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The Oxford Textbook on Criminology

The Oxford Textbook on Criminology (2nd edn)

Steve Case, Phil Johnson, David Manlow, Roger Smith, and Kate Williams
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date: 24 March 2023

p. 26p. 272. What is ‘crime’?locked

p. 26p. 272. What is ‘crime’?locked

  • Steve Case,
  • Phil Johnson,
  • David Manlow,
  • Roger Smith
  •  and Kate Williams


This chapter discusses what crime is. No matter how universally its ideas and regulations are accepted, it is important to understand and not lose sight of the fact that crime is a social construct. Because crime is socially constructed, ideas of unacceptable and criminal behaviour alter across cultures and over time. Many suggest that what is known as the ‘harm principle’ might be the best standard by which we should decide whether an activity should be criminal. This principle holds that if conduct is not harmful to others it should not be criminal, even if others strongly dislike it. The chapter also looks at the concept of deviance and identifies: what kinds of activities are disapproved of (seen as deviant) and why; which of these are criminalised and why; what the criminal law may reveal about society and what matters to it.

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