Conceptions of Crime

Author: Aviral Umrao, Research Associate

Many attempts have been made to define crime, but they all fail to help us in identifying what kind of act and omission amounts to a crime. Perhaps this is because of the changing notions about crime from time to time and place to place. The concept of crime varies from varies not only according to the values of particular group and society, its ideals, faith, religious attitudes, customs, traditions, and taboos, but also according to the form of government, political and economic structure of the society and a number of other factors. Criminal law serves the purpose of protecting elementary socio-ethical values1.

Any act, which is crime today may not be crime tomorrow, if legislature so decides. For instance polygamy, dowry, untouchability are now crimes, which was not so a few years ago. Suicide was a crime in England until the suicide act 1961 and in India from 1994 to early 1996, when it began lawful to kill oneself. Similarly, after prohibition, laws are promulgated in a particular area, and the sale and purchase of liquor becomes a crime. Parliament can scrap a crime from the statute book and, make it lawful. Abortion, which was crime until 1971, is now legal2. What is permissible in a free and an affluent society may be a pernicious vice in a conservative set up3.

Legally, crimes usually are defined as acts or omissions forbidden by law that can be punished by imprisonment and/or fine. Murder, robbery, burglary, rape, drunken driving, child neglect, and failure to pay your taxes all are common examples. However, as several eminent criminologists recently have noted (e.g. Sampson and Laub 1993; Gottfredson) all criminal behaviors rather than on specific criminal acts. Instead of trying to separately understand crimes such as homicide, robbery, rape, burglary, embezzlement, and heroin use, we need to identify what it is they all have in common. Much past research on crime has been confounded by its focus on these politico-legal rather than behavioral definitions4.

The behavioral definition of crime focuses on, criminality, a certain personality profile that causes the most alarming sorts of crimes. All criminal behaviors involve the use of force, fraud, or stealth to obtain material or symbolic resources. As Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) noted, criminality is a style of strategic behavior characterized by self-centeredness, indifference to the suffering and needs of others, and low self-control. More impulsive individuals are more likely to find criminality an attractive style of behavior because it can provide immediate gratification through relatively easy or simple strategies. These strategies frequently are risky and thrilling, usually requiring little skill or planning. They often result in pain or discomfort for victims and offer few or meager long-term benefits because they interfere with careers, family, and friendships. Gottfredson and Hirschi assert that this means the “within-person causes of truancy are the same as the within-person causes of drug use, aggravated assault, and auto accidents5.” Criminality in this sense bears a problematic relationship with legal crimes. Some drug dealers, tax cheats, prostitutes and other legal criminals may simply be business-people whose business activity happens to be illegal. Psychologically, they might not differ from ordinary citizens. Almost all ordinary citizens commit at least a crime during their lives. Nevertheless, Gottfredson’s and Hirsch’s hypothesis is that the vast majority of legal crime is committed by individuals a general strategy of criminal activity6.

This conception of crime explains the wide variety of criminal activity and the fact that individuals tend not to specialize in one type of crime. It also is consistent with the well established tendency of people to be consistent over long periods of time in the frequency and severity of crimes they commit. Even executives who commit white collar crimes probably are more impulsive, self-centered, and indifferent to the suffering of others than those who do not take advantage of similar opportunities7.

A penal (or criminal) law ideology is a basic conception of crime and/or punishment. Its object is very limited, in comparison with “grand” ideologies, such as religious, political, etc. And obviously, anyone’s views on crime and punishment depend to a large extent on his views of the relation, if any, between God and Man, the relation between Man and Nature, the optimal organization of society, causal mechanisms, and the status of different types of persons. With regard to the last point it can be said that, e.g., the Greek conception of a fixed station in life, the feudal view of position in society, and a democratic egalitarian standpoint will yield drastically different ways of thinking about crime and punishment8.

Human resources can have material, symbolic, or hedonistic value. In crimes such as thefts, individuals take material resources such as property from another person without his or her knowing cooperation. Those who commit crimes such as narcotics trafficking and gambling attempt to obtain money that can be exchanged for material resources. In crimes such as assaults not associated with theft, sexual assaults, and illicit drug use, people obtain hedonistic resources that increase pleasurable feelings or decrease unpleasant feelings. Political crimes such as terrorism or election fraud attempt to obtain symbolic resources such as power or prestige9.

Crime may be defined as the commission of the acts prohibited by penal law, and criminals as person who commit such acts. On these assumptions, a vast literature has developed about the volumes of crime, motivation of crime, prevention of crime, suppression of crime, and methodology for apprehension, adjudication and reformation of criminal. Many theories have emerged over the years, and they continue to be explored, individually and in combination, as criminologists seek the best solutions in ultimately reducing types and levels of crime. Here is a broad overview of some key theories10:

  • Natural law theory: Natural law relies heavily on feeling, on moral sense, and on individual instinct for the fitness of things. Under the natural law theory, an act that violets the ethical and basic moral code is a crime, and by implication, an act that does not violate the ethical and moral code is not true crime. Thus the basic moral code is what we feel is right and its violation is what we feel is wrong.
  • Positive law theory: This theory states that crime is a man-made creation. Under this view, crime is a violation of a man-made command of a sovereign, violation identified as a public wrong. This view of crime as conduct, formally prescribed by sovereign authority, carries the name positive law. Crime under positive law consists of those acts, and only those acts, specified prohibited by criminal law under threat of punishment. Both crime and punishment are explicitly defined and specified in advance.
  • Rational choice theory: People generally act in their self-interest and make decisions to commit crime after weighing the potential risks (including getting caught and punished) against the rewards.
  • Social disorganization theory: A person’s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that person makes. In particular, a neighborhood that has fraying social structures is more likely to have high crime rates. Such a neighborhood may have poor schools, vacant and vandalized buildings, high unemployment, and a mix of commercial and residential property.
  • Strain theory: Most people have similar aspirations, but they don’t all have the same opportunities or abilities. When people fail to achieve society’s expectations through approved means such as hard work and delayed gratification, they may attempt to achieve success through crime.
  • Social learning theory: People develop motivation to commit crime and the skills to commit crime through the people they associate with.
  • Social control theory: Most people would commit crime if not for the controls that society places on individuals through institutions such as schools, workplaces, churches, and families.
  • Labeling theory: People in power decide what acts are crimes, and the act of labeling someone a criminal is what makes him a criminal. Once a person is labeled a criminal, society takes away his opportunities, which may ultimately lead to more criminal behavior.
  • Biology, genetics, and evolution: Poor diet, mental illness, bad brain chemistry, and even evolutionary rewards for aggressive criminal conduct have been proposed as explanations for crime.

Key Causes of Crime:

Reasons for committing a crime include greed, anger, jealously, revenge, or pride. Some people decide to commit a crime and carefully plan everything in advance to increase gain and decrease risk. These people are making choices about their behavior; some even consider a life of crime better than a regular job—believing crime brings in greater rewards, admiration, and excitement—at least until they are caught. Others get an adrenaline rush when successfully carrying out a dangerous crime. Others commit crimes on impulse, out of rage or fear.

  1. Poor parenting skills: Children who are neglected or abused are more likely to commit crimes later in life than others. Similarly, sexual abuse in childhood often leads these victims to become sexual predators as adults.
  2. Peer influence:  A person’s peer group strongly influences a decision to commit crime. For example, young boys and girls who do not fit into expected standards of academic achievement can sometimes become lost in the competition. Children of families who cannot afford adequate clothing or school supplies can also fall into the same trap. Researchers believe these youth may abandon school mates in favor of criminal gangs, since membership in a gang earns respect and status in a different manner. In gangs, antisocial behavior and criminal activity earns respect and street credibility. Like society in general, criminal gangs are usually focused on material gain. Gangs, however, resort to extortion, fraud, and theft as a means of achieving it.
  3. Drugs and alcohol: Some social factors pose an especially strong influence over a person’s ability to make choices. Drug and alcohol abuse is one such factor. The urge to commit crime to support a drug habit definitely influences the decision process. Both drugs and alcohol impair judgment and reduce inhibitions (socially defined rules of behavior), giving a person greater courage to commit a crime. Deterrents such as long prison sentences have little meaning when a person is high or drunk.
  4. Income and education: Many prisoners could not read or write above elementary school levels, if at all. The most common crimes committed by these inmates were robbery, burglary, automobile theft, drug trafficking, and shoplifting. Because of their poor educational backgrounds, their employment histories consisted of mostly low wage jobs with frequent periods of unemployment. People must make a choice between long-term low income and the prospect of profitable crime. Gaining further education, of course, is another option, but classes can be expensive and time consuming. While education can provide the chance to get a better job, it does not always overcome the effects of abuse, poverty, or other limiting factors
  5. TV violence
  6. Easy access: Another factor many criminologists consider key to making a life of crime easier is the availability of handguns in society. Many firearms used in crimes are stolen or purchased illegally (bought on what is called the “black market”). Firearms provide a simple means of committing a crime while allowing offenders some distance or detachment from their victims. By the beginning of the twenty-first century firearm use was the eighth leading cause of death in the world. Similarly, the increased availability of free information on the Internet also makes it easy to commit certain kinds of crime. Web sites provide instructions on how to make bombs and buy poisons. Easy access, however, will not be the primary factor in a person’s decision to commit a crime. Other factors—biological, psychological, or social—will also come into play.

  1. Peter Brett, An enquiry into criminal guilt, The Law Book Co, Australia, 1963 []
  2. K.D. Gaur, The Indian penal code (Fifth Ed.2008). []
  3. VR Krishan Iyer, perspective in criminology law and social change, allied publishers, 7-8, 1980 []
  4. Laub, John H. and Robert J. Sampson. Turning Points in the Life Course: Why Change Matters to the Study of Crime. Criminology 31:301-325, 1993 []
  5. Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime, 1990 []
  6. Patrick V. Murphy, CRIME AND CRIMINALITY, 1985 []
  7. Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime, 1990 []
  8. JWC Tuner, Kenny’s Outline of Criminal Law, 19 Ed []
  9. Nils Jareborg, Crime Ideologies Stockholm Institute for Scandianvian Law 1957-2009 []
  10. Mackline fleming, of crime and rights, Narton & co, Newyork, 26-32, 1978, Steven Briggs Important Theories in Criminology: Why People Commit Crime, Part of the Criminology For Dummies Cheat Sheet []