Finding and Defining Evil: The Social Construction of Crime as Evil?

Michael J. Coyle, Arizona State University

This paper is a product of a research agenda I call "The Language of Justice" in which I examine the usage of various words, terms or phrases central to the modern social discourse on justice, particularly social justice and criminal justice. This research paper is the study of the term "evil" and in its relationship to the notion of "crime." My project is defined by three tasks. The first is a lexicon study of the word "evil." This study is not exhaustive or definitive, but an overview (using dictionaries from the last 4 centuries), of how "evil" has been defined historically and how the definition has changed in the course of time. The second task is the study of the contexts in which "evil" is commonly employed today by examining its usage in modern every day life of English speaking communities via a study of media data in LEXIS-NEXIS. Finally, my third task is to take the findings of the previous two studies and evince their contribution to criminological scholarly literature already linking the notions of "evil" and "crime" to a process of social construction. At the heart of this paper, then, is an examination of the language on "evil" in the context of the study of "crime." More specifically, my research underlines how "evil" is part of three different processes of social construction having to do with crime. In the end, I find that the lexicon study of "evil" and "crime" brings evidence to a conception of crime as socially constructed, and that the LEXIS-NEXIS study of "evil" brings evidence to both an ongoing conception of "crime" as socially constructed and an accompanying conception of "crime" and "criminal" as other than socially constructed. These two studies support existent literature, examined in my third study, which already argues that modern criminology is in part built on top of a model which rejects the social construction of crime.

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Updated 05/20/2006