The Sociology of Crime and Delinquency

By Marvin E. Wolfgang; Leonard Savitz et al. | Go to book overview

5. Who Is the Criminal?

PAUL W. TAPPAN

WHAT IS CRIME? AS A LAWYER-SOCIOLOGIST, the writer finds perturbing the current confusion on this important issue. Important because it delimits the subject matter of criminological investigation. A criminologist who strives to aid in formulating the beginnings of a science finds himself in an increasingly equivocal position. He studies the criminals convicted by the courts and is then confounded by the growing clamor that he is not studying the real criminal at all, but an insignificant proportion of non- representative and stupid unfortunates who happened to have become enmeshed in technical legal difficulties. It has become a fashion to maintain that the convicted population is no proper category for the empirical research of the criminologist. Ergo, the many studies of convicts which have been conducted by the orthodox, now presumably outmoded criminologists, have no real meaning for either descriptive or scientific purposes. Off with the old criminologies, on with the new orientations, the new horizons!

This position reflects in part at least the familiar suspicion and misunderstanding held by the layman sociologist toward the law. To a large extent it reveals the feeling among social scientists that not all anti-social conduct is proscribed by law (which is probably true), that not all conduct violative of the criminal code is truly anti-social, or is not so to any significant extent (which is also undoubtedly true). Among some students the opposition to the traditional definition of crime as law violation arises from their desire to discover and study wrongs which are absolute and eternal rather than mere violations of a statutory and case law system which vary in time and place; this is essentially the old metaphysical search for the law of nature. They consider the dynamic and relativistic nature of law to be a barrier to the growth of a scientific system of hypotheses possessing universal validity.1

Recent protestants against the orthodox conceptions of crime and criminal are diverse in their views: they unite only in their denial of the allegedly legalistic and arbitrary doctrine that those convicted under the criminal law are the criminals of our society and in promoting the confusion as to the proper province of criminology. It is enough here to examine briefly a few of the current schisms with a view to the difficulties at which they arrive.

____________________
▶SOURCE: "Who Is the Criminal?" American Sociological Review ( February, 1947), 12:96-102.
1
The manner in which the legal definition of the criminal is avoided by prominent sociological scholars through amazingly loose, circumlocutory description may be instanced by this sort of definition: "Because a collective system has social validity in the eyes of each and all of those who share in it, because it is endowed with a special dignity which merely individual systems lack altogether, individual behavior which endangers a collective system and threatens to harm any of its elements appears quite different from an aggression against an individual (unless, of course, such an aggression hurts collective values as well as individual values). It is not only a harmful act, but an objectively evil act [sic!], a violation of social validity, an offense against the superior dignity of this collective system. . . . The best term to express the specific significance of such behavior is crime. We are aware that in using the word in this sense, we are giving it a much wider significance than it has in criminology. But we believe that it is desirable for criminology to put its investigations on a broader basis; for strictly speaking, it still lacks a proper theoretic basis. . . . Legal qualifications are not founded on the results of previous research and not made for the purpose of future research; therefore they have no claim to be valid as scientific generalizations-- nor even as heuristic hypotheses." Florian Znaniecki , "Social Research in Criminology," 12 Sociology and Social Researcb207 ( 1928).

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