Last Updated on November 21, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Left Realism was developed by Jock Young, John Lea and Roger Matthews as a response to the increasing influence of Right Realism.
Left Realism is Left realism is a fusion of anomie theory, radical criminology and symbolic interactionism.
It is realist because it focuses on practical ways of solving crime, unlike Interactionism and Radical Criminology which it sees as too idealistic and having unrealistic ideas about how to solve crime.
It is left wing because it focusses on the structural inequalities of class, race and gender. It still acknowledges the practical force of crime on society and especially the heavy impact on the poor, ethnic minorities and women.
Key ideas of Left Realist Criminology:
- As a criticism of Marxism, Left Realists point out that the victims working class street crime are most likely to be the working class, and it is these types of ‘ordinary crime’ that worry working class people. Criminology should thus focus on dealing with these types of ‘ordinary crime’ rather than focusing on elite crime.
- The three three major causes of (working class street) crime are relative deprivation, marginalisation and subcultures.
- Solutions to crime should focus on social and community crime prevention and improving relations between the police and local communities.
Left Realism – Causes of Crime
Young (1997) argues that you have to be tough on crime, but this does not just mean being tough on criminals, it means being tough on trying to change the social factors which have a long term impact on crime rates and ensuring that the criminal justice system promotes social justice.
He argues that since the Second World War, rising living standards and the development of welfare provisions have gone hand in hand with a higher crime rate. Lea and young conclude that they can explain this using the following key concepts; relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture.
Lea and Young argue that crime has its roots in deprivation, but deprivation itself is not directly responsible for crime – for example, living standards have risen since the 1950s, so the level of deprivation has fallen, but the crime rate is much higher today than it was in the 1950s.
Left Realists draw on Runciman’s (1966) concept of relative deprivation to explain crime. This refers to how someone feels in relation to others, or compared with their own expectations.
The concept of relative deprivation helps to explain the apparent paradox of increasing crime in the context of an increasing wealthy society. Although people are better off today, they have a greater feeling of relative deprivation because of the media and advertising have raised everyone’s expectations for material possessions – we are wealthier, but we feel poorer, and thus there is more pressure to get more stuff to keep up with everyone else, which generates historically high crime rates.
Left Realists see subcultures as a group’s collective response to the situation of relative deprivation, and they draw on Cohen’s theory of status frustration to explain how they emerge. There are many different subcultural adaptations to blocked opportunities, and not all result in crime – but those subcultures which still subscribe to the mainstream values of material wealth but lack legitimate opportunities to achieve those goals.
This is where people lack the power or resources to fully participate in society. According to Left Realists marginalised groups lack both clear goals and organisations to represent their interests. Groups such as workers have clear goals (such as wanting better pay and conditions) and organisations to represent them (such as trades unions), and as such they have no need to resort to violence to achieve their goals.
By contrast, unemployed youth are marginalised – they have no specific organisation to represent them and no clear sense of goals – which results in feelings of resentment and frustration. Having no access to legitimate political means to pursue their goals, frustration can become expressed through violence.
‘Multiple Aetiology and The Square of Crime’
Left Realists argue that crime is caused by several different factors. They call this multiple aetiology. Crime is a product of formal and informal rules, actions of offenders and of reaction by victims, the state and its agencies, it is therefore important to understand why people offend, what makes victims vulnerable, the factors that affect public attitudes and responses to crime and the social forces that influence the police. This can be done by drawing together a number of different agencies in the community, who should all work together to solve crime.
Left Realism – Solutions to Crime
Left realist solutions to crime emphasis Social and Community Crime Prevention strategies which focus on individual offenders and the social context which encourages them to commit crime.
They were interested in working on situationally based projects to prevent crime and the fear of crime.
There are two broad approaches – Intervention, identifying groups at risk of committing crime and taking action to limit offending, and Community based approaches– involving the local community in combating crime.
One of the best-known intervention programmes aimed at reducing criminality is the Perry pre-school project for disadvantaged black children which took place in Michigan, USA. IN this programme a group of 3-4 olds were offered a two-year intellectual enrichment programme, during which time the children received weekly home-visits.
A longitudinal study following the children’s’ progress showed significant differences between the experimental group and a control group. By age 40, they had had significantly fewer arrests for various types of grime, and a higher percentage had graduated high school and made it into full-time employment. It was calculated that for every $1 spent on the programme, $17 were saved on welfare, prison and other costs.
Community Based Approaches to Reducing Crime
As far as community-based strategies for reducing crime are concerned – Young and Matthews (1992) argue that improving leisure facilities for the young, reducing income inequalities, improving housing estates, raising the living standards of poorer families, reducing unemployment and creating jobs with prospects, will all help to cut crime. Long term problems must be addressed, but more immediate measures can also be taken.
A third strategy for reducing crime according to left realists is to improve policing. They argue that over 90% of crimes are cleared up by the police as a result of information from the public, however research suggests that public confidence in the police has declined.
Left Realists argue that if this relationship breaks down, the flow of information from the victims of crime will dry up. If Police do not have the information they need from the public, they have to find new ways of solving crime, and there is a drift towards military policing (the police having to resort to tactics such as stopping and searching or using surveillance) they then alienate people in the community and make everyone feel like criminals, and as a result trust in the police declines further.
Therefore the police must concentrate on improving relationships with the community and the public should have more say in shaping police policy –where the police should listen to the public about what crime affects them most in their area.
Two practical examples of Left Realist Policies
Left Realism inspired new and confusing configurations of streets to make it difficult for kerb crawlers to cruise in search of prostitutes.
They also assisted in rehabilitation of dilapidated housing estates.
Evaluations of Left Realism
Left Realist solutions are the most costly of all crime prevention measures.
HOWEVER, if done properly, community prevention measures can save hundreds of thousands of pounds, by ‘turning’ a potential criminal into an employed tax-payer.
Marxists argue that these policies may tackle deprivation but they do not tackle the underlying structural inequalities in the Capitalist system which are the root cause.
Such approaches target working class, inner city communities and do not tackle elite crime.
Michel Foucault and David Garland interpret the these strategies as being about surveillance and control rather than real social change which prevents crime.
Ian Taylor’s Crime in Context developed Left Realism from a global perspective. He focused on how political and economic structures impinge upon poverty, race and class to affect national and transnational crime control.
Left Realism seems to go a long way to explaining the recent rise of Young Teams in Scotland.
Signposting – Related Posts
Left Realism is taught as part of the compulsory module in Crime and Deviance, usually delivered in the second year of study.
It is usually taught straight after Right Realism and followed by Post and Late Modern Theories of Crime.
Jock Young was one of the main left realist theorists and he went on to develop the Vertigo of Late Modernity theory, which is kind of an evolution of Left Realism plus a bit extra!