Defining crimes in a global age: Criminalization as a transnational legal process

Ely Aaronson, Gregory Shaffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The design of empirical research and theory-building projects in the sociolegal literature on criminalization is often premised on a presumed dichotomy between domestic and international planes of criminal lawmaking. However, in a global era in which domestic processes of criminalization are increasingly shaped by norms, institutions, and actors developed and operating outside national borders, criminalization research should develop a new theoretical frame for studying how international and domestic practices of criminal lawmaking interact with one another. This article builds from the theory of transnational legal orders and the recursivity of law to propose a transnational processual theoretical framework for the study of criminalization. This framework provides tools for investigating how criminal prohibitions are constituted through recursive interactions between actors operating in international, national, and local sites of legal practice. It draws on empirical studies to show how the processes of constructing, applying, and contesting definitions of international and transnational crimes are embedded in broader structures of power. The article demonstrates how a processual theory of transnational criminalization sheds light on important sociolegal questions about the driving forces and consequences of current efforts to harmonize the definitions of criminal activities across national jurisdictions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)455-486
Number of pages32
JournalLaw and Social Inquiry
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association (May 2020). The authors wish to thank Terence Halliday, Nicola Lacey, Itamar Mann, Nancy Reichman, Yair Sagy, Wayne Sandholtz, and the anonymous reviewers of Law & Social Inquiry for their excellent comments on an earlier draft. The research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant #1281/14).

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2020.


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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (all)
  • Law


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