Key Concepts in Crime and Society


Ross Coomber, Joseph F Donnermeyer, Karen McElrath & John Scott

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    about the authors

    Ross Coomber, PhD, is Associate Professor, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Australia. Until recently he was Professor of Sociology and Director of the Drug and Alcohol Research Unit at Plymouth University (UK). He has been involved in researching a wide range of issues relating to drug use, drug supply and formal and informal interventions in many societies around the world for over 25 years. He has taught a final-year undergraduate module, Drugs and Drug Use in Society, for 20 years. He has published extensively within the drug field and is the author of Pusher Myths: Re-Situating the Drug Dealer (2006) and co-editor of Drug Use and Cultural Contexts ‘Beyond the West’ (2004) (both Free Association Books) among others.

    Joseph F Donnermeyer, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the Rural Sociology programme, School of Environment and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University. He received his MA and PhD degrees in Sociology from the University of Kentucky (Lexington), and prior to his appointment at OSU was an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Dr Donnermeyer’s specialisation is rural criminology, a field in which he has written over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and books on issues related to rural crime, including a co-authored monograph – Rural Criminology (2014, Critical Criminology Series, Routledge). He is a trainer in various executive development and leadership programmes through the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association and other trade organisations. Currently, he holds adjunct appointments at Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane) and the University of New England (Armidale, New South Wales), and is a research associate with the Research Center on Violence, West Virginia University (Morgantown).

    Karen McElrath earned a PhD in Criminology from Florida State University and has held faculty positions at Duquesne University, the University of Miami and, most recently, at Fayetteville State University where she is the Dudley E. Flood Endowed Professor of Criminal Justice. She returned to the USA in 2013, after spending 17 years in Northern Ireland where she worked at Queen’s University in Belfast. Karen has taught classes in the areas of drug use/policy, research methods and criminology/criminal justice. She is the author of one book, the editor/co-editor of four books, including The American Drug Scene, now in its 7th edition (Oxford University Press). Karen has published several scholarly journal articles and has actively engaged with communities, non-profit organisations and government bodies. Her current research interests focus on stigma, social control and drug treatment, changing patterns of opioid use (namely heroin) and the school-to-prison pipeline.

    John Scott is a Professor in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. His current projects include research on rural crime and research on the social supply of cannabis. Gender, especially masculinity, has been a major focus of his research. His previous book (co-edited with Minichiello), Male Sex Work and Society (2014, Harrington Park Press), examines these fields and follows a longer-term research focus on the sex industry.


    Two of the co-authors involved in this book (Coomber and McElrath) previously worked on another of the recent additions to the Sage Key Concepts series (Key Concepts in Drugs and Society) and, whereas previously SAGE had approached us, this time round we took the idea to them.

    This came about for two primary reasons: first, the format and approach; that is, the provision of an affordable text that effectively bridges the gaps between the kinds of texts commonly available to those new to engaging with crime-related issues – full-blown books on discrete topics such as Police and Policing or Gangs – and dictionaries or encyclopaedias that provide snippets of introductory insight. Even introductory texts that cover a greater breadth of material and issues often struggle to provide a sufficiently critical stance on the topics dealt with and ultimately provide little more than a basic overview of the areas, seeking to cover almost everything about crime-related issues they can. Second, we already had experience of writing a Key Concepts volume and felt that we appreciated the niche of providing critical introductory stances on a wide range of concepts and issues we considered to be ‘key’ to anyone studying crime in society. In other words, it was an opportunity to once again engage in an approach that we liked and were convinced of its value.

    As well as bridging this gap between depth and breadth in an accessible way (the Key Concepts approach is now proven and can be cited as a success within its own terms as a workable market model), the other gap that will be bridged is that of national provincialism. The text shies away from overly parochial views of crime in society and reflects, wherever possible, a truly international perspective that a readership from the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia – among others – will relate to and find relevant. The text aims at being ‘international’ in the sense that examples are drawn from the USA, the UK and other countries (e.g. Australia, Canada) but also presents topics in a country-neutral way. In this sense, the aim has been, wherever possible, to utilise terminology and examples that ‘travel’ rather than appear ethnocentric to any one set of national perspectives. This is achieved in part through the make-up of the author group. Coomber was based in the UK whilst writing this book but is now based in Australia, Donnermeyer and McElrath are based in North America and Scott is based in Australia. In addition, each of the authors is aware of the contemporary international crime-related research context and the ‘hot topics’ therein. The text also aims to bridge the sometimes confused gap between criminology and crime and deviance in the sense that students on criminal justice or criminology courses, as well as those on sociology, urban studies and anthropology courses, will find the text relevant – hence the title Crime and Society.

    The other advantage to a relatively introductory text with a much greater number of concepts covered in reasonable depth is that overlapping cross-referenced coverage helps build up a stronger, more informed world view that draws on the key concerns/issues for each area and also provides the student/reader with an immediate understanding of the topics being considered, while allowing them to understand the main areas of contention within them and/or what the strengths and weaknesses of those key concepts are.

    The challenge of the Key Concepts series is to decide on which concepts to include and any group of authors would make some different choices. Enclosed in this book are the ones that we made. There are ‘classic’ issues that could barely be avoided, such as definitions around ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’, but also less obvious others (to some authors perhaps) such as Researching crime, Normalisation or Environmental crime and green criminology.

    Forty interconnected but also relatively disparate concepts can be organised in a range of ways. We chose to order the book into three different sections: 1. Understanding Crime and Criminality; 2. Types of Crime and Criminality; and 3. Responses to Crime. In this way, we try to provide insight into how crime has been understood in the ways it has; what types of crime are prominent and why; followed by consideration of how and why crime has been responded to in the ways that it has.

    In Section One, which has a focus on understanding crime, we start with providing definitions of Crime and of Deviance but also provide insight into the way crime has been seen to develop historically in pre-industrial society, in modern society and in post-modern society. From there, we consider the Social construction of crime and deviance, the way that crime has been theorised (Crime and theory) and how crime researchers go about researching crime (Researching crime). Understanding how crime is conceptualised and responded to is raised when we look at Social Control, Governance and Governmentality, and some of the specific concrete forms that society uses to manage crime in this respect are described in looking at the criminal justice system. Key to the running of criminal justice systems are Crime statistics and how they are used, and a critical understanding of statistics and how they are subject to a range of influences can also be seen when we consider the concepts of Prevalence, incidence and incident of crime; Risk from crime; Risk of becoming criminally involved; Why people commit crime; and Fear and the fear of crime. A theme that runs through many of the concepts is that of Poverty and exclusion and the ways that this increases the likelihood of being involved in crime, but also of being a Victim of crime. Although there are a range of demographic lenses that we could have chosen to consider crime through, we felt that understanding how crime can be normalised for some groups was important as a contrast to always seeing it as ‘outside’ the norm, and to also consider the important differences and aspects of crime as it relates to Gender, Age, Ethnicity and Class.

    In Section Two, we have chosen to focus on a number of specific types of crime. Although crimes committed within these categories would often be small-scale (but not always), the concepts are built around crime areas considered of conceptual importance as a ‘thing in and of itself’. So, in this sense organised crime can take many different forms but it is often presented and considered as though it was a simply definable thing that presents society with clear and definable risks. However, as we see in relation to the various forms of supposedly organised crime presented in this section, simple definitions and categorisations are both elusive and often problematic for a range of reasons. Drug markets (Drug-related crime and violence) are often overly homogenised and simplified to the point where they distort useful understanding, and Gangs can take so many forms that even those studying them can become confused as to the essence of what they are looking at. Human trafficking and slavery has more resonance in the twenty-first century than many would expect, but while it is often international and organised, it very often isn’t quite as organised or international as the terms would evoke. Sex Work can overlap with human trafficking and slavery and organised criminality but it can also be organised by grass-roots activism or local authority approaches to reducing harms, as well as have varying levels of legality/illegality attached to it.

    Crime also happens in places and spaces – both physical and virtual. Consideration of crimes committed on the environment generally and specifically are considered in Environmental crime and green criminology, whereas crime in rural and urban areas often manifests very differently because of the nature of those spaces and the places they have become. Internet/cyber crime is both space- and place-free in the sense that an internet criminal can commit cyber fraud or crime from almost any physical location, while, at the same time, the impact of their crimes can be truly international and transnational and left to run and build its own momentum. Terrorism and War crime are also organised and international in scale, but, as with some previous concepts around notions of social control (see Police and policing) and legitimacy in the use of force, some crimes are not crimes depending on who is committing the act/s of force or violence and whether or not those acts are perceived to be legitimate. Acts of genocide are only defined as such as long as the perpetrators are defined as illegitimate. These concepts consider formal definitions of Terrorism and War crime but also consider the frameworks of legitimacy that affect their usage.

    The idea of Victimless crime is an important but contested issue. Is a ‘crime’ like drug use really a crime if you choose to do it to yourself? Is homosexuality really a crime if committed between two consenting adults? The issues are teased out and appraised. It might be assumed that a less contentious concept in that respect is Violence/interpersonal violence towards others. Yet, we find that definitions of violence vary across time and space and interpersonal relationships affect how ‘violence’ is both perceived and experienced.

    In Section Three, we consider how crime has been responded to by the media and critically explore the much used notion of Moral panic. Each concept considers issues of ‘social control’ and the extent to which crimes are being constructed and for whom. Not unrelated to that theme, Police and policing is considered as an evolving and developing project that continuously struggles with tensions between upholding the law and doing so with proper authority and accountability, while deterence and prevention, Punishment, Rehabilitation and Alternatives to imprisonment look at how policy towards crime reduction is rationalised and implemented and why.

    As with Key Concepts in Drugs and Society, the book can be both ‘dipped’ into for insight into specific topic areas or it can be read as a whole. In terms of the latter, the reader would gain cumulative knowledge about crime in society, as well as about how society has viewed and responded to crime historically and in the present day.

    Ross CoomberJoe DonnermeyerKaren McElrathJohn Scott


    We are thankful for and would like to acknowledge the help and/or support of a number of people at different times in the course of this project, most notably: Leigh Booker, Margaret Pereira and Sandra Coe, Joan Gavin, RJ and ARM. In addition, we would also like to thank Chris Rojek, Martine Jonsrud and latterly Gemma Shields at SAGE for their support and patience.

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