VII. Crime as a Social Construction
Social constructionist views of crime reveal that there are multiple definitions, each of which suggests a different set of criteria as constituting the phenomenon.
A. Legal Constructions of Crime
The starting point of the social constructionist critique is to challenge the veracity of the legal definition of crime as “an intentional act or omission in violation of criminal law (statutory and case law), committed without defense or justification, and sanctioned by the state as a felony or misdemeanor” (Tappan, 1947, p. 100). Sutherland (1949) argued that existing crime categories are constructions that distort the reality of harm. He argued that a strict legal definition excludes white-collar crime. Others have pointed out that the strict legal definition of crime also ignores the cultural and historical context of law, such as laws on gambling and prostitution that vary by state and nation.
B. Powerful Interests and the Construction of Crime
Conflict between groups with different and competing interests can result in different constructions of crime such that groups in positions of power criminalize others’ behavior depending on whether they threaten the interests of the powerful. The result is that powerless groups are generally the victims of oppressive laws:
Crime is a definition of human conduct created by authorized agents in a politically organized society. . . . [It describes] behaviors that conflict with the interests of the segments of society that have the power to shape public policy. (Quinney, 1970, pp. 15–16)
Groups in society form around wealth, culture, prestige, status, morality, ethics, religion, ethnicity, gender, race, ideology, human rights, the right to own guns, and so on. Each group may fight to dominate others on these issues. Ethnic or cultural conflict is a good example: What is taken for granted as acceptable behavior by one subculture is defined as criminal by another, or by mainstream culture.
When the basis of power is wealth, the conflict is considered class based. Actions defined as crime are rooted in the vast differences of wealth and power associated with class divisions. Groups that acquire power through political or economic manipulation and exploitation place legal constraints on those without power. A definition of crime based on economic interests emphasizes that “crime and deviance are the inevitable consequences of fundamental contradictions within society’s economic infrastructure” (Farrell & Swigert, 1988, p. 3). Crime is defined as the activities of those who threaten the powerful. Such a view explains why serious crimes are those of street offenders, whereas those of corporate or white-collar “suite” offenders are considered less serious. Theorists who challenge the social construction of crime through laws based on powerful interests argue that any behavior that causes harm is crime (Reiman, 1995). Michalowski (1985) for example, argued that we should include as crime “analogous social injury,” which is harm caused by acts or conditions that are legal. For example, promoting and selling alcoholic beverages and cigarettes (described as “drug delivery systems”), although legal, produce considerable social, health, and psychological problems.
Perhaps the most dramatic call from social constructionist– oriented critics to expand the definition of crime comes from Larry Tifft and Dennis Sullivan (2001), who argued that the hierarchical structure and social arrangements of society produce harm that evades the legal definition. They believe that these acts should be criminalized, which will render criminal many contemporary legal production and distribution activities. It may also criminalize many of the criminal justice system’s response to crime, because these also produce additional harms.