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Nils Christie: Theory on Causes of Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1909 words Published: 15th Aug 2018

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It is postulated that the phenomenon crime does not exist, although we can study its negative consequences of it upon society through acts. Many definitions of crime have been developed, the most simplistic definition of a criminal act being; acts that break legislation outlined in law however this differs from that of a normative perspective; crimes are acts which can offend against a set of norms similar to a moral code. When trying to understand the notion of crime it is paramount to understand what acts are and why certain acts are criminalised but not all. A Utilitarian standpoint would be that laws should be focussed towards achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, a principle known as the “greatest happiness principle” a theory developed by Philippa Foot (1978). Law under capitalism would be geared to protect property rights and affirm the social order. With this philosophical theory in mind, one can contend that acts are crimes for the reason they have negative effects on society. I will use a collection of examples to give explanations to comments from Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie focussing on its implications for explaining crime. In addition to this I will briefly outline what criminology is and its connection with the concept of crime.

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Crime as a concept is relatively recent. “Crime was not known by its name in the 16th and 17th centuries, the word was current but it lacked precise meaning, (Elton 1977:5). However from having no sense of crime, we now have a global sense of the subject. Since the emergence of crime as a concept it has always been a highly contested term which has been debated within studies ever since, with criminologists, sociologists and philosophers all creating new theories for it. As mentioned crime does not exist, law constructs crime for us. In a sense we actually create crime; by producing law we then in turn make crime, without legislation there would be no sense of criminality. A world with no criminal system would mean no courts, prisons or criminals. It important to remember that criminal law is not the only form of law as there is also civil law. Criminal law can be is punitive where as civil law is based on restitution.

If crime does not exist some might question what criminology is. My personal favourite and one of the most detailed explanation is that of D. Garland; ‘I take criminology to be a specific genre of discourse and inquiry about crime – a genre that has developed in the modern period and that can be distinguished from other ways of talking and thinking about criminal conduct. Thus, for example, criminology’s claim to be an empirically grounded, scientific undertaking sets it apart from moral and legal discourses, while its focus upon crime differentiates it from other social scientific genres, such as the sociology of deviance and control, whose objects of study are broader and not defined by the criminal law. Since the middle years of the twentieth century, criminology has also been increasingly marked off from other discourses by the trappings of a distinctive identity, with its own journals, professional associations, professorships, and institutes’, (Of Crime and Criminals 2002, p8). This quote affirms what I mentioned earlier regarding the emergence of crime as a concept over the last couple of centuries or so, especially how we have developed new ways to deal with behaviour deemed criminal. He also highlighted the studies unique outlook and strong holds on the studies development of theories concerning criminal deviance.

I will now concentrate on the main theme of my essay; using examples to explain the comments of criminologist Nils Christie assessing their implications for explaining crime. The University of Oslo criminologist disliked the term crime, “I don’t like the term crime-it’s such a big, fat, imprecise word, there are only unwanted acts. How we perceive them depends on our relationship with those who carry them out.” Here Christie is very critical of the term describing it is as in accurate and stating that there is no such object it is merely acts. Nils Christie also believes; how we observe these acts depends on our association with those who have carried the out the act.

Furthermore Christie supports D. Garlands view; crime is not a tangible idea, thus it does not exist. “Only acts exist, acts often given different meanings within various social frameworks. Acts and the meanings given to them are our data. Our challenge is to follow the destiny of acts through the universe of meanings. Particularly, what are the social conditions that encourage or prevent giving the acts the meaning of being crime? (Christie, 2004: 3). Here he has taken his previous idea I stated earlier; acts do not exist, then added another aspect to it by suggesting the meanings given to them can aid us as social scientists in our research into the phenomenon. He is hinting that the social frameworks within society lead people to commit crime, the reasons for committing a crime can be economical, personal or politically motivated.

Christie was mainly concerned with crime control and prison populations. He believed there was an unlimited supply of crime; that crime as a concept would never become extinct in a sense as there would always be motives for individuals to be deviant such as political or financial rewards, “this new situation, with an unlimited reservoir of acts which can be defined as crimes, also creates unlimited possibilities for warfare as against all sorts of unwanted acts”, (Crime control as industry: towards gulags, western style, Nils Christie). This statement by Christie can be affirmed by examining unwanted acts; those made by the Provisions Irish Republican Army. There are a multitude of factors which create conditions for and exasperate what has come to be interpreted as crime. These are through a number of social frameworks such as class and nationality. These are all social constructs and are integral parts of capitalism and prevailing capitalist ideology.

The Norwegians analysis can be applied to many situations; a political example of this is conflict between the Provision Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Government. The issue first started in the 1920’s during the Irish war of independence, when the Republican Army launched guerrilla warfare over British rule in Ireland. There was little conflict between the two sides until 30 January 1972 now known as “bloody Sunday”. On the day mentioned British soldiers shot twenty-seven civil rights protestors, killing thirteen while patrolling, as a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march took place. This created uproar as the civilians whom were shot were Catholics, restarting the tension between Northern Ireland and British Government. Although the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s movement against the partition of Ireland in fact started two years previous to the tragic day the intensity and media coverage of the deaths led to member levels of the group rapidly escalating. To refer back to Christie’s ideology this example can be described as under the umbrella of nationality and religious social frame works. British Government viewed the IRA as terrorists after several planned attacks within Britain including a Bank robbery on a bank in Belfast in 2004 where they escaped with £26.5 million.

The Provisional Irish Republican’s felt they were protecting their nation from British involvement in addition to gaining revenge for oppression they faced during British occupancy of Ireland. “This was a crime born of social circumstances, as crime does not exist; only acts they thought of their acts as justifiable. If this is the case then were their acts unlawful? Here is a great example of how implications on explaining crime due to different ideology and theories can create a dilemma. Despite the oppression and hardships the Provisional Irish Republican Army felt they received due to the British Government, I feel it is morally wrong to take the life of another individual so their attacks on Birmingham and various other places in Britain was legally unjust.

Christie argues throughout his work that crime is a fluid and shallow notion stating that acts may perhaps be constructed as criminal and unlimited thus making crime an endless concept. This links back to the argument that the concept of crime is socially constructed, we create crime. Crime could not continue to exist without legislation; we tell the legal system what is right and what is wrong, legal, illegal, just and unjust. To further this idea, in a sense we as a society increase and decrease crime rates, by making an act unlawful we are ever-increasing the chances of someone then committing a crime.

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Capitalism has been another major motivator for people committing crimes or as described by Christie “unwanted acts”, (A Suitable amount of Crime, P7). Firstly capitalism promotes a false material world in which people feel they must have the finest mobile phones, televisions, cars and housing. This is hypocritical as in actual fact it develops a more unequal society in terms of distribution of power, wealth and resources with a lower chance of social mobility. As a result of this some individuals caught up in the longing for material goods; due to the scarcity they feel they may begin stealing as a means to allow them to afford objects they desire. However Nils Christie believed “for all acts including those seen as unwanted, there are dozens of possible alternatives to their understanding; bad, mad, evil, misplaced honour, youth bravado, political heroism or crime”, (A Suitable Amount of Crime, P7). Christie demonstrates that an act deemed illegal may be committed due to a variety of reasons. The example where someone feels they have no alternative than to thieve can come under the social frame work of inequality; economically disadvantaged. It would be wrong to say this comment from the criminologist has had a vaster enough affect on how crime is explained however perhaps if a few more social scientists were to entertain this idea there might be a small shift in the way we define the concept. If this were to happen we may see a change in how the legal system deals with acts similar to that capitalism discussed above. The economic system produces inequality which leads to crime. This could have a knock on affect with capitalism; in a capitalist society most laws exist to protect the status quo therefore crimes which do not go against capitalism are normally a by product of it e.g. power crime from the hierarchy which it creates.

Labelling theory can be brought into the argument of there not being a concept of crime, only acts. The theory states deviance is not a quality of the act because but; the result of traits associated with committing deviance.


Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect in Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978)

(Elton 1977:5). Look up, references on mole…..

Crime control as industry: towards gulags, western style, Nils Christie page 23. Page 3.

A Suitable Amount of Crime


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