Crime is socially constructed. What does this mean and how does it differ from deviance? (University Essay)

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Essay I wrote for a university assignment concerning crime and deviance, and the difference between them. Also explaining the view that crime is socially constructed.

Submitted: February 28, 2013

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Submitted: February 28, 2013



Crime is socially constructed. What does this mean and how does it differ from deviance?

Crime, in most people’s opinion, is an act which breaks the law. However it is important when discussing crime to take into account a number of issues which raise some serious questions regarding the way crime is viewed in society. Looking into questions such as, who makes the rules of society (laws) and why, is vital as any answer to this question is underpinned by discussion on social power, political power, class difference and the way crime is socially constructed. Social norms and values vary significantly across different cultures, religions and societies. Although it can be said that when these social norms are disrupted, the ‘breaking’ of social ‘rules’ can be unlawful, in which case it becomes an act of crime, it is also important to differentiate between crime and deviance which both include the violation of social norms.

The statement ‘crime is socially constructed’ is very vague in that it could be argued for hours and in hundreds of pages of information on the subject. To put it simply, crime is constructed by the use of social laws, and the decisions of those with power, to make some of these social laws into criminal laws. Crime can be seen as a social construction as what is legal or illegal in one society or culture may not be in another, the same can be said of deviance. Crime is repeatedly conveyed as a ‘physical fact’ (Baldock, J. et al. 2007.) by the government or media. However it can be argued that when one thinks of acts which are criminal in one place yet are not in another, that crime is a social construction. To refer back to the point of those with power deciphering which acts are criminal, it can also be argued that those with power (e.g. government) define these acts as criminal, whether socially deviant or not, to suit their own purposes and to control certain parts of society. This argument may help to explain why different societies (and governments) create different laws in different places, the answer being that other governments may have different agendas which suit the social order of their society. This argument about social power supports the view that crime is socially constructed.

From a feminist point of view for example, it is argued that criminal law is mainly ignorant of the sexual and physical violence against women. For instance, rape within marriage was legal until 1991 in England and Wales (Baldock, J. et al. 2007.). One may argue that this is down to the vast majority of politicians in high levels of government being upper class males. Therefore the non-criminalisation of rape in marriage could be used as an example to suggest that crime is socially constructed, i.e. a distorted male view in some parts of society may have been that rape in marriage was acceptable and was therefore reflected by the largely male dominated legal system.

While discussing crime as a social construction it is also important to differentiate between crime and deviance. Not all violations of social norms criminal. The term deviance is described by Ken Brown in An Introduction to Sociology (2011) as,

...any non-conformist behaviour which is disapproved of by society or a social group, whether it is illegal or not.’

Macionis and Plummer (2012) describe crime as a sub category of deviance and define it as

‘...the violation of norms that a society formally enacts into criminal law.’

They also state that there are different kinds of norm including sexual norms, religious norms and health norms. To convey the point that not all deviance is criminal, Macionis and Plummer describe the people who disturb health norms as ill, sexual norms as perverts and religious norms as heretics. As someone who is ill is not seen as a criminal by society, this perfectly shows how not all deviance from social norms is criminal.

To define the difference between crime and deviance in a much more simple way; crime is the breaking of legal norms, while deviance is the breaking of social norms. Sometimes these can be the same ‘norm’ which is broken, although in some cases certain acts of deviance are not seen as criminal and some criminal acts are not socially viewed as deviant which can be seen clearly from the examples given.

To conclude, crime is referred to by sections of media and government as a ‘physical fact’. However, it is evident that crime is socially constructed, as society formally chooses which norms to legally obey by passing them into law. If these laws are broken, the act is then seen as a crime. Although some acts of deviance are criminal, it is the breaking of all social norms, whether criminal or not, which makes them deviant and therefore sets a clear distinction between crime and deviance.

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