A. Definition and Significance
From the social constructionist perspective, crime is a classification of behavior defined by individuals with the power and authority to make laws that identify some behavior as offensive and render its perpetrators subject to punishment. In Western societies, legislators and courts, enforced by state agencies, have the power and authority to define crime and administer punishment. What behavior they define as crime reflects both their own values and interests and the collective norms and values of the society, or at least the most vociferous segments of it.
The extent to which the norms and values of a society represent those of the whole society or some universal human values is questionable, because what counts as crime in different societies varies in content, with a few exceptions. However, as anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn (1952) pointed out in their study of many cultures, there do seem to be some universals. Kroeber and Kluckhohn claimed that among its own in-group members, no culture could be found that accepts (a) indiscriminate lying, suggesting that all societies value honesty; (b) stealing, such that all societies value rights of property ownership; (c) violence and suffering, suggesting that all societies value peaceful coexistence; and (d) incest, such that all societies restrict sexual intercourse to non-familial adults.
However, what counts as acceptable or unacceptable behavior in these categories varies, not only culturally and subculturally but also historically. For example, in Western industrial societies, in spite of its enormous economic cost to victims, perpetrators of corporate and white-collar crimes were, until the late 20th century, rarely subject to punishment, because the crimes of business, and white-collar crimes in particular, were not considered “real” crimes, even though they typically produced multiple victims who each suffered economic losses of up to 100 times the cost of street offenses (the typical average robbery in the United States nets $1,200, and the typical bank robbery loss is $4,300, compared with the typical embezzlement, which is $17,000, and the typical corporate crime, which ranges from $5 million–$300 million). Whereas a bank robber typically receives a 20- to 30-year prison sentence, a bank embezzler can receive as little as 5 years’ probation. The influence of juries in deciding whether to indict or convict a person for crime can also reflect local rather than national values, as in the case of a Texas man who shot to death burglars in his next-door neighbor’s house who was not indicted by the grand jury for homicide.
Moreover, the ability of some interest groups to mobilize mass communications to influence the values of others through moral crusades targeted toward certain behaviors, such as drug use, homosexual relations, assisted suicide, smoking in public places, and so on, can significantly affect what kinds of behavior are defined as acceptable or criminal. This stands in comparison to the human attempt to create a moral social order in which some behavior is defined as acceptable and other behavior is defined as unacceptable or deviant, through the creation of rules that ban some behaviors and subject rule violators to sanctions. Whereas deviance is taken to be a violation of social norms, crime is seen as a violation of criminal law, and whereas deviance is behavior perceived as different and negatively evaluated as threatening and morally offensive, crime is seen as harmful— physically, economically, socially, and psychologically— resulting in victims who suffer some loss, reduction, and repression of what they were prior to the offense (Henry & Lanier, 2001; Henry & Milovanovic, 1996).
However, like the social reaction to deviance, the criminal justice reaction to crime can result in labeling effects that amplify the significance of the original law violation. This process can entrench the delinquent in a career trajectory that leads to greater rather than less involvement in the offensive behavior, not least because options to engage in nonoffensive behaviors are closed off, while attributes, qualities, and skills in relation to the law violating behavior are enhanced.
Thus, the social construction of crime, through its amplification by social reaction, can produce the real consequence of career criminals as the offender becomes engulfed in coping with the stigma of a criminal identity that ultimately might lead to his or her embrace of that socially constructed identity through identity transformation. No longer are these just persons who broke the law by, for example, being tempted to shoplift; instead they have become “shoplifters.” Clearly the significance of the social construction process can be that more crime, rather than less, is the outcome of the attempts to control the original offensive behavior.
The actions of moral entrepreneurs to whip up public sentiment through the mass media into what has been called a moral panic about certain offenses is capable of producing the appearance of “crime waves” and can demonize certain categories of people. Social constructionists have focused on the practices of criminal justice agencies and moral entrepreneurs in creating moral panics through claims about the threats posed by some groups to the population as a whole.
A consequence of the social construction of crime and the creation of moral panics is that a society’s crime rate, in particular increases in certain types of crimes, can be viewed less as a consequence of a real increase in crime and more the effect of the amplification of a problem through its public discussion in the media. Furthermore, it can reflect increased public awareness of behaviors that are then defined as problematic, resulting in more reports of crimes to the police and more arrests of alleged offenders by the police. Thus, real rises and falls in crime may reflect a combination of the following: (a) actual increases in the activity, (b) the socially constructed fear of its presence, and (c) a willingness of authorities to reclassify other activities as potential crimes. Because of crime’s socially constructed nature, real trends in crime are difficult to establish.