The term “crime” refers to any action that contravenes basic and social values defined by morality (Hester 17). In other words, crime is a divergence from the societal norms defined by a particular community. In most cases, crime is divided into categories and sub-categories, and punishment is often meted out by the responsible authorities, depending on severity of the crime.
In the 18th century, philosophers and sociologists became actively engaged in debates aimed at explaining criminal behavior in regard to its causes, effects and ways of its avoidance. As a result, various schools of thought were developed, and the classical school was the most prominent among them. The classical school was based on the utilitarian philosophy. It is a normative ethical theory that “bases right and wrong depending on the outcomes”. The rightness or wrongness of an act is judged by the overall happiness it brings to a person (Hester 33). The classical school of thought had three main arguments, which explained how the beliefs were established. The first one explains that humans as the rational beings are free to choose how to act. The second explains that humans weigh the consequences and benefits of an action before doing it. Usually, they choose the easiest way to act. The third and the last argument explain that punishment can prevent the crime, but it should be meted out in proportion to the crime committed.
As the philosophers and sociologists continued to gain insight concerning the issue, other schools of thought developed, bringing about a paradigm shift on crime. One of them is the positivist school of thought. The school holds a belief that crime is caused by the internal and external factors that are beyond a person’s control. Some of these factors are poverty, level of education, and association with some sub-cultures.
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Previously, my belief towards crime was quite simple. I thought that crime was an irrational action that should be punishable according to the proportionate standards. In some way, this belief is strongly related with utilitarian philosophy, which holds the view that crime is evil because it causes pain and suffering to the affected party. However, the perception of crime has changed after a new knowledge on people’s behavior has appeared. Thus, it becomes clear what makes people behave inappropriately and, particularly, what motivates them to participate in the criminal activities. Moreover, this knowledge is consistent with the arguments put forward by the positivist school of thought and the symbolic interactionism theory.
Symbolic interaction theory was developed from the arguments of Herbert Mead and Charles Coley (Griffin 59). The theory was further expounded by Herbert Blumer, who was Mead’s student. Symbolic interaction theory postulates that reality in terms of human perception is derived from interaction with others. According to this theory, “the definition of things is derived from interaction with other members of society” (Griffin 61), and people are likely to behave in accordance with their perception towards different things.
According to symbolic interactionism, crime can be viewed as a consequence of societal definitions of success. For instance, poverty, which is the leading cause of crime, is an excellent example of the definition derived from the social interaction. When people are born, they do not know the meaning of anything. While growing and developing mentally and socially through interaction, they start to attach the meanings to things. Since owning a good house and driving a good car is a societal definition of being successful, individuals will try to acquire such things. Therefore, it becomes the essence of living a good life; this is a concept learnt from interaction with others. People from low socio-economic backgrounds will most likely resort to crime in order to satisfy their needs. In opposition to the earlier theories, the contemporary ones view crime as a social problem derived from the societal definitions and expectations.