Sociology: Realist theories of crime


Realist approaches

  • Right realists share a conservative, New Right political outlook and support a ‘zero tolerance’ stance on crime. They have been very influential in the UK and USA

  • Left realists are reformist socialists and favour policies to promote equality 

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Right realism

Right realism (RR) sees crime, especially street crime, as a growing problem

Attitude to other theories Right realists believe other theories have failed to solve the problem of crime. They regard labelled theory and critical criminology as too sympathetic to the criminal and hostile to the police and courts 

Practical solutions RRs are mainly concerned with practical solutions to reduce crime. In their view, the best way to do so is through control and punishment, rather than by rehabilitating offenders or tackling causes such as poverty

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The causes of crime

  • RRs reject the idea that structural or economic factors such as poverty are the cause of crime; e.g. they point out that the old tend to be poor yet have a very low crime rate

  • For RRs, crime is the protect of three factors: biological differences, inadequate socialisation and the underclass, and rational choice to offend 

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Critics argue that evidence for intelligence being biologically determined is limited. Even if it is, it may not explain offending: Lilly et al found that differences in intelligence accounted for only 3% of the difference in offending


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2.The underclass

Effective socialisation decreases the risk of offending by teaching self-control and correct values. RRs see the nuclear family as the best agency of socialisation 

  • However, according to Murray, the nuclear family is being undermined by the welfare state, which is creating welfare dependency and encouraging the growth of an underclass who fail to socialise their children properly

  • Generous welfare provision has led to the growth of benefit-dependent lone parent families, since men no longer need to take responsibility for supporting their families

  • Absent fathers mean that boys lack discipline and an appropriate role model, so they turn to delinquent role models in street gangs and gain status through crime rather than through supporting their families 

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Rational choice theory

Clarke’s rational choice theory assumes that individuals are rational beings with free will

  • Deciding to commit crime is a choice based on a rational calculation of the consequences 

  • If the rewards of crime appear to outweigh the costs, then people will be more likely to offend. RRs argue that the crime rate is high because the perceived costs are low; e.g. little risk of being caught and lenient punishments 

Felson’s routine activity theory argues that for crime to occur, there must be a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a ‘capable guardian’. Offenders act rationally, so the presence of a  guardian is likely to deter them 

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How can criminals be both rational actors freely choosing crime, while simultaneously their behaviour is determined by their biology and socialisation

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Solutions to crime

RRs believe it is pointless trying to tackle the underlying causes of crime since these are hard to change. instead , they focus on the control and punishment of offenders:


  • Wilson and Kelling’s article ‘Broken Windows’, argues that we must keep neighbourhoods orderly to prevent crime taking hold. Any sign of deterioration, e.g. graffiti, must be dealt with immediately 

  • They advocate ‘zero tolerance’ policing (ZTP). the police should focus on controlling the streets so law-abiding citizens feel safe. It was claimed a success after its  introduction in New York 

  • Crime prevention policies should reduce the rewards of crime and increase its cost, e.g. ‘target hardening’, more use of prison 

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Zero tolerance policies allow police to discriminate against ethnic minority youth, the homeless etc. they also result in displacement of crime to other areas

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Criticisms of right realism

  • It ignores structural causes, e.g. poverty. It is concerned almost solely with street crime, ignoring corporate crime, which is more costly and harmful to the public 

  • It over-emphasises control of disorderly neighbourhoods, ignoring underlying causes of neighbourhood decline 

  • Young argues that crime was already failing before ZTp came in. Police then boosted their arrest rate by ‘defining deviance up’- arresting people for minor deviant acts

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Left realism

Left realism (LR) has developed since the 1980s. Like RR, it sees crime as a real problem. However, while RRs are New Right conservatives, LBs are socialists

  • Like Marxists LRs are opposed to the inequality of capitalist society and see it as the root cause of crime

  • Unlike Marxists, they are reformist not revolutionary socialists: they believe gradual reforms are the only realistic way to achieve equally 

  • While Marxits believe only a future revolution can bring a cause-free society, LRs believe we need realistic solutions for reducing it now

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Criticisms of other theories

LRs accuse other sociologists of not taking crime seriously:

  • Marxists concentrate on crimes of the powerful but neglect working-class crime and its effects 

  • Neo-Marxism romanticise working-class criminals, whereas in reality they mostly victimise other working-class people

  • Labelling theories see criminals at the victims of labelling. LRs argue that this neglects the real victims
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Taking crime seriously involves recognising:

  • Its main victims are disadvantaged groups: the working class, ethnic minorities and women. They are more likely to be victimised and less likely to find the police take crimes against them seriously 

  • There has been a real increase in crime. This has led to an aetiological crisis; e.g. labelling theory sees the rise as just a social construction, not a reality. LRs argue that the increase is too great to be explained in this way and is real
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The causes of crime

Lea and Young identify three related causes of crime

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1.Relative deprivation

For LR, crime has its roots in relative deprivation- how deprived someone feels in relation to others. When they feel others unfairly have more, they may resort to crime to obtain what they feel entitled to 

There is a growing contrast between cultural inclusion and economic exclusion and this increases relative deprivation:

  • There is cultural inclusion: even the poor have access to the media’s materialistic messages 

  • But there is economic exclusion of the poor from opportunities to gain the ‘glittering prizes’  

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For LR, a subculture is a group’s solution to the problem of relative deprivation 

  • Some subcultural solutions do not lead to crime; e.g. some turn to religion to find comfort and this may encourage conformity 

  • Criminal subcultures subscribe to society’s materialistic goals, but legitimate opportunities are blocked, so they resort to crime   

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Unlike groups such as workers, unemployed youth are marginalised. They have no organisation to represent them and no clear goals- just a sense of powerlessness, resentment and frustrations, which they express through criminal means, e.g. violence and rioting   

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Young notes other changes in late modernity

  • Crime is now found throughout society, note just at the bottom. There is resentment at the undeservedly high rewards, e.g. of footballers or bankers 

  • There is now ‘relative deprivation downwards’; e.g. resentment against the unemployed as spongers; more ‘hate crimes’ e.g. against asylum seekers 

  • There is less consensus about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and informal controls are now less effective as families and communities disintegrate

  • The public are less tolerant and demand harsher formal controls by the state. Late modern society is a high-crime society with a low tolerance for crime

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Solutions to crime

The LR solution to crime involves two policies: democratic policing and reducing social inequality 

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Democratic policing

  • Kinsey, Lea and Young argue that police rely on the public for information, but they are losing public support, so the flow of information dries up \nd they must rely instead on military policing, such as ‘swamping’ the area

  • To win public support, the police must become more accountable to local communities by involving them in deciding policing policies and priorities  

  • Crime control must also involve a multi-agency approach, not just the police

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Marxists argue that left realists are naive to assume that the police can be made accountable, since they are a key part of the repressive state apparatus protecting capitalist interests 

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Reducing inequality

  • For LRs, the main solution to crime is to remove its underlying cause: social inequality 

  • They call for major structural changes to tackle discrimination, inequality of opportunity and unfainess or rewards, and provide decent jobs and housng for all

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Criticisms of left realism

Lr has drawn attention to the reality of street crime and its effects, especially on victims from deprived groups. However, it is criticised on several grounds:

  • It accepts the authorities’ definition of crime as being the street crimes of the poor and ignores the harms done to the poor by the powerful. Marxists argue that it fails to explain 

  • It over-predicts the amount of working-class crime: not everyone who experiences relative deprivation and marginalisation turns to crime

  • Understanding offenders’ motives requires qualitative data, but LR relies on Quantitative data from victim surveys

  • Focusing on high-crime inner-city areas makes crime appear a greater problem than it is

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