Realism – Crime and Deviance

Lesson objectiveTo explore the realist approach to crime
Lesson outcomes• Assess its relevance in today’s society
• Analyse the perspective
• Explain what realists believe

Within realism, there are two opposing sides, Left Realism and Right Realism.

Left Realism attempts to solve crime by assessing the reasons why people commit those crimes.

Right Realism attempts to solve crime through discouraging people from commit crimes.

Left Realism

Left Realism was created in the 1980s and is mostly attributed to the work of Lea and Young (1984). The approach arose in an attempt to overcome criticisms of Marxist approaches.

Left realism is focussed on working-class crimes as using crime surveys (Islington). They concluded that most people were indifferent to white collar crimes because they concluded that they didn’t feel the impact.

In short, LR accept structural inequalities, social conditions and perceptions of injustice are the major causes of crime. Leah and Young mentioned three main reasons why individuals commit crime:

1) Relative deprivation – Deprivation alone cannot create crime. Many people are deprived and do not turn to illegal actions. Instead. Instead it depends on how the individual compares themselves to others. This can generate discontent and resentment setting the foundations of gaining a motive for criminal activity.

2) Marginalisation – Individuals who are ‘on the edge of society’ face marginalisation e.g. a poor education means you cannot contribute to society as much as someone with strong GCSEs, therefore you are treated more hostile by the community. This exclusion creates yet another motive for committing crime.

3) Subculture – Working-class subcultures can often become anti-establishment because of the above factors. However, it takes the belonging to a subculture for the criminal activity to materialise.

Late modernity and the bulimic society

Young (1999), argued that late modern societies are media saturated with all people, regardless of class or subculture, being exposed to consumerism. Consumerism displays what life ‘should be life’ through advertising and incentivises people to participate in this culture called “bulimic society”. Young argues that members of society attempt to buy items to improve their lifestyle. This intensifies sense of frustration, resentment and anger and their own relative deprivation. In 2011, the London Riots were investigated Lewis et al (2011), who found that the desire to use loot to improve individual’s lifestyles was a significant factor in motivating the 13,000-15,000 people to engage in criminal activity. Young, therefore argued that the sense of relative deprivation is made worse by three further features of late modernity:

  1. Growing individualism – In modernity there is a greater focus on being self centered and less emphasis on supporting the community.
  2. The weakening of informal controls – Traditional social structures do not provide the same support they once did e.g. community.
  3. Growing economic inequality and economic change – Globalisation has made the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The toxic mix that generates crime

Lyng (1990) claims that the three factors above create a toxic mix. Individuals in society are limited in ways to release stress as a consequence which leads them to being attracted to ‘edgework’. This is where individuals commit actions which are not necessarily criminal, but push the boundaries of what society calls acceptable.

The Square of Crime

Lea and Young suggested the following factors, called the square of crime, and how they influence each other in increasing crime levels.

1. Social structures and social control assess the social construction of crime, what enforcement looks like and the impact of these on labelling individuals in the CJS.

2. The public looks at how people react to crime, report rates, also the impact of labelling in a societal context.

3. Victims investigates why people become victims looking at social groups, ethnicity, gender etc. It also looks at victimology.

4. The offenders emphasises why individuals commit crimes eg. marginalisation, deprivation etc.

Evaluation of Left Realism

(Good) – It combines multiple theories combating many weaknesses e.g. Marxism. So it’s a good all rounder.

(Good) – It takes a realist approach to crime and views it as it is, rather than glamorising it like Marxism.

(Good) – It links crime to working-class areas looking at the individual’s actions, as well as external factors.

(Bad) – It neglects other responses to relative deprivation and marginalisation such as Merton’s contributions e.g. retreatism and ritualism.

(Bad) – It underestimates the biological factors and their impact on an individual e.g. gender and ethnicity.

(Bad) – It is too general and doesn’t fully explain why working-class youth are more susceptible to crime.

(Bad) – It doesn’t mention white-collar crime or corporate crime.

Right Realism

Right realism is mostly right wing and is associated with the New Right. Right Realism believes in the following :

  1. Value consensus underpins society.
  2. People are inherently selfish. The more selfish of the community become criminals.
  3. Inadequate socialisation and lack of community controls underlie crime and anti-social behaviour.
  4. Rational choice and opportunity theory (Cornish and Clarke) are key mechanisms why crime is committed.
  5. Crime will always exist – greed can never be overcome.

Broken Window Theory

The document below is outstanding at getting you in depth knowledge to use for the Broken Window Theory. It is summarised below, but it is well worth a read.

Rational Choice Theory

Right Realists believe that crime is a path chosen by the individual and that external factors play a minimal role.

RCT highlights that criminals think rationally about committing crime by weighing and calculating risks for gain. Essentially, they measure to what extent it’s worth it.

RCTs hypothesise that crime will increase with the following conditions:

  1. The higher the reward from committing the crime.
  2. The lower the risk of getting caught.
  3. The weaker the punishment of the crime.

Routine and Activities Theory (1979) by Cohen and Felson developed RCT. This website offers a succinct summary of RCT and RAT. Please read this as it demonstrates clearly that some crime is motivated by choice rather than any other factor.

Charles Murray’s Underclass

For those very eager candidates who want an A*, this offers a much more in depth version.


Examples of specific policies.

SCP – The Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York redesigned itself using a combination of SCP and ECP. This massively reduced the ability for crime to be committed.

Stoke-On-Trent council introduced more street lights in one area to ensure dark areas were not present. This made people feel safer reducing crime by 26%.

ECP – In New York, a zero tolerance policy of aggressive policing was introduced on low level crimes. The aim was to dissuade individuals from committing crime in the first instance by diminishing odds of merit (why the crime would be worth doing – see the three conditions above).

SSCP – Sure Start aims at promoting equality for disadvantaged students in the education system. This attempted to reduce crime by ensuring individuals felt supported and need not turn to crime.

Evaluation of Right Realism

(Good) – It addresses the immediate cause of crime and does provide effective policies to reduce it.

(Good) – It recognises the importance of community control and community responses to crime in affecting crime levels.

(Bad) – It’s too black and white and doesn’t take into account how complex crime can be.

(Bad) – It often ignores white collar crime and other hidden crime such as the dark side of family e.g. domestic violence.

(Bad) – It claims that all criminals act rationally, when actually, then can just act on impulse.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: