat confusing. Why would people engage in behavior that violates the social construction of crime? How did they behave before there was a socially constructed thing called crime? How does thinking about that latter question change how we think about crime?3

The problem that presents itself in microlevel explanations of the causes of crime is one that stems from the inconsistency between the concept of crime the researcher begins with and the measure of crime as a violation of law they end up employing. Let us take social control explanations of crime that posit that an individual’s bonds to significant others or social institutions are weak. In this view, the weakly bonded person is more likely to commit crime than the strongly bonded person (Sampson and Laub 1990). So for instance, the weakly bonded person may steal as a result of their weak bonds. The question that is unaddressed here is whether the lack of bonds motivates people to steal or whether it motivates them to violate the law where stealing is the expression of that motivation. These two questions may result in entirely different outcomes. For example, in a typical social bonding explanation, the behavior of stealing might be explained by weak social bonds because a weakly bonded individual feels no sense of attachment to others, and hence the taking of the property of another holds no personal penalty for them. This individual’s bonds to others are already attenuated, and thus taking the property of another and risking further attenuation of those bonds does not contain the kind of negative social experience that stealing would have for a bonded individual.

In this example, we can understand the logic of the argument related to stealing with respect to the implications of bonds to an individual. We can accept that in the case of stealing, there is some reward to be gained and not much to lose, since the bond is already attenuated. The behavior, stealing, has a goal and can be viewed as a motivational explanation for the behavior. When we replace the act of stealing as a behavioral response to attenuated bonds with the more generic idea that the individual’s behavior is a violation of the law, we now have some difficult problems to explain. In the first place, in order for the individual’s attenuated bond to lead to a violation of law rather than the specific instance of stealing, that individual would need to perceive their attenuated bonds in some social sense that would create the motivation to violate the law. This kind of explanation related to violation of the law is descriptively very different than explaining why someone commits a crime. It is one thing to say that attenuated bonds may produce stealing and another to say that they produce a violation of the law. To be sure, while stealing is a violation of the law, describing the motivation to steal and the motivation to violate the law can involve two very different processes.

For the individual to violate the law, they must possess a specific understanding of their actions (though some individuals may be unaware of criminal laws). Otherwise, why would they decide to violate the law? We could infer that the offender is violating the law due to their weak bonds as political statement about their situation of being weakly bonded. It is not our intention to argue for one of these interpretations over the other but rather to point out that different explanatory mechanisms are required to make sense of these differences. Explaining the commission of a crime and a violation of the law requires exploring different motivational contexts that would attach to these very different actions.

We could provide a number of other examples of this point. For example, if we follow learning theory, we would say that crime is a learned behavior. Here, as before, the issue is related to the distinction between learning crime and learning the violation of law. The act of stealing requires some learning. The act of violating the law may be more complex. To violate the law, one must know what the law is, and the individual may be focused on targeting the violation of a specific form of law. Once again, part of the issue is the difference between crime and the violation of the law and the conscious process that is involved in the intention to violate the law as a political/social construction. Certainly, one could argue that this intention is learned, and again, we are not defending either of these learning arguments. Our point is that employing learning theory to explain the very specific outcome of committing a behavior that violates the law requires attention to issues microlevel explanations of crime normally omit from consideration.

While microlevel explanations exclude rationale that would explain why a person violates the law, the logical error that is made is that these explanations are tested with data on violations of the law. Thus the explanation of crime and the data on crime as a violation of the criminal law are logically inconsistent.

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