Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.1 Introducing ‘crime’ and ‘harm’

Described image
Figure 2 The question of what does or does not make something a crime is one we rarely ask.

This section introduces some basic concepts of criminological and social harm approaches. You’ll start with ‘crime’ and ‘harm’, and be encouraged to explore the similarities and differences between them.

The concepts of ‘crime’ and ‘harm’ at first sight appear to be rather similar. Both refer to issues or events that could be seen as damaging. After all, why would something be defined as criminal if it did not do any harm? However, as you will see both concepts are complex and before they can be studied, they have to be analysed.

Activity 1 What makes something criminal?

Think for a moment about three or four examples of crime you know about from the media or your general knowledge. Note down your examples and then answer the following question:

  • What do you think makes each example a ‘crime’ and why?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


This first activity is asking for your own view on this, so there isn’t just one right answer. But you may have made notes suggesting some of the following:

  • You might have considered them a crime because they are illegal activities.
  • And/or that they were carried out by one or more individuals towards another person or group, and with the intention to exploit them, or gain some advantage from the activity. So that might be considered morally or legally wrong.
  • And/or that they caused harm to others, directly or indirectly.

Activity 1 suggests that the definition of crime is problematic, and this raises further questions about the relationship between crime and what are considered to be social problems.

Activity 2 Crime and social problems

Note down your thoughts on the following questions and then compare your answer with the discussion that follows.

  • Do you think that ‘crimes’ are different from other social problems? In what ways are they different, if they are?
  • Why do you think that we consider some harmful occurrences ‘crimes’ but not others?
  • What are the implications of these crimes and problems?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Again, there is not a right or wrong answer here, and, indeed, you may have considered that the definition of some activities as ‘crimes’ rather than others might be quite subjective. For example, you may have considered that whether something is a crime may depend on where it is that the harmful occurrence takes place. For example, in some countries a person crossing the road where the pedestrian light is red may be committing a crime, where in other countries it would not be. The gender or age of a person being able to drive a car, vote, or engage in certain sexual activities may differ from place to place, so that what is considered a crime in one country is perfectly legal in another. In other cases, the criminality or otherwise may be gendered (for example, when women are prohibited from driving). You may also have considered that political, historical and cultural factors may shape whether something is considered a crime. For example, laws governing abortion have been shaped by changing social attitudes over time, including political factors such as women’s voting rights (or lack of them) and cultural factors such as religious differences.

On the other hand, some activities, even as extreme as killing another person, may not always be considered a crime. Whether it is considered a crime may depend on who carries out the act and for what reason. Thus, as you will see later in the course, the killing of a terrorist suspect by a police officer may not be considered a crime, while a person killing somebody in a fist-fight might be prosecuted and potentially convicted of a crime.

Some of the implications you might have considered could be that when certain activities become accepted as ‘criminal’ they become taken for granted as that. They may also be taken for granted as associated with particular groups and that may impact on how society treats those groups. An example might be the association of terrorism with certain ethnic groups whereas public acts of violence committed by other ethnic groups are less likely to be regarded as terrorist. This in turn can impact on how activities are policed and what is prioritised by the criminal justice system.