Chapter 19 Review questions answer guidance


1. What is social harm and how does it differ from ‘crime’?

Social harm is more encompassing than crime. Crime is one example of social harm, but not all crimes, strictly speaking, are harmful; and there are many other harms which are not legally defined as crimes. This renders the concept of social harm difficult to define and to recognise easily. Scholars of social harms (Hillyard et al, 2004; Hillyard and Tombs, 2017) identify as examples of social harm: poverty, pollution, workplace injuries and related disease, infant mortality, and excess elderly deaths in winter months. All these generate harms for different groups of people and in different numbers. They may be the harmful outcomes of policies and failings that impact on people physically, financially, socially, and psychologically. In summary:

  • Crimes are legally defined. This renders them recognisable to the public. The opposite is generally true for other social harms.
  • Not all crimes – as defined by the criminal law – are necessarily harmful. All socially harms are harmful.

2. Outline and provide examples in support of the claim that ‘crime’ consists of many unimportant and trivial events and that it excludes many serious harms.

Hillyard and Tombs (2004) argue that much ‘crime’, as officially recorded, is of a relatively petty, unimportant nature. There are many different categories of offences and all of them include sub-categories. For instance, offences within the category of ‘violence against the person’ range from very severe and harmful acts, such as murder, to relatively harmless assaults without injury. The media plays a pivotal role in interpreting and disseminating crime statistics (which it presents as facts), and the news values that influence their coverage result in the general public getting the mistaken impression that ‘crime’ mainly consists of serious and harmful events. Elaborating on their third criticism, Hillyard and Tombs (2004) say that placing so much importance on petty events, because they are defined as ‘crime’, means we fail to recognise many other forms of behaviour that are seriously harmful. The most obvious examples of this are forms of corporate criminality.

3. Give two examples for and two against the critique made by proponents of social harm that crime control is ineffective.

To answer this question, we need first to identify the evidence required to examine whether crime control is effective. Such evidence can be: a) crime rates, b) re-offending rates, c) prison population numbers, and c) police clear-up and detection rates. What is interesting and complicates answering the question is that all this evidence is socially constructed and has limitations in terms of being an accurate representation of reality. For example, high clear-up and detection rates and a high prison population can be seen as evidence of both an effective and an ineffective crime control system. For some, they are evidence of effectiveness because they indicate that more offenders are caught by the police and are processed successfully through the criminal justice system, resulting in their imprisonment. For others, they are evidence of ineffectiveness because the high numbers indicate that people are not deterred from committing crimes despite the fact that they are likely to be caught and punished.

4. What are the opportunities offered by a social harm approach? How could it be achieved and what are the potential barriers?

To answer this question, consider the following points:

  • The breadth of the definition of social harm
  • The types of harm social harm scholars tend to focus on
  • The types and quantities of victims and perpetrators individual crimes most often cover, and how this contrasts with social harms
  • The connections entailed by a social harms perspective across a wide range of policy domains

5. List the main categories of harm and, drawing on a case of your own choosing, illustrate the needs that can arise from them.

The main categories of harm are: physical, psychological and emotional, cultural, harms of recognition, financial and economic. Creating a typology of levels and dimensions of social harms is understandably not easy because some of the categories overlap, and there is often a clear ‘rippling out’ effect of various harms. For instance, physical and psychological harms can produce financial harms, such as when a person is too unwell physically, mentally or both to be able to return to work.

Needs that can arise from social harms include: the need to be able to have a healthy diet and lifestyle; to have shelter; to live and work in an environment that is considered safe for one’s health; to access healthcare and education; to be able to participate in social and cultural life; to access social welfare; to lead a meaningful life where one can express all aspects of one’s identity without punishment and harassment.

Using the above as guidance, try to match harms and needs to your chosen example. Remember harms and needs are context specific; there is no one size fits all answer when it comes to the identification of harms and their corresponding needs.

6. To what extent does zemiology provide an alternative to criminology in the way it frames, understands, and responds to social problems?

This is a complex question and there is no single answer that would satisfy everyone, especially since zemiology is very much a work in progress.

Perhaps rather than approaching zemiology in terms of offering an alternative to criminology, we can talk about its important contributions that sit next to criminological contributions (Copson, 2016, 2018). For example, zemiology challenges the narrow scope of the legal definitions of crime and the ability of the criminal justice system to balance the interests of offenders and victims in the name of public safety and social justice. In highlighting the limitations of the criminal justice system, zemiology draws our attention to the harms inflicted by the criminal justice system itself on both offenders and victims. As such, it makes intelligible connections between harms and human rights that can be employed to identify weaknesses in criminal law.

Of course, like any other concept and discipline, social harm and zemiology have weaknesses. There are difficulties in defining the terms, categorising the harms and identifying needs, just as there are similar difficulties related to the concept of crime, due to it being socially constructed.

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