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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Works
  • Labeling and Constructionism
  • Neo-Marxism and the Structure of Crime
  • Feminist and Gender Theories
  • Post-structuralism
  • The Cultural Turn
  • Media, Police, and the Construction of Crime
  • Risk and Crime
  • The Construction of the Criminal “Other” in Global Contexts
  • Journals

Sociology Social Construction of Crime
Murray Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0190


Crime is a term generally used to describe a range of behaviors or acts that a society and/or its lawmakers have deemed fit to criminalize. Indeed, most forms of crime have little in common apart from the fact that they have been labeled as such and thus constitute and infringement of a specific law. This might seem self-evident to sociologists versed in social theory. However, crime is often talked about in contemporary society as if it were a self-evident natural, legal, or moral category. Nowhere is this more evident than in the biological or genetic search for the causes of crime where criminal acts are somehow prescribed within the individual makeup. In fact, crime is a very unstable construction. It is unstable temporally, culturally, and geographically. There are few acts if any that are always deemed crimes in every society. One need only think about homicide, which while broadly condemned, is legal in the theater of war in many contexts, or as an act of the state such as capital punishment in many jurisdictions.

General Overviews

To suggest that crime is socially constructed does not mean there is a singular view of the ways in which this social construction takes place (Burr 2015). Indeed, there are multiple and often competing models as Hahn Rafter 1990 has noted. These vary from positivistic models of social construction where crime is seen to be a functional product of the type of society and culture in which it takes place (see Durkheim 1982 and Merton 1957 in Classic Works), to social constructivist accounts which understand crime as a social process (see Cohen 1972 in Labeling and Constructionism; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009) or post-structuralist accounts that see crime as the result of competing discourses of power or strategies of domination (see Foucault 1977 and Garland 2001 in Post-structuralism) (Barak 1995, Downes and Rock 2011). There are a number of works that give sociological overviews of such models and theories.

  • Barak, Greg, ed. 1995. Media, process, and the social construction of crime: Studies in newsmaking criminology. New York: Garland.

    This seminal collection draws together a number of articles from key contributors who assess the role of the media in constructing the “reality” of crime. The editor notes that perceptions of crime and the crime problem are constructed through shared crime narratives that include experts such as media commentators, politicians, and criminologists. Through evaluations of these narratives the media can be seen as a key tool of social control.

  • Burr, Vivian. 2015. Social constructionism. East Sussex, UK: Routledge.

    This book gives an excellent general overview of the elements and history of social constructionism using examples drawn from psychology, medicine, and other disciplines.

  • Downes, David, and Paul Rock. 2011. Understanding deviance. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/he/9780199569830.001.0001

    An enduring publication now into its sixth edition, this overview of sociological criminology remains an excellent resource text in this field.

  • Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. 2009. Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444307924

    Updated edition of this book first published in 1994. This offers a great overview of how media players and other moral agents construct crime and our fears about it.

  • Hahn Rafter, Nicole. 1990. The social construction of crime and crime control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 27 (November): 376–389.

    This article is a succinct overview of social constructionism in the broad fields of criminology and criminal justice studies. It notes how scholars from outside the correctionist and administrative traditions had impacted upon the fields since the early 1960s in particular.

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