Social Definition of Crime

Crime has also been defined in social or non-legal terms. The social definition of crime is that it is behaviour or an activity that offends the social code of a particular community. Mower (1959) has defined it as “an anti-social act”.

Caldwell (1956: 114) has explained it as “an act or a failure to act that is considered to be so detrimental to the well-being of a society, as judged by its prevailing standards, that action against it cannot be entrusted to private initiative or to haphazard methods but must be taken by an organised society in accordance with tested procedures.”

Thorsten Sellin (1970: 6) has described crime as “violation of conduct norms of the normative groups”. Marshall Clinard (1957: 22) has, however, maintained that all deviations from social norms are not crimes. He talks of three types of deviation: (i) tolerated deviation, (ii) deviation which is mildly disapproved, and (iii) deviation which is strongly disapproved. He perceives the third type of deviation as crime.


Let us take an example. Gandhiji not only himself deviated from caste norms but also prompted others not to follow them. Yet, Gandhiji was not considered a deviant because his deviation was for the good of the society. The deviation that harms the society is strongly disapproved.

Positivists, conservatives, and those who explain crime in terms of ‘strains’ accept the social definition of crime (see, Jock Young, Crime and Society, 1981: 269). Positivists, like Ferri (1901), Eysenck (1969) and Miller (1958), believe that there is a consensus of values in society that can be scientifically ascertained.

Against this it can be judged whether an act is deviant or not. Positivists prefer the word ‘deviant’ to ‘criminal’ as the latter merely refers to violation of legal codes which (a) may not reflect consensual values at all (e.g., tax evasion as normal behaviour); (b) do not encompass all acts of deviance (e.g., sexual promiscuity/homosexuality may be deviant but perfectly legal); or (c) are based on legal concepts which are unscientific.

According to conservatives like Nisbet (1970), crimes are the activities which threaten social order, offend morality, and endanger person or property. Attacks on tradition as well as on people’s respect for authority are a considerable threat to an ordinary society. Pornographic books and sexy films undermine morals of people and are, therefore, as much a danger to society as enemy agents.


Strain theorists, like Clinard (1964), Merton (1964) and Matza (1969), consider crime as an action which is dysfunctional to society as well as an individual. Thus, they consider not only theft, robbery and homicide, etc., as crimes but also truancy, drug addiction, vandalism, suicide, etc. as crimes.

All these acts create circumstances in which a wide range of disorder occurs. As functionalists, they note that some crimes may be directly functional to the social order, being the result of ‘normal’ behaviour rather than strain, and should not be considered as major indications of disequilibrium. Strain theorists do not, therefore, limit themselves to using the official crime statistics, but, rather see them, along with other social indices, as useful and usable.

Criminologists with a sociological perspective have not claimed that there is no place for legal definition of crime in criminology. They have only drawn attention to situations in which people who engage in ‘criminal’ behaviour are either not caught or are acquitted by the courts because of inadequate evidence or legal loopholes or pressures.

Taking a reconciliatory position between legal and social definitions of crime, Reid (1976: 5) has said that legal definition may be used for compiling statistics on crime and for assigning the label ‘criminal’, but, the studies undertaken for studying causation of crime should include such persons also in their sample of ‘criminals’ as admit their crime and were not convicted by the courts.


Thus, the legal and non-legal definitions of crime do not always coincide because the legal and the social codes of a society can often differ. For example, accepting a bribe (or corruption) is illegal, but, in reality it is a normal activity indulged in by a large number of people, including the rulers of a country (as happened in the Hawala case in India in which a large number of politicians, bureaucrats, and public servants (about 115) were alleged to have received millions of rupees 65 crore in all between 1988 and 1991 from Jain brothers in the garb of donations for political parties).

Similarly, accepting dowry may be seen as a crime by virtue of the Anti-Dowry Act, making it illegal, or, it may be seen as part and parcel of sanctioned social behaviour of people in the Indian society.

Since the legal definition of crime is precise and unambiguous and since the system of our criminal justice is based on legal approach, it is this (legal) definition which is used for all operational purposes, in all official actions, in compiling statistics, and in empirical investigations.