In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Social Construction of Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Sources in Deviance and Crime
  • Nature of Crime
  • Social Construction of Illicit Drugs
  • Social Construction of Criminal Violence
  • Media Depictions of Crime and Justice

Criminology The Social Construction of Crime
Richard Rosenfeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0050


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

    DOI: 10.1146/

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1973.21.2.03a00010

    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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