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Absolute Definitions of Crime

Having examined the relative definition of crime and having noted that the criminal-law definition of crime is really a relative definition of crime as well, there is little need to spend an extraordinary amount of time examining the absolute definition of crime. It should be clear that if criminologists desire to discover general laws of criminal behavior, then they need an absolute definition of crime, one that does not vary or is not influenced by the social construction of crime and the various interests and forces that impact the making of the criminal-law definition of crime in different places and at different times.

An absolute definition of crime is preferable from a scientific standpoint. In order to study any issue scientifically, a metaphysical supposition must be made about the organization of the entity being examined (Maxwell 2000). If the scientist wishes to be able to generalize from the research conducted, then the core concept under examination must have properties that facilitate generalization—it must be stable and unchanging. One cannot generalize from a concept that is relative and changing such as the legal definition of crime. In order to test explanations of crime with general import, one must begin with a concept capable of withstanding challenges to its validity. Criminologists do not think about the concept of crime in this way and have instead built the study of the causes of crime around a concept and measure of crime with extraordinary variability and hence limited generalization capabilities. Thus, if criminologists prefer to be able to generalize the results of their research, they require a generalized concept of crime—one that is absolute and unchanging across time and place.

There is no reason that, in selecting this concept, it must correspond with the legal definition of crime. The preference for a legal definition of crime involves a metaphysical assumption concerning the authority of law. It also preferences the idea that law is a political and social construction. In making these choices, the criminologist chooses a relative definition and limits the generalizability of their findings.

The problem that now moves to center stage is the construction of an absolute definition of crime that does not vary across time and place. What matters is the stability of this definition for the purposes of conducting scientific research that is generalizable. Such a concept must also meet conceptual rules of validity and be defended by proper logical analysis as a concept. These observations, then, bring us to the difficult problem of identifying such a concept.

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