October 07, 2007

The Social Construction of Crime

author_brad By Bradley Wright 

What is a crime? This simple question turns out to have a variety of answers. 

A simple answer would be that a crime is doing anything that is against the law. The problem with this, however, is that there are tens of thousands of laws, and who could possibly remember all of them? Did you know that here in Connecticut it is illegal to throw away used razor blades? In Massachusetts, it’s illegal to use bullets as currency? In Arkansas, it is illegal to drive barefoot? image 

Some laws may be well-known but rarely or never enforced. For example, when was the last time you got a ticket for driving five miles over the speed limit? If a law is either not known or not enforced, does breaking it constitute a crime? 

This raises the issue of which laws actually get enforced, and one answer uses the social psychological principle of social construction. Rooted in the sociological perspective of symbolic interactionism, social construction is the idea that social realities happens as people interact and come to an agreement about what a situation means. 

Here’s an example that happens fairly regularly here at UConn: A student walks around at night with a beer in their hand, and they see a police officer. Not only are they underage, but they are also not supposed to have an open container in public, so they drop the beer. The student defines the situation as one of avoiding an alcohol-related crime. The police officer sees the dropped bottle or cup, goes over to the student, and tells them to pick it up and dispose of it properly. The police officer defines the situation as one of littering. This situation is pretty straightforward—the student readily accepts the police officer’s definition and throws away the cup or bottle. 

In other situations, however, there is protracted negotiation about what is happening and what is right and wrong.


Here’s a video shot in St. George Missouri. Police Sergeant Sgt. James Kuehnlein confronts 20-year-old Brett Darrow for being stopped in a parking lot. It turns out that Brett had a video camera on in the back of his car, and so we are able to hear the whole interaction. Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

Kuehnlein asks for identification. When Darrow asks whether he did anything wrong, the officer orders him out of the car and begins shouting.
"You want to try me? You want to try me tonight? You think you have a bad night? I will ruin your night. … Do you want to try me tonight, young boy?"
Darrow says no.

"Do you want to go to jail for some (expletive) reason I come up with?" the police officer says. Later, Darrow says, "I don't want any problems, officer."
"You're about to get it," Kuehnlein is heard saying. "You already started your (expletive) problems with your attitude."

(Here’s the eventual outcome).

There are various implications of crime being socially negotiated. Most obviously, justice isn’t a predetermined outcome based on what you actually do, instead it’s sometimes what you can negotiate. This puts a premium on your ability to negotiate a successful outcome with police officers and other j0400849 members of the criminal justice system. That’s why it’s such a good idea to be polite and deferential to the police when you interact with them. “Yes officer” and “no officer” are very good things to say, for a pleasant interaction paves the way for a more successful negotiation of what’s going on. 

The criminal justice system may not always enforce all written laws, but they do sometimes enforce unwritten laws. There are various norms of how to deal with the police and other officials, such as being polite, and even though these norms are not official laws, they are enforced as if they were. 

For example, having a sarcastic tone with a police officer isn’t illegal, but it can change the amount of punishment you get for a crime. Likewise, there is no law saying that defendants in court have to present themselves well and be apologetic, but it’s quite possible that poor self-presentation in the courtroom will lead to a harsher sentence. 

This social construction of crime can also be affected by individuals’ place in society. The police and courtroom actors, like anyone, have their preconceptions about different types of people. That means that going into their interaction with somebody they might already have an idea as to whether  that person is guilty or how that person will act. 

These preconceptions, which we can also call stereotypes, can affect the interaction between the official and the person in question. In the video clip,  the police officer clearly has some ideas about young people in fast cars, and he projected them onto the person he stopped. Not only age, but also race, gender, clothing, and general appearance can affect expectations of law enforcement officials which in turn, via social construction, can alter the way someone is treated by the police or the courts. 

The next time that you get pulled over, maybe the real question is not what you did but rather what you can construct through social interaction.


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Crime can be many things, it just doesn't have to be disobeying the law. Many peoples circumstances when caught disobeying may depend on their reaction and acceptance. Being polite in a situation could put you in a better position. It isn't against the law to be rude to a police officer, but it won't help you in the long run. It is a social crime to act in anger and rudeness when you are caught committing a crime.

We create the criminals in society. We create the deviants in our society. In the media, deviants get 'the goods'. They get money, women, power, everything that says you have success in our society. Crime has simply become an outlet for people. They do it to get attention like any deviant. It seems that crime is beoming less and less horrifying. It is becoming a 'deviant' of the norm. Crime is supposed to horrible and dispicable, yet now it is worn as a badge to strut around.

When one is ingnornat of something they can not be handle accountable for it yet, when they come into the knowledge they should stay way from it. The goverment do not inforce the law the way it should be. Jail is like a hotel visit so if someone does something wrong why do they care about the punishment when it is like a free ride. Free rent,free t.v.,free food free only in a holding cell.

Crime can be any thing thats against the law. So if a person commits a crime there should be a punishment.I think that some things by law are just ridiculus and should be changed.

Crime has variations in the type of crime it is, what type of person committed the crime, motives for the crime, and there is many other variables. I feel that crimes commited should have consequences but I also feel as though some crimes should have a harsher punishment than others. Crime will always exsist as long as people are around, give the people something good and "they" will find a way to corrupt it.

Crimes are anything that is against the law but I think some crimes diserve harsher punishment than others. Some people get more time for selling drugs than murder. Being polite and having a great attitude takes you a long way. If you get pulled over and your being all rude and disrespectful can get you put in jail for something simple.

People can negotiate with each other and determine an outcome or they can not agree with one another. If it is in a list of rules and regulations and someone breaks it, the action can be called a crime but it may not be a crime that people think of when they think of a crime.

Negotiation is always key in life or crime.Many criminals get away with all kinds of crimes they commit everyday due to negotiations with the court system.There are so many rules today that just about everything you do is a crime so you better be able to negotiate

Social construction is the idea that social realities happen as people interact and come to an agreement about what a situation means. Justice is not necessarily based on what a person does, but by what he can negotiate. Right attitudes toward an authority figure is a basic principle of success for every individual.

Seth Cardwell

I thing social interactions are very important because its all about how you present yourself. People treat you the way you look which is very unfair. I think that if laws are written they should be followed and if they are not written there is no point of someone trying to follow it.

The author means that if you can negotiate yourself out of a situation by using social interaction, you can get away with breaking the law. If a law is put into place and you don't know about it, you can still get punished. "Ignorance is no excuse of the law." If you break a law that is not enforced, it is still breaking the law.

Negotiating with criminals should not be allowed what so ever, I mean if you can do the crime then do the time. We all have to pay for what we do no matter if it is good or bad. Yes people are often judged by how they present themselves. This is a good/bad thing. Because if you walk around stealing and doing drugs then yes you should get a bad rep. If you chose to be a good citizen help those you can and do your part, and follow the laws to the upmost best of your ability then you should be rewarded with a better rep.

I believe that the author means that by "social construction of crime" that we as a society sometimes create our own ways of getting around a crime or avoiding one. Sometimes society believes that as long you don't get caught doing a crime then you weren't really breaking the law. I believe that whether you do or do not know about a crime even if it isn't enforced, it still constitues for breaking the law. It may not be right that you are charged, but it still constitues for breaking the law.

having been a police officer in the military i can say that some times the police look the other way when it comes to some small offense some times it is easer for them to look the other way then deal with the paper work that is involved but as far as not knowing something you are doing is illegal is not an excuse for doing it as they say ignorance of the law is no excusse and i am sure at one time are another we have all did someting that was considered aginst the law

I think that what the author means by social construction of crime is that the way things go cause be persuaded due to your actions. If a law is broke then I think technically it is a crime but should it be punished or enforced? I guess common sense would be the only thing to make that decision.

I don't agree with the comment about negociation. If you're a member of a minority group and the officer don't like your race all the nice and polite manners in the world won't stop you from being harrass. What happen to innocent untill proven guilty. Racial profiling is a serious issued that needs to be address nationally. If police officers are not held accountable for their criminal activities against minorities, how can we make any progress in racial equality.

Many times crimes and punishments are overlooked or not near as harsh based on what the situation may be, your attitude, your body language, your politeness, appearance, and sometimes even who you know; and why your doing what your caught doing? In some instances this can be bad, especially if the person in the criminal justice system is having a bad day. I know that a crime is a crime and should be punished but we also look at the situation surrounding a crime, as well as past history crime and second chances.

if a law is broken then it is a crime. i also think punishment should be the same no matter if your the pope or mr. adv. joe!!

Some laws are more serious than other ones.Some minor laws will not get you in much trouble.Still a law is a law, but some laws are not that serious in general.

You also need to keep your cool in situations when you break the law. If you remain calm and polite you are more likely to not get in as much trouble as you would if you were rude. I guess it proves that you are sorry for what you did and accept that you did something wrong. If you talk back it is like you are defending yourself and don't think you broke the law or something along those lines.

I believe that the author meant that if you presented yourself more respectfully than rudely, the crime might be less severe than it would if you were disrespectful. Yes, if a law is broken and was not enforced, then yes, the law is still being broken and the person should still get punished. Say that the law was unknown and was broken, then the person should be made aware of the broken law and warned; however, the person should not be punished because of their ignorance.

I believe that the author was saying that if you are more respectful in certain situations the punishment may not be as severe. All crimes should have a punishment, but some should be more severe than others.

The way that society has constructed the crime in their own way. Not neccessarily the written laws, but also the unwritten laws as the blog states. Some laws are enforced more than others. This is a fact. But even the lesser ones have to be followed. More often than not they are ignored. Either way breaking it is crime. I guess laws are made to be broken. Depending on your social status you can be discriminated agaisnt. I know from personal experience.

I understand the authors main idea. Communication is very important in situations like the one in the video in this article. The young man's tone, attitude, and body language all played a role in the outcome of the situation. However, I do feel as if the officer crossed the line also. It shouldn't be okay for a human being to have that much authority. For instance, at the time of the incident the officer dictated the situation and let the young man know he had not only the power, but also the authority to decide if the young man should go to jail and if so, how long he will stay in jail. In my opinion that's not inforcing the law, that's abusing your authority. The young man may have crossed the line first, but two wrongs dont make a right.

I believe that the author's definition of "social construction of crime" was that punishment for crimes are often negotiable in some cases but also the lawmakers often control the degree which some laws are enforced. If someone breaks a written law it is a crime if it is broken. I dont believe it is right for police officers to hide behind their badge and make up random bull crap on the spot though.

crimes are very easy to committ but hard to pay for, sometimes people people committ crimes that they dont even know are a crime and end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars.

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