In order to examine the above we must ask ourselves the question 'what is crime? The Cambridge dictionary definition of crime states that is an 'illegal act' or 'something against the law'. This essays aims to delve beyond the illegal act itself and consider the laws and subsequent crime that is controlled and constructed by society. The paper will consider both the Internationalist theory alongside that of the rational choice theory in considering the above. As mentioned above in order for society to recognise and record a crime an illegal act will have taken place.
This act will have contravened a law created by the law makers of that society. The British legal system is ever evolving and it seems that new laws are brought about every week, with the introduction of new laws so there is an introduction of new crimes and vice versa. Laws are equally abolished over time leading to the decrimilisation of certain acts. Take for example marital rape, up until recently it was perfectly legal to rape your wife, this all changed in 1991when the law was abolished and husbands could be prosecuted for raping their wives (Rapecrisis).
Another example is that of homosexual relationships, the law changed in 1967 making homosexual relationships lawful and thus non criminal. It is through these changes in law that crime changes and thus could be argued to be socially constructed. Commack and Brickey (1991, p. 15) argue that 'law can be said to have a distinctly social basis; it both shapes – and is shaped by – the society in which it operates". Societies perceptions and values are ever changing and with them so is the law and thus the crime rate. This is clearly evident through the differences between countries.
What is illegal in certain societies is legal in others; take the above example the chewing gum ban in Singapore. In 1991 Singapore made buying chewing gum a criminal act (Jeffery, S. 2004). Indeed Henry and Lanier (2001, p. 7) suggest that "what counts as crime at one place and time, culture, or location may not be considered criminal at another time, in another culture, or even across the street". We may therefore argue that crime is socially constructed as a result of societies view on what is condemnable and wasn't at any given time. This idea was developed further by Stanley Cohen with his work on moral panics.
Cohen study of the mod's and the rockers led to him to speculate that society often had an exaggerated perception of what was a current 'threat to societies interests and values', Cohen argued that society's perception of crime was influenced strongly by moral panics (Maguire et al, 2002, p. 75). After the events of 9/11 we can see that society developed a heightened interest in terrorism, has this in turn lead to the persecution and labelling of individuals from Islamic backgrounds? We can see how such concerns cause changes in UK leglislation; currently there are talks of extending the amount of time terror suspects can be held in custody.
One recent court case saw the trial of Samina Malik being charged for 'possessing articles for terrorist purposes' for possessing and writing poetry that supported recent terror attacks, had society not been concerned about the increase in terrorism would Samina Malik ever have been prosecuted? (Bone, 2007) The work on Moral Panics was developed by Interactionalists who discussed the way in which 'Labelling' can influence crime. Labelling theorists argue that the social interactions an individual has, can either be viewed as negative or positive, and in turn lead to either a deviant or non deviant label being attached.
In the words of Becker (1963) in Herman, N (1995 p. 114) "deviance is not a quality of the act that a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender". Thus we may argue that criminal behaviour can be constructed by factors other than the illegal act itself. Becker argued labelling relies on extraneous factors such as dress, demeanour or neighbourhood; he called these factors the 'career contingencies' and noted that they were separate from the behaviour itself (Becker 1963, cited by Herman, N.
1995, p115). The Labelling theory thus takes the view that criminals are socially constructed after having been labelled from a result of their social interactions. It is the negative effects of such a Label that the theory is most interested in when looking at the root causes of crime. The Labelling theory argues that being labelled a deviant has a dramatic effect on how society treats a person and in turn the way in which this differential treatment affects the individuals own self perception.
Merton (1968) idea of the 'Self Fulfilling Prophecy' argues that once labelled, an individual may actually start to act in line with such label. The 'self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come (Merton, 1968) . In this way we may argue that criminal behavior and crime is socially constructed through the influence of labels that society places on people.
Although consideration of the above theories gave rise to a great deal of debate the newly appointed Conservative government felt such concepts could not 'deliver the goods' (Tierney,1996, p. 273) in terms of preventing crime. Thus theories such as that of rational choice theory were developed. The Rational Choice theory built on earlier classical criminological beliefs. Classical theorists such as Jeremy Bentham considered each individual to make rational choices, of both deviant and non deviant behavior based on the individual pleasure they would be rewarded with.
The rational choice theory follows the Utilitarian school of thought that believes man makes rational choices in order to maximize his/her economic capacity (Maguire et al, 2002, p59) Theorists who follow the rational choice theory would disagree with the concept that crime is exclusively constructed by society as they argue that crime is 'real' and a product of an individuals inhability to control deviant behaviour. Indeed Ron Clarke comments that 'the rate of crime will vary not on the basis of how it is socially constructed but on how it is managed and controlled'. (Maguire et al, 2002, p.
60) He points out that in order for society to limit crime, practical steps, including increased surveillance and reduction of the rewards of crime must be implemented. Rational Choice states that criminals are opportunistic beings that will seek to act in an immoral way if they can 'get away with it'. Mayhew's research on vandalism on double Decker buses backs up this theory. He found that there was 20 times more vandalism on upper levels of double Decker buses rather than the lower which are in constant surveillance from the driver (Mayhew et al, 1976, as cited by Maguire et al, 2002 p.
60). Cornish and Clarke (1986) agree arguing that an offender will make a decision to commit burglary after considering such questions; which house offers the best target? Do the neighbours watch out for each other? How hard will it be to gain entrance? What sorts of goods are inside? Cornish and Clarke (1986) argue that any individual is capable of committing crime but factors concerning an individual's background and Situation will have a huge influence.
If we are to look back at the Labelling theory we may see that the interactionist approach also considers these Background and Situational factors, within the labelling theory they are called 'career contingencies'. Could we therefore argue that although the theory of Rational Choice does not exclusively omit that crime is a social construct there is room for the situational factors to involve a socially constructed label. If one of these situational factors is a deviant label which has been socially constructed could we argue that the crime, even within the rational choice perspective, is affected and influenced by society?
In conclusion we may argue that crime can be seen to be socially constructed although the extent to which each criminological perspective considers this does change. We have seen how the internationalist approach clearly concludes that society creates criminals through the application of labelling individuals as deviant. The theory of rational choice however is far more concerned about how the issues of crime can be addressed and prevented than whether they have been socially constructed.