2. Typologies and Patterns of Crime

2.2 Thinking about Crime: Classification and Typologies

Dr. Jon Heidt

Crime can be conceptualised in several ways. The most common way people view crime is as harmful acts that are “against the law.” However, many criminologists take a more complex view of the matter and caution that it is unwise to simply see crime as a violation of the law (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2011; Agnew, 2011). As explained above, the law is technically a social construction, and many acts that cause significant harm are legal while other acts that cause minimal harm are criminalised. If criminologists only focus on acts that are violations of criminal law, they miss harms that fall outside of the law, and risk viewing relatively harmless behaviour as a problem simply because it is illegal.

To address these gaps, some criminologists suggest that we view crime as a violation of conduct norms (Sellin, 1938) (see 8 Sociological Theories of Crime). In other words, it is important to consider what a culture or group deems to be normal or deviant behaviour as this may vary based on geographic location, history, and a variety of other factors. Deviance refers to behaviours that depart from or violates social norms. These behaviours are not necessarily deviant and may not even be criminalised, but these acts may be criminalised in the future due to cultural changes. For example, adultery (or “cheating on someone”) is considered a deviant act in cultures where monogamy is the norm, but it is rarely criminalised. Thinking about the relationship between crime and deviance can shed light on why some acts were criminalised in the first place. We can see, then, that the definitions of crime and deviance change over time and differ from culture to culture.  In an effort to apply a more systematic and objective (i.e., “scientific”) approach to the study of crime, criminologists have developed typologies and other classification systems to organise their thinking about criminal acts.

What is a Typology?

The Uniform Crime Report (discussed in greater length in the Methods chapter of this text) has a typology, or special system for classifying different types of crime: violent crime, property crime, other crime, traffic offences, federal drug offences, and other federal law violations. Another common approach is to divide criminal acts into victimless crimes (e.g., drug use, prostitution, and illegal gambling) and crimes where there is a clear victim (e.g., robberies and physical assaults). Alternatively, criminologists and other commentators may use the categories of street crime or blue-collar crime (e.g., more common types of property and minor violent crime) and suite crime or white-collar crime (e.g., financial and occupational forms of crime committed by those with status or power in society, such as politicians, legal officials, corporate executives, celebrities, and famous athletes).

While these classification systems are clearly useful, most typologies fail to capture all types of crime and conceptualise them in a way that is helpful to students new to criminology. To address these concerns, this reading will review crimes that receive the most attention from criminologists. We will use the following system of classification:

Violent crime:  homicide, sexual assault, assault, and robbery

Property crime:  breaking and entering, theft, identity fraud, and identity theft

Crimes of morality/public order:  drug use and prostitution

Organised crime: serious crimes committed by groups of at least three people with the underlying purpose of reaping material or financial benefits

Hate crime and terrorism

White-collar crime: crimes committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation for their own benefit

Corporate crime: crimes committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupation for the benefit of their business or corporation

The following section will review the definitions of the types of crime listed above (with the exception of white-collar and corporate crime, which are discussed in 15 Crimes of the Powerful) and the ways they are considered to have different levels of severity. In addition, some observations will be made about the situations in which these types of crimes occur and any patterns that can be identified.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jon Heidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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