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

In Sum

The foregoing discussion raises serious questions about the search for the causes of crime at the individual level. It may seem logical to start with the study of criminality across individuals in terms of quantity and quality. However, in our view, the problem of crime and its causes extends well beyond the individual. As self-report research indicates, when people are asked to report whether or not they have engaged in a form of behavior that is a crime defined by the law, most indicate that they have—perhaps not even thinking about that behavior as a crime. While we believe that self-report studies probably underrepresent the true extent of crime, since they generally focus on the criminal-law definition of crime and exclude others harmful behaviors it might be useful to call crime, they nevertheless indicate that crime is widespread. The widespread nature of crime in the population indicates that it is not the variation across individuals in some set of characteristics that is important for the explanation of crime. Rather, the regularity of crime indicates that most people are exposed to conditions that produce crime and that it would seem logical to look at the structural origins of those regularities.

In focusing on the individual as the basic building block of society and as the primary force behind crime, criminologists make an error in focusing their attention on the smallest unit of analysis found in the system that produces crime. In our view, this would be the same as the reduction of all the analysis in the physical sciences to the level of the smallest particles of matter. While those small particles of matter have a role to play in the physical sciences, they do not drive the entire physical science system of investigation and analysis of the world around us. This is a lesson that we believe criminologists need to learn in order to more effectively explain crime.

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