State crime refers to crimes committed by, or with the complicity of, government and its agents (Green and Ward). It includes crimes committed by politicians and state officials who work in the government and agencies such as the police. Inevitably, there are many problems associated with studying state crime, ranging from the fact that states set laws, and are therefore in a position to define what is criminal within their own borders, to the fact that they are so powerful they can restrict what sociologists want to study.
This is a short introduction, but it begins well with a clear definition from Green and Ward and then identifies two clear problems with studying state crime. It could have made a more specific point that it is a crime difficult to operationalise.
Rummel estimated that in the last century governments murdered at least 169 million people. This figure excludes all those killed in warfare. Those trying to research these deaths will come up against walls of secrecy, or excuses that they were ‘enemies of the state’ or ‘terrorists’. The situation in Syria in 2011–12 illustrates a government illegally killing its citizens, but defending its action on the grounds that it is clamping down on ‘armed militants’. The media, which are often biased one way or another, can sometimes provide a degree of objectivity on how much state crime is being committed.
The horrific number of killings calculated by Rummell forms the basis of discussion for this paragraph. Note that examiners will reward real-life examples, such as the murdering of its own citizens by the Syrian government. There is an interesting and balanced point about the media included at the end.
Green and Ward suggest that a solution to such problems is to make human rights the focus of sociological research. This means that if a country’s laws violate human rights as defined by the United Nations, then that nation can be accused of state crime. This overcomes the problem of individual states defining what constitutes a crime, as human rights have become a global benchmark, reinforced by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
Seeing state crime in terms of human rights is one solution to the problem highlighted by the question.
A common form of state crime is corruption. Many developing countries are known as kleptocracies because they are characterised by a ruling elite who take bribes, siphon off aid for their own personal use or are just blatantly corrupt. Corruption is one of the commonest forms of state crime and often involves collusion between political elites and trans-national corporations (TNCs) or other nations. Because illegal activities take place behind closed doors and are often obscured by an elaborate deception of ‘smoke and mirrors’, it is hard for sociologists to identify and research such practices.
Candidates who had earlier studied global sociology in Unit 3 will be familiar with the kleptocracy and the common corruption of elites in many developing countries.
It is not just developing countries that can be corrupt. For example, the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s involved officials from the USA illegally selling arms to Iran (defying an international arms embargo) in order to fund right-wing rebels, which the US government was supporting in its attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government in Nicaragua. Other examples of corruption in the developed world include giving contracts in return for financial donations to political parties. This appears widespread across many European countries, including possibly Britain. Under New Labour there were repeated allegations of contracts or peerages given in return for donations to the Labour Party. However, despite investigation by the police, no one was ever tried, showing how the rich and powerful can close ranks at the top. This makes the investigation difficult for the sociological researcher.
This paragraph contains good applied examples that the examiners will reward.
States can use official secrets and general restrictions to giving out information in order to prevent sociologists from studying state crime. Tombs and Whyte make the point that even when nations are democracies they can block access to any sensitive or illegal information. So, for example, although in Britain we have the Freedom of Information Act, the government can, under the banner of ‘national security’, withhold any information it decides is ‘sensitive’. Researching state crime is harder when countries are totalitarian, as their agents tend to be more secretive and forceful.
Note how this answer is supported throughout by reference to sociological research. Examiners will reward this in their marking.
Ross has argued that states can commit state crime by negligence. For example, in China inadequate planning checks were recently highlighted which resulted in substandard buildings being constructed in an earthquake zone. However, it is often difficult to cross-check records, particularly when they refer to events of several decades ago. Sensitive documents often get ‘lost’ within bureaucratic structures, making it difficult to prove that a state crime has been committed.
Examiners will reward applied examples from the real world, such as this example from China.
Another problem with investigating state crime is knowing what actually constitutes a crime. For example, the Marxist Barak argues that the US government is guilty of a state crime by not providing adequate welfare for the poor or providing a national healthcare system for its people. However, this is essentially a personal judgement, but it has been argued that if human rights are used then this becomes an objective measure of state crime.
The problem with operationalising state crime is discussed here. Note how every paragraph tends to end with an evaluative point, gaining AO2 marks.
Therefore, there are many problems associated with the sociological study of state crimes. As Green and Ward state, one of the key problems is definition since the state is in a position to define what is criminal. Governments are the biggest funders of research and may be reluctant to finance research that threatens to expose state crime. Finally, gaining access to official documents in order to provide evidence of state crimes can be difficult since states have a vested interest in suppressing such information.
Like all good conclusions, this final paragraph refers explicitly back to the question. This conclusion sums up three practical reasons why studying state crime could be problematic.
1 Green crime is a broad term that applies to any criminal activity that has a detrimental environmental impact resulting in harm to individuals or other organisms. Examples include environmental destruction by large corporations, the trafficking of rare animals, fly-tipping and noise pollution. Such acts can be deliberate or caused by negligence.
2 This is another term for green crime.
3 Primary green crime is directly connected to the deliberate destruction and degradation of environmental resources through human actions such as deforestation, creating significant amounts of pollution and despoiling the environment. Secondary green crime (sometimes referred to as ‘symbiotic green crime’) is the consequential impact of negligent behaviour that impacts on the environment, such as flouting the rules that seek to regulate illegal toxic-waste disposal, spillage from grounded ships etc.
4 Environmental racism refers to actions that result in racial discrimination because the environment of such minority and low-income communities is damaged. It links elements of racism with environmental degradation.
5 Greenwashing is when corporations and their activities are portrayed as kind to the environment, when the reality is they have a record of damaging it. So a polluting company may play up its recycling activities or its financial support for the planting of new trees, which is pure tokenism in comparison to its responsibility for environmental degradation.
6 This is an attempt to discredit environmental campaigners by portraying them as extremist and radical. They are often compared negatively with big business, which is portrayed as responsible and honourable because it provides jobs and supports local communities. The media often side with the view that campaigners are extreme and don’t reflect either the consensus or common-sense view.
7 In 1984 toxic gas escaped from the American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant, affecting 578,000 people and killing more than 2,000 people instantly. Union Carbide discounted negligence, initially claiming the leak was due to vandalism, and refused to pay any compensation for more than 25 years. Finally, in 2010 eight former executives of the company’s Indian subsidiary were convicted of negligence and sentenced to 2 years in prison and fined 100,000 rupees, or $2,100.