Defining and Measuring Crime

Problems in defining crime:

  • Cultural – one culture’s crime may not be another, eg: in the UK, bigamy is a crime, yet in some cultures polygamy is practised
  • Historical – what was a crime in the past may not be a crime today, or vice versa, eg: homosexuality was a considered an offence until 1967

Ways of measuring crime:

  • Official Statistics                                                                                 
    • Government records of the total number of crimes reported to the police
    • Published by the Home Office annually
    • Considered a useful snapshot of crimes across the country and in specific regions
  • Victim Surveys
    • Records people’s experience of crime over a specific period
    • The Crime Survey for England and Wales asks people to document crimes they have been a victim of in the past year
    • 50,000 households randomly selected
  • Offender Surveys
    • Individuals volunteer details of number and types of crime they have committed
    • Targets likely offenders based on ‘risk’ factors: age, social background, previous convictions
    • Offender Crime and Justice Survey (2003-2006) first self-report survey
Victim Surveys more valid representation – 2006/2007 statistics showed 2% decrease where victim surveys showed 3% increase – can be used to better capture crimes that go unreported, so are a more effective method for measuring crime Victim Surveys may be inaccurate – rely on accurate recall of participants, details may be incorrect, ‘telescoping’, for example, may occur
Offender Surveys more representative – provide insight into how many people are responsible for certain offences – more effective at measuring the extent of crime from criminal’s perspective, how many criminals there actually are, how much one person is likely to offend Offender Surveys may be inaccurate – offenders may be unreliable sources and may keep certain information to themselves – does not provide true representation of crime


  Official Statistics Subjective – Farrington and Dowds (1985) – police in Nottinghamshire more likely to record thefts of under £10 – official statistics can’t be used to compare crime in different regions or show true extent of crime


  Official Statistics Unreliable – thought that only 25% of crimes are actually reported and recorded, the rest make up ‘dark figure’ – can’t portray crime accurately


  Can be invalid – politicians may use crime figures which benefit their position – not an accurate, objective representation of crime