The social construction of crime

whether an act is criminal or not is determined by social processes. Crime is not a universal or objective phenomenon – it varies over time and across societies depending on the laws which are constructed by people.

Last Updated on November 6, 2023 by Karl Thompson

The idea that crime is socially constructed is a key idea within the sociology of crime and deviance. This means that social processes determine whether an act is legal or not. The introduction of new Acts of Parliament continually change the laws which change the nature of crime.

There are many things which were not illegal in the past which are criminal and thus illegal now.

A brief timeline of some recent changes to the law illustrate this…

1973 – Motorcycle helmets made compulsory

Before 1973 it was perfectly legal to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, not so from 1973.


1991 – rape within marriage made illegal.

Previous to this it was held that men could not rape women within marriage, because the marriage union was equivalent to consensual sex at any time. It was not until the 2003 Sexual Offences Act that rape within marriage became illegal.

Source: The Week

1994 – informally organised Raves made illegal (sort of)

In 1994 The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 clamped down on anti-social behaviour. It effectively gave the police new powers to break up raves, or any informally arranged gathering of 100 or more people listening to music involving a series of repetitive beats.

The 1992 Castlemorton rave, the biggest ever informally organised rave in British history, is one of the events that led to the establishment of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Anti-Social Behaviour Act…

NB the act didn’t technically make it illegal for you and your mates to organise a rave, it just makes it easier for the police to break them up, slap an injunction order on you, and then arrest you the next time for breaking the injunction order.

This notorious act also made it easier for the police to break up road protests, move on travellers and arrest hunt saboteurs.


2007 – the smoking ban

The 2007 ban made it illegal to smoke indoors in public places such as public transport and bars.

You used to be able to smoke in pubs, as the video below illustrates…

Besides being some seriously excellent music, there’s plenty of people smoking away in the background! Keep in mind that this was on mainstream TV in 1982 at Christmas, when smoking in public was perfectly usual!

I’d throughly taking a study break for 40 minutes and watching the whole thing, but if you’re ‘on a study vibe’ fast forward to around 4 minutes and the second song ‘London Girls’ – you can clearly see the cigarette smoke wafting behind Chas, or it might be Dave. (I love them, but I’m not sure which is which!)

NB ‘London Girls’ is also a lesson in gender norms at the time. Things have ‘progressed’ there a bit too you might say!

2016 – The Psychoactive Substance Act

In 2016 the  the psychoactive substance act made the selling of ‘Spice’ and other previously ‘legal highs’ illegal.

Acts restricting (or allowing) the use of psychoactive substances are useful examples in themselves to illustrate how ‘crime’ is socially constructed. While the UK has been toughening up its drug laws increasing numbers of states in America have been making the growing and sale of cannabis legal.

For more info on the history behind drug legalisations see this link –

Drug timeline UK

2020 – parents to be banned from smacking children in Wales (probably )

Smacking your children isn’t illegal in England, at least as long as you don’t leave any physical signs of bruising on them, but there is currently an act going through the Welsh parliament that aims to ban the physical punishment of children by parents outright. It looks set to pass at some point in near future.

2020 – Coronavirus: The Lockdown Laws

There are currently (November 2020) three main lockdown laws which apply nationally in the UK:

  • Gathering restrictions – ‘the rule of six’ prevents people from gathering in groups of more than 6.
  • Face mask rules – people must wear a face covering on public transport and when going into shops.
  • Business restrictions – pubs and restaurants have restricted opening hours, night clubs must remain closed.

The Lockdown laws are one of the best illustrations of the social construction of crime – they came into effect suddenly in Spring 2020 and are still under constant review. More over there are also locally applied restrictions, so the laws vary from area to area!

You can find out more by visiting this Commons Library site.

Putting it all together…

So in 1972 you could have drunk a couple of pints in the pub while smoking (in the pub), organised an attended a quick Rave with your mates with all of you high on Spice (or whatever so called ‘legal highs’ existed in 1972), ridden back home on your bike without your helmet on (assuming you were within the drink driving limits) and then forced yourself on your wife without her explicit consent, and non of that would have been illegal, thus you would have committed no crime.

Act out the same scenario today and you’d be breaking multiple laws and looking at a lengthy jail term.

NB this post makes no judgement about the morality of any of the above acts or laws, it’s merely to highlight the extent to which crime is socially constructed.


The context dependency of deviance is a useful concept to get students thinking about early on in the Crime and Deviance module.

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One thought on “The social construction of crime”

  1. Just shows what politicians are up to trying to justify their salaries: imposing their laws on us on or own bedrooms!

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