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What is Crime? - Sian Rowe

Sian Rowe is a first year student studying for a degree in Criminology and criminal justice at the University of Portsmouth

Functionalist ideas on Crime & Deviance

This essay aims to draw upon some of the elements which make up the idea of crime. There are many aspects to consider, including the definition, hidden crime and conflict within society.


According to the Sage Dictionary of Criminology, the ability to define crime is a difficult concept. It depends at what stage of time we are in and how we perceive things. The idea of crime also draws upon how an individual, or a set of individuals are linked with society, in that they show, or do not show solidarity within civilisation. The definition also draws upon the idea of ‘consensus’ meaning how much an individual agrees with societies’ norms and values (McLaughlin & Muncie, 2012, p.85).


Crime is a difficult concept to define. This is because it varies so greatly. It is not entirely about law-breaking, but also includes a number of other factors, such as the solidarity within society. It is important to remember that the term ‘law’ takes its own definition of, as Des Rosiers & Bittle (2004, p.7) cites within their chapter, “law can be said to have a distinctly social basis; it both shapes – and is shaped by – the society in which it operates.” This means that there are a variety of factors which shape our behaviour within society and how we respond to these behaviours (Des Rosiers & Bittle, 2004, p.7). In addition, crime is further difficult to define due to conflicting definitions within society. As Henry and Lanier (2001, p.1) state, there are narrow and broad definitions. For example, Henry and Lanier (2001, p1) use the idea of broad and narrow definitions. Firstly, through narrow definitions certain acts may be seen as exclusive, such as domestic abuse and crimes committed by the powerful, including fraud. Secondly, the idea of a broad definition deals with every act deemed as being abnormal, is a crime. This, therefore, suggests that we, as individuals, have a different sense of crime and this makes it difficult to have a generic meaning within society. This, of course, varies from place to place and, often, different societies have different viewpoints on norms and values (White & Laines, 2000, p.61).


The theory behind crime originates from the Enlightenment period through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of the philosophers, including those such as Marx and Durkheim, had conflicting opinions on crime and society, yet it appears that they all agreed on certain aspects of society, such as  the proposal that there were societal changes taking place, which led to a transformation within civilisation (Francis,1987,p.3). The Enlightenment period also brought about the theme that behaviour was not just down to determinism, but also had an element of free will, which was inspired by the change in society in relation to political and economic reasons (Hopkins Burke, 2009, p.4). Determinism is the idea that behaviour is caused by external influences which cannot be controlled (Sharrock, 1987, p.146). This links to Classicism, which in short, suggested that individually, we are not equally liable for the way we act due to elements of free will (Hopkins Burke, 2009, p.31).


In some cases, the idea of crime is seen as not being as measurable as it could be. Therefore, we do not know the true extent of crime. This is called ‘The Dark Figure of Crime’, or, the Iceberg Theory. The Iceberg Theory deals with the idea that, like an iceberg, only the uppermost crimes are shown.  Both theories suggest that crime is hidden, and that crimes are not always entirely recorded, which is represented by the lower half of the iceberg. The concept of ‘The Dark Figure of Crime’ is divided into two categories; the amount of crimes which are not recorded (quantitative methods, for example crime statistics) and our perception of what we believe the unexposed offender to look like (qualitative methods, for example descriptive approach) (Coleman & Moynihan, 1996, p.3).  


Some Criminologists believe that crime is a necessity as it allows society to function adequately. The works of Durkheim in the 1800’s suggests that the act of crime brings and retains consensus with society. Durkheim suggested that there was a necessity for crime as it brings together the ethical codes for a society, in that moral boundaries are set. Durkheim further suggests that, within society, we learn social norms and values, and we learn what unacceptable and acceptable ways to act within society are. In addition, crime serves to bring a sense of harmony among law respecting individuals, therefore creating consensus within society (Henry & Lanier, 2001, p.2).


There is a long standing debate within criminology which questions the cause of crime, known as the nature and nurture debate. The nature side of the debate suggests that criminals are born that way. Early criminologists, such as Lombroso suggest that there was a way of calculating whether someone was a criminal or not, by taking physical traits, such as head size and shape (Newburn, 2007, p.123). In more contemporary ways, crime can be associated through genes and genetics. However, it is sometimes difficult to base behaviour on deterministic factors alone. There is the need for environmental factors to be understood during the process of considering what the causation of crime is (Schaffner, 2001 p.84). The environment acts as a stimulus, and often, some individuals find it necessary to react to this. In some aspects, it is clear to see that the effect of others and the environment has a detrimental effect on behaviour. Moreover, there is frequent influence from groups within society as a whole (White & Haines, 2000, p.12).


Crime is a social construct. The construction of crime within society comes from many modes, such as the media. The media often cover crime stories with young males or, those who are unemployed, as being the main offenders within society. This means that the idea of a ‘folk devil’ is created (Hopkins Burke, 2009, p.6). Some suggest that the use of folk devils shows what law abiding individuals do not want to be and, show ways in which they should not act (Cohen, 2011, p.2). The media can also play a bit part in the labelling process, another way in which crime is constructed. Prior to the idea of labelling theories, criminologists used a systematic and non-complex idea of crime. The introduction of labelling theories allows the idea of crime to be critiqued in three ways; some question what it is for one act to be identified as abnormal, or as a crime; some question why it is that some people are more likely to attract a label than others and for a reaction to take place; and finally, the history of the label that the deviant receives (Hopkins Burke, 2009, p.167). The media also can be seen as an influence to behaviour. As cited in Greer‘s chapter (2009, p.189), violence shown through the means of media has an effect on violently provoked crime.


Crime is a result of conflict in society. This appears within society in many ways, whether it is, for example, class or ethnicity. Crime statistics suggest that black males are more likely to commit more than any other individual within society. One explanation for this is that there was growing conflict between the police and the black population (Newburn, 2007, p.781). There has been an increase in ‘Stop and Search’ on this particular social group, with just over 90% per 100,000, compared to other ethnicities, such as white, with around 17% in the year 2002/03 (Hearnden and & Hough, 2004). Linked to this is the idea of conflict theories, which suggest that society ¬¬¬¬suffers from segregation and disagreement. From this, theories such as Marxism can be used to explain the effect of social class division within society (Newburn, 2007, p.247). Some suggest that the effect of class shows that those who are unemployed, or within the lower social classes, often see crime as a lifestyle in order to live (Hayward and Morrison, 2009, p.88). Linking back to the labelling theory, some argue that the law benefits the powerful. This is due to the fact that laws are enforced by the authoritative individuals and groups, such as the government within society, therefore advantaging only them and their associates (Hopkins Burke, 2009, p.168).  Often we associate violence and theft, among others, with the lower classes, and fraud, financial, and business crimes with the more powerful which often go unreported (Sage, n.d, p.35).


Crime is not just about offenders. We must remember that crime cannot necessarily occur unless there are victims. The criminal justice system cannot operate without a victim (Davis, Croall and Tyrer, 2005, p.62). It had been argued that victims had taken the position of the disregarded member in the criminal justice system, yet this has now changed and the victim plays a huge role (Davis, Croall and Tyrer, 2005, p.69).


It is clear to see that there are many aspects and elements which make up the concept of crime. This varies from the variety of definitions available to us, as well as the way in which the definition is constructed. This idea can be particularly linked to the media, as, during the twenty-first century, we are constantly surrounded by the media. Through this, the conflicts within society can be seen, especially through class disagreement, and labelling. We must remember, however, ‘crime’ is not just about offenders; it is about victims and those around them, who are also affected. The result of crime is not just down to genes and genetics, but we should also pay attention to the effect of the environment, and previous explanations of crime, such as those through the Enlightenment period.  





Cohen, S. (2011).  Folk Devils and Moral Panics : The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Retrieved from


Coleman, C., & Moynihan, J. (1996). Understanding crime data, Haunted by the dark figure. Buckingham: Open University Press


Davis, M., Croall, H., & Tyrer, J. (2005). Criminal justice: An Introduction to the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales (3rd ed.). Essex: Pearson Education Ltd


Des Rosiers, N., & Bittle, S. (2004). Introduction. In the Law Commission of Canada, What Is a Crime?: Defining Criminal Conduct in Contemporary Society. Vancouver: UBC Press  


Francis, D. (1987). The Great Transition. In R.J. Anderson, J.A Hughes, & W.W Sharrock (Eds.), Classic Disputes in Sociology (pp. 1-35). London: Umwin Hyman Ltd


Greer, C. (2009). Crime and media: understanding the connections. In C. Hale, K. Hayward, A. Wahidan & E. Wincup (Eds.), Criminology. (2nd ed.). (pp 177-203). Oxford: Oxford University Press


Hayward, K,.& Morrison, W,. (2009). Theoretical Criminology: a starting point. In C. Hale, K. Hayward, A. Wahidan & E. Wincup (Eds.), Criminology. (2nd ed.). (pp 73-102). Oxford: Oxford University Press


Hearnden., Hough,. (2004). In T. Newburn, Criminology (p. 787). Devon: Willan Publishers


Henry, S., Lanier, M. M. (2001). What is crime? Controversies over the Nature of Crime and What to Do about It. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc


Hopkins Burke, R. (2009). An Introduction to Criminology Theory. (3rd ed.). Oxon: Routledge


McLaughlin, E., & Muncie, J. (2012). Sage Dictionary of Criminology (3rd ed.). London Sage


Newburn, T. (2007). Criminology. Devon: Willan Publishers


Sage Publications. (n.d). Understanding White-Collar Crime. Accessed 29th November 2012. Retrieved from


Schaffner, K. F. (2001). Genetic Explanations of Behaviour. In D. Wasserman & R. Wachbroit (Eds.),  Gentics and Criminal Behaviour ( pp. 79-116). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Sharrock, W. W. (1987). Individual and Society. In R.J. Anderson, J.A. Hughes & W.W. Sharrock (Eds.), Classic Disputes in Sociology (pp. 126-156). London: Unwin Hyman Ltd


White, R., & Haines, F. (2000). Crime and Criminology: An Introduction.(2nd Ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press







Scroll for full list of references -

Marxist ideas on Crime & Deviance


The Iceberg theory - the majority of crime is hidden


Stop & Search