Crime: Social construction or reality

Criminal behaviour is behaviour in violation of the criminal law, it is not a crime unless it is prohibited by the criminal law. The criminal law, in turn, is defined conventionally as a body of specific rules regarding human conduct which have been promulgated by political authority, which apply uniformly to all members of the classes to which the rules refer and which are enforced by punishment administered by the state, (Sutherland and Cressey, 1970:10). Without laws the country would be in chaos and there would be no social order, laws are invoked for the purpose of social control.However, there is still a serious crime problem therefore there is a demand for more laws.

Solving the crime problem the meaning of crime needs to be assessed, certain critical criminologists argue crime is socially constructed where as others believe crime is real, and needs to be taken seriously. Both points of view shall now be explored. The social construction of crime involves crime being caused by social factors and situations.

Crime has nothing to do with biological and psychological causes; crime is a response to the state of society and the inequality it possesses.Theories which support the social construction of crime are: Labelling, Marxism, Gender Studies and the New Criminology, these theories will now be explored. The Labelling Theory involves labelling deviant human beings as criminal.

Once established a criminal they can now be punished for their actions. Criminals are labelled criminal for the purpose of social order. These deviant behaviours will not be tolerated in society. That is the impression Law Agents have to impose, however critical criminologists propose that the whole labelling system encourages more criminal behaviour.

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Tannenabum (1938:211) produced the idea of the labelling theory of crime: he believes that when youths become teenagers they want to engage in more exciting and dangerous activities. These activities produce conflicts between the youths and adults in the neighbourhood. The adult’s label the youths as “bad”, and the youths then conform to the part. The youths see themselves as bad, so begin to act in that manner. The labelling idea is that once deviants are labelled criminal, the more likely they are to conform to becoming a criminal.

If the individual is not labelled criminal through his deviant behaviours, he may refrain from committing crime. According to Mead, the self image is constructed through social interactions with other people, (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, 2002:263). Lemert, (1951:211) provides a more detailed account of the labelling theory. Lemert labels those who engage in deviant behaviour are called primary deviants. They receive negative reactions from other people, transforming themselves into that negative definition.

The transformation can be seen as a ‘protective move’ so it is no shock to them when they are labelled criminal. Once the transformation into the criminal is complete, they are then labelled ‘secondary deviants’. The deviants would view themselves belonging to a separate group to none deviant persons. The more they are stigmatised by groups of people the higher the chance they have of offending.

The deviant may feel that if he is going to be labelled that way he may as well conform to it. Society’s reactions can make a person turn criminal. It could interm be a false definition of the situation.Merton’s concept of self fulfilling prophecy could be applied to this situation (Becker 1963, Erikson 1966, Kitsuse, 1962:147).

A situation where the subject may not have acted deviant to the extent of being a criminal could be labelled criminal by other persons. The false labelling could invoke the criminal behaviour, therefore transforming them into a criminal. The false assumption to start with, actually becomes true in the end. Becker, argues that criminals are forced into criminal roles through stereotypes, however, criminals could be falsely accused and transform into being a criminal, (Becker, 1963:145).The labelling theory does prove that society’s reactions can force people into crime, however, not all criminals get the chance to be labelled criminal, or may not see themselves as criminal. The labelling theory does not only account for having affects on certain individuals, but can have a negative effect on the way certain groups are viewed. The Jamie Bulger case which involved the killing of a two year old child by two ten year old children is a prime example.

The media were inundated with the case, linking the killings with violent films such as ‘Childs play 3’.The Bulger case had at least three related consequences. First, it initiated a reconsideration of the social construction of 10 year olds as ‘demons’ rather than as ‘innocents’. Second, it helped to mobilize, adult fear and moral panic about youth in general. Third, it legitimised a series of tough law and order responses to young offenders which came to characterise the following decade”. (Muncie, 2004:3).

The Jamie Bulger case lead to a social unrest about ten year olds. People couldn’t believe that two ten year olds could be capable of such acts. The media have a tendency to exaggerate stories.The exaggeration along with labelling can produce a public moral panic, a moral panic was produced about youths being capable of that sort of crime.

Moral panics first emerged in the 1960’s. Moral panics are the public, political and media reactions to certain events. They are seen as public outcries. The events are a threat to social order for example soccer violence and vandalism. Stanley Cohen produced the term moral panic and it was his first study on Mods and rockers which stirred a real moral panic.

Over the Easter bank holiday 1964 groups of working class youths met at their traditional meeting place, the seaside resort of Clacton.Due to the Easter weekend being miserable and wet there were limited amusements for the youths. Locals were irritated by the lack of business and refused to serve some of the youths. The rockers roared up and down the promenade on their motorbikes causing loud noise. Scuffles between the youths eventually broke out resulting in broken windows and vandalised beach huts. The event received the full front page of the national newspapers. Mods and Rockers were presented as rival gangs who beat up the whole town. They were involved in confrontation, acting aggressively towards local residents and destroyed a great deal of public property.

Cohen reported that there was no evidence of structured gangs, there were minimal motorbikes, and violence and vandalism was minimal. One journalist was forced to admit the media had exaggerated the event. Cohen (1973, 52-53). The mods and rockers created more disturbances after this event. They were more targeted by the public and police and lead to more arrests and fines. The media had exaggerated the story and labelled the groups “folk devils”. The labelling process had lead to more deviant behaviour by the groups.

According to Muncie and McLaughlin (1996:52), “The media create moral panics to create good copy”.The public get their information about crime from the media. According to Hall et al (1978:120-121), the media focused their attention on “mugging” during the 1970’s. The media used images from the New York ghetto, defining street robberies into a new youth, violent street crime called “mugging”. The moral panic associated with mugging quickly focused on black youths. The problem was meant to have stemmed from social deprivation and racial inequality.

The media blew the mugging matter completely out of proportion. The mugging problem was initially situated in New York.The police then made matters worse by targeting black youths in the street. The media concentrated on targeting particular groups of people, they printed stories against the groups which will sell the newspapers Chibnall, (1977:45) proposes the media does not portray real events. The media has to “select” which events to report and how to “present” the event. Types of crime such as pollution of the environment is branded not “spectacular newsworthiness”, violence involving injury to “innocent others” would be publicised with headings such as “bullyboy skin heads” and “blood crazed mobs” to attract the public attention.McLaughlin and Muncie (2001:35) provide an example of how the media target particular groups. In March 1982, the Metropolitan Police released their annual crime figures from the London area.

Three per cent of the total crimes constituted robbery and theft. The media was uninterested in the other 97 per cent of crimes. For the 3 per cent of robbery and theft, 55 per cent of those offenders were black.

The headline of The Daily Mail of the 11th March 1982 stated “Black Crime: The Alarming Figures. The statistics proved half of the offenders were white but this was not mentioned.The newspaper targets black males and exaggerates the street crime problem.

Society would then be cautious of black males and street crime. Black males would feel they are being labelled and treated unfairly, they would then turn to crime through reason of the labelling theory; therefore the media are one of the causes for the social construction of crime. Karl Marx’s theory behind crime proposes that the lower class commit crime due to inequality’s produced in the capitalist society. Huge social changes took place over the industrial revolution producing a capitalist society according to Chambliss (1975:224-226).In a capitalist society, you have the powerful ruling class who own the modes of production, and the class that is ruled, who work for the ruling class. The class that is ruled, which l shall refer to as the working class produced the goods, for the owners to sell to the rest of society to produce profit.

The workers work for low wages and the jobs can be very uninteresting and unrewarding. Workers live very close to poverty due to a low wage, but if they quit their jobs they would be in poverty. A division of labour separates the two groups producing inequality and conflict.The conflict is expressed in rebellions and riots. Crime is an expression of exploitation, demoralisation and the terrible working and living conditions. To try to gain order the ruling class lay down laws defining criminal behaviour.

The ruling class have both the power and wealth to invoke these laws. They have the power to punish those who violate these laws. Marx, (1973:252) saw crime as “The struggle of the isolated individual against the prevailing conditions”. Marx also believed that crime reduces the competition among labourers.

According to Chambliss, (1975:226) Marx had a paradigm of crime.Marx proposed that the ruling class invoked laws for their personal interests. However, the ruling class are allowed to break these laws, but the working class would be punished if they did. Legislating the laws produces many more employment opportunities and law enforcers. The conditions the workers receive and the rebellion they possess is not aimed at the ruling class, but in fact their own class. “Crime is a reaction to the life’s conditions of a person’s social class”.

Marx also proposes that crime would vary from society to society. Societies with less intense class struggles should have much lower rates of crime.Marx’s theory does support the idea that crime is socially constructive. The ruling class forced the working class to work in appalling conditions for low wages. The ruling class express inequality and exploitation. Due to the way society is treating them, their actions result in crime. They know no other way to express their anger about the way they are treated but through crime society has to work to earn money.

The lower class jobs may be their only opportunity for employment. The workers are putting in all the hard work for the production of goods that do not but they themselves do not gain the rewards for doing this.Although Marx’s theory does prove that crime is socially constructive in some instances there are however some flaws to the theory.

Crime would still, and used to be present in industrialised societies, so capitalism is not the sole cause of crime. Marx’s theory also focuses upon lower class crime. Many people of the high, ruling classes also engage in crime. The higher class particularly engage in white collar crime. If the lower class are punished for crimes mainly involving violence and the ruling class are allowed to get away with crime, why do the higher class only focus upon white collar crime?The new criminology proposed by Taylor et al, (1973) fuses work on labelling theories and the Marxist approach.

Taylor et al, (1973:232) proposed that a ‘fully social theory of deviance must include seven vital elements. The first element is ‘the wider origins of the deviant act’. The origins of the deviant act in a capitalist society would be compared against those in an industrialised society, to try to locate the social causes of crime. The ‘immediate origins of the deviant act’, means that the social theory of deviance must be able to explain the different events, experiences or structural developments that help cause the deviant act.The actual act’ includes the rationality of individual acts and the social dynamics surrounding them. The ‘Immediate origins of social reaction’ requires an account of the contingencies and the conditions which are crucial to the decision to act against the deviant. The fifth element is ‘The wider origins of deviant reaction’; the political and ideological concerns of the state need to be addressed. The sixth element is ‘The outcome of social reaction on the deviant’s further action, this includes the individual’s decisions to respond to sanctions.

The final element is the ‘Nature of deviant process as a whole.The idea is to integrate all elements of the deviant process including awareness of social and self determination. Taylor et al supports Marx’s theory claiming that inequalities in social factors lead to crime. Taylor et al believes that social arrangements need to change so social factors do not have the power to criminalize. Howard Parker (1974:126) conducted research on juvenile theft in Liverpool. Parker spent three years ‘hanging out’ with the lads of ‘Round house’ (the most delinquent area of Liverpool). Parker found that the boys stole car radio’s to earn money.The boys lived in a high unemployment area and had received little educational qualifications.

In their community theft was regarded as acceptable. The boys were seen as delinquent outside of their community by the outsiders. Parker concluded that” the boy’s involvement in theft was not the real problem at all, rather these were accommodative and rational solutions arrived at by some working class youth faced with the constraints of a particular social and economic context”.

(Muncie, 2004:126). Parker’s study of youths can be applied to Taylor et al’s ‘Social theory of deviants’.The youths need to deviate in order to gain money, in the way the capitalist society is constructed they have little education so little hope of gaining employment. Jobs they could gain would produce feelings of exploitation and inequality. The outsiders label them deviants, and due to having a lack of money conform to the label. The state will be concerned about the delinquency and invoke any possible laws. The media could also ‘target ‘the youth group leading to a social unrest about societies personal belongings. The state would need to address these social factors in order to lower crime.

Youths would need opportunities and employment where they feel they will not be treated unequal. Feminists of critical criminology believe that crime is socially constructive by the way women are treated in society. Males have a much higher offending rate, whereas women are under represented in the official statistics. Several groups of feminists propose crime is caused by women due to the neglect and distortion of experiences they receive (Klein: 1973: Smart, 1976; Leonard 1982:128). Liberal feminists propose that women are treated unequal to men, they are treated unequally in court and are subjected to more forms of social control than men.Oakley, (1972:128) apply women to the ‘roll theory’.

Women are socialised to different ways and are expected to behave differently to men, for example, women are trained to be non aggressive. Alder (1975:269) adds that women are now moving out of the traditional roles and are becoming more aggressive and competitive as they move into the largely male world of the competitive market place. Alder believes women are fighting against the roles, becoming more masculine and forcing themselves into the world of crime. Women want to establish themselves as full human beings, capable of violence and aggression as any man.

The liberal perspective fails to challenge male values and only offers limited solutions. Radical feminists propose that crime is related to masculine power and privileges, in a patriarchal society men dominate women and maintain power over women and children. Society encourages aggression and masculinity in men and passivity in women. (Millett, 1970:128).

Radical feminism has been criticised for its biological determinism suggesting that all men and women are the same in their gender groups (Burke, 2005:164). Socialist feminists combine radical feminism and Marxism. Rowbotham, 1973:128) propose there is an unequal power in the market place and at home: Beechey, (1977:165) adds that subordination is located in capitalist societies. Women are exploited of their domestic role. Women also receive lower wages than men and are seen more low status. Socialist feminism has come under criticism for failing to include race and for simply grafting ‘gender’ on to an uncritical reading of Marxism.

Feminist theories state that gender is socially constructed. Concluding the theories it is clear that both males and females conform to different social rules forced on them by society.Women may feel they are treated unfairly by society i. e. low pay so may engage in crime through exploitation. Males may want to conform to the aggressive, masculine roles and engage in violence.

Women may also try to compete with the male roles which is why they may also commit crime, without strict gender roles, there would be less inequality reducing the social construct of gender roles. The reality of crime shall now be explored challenging the social constructionist view. Realist criminology involves Right or Left Realism. Both views claim that crime is real and needs to be taken seriously.The public’s safety must be protected through crime control. The Conservative party of the 1980’s shifted to the right. The Conservatives proposed harsher sentences, increasing police protection and generally getting tougher on offenders.

Crime is real and is proved real by victims and witnesses. Right realists believe it is the individual’s free choice to commit crime. Crime is the path the deviants choose to take, having no regard for others feelings. Rising crime statistics show crime is a serious problem. Felson (1998:39) label offenders ordinary people who commit ordinary crimes.Criminals are not abnormal; it is their rational decision to commit crime. Criminals are responding to the criminogenic situations they find themselves in.

Compared to radical criminologists, radical criminologists propose the situation of society forces society into committing crime. “Criminological theories have been little concerned with the situational determinants of crime. Instead, the main object of these theories (whether biological, psychological or sociological in orientation) has been to show how some people are born with, or come to acquire a ‘disposition’ to behave in a consistently criminal manner (Clarke, 1980:137).

Right realism doesn’t support the situation of society producing crime, if a deviant person is labelled a criminal, then it is their personal choice to become a criminal, if the deviant has been treated badly by family that would suffice a reason for committing crime. Right realism understands crime can be over represented so prefers to gain information from victims through victim surveys. Victim surveys show that the burden of crime falls disproportionately on the poor, the disadvantaged and those least able to defend their selves. The surveys deny the struggle of an oppressed class against an unjust society (Burke, 2005:34).This survey proves that crime is not always a response to the negative forces of a capitalist society. Surveys could also provide dependable crime statistics and gain honest responses behind the causes of crime. Criticisms for right realism propose right realists only focus on how to gain social order and the punishment of street crime. Crimes such as White Collar crimes are left out of the equation.

Wilson and Kelling (1989:37) criticize right realism by claiming that the worst social problems and highest levels of criminality are not worth saving.When offenders break the law they are given harsher punishments and more control strategies are invoked. Those who do not offend are lift in high crime areas, further marginalised and disadvantaged. ‘The central tenet of left realism is to reflect the reality of crime that is in its origins, its nature and its impact.

This involves a rejection of tendencies to romanticize crime or to pathologize it, to analyse solely from the point of view of the administration of crime or the criminal actor, to underestimate crime or to exaggerate it…

ost importantly it is realism which informs our notion of practice: in answering What can be done about the problems of crime and social control? ‘ (Young 1986:49). Left realists were dissatisfied with the social construction or crime. Crime is not formed through moral panics via the media. It is the public’s real experience which leads to moral panics. The Islington crime survey found that twenty percent of women knew someone who had been sexually assaulted in the previous twelve months. (Jones et al, 1986:59).

These figures are real.The public’s fears should be taken seriously and acted upon. Young (1992:51-53) believes there are four elements in understanding crime. These are; the victim, the offender, reaction of the formal agencies of the state and the reaction of the public. These four elements produce the ‘Square of crime’. The crime rate is the product from a reaction of these events. The victim may encourage offenders through inadequate defence or may indulge in crime due to his personality. The offenders include themselves (types of crimes committed, offending rates and so on).

The state has the power to label individuals and society so can force formal or informal social control. To control crime there must be intervention at each part of the square, at the level of factors which give rise to the punitive offender. Left realism proposes that crime can be tackled through participation with the public, together with right realism they believe their questions can be answered through public surveys. The states response is not doing a good enough job, so the public’s ideas could be a step in the right direction.Broaden et al (1988:55) criticize the left realist approach. “The truth is that whilst it would be nice (and convenient) to think that complex public policies could be based directly on people’s experiences, perceptions and attitudes, it is anything but realistic. The reality is that peoples limited experiences, unreconstructed perceptions and shifting attitudes do not translate immediately and unproblematically into socially just policies – even if a survey could get at them accurately”.

Concluding this essay it appears crime is both socially constructed and real.Crime is socially constructed in the form of labelling individuals transforming the deviants into criminals. The media is responsible for over- and under-representation resulting in moral panics.

Crime can be caused through feelings of exploitation and inequality through living and working in a capitalist society. Gender roles can influence the rates of crime between males and females. Above all crime is real.

Victims live to tell the tale. Crime is presented as a huge problem which certain issues need to be addressed. While there are some flaws to the radical theories, crime certainly is a reality.


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