The news headlines this week are consistently positive: crime has fallen and is continuing to fall. In England and Wales, ‘crime is down by around 15 per cent’ and across much of Europe, and even internationally, crime is falling. Good news for everyone. Using the interview-based Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) rather than Police-recorded crime figures, there were 7.5 million crimes in 2013, the lowest number since the CSEW (formerly the British Crime Survey) began in 1981. Household theft was down by 25 per cent on the previous year, violent offences down 22 per cent, vandalism down 15 per cent and crimes experienced by children down 13 per cent. And all of this in an ‘age of austerity’ when we might have expected acquisitive crime to be increasing. Official statistics such as these have been pretty consistent in showing annual reductions in crime since the mid-1990s, reversing a longer-term trend of rising levels of crime since the 1920s(Giddens and Sutton 2013: 938).
Of course, all crime statistics should be treated with caution. The CSEW was introduced to provide a more complete account of crime than just the Police-recorded figures, but the survey only asks about a limited range of ‘high-volume crimes’ and does not cover drug offences, ‘non-notifiable’ anti-social behaviour offences, sexual offences, cybercrime, murder or crimes against businesses, though a self-completion section enables domestic violence and sexual offences to be voluntarily reported by adults. In addition children under 16 were only included from 2009. Combining the CSEW, Police-recorded crime figures and other social scientific research makes sense, though some sociologists argue that we should study the process of constructing the criminal statistics rather than focusing on the end product – the bald statistics that newspapers love so much (Box 1983).
Nonetheless, and despite its flaws, using the same survey method and sticking with high-volume crimes has the clear benefit of allowing comparisons over a decent time period. Yet despite the persistent reduction in crimes in the CSEW series since 1995, around two-thirds of people in the same and other surveys regularly report that they believe crime has risen over the previous ten years, and the fear of becoming a victim of crime remains high. Why does providing more information to the public about the ‘reality’ of crime risks fail to change their sense of the reality of criminality?
One reason for this disconnect may lie in the obsession of modern culture with crime, which can be seen in the sheer volume of cop showsand crime dramas on TV and in the media more generally. Obsession might seem too strong a word but I don’t think so. I could fill the rest of this piece simply with a very long list of TV fiction based on crime and the solving of crimes.
Here’s just a taste of recent TV series: Fargo (2014), Sherlock (2010), CSI (various 2000 on), Ripper Street (2012), The Mentalist (2008 on), Jonathan Creek (1997 on), Longmire (2012), Prey (2014) and many more. Plus the many non-crime shows which centre around criminal stories, from Emmerdale and Eastenders to Doctors and Holby City, and numerous real-life programmes such as Crimewatch. Indeed, there isn’t too much on TV that genuinely avoids crime unless you are particularly fond of Crufts, the X Factor and Strictly. Why do we love a good crime story, real or created, so much?
Richard Sparks (1992) suggested that the study of crime (criminology) should not ignore fictional representations. The lattercontribute to everyone’s understanding of crucial aspects of ‘the crime problem’, indeed some would say they are instrumental in constructing it, regardless of what statisticians tell us. Crime fiction (not just TV cop shows) tells moral tales of good and bad, right and wrong, producing an endless repetition of certain themes which saturate the dominant representation of crime in societies. Criminals are invariably caught, police forces have a few ‘bad apples’ (they get caught and get their just deserts too) but are essentially on ‘our’ side against the bad guys; coppers work long hours which leads to difficult family lives (though not DCI Barnaby in Midsomer Murders of course) whilst women and minority ethnic groups are readily found in the most senior Police roles. Whether any of this reflects the reality of crime and policing is a different matter.
Baudrillard (1983) argues that the development of modern mass media, especially television, has created a hyperreality where people’s understanding of their ‘real world’ is shaped more by media representations than events somewhere ‘out there’. Little wonder that no amount of statistical data is likely to shift people’s persistent fears of crime and victimization or their deep-seated idea that crime is always rising. But perhaps it’s not that our grasp of the crime phenomenon is wholly created by fictional representations. Rather, crime fiction of all kinds presents satisfying tales of a stable social order that is disrupted by crime before being restored again and the offender(s) punished. All is right with the world. Emile Durkheim argued that this kind of symbolic disruption and restoration of social order helps to establish and maintain moral rules and behavioural boundaries, thereby promoting social solidarity. Perhaps this is why much crime drama involves murders (and far too many serial killers) rather than shoplifting, anti-social behaviour or domestic violence. Nothing is as clearly ‘right or wrong’ as illegitimately taking a life or achieving justice for murder victims and thus we always know which side we should be on. It is true that unnecessary fear of crime can be debilitating if it leads people to stay indoors after dark or to load their houses and cars with all the latest anti-theft devices. However, if it really does perform such a basic function, we should not expect our obsession with ‘crime’ to fade away in the foreseeable future. There’s always room for one more detective novel.
Box, S. (1983) Power, Crime and Mystification (London: Routledge).
Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations (New York: SemioText(e)).
Sparks, R. (1992) Television and the Drama of Crime (Buckingham: Open University Press).
Chapter 21 in Sociology is the usual way into this subject, especially theories of crime (pp. 923-7) and the section on crime statistics on pp. 938-42. However, the whole of this chapter provides much useful material on various aspects of crime and punishment. Baudrillard’s postmodern theory can be found on pp. 798-800 whilst other media theories are covered on pp. 788-98.
In Sociology: Introductory Readings, Reading 44 (Durkheim) on the place of crime and deviance in social life and Reading 45 (Merton) on types of deviant adaptation are useful starting points here. Reading 48 (Wall) on cybercrime should also be helpful in filling in the picture of crimes the CSEW currently does not cover.