Dr. Jon Heidt, University of the Fraser Valley
Social context and history are important to understanding anyone’s background. I am originally from Bismarck, North Dakota in the United States. My ancestors arrived in the United States in the early 1900s and came from a variety of European countries including Germany, Russia, Norway, and Sweden. Many of my ancestors were farmers and were granted access to land through the Homestead Act—an option that was unavailable to the Dakota, Lakota, Arikara, Assiniboine, Chippewa, Hidatsa, and Mandan tribes of Indigenous people who were originally living in Dakota Territory. This is another example of how governments in the United States (through the Dawes Act and the Bureau of Indian Affairs) and Canada (through the Indian Act) used the law to ensure that European settlers would have access to opportunities to be successful. I have benefited greatly throughout my life from this unfair situation. I also am aware that many more educational and economic opportunities were afforded to me due to my status as a White male and because of the institutional racism present in North American society.
Introduction: Thinking critically about crime patterns
This chapter reviews patterns of various types of crime in different contexts of time and place. But before we examine these patterns, we must first consider the social nature of crime and the law. While many people take definitions of crime for granted, it is important to remember that crime is essentially a social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Quinney, 1970). In other words, through various social processes—such as voting, political action, cultural practices, and media debates—society collectively decides which types of behaviour are considered harmful or criminal. Definitions of crime and criminal law change over time in response to things like shifting cultural attitudes, significant events, and even technological progress. For example, in Canada there have been several changes in the past decade affecting the legality of same-sex marriage, cannabis use, cyberbullying, and hate speech. Finally, criminal law is also influenced by politics and ideology (Taylor et al., 1973; Quinney, 1974). Given this, some acts that are quite harmful to society (e.g., the default credit swaps that caused the 2008 financial crisis) are perfectly legal, while other acts that cause minor harm (e.g., occasional drug use) are considered criminal offences.
Although there are disagreements and changing public attitudes about some laws, most people agree that certain acts should be illegal. For example, murder is viewed as a crime with a few exceptions—no one wants to live in a world where people can randomly kill each other and get away with it. Similarly, most agree that there should be laws that protect against theft of property and assault. Agreement about these values is referred to as . Given that criminal law is a socially constructed political entity, it is wise to take a critical thinking approach when examining patterns of crime. We must always consider how forms of behaviour become defined as a crime, and how the frequency and severity of crime are measured when we are studying phenomena such as the changing rates, seriousness, or nature of criminal activity in a society.
Societal agreement on shared values and norms.