State Crime

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  • Created by: Lilly
  • Created on: 27-04-14 13:26

State Crime

State Crime: illegal activities carried out by the agents of the state such as armed forces, civil servants, in order to further state interests, such as break domestic or international law.

Green & Ward- illegal or deviant acts perpetrated by/ with complicity of the state.

It is very difficult for sociologists to research state crime and therefore are unable to work out the extent and nature of the issue. Dark figure of state crime is pobably more comprehensice than dark figure of unreported and recorded conventonal crime. Very much a marxist interest.

Crimes committed include:

1) Genocide- violent crimes committed against national , ehtnic, radical/ religious groups - e.g. Darfur (Sudan) 2 million killed

2) War crimes- committed by individuals, groups and state, e.g. directing attacks against civilians. E.g. Yugoslavia president. It is difficult to decide what is a war crime and who is a war criminal.

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state crime definition continued

McLaughlin- identified censorship of media and institutional racism as state crimes. He identifies four categories of crime: Political (corruption) Economic, (genocide), Social/cultrual (institutional racism) and crimes by security and police forces

Schwendinger argues that definitions of state crimes should be extended to include human rights crimes, suggests that any violation of people's human rights should be defined as illegal and therefore criminal.

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Disagreements on state crime

Disagreement about what constitutes SC for the following reasons:

  • Carried out by powerful who can define their activities as being legitimate- difficult to measure extent, especially as most carried out by secret agencies of state. Gov's have power and resources to cover up activities and control media.
  • Powerful can impose their definition as to what counts as crime son society (sociological construct). Ideological relativity (e.g. killing civilian is wrong but okay when done in army) can be regarded to who the powerful define as terrorists or freedom fighters.
  • Cohen- criticises Schwendinger, notes that genocide and tourture are crimes but argue economic exploitation not criminal but is morall unacceptable. Difficult to find out true extent fo state crime because gov's either deny their actions or atempt to justify activites. Prepetrators of crimes on behalf of state do not see themselves as criminal, use techniques of neutralization to deny / justify crimes against people. Often appeal to a higher cause e.g. defence of free world, to legitimise their actions and appear less crimnal.
  • Kelman and Hamilton- many state crimes are 'crimes of obedience' people commit them because they have been socialised into beliving that it is their duty to obey and that their behaviour is acceptable and necssaru because the enermy are animals and monsters to which normal rules do not apply.m
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1) Human Rights

  • From human rights perspective, state can be seen as perpetrator of crime and not simply as authority that defines and punishes crime.
  • Herman and Schwendinger (critical criminologists) defines crime as a violation of human rights, rather than breaking of legal rules and laws. Therefreo state states that deny individuals' human rights must be regarded as criminal.
  • States that practice imperialism, racism or sexism, or inflict economic exploitation on their citizens are commiting crimes. 


Cohen- while 'gross' violation of human rights are clearly crimes, other acts such as economic exploitation are not self-evidently crimina, even if we find them morall unacceptable.

  • There is little agreement as to what constitutes human rights.
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2) Culture of denial

Cohen- states conceal and legitimate their human rights crimes. Dictatorships simply deny commiting human rights abuses.

Democratic states have to legitimate their actions with a three-stage 'spiral of state denial': 'it didn't happen', 'it's not what it looks like', 'it's justified' e.g. to protect national security

Neutralisation theory (Sykes and Matza) - states and their officials 'neutralise' (deny or justify) their crimes

Cohen - denial of victim, denial of injury, denial of responsibility, condemning the condemners and appealing to higher loyalties

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3) The social conditions of state crime

  • According to sociologists tortures and massacres are not a result of pschological differences but rather, are part of a role into which individuals are socialised

Kelman and Hamilton studied 'crimes of obedience' e.g. platoon of American soldiers massacred 400 civilians ay My Lai in Vietnam

Three features of crimes of obedience:

  • Authorisation - acts are ordered/approved by those in authority and morals are replaced by the duty to obey
  • Routinisation - once the crime is committed, the act is turned into a routine which individuals can perform in a detached manner
  • Dehumanisation - the enemy is portrayed as sub-human so the usual principles of morality do not apply
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