Social Construction of Crime

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 04, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Social constructionism holds that the meaning of acts, behaviors, and events is not an objective quality of phenomena but one assigned to them by people through social interactions. Shifts in public perception can lead to an act taking on a different meaning than it once had.
  • Spector and Kitusee introduced the idea of social constructionism into criminality.
  • Social constructionism can influence whether or not something is seen as a crime, its severity, and the extent to which it is feared. How societies define and remedy crime is the outcome of numerous complex factors between different groups of actors.
  • Sociologists can study crime on a systematic level, as well as through an examination of public reaction and the crimes themselves.
  • There are numerous examples of crimes that were once considered not to be social problems, and actions that were once illegal that are now not widely considered to be crimes. For example, various laws have been created and nullified against homosexuality, bullying, and drug use depending on public perception.

Is Crime Socially Constructed?

Behaviors become crimes through a process of social construction. While a behavior may be considered criminal in one society, it may be considered benign, or even honorific, in another.

Thus, sociologists consider whether or not a behavior is defined as a crime to depend on the social response to the behavior or the persons who engage in it, whether in the content of the behavior itself.

The social response to crime is based not only on the qualities of the act but also on the social and moral standing of the offender and the victim. Theories of crime are ancient. Plato put forward theories of punishment.

An influential and infamous text published in Nuremberg in 1494 detailed the types of witches, as well as procedures for torture and extermination. However, the history of modern criminology is widely considered to have begun with the work of Cesar Beccaria, who published Essays on Crime and Punishment in 1764.

Sociologists have presented the most successful theories of crime (Heidensohn, 1989). In essence, sociologists see crime as a socially situated and defined problem (Morris and Tonry, 1980).

Overview of Social Constructionism

Social constructionism holds that the meaning of acts, behaviors, and events is not an objective quality of those phenomena but is assigned to them through social interactions.

In this view, meaning is socially defined and organized and thus subject to social change.

Spector and Kitsuse (1973) introduced social constructionism into the vocabulary of social problems theory – otherwise known as criminology (Schneider, 1985).

From the social constructionist perspective, any given behavior becomes a social problem through social movements or groups successfully convincing the general public that a phenomenon is a problem and advocating for a particular response to that problem.

Defining Crime

Early sociologists such as Paul Tappan (1947) defined crime as all actions in “violation of the criminal law.” However, this approach gave rise to many problems.

Criminal laws are not fixed or permanent in any society. The formal limits of criminal law can be shifted by many different social pressures. For example, in the 20th century, many countries removed sanctions against abortion under certain conditions.

Class and power have also influenced the scope of criminal law (Hay, 1975). In the first decades of the 20th century, middle-class American women and other anti-alcohol groups combined to introduce prohibition.

If criminal laws constitute the norms for behavior in a society, they must change to reflect social changes. This change can be technological in nature. For instance, the proliferation of car ownership has provided new opportunities for criminal behavior, such as causing death by reckless driving.

This has been accompanied by a host of laws regarding the speed, use, and parking of vehicles (Heidensohn, 1989). Crimes can also have different levels of severity, and be completely unrelated. The severity of crimes can also be subjective.

A starving person stealing a loaf of bread would be, in many eyes, a lesser crime than stealing luxurious mink coats intending not to pay for them (Heidensohn, 1989).

How Crimes Become Crimes: Complexity and Interaction

What is taken to be called crime is the outcome of a large number of complex interactions and negotiations between different groups of actors (Gibbons, 1968).

Records about the people who commit crimes, as many crimes have unknown perpetrators. Further, these so-called clear-up rates can vary — while most homicides result in an offender being found, most burglaries are left unsolved (Kinsey et al., 1986).

For sociologists, this means that concepts of crime — and deviance, for that matter, will likely remain both arbitrary and contested (Crime and Societal; Becker, 1963).

Researchers have studied what causes fear of crime, suggesting that the fear of crime in itself is a product of the relations between social vulnerability, perceived and actual, and the risks of victimization (Maxfield, 1984; Smith, 1986; Jones, 1987).

Crime can be examined as a social phenomenon on at least three levels. It can be studied systematically, using concepts, theories, and available data to test ideas.

Public reaction can also provide another level to studying crime, as it plays an important part in shaping responses to crime — and even crime itself. Finally, sociologists can study the phenomenon of crime itself.


Face Coverings (Coronavirus: The Lockdown Laws)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-coverings were not commonly worn by members of the public in most western countries. However, as COVID-19 became a major public health issue, public perception shifted.

Not wearing a face mask, particularly in crowded indoor areas such as subways and grocery stores, began to be seen as reckless to both one’s own health and the health of others.

Eventually, municipalities as well as national-level governments began to enforce laws around wearing face masks in public, in some cases enforcing what types of face coverings needed to be worn.

Those who did not comply with these regulations risked denial of entry, fines, or, in rare cases, arrest.

Although there was push-back against wearing face masks by certain segments of the public, not wearing a face covering largely went from being seen as normal to between irresponsible and endangering in the public eye. Quickly, public perception shifted in favor of wearing face masks.

The War on Drugs

The spring of 1986 to 1992 saw a wide-spread push to solve the problem of drug use, especially crack cocaine. Politicians from both American political parties made increasingly strident calls for a “War on Drugs” (Reinarman and Levine, 1995).

Reinarmean and Levine note several reasons why crack cocaine in particular sparked the war on drugs. In 1985, the National Institute on Drug Abuse noted that, while more than 22 million Americans had tried cocaine, all phases of drug use tended to take place in the privacy of the homes and offices of middle and upper-class users.

In 1986, however, cocaine spread visibly to the lower classes, with increased visibility in ghettos and barrios. Crack was sold in small, cheap units on ghetto streets to poor, young buyers who were already seen as a threat.

During this time, politicians and the media depicted crack as “supremely evil — the most important cause of America’s problems”. This was surrounded by the political context of the emergence of a heavily fundamentalism-influenced new right republican party and competition between both political parties to be seen as “harder on drugs.”

All in all, the war on drugs resulted in the rejection of syringe distribution and exchange programs implemented in other countries to reduce AIDS prevalence, greatly stigmatized drug users, and resulted in the imprisonment of many, disproportionately from the lower classes, for drug-related crimes.


Homosexuality was once widely illegal in many countries. In the United States prior to 1961, all 50 states criminalized same-sex sexual activity. By 2003, however, all remaining laws against same-sex sexual activity had been invalidated.

Homosexuality was also seen as a mental illness (Kirk and Kutchins, 1992). Constitutional challenges to sodomy laws — laws against same-sex sexual activity — were not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, a series of high court cases in the United States struck down state sodomy laws in the 1980s. The striking down of American sodomy laws in the latter half of the 20th century corresponded to widespread activism by the LGBTQ community toward social acceptance of homosexuality. This can be seen in trends such as acceptance of same-sex marriage.

While in 1997, 68% of Americans believed that same-sex marriage should not be valid, in 2021, 70% of adults believed that same-sex marriage should be valid, signaling a reversal in attitudes (Gallup, 2021).


Spanking, beyond being a physical punishment used to make children behave, has endured competing ideas, beliefs, and vocabularies put forth by critics and advocates over its definition, appropriateness, and implications.

Davis (1994) argued that the debate over spanking has become more complex in its themes and vocabularies over time. Traditionally, advocates have presented spanking as an answer to overly permissive parents.

Alternatively, pro-spankers may claim that spanking effectively prepares children for the harsh tribulations of life, that it is religiously condoned, that it is a tool, technique, or method for correcting behavior, or that it can allow parents and children to “start over” after a conflict (Davis, 1994).

Critics, however, have claimed that, rather than preventing youth problems, spanking creates them by destroying parent-child trust, instilling fear in the children, and fails to teach children self-control. Following shifting social attitudes, however, the meaning of spanking in the debate has changed.

Critics, for example, have shifted to claiming that spanking is compulsive, habit-forming, or addictive. In this view, parents are people who have lost their autonomy by becoming dependent on highly satisfying behavior.

Critics have also taken to calling spanking a demeaning, violent act that teaches children that violence is socially acceptable. Indeed, articles and newspapers have further conflated spanking and abuse, often emphasizing that spanking can easily lead to abuse.

Davis (1994) argues that activities in the wider professional, scientific, religious, and political contexts have prompted and shaped these changing meanings for spanking. For example, the psychological research on aggression in the 1950ss and 1960s challenged once wide-spread behaviorist assumptions about the role of punishment.

Many widely-popularized studies have provided results that suggest that physical punishment for aggressive behavior is associated with more aggression by children. In addition, the development of the modern child-protection movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to violence against children becoming a major policy issue.

Oftentimes, these discussions about child abuse deliberately mentioned and highlighted spanking (Davis, 1994). There have also been a number of groups that have combined to advocate against corporal punishment and abuse who have distributed pamphlets, surveys, and press releases about physical punishment and spanking since the 1980s.

All in all, spanking has come to be defined widely as child abuse as societal attitudes have shifted.


Bullying can encompass vandalism, gestures, withholding of important information, and making faces, as well as making unwanted eye contact and openly belittling individuals (Furedi, 2001).

In the United Kingdom in particular, campaigns around the problem of workplace bullying have held great influence on the perceptions of society. Advocates also claimed that workplace bullying is more prevalent in Britain than elsewhere.

According to one 1996 survey, while bullying in the European Union affected 8 percent of workers, 53 percent of employees in the United Kingdom have been bullied at work, and 78 percent have witnessed bullying (Furedi, 2001).

One reason for the widespread reporting of bullying and its eventual criminalization was active lobbying by anti-bullying campaigners, which was met with little resistance. Over the course of the 1990s, an issue that was once unknown succeeded in winning widespread recognition as a major social problem.

Campaigners avoided raising controversy by avoiding targeting any vested interests and attempting to appeal to all relevant interest groups. The victims of workplace bullies were presented as normal, everyday people entitled to sympathy.

Additionally, bullying was depicted as a form of antisocial behavior, feeding into a more general concern with incivility in British society (Furedi, 2001). Eventually, workplace bullying and harassment was deemed unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 04). Social Construction of Crime. Simply Sociology.


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