The meaning of crime
The meaning of crime

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3 Beyond common sense?

3.1 Claims about crime

Definitions beg questions. So do social narratives and stories. Again, we need, as social scientists, to begin with an analytical task. What are the key claims that are being made in the common-sense story of the problem of crime? What are the core arguments that hold the whole thing together? There are a number of these, but two seem to be particularly important.

Claim 1: UK society in the immediate post-Second World War era was characterised by more communality, civility and stronger family values than today. As a consequence the past was largely free of crime.

Claim 2: Today we are under siege from a rise in crime, danger and insecurity.

If these are the core claims of the common-sense story, the baseline account of how the world was and how the world is now, what questions might a sceptical social scientist ask of them? We thought of the following.

Claim 1: Largely free of crime? What about the hidden crimes which often occurred in close-knit communities, such as domestic violence, but few felt able to talk about?

Claim 2: Even if there has been a rise in crime, is the world actually as dangerous as we imagine it? Could we be misjudging or overestimating the risks and dangers we face, individually and collectively?

The first set of questions challenge the quantitative claims of the common-sense story. Was there really less crime then? Is there really more crime now? The second set of questions ask, irrespective of the quantitative issues, whether we have collectively misjudged the dangers, and have ascribed incorrect or inappropriate meanings to them? In both cases we won't get very far without looking for some evidence that might support or contradict these claims. In Sections 3.2 and 3.3 we look at the kinds of evidence that might settle the quantity issue. In Section 3.4 we look at how we might use a social science concept – moral panic – to gauge the meaning of our response to the crime problem.

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