Realist Theories of Crime

Realist theories of crime from the Crime & Deviance topic of AQA A level Sociology

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Right realism

Right realism sees crime as a real and growing problem that destroys communities, undermines social cohesion and threatens society's work ethic

The causes of crime

Right realists reject the Marxist idea that structural factors such as poverty and inequality are the cause of crime because old people tend to commit little crime yet many are in poverty. For right realists, crime is the product of:

Biological differences - These differences between individuals make some people innately more likely to commit crime through personality traits like aggressiveness and also low intelligence with this being shown through pupils who are excluded from school are 5 times more likely to go to jail

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Right realism

Socialisation & the underclass - Inadequate socialisation means not learning self control and moral values making people more likely to offend. Murray argues that the crime rate is increasing because of a growing underclass who live off benefits meaning there are less nuclear families. He says lone mothers are ineffective socialisation agents especially for boys as young males turn to delinquent subcultures and gain status through crime

Rational choice theory - The decision to commit crime is a choice based on a rational calculation of the likely consequences. If the perceived rewards of crime outweight the perceived costs then people will be more likely to offend. They say that the perceived costs of crime are low with little risk of being caught and punished and this is why the crime rate has increased 

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Right realism

Tackling crime

They understand the causes of crime are hard to change so instead seek practical measures to make crime less attractive with a focus on control, containment and punishment. Crime prevention policies should reduce the rewards and increase the costs to the offender with more lengthy prison sentences etc. Wilson & Kelling's Broken Windows theory says any sign of deterioration such as graffiti must be dealt with immediately in order to prevent crime taking a hold

They advocate a zero tolerance policy towards undesirable behaviour so that law abiding citizens feel safe. This was first introduced in New York in 1994 and was widely applauded for reducing crime. However, Young argues that its success was a myth because the crime rate had already been falling and police just defined deviance up so they could arrest more people and justify their existence

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Right realism


  • Their causes of crime ignore wider structural factors such as poverty
  • The rational choice theory ignores non utilitarian crime like domestic violence which have no material benefit
  • Not everyone with a low IQ commits crime with IQ differences accounting for less than 3% of differences in offending
  • Zero tolerance ignores corporate crime which is often more harmful
  • It also gives police free rein to discriminate against those groups they see as committing crime like the young
  • Zero tolerance can often just lead to displacement of crime to other areas
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Left realism

Left realists are reformist and believe we need explanations of crime that will lead to practical strategies for reducing it now, rather than waiting for a revolution and a classless society to abolish crime

Taking crime seriously

They see crime as a real problem which particularly affects disadvantaged groups. They accuse other sociologists of not taking crime seriously:

  • Marxists have concentrated on corporate crime which neglects working class crime and its effect
  • Neo-Marxists romanticise working class criminals as stealing from the rich as an act of resistance to capitalism but really most crime is intra-class
  • Labelling theorists see working class criminals as the victims of discriminatory labelling but this neglects the real victims, the working class who suffer at the hands of criminals
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Left realism

Since the 1950s there has been a real increase in crime, especially working class crime. This has led to an aetiological crisis, a crisis in explanation, for theories of crime. Labelling theory tend to deny that the increase was real but left realists argue that the increase was too big to be explained in this way and more people were actually falling victim to crime. Local victim surveys show disadvantaged groups have a greater risk of becoming victims so they have a greater fear of crime

The causes of crime

Relative deprivation - Deprivation in itself is not solely responsible for crime as crime rates were low in the 1930s when poverty was high. Today, although people are better off, crime has increased because people are more aware of relative deprivation due to ads which raise everyone's expectations for material possessions. Those who cannot afford them may resort to crime instead especially with increasing individualism which can create a spiral of increasing anti-social behaviour

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Left realism

Subculture - A subculture is a group's collective solution to the problem of relative deprivation with criminal ones emerging due to their response to blocked opportunities. However, different groups may produce different subcultural solutions to relative deprivation like religious subcultures such as in Bristol there were a variety of African Caribbean subcultures including hustlers and saints. For left realists, criminal subcultures still subcribe to the goals of mainstream society such as consumerism but opportunities to achieve these goals legitimately are blocked so they resort to crime

Marginalisation - Marginalised groups lack an organisation to represent their interests such as the unemployed. Unlike workers who have trade unions, unemployed youth have no organisation to represent them so are frustrated. Being powerless they express their frustration through violence and rioting

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Left realism

Late modernity, exclusion & crime

Young argues we are now living in a the stage of late modernity where instability, insecurity make the problem of crime worse. The 1950s & 60s was the Golden Age with full employment, low divorce rates etc. However, since the 70s de-industrialisation has increased unemployment while many jobs are short term which has destabilised family life and contributed to increased exclusion to those at the bottom.

Meanwhile, greater inequality has increased relative deprivation with media saturated society promoting cultural inclusion as even the poor have access to consumer messages. There is also a greater emphasis on leisure and immediate gratification leading to higher expectations and the poor are denied opportunities to gain this. Relative deprivation is found throughout society with people resenting footballers whilst the middle class also label the underclass as idle 

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Left realism

Since the 1990s the crime rate has fallen substantially and Young notes that because crime is a social construction it may continue to be seen as a problem as 61% thought crime had risen, not fallen

Crime surveys also show a high level of public concern about anti-social behaviour and this is because of defining deviance up. ASBOs which are aimed at controlling behaviour such as making a loud noise have several key features:

  • They blur the boundaries of crime so incivilities become crime and breaching an ASBO becomes a crime so it manufactures it
  • It is a subjective definition with over 10,000 being handed out
  • They can be handed out to anyone they like as it can cover an endless number of infringements
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Left realism

Tackling crime

1. Policing and control - 90% of crimes known to the police are reported by the public so they depend on the public for information. However, the police are losing support among marginalised groups so the flow of information dries up leading them to rely on military policing such as swamping but this alienates communities. They argue that policing should be made accountable to local communities so the police spend more time investigating crime in a multi agency approach to improve relations with local people

2. Structural causes - We must deal with inequality of opportunity, tackle discrimination, provide decent jobs, improve housing to reduce crime. We must also be more tolerant of diversity and cease stereotyping groups as criminal

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Left realism

3. Government policy - Their views have strong similarities with the New Labour governments with their firmer approach to domestic violence and hate crimes and introduction of ASBOs but many of these policies have been regarded as doomed attempts to recreate the Golden Age and have failed to tackle structural causes


  • It accepts the authorities' definition of crime as being street crime committed by the poor ignoring capitalist crimes such as corporate crime
  • Interactionists argue their reliance on quantitative data cannot explain offenders' motives
  • They assume value consensus exists and that crime only occurs when this breaks down
  • Not all those who experience relative deprivation commit crime, they over predict the amount of crime
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