A close up of a Crimestoppers sign

What are we talking about when we talk about crime?

Early ideas about wrongdoing were either connected to religion or property. Sin, morality and blasphemy were the business of the church who took a key role in a social discipline which focused on biblical teaching, Judaeo-Christian morality and the sanctity of church property. Some early ecclesiastical records show that the church defended its property with rigour (there are many references to fines for those who vomited or urinated in churchyards).

David Garland, a Professor of Sociology at New York University, has written a thorough account of the emergence of both ‘crimes’ and ‘criminology’. He argues that sin, villainy and roguery were largely explained by cosmologies, theologies, metaphysics and common sense (Garland 1997 (also 2002) in Maguire:21) until 18th-century thinking challenged these.

Yet these ideas have never really gone away and we frequently see them echoed, particularly in news and popular culture. For example, in newspapers, extreme offenders are often dehumanised:

  • Following the murder of two girls in Soham, The Sun newspaper offered a front page account of Ian Huntley’s crimes with the headline From Boy to Beast (18 December 2003).
  • Former glam rock musician and convicted paedophile, Gary Glitter was described as a monster by The Daily Mail (18 November 1999) and illegitimate by The Times (13 November 1999); a deeply Christian assessment of the cause of the crime of downloading child pornography.
  • After the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, The Daily Mail echoed such religiosity with the front page headline APOCALYPSE (12 September 2001) (Wykes and Welsh 2009).

Religious rules remain pivotal to the legal and criminal justice system in Christian countries. The church’s role in defining crime has been seen in many courthouses, particularly in the US, which have shown depictions of the ten commandments or that feature a sculpture of Moses bearing the ten commandments in the precinct outside. Globally, other faiths are also deeply influential on law and concepts of crime but often in different ways.

There have always existed popular attitudes towards crime, amounting at times to an unwritten code distinct from the laws of the land. Certain crimes were outlawed by both codes: a wife or child murderer, for example, would be berated by a crowd on the way to be hanged. Highwaymen and pirates belonged to popular ballads, part heroic myth and part warning. But other crimes were actively tolerated by whole communities – coining, poaching, the evasion of taxes or excise or the press gang (forced conscription into the armed forces) (Thompson 1968: 64-66).

Indeed, even today crime is a contested concept both within and across countries and cultures. This cartoon, for example, illustrates some of the tensions in many western countries between the behaviour of the powerful and less powerful around the concept of crime and raises questions about why some actions are criminal whilst others that seem much worse are not.

"Crime cartoon. Jail cell filled with people - caption reads: 'Wall St. demonstrators jailed for protesting'. Jail cell empty - caption reads: 'Wall St bankers jailed for destroying the world economy'" Reproduced with kind permission from artist Steve Sack

Crime, as we know it today, was not really part of the vocabulary of pre-modern times and data about crime was barely collected until the nineteenth century. Some of the earliest data we have in the UK is now available online. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674 - 1913 (a collaborative project by the Universities of Sheffield, Hertfordshire and the Open University) contains fully searchable records of the 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court. This is a great resource and quite shocking in terms of the extreme levels of punishment meted out for ‘offences’ that are minor or no longer considered crimes today. In fact, punishment by death or transportation was so systematic it was called the ‘Bloody Code’.

During the 18th century there was evidence of a shift to social crime and increasing resistance to ‘laws and regulations made which protected the property of the rich from the inroads of the poor’ (Adam Smith cited in Emsley 1996:9), from both the public and educated reformers. This was because the crimes that were being punished were often crimes of poverty, like trespass and poaching.

Cities were teeming with disease, crime and drunkenness. This alongside growing revolutionary fever and public disorder was a massive concern. The passing of the Gin Act in 1736 led to riots in 1743 as the government tried to curtail public lewdness and unruliness through taxation. In 1751, William Hogarth depicted the squalor and despair of a community raised on gin in his print ‘Gin Lane’.

An etching depicting a busy street scene with pawn brokers and gin shops. People are fighting dogs for food, drinking even when showing signs of starvation and giving drink to children. In the foreground, a half-dressed, drunken woman is in the act of dropping her baby Gin Lane by William Hogarth (1751) ©Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Anxiety about the French Revolution in 1789 perhaps finally consolidated the law as determined by parliament as the means by which power and authority could be retained as long as it was perceived as just.

At the beginning of the 19th century, social order became a crucial governmental policy and rafts of new Acts curtailed people’s behaviours to protect business and property. The failure of extreme but random punishment to control crime and disorder led to massive reforms and the beginnings of a criminal justice system that we could recognise today.

So when we talk about crime we are talking about something that is complex. Perhaps the dominant idea about crime today is that we know what it is - it is common sense - something that we all agree on, something that all can acknowledge as being a problem and something that needs to be prevented, detected, controlled and punished.

But in practice even violent assault and poisoning are not crimes until/unless the law defines them so - in some countries poisoning is legal euthanasia. In the case of violence, it seems straightforward and unarguable that it is a crime, but there are also complex common sense exceptions around self-defence and diminished responsibility. Why is it breaking the law to drive at 75mph but not breaking the law to make cars that can drive at 150mph?

So can we argue that whoever constructs law constructs crime and thus, by extension, crime will vary according to the views and interests of those who make the law?

Crime also varies over time within jurisdictions. Munice and McLaughlin (2001) remind readers that slavery was legal until relatively recently and that whilst in some circumstances killing is murder, in others it is heroism.

In England and Wales homosexuality was illegal until 1967, whilst domestic abuse was only properly recognised as a crime in its own right in 2004 with the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act.

Other behaviours can be criminalised in one country but not another. In the UK, stalking and harassment were criminalised under the 1997 Prevention of Harassment Act but such crimes are barely recognised outside of Western countries. At the same time, homosexuality is largely now legal in Western countries but remains a serious crime in many others.

Definitions of what is a crime within a jurisdiction may change for many reasons including political expediency, public pressure, moral outrage, social change and national security. So we cannot take crime for granted.

Nor should we take what we know about crime for granted. For most of us, most of the time, what we know about real crime comes from the news. But the news isn’t all the crime there is - it’s a selection made by journalists who choose what crime events to tell us about and how to tell those stories in ways that are economic to produce, attract big audiences and make money either through cover sales or advertising revenue.

So the crime we know about is often extreme, rare, unambiguous and involves sex and/or violence. Ideally, journalists like a story involving an attractive young woman (preferably famous and often with a glamorous accompanying photograph) as the victim of a dangerous stranger or madman in a faraway place. These stories sell because they titillate audiences but also reassure them – such a thing won’t happen to us, we’re ordinary.

In practice, ordinary is where crime happens. Women are most at risk at home and/or from men they know well: ‘On average two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England or Wales’ (Womens, Aid 2014). Whilst also in England and Wales: ‘Approximately 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted each year’ (Ministry of Justice, 2013). In this country, the majority of rapes are committed by men known to the victim. The same is true in the US where 82% of rapists know their victim well (US Dept of Justice, 2009-13) and this is the same for most countries where data is available.

So don’t just question what crime is, question how you know about it and what you know too. A piece of graffiti art scrawled on an empty shop in London made me think about this very recently. It said:

If you give a man gun he can rob a bank; if you give man a bank he can rob the world.

Why is one a crime and the other not?


Elton, G. (1977) Introduction in Cockburn, J. ed. Crime in England 1550-1800, London: Methuen.

Emsley C. (1997) The history of crime and crime control institutions, in M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Oxford: OUP, 2nd edition.

Foucault M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison, London: Allen Lane.

Garland, D. ‘Of crimes and criminals’ in Maguire, Morgan and Reiner (1997) (2002) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, Oxford OUP (pp7-51).

Hitchcock, T., Shoemaker, R., Emsley, C., Howard, S. and McLaughlin, J., et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online 1674-1913 (Version 7.2, March 2015)

Lea, J. (2002) Crime and Modernity, London: Sage Publications.

McLaughlin, E and Muncie J (eds) (1996) Controlling Crime, London: Sage Publications. Chapters 1-2.

Wykes, M. and Welsh, K. (2009) Violence, Gender and Justice, London: Sage Publications. Chapter 3.

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