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an infraction of the criminal law. Scholars have discussed the nature and causes of crime as far back as written history shows. A related issue is that of morality, consequently, until comparatively recently, crime was seen as the proper sphere of theological and philosophical comment. In general, sociologists have tended to argue against absolutist conceptions of crime and have opposed psychological and biological explanations of why people commit crimes. Many sociologists have discussed the issue of crime in terms of morality, but, unlike the majority of earlier writers, they tended not to use an absolute or universal notion of morality, but view moral precepts in particular historical and cultural settings.

DURKHEIM, for example, argued that laws changed with changes in social structure; he saw a historical shift from MECHANICAL to ORGANIC SOLIDARITY (from traditional, simple societies to complex, industrial ones) as involving a transformation in social relations which could be understood in moral terms and studied through changes in legal codes. He also argued that a certain level of crime was functional for society; this was indicated by the fact that no known society was free of crime. More significantly crime served to strengthen morality by uniting the community against the criminal.

Whilst not being as absolutist as earlier philosophies, Durkheim's is still a highly generalized discussion of crime. Other sociological traditions have focused on the problem in more specific ways. Examples of this include discussions of the ways in which employment laws change, for example, either to criminalize or legalize strikes, depending on complex balances in the relative powers of employees and employers. There is clearly some merit in this approach of linking the development of criminal law to the interests of particular classes or vested interests, but the more general moral dimension is also clearly important. For example, laws relating to sexuality may have connections with property and inheritance, but they defy analysis in terms of particular class interests. HOMOSEXUALITY is a case in point. The expression of male homosexual desire was a criminal offence in the UK until 1969. The fact that private homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized, following the recommendation of the Wolfenden Report (1967), indicates a change in the conception of the role of criminal law in regulating private conduct. In fact, it signalled that ideas about crime and criminals do not reflect absolute standards, but change over time and differ between cultures. The fact that these legal changes remain controversial, however, and that gay men and women are still marginalized and discriminated against, as the MORAL PANIC over AIDS has shown, indicates that the relation between criminal laws and culture is a complex one.

Generally, sociological approaches have tried to explain the relative nature of crime and its causes, as well as the effects of crime on communities and victims. See also CRIMINOLOGY, LABELLING THEORY, DEVIANCE, VICTIMOLOGY, CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, FOUCAULT.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the most serious violation of legality and law and order, entailing criminal punishment. Soviet criminal law (for example, the Basic Principles of Criminal Legislation of the USSR and the Union Republics, art. 7) defines a crime as a socially dangerous act or omission, prescribed by law, that transgresses against the Soviet social or state system, the socialist economic system, socialist property, the person, and citizens’ political, labor, property, and other rights, as well as any other act against socialist law and order. The characteristics that make a certain act a crime are called the elements of the crime.

The principal features of a crime are its social danger and violation of criminal law. These characteristics reflect the political, ideological, and moral views of the ruling classes in a particular society, and therefore crime is a class category. When certain human actions are regarded as crimes, they are being evaluated from the standpoint of the ruling classes. What is considered socially dangerous and criminal in one society may not be regarded as such in another. For example, in the USSR and other socialist countries war propaganda, the violation of national and racial equality, private entrepreneurial activity and commercial middleman operations, and speculation are considered crimes, whereas many such acts are not punishable under the criminal law of some capitalist countries. In a socialist society, free of class antagonisms, the concept of crime encompasses truly socially dangerous acts that conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the members of society. In such a society it is the social danger of crime that determines the importance of combating crime, engenders implacable hostility to crime, stimulates the joint efforts of the state and citizens to eliminate criminal activity, and justifies the punishment applied by the state. The nature and degree of social danger of a crime constitute the grounds for distinguishing crimes from other violations and minor offenses, such as petty hooliganism, petty theft, petty speculation, and certain violations or regulations in public transportation. Owing to their lesser degree of social danger, these offenses entail administrative or disciplinary, rather than criminal, liability. Only a concrete act (or in some cases an omission, for example, failure to assist a sick person) may present a social danger because it can cause harm or create a threat of harm. Inasmuch as both the actual harming of legally protected interests and the creation of a real threat of such harm are socially dangerous, the law considers as criminally punishable both the crime committed and criminal activity not carried through despite the intention of the guilty person (preparation and attempt). In many cases the law considers criminal actions to be committed crimes regardless of their actual result, for example, deserting someone in danger, illegally keeping or carrying a weapon, or illegally practicing medicine.

The elements of each crime include a specific object (the social interests and values against which the crime transgresses), an objective aspect (the nature of the act and how it is committed), a subject (the person who commits the crime), and a subjective aspect (the psychological attitude of the criminal toward the act, primarily his guilt and the forms of guilt). All of these elements characterize the social danger of a criminal act. The object of the crime is the basis for classifying criminal acts. In some instances the object of the crime is so important (for example, in crimes against the social and state system and against human life) that any transgression against the object represents a serious social danger and is considered a crime. In other instances the significance of the object is not as great, and acts that transgress against it are considered criminal only if special conditions are present. For example, only deliberate acts, acts committed in a special way, or acts that have caused substantial harm, as in the negligent storage of a firearm, are considered criminal. Other objective criteria of the social danger of a crime are its consequences, the way it was committed, and in some instances the place, time, and special circumstances of its commission. For instance, the seriousness of an injury to health is the basis for classifying types of bodily injury as grievous, less grievous, and light. Also, premeditated murder is considered a graver crime if it was committed with unusual cruelty.

Assessment of the subjective aspect is important because, in the absence of guilt, causing harm to legally protected interests cannot be considered a crime. The form of guilt (premeditation or negligence) is important for determining the nature of the crime and the punishment. For example, the punishment for premeditated murder is more severe than for causing death through negligence, although the result of the crime in both cases is loss of life. The subjective aspect also includes the motives and purpose of the crime; for example, speculation is considered a crime if the buying up and reselling of goods is done for gain.

The social danger of a crime is largely determined by the subject, the criminal. Some acts are considered criminal only because they are committed by a person who has a special relationship with the victim. This relationship makes his actions more dangerous than similar behavior by other people, for instance, driving a person to suicide when that person was dependent, either materially or in some other way, on the person who caused the act, or parents’ malicious evasion of child-support payments ordered by a court. Sometimes an act is deemed criminal because it was committed by a person who was previously held administratively responsible for similar acts or by a person to whom measures of social pressure may not be applied because of the circumstances of the case. The identity of the guilty person is also important for determining the degree of social danger of certain types of crimes. For example, an abortion performed by a person without medical training is considered a more socially dangerous act than an illegal abortion by a doctor and failure to give assistance is considered a graver crime if it was committed by a person responsible for looking after the victim.

Soviet criminal law rejects objective imputation—holding a person responsible for an act or omission without establishing guilt, that is, holding a person responsible for an act that had socially dangerous consequences if the person did not foresee the danger of the act and, because of the circumstances of the case, could not have foreseen it. A person’s ability to understand the nature of his actions and consciously govern them is a mandatory prerequisite for guilt. Only a person who has this ability can be the subject of a crime. Soviet law stipulates that criminal liability applies to persons who have reached the age of 16 before the commission of the crime. For certain types of crime whose social danger is comprehensible at an earlier age (for example, murder, rape, or malicious hooliganism) criminal liability ensues at 14 years of age. Only mentally healthy, sane persons may be the subjects of crimes.

A crime is not any socially dangerous act but only one which is illegal, that is, established as a crime in existing criminal law and prohibited on pain of punishment. In the USSR the general grounds and conditions of criminal liability are defined in the Basic Principles of Criminal Legislation of the USSR and the Union Republics of 1958. Each Union republic has a criminal code containing a detailed list of acts considered to be crimes. Responsibility for a crime ensues under the criminal code of the republic in which the crime was committed. A person may be held criminally responsible only if his acts contain the elements of the crime as defined by law, and he may be held liable only for the crime whose elements have been established in his acts. Analogy is not permitted in criminal law. Acts that caused harm but were committed as necessary defense or in a state of dire necessity do not entail criminal liability. Social danger is also decisive in the matter of the statute of limitations for criminal cases. Release from criminal liability under the statute of limitatins stems largely from the fact that after a lapse of time the social danger of an act and of the person who committed it is dissipated, although the illegality of the act persists. The law also prescribes release from criminal liability in instances where changed circumstances make the act committed by the guilty person no longer socially dangerous.


Piontkovskii, A. A. Uchenie o prestuplenii po sovetskomu ugolovnomu pravu. [Moscow, 1961.]
Samoshchenko, I. S. Poniatie pravonarusheniia po sovetskomu zakonodatel’stvu. Moscow, 1963.
Kurs sovetskogo ugolovnogo prava, vol. 1, ch. 2. Leningrad, 1968.




(Russian, prestupnost’), a social, historically conditioned phenomenon that emerged at a particular stage in the development of society. In this sense, crime is all the criminal offenses committed during a certain period. In practice, however, because of latent criminality, crime refers to the offenses detected within a given area (district, city, region). The term “crime” is also used to denote the crimes committed by persons belonging to a particular population group, for example, juvenile crime.

Crime in this sense is one of the fundamental concepts of criminal legal statistics and criminology. The legal criterion for classifying phenomena as crimes is the presence in criminal law of appropriate articles recognizing the particular act as criminal. Crime is described in terms of level (the absolute number of crimes and criminals or the ratio per 100,000 population), structure (distribution by type of crime or large subdivision or by the degree of social danger, nature of guilt, or intent), the characteristics of the criminals (by sex, age, occupation), the proportion of group crime or recidivism, and changes over time in all of the above characteristics.

Marxist scholarship has investigated the causes of crime and shown that it stems from social phenomena and is bound up with the material and ideological conditions of human existence. Marxism proceeds from the assumption that human beings are not born with innate—individual or racial—criminal traits, but rather may become criminals owing to the social conditions in which they are raised, work, and live. Of course, when studying crime and its causes, individual psychological traits cannot be ignored, but the traits that are important in this respect evolve and change under the influence of living conditions and education.

Capitalist countries. In the capitalist countries crime is inherent in the very nature of a system based on private property, exploitation, and social inequality, where the ideology and morality of greed, easy profit, and misanthropy are cultivated and disseminated. Today, the level of serious crimes and recidivism is rising in the capitalist countries. In the USA, between 1963 and 1972, crime increased by 2.1 times (among young people by 2.3 times), or 9 times the rate of population growth. In the Federal Republic of Germany, between 1963 and 1970, crime grew by 23 percent, or 4 times the rate of population growth. During the same period Japan showed a 20 percent increase in crime, which was 15 times the rate of population growth. According to statistics provided by the Council of Europe, between 1958 and 1968, juvenile crime increased by 400 percent in Belgium, 180 percent in France, 77 percent in the Federal Republic of Germany, and 85 percent in Scotland. These figures indicate that crime is rooted in the very foundation of the capitalist social system, and any attempts to solve the problem of crime within the framework of an exploitative society are doomed to failure. Bourgeois scholarship concludes that crime is “perpetual” because its causes supposedly lie in human nature; in reality crime is only perpetual in an exploitative society.

Socialist society. The fundamental causes of crime have been eradicated in socialist society, and for the first time in history there are growing opportunities to eliminate crime as a social phenomenon. The crime that still exists is related to the fact that both economically and morally socialism carries the “birthmarks” of the old society. The causes of crime are vestiges of the past, which still exist in various aspects of social life, as well as in the people’s consciousness and psychology and in their everyday life. Although they are social phenomena, these causes are residual and intrinsically alien to socialist society. Crime is a regressive phenomenon in socialist society. The Program of the CPSU states that “growth in the material well-being, cultural level, and consciousness of the working people creates all the conditions for extirpating crime” (1974, p. 106). The level of crime in the USSR has decreased 3-4 times since the 1920’s and 1930’s. Professional crime has been rooted out, and in terms of motivation, methods, and consequences crime is gradually “easing.” Since the first postwar years, the level of crime has dropped by more than 50 percent in Bulgaria, by 50 percent in Hungary, by almost 50 percent in Poland, and by one-third in Czechoslovakia. The crime rate per 100,000 population in the German Democratic Republic is one-fourth that of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The causes that lead to the commission of particular types of crimes are usually the negative influence of the family or milieu (instilling an alien ideology, bad example), instigation by criminal elements, the disruptive influence of propaganda for the “Western life-style,” and alcoholism. World War II, which deprived many children and adolescents of a normal family upbringing, had a negative effect on the crime situation. In addition to the reasons that impel a person toward crime, there are various contributing factors: lack of supervision and alienation from the collective at school or work; shortcomings in educational work; lack of proper concern for organizing cultural leisure activities at the place of residence, work, or study; permitting minor violations of the norms of social behavior to go unpunished; failure to show proper concern for working and living conditions and for involving the members of a particular collective in study and social life; failure to deal effectively with the problem of student dropouts in certain schools; shortcomings in the work of state agencies and the public to detect and eradicate sources of harmful influences and to maintain law and order; and shortcomings in record keeping and in safeguarding state and public property.

Prevention is the principal approach to combating crime in a socialist society. Crime prevention is a complex social process involving a whole system of measures carried out at various levels and in different social spheres. On a society-wide level crime prevention is an integral part of all the economic, political, ideological, legal, organizational, and other steps taken to improve the socialist state. In the USSR, for example, such measures include steadily raising the material well-being of the working people, further democratizing the state administration and increasing social activism among the masses, expanding education and culture, developing communist morality, and overcoming the influence of bourgeois ideology. All of these processes aid in fighting crime by creating conditions that exclude the very possibility of its existence.

Specifically criminological crime prevention includes measures directly aimed at eliminating the causes and conditions that lead to the commission of various crimes. Among such measures are cutting back the production of strong alcoholic beverages, financing measures to strengthen the protection and supervision of socialist property, using the mass media to combat antisocial views and habits, explaining Soviet laws to raise the legal consciousness of citizens, eliminating those shortcomings in institutions and enterprises that have promoted the commission of crimes, improving the structure and increasing the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies, and involving the public in maintaining law and order and fighting crime. Improving legislation and eliminating the causes and conditions that promote the commission of crimes are important in the fight against crime. Criminalistic measures to prevent crime include the use of technology to prevent the commission of crimes, such as employing automatic security devices, protecting documents against forgery by technical means, and making greater use of scientific methods of detecting traces of crime.

Criminological crime prevention is carried out along several lines: according to the type of crime and criminal behavior (mercenary, violent, negligent, recidivist), in the different spheres of social life where moral development takes place and situations occur that influence a person’s behavior (family, school, work, everyday life, and leisure), and in various social groups (minors, young people) and economic sectors (trade, transport construction), which have specific factors that give rise to crime. Criminological crime prevention also focuses on individual republics, oblasts, and economic regions with due regard for the specific nature of the crimes committed therein.

Individual prevention, which involves applying socialist and special criminological measures to the individual, is very important in the overall system of crime prevention.

Legal measures to combat crime include identifying and exposing persons who have committed crimes, punishing them, and rehabilitating and reeducating them. Although legal measures are applied to persons who have already committed crimes, their social significance lies in crime prevention, both particular and general. Establishing criminal liability in law for specific socially dangerous acts and applying the liability when the law is violated constitute a special kind of influence not only on the person who committed the crime but also on the larger group of people who grasp the principle of inescapable punishment for violating the law. Some types of criminal punishment eliminate the conditions that promote crime. These include isolating a person from unfavorable surroundings and connections, cutting off access to material valuables, and prohibiting a person from engaging in a certain activity. Also important for prevention are certain criminal procedural measures, such as the detention of a suspect, the selection of a measure of restraint, and the duty of the investigator and court to identify the causes and conditions that lead to the commission of crimes and to take steps to eliminate them. The compulsory treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts and compulsory educational measures applied to juvenile offenders also help prevent crime.


Sakharov, A. B. O lichnosti prestupnika iprichinakh prestupnosti v SSSR. Moscow, 1961.
Gertsenzon, A. A., and A. S. Nikiforov. Prestupnost’v kapitalisticheskom mire posle vtoroi mirovoi voiny. Moscow, 1963.
Kriminologiia [2nd ed.]. Moscow, 1968.
Kudriavtsev, V. N. Prichinnost’ v kriminologii. Moscow, 1968.
Karpets, I. I. Problema prestupnosti. Moscow, 1969.
Kuznetsova, N. F. Prestuplenie i prestupnost’. Moscow, 1969.
Babaev, M. M., and G. M. Min’kovskii. Prestupnost’ nesovershennoletnikh i ee preduprezhdenie. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. an act or omission prohibited and punished by law
a. unlawful acts in general
b. (as modifier): crime wave
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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