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Some different ways of thinking about ‘crime’

Some different ways of thinking about 'crime'
finger figures in a prison cell
© University of York

In their book, The Problem of Crime (2001), Muncie and McLaughlin suggest a number of possible approaches to understanding what ‘crime’ might be. We reflect on some of them here. See what you think:

One approach suggests that crime is best understood simply as a breach of the criminal law. The criminal law provides an objective benchmark against which you can compare a behaviour, and conclude whether or not it is ‘criminal’ behaviour. But that ‘objectivity’ is only formal rather than substantive. So, if we focus exclusively on whether behaviour breaches the criminal law, we might not engage adequately with underlying questions about whether the criminal law is itself sound (for example, in a moral sense), or with the reasons why a behaviour is criminalised.

A second approach suggests that we should not look simply to the law to find out what is ‘criminal’. Rather, we might think of crime as a breach of moral or social norms. This approach allows us to think of crime as something broader than just that which is prohibited by law, and might in that respect conform more readily to how we think about ‘crime’ in everyday life. But different societies have, at different times, taken different views on what is morally and socially acceptable. (Consider the different ages of criminal responsibility in different countries: these suggest different moral views on when it is acceptable in principle to criminalise young people). And even in the same society, views may change over time (consider the abolition in the 1990s of the historical immunity for husbands in relation to the offence of rape). So perhaps looking to moral and social norms cannot give us a universal and definitive account of what ‘crime’ is. Maybe crime needs to be understood, at least in part, with reference to the society in which it is being considered.

Other approaches contend that crime has no ‘natural’, objective existence, but it is socially constructed. That is to say, when somebody (who will in due course be labelled an offender) does something which others in relevant roles (eg, other members of society, law-makers, police and courts) view sufficiently negatively, then that behaviour may be deemed criminal. What is happening here is effectively an ongoing, and often implicit, process of social negotiation, which results in the application of a label of ‘crime’ to certain behaviours. And it is the application of the label which ‘creates’ crime, rather than the behaviour itself necessarily having any intrinsic ‘criminal’ quality. These constructionist approaches can help us to look beyond the letter of the law and to ask why certain behaviours are labelled (or not labelled) ‘criminal’ in a given society at a given point in time. It allows us to think more explicitly about whether and in what ways the use of the label ‘crime’ reflects certain interests and priorities. There are many examples you could reflect on in this context, but consider, for instance, the use of public order offences to respond to political protests; or the way the approach of the criminal law to homosexual activity has changed over time.

So, there are various ways of thinking about ‘crime’ and what it means, and there is no single ‘right’ way of doing so. Think about the different approaches as providing different lenses through which you can view crime – look through a different lens and you will see different things, or you will see some things more clearly than others.

You’ll find that as we proceed with the course, we will be looking at the journey of a case through the criminal justice process. To some extent, this is going to tie us to a version of ‘crime’ which corresponds to ‘behaviour constituting a breach of the criminal law’. But while we may be constrained to work within that framework for some of our activities, don’t forget its limitations, and don’t forget these other ways of thinking about ‘crime’.


Muncie, J and McLaughlin, E (2001) The Problem of Crime (2nd ed, London: Sage)

© University of York
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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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