What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Realist Criminologies?

To answer this question, I begin by exploring how right and left realisms emerged as criminological theories in response to radical criminologies. I examine fundamental realism principles, including consideration of commonalities and differences, eg, how they view the cause of crime, their policy implications, etc. From here, I move on to explore their strengths and weaknesses, including what they overlook. Finally, I evaluate how right and left realisms measure up as paradigm examples of theory when compared to the criminologies they superseded.

Realist criminologies emerged in the 1980s as a reaction to radical criminologies of previous decades. The latter shifted the focus of criminology from classicism, with its principles of rational choice and free will (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p7), and from positivism, which propounded that individuals are not responsible for their own actions for biological, psychological and sociological reasons (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p9). In broad terms, radical criminologies such as interactionism, labelling, Marxism and critical criminology concentrate on processes of criminalisation (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p34).

These theories study structural factors such as societal relationships and power dynamics, claiming that these perpetuate criminal/deviant behaviour – people become their ascribed labels (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p36). However, such theories have little or no practical political edge, and thus are limited in how well they translate into effective policy. Realist theories represented a significant break from these radical criminologies. They developed in a context of public/political concern with law and order (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p45).

The Conservative party was in government and took a tough stance against crime, setting measures to tackle what was perceived to be a growing problem – ideologies which inspired right realism. In reaction, and to stay in the political game, left wing criminologists developed left realism whilst concomitantly shaking off a tight connection to radical criminologies (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p49). I now describe the fundamental principles of realist theories, starting with right realism.

Right realism blends classicism and individual positivism elements into a theory rejecting structural/social impacts on crime. Instead, it propounds that crime results from individuals’ lack of self-control and responsibility, coupled with waning moral standards – the latter being evidenced by poor parenting, erosion of ‘the family’, and welfare dependency. According to right realism, these factors collude to form an ‘underclass’ highly disposed to criminality (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p47).

In keeping with 19th century Victorians, Murray differentiates between ‘regular’ poor people and the underclass of ‘dishonest poor’ (2003, p127). He suggests that illegitimacy and single parenthood are key characteristics of the underclass (2003, pp129-130), and that the absence of fathers impacts deleteriously on communities (2003, pp132-133).

Furthermore, Murray believes that young male underclass members who chose not to work are harming the community and contributing to familial breakdown (2003, p139). This community fragmentation results in increased property crime and burglary, theft and violent crime (Murray, 2003, pp134-135). The foundations for this selfish underclass behaviour are impossible to pinpoint/treat and so crime cannot be ‘cured’, leading right realists to advocate deterrence of crime through a strong criminal justice system dispensing swift and assured punishments (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p47).

By contrast, left realism argues that crime can only be tackled effectively by looking at its causes. Unlike positivism, which believes that anti-social/criminal behaviour is predetermined (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p9), left realism focuses on establishing the social conditions behind people committing crimes so as to implement political and criminal justice policies aimed at improving these conditions to tackle crime through enhanced social justice and community solidarity (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p50). Of particular importance are the concepts of ‘relative deprivation’ and ‘marginalisation’.

A causal relationship between crime and poverty is dismissed. Instead, left realism suggests that poor individuals’ perceptions of their own deprivation is key (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p50); if people feel that they are being unjustly treated comparative to others in similar social positions, with no means of redress, crime can ensue (Lea and Young, 2003, pp142-143). Furthermore, left realism recognises that crime especially affects women, ethnic minorities and the working class (Young, 2003, p325).

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of right and left realisms? A particular strength of both theories is that they believe crime is a serious problem (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p50), offering practical means of tackling crime and criminal behaviour – albeit from different perspectives. I now discuss realist strengths in more detail.

Looking firstly at right realism, it was welcomed in the 1980s by a population tired of violence and lawlessness (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p45), and became the dominant ideology behind tackling crime. The ‘common sense’ approach to strengthening surveillance and heightening social control to prevent crimes is easily understood by and pleases everyday citizens (Wilson, 2003, p333). Felson (2003, p162) demonstrates how crime depends on someone’s absence, ie, that a crime is more likely to occur when only the offender and the victim are present, therefore an enhanced police presence can prevent crimes.

Wilson and Kelling (2003, pp400-401) showed how foot patrol officers increased community members’ feelings of security and heightened perceptions of crime being under control. Moreover, Clarke (2003, p363) argues that any such ‘guardian’ against crime does not have to be a police officer: staffed public services such as car parks, launderettes and buses exhibit lower rates of vandalism and theft.

Regarding deterrence, Wilson maintains that the issue of how governments and communities can best tackle crime and protect innocent law-abiding citizens is diverted by the resource-wasteful red herring of establishing socio-political causes of crime (cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, pp47-48). He advocates strong deterrence methods because “…differences in the certainty of punishment seem to make a difference in the level of crime” (Wilson, 2003, p335).

By contrast, a strength of left realism is its explicit acknowledgement that social factors impact on crime (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p50). It recognises that effective crime control policy requires more than deterrence and punishment, such as investment in education, employment opportunities, health, housing (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p52). Currie argues that ignoring social and structural factors and instead pursuing capitalism and a right-wing free market model of service demand/supply promotes crime by increasing inequality, fragmenting the family, creating competition for resources and stripping away public provision of basic services for vulnerable people (Currie, 2003, pp370-373). Instead, a long-term strategy against crime should focus on reducing societal inequalities and promoting competent citizenship via supportive labour market policy and investment in families and young people (Currie, 2003, pp375-377).

Moving on to weaknesses, both realist theories share two major limitations, with wide-ranging implications. These are: (i) an acceptance of normative/populist constructions of crime, criminals and criminal behaviour; (ii) a focus on street crime, which offers no opportunities for tackling crimes of the powerful. Due to this commonality, it is useful to consider both realisms together initially.

Firstly, realist theories concur with media and statistical representations of the stereotypical criminal being a young, little-educated, unemployed male from a minority ethnic background, living in a poor inner-city neighbourhood (Box, 2004, p272; Lea and Young, pp144-145).

This ignores that crime is intra-class and intra-racial (Young, 2004, p322) and can fuel ‘moral panics’ ie, media, political and public over-reaction to particular social groupings or certain events (Muncie, 2001, p54). The result is further marginalisation of already subordinate subjects and widening social divisions (Scraton and Chadwick, 2003, p299). Critical criminology argues that the state uses these fears and concerns to perpetuate its ideological hegemony to maintain tight social order, rather than address social justice (Hall, cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p42; Scraton and Chadwick, 2003, p300).

A second major downfall of both right and left realist theories is their focus on street crime, burglary and violence (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p46). There is little room for consideration of organised crime, crimes of the state or corporate crime. And these can be serious and nasty business: multi-billion dollar industries of drug trafficking and money laundering (Castells, 2003, pp517-518); torture, war atrocities and genocide (McLaughlin, 2001), and huge numbers of deaths through corporate health and safety negligence (Hughes and Langan, 2001, p246). Bonger (cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p40) argues that the non-working classes have and take ample opportunities to commit crime. Given that the underclass of which Murray is so scathing does not have the access to the opportunities to commit such crimes of the powerful, this begs the question of how far realist theories can be applied.

A flaw in specifically right realist principles is that consideration of social factors in crime, such as poverty, is fruitless; Clarke (2003, p358) cites the rise in crime during the post-WW2 decades of economic and social improvements. However, it could be argued that during this time the UK was in a state of transition and social disorganisation (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p31), which sociological positivists suggest contributes to criminal activity. In addition, Durkheim proposes that periods of sudden economic expansion can create societal strains, promoting a state of anomie (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p25).

Merton developed this hypothesis into his ‘strain theory’, suggesting that the emphasis and encouragement on individual aspiration and success can overwhelm actual achievable goals (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p28). Lea and Young (2003, p146) support this, stating that an “excess of expectation over opportunities” causes relative deprivation, which in turn correlates with crime. Furthermore, right realism fails to recognise how harsh punitive policy couples with social factors and impacts on vulnerable individuals and marginalized groups. For example, women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for petty crimes and for longer periods, even when they have dependent children (Scraton and Chadwick, 2003, p304). This can only fuel the familial breakdown with which Murray is so concerned.

Whilst left realism recognises power relationships within crime, it does not question the construction of ‘crime’ and ‘criminals’. In addition, whilst left realism acknowledges correlations with relative deprivation and marginalisation and crime, and seeks to enhance community relations and life chances for subordinate social groupings, it has been criticised by critical criminologists for being blind to the likelihood that powerful ruling classes will either thwart attempts at implementing such policies, or use them to further their own capitalist gain (Snider, cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p53).

This is illustrated by the post-WW2 increase in immigration – ostensibly to join a prosperous society founded on low unemployment, yet the immigrant workers were given the poorest jobs with lowest pay and worst conditions (Scraton and Chadwick, 2003, p296).

It can be seen that right and left realist theories exhibit both commonalties and divisions. But how do they measure up against other criminological theories? In terms of application to policy, they’re doing not too badly. Right realism dominated political policy on crime in the 1980s, seeing the Home Office endeavour to limit opportunities for crime, and criminologists showing government how to optimise the efficacy of the criminal justice system (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, pp48-49). In addition, it spawned a new theory, ie, left realism. The latter has informed both continuing theoretical debate and high profile political policy (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2001, p53).

When compared directly to the critical theories that they replaced, realist theories have more practical application than, eg, interactionism and labelling theories it is highly unlikely that the public would accept radical proposals of wide-scale decriminalisation and enhanced tolerance as a means to solving the ‘problem of crime’. However, realisms appear to miss the boat in ignoring power dynamics inherent in a capitalist/consumerist society.

Scraton and Chadwick contend that class, ‘race’ and gender are the three ‘primary determining contexts’ in which unravelling the dynamics of a capitalist society should be located (cited in Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p44), because institutionalisation of these factors enables the state to maintain a coercive social order (Scraton and Chadwick, 2003, p295).

In conclusion, it can be seen that realist criminological theories emerged in response to a popular and political will to break away from the less tangible radical theories of previous decades. With the seriousness of crime firmly in mind, realist theories offer practical preventive and punitive policies for crime. Right and left realisms share many characteristics, such as an unquestioning perspective of crime as an empirical entity, and a belief that the ‘problem of crime’ must be tackled. However, their approaches are very different: the right takes a hard stance against what it sees as declining moral standards to maintain social order; the left sees tackling relative deprivation and marginalisation as key to challenging crime through enhanced social justice.

Both theories can be seen to be contradictory: right realism says people chose to commit crimes, but that these choices are rooted in genetics; left realism says social factors are key to tackling crime, yet overlooks institutional oppression and inequalities. A criticism of realist theories is that the close focus on ordinary crime overlooks the serious social harms that arise from organised, state and corporate crimes – something to which radical criminologies are more open.

When examining criminological theories, it becomes apparent that they both inform and are informed by each other; elements of early criminology can be seen in present day theories. No theory in isolation gets everything right. However, perhaps future criminologists might pursue a combination of practicable principles to inspire political policy that deters against crime and addresses social factors to reduce crime, thus enhancing quality of life for all social groupings.

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