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Criminology The Social Construction of Crime
by
Richard Rosenfeld

Introduction

Behaviors become crimes through a process of social construction. The same behavior may be considered criminal in one society and an act of honor in another society or in the same society at a different time. The legal status of a behavior—whether it is defined as a crime—lies not in the content of the behavior itself but in the social response to the behavior or to the persons who engage in it. Changes in the legal status of a behavior are often brought about by social movements and may entail considerable social conflict. Examples include the recent controversies over abortion policy and assisted suicide in the United States. Finally, the social response to crime—including many social-science explanations of criminal behavior—are based not only on the qualities of the act but also on the social and moral standing of the offender and the victim.

General Overviews

As a philosophical orientation, social constructionism holds that the meaning of acts, behaviors, and events is not an objective quality of those phenomena but is assigned to them by human beings in social interaction. Meaning, in other words, is socially defined and organized and therefore is subject to social change. The major sociological statement in the constructionist tradition is Berger and Luckmann 1967. Spector and Kitsuse 1973 introduced social constructionism into the lexicon of social problems theory in the early 1970s (see also Schneider 1985). From a social constructionist perspective, a given act or behavior (abortion, drunk driving, domestic violence, race or ethnic bias) becomes a social problem through a process of successful claims-making by social movements or groups that advance a particular definition of a problem and seek to mobilize particular kinds of social response (such as psychiatric evaluation, medical treatment, or imprisonment). Loseke and Best 2003 provides several applications. Conrad and Schneider 1992 considers historical changes in the definition and social response to mental illness, drug addiction, homosexuality, and other conditions accompanying the growing dominance of the institution of medicine and the rise of the medical model of deviance.

  • Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

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    Argues that reality is at once objective and external to the individual and continuously created and re-created by human beings. Berger and Luckmann's enormously influential argument was essential groundwork for the application of social-constructionist perspectives to the study of social problems, deviance, and crime.

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  • Conrad, Peter, and Joseph W. Schneider. 1992. Deviance and medicalization: From badness to sickness. Expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    Conditions once viewed as a type or consequence of “badness,” and therefore under the purview of religious or political authorities, are seen increasingly as manifestations of sickness or disease and subject to medical treatment. Conrad and Schneider consider the implications of these shifting definitions and responses for the nature of social control and the political character of deviance.

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  • Loseke, Donileen R., and Joel Best, eds. 2003. Social problems: Constructionist readings. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

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    A volume of readings on applications of the social-constructionist perspective to social problems as diverse as spanking, bullying, smoking, and reality TV.

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  • Schneider, Joseph W. 1985. Social problems theory: The constructionist view. Annual Review Of Sociology 11:209–229.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.so.11.080185.001233Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews foundational theoretical contributions and early research in the social constructionist tradition. Schneider considers the role of public bureaucracies and the legal system in the construction and processing of social problems, the medicalization of deviance, and social problems and the media.

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  • Spector, Malcolm, and John I. Kitsuse. 1973. Social problems: A reformulation. Social Problems 21:145–159.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1973.21.2.03a00010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Generally regarded as the opening salvo in reorienting the sociology of social problems around the social-constructionist orientation. Develops a conception of the social construction of social problems as involving four basic components: (1) groups define a condition as troublesome or offensive; (2) officials with responsibility for the condition react to the claims; (3) groups counter the official response; (4) groups develop alternative definitions of the condition and institutions for addressing it.

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Foundational Sources in Deviance and Crime

Any list of major sources in the social construction of crime and other forms of deviance must include Becker 1963, Goffman 1963, and Quinney 2001. None of these sociological theorists was a social constructionist per se—their contributions predated the self-conscious emergence of the constructionist perspective in sociology—but their work anticipated some of the major constructionist arguments and insights. In Becker's famous statement, “Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather the consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’” (Becker 1963, p. 9, emphasis in original). Goffman introduced the concept of stigma into the study of deviance and crime, and Quinney sought to reorient the study of crime and the legal order around the recognition that legal prohibitions reflect the structure of interests in a society. Cohen's introduction of the concept of “moral panic” in his study of Britain's mods and rockers during the 1960s (Cohen 2002) and Gusfield's analysis of the drinking-driver problem (Gusfield 1981) are classics in the genre. Gusfield asks how and why Americans have come to view alcohol use and operating a motor vehicle as a “drinking-driving” problem. Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994 analyzes the concept of moral panics and allied ideas in the context of the social-constructionist perspective on crime and deviance. Rafter 1990 traces the evolution of the constructionist perspective in criminology and criminal justice through the 1980s.

  • Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.

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    Becker sees deviance as a consequence of rules imposed on the offender by others. Becker applies this perspective to marijuana use and its social control and to the dance hall musician. In this book Becker introduced the concept of moral entrepreneurs to characterize those groups who seek to create rules and enforce conformity to them.

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  • Cohen, Stanley. 2002. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Originally published in 1972, Cohen's classic introduced the concept of moral panics into the study of deviance. He uses the concept in his well-known and still relevant analysis of the 1960s British youth groups, the mods and the rockers.

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  • Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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    This modern classic argues that stigma resides not in a person's attributes but in the social interactions and relationships through which particular attributes come to be viewed as discrediting, including by the person himself or herself. Goffman's meticulous analysis is the intellectual foundation for subsequent studies of discrimination against persons with a criminal record.

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  • Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. 1994. Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

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    The authors analyze the concept of moral panics in relation to related ideas, such as moral crusades, and apply it to drug panics and witch hunts. A very useful introduction to the social-constructionist perspective in the study of deviance. Chapter 5 addresses the social construction of criminal deviance.

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  • Gusfield, Joseph R. 1981. The culture of public problems: Drinking-driving and the symbolic order. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    In a masterful analysis, Gusfield points out that there are many ways to frame the issue of motor vehicle accidents and fatalities other than as a drinking-driving problem. Yet Americans have chosen to target the drunk behind the wheel. An exemplary exposition and application of the social-constructionist framework.

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  • Quinney, Richard. 2001. The social reality of crime. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Joins social-constructionist and conflict perspectives on crime and law. Behaviors that threaten the interests of the powerful are defined as “crimes,” and those definitions eventually influence general conceptions of crime, including those held by individuals labeled as criminal. Originally published in 1970.

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  • Rafter, Nicole Hahn. 1990. The social construction of crime and crime control. Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency 27:376–389.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427890027004004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces the constructionist perspective in criminology by examining social histories of crime and justice institutions, theory and research in critical criminology, studies of the victimization of women, and feminist theories of crime.

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Nature of Crime

What is crime? Should criminologists adopt the legal definition of crimes or create their own, and, if so, on what basis? Most criminologists accept a legalistic conception of crime that defines crime as a violation of criminal law. Early and spirited defenses of this conception against broader approaches can be found in Michael and Adler 2001 and Tappan 2001. Influential counterdefinitions that extend the concept of crime to broadly defined “social harms” include Schwendinger and Schwendinger 2001 and Tifft and Sullivan 2001. These and other essays on the nature of crime are collected in Henry and Lanier 2001. Regardless of whether one accepts a narrow, legalistic conception of crime or a broader conception that extends beyond criminal law, the constructionist perspective serves as a reminder that crime is a social category that is neither fixed nor universal across societies or within the same society over time.

  • Henry, Stuart, and Mark M. Lanier, eds. 2001. What is crime? Controversies over the nature of crime and what to do about it. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    A useful edited volume of essays on the nature of crime that covers legalistic conceptions of crime, broader harms-based conceptions, and alternative views on how crimes should be classified and how criminologists should study the legal order.

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  • Michael, Jerome, and Mortimer J. Adler. 2001. The nature of crime. In What is crime? Controversies over the nature of crime and what to do about it. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier, 19–26. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Originally published in 1933, a classic legalistic definition of crime as the violation of criminal law. Broader conceptions are criticized as imprecise and unclear. As Michael and Adler point out, if crime is defined as the violation of criminal law, “it follows that the criminal law is the formal cause of crime” (p. 21).

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  • Schwendinger, Herman, and Julia Schwendinger. 2001. Defenders of order or guardians of human rights? In What is crime? Controversies over the nature of crime and what to do about it. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier, 65–98. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    The authors maintain that criminologists can choose to defend or critique the existing set of social and political arrangements. The Schwendingers' choice is clear: criminologists should reject the legalistic definition of crime imposed by the state and adopt a conception based on human rights that transcends the limits of the existing social system.

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  • Tappan, Paul W. 2001. Who is the criminal? In What is crime? Controversies over the nature of crime and what to do about it. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier, 27–36. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Originally published in 1947, Tappan's essay not only defends the legalistic definition of crime but narrows it even further by arguing that “only those are criminals who have been adjudicated as such by the courts” (p. 31). Pairing Tappan's essay with Schwendinger and Schwendinger 2001 would make for lively discussion in upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses.

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  • Tifft, Larry L., and Dennis C. Sullivan. 2001. A needs-based, social harms definition of crime. In What is crime? Controversies over the nature of crime and what to do about it. Edited by Stuart Henry and Mark M. Lanier, 27–36. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    Advances a definition of crime “as any power-based act that harms another” (p. 184). This definition encompasses traditionally defined crimes such as theft, rape, and robbery, but also includes the unequal social arrangements that produce interpersonal harm. The authors argue that, at bottom, the exercise of power is itself a criminal act.

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Social Construction of Illicit Drugs

The social-constructionist framework is perhaps best known for its application to so-called victimless crimes such as illegal drug use. An extreme statement is Szasz 2003, which argues that the difference between illegal and legal drugs is the same as that between water and holy water. Musto 1999 links the history of criminalization of particular substances in the United States to fear of and hostility toward ethnic groups identified with their use (such as opium and the Chinese, marijuana and Mexicans, and crack cocaine and African Americans). A common tactic in the social construction of drug scares is to connect the distribution and use of certain drugs to violence. Reinarman and Levine 1989 and Brownstein 2000 argue that the heightened public fear of crack cocaine was based on its putative connection to violent crime by inner-city African Americans. Reinarman 1988 revisits the social construction of the drunk driver in an analysis of Mothers against Drunk Driving, the key moral entrepreneur in the crusade to heighten criminal penalties for drinking and driving.

  • Brownstein, Henry H. 2000. The social reality of violence and violent crime. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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    Readable introduction to the social-constructionist perspective on violent crime that treats the definition and criminalization of violence as arising from social movements and interest-group politics. Extended discussion of the social construction of the violent drug dealer.

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  • Musto, David F. 1999. The American disease: Origins of narcotic control. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Classic analysis of the criminalization of drug use in the United States. Musto argues that the history of drug laws follows a cyclical pattern of tolerance, restraint, and prohibition and is embedded in public fears of minority groups. Originally published in 1973, the third edition updates the analysis into the Clinton administration.

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  • Reinarman, Craig. 1988. The social construction of an alcohol problem: The case of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and social control in the 1980s. Theory And Society 17:91–120.

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    “Alcohol problems,” Reinarman writes, “have never been merely problems having to do with alcohol” (p. 112). A trenchant analysis of a major moral entrepreneur in the symbolic and political crusade connected to alcohol in the United States, Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD). Reinarman ties MADD's success to broader conservative cultural and political currents in the United States during the 1980s.

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  • Reinarman, Craig, and Harry Gene Levine. 1989. Crack in context: Politics and media in the making of a drug scare. Contemporary Drug Problems 16:535–577.

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    Places the social response to crack cocaine in the context of American drug scares in which the media and political discourse frame the problem in medical terms and deemphasize the contribution of economic and social problems to drug abuse.

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  • Szasz, Thomas. 2003. Ceremonial chemistry: The ritual persecution of drugs, addicts, and pushers. Rev. ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press.

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    A leading libertarian advocate of drug legalization, Szasz argues that the criminalization of drug use and treatment of drug addiction as a mental health problem resemble religious persecution. A forceful polemic against the expansion of state power to control the substances citizens ingest, which, according to Szasz, would have puzzled and frightened the founders of the U.S. Constitution.

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Social Construction of Criminal Violence

Why are some instances of violence ignored, some praised, and others subject to severe criminal sanctions? The framing of violence as praiseworthy or blameworthy has less to do with the content of the behavior than with the social and moral standing of putative offenders and victims and the cultural context in which violence occurs (Rosenfeld 2009). Best 1999 explores the cultural and political currents underlying public fears of “random violence” during the late 20th century. Brownstein 2000 and McCorkle and Miethe 2002 apply the constructionist perspective to violence associated with crack dealers and street gangs, respectively. Loseke 1992 traces the redefinition of intimate-partner violence from “domestic disturbance” to a problem of “wife abuse” meriting serious criminal penalties. Jenkins 1994 links public concern with serial homicide to the self-justifying activities of agencies of social control, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and social activists. None of these works treats violence as unimportant or as lacking any basis in objective reality. Violence exists and is harmful by definition, but its objective qualities alone do not explain the rise and fall in public concern or official response over time or differences across place.

  • Best, Joel. 1999. Random violence: How we talk about new crimes and new victims. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Describes the role of claims-makers and moral entrepreneurs in stoking the fear of random violence in the form of wilding, stalking, road rage, youth gangs, and hate crimes. Media depictions of the frequency or seriousness of cases often are overblown. The book contains a very useful appendix on improving media coverage of social problems.

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  • Brownstein, Henry H. 2000. The social reality of violence and violent crime. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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    Readable introduction to the social-constructionist perspective on violent crime that treats the definition and criminalization of violence as arising from social movements and interest-group politics. Extended discussion of the social construction of the violent drug dealer.

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  • Jenkins, Phillip. 1994. Using murder: The social construction of serial homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    Argues that framing the serial-killer problem as a growing threat during the late 20th century served the interests of official social control agents, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and continues to help justify the expansion of the bureaucratic power of law-enforcement agencies and the expansion of formal social control.

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  • Loseke, Donileen R. 1992. The battered woman and shelters: Social construction of wife abuse. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    During the 1970s the problem of the “battered woman” emerged into public consciousness, and shelters to protect women from their abusers began to spread. Loseke analyzes the social construction of the battered woman and shows how certain definitions of, and appropriate responses to, the problem of intimate violence were privileged and others were rejected.

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  • McCorkle, Richard C., and Terance D. Miethe. 2002. Panic: The social construction of the street gang problem. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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    Describes the social response to the rise of street gangs in the United States as a moral panic. Despite declining violent crime rates during the 1990s, most Americans believed violence was on the rise, and law enforcement agencies promoted a stereotyped image of the highly organized and violent street gang. Mass media and some criminologists are also implicated.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard. 2009. Homicide and serious assaults. In The Oxford handbook of crime and public policy. Edited by Michael Tonry, 25–50. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Argues that the social response to criminal violence has more to do with the social and moral standing of offenders and victims than with the objective features of the behavior. Similarly, most criminological theories are restricted to explaining the violent behavior of morally suspect or socially degraded individuals and groups.

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Media Depictions of Crime and Justice

From the constructionist perspective, the media are far from passive or merely reactive players in the public drama surrounding crime and other forms of deviance. Nearly all constructionist accounts of social problems attribute enormous significance and power to the role of the mass media in defining a problem as worthy of public attention, promoting certain problem definitions and deemphasizing others, and shaping the public response. Media accounts often distort the facts of an event or create new “facts” of dubious validity. Best and Horiuchi 1985 shows how media depictions fostered the myth of razor blades and poison in Halloween candy during the 1970s and 1980s. Cullen 2009, written by a reporter, maintains that law enforcement agencies and initial media accounts of the Columbine school shootings portrayed the killers in highly inaccurate terms (such as that they were victims of bullying and had no friends). Altheide 2002 argues that the mass media contribute to a climate of needless fear. Media distortions of crime are nothing new, as shown in several of the contributions to Barak's edited volume (Barak 1994). The best constructionist accounts go well beyond claiming that the media often get the facts wrong; the media do not operate in isolation from other sources of social power and constitute the primary lens through which social problems are perceived and interpreted.

  • Altheide, David L. 2002. Creating fear: News and the construction of crisis. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine de Gruyter.

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    Examines the role of the media and popular culture in the social construction of fear and perceptions of heightened danger and risk in the world. Fear has become a major social perspective through which problems such as crime and environmental hazards are interpreted.

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  • Barak, Gregg, ed. 1994. Media, process, and the social construction of crime: Studies in newsmaking criminology. New York: Garland.

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    An edited volume on media depictions of crime and violence from the Old West to current newspaper coverage. A persistent theme is that the media are a powerful form of social control. The editor and other contributors propose that criminologists should become media activists and work to dispel inaccurate and harmful media depictions of crime.

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  • Best, Joel, and Gerald T. Horiuchi. 1985. The razor blade in the apple: The social construction of urban legends. Social Problems 32:488–499.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1985.32.5.03a00070Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reviews news stories over a twenty-five-year period and finds little evidence for the widespread claims that sadists were putting razor blades, needles, and poison in children's Halloween candy. They attribute the roots of this urban legend to a growing fear of crime and concern with children's safety.

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  • Cullen, Dave. 2009. Columbine. New York: Twelve.

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    Maintains the killers were not bullied by other students, had no particular hatred of “jocks” or minorities, were not part of a “trench coat mafia” or a “goth” subculture, and did not do poorly in school. Rather, one was a psychopath and the other a depressed adolescent under his influence.

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  • Potter, Gary W., and Victor E. Kappeler, eds. 2006. Constructing crime: Perspectives on making news and social problems. 2d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.

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    A useful collection of papers on how the media contribute to public concern with youth gangs, domestic violence, school violence, illicit drugs, and other crime problems. The volume contains general statements on the constructionist perspective and analyses of media effects on fear of crime.

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LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0050

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