Defining Crime and Deviance

1. What does it mean to suggest that ‘deviance’ and/or ‘crime’ are social constructs? A social construct is defined as a social phenomenon or category which is created and developed by society – an idea which is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice. Since the Labour Government were in power 3600 laws have been introduced and it is said that this is due to society constantly changing its views on various issues such as smoking inside in public places.

To say that deviances and crimes are social constructs is to say that rules and laws change due to changing views within society. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology took a functionalist approach and believed that crime and deviance are social constructs. He said that crime and deviance are not natural obvious categories, they are concepts introduced to the world by humans and societies.

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Durkheim believed that the moral basis of society is formed from the norms, beliefs and values, otherwise known as the collective consciousness. He viewed crime as serving a social function, with deviance helping to form this collective conscience of what is right and what is wrong, and that it is our collective response to this deviance which establishes social norms and shapes society’s morality. He said that crime and deviance are social things, which cannot be understood unless you acknowledge that they are socially constructed.

From an interactionist perspective behavior is criminalized by a process of social perception and reaction as applied and interpreted by the legislators. Crime is not what people do, but how they are perceived and evaluated by others. A key element to this thought is that norms and behaviours are culturally and historically bound. As already touched upon, what is considered deviant behavior in one society or in one period of time may have been perfectly acceptable 20 years ago or may be in another culture today.

For example, views on animal cruelty have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. This has lead to the criminalization of fox hunting in the UK and even bull fighting in some areas of Spain where it has always been seen as central to their culture and a national tradition. Periods of social change can result in a lack of clarity of ‘norms’, therefore encouraging different kinds of criminal and deviant behavior, and the boundaries of what is ‘criminal’ and what is ‘deviant’ continuously move.

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