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  • Miranda Pambori

Crime as a Social Construct and Deviance

The following article provides a brief introduction to the notion of ‘crime as a social construct’ and a short overview of the concepts of deviance, moral panics and the role of media in creating, shaping and reinforcing behavioural standards.

What is deemed criminal can change though the years; for example marital rape was not an offence until 1991[1] and euthanasia is an offence to most countries including the UK, but not in Switzerland. Thus, one can argue that crime is not the object, but rather the product of criminal policy[2].

Deviance can simply be described as a state of diverging from usual or accepted standards. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes and, whether an act is deemed deviant depends not on the nature of the act but rather how people react to it, thus a deviant act is largely affected by the society it takes place in.

The ‘social construction of reality’[3] Labelling is the process of classifying kinds of people in a social order. Social groups and authorities create deviance by first making the rules and then applying them to people who are thereby labelled as outsiders[4]. Therefore crime does not exist[5], ‘it is the product of interaction and negotiation between’[6]individuals and the society, and thus a social construction. Individuals are judged by rules they have no hand in making.

Therefore: ‘who creates the social norms and what is deviant?’ The power elite[7] who according to Mills, is a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of (each) society who hold the power and resources. Similarly Becker[8] referred to moral entrepreneurs; the individuals or groups who publicize and problematize “wrongdoing”, having the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrong-doing. Politicians, the Media and people at the top of the hierarchal ladder of authority help create moral panic then allow it to diffuse[9], as a way of gaining control over people.

Moral panic is created by spreading fear in the name of security and stability. A good example is the increased attention and coverage on the said Immigration Crisis within and across Europe and the European Union and the negative consequences as a result on the Member States directly affected by such matters. Such coverage cultivates and continually nurtures feelings of prejudice, resentment, reservation and even hatred in extreme cases among the nationals of Host Member States against immigrants, therefore allowing for stricter immigration control and laws that weaken and infringe Human Rights. Young argues the media ‘amplifies such acts until there is a translation of stereotypes into actuality, of fantasy into reality’ – thus media can largely be blamed for the increase of fear and even crime or criminal behaviour in extreme cases.

Contrary to the above, McRobbie and Thornton[10] argue moral panics have less impact in today’s modern world as societies are used to 'shock, horror stories’. This could be partly true in relation to the form that moral panics have today, but not necessarily to their effect. Even though societies today are far more used to and exposed to such stories thus arguably the media has less effect on them - i.e. creating moral panics with the intention of mass controlling the population- it is worth to note that such statement is rather far from true as there are far more mediums, platforms and sources of information today than in the past. The added intensity, mass and speed of information available today and the normalisation and incorporation of crime in people’s everyday lives (e.g. normalisation of crime in movies, violence-focused games, and the changed perception of morality and moral attitudes), do not negate the effect of moral panics; it is simply different to the traditional form and manner it had in previous years. Therefore, it is not necessarily the role and involvement of the media that has decreased, but rather that the range of available media platforms has increased (and thus divided) making it seem as though it has less of an effect today. What is different today, is that such involvement and effect is not as recognisable or identifiable because it is greatly nurtured within societies. Societies are perhaps less aware of it, but the effect remains.

To sum up, crime or criminal behaviour in many cases is socially construed in order to control human behaviour and interaction and this process is largely determined and relied on the Media. ‘Crime exists only when the label and the law are successfully applied to an individuals’ behaviour’[11]. What the media projects and focuses on, affects how people react to it and their perception of deviance and morality. Marx argued that in capitalists societies the state is controlled by those who own the means of production. This can be used in analogy to those who own or can take advantage of the Media as they can filter what is seen and what is not.

[1] R v R [1991] 3 WLR 767 HL [2] Louk H.C Hulsman, ‘Critical Criminology and the Concept of Crime’ (1986) [3] Peter L. Berger;Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1967) [4] Howard S. Becker, Outsiders (1963) [5] Nills Christie, ASuitabla Amount of Crime (2004) [6] Tim Newburn, Criminology (2007), p.9 [7] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956) [8] Howard S. Becker, Outsiders (1963) [9] Erich Goode; Nachman Ben-Yenuda, ‘Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction’ (1994) [10] Angela McRobbie; Sarah L Thornton, ‘Rethinking “moral panic” for Multi-Mediated Social Works, (1995) [11] John Muncie; Eugene Mclaughlin, ‘The Problem of Crime’ (Sage 2002)


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