Terms, definitions and concepts are the building blocks of our tools for thinking, communicating, acting, researching and theorising in crime prevention and security. Unfortunately, in many cases the tools we customarily rely on in Crime Science are often blunt where they should be sharp.
This page discusses:
- Why terms, definitions and concepts are important
- The limitations of those in current use in Crime Science
- The costs of imprecision
- The remedies
Other pages cover:
- Knowledge in crime and security – main page
- The terms, definitions and concepts themselves
- Glossaries and ontologies together with a note on the use of different discourses for describing interventions
Why are terms, definitions and concepts important?
Crime prevention, security, crime reduction, crime control and community safety are terms which have been used in various times and places, to:
- Define the scope and content of a field of practice, policy, programme funding and execution, and research
- Define curricula for education and training
- Shape (and be shaped by) public debate
- Aid capture/storage/search/synthesis/retrieval in knowledge bases
Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to fields like medicine, the definition of crime prevention and related terms remains a free-for-all. Chapter 8 of the 5Is book describes a UK example of the sorry turnover of terminology with every new government minister or senior official, and the adverse consequences; and how carefully-crafted definitions based on co-design by diverse dutyholders, and adopted quite widely, were scrapped overnight when government websites or policies were updated, to be replaced by enfeebled equivalents.
Beyond the specifics of terms and definitions, it is often the underlying concepts that are badly-articulated, confused or in some cases, not thought through at all.
This page attempts to remedy these shortcomings, along with its companion pages listing the definitions, terms and concepts, and the glossaries, ontologies and discourses that have been created, refined or discussed in the development of the Crime Frameworks. For a discussion on crime/security knowledge and its management, see Knowledge in crime and security
What are the limitations of current terms, definitions and concepts in Crime Science?
- Terms may not be explicitly defined (where is the definition of ‘crime’ in Crime Science? See Ekblom 2012b). Either it is assumed we all know (and agree on) what they mean, or the concepts may be considered too disruptive to try to incorporate.
- Terms may have multiple meanings, especially where they are imported from diverse disciplines (for example, at least four meanings of ‘vulnerability’ appear in Crime Science literature).
- Terms are used in a sloppy, imprecise way. For example, ‘deter’ is often used to refer to ‘anything that reduces crime’ rather than constituting a quite specific set of mechanisms for intervening in criminal events based on increasing offenders’ perception of risk; and ignoring later additions such as ‘discouragement’ (Felson 1995) – defined as increasing perceived effort and decreasing perceived reward. In the policy world in particular, it often seems that new terms appear with every new senior official and government minister wishing to make their mark. In the practice world, all too often practitioners are allowed to make their own personal interpretation of terms (Monchuk et al. 2018).
- Original precision is forgotten – for example, Cohen and Felson’s (1979) ‘likely offender’, although not deliberately spelled out, importantly covers both capability and motivation; but most writers when introducing the Routine Activities (RA) perspective now refer to ‘motivated offender’. Many research reports claim ‘and this is consistent with RA’ when it’s obvious that the offender, at least, has been far from routine in planning attacks or foraging for targets. And ‘guardianship’ has now come to refer to any kind of crime prevention action, ignoring the useful distinction between guardians of targets, handlers of offenders and managers of places set out in the Problem Analysis Triangle. This partly stems from the partial overlap between the RA triad and the PAT, which has been left unresolved in the traditional Crime Science canon (See Conjunction of Criminal Opportunity.)
- Theory is often confused with ‘useful truism’. For example, the Routine Activities triad (likely offender encountering suitable target in absence of capable guardians) is essentially description of the defining elements of a criminal event; the theory comes in when the claim is made that this or that particular pattern of crime was solely due to intersection of various parties’ routine activities. A similar argument applies to the Rational Choice (RC) approach and also the Conjunction of Criminal Opportunity. As with the previous point, neither of the original sets of authors overclaimed, preferring to talk of RA/RC perspectives.
What are the costs of imprecision, and by implication the benefits of sharpening up?
- Cross-disciplinary working between researchers, and between professionals in different fields is inhibited, and misunderstandings can jeopardise collaboration and partnership activity.
- Communication and collaboration between speakers using different languages, or with non-native speakers, is inhibited.
- Knowledge management – capture, synthesis, retrieval – is inefficient and error-prone; likewise education, training and guidance.
- Use of Artificial Intelligence (e.g. in toolkits, search and analysis of data and knowledge bases, simulations through agent-based modelling) is constrained since computation requires an ontology with a complete and logically consistent suite of definitions.
- Building logic models and defining useful indicators are inhibited, jeopardising the planning of implementation, and the undertaking of progress monitoring and process/impact evaluations.
What are the remedies?
- Developing, and adhering to, a controlled vocabulary, as in all branches of science (a process which started with Antoine Lavoisier, founder of modern systematic chemistry who lost his head during the French Revolution), engineering and medicine.
- Developing definitions-in-depth – where, say, top-level definition of ‘crime prevention’ in terms of ‘reduction of risk of criminal events’ is necessarily accompanied by definition of these terms in turn – e.g. risk as ‘possibility, probability and harm from potentially adverse events’.
- Ideally the individual terms and concepts used to characterise a particular field or topic should be integrated as definitional systems or suites that are internally consistent, and comprehensive.
- Ideally also, the definitions should build on those in common currency rather than unnecessarily supplant them, although changes on the grounds set out here may be unavoidable.
- Together these elements make for a complete ontology for Crime Science. The ontology must however have ‘loose ends’ and be able to evolve to accommodate current uncertainties, revisions, new (perhaps fuzzy and creative) thinking and importation from other disciplines. What is currently the leading edge will settle down into stability and the wavefront of terminological evolution moves forward. Unless, that is, some disruptive finding or theory needs accommodating and major conceptual revisions or revolutions are required.
- The ontology should take the form of a flexible language rather than a rigidly-structured classification system. This is to cope with complex processes (such as ‘intelligence for developing involvement’ or ‘involvement for gaining intelligence’ – as in the 5Is framework).
- Nonetheless the ontology should be reasonably robust in the face of inevitable vernacularisation of terms by practitioners, policymakers or even researchers.
- The development process is best undertaken by a group of users, ideally drawn from research, policy and practice in relevant domains, over an extended period (as happened with the definitions of community safety and partnership), rather than by a lone expert, though it may take one to inaugurate the process and keep it focused. Wider consultation via social media may be helpful but not at the expense of ontological integrity of the end product.