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Measuring Crime

June 18, 2009

Before we can control it, we have to be able to measure it!

Before we can control it, we have to be able to measure it!

With the current recession in progress, a fair number of sociologists who study crime have predicted an increase in certain types of crime called “instrumental crimes.” These are crimes that are committed for material goals—usually money. In fact, how best to deal with a possible spike in crime rates is already being discussed among sociologists. One of the first issues is trying to figure out how to determine when we are successfully controlling crime. Yes, even that is open to debate!

One way sociologists measure society’s level of crime control is through something called a “clearance rate.” Traditionally speaking, this a rate that compares the number of arrests made by police to the number of crimes reported to authorities in a specific area. Examples of specific areas could include murder, rape, arson, burglary, or car theft.

Some sociologists object to this method for several reasons. First, the number of crimes committed doesn’t always match the number of crimes reported. (The difference between the number of crimes committed and the number we know about is called the “dark figure” of crime). Another problem is that one person can commit several different crimes. For example, a burglar can break into ten homes before he is arrested for one burglary. This results in ten crimes being “solved,” but credits only one arrest. Third, just because someone is arrested and convicted of a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they actually committed the crime.

My basic response to the problems above is to refer to the elementary principles and concerns of social research. Specifically, these problems illustrate sociologists’ concerns about reliability and validity in research. Would you like to post a reply to this article? If so select select a topic below or respond to the another reader’s response:

1. What is meant by the term “reliability” in sociology? How can you use the example of using “clearance rates” to illustrate issues of reliability in sociological studies?

2. What is meant by the term “validity” in sociological research? How can you use the example of using “clearance rates” to illustrate issues of “validity” in sociological studies?

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