Social aspects of crime

Social aspects of crime

Why should crime be considered a social phenomenon? Sociologists and other social scientists have pointed out that the extent of the prevalence of different types of crimes in society and the extent of the success of their detection and sanctioning are influenced by numerous aspects of social life, related to a society’s structure and (dis)organization, its values and norms promoted by a (sub)culture, and the worldviews of various social actors, the nature and character of social relations, and interactions between those who violate proclaimed social norms, the victims, and those who are authorized to sanction violations of norms, and the ways and success in which social control is exercised. Of even greater importance for the understanding of the extent of crime and the success of its sanctioning in a society is that these phenomena are often determined by a complex “interplay” between different (aforementioned) aspects of social life (see: Krohn at all, 2019; Ray, 2018; Matić, 2003; Lawson and Heaton, 1998; Heidensohn, 1989).

For example, “Left Realists argue that crime is caused by several different factors. They call this multiple aetiology. Crime is a product of formal and informal rules, actions of offenders and of reaction by victims, the state and its agencies, it is therefore important to understand why people offend, what makes victims vulnerable, the factors that affect public attitudes and responses to crime and the social forces that influence the police. This can be done by drawing together a number of different agencies in the community, who should all work together to solve crime” (Thompson, 2021). More specifically, “for crime to exist there must be laws prohibiting behavior. The existence or otherwise of those laws is influenced by the public. For an infraction to take a place there must be an offender (or someone perceived as an offender) and, usually, a victim. A variety of social factors influence the behavior of the victim. For many offences it is the victim who decides whether offence is reported. Victims will be influenced by the prevailing social values in deciding whether they think an offence is immoral, illegal and wort reporting. The relationship between victim and offender might affect booth the victim’s willingness to report the crime and the impact that crime have on him or her (…) The response of the police or other authorities then determines whether the offender is defined as criminal or not. Public opinion can have an impact on the behavior of authorities. (…) the decisions and actions of criminal justice system can influence the future behavior of those convicted of crime. Changes in any of these areas can affect the crime rate and the problems which criminality poses for society” (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004:363).

Worldviews, ideologies, and interests can significantly influence each of the elements of the aforementioned “square of crime” separately, but also their interrelationship.[1] (Sub)cultural and interactionist explanations of crime indicated that the tendency to engage in criminal behavior can be learned through social interaction with the bearers of criminal norms (Giddens, 2009: 492-497). Certain cultural assumptions and worldviews can encourage the acceptance of specific “focal concerns” that prefer and encourage deviant or even criminal values and behaviors, or at least they can make possible the “application” of neutralization techniques that, in certain circumstances, allow actors to “break free” from the constraints of socially desirable moral and legal norms and to engage in criminal behavior (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004: 356-352).

For example, the influence of certain worldviews and cultural values can be manifested in people’s attitudes about the acceptability of violence in social relations. A survey of high school students’ attitudes about myths related to violence in partner relationships conducted in Croatia showed that some of them support violent forms of behavior and justify the use of violence in partner relationships. For example, two-thirds of the surveyed high school students think that strong feelings of anger justify the use of physical violence. About a fifth of the surveyed boys and girls believe that a person who abuses others under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not responsible for their behavior. A third of boys (33%) and almost a fifth of girls (17%) believe that rape in marriage is not possible, and a fifth of boys (23%) and 16% of girls agree that the situation in which a couple resolves their conflicts by using physical force is a private matter in which other should not interfere ( The influence of certain ideologies and worldviews can lead even some women to believe that violent behavior of men in marriage is a “normal” and acceptable phenomenon of married life. (

Some seminal sociological studies have indicated that worldviews, ideologies, interests, and power can also significantly influence the work of actors and social control. Aaron V. Cicourel noticed that the sets of cultural and worldview meanings possessed by actors of social control concerning what is “suspicious, strange and wrong”[2] and the characteristics of a “typical criminal” can significantly influence whether members of different groups of minors (with “desirable or undesirable social characteristics”) can be detained and sanctioned for the offenses they are suspected (Cicourel, 1976). William J. Chambils’ study of organized crime in Seattle showed that the particular interests of rich and powerful individuals, the intertwining of criminal and legitimate businesses, and the corruption of local political, police, and judicial authorities can significantly influence how institutions and actors of social control function and act. They can influence which types of crime the actors of social control will focus more on, and which they will mostly ignore; how they treat lawbreakers from different social strata and how they react to complaints from “ordinary” citizens about the prevalence of different types of crime in their neighborhoods. He concluded that all this occurs to protect the intertwined interests of the economic, ruling, and criminal elites (Chambilss, 1988). Stuart Hall et al. showed in their influential study on “mugging” (as a social phenomenon) in Great Britain that the social reaction to crime is related to the character and distribution of power in society and the interests of the ruling elites. The study indicated that the shaping of a dominant discourse on a social “issue” can significantly influence how the media, “ordinary” citizens, the police, and the courts will position themselves against that problem and how they will react to solve that problem. They showed that the creation of a dominant social discourse can cause moral panic in the media and the public, that it can create an “image of a typical criminal” and increase police repression, especially towards members of certain, usually underprivileged, social groups. They concluded that during the economic crisis and the crisis of hegemony in the early 1970s in Britain, the ruling elites used the discourse on mugging not to solve the existing structural and crime problems in society but rather to legitimize increased police repression with the aim of maintaining the stability of the system and protecting their privileged social positions (Hall et al., 1978).

The importance of analyzing the interconnectedness of the elements within the crime square to explain the effectiveness of crime sanctioning in society is perhaps best illustrated by the case of the racially motivated murder of S. Lawrence, which occurred in 1993 in Great Britain. Discussingracial discrimination in the Lawrence case, A. Giddens pointed out that the public believed that the institutions of social control had failed and that this was evidence of the prevalence of racism in the police and judiciary. He indicated that, in this context, the police officers who worked on the case, because of their racial prejudices, did not do enough to catch Lawrence’s assailants. The surveillance of the suspects was poorly organized and was dragged out. He also pointed out that senior police officials, who could (and should) intervene in the case to correct the aforementioned omissions in the police’s actions, did not do so in order to protect their colleagues who worked on the case. Three years later when, due to the persistence of Lawrence’s parents, the three suspects were brought to court, the trial was interrupted because the judge refused to accept the evidence presented in the testimony of one witness. Under public pressure due to the mentioned failures in the work of the institutions, the interior minister J. Straw launched an investigation. Based on that investigation, the so-called Macpherson Report was created in 1999. The authors of the report concluded that the investigation was impermissibly flawed and that the investigation was hampered by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and the refusal of superior police officials to intervene in the case (Giddens, 2009:640-641; see also Holdaway, 1999; Kushnick, 1999). The case of violent behavior at the Platak ski resort that occurred at the beginning of this year showed how vital the reactions of the victim, the media, as well as of the general and expert public can be for the institutions of social control to characterize and prosecute an act of violence as a violent criminal offense and not as a misdemeanor ( Adequate classification, processing, and sanctioning of violence by actors and institutions of social control is important because, in this way, it sends a message to potential perpetrators that such behavior is socially unacceptable and that it will be recognized and sanctioned by society and its institutions. In addition, the appropriate reaction of the public and institutions of social control to violent behavior will encourage victims of violence to report such behavior to the police, because they will not be afraid of public condemnation and because they will trust that society will protect them and punish the perpetrator.

To conclude, in order to be able to fully explain the extent of the prevalence of certain types of violence in a certain society and in a certain time, it is not enough to understand only why some groups of people behave violently more often than others but also why violence occurs more often in certain social situations and contexts (see Ray, 2018). In this context, it is necessary to understand and explain how different worldviews, ideologies, interests, and social practices influence the definition, processing, and sanctioning of socially undesirable behaviors. In other words, it is necessary to understand and explain how the mentioned factors affect the behavior of those who violate socially proclaimed norms, how they affect the reactions of the public and institutions of social control to socially undesirable behaviors, and how they affect the willingness of the victim to report the crime to the police.


Chambliss, W. J. (1988). On the take – From Petty Crooks to Presidents. Second Edition, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Giddens, A. (2009). Sociology. Sixth edition, Polity Press, Cambridge.   

Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Clarke J. and Roberts B. (1978). Policing the Crisis – Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. Macmillan Press, London.

Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (2004). Sociology Themes and Perspectives. Sixth edition, Collins, London.

Heidensohn, F. (1989) Crime and Society, Macmillan, London.

Holdaway, S. (1999). Understanding the Police Investigation of the Murder of Stephen Lawrence: A ‘Mundane Sociological Analysis.’ Sociological Research Online, 4(1), 107–114.

Krohn, M. D.; Hendrix, N.; Penly Hall, G.; and Lizotte, A. J. (2019). Handbook on Crime and Deviance. Second Edition, Springer, Cham.

Kushnick, L. (1999). ‘Over Policed and under Protected’: Stephen Lawrence, Institutional and Police Practices. Sociological Research Online, 4(1), 156–166.

Lawson, T. and Heaton, T. (1999). Crime and Deviance, Macmillan Press, London.

Matić, R. (2003). Društvena promocija bezakonja Uvod u sociologiju devijantnosti, Hrvatska sveučilišna zaklada, Zagreb.

Ray, L. (2018). Violence and Society. Second edition, Sage, London.

Internet sources:

Thompson, K. (2021)

[1] Criminologists of left realism believe that crime, in one important sense, is a socially constructed phenomenon whose meaning is deeply influenced by the dimensions of time and space. For this reason, they believe that the nature and prevalence of crime in a certain society and in a certain time can only be understood if the crime is analyzed in the context of the action and interaction of the key elements of the square of crime: State and its agencies, the offender and its actions, informal methods of social control sometimes called ‘society’ or “the public” and victim (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004: 361-362).

[2] Of course, it should also be emphasized that, in his analysis, Cicourel showed that these meanings can be confirmed or modified in the processes of social interaction between suspects, their parents, and agents of social control, depending on the social characteristics of the suspects and their parents and their success in using desirable social skills within the framework of the so-called “negotiation process” which characterizes the aforementioned social interaction.