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Explaining Crime and Its Context

Stephen E. Brown, Finn-Aage Esbensen, Gilbert Geis

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eBook - ePub


Explaining Crime and Its Context

Stephen E. Brown, Finn-Aage Esbensen, Gilbert Geis

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About This Book

How do societies define crime, and how should it be punished or prevented? Which is a more criminal act, causing a death by dumping toxic material or by shooting a victim with a gun? Are criminals born or made? Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context, Tenth Edition, offers a broad perspective on criminological theory. It provides students of criminology and sociology with a thorough exposure to a range of theories about crime, contrasting their logic and assumptions, but also highlighting efforts to integrate and blend these frameworks. In this tenth edition, the authors have incorporated new directions that have gained traction in the field, while remaining faithful to their criminological heritage. Among the themes in this work are the relativity of crime (its changing definition) with abundant examples, historical roots of criminology and the lessons they have provided, and the strength and challenges of applying the scientific method. This revision offers new coverage of the growing problem of mental health and crime, a more tightly focused discussion of crime statistics, more global examples, and new material on human trafficking and on youth violence.Brown and Esbensen improve on this engaging and challenging introduction to the theory of crime and punishment, which is already perhaps the best criminology text available for undergraduates today.

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Part 1

Foundations for Criminology

The opening unit of this text provides a framework for studying criminology and a foundation for the units to follow. Criminology is an expansive interdisciplinary field. Nevertheless, there are some central notions that have shaped the evolution of the criminological enterprise, and these issues are examined in Chapters 13. By consensus, although not unanimity, contemporary criminology is the scientific study of crime and especially its causes. But across time, understanding of both crime and how it should be scrutinized have shifted dramatically. Those changes alone are critical; thus, a generous dose of history is incorporated in Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context. Indeed, one of the premises of this text is that appreciating history is paramount in understanding where we are and where we may go. Knowing the history of the discipline of criminology, as well as major societal shifts, gives us the “big picture” needed to “connect the dots” in attempting to understand the complexities of explaining crime.
The central thesis, or raison d’etre, for criminology is to explain why crime occurs, which is a process of theorizing. While many criminologists do more than develop and/or test theories of crime, it is those explanations that provide the foundation for all other criminological endeavors. Predicting criminality and policy development logically must be rooted in some explanatory framework. This text examines a number of perspectives for explaining crime and, therefore, is suggestive of many strategies for addressing it.
In defining crime and criminology, these initial chapters draw attention to the relativity of crime. What is considered a crime varies by time, place, and who is doing the defining. Examination of crime in the context of diverse cultures from around the world illustrates, perhaps most vividly, the importance of the concept of relativity in understanding crime and deviance. In that sense criminology is inherently cross-cultural. While the focus within the book is more on U.S. criminological thought, material from a range of cultures is included to bolster a broader understanding of crime, deviance, and social control. It turns out that the relativity of crime is a fruitful concept for understanding the continual redefinition of crime within our own cultures.
The impact of ideology on explanations of crime and on crime policy is another nagging problem for criminologists and a cornerstone of this book. A conscious effort has been made to highlight the role of ideology by presenting a wide range of explanations of crime rooted in five dominant paradigms, as well as emerging perspectives on crime. The intent is to offer a balanced perspective on the field of criminology. While many criminology texts are rooted in a single paradigm, theory, or ideological perspective, Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context represents a conscious effort to present an eclectic range of thought produced by many thoughtful criminologists. While space limitations (and the time constraints of what can be covered in an academic semester) prevent inclusion of the full array of criminological ideas, a quite sizable sampling of efforts that have garnered notable criminological respect follows. The second chapter also delves into basic Western legal traditions, adding to ideology and relativity as providing a context for studying crime.
Finally, as a largely scientific endeavor, criminology is heavily reliant upon measuring social concepts and collecting data on human behavior. The third chapter describes some fundamental criminological tools for these tasks, as well as presenting descriptive data on crime and delinquency. In sum, this unit provides for understanding the role of ideology, relativity of crime, evolution of law, paradigms that underlie theories, and measuring of crime. The units to follow delve into the causes of crime and examine a number of crime types.

Chapter 1

Crime and Criminology

Learning Objectives

After reading Chapter 1, you should be able to:
  • Discuss criteria for assessing the harmfulness of crime.
  • Develop a definition of criminology that reflects major issues within the field.
  • Explain ideology as it relates to the field of criminology.
  • Contrast competing definitions of crime.
  • Outline and compare five different paradigms within criminology.
  • Discuss the meaning and controversies surrounding criminology and policy.
  • Critically assess the role of the media in understanding the causes of crime.
Crime and criminals capture the attention of nearly everyone. Heading the list of notorious recent crimes have been terrorist attacks and hate crimes. A 2017 Las Vegas shooter took a record 59 lives, with no clear motivation. Earlier in the year, two jihadists killed 14 coworkers in San Bernardino. Recent hate crime mass shootings have included the 2016 murder of 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, nine victims at a black church in Charleston, and one counter-protestor killed by an automobile attack launched by a white supremacist at a far-right Charlottesville rally. There have also been widely publicized rape cases, including Stanford University student Brock Turner’s penetration of an intoxicated and unconscious woman and the ensuing outrage over his jail confinement for only three months. Similarly, controversial rape charges against Bill Cosby resulted in a 2018 conviction. In the realm of property crimes, a hack of Equifax was successful in stealing identity information on 145 million people, the quintessence of dramatic increases in cybercrime. Accorded much less media acclaim are the thousands of annual street-variety homicides, assaults, rapes, robberies, burglaries, and larcenies (see Chapter 3 for statistics). This book examines a wide range of explanations for all of these sorts of crime.
Crime brings many intangible costs to victims that cannot readily be assigned a dollar value (Wickramasekera et al., 2015). Pain, suffering, fear, anxiety, and stress can take huge tolls on health and social relationships. There are also financial costs to both victims and society. The costs of administering criminal justice systems, the largest portion of economic costs, are tremendous, in addition to direct costs to victims. One recent study places the total annual financial cost of crime in the U.S. at $3.2 trillion, nearly 20 percent of its gross national product (GNP) (Anderson, 2012). Moreover, it is probable that the full costs of white-collar and corporate crime are largely underestimated, given their insidious nature.
At the heart of fascination with crime-related issues lie some intriguing questions: Why do people commit these crimes? How should we respond? Why are some behaviors considered crimes and not others? We might exclaim about some outrageous but legally permissible act: “There oughta be a law!” While the public is intrigued, criminologists address these issues in a more systematic manner. A criminologist is a social scientist dedicated to understanding the causes of crime. But what is crime and how serious are different forms of it? Consider each of these brief scenarios, and rank-order them from most to least serious. After doing so, consider your rationale for the rank you gave each, and then compare your rankings to those of several classmates. Are they different? If so, how and why?
  • George points a .38 caliber revolver at the cashier in a liquor store, and yells, “Put all the money in the bag!”
  • Karen and Mary smoke marijuana a couple of evenings a week in their college dormitory room while listening to streaming music. They laugh a lot.
  • Executives hide the fact that their corporation is losing large sums of money. They pay themselves huge bonuses, while encouraging employees to invest more. Ultimately, the corporation declares bankruptcy, resulting in thousands of employees losing their jobs and retirement benefits.
  • Two young men, aged 14 and 15, holding American citizenship and from families long subscribing to the Islamic faith, are detected participating in electronic communication with jihadists located in foreign countries. The FBI arrests them at a U.S. international airport where they are boarding a plane to a Middle Eastern country. There is clear evidence that their intent was to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
  • A group of automobile executives discusses a faulty brake system in one of their car models. They knew that the brake system could contribute to a number of accidents that could bring serious disabilities and loss of lives. They conclude that they will not recall the vehicles because it is more profitable not to do so, based on the number of lawsuits that their company can expect to lose versus the cost of the recall. Over the next year, 14 people die in crashes that are attributed to faulty brakes.
  • Abby is a teenager with a two-year-old son. She lives with Manley, her 22-year-old boyfriend, who burns her son with cigarettes and urinates on the burned flesh. She has seen him do this several times, but has never reported it to the authorities because, she says, she loves Manley. After the injuries were reported by a teacher, authorities had the boy examined by a physician who reported that several of the scars on his arms and legs were permanent, but that he was otherwise in good health.
  • Jake is a third-year police officer. He has heard that a local gang member, Frederic “Big” Johnston, has raped several young girls in his neighborhood. There has never been physical evidence to support these rumors and no one living in the neighborhood has ever complained to police. Jake, however, feels that after three years of police work he has a good read of street toughs. He finds “Big” alone in an alley one night, gives him a severe beating with his nightstick, and expresses to him in extremely vulgar language what he plans to subject Big to if he hears more rumors of his sexual victimization of young girls.
  • Lennie, Sherri, and Jamale have heard a lot of controversy in the news media regarding the presence of statues and monuments located on government lands and commemorating the history of the United States Civil War, 1861–1865. Agreeing with those who view combatants on the southern o...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Criminology
APA 6 Citation
Brown, S., Esbensen, F.-A., & Geis, G. (2018). Criminology (10th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Brown, Stephen, Finn-Aage Esbensen, and Gilbert Geis. (2018) 2018. Criminology. 10th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Brown, S., Esbensen, F.-A. and Geis, G. (2018) Criminology. 10th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Brown, Stephen, Finn-Aage Esbensen, and Gilbert Geis. Criminology. 10th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.