The Knowledge of Crime and the Crime of Knowledge

Sociology emerges as a theoretical and scientific discipline in the nineteenth century and it is from the moment of its birth that it is principally concerned with social change. By social change we mean to refer to society’s capacity to redefine its self: its culture, its behaviours, its values, its economy, its political system, its educational system etc. Socio-historic studies reveal that all societies and communities undergo change. My argument is that this realization leads us to a fascinating conclusion about crime and public and governmental responses toward it. What is the connection, then, between social change and crime? In order to answer this question we must first outline how sociology understands individual behavior.

According to sociology, the individual is a product of their unique social experience. In other words, the various behaviours, attitudes, values, dispositions, beliefs, goals etc. that constitute the individual are not something that the individual brings with them into this world. They are, rather, acquired interactively through a social context (e.g. culture, economy, politics, religion, media, family etc.) that was already established before the individual came into this world. By extension, if society is always “vulnerable” to change, then so is the individual. By altering society (e.g. through education) we can alter the behaviour not only of living individuals, but of individuals that are yet to be born. And herein lays sociology’s unique contribution to the study of crime (criminology) and to governmental policy.

Social change becomes a key ally in the fight against crime. Society becomes a terrain of “manipulation,” in the positive sense of the word, as it is altered according to our ultimate end-goals: lower crime rates. It suddenly becomes possible for us to problematize and change social realities that may contribute to crime. Poverty, as an example, may contribute to petty theft, while elite privilege and entitlement, may contribute to “white collar” crimes, such as embezzlement and money laundering.

The sociological perspective stands in sharp contrast with biological explanations of crime, where the root of the problem is attributed to the individual’s internal chemical/neurological composition or a socially-independent psychic. The sociologist does not deny the existence of an inner psychic nor of biological processes, but sees them as being causally affected by our social experience. It is from this realization that my play of words is extracted: by claiming that crime is a product of inner and unchangeable mechanisms that an individual is born with, we are, indeed, doing a disservice to our society. We our ridding ourselves of the responsibility of changing our society toward the better. Knowledge will have indeed committed a crime against society if it rids itself of the burden of responsibility and positive social change.

Our program here at Alexander College covers all key perspectives on and theories of crime, ranging from those that are based in biology to those that are based in psychology and sociology. We therefore do not exclude knowledge but we are always aware of the sociological principle which holds that society is invariably subject to change. One of our principal questions of concern is, therefore, how and in what way society can be changed in order to lessen crime. This constitutes our college’s unique contribution to our community. We teach our students how to improve it.

Michaelangelo Anastasiou, ABD (University of Victoria)
Sociology Instructor at Alexander College (Department of Criminology)