1. What is Crime?

Dr. Sean Ashley, Capilano University

Positionality Statement

All human lives are both constrained and enabled by social context. My own family history is situated within the Maritimes of Canada. I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick, on the territory of Mi’kma’ki. My parents, Ron and Nancy Ashley, lived their entire lives in New Brunswick, close to where their ancestors had settled generations before. My maternal grandfather’s ancestors migrated from Ireland to New Brunswick in 1830. My maternal grandmother’s family were Acadians who arrived at Fort St. John, Acadia, in 1657. My paternal grandparents’ ancestors were English Loyalists who settled in what is today southwestern New Brunswick on the territory of the Passamaquoddy and Wolastoqiyik people, after the American Revolution.

As a young man I benefited from the privilege that came from being an English speaking, white settler. I attended Mount Allison University, a school that many members of my family had previously attended. I don’t recall ever making a choice to go to university; it was simply always expected given our family’s social position. Despite this privilege, Atlantic Canada is a poor region, and after graduation I found it difficult to find work, so like many young people I headed west in search of economic opportunities. I enrolled in Simon Fraser University for my graduate studies, where I completed my Master of Arts and PhD. I have remained in British Columbia ever since, settling on the unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueum, Stó:lō, Stz’uminus, and Qayqayt nations.


Each of us comes to criminology with our own understanding of what constitutes crime. In this chapter, you will learn how criminologists define crime and the different ways societies respond to criminal behaviour. We will first consider how crime was explained in the classical period of criminology and compare these ideas with Indigenous views of law and justice. We will also consider the tension between legalistic and social constructionist approaches to crime, and how criminological theories can be classified into consensus versus conflict-based perspectives.

The term “crime” derives from the Latin word crīmen, which means judgement or offence (OED, 2022). Many people take crime to mean a violation of criminal and codified law, but in English the term has always carried broader meanings and has never been restricted to legal codes (Quinney & Wildeman, 1991). Early Christian writers, for example, frequently used the word crime as a synonym for sin regardless of secular laws, and English speakers commonly use the term to talk about any offense or shameful act, such committing a fashion crime (OED, 2022). While criminologists do not typically concern themselves with fashion, the types of behaviours studied can range from minor acts of deviance to serious violations of criminal law.

Criminology, the discipline that takes crime as its object of study, first emerged within Europe in the late 19th century (Boyd, 2015). Of course, people had been dealing with crime and deviance long before this time, including within Indigenous societies around the world. Criminology as an academic discipline, however, was the product of something new–the scientific revolution. Science provided a powerful tool for understanding the nature of criminal behaviour and new methods for studying crime in society. However, it also encouraged the view that the distinct ways Europeans thought about crime were universal and objective, rather than the ideas of people living in a particular place and time.

We can see the Eurocentric nature of these views in the way criminologists applied the new idea of evolution during the classical period. Early European criminologists, including the followers of Cesare Lombroso, believed crime was something rooted in our evolution, or more specifically, in the failure of criminals to develop adaptive traits like empathy and honesty (Garofalo, 1914). The Lombrosians saw crime as something abnormal–something that could be tracked down and rooted out, with the help of criminologists, of course. By identifying and eliminating enough criminals, these pioneering criminologists believed we might be able to get rid of crime altogether.

This biological approach provided a new way for thinking about crime, yet critics were quick to point out that the Lombrosians misunderstood both the roots of criminal activity (i.e., why people engage in criminalized behaviour) and its function (i.e., what crime does for society) (De Cleyre, 2020; Durkheim, 1982; Tarde, 1886). The French sociologist Émile Durkheim was one such critic (see chapter 8.1 Crime and Social Norms). He argued that crime in fact is a normal part of every society and something that can never really be eliminated (Durkheim, 1982). He also tells us that crime performs an important function for society in that it establishes the norms for what is acceptable behaviour. Durkheim recognised that all societies develop their own moral boundaries and that the resultant norms are important for both personal and social well-being.

While crime is a universal social phenomenon, what counts as crime is particular to each society. What makes something a crime for Durkheim (1933) is that it “offends certain collective feelings which are especially strong” (p. 99). Crimes are not, however, just anything that offends a person’s sense of proper behaviour. Crime represents a form of deviance that calls forth a strong reaction from society; a reaction that can include a punishment or other forms of social censure.

Understanding crime in this way helps us avoid some of the mistakes people make when they think of crime as something that can be permanently eliminated from a society, like impurities from water. Such a view of crime has led to some rather horrific social experiments, including the eugenics movement (see chapter 6 Biological Influences on Criminal Behaviour) which saw the sterilisation of thousands of people during the early part of the 20th century, a disproportionate number of whom were Indigenous women (Stote, 2015).

Acknowledging crime as normal is not the same as saying it is good. Nor does this view indicate why a particular person might commit a crime (e.g., it could well be the psychology of the individual). Understanding crime as normal means that what comes to be seen as crime is a product of the society in question, rather than something that resides within an individual; in that regard, it constitutes a normal part of social dynamics.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Shereen Hassan and Dan Lett, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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