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The Construction and Deconstruction of Crime

This report critically evaluates Muncie’s and McLaughlin’s (2001) The problem of crime. It

begins by summarising various perspectives in which the problem of crime can be subjected to

social scientific inquiry’ (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001, p. 8). To get to the core of defining

crime, there must be an understanding of the fact that this concept is constantly undergoing

changes that are directly proportional with time and the evolution of society. For example,

‘stalking a previous partner’ did not hold an illegal aspect to it in the past as it does in the

current moment (Treadwell, 2006). Taking into consideration the volatile nature of crime,

Muncie and McLaughlin (2001) encompass a level of apprehension of ‘criminal law, social

mores and social order’ (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001, p. 9) in order to grasp a more

reasonable approach towards defining it. The first section of this report will examine crime as

criminal law violation and the role of the criminal justice system in determining the legal

conditions in which this concept can develop. The second part of this report will discuss crime

as social construct and how society shifted its focus from lawbreaker to lawmaker.

One of the most frequently used interpretation of crime, is to perceive it as an infringement of

criminal law. Meaning, an action is considered a crime only if it goes against the legal

administration of the territory in which it develops (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001). The most

conclusive and clear definition in regards to the legalistic viewpoint of crime is given by

Michael and Adler (1993) and that is ‘behaviour which is prohibited by the criminal code’

(Michael and Adler, 1993, p.5, cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001). In concordance to this

statement, Williams (1994, cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001) reiterates the statutory

authority of crime by denoting that, it is of no importance the depraved and hazardous nature

of an act in categorizing it as a crime, as long as it was not established so by the legal authorities.

A more radical approach was adopted by Tappan, who stated that, ‘Only those are criminals

who have been adjudicated as such by the courts’ (Tappan, 1947, p.100, cited in Muncie and

McLaughlin, 2001). This perspective on crime, also known as the ‘black letter law’ (Muncie

and McLaughlin, 2001, p.10), cannot grasp numerous cases in which distinct acts are legally

and socially depicted as crime due to the fact that they are dependent of the circumstances in

which they arise (Croall, 2011). Considering the definitions discussed above, Muncie and

McLaughlin (2001) identified two essential issues. First, crime would cease to exist in the

absence of criminal justice. Second, the crime per se would have the status of non-existent until

the culprit is seized, sentenced and penalized by the criminal justice system. It has come to an

agreement that, in order to comprehend crime, an analysis of the criminal procedure rules must

be made. It also considers the fact that, individuals exerting their free will must be held liable

for their actions. Lacey et al. (1990, cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001) proposes a change

in perspective when it comes to determining crime by evaluating how society is illustrating

deviance and how it is established which deviance claims a legal reaction rather than a civil

one. Basically, criminal law falls under the guise of the general public’s opinion about what is

wrong and what is right. Thus, crime cannot be attached to a certain act or conduct for it is

entirely dependent on how other individuals perceive it (Becker, 1963, cited in Croall, 2011).

Crime as social construction indicates that crime is determined by society. Society develops

the laws that coordinates a persons’ way of conduct, and so, it is entitled to establish what is

lawless and what is legal (Treadwell, 2006). Muncie and McLaughlin (2001) state that, crime

is the outcome of human interaction in which the participants are: the offender, the legal

authorities and the ‘law-makers’ (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001, p.15) who marks an

individuals’ behaviour as felonious. Even if a behaviour is ‘labelled’ as criminal, it does not

compose the crime, instead, it is ‘criminalized’ by the way in which it is perceived by legal

agents (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001, p.15). There is a focus on who created the law and who

implemented them, rather than on who violated them (Coleman and Norris, 2000). Muncie and

McLaughlin (2001) stress that crime takes form, only when the label and law complement each

other and it can be triumphantly enforced on a person’s behaviour. Crime cannot be identified

simply by a separate analysis of behaviour and breaches in the legal system. Taking a different

approach and evaluating both the process in which the rules were created, and the law

enforcement, an understanding of why an act is considered criminal might be obtained. A

consequence of this is that the number of crime might increase at the same rate with the labels

(Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001).

This report has discussed Muncie’s and McLaughlin’s (2001) perspectives on crime. The

approach on crime as criminal law violation describes it as any behaviour that goes against the

legal justice system. There is a strong relationship between crime and criminal law as neither

can exist without the other one. When it comes to the concept of social construction, crime

embraces a more volatile aspect as it is dependent on how the human interaction is perceived.

Thus, society has the upper hand in determining which kind of behaviour is illegal and which

is legal.


Coleman, C., Norris, C. (2000) Introducing Criminology. Cullompton, Devon, UK: Willan

Croall, H. (2011) Crime and Society in Britain. Second Edition. Harlow, England: Longman

Muncie, J. and McLaughlin, E. (2001) The problem of Crime. Second edition. London: Sage,

in association with the Open University

Newburn, T. (2017) Criminology. Third Edition. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Treadwell, J. (2006) Criminology. London: Sage