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Problems in defining and measuring crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1046 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Today we will be looking at the difference between crime and deviance, the way of measuring crime and deviance and the problems involved.

Defining crime is complex, dependant on social, political and economic factors. Crime is an act punishable by law. If somebody breaks the law, whether it is a serious or minor crime, s/he will be punished. Some argues that no matter how immoral, reprehensible, damaging or dangerous an act is, it is not a crime unless it is made such by the authorities of the State, the legislature. Some sociologists argue that only those are criminals who have been adjudicated as such by the courts, and no act can be considered criminal before and unless a court has meted out some penalty. Not all of those who break criminal laws are caught and convicted and many acts that could be considered criminal are rarely prosecuted. The forms of punishment are varied, depending of seriousness of crime, for example, imprisonment etc.

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Deviance is a type of behaviour that is not accepted by the majority of the society. It is behaviour that differs from the “norm” and terms weird, evil, sick, immoral are often connected with this form of behaviour. This could be something as minor as wearing the wrong kind of clothes to a party or as major as a murder. Many deviant acts that are not accepted by society are not necessarily criminal acts. Certain type of behaviour may be accepted by one society, but devalued and discredited by another. For example, drinking alcohol in British society is considered acceptable, even if it has negative impact on our society. However, there are many cultures (particularly those influenced by religious beliefs) that disapprove of this behaviour. In some countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Tunisia and Sudan, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is forbidden. There are some exceptions where alcohol can be available to foreign tourists but only in certain areas.

Criminal and deviant behaviour changes from place to place and time to time. Strong public opinion and changing moral values have a huge impact on these interpretations and it becomes difficult to say what acts are deviant/criminal and what can be considered normal. For example, abortion used to be illegal in the UK, but in 1967 it become legal up to 24 weeks with no time limit when there is a risk to the woman’s life. However, there are still anti-abortion groups in UK that believe that abortion is wrong, but because majority of society agree on this outcome it is not seen as criminal act anymore. There are still many countries that place value on human life and abortion is illegal there, for example in Northern Ireland, Brazil, Malta, the Philippines, Egypt, Nigeria and many more.

It is very difficult to draw a line between crime and deviance. They go hand in hand. Any crime that is committed is a result of someone being deviant. A great deal of deviant behaviour is not punishable by law, but can come to the attention of a community which implements various informal controls, such as isolating those who deviate from the ‘norm’ – rejected by family, friends, colleagues, whole community.

Who has the power and right to say what is normal and what is deviant behaviour? Cultures, traditions, religion, morals and beliefs, greatly influence society about what we see as acceptable/unacceptable behaviour. People are born into different societies with different cultures, values and morals. Individuals are influenced by these from birth and continue to learn and adapt new values and morals. If people migrate and become members of a different society, they may have to learn new values and morals. If somebody undertakes a religious conversion, their morals and values will change to meet their chosen religion’s behavioural code.

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Crime and deviance have always played a big part in our society. Crime statistics are an important source of information, which provide an insight into the amount and type of crime committed within particular areas (both national and local). In England, crimes recorded by the police have been published since 1876. However, official crime statistics (as recorded by the police) only contains information regarding the crimes that are reported and recorded by the police, courts and prisons. Previously the police had a certain amount of control over which crimes were recorded but since 2002 all crime has to be recorded. All those crimes which go unreported are known as a “dark figure” of crime. Hidden, unnoticed and ignored crimes belong to this category and all these are excluded from official statistics. Crimes occurring within a family or involving children are the most common types of unreported crimes. People may not report crime for different reasons, for example, lack of trust in the police or choosing to deal with the situation personally. It has been suggested that only about fifteen percent of crime is reported to the police. For this reason it is clear that statistics do not measure and provide a clear figure of total crime, therefore they are not reliable. There are other problems in comparing statistics over time including: changing legislation; changing interpretation of the law by the judiciary; and the changing morals and greater sensitivity of the general public.

To conclude, crime refers to behaviours that are a violation of the criminal law, but the law is under constantly under review. Changes in police practices, priorities, politics, law and what our definition of what constitutes a crime, have a dramatic impact on statistics. Although the accuracy of collected crime statistics are often questioned, they still provide us with insight, keeping the public, the media and other groups informed about the problem of crime. Even if they do not represent our experience of crime, they allow us to investigate the ever changing nature of crime and deviance.


  • M. Haralambos & M. Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives
  • J. Muncie and E. McLaughlin (2001) The Problem of Crime
  • David W. Jones (2008) Understanding Criminal Behaviour.


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