Crime and Society

A crime is defined as 'an act that breaks the law in a particular society'. Crimes occur when social control fails within a society.

Crime and Society Crime and Society

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    We can also explore the idea of a 'deviant act'. This is different to a crime, as it's not illegal, but it still breaks the norms of society.

    To steal something is a crime; however, to cheat on a partner is a deviant act.

    In this article, we will explore:

    • The different types of crime in sociology
    • Causes and effects of crime in society, and
    • Key concepts in crime and society.

    Let's explore this further.

    Crime and society in sociology

    Crime is a regular occurrence in most societies and is studied thoroughly by sociologists. It can often be explained through the idea of socialisation and going against social norms.

    Émile Durkheim (1895) had a functionalist perspective on crime. He explained how people conform to societal norms by socialisation through education systems, family, and religion. When growing up, people realise that if they don't conform, they may be excluded from society or face lawful punishments.

    Learning this at a young age creates a collective conscience within society and results in a social consensus of 'right' and 'wrong' behaviours. Although crime is viewed as negative within society, it's important to remember that it helps us to establish what is 'right' and 'wrong'.

    'Collective conscience' refers to shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which help to unite society. These can also be the collective norms of society.

    Being loud late at night is antisocial behaviour but not necessarily illegal. However, if somebody commits this offence, they are breaking the norms of society and will potentially be excluded.

    Durkheim stated that crime still happens because not everyone is socialised with the same norms and values. We all still have free will.

    Crime and Society, Gavel, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A crime is an act that breaks the law in a particular society.

    Types of crime in sociology

    There are seven common types of crime described within sociology. It is important to distinguish between each one.

    Seven common types of crime

    Broadly, the are seven common types of crime categorised by how the crime is committed and who the victim(s) (if any) are.

    Personal/violent crime

    Personal crimes are crimes against a person, such as kidnapping, murder, rape, or assault.

    White-collar crime

    White-collar crime is fraud often committed by businesses or business people to gain or avoid losing money, such as money laundering, mortgage fraud, or embezzlement.

    Property crime

    Property crime is criminal activity directed at properties which don't involve harm to a person, such as arson, theft, or burglary.

    Organised crime

    Organised crime is committed by a criminal group in an organised manner, such as terrorism, drug dealing, or sex trafficking.

    Victimless crime

    Victimless crime is a crime that doesn't target another individual or property, such as drug-taking, or illegal gambling.

    In recent years, sociologists have explored the idea of two other types of crime. These are recently named, as they come along with the growth of our postmodern society.


    Cybercrime is committed with the aid of a computer or internet-accessible device, and includes acts like hacking private documents, accessing child pornography, or stealing somebody's identity.

    Green crime

    Green crime is often committed by large corporates and organisations. Piers Beirne and Nigel South (2007) define green crime as 'unjust exploitation of natural resources, ecosystems, humans and animals'. This includes pollution from economic exploitation, or creating a war that brings people into conflict and destroys the land on which it is fought.

    With new developments happening in society, crime adapts too. Technological improvements in recent years have meant cybercrime is on the rise, with many new laws being introduced to combat it. Green crime has been committed more often too. However, this is harder to police as it is committed by powerful companies.

    Cause and effect of crime in society

    We will look at some causes and effects of crime from sociological perspectives.

    Causes of crime

    Crime changes all the time, as does society. However, laws take longer to change and are not subjective. The government decides the line between 'right' and 'wrong', which can sometimes lead to controversy when new laws come into action. Durkheim's theories on crime concerning lack of socialisation can be explored further to determine the causes of crime.

    Social factors of crime

    Causes of crime are very complex. There is never just one underlying reason for a criminal committing an act against the law. However, studies have shown that cause is often determined by the situation you are born into.

    The amount of crime you will commit in a lifetime can generally be determined by social factors such as the location you are born, your gender, ethnicity, and social class. This can be seen by looking at official statistics. Over 70 percent of crime is committed by men; if you are born a man, it's more likely you will commit a crime than a woman.

    Poverty is a great factor in crime. Those born into poverty are more likely to commit crimes such as theft in order to escape poverty. However, this is not the case for all. Labelling theory suggests that as the working class are labelled 'underachievers' by society, it results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    By joining delinquent subcultures, the working class can finally feel accepted in society. However, this results in the labelling going even further. Being labelled as 'criminal' makes them become so, as they have lost other opportunities in life.

    Crime and Society, Black and white photo of man with coins in his hand, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Social factors such as social class can determine how likely you are to commit a crime in your lifetime.

    Effects of crime

    There are many effects of crime, but statistically, the effects are often worse if the crime is violent. Areas that have a higher crime rate often suffer from crashing property prices. People are likely to want to move away when the crime rate increases, yet find it difficult to sell their homes for a good profit. This is because nobody wants to move to an area affected by high crime rates.

    There are also many physical costs of the consequences of crime. In the UK, businesses affected by theft and fraud each year collate a cost of around £190 billion (as of 2017, according to the Annual Fraud Indicator).

    An interesting theory in relation to the effects of crime is the 'Broken window theory' by James Wilson. The theory suggests that if a community accepts a broken window without fixing it, then crime will slowly increase. The idea behind this is the acceptance of crime. If the window is not fixed, it shows criminals that vandalism is accepted in that community.

    This has a knock-on effect which leads to further low-level crime such as littering and graffiti. Although perhaps small, their impact sends a message of crime tolerance, therefore paving the way for worse crimes to occur. Wilson believed the solution to this problem was to deter criminals from committing serious crimes in an area by having severe punishments for low-level crimes such as these.

    Stereotyping can also be seen as an effect of crime. Stereotypes in relation to crime are often assumed from who we believe will commit a crime. Stereotypes limit certain groups within society and have a negative effect on how we perceive one another. This is often down to media perception.

    Youth, crime and society

    It is particularly interesting to look at the relationship between youth, crime, and society. Crimes are committed by a younger demographic and have been for a long time. The mean age of criminal conviction for men is 21-25 years old; for women it is 26-30 years old, according to official statistics. Sociologists find it interesting to look at the reasoning for this.

    Some believe that it comes down to the fact that human brains aren't fully developed until the age of 25. This means we can still be impulsive and struggle to make decisions until the brain is fully developed. Determining between 'right' and 'wrong' is important but subjective. If someone has not been socialised in a way that teaches them the same norms as the law, it's more likely they will commit a crime.

    Opportunity often comes along when we just grow out of childhood, and this could be another factor for why crime is committed by younger groups of people.

    The impact of labelling in school on crime

    In addition, labelling at school plays a big part in how we develop after leaving education. Rosenthal and Jacobsen suggest the self-fulfilling prophecy results in differences in achievement. Teachers' unintentional labelling of students determines what they will achieve.

    Labelling students negatively (e.g. 'low-achiever' or 'delinquent') will mean they fulfil this role. Labelling occurs within schools when people are younger, resulting in criminal behaviours at this age rather than later in life.

    Key concepts in crime and society

    We will go through some key concepts in crime and society, including sociological theories of crime. Such theories go through sociological explanations for why crime occurs.

    The following section will provide you with just an overview of the sociological theories of crime. There are separate articles on each of the following theories of crime, which go into a lot more detail.

    However, if you just want a quick refresher, visit Sociological Theories of Crime!

    Sociological theories of crime

    Sociological theories of crime include:

    • Functionalist theories of crime,

    • Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories of crime,

    • Interactionist theories of crime, and

    • Realist theories of crime.

    Crime and Society, Shelves filled with books, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 - It is important to understand the different sociological theories of crime.

    Functionalism and crime

    Functionalists hold the belief that the law enforces society's shared values. It creates social solidarity. Not everybody is socialised to have the same norms and values, so the law helps to reinforce these and avoid deviance. We will be looking at the functionalist theories of crime by Durkheim, Merton, Cohen, and Hirschi.

    Marxism, Neo-Marxism and crime

    Marxists believe that the justice system is an unfair system that benefits the ruling class and punishes the working class. They believe that crime is inevitable within capitalism because capitalist society is criminogenic. The laws only benefit the bourgeoisie, which leads to increased crime, as the proletariats in poverty turn to crime as their only option.

    Criminogenic refers to a system, situation, or place that is likely to cause criminal behaviours.

    We will be looking at Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories of crime such as criminogenic capitalism and radical criminology.

    Interactionism and crime

    Interactionists believe that society is created 'bottom up'. Interactionism states that crime is socially constructed and that society 'labels' certain crimes and people as 'worse' than others. Interactionist theories of crime include labelling theory and the deviancy amplification theory.

    Realism and crime

    Realism is an approach that focuses on providing practical solutions to crime and deviance. Realists focus on solutions that can help policymakers address this social problem. However, realists are split into right and left realists, both of which have very different approaches to the nature, causes, and solutions of crime. We will look at both types of realism and their approaches to crime.

    Feminist theories of crime believe the criminal justice system is a structured power that treats people differently based on their backgrounds. Crimes are committed mostly by men because it is a clear way for them to assert the masculinity they need to be accepted into society.

    Crime and Society - Key Takeaways

    • A crime is defined as 'an act that breaks the law in a particular society'.
    • There are five most common types of crime in society: personal, white-collar, property, organised, and victimless crime. Cybercrime and green crime are more recent additions.
    • The effects of crime are seemingly endless, but include property prices decreasing, people moving out of high crime areas, and £190 billion a year lost from fraud and theft.
    • Crime is committed mostly by youths which can be explained by the fact that human brains don't fully develop until the age of 25. Labelling within education systems creates a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.
    • Sociological theories of crime include functionalism, Marxism, interactionism, and realism.
    Crime and Society Crime and Society
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Crime and Society

    What is white-collar crime in society?

    White-collar crime is fraud often committed by businesses or business people to gain or avoid losing money, such as money laundering, mortgage fraud, or embezzlement.

    What is crime and society?

    A crime is defined as 'an act that breaks the law in a particular society'.

    How does society cause crime?

    Crime causes are very complex, and there's never just one underlying reason for a criminal committing an act against the law. However, studies have shown that cause is often determined by the situation you are born into, such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. 

    Why is crime important in society?

    Although crime is viewed as negative within society, it's important to remember that if there was no crime, it would suggest that everyone is conforming; this may mean society is overly regulated. In addition, functionalists believe that some level of crime is important in society as it reinforces social order and maintains social solidarity.

    How do stereotypes affect society and crime?

    Stereotypes in relation to crime are often assumed from who we believe will commit a crime. Stereotypes limit certain groups within society and have a negative effect on how we perceive one another. Interactionists believe that some crimes committed by certain people are 'worse' than others due to stereotypes and labelling.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernstein (1985) state that young men are ______ and _______ predisposed to committing crimes.

    Travis Hirschi (1969) argues that we are more likely to commit crimes when our social ties to the wider community are strong. True or false?

    Wilson and Hernstein (1985) emphasise the element of choice in deviance. In order to reduce crime, the ______ need to outweigh the ______. 

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    Team Crime and Society Teachers

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