The theory and politics of criminalisation (2022)

John Muncie argues that a critical understanding of criminalisation remains crucial

The Daily Telegraph (18 April 2008) recently ran with the headline ‘Teenage drinkers could be criminalised’. In 2007 the Chair of the Youth Justice Board resigned primarily in frustration that ‘we are criminalising more and more children and young people’ for relatively minor offences in order to meet a Home Office target of increasing the number of ‘offences brought to justice’ (Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2007). In the wake of successive anti-terrorist legislation since 2000, the organisation CAMPACC (Campaign Against Criminalising Communities) was specifically formed in order to oppose the criminalisation of association with political organisations and to protect the civil liberties of those communities considered to be a ‘threat’ to public safety.

(Video) Criminalisation of Politics and Administration || Indian Administration || Lecture 72

In each of these cases a concept of criminalisation is employed to draw attention to the way in which ‘new criminals’ can be ‘created’ through police targeting and criminal justice law reform. In the throes of a government that has legislated in this area more in the past decade than in the whole of the previous century, the idea of criminalisation has begun to take a firmer hold in some sections of the popular, media, and political imagination. Of note have been attempts to ‘criminalise conduct’ through hate crime and anti-social behaviour legislation. Recognition of processes of criminalisation is, however, far from new. In the nineteenth century the penal reformer, Bentham, for example, argued that certain social reactions to crime—the unreformed prison, for example—were more likely to promote offending than curtail it. Mayhew, the social commentator, considered that overzealous policing was a significant factor in the creation of juvenile delinquency in the mid nineteenth century. Such themes are now reflected in the perennial claims that prisons are ‘colleges of crime’ and that the more people are treated as different, deviant, or criminal, the more likely they are to act out those roles in the future (for example, in the way ASBOs are considered not to deter but to be ‘badges of honour’).

Interaction, social reaction and labelling

The concept of criminalisation, however, has a deeper and more precise theoretical legacy. Formative traces can be found in an interactionist school of sociology of the 1930s. Tannenbaum (1938), for example, argued that deviance, rather than being a self-evident behavioural entity, could only be created through a process of social interaction. While a majority commit deviant acts, only a minority come to be known as deviant. The known deviant is then targeted, identified, defined, and treated as such, even though their behaviour may be no different to those who have not been so identified. As a result, certain people ‘become deviant’ through the imposition of social judgments on their behaviour: they become the essence of what is being complained of. This approach underlined the importance of viewing rules and regulations, not as consensual ‘givens’, but as sites of negotiation and dispute. In the 1950s Lemert (1951) further developed this approach by distinguishing between primary and secondary deviation. He argued that primary deviance is often a temporary transgression in which perpetrators have no conception of themselves as deviant. Secondary deviance is created through the reaction of others to the initial deviance. Through namecalling, stereotyping and labelling, a deviant identity is established and confirmed. Often deviants resolve this personal crisis by accepting their deviant status and by reorganising their lives accordingly. They become more susceptible to criminalisation. In these ways the rigid separation of what constitutes the deviant and the conformist; the criminal and noncriminal was called into question.

‘Deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behaviour; it is a property conferred upon these forms by the audiences which directly or indirectly witness them. Sociologically, then, the critical variable in the study of deviance is the social audience, rather than the individual person … ’ Kai T. Erikson (1962) Notes on the Sociology of Deviance.

(Video) Counting Crime: A Lecture on the Politics of Crime Data and Its Uses

The concept of criminalisation eventually found its feet in the formulation of social reaction theory and labelling in the 1960s. For the American sociologist Becker, the key to understanding the origins of deviance lay in the reactions of a social audience, rather than in the behaviour of individual actors themselves. Deviance was no longer viewed simply as a pathological act that violated consensual norms, but as something created through microlevel interactions between rule violator and rule enforcer. This process ensures that some people who commit deviant acts come to be known as deviants, whereas others do not. A number of ethnographic studies were also published in the 1960s and 1970s which revealed the processes of becoming a marijuana smoker, a prostitute, a homosexual, a prisoner and so on. In each it was the stigma attached to the label that was considered pivotal in informing future behaviour patterns. Becker (1963) argued that when defined as ‘outsiders’, it is such groups that come to epitomise what is considered to be criminal. A selffulfilling prophecy ensues. Criminality is continually sought only in those identified as criminal. And the power of the label of ‘criminal’ ensures that ‘criminal careers’ are exacerbated. This refocusing of criminology dramatically shifted attention from the behaviours of those commonly thought to constitute a problem for society to those who conceive those behaviours as problems. Lemert's (1967) conclusion that social control causes deviancy was a crucial turning point in the politicisation of the sociology of deviance. For many, social reaction and labelling effectively began the process of politicising the study of deviance, crime and social control.

‘Deviance may be conceived as a process by which the members of a group, community, or society (1) interpret behavior as deviant, (2) define persons who so behave as a certain kind of deviant and (3) accord them the treatment considered appropriate to such deviants’. John Kitsuse (1962) Societal Reaction to Deviant Behavior.

Critical imagination

Social reaction and labelling clearly opened up new lines of critical enquiry by posing definitional rather than behavioural questions—‘who defines another as deviant?’; ‘why are some behaviours and not others defined as deviant?’; ‘who has the power to define another as deviant?’; and ‘how are deviant roles subsequently adopted and played out?’ To address such questions it was necessary not only to begin to study how rules and laws were created, but to ask in whose interests they were enforced. Attention was drawn to the complex process by which moral entrepreneurs and agencies of social and crime control are able to realise the public identification of certain people as criminal; how social reaction and labelling produce and reproduce a recognisable criminal population. This ‘politicisation of criminology’ was indeed a logical extension of the critical questioning of social science and its role in research, teaching and policy making that had emerged at the time. Political developments growing out of the American civil rights campaigns, anti-Vietnam war movements and the radicalisation of student and countercultures had a direct impact on many academic disciplines and their role in defending the status quo. C. Wright Mills challenged the whole notion of scientific neutrality in academic research and Becker himself latterly brought such questioning directly into criminology by asking social scientists: ‘Whose side are you on?’ Mainstream criminology was charged with lending the state a spurious legitimacy and functioning as little more than a justification for oppressive power. This was the beginning of a critical criminological imagination in which questions of political and social control took precedence over behavioural and correctional issues. Central was an expose of the ‘power to criminalise’ through the systematic and consistent empowerment of some groups and the criminalisation of others.

(Video) Conflict theory | Society and Culture | MCAT | Khan Academy

‘Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label’ Howard Becker (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance.

Today the classic statements of social reaction and labelling are widely employed in most undergraduate sociological criminology courses. Yet 40 years ago they marked a radical departure in criminological (or rather more typically then ‘sociology of deviance’) studies. By drawing attention to the role of social reaction (and law enforcement in particular) they warn of the ways in which criminal justice may cause that which it is designed to curtail. A critical understanding of criminalisation remains crucial in radicalising a discipline that in many of its guises simply seems to be content with being an adjunct of, and in collusion with, state agencies. Social reaction and labelling marked the first step in understanding why and how only certain troubling behaviours and acts are subject to criminalisation and why a host of other more serious social harms (such as workplace death and injury; illegal arms dealings; corporate frauds, state sponsored torture and so on) appear to be routinely practised with impunity or rarely considered as core elements of the ‘crime problem’. These insights still retain their original power to challenge the politics of law and order and expose the processes of selective criminalisation. Perhaps for this reason they remain routinely ignored or dismissed by those of a more conservative, technocratic or administrative persuasion.

‘This is a large turn away from older sociology which tended to rest heavily upon the idea that deviance leads to social control. I have come to believe that the reverse idea, ie., social control leads to deviance, is equally tenable and the potentially richer premise for studying deviance in modern society’ Edwin Lemert (1967) Human Deviance, Social Problems and Social Control.

John Muncie is Professor of Criminology at the Open University

(Video) Criminalisation of Politics : A threat to Basic Structure of Constitution...


Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York: Free Press.

Erikson, K. T. (1962) ‘Notes on the sociology of deviance’. Social Problems, 9: 307–314.

Kitsuse, J. (1962) ‘Societal reaction to deviant behaviour’. Social Problems, 9: 247–56.

(Video) Criminalization Of Politics

Lemert, E. (1951) Social Pathology, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lemert, E. (1967) Human Deviance, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Social Problems and Social Control.

Tannenbaum, F. (1938) Crime and the Community, New York: Colombia University Press


What is the concept of Criminalisation? ›

Criminalization or criminalisation, in criminology, is "the process by which behaviors and individuals are transformed into crime and criminals". Previously legal acts may be transformed into crimes by legislation or judicial decision.

What causes individuals to violate a law or commit a crime? ›

The causes of crime are complex. Poverty, parental neglect, low self-esteem, alcohol and drug abuse can be connected to why people break the law. Some are at greater risk of becoming offenders because of the circumstances into which they are born.

What are the two important theories in criminal law? ›

There are three theories in criminal law, namely: (1) classical theory, (2) positivist theory, and (3) eclectic theory.

Is a positive or negative act in violation of penal law? ›

Black's Law dictionary defined crime as “a positive or negative act in violation of the penal law; an offense against the state”. In the field of criminal justice, it is defined simply as “an act or omission prohibited by law”. Mortimer J. Adler defined crime as “behavior which is prohibited by the criminal code”.

What does criminalization mean in sociology? ›

Criminalization is a procedure deployed by society as a pre-emptive, harm-reduction device, using the threat of punishment as a deterrent to anyone proposing to engage in the behavior causing harm.

What is another word for criminalize? ›

verb. ['ˈkrɪmənəˌlaɪz'] declare illegal; outlaw.

What are the 7 types of crimes? ›

Types of crime
  • Antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour is when you feel intimidated or distressed by a person's behaviour towards you.
  • Arson. ...
  • Burglary. ...
  • Childhood abuse. ...
  • Crime abroad. ...
  • Cybercrime and online fraud. ...
  • Domestic abuse. ...
  • Fraud.
17 Mar 2022

What is the root cause of crime? ›

Root causes of crime and victimization are found in social, economic, cultural and societal systems that can lead to inequities and disadvantages for some individuals, families and communities. These, in turn, can result in negative outcomes including crime, victimization and fear of crime.

What are the main 3 factors of crime? ›

The Crime Triangle identifies three factors that create a criminal offense. Desire of a criminal to commit a crime; Target of the criminal's desire; and the Opportunity for the crime to be committed.

What are the four 4 theories in criminal law? ›

Justice and criminal justice

Typically, legal theorists and philosophers consider four distinct kinds of justice: corrective justice, distributive justice, procedural justice, and retributive justice.

What are the 3 theories of criminal behavior? ›

Broadly speaking, criminal behavior theories involve three categories of factors: psychological, biological, and social.

How many theories of crime are there? ›

While there are many different sociological theories about crime, there are four primary perspectives about deviance: Structural Functionalism, Social Strain Typology, Conflict Theory, and Labeling Theory.

What is the person called that commits the crime? ›

Perpetrator: a person who actually commits a crime.

Who is the father of criminology? ›

This idea first struck Cesare Lombroso, the so-called “father of criminology,” in the early 1870s.

Which course is best for criminal law? ›

To pursue criminal law, you are required to go for master's degree. After the completion of bachelor of law (LLB), one can go for the master courses in law. PG Courses: LLM in Criminal Law – 1 year duration.

What can we do to prevent crimes? ›

Your Role in Preventing Crime
  1. Voice concerns about crime and disorder problems. ...
  2. Report and provide information about crimes and suspicious activities. ...
  3. Report other problems and incidents. ...
  4. Get help with personal problems. ...
  5. Employ crime prevention measures for personal and property safety.

What is the meaning of political crime? ›

The political criminal is defined as an individual who, motivated by his conviction, commits an unlawful act designed to attack the social structure to bring about a reorganization of the system. Concomitantly, a political crime is any unlawful act committed by a political criminal.

What is criminalization of mental illness? ›

Policies, such as “zero tolerance” policing, nuisance laws and mandatory sentences for drug offenses have contributed to the criminalization of mental illness. About 2 in 5 people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness, resulting in jails and prisons becoming de-facto mental health facilities.

What is the opposite of criminalized? ›

What is the opposite of criminal?
131 more rows

What part of speech is demonize? ›

verb (used with object), de·mon·ized, de·mon·iz·ing.

What does Villainized mean? ›

intransitive verb. : to play the role of a villain.

What are the two types of crimes? ›

Felonies and misdemeanors are two classifications of crimes used in most states, with petty offenses (infractions) being the third.

What are the effects of crime? ›

Crime may have emotional and psychological impacts, physical consequences, and may result in financial loss and/or in social consequences, such as tension within the family.

What are the impacts of crime on society? ›

It is a common knowledge among scholars that crime generally reduces safety, disrupts social order, creates chaos and confusion, hinders community collaboration and trust and creates serious economic cost to both the people and the nation at large.

Why is crime a social problem? ›

Social root causes of crime are: inequality, not sharing power, lack of support to families and neighborhoods, real or perceived inaccessibility to services, lack of leadership in communities, low value placed on children and individual well-being, the overexposure to television as a means of recreation.

What are the 5 elements of crime? ›

The elements of a crime should be legal in nature (must be in law), Actus Reus (human conduct), causation (human conduct must cause harm), harm (to some other/thing), concurrence (state of mind and human conduct), Mens rea (state of mind and guilty), Punishment.

What is the crime formula? ›

A crime rate is calculated by dividing the number of reported crimes by the total population. The result is then multiplied by 100,000.

What are the five negative effects of crime? ›

After you experience a crime you may find that:
  • You feel angry, upset or experience other strong emotions. ...
  • Things suddenly fall apart for you. ...
  • You show physical symptoms. ...
  • You blame yourself thinking you should have done things differently. ...
  • You develop long-term problems such as depression or anxiety-related illness.
12 Apr 2022

Why are theories of crime important? ›

Thus, criminological theories are created so that we can better understand why people behave as they do and that in understanding the why, we can respond more effectively to these actions and actors.

Which theory of punishment is best? ›

Retributive Theory

Retribution is the most ancient justification for punishment. This theory insists that a person deserves punishment as he has done a wrongful deed. Also, this theory signifies that no person shall be arrested unless that person has broken the law.

What is the importance of theory in criminal investigation? ›

The goal of criminological theory is to help one gain an understating of crime and criminal justice. Theories cover the making and the breaking of the law, criminal and deviant behavior, as well as patterns of criminal activity.

Which theory best explains criminal behavior? ›

The U.S. justice system is largely influenced by a classical criminology theory, rational choice theory, which assumes that the choice to commit a crime arises out of a logical judgment of cost versus reward.

What factors influence criminal behavior? ›

What Influences Criminal Behavior?
  • Biological Risk Factors. Just like we can't choose our eye color, we can't choose the chemical makeup of our brain. ...
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences. ...
  • Negative Social Environment. ...
  • Substance Abuse. ...
  • How Can You Learn More About Criminology?

What is the example of crime? ›

Crime can involve violence, sex or drugs but also discrimination, road rage, undeclared work and burglary. Crime is any behaviour and any act, activity or event that is punishable by law.

What is theory short answer? ›

A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts. The theory of gravitation, for instance, explains why apples fall from trees and astronauts float in space.

What is the most important theory in crime causation? ›

Unified Social Control Theory

It is one of the most popular theories of crime causation today, especially among criminologists. This theory attempts to analyze and explain both property and violent crime. The theory was developed by Travis Hirschi (1969) and has gained support in subsequent research by other scholars.

What are elements of crime? ›

Elements of a Crime

In general, every crime involves three elements: first, the act or conduct (actus reus); second, the individual's mental state at the time of the act (mens rea); and third, the causation between the act and the effect (typically either proximate causation or but-for causation).

What is the opposite of crime? ›

What is the opposite of crime?
30 more rows

What is hiding a criminal called? ›

What is Harboring a Fugitive? State and federal laws define harboring a fugitive as knowingly hiding a criminal from law enforcement officials. Essentially the crime is committed when one individual has committed a crime and escapes from being arrested or punished while being protected by another individual.

What is crime simple words? ›

Definition of crime

1 : an illegal act for which someone can be punished by the government especially : a gross violation of law. 2 : a grave offense especially against morality. 3 : criminal activity efforts to fight crime.

Who is mother of criminology? ›

Cesare Lombroso
BornEzechia Marco Lombroso6 November 1835 Verona, Lombardy–Venetia
Died19 October 1909 (aged 73) Turin, Kingdom of Italy
Known forItalian school of positivist criminology
9 more rows

Who is the father of modern crime? ›

Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), the 18th century crook turned legendary French Detective, viewed as the father of modern criminal investigation.

Who was the first detective in real life? ›

Vidocq is considered to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police department. He is also regarded as the first private detective.

Is criminal law hard? ›

Criminal law is tough—but if you're willing to rise to the challenge, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more exciting, diverse, or thought-provoking legal career.

How many years study the criminal lawyer? ›

A criminal lawyer's academic journey can be broken up as follows: A bachelor's course in legislative law or an LLB degree takes 3 years to complete. An integrated arts course or a BA LLB takes 5 years to complete. Postgraduate courses in law typically take 1-2 years to complete.

How long is criminal law course? ›

It is a full time Criminal Law course. Duration of this course is from 3 - 4 years.

What does it mean to be criminalized? ›

Definition of criminalize

transitive verb. : to make illegal also : to turn into a criminal or treat as criminal.

What is criminalization of mental illness? ›

Policies, such as “zero tolerance” policing, nuisance laws and mandatory sentences for drug offenses have contributed to the criminalization of mental illness. About 2 in 5 people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness, resulting in jails and prisons becoming de-facto mental health facilities.

What is an example of Undercriminalization? ›

Undercriminalization refers to the fact that the criminal law fails to prohibit acts that many feel are mala in se. Elements of corporate violence, racism, structured inequality, and systematic wrongdoing by political officials are examples.

What is material criminalization? ›

Material Criminalization. Police harassment, exclusion from public place. Symbolic Criminalization. Ways that people view criminalized persons.

What can we do to prevent crimes? ›

Your Role in Preventing Crime
  1. Voice concerns about crime and disorder problems. ...
  2. Report and provide information about crimes and suspicious activities. ...
  3. Report other problems and incidents. ...
  4. Get help with personal problems. ...
  5. Employ crime prevention measures for personal and property safety.

How are crimes classified? ›

Crimes are generally graded into four categories: felonies, misdemeanors, felony-misdemeanors, and infractions. Often the criminal intent element affects a crime's grading.

Is an offense a criminal? ›

Offense is a legal term used to refer to conducts or omissions that violate and are punishable under criminal law. The terms offense, criminal offense, and crime are often used as interchangeable synonyms. The term offense may be frequently used to describe a minor crime.

Which of the following is the best example of the criminalization of the mentally ill? ›

Which of the following is the BEST example of the "criminalization" of the mentally ill? the high amount of mentally ill (schizophrenics) being in prisons.

How does mental health affect the criminal justice system? ›

People with a mental illness are three times more likely than the general population to interact with police and are more likely to be arrested, according to a report in Health & Justice. They are also likely to have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.

Can mentally ill people go to jail? ›

Today: In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. Individuals with psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in a jail or prison than a hospital bed.

What is meant by the crisis of Overcriminalization? ›

“Overcriminalization”—the overuse and abuse of criminal law to address every societal problem and punish every mistake—is an unfortunate trend. The criminal law should be used only to redress blameworthy conduct, actions that truly deserve the greatest punishment and moral sanction.

What is meant by actus reus? ›

Actus reus refers to the act or omission that comprise the physical elements of a crime as required by statute. Actus reus includes only a voluntary affirmative act, or an omission (failure to act), causing a criminally proscribed result.

Which of the following elements are necessary to make a behavior a crime? ›

In general, every crime involves three elements: first, the act or conduct (actus reus); second, the individual's mental state at the time of the act (mens rea); and third, the causation between the act and the effect (typically either proximate causation or but-for causation).

What is hyper criminalization? ›

Rios defines hypercriminalization as “the process by which an individual's everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening, or criminal, across social contexts.” It is easy to see the cameras in schools as another part of what Rios calls the “youth control complex.” That complex ...

How does the youth control complex affect youth of color? ›

As this complex is enacted, Rios notes that youth of color begin to internalize their own criminalization because "they are already seen as suspects by many in the community." As a result, they develop "identities that they often wish they could renounce" and in some cases end up embracing the criminality they are ...

What is punitive social control? ›

Punitive social control. Overarching system of regulating the lives of marginalized youth. Negative credentials. Styles and behaviors labeled as deviant at school, by police, and in community.


1. Criminalisation of the State
2. Criminalization Of Politics
3. Basis of Criminalization
4. The Politics of Ecocide Law
5. Criminalising Dissent on Campuses
6. Black Feminist Reflections on Violence and Mass Criminalization: The Promise of Abolition
(Ohio University College of Arts & Sciences)

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Rubie Ullrich

Last Updated: 10/16/2022

Views: 5900

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (72 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Rubie Ullrich

Birthday: 1998-02-02

Address: 743 Stoltenberg Center, Genovevaville, NJ 59925-3119

Phone: +2202978377583

Job: Administration Engineer

Hobby: Surfing, Sailing, Listening to music, Web surfing, Kitesurfing, Geocaching, Backpacking

Introduction: My name is Rubie Ullrich, I am a enthusiastic, perfect, tender, vivacious, talented, famous, delightful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.