Last Updated on November 20, 2023 by Karl Thompson
By the end of the 1970s Marxist and Interactionist approaches to crime were beginning to lose their popularity in criminology. The basic problem was that these approaches weren’t that useful in actually helping to control or reduce crime – knowing that crime is an outgrowth of capitalism, for example, doesn’t offer any practical solutions to preventing burglary, other than abolishing capitalism, which, let’s face it, isn’t that likely to happen. Similarly, Interactionist approaches which saw crime as socially constructed, and thus not ‘real’ didn’t do much to help the millions of victims who were victims of actual rising crime rates in the 1970s and 80s.
Hence by the beginning of the 1980s, Realist criminology emerged, which differed from previous approaches such as Marxism and Interactionism because it thought criminologists should abandoned grand theorising about the ultimate causes of crime; they should work with governments to develop practical solutions to crime; and they should take seriously the widespread public fear of crime.
Realist Criminology differs to previous criminological theories because….
- They abandon ‘Grand Theories’ such as Marxism. They are not interested in looking at the ‘deep structural causes’ such as Capitalism – It is not Criminologists’ job to get rid of Capitalism so it is pointless focussing on it.
- They are more ‘pragmatic’. They ask how governments can reduce crime here and now, and work within the constraints of the social system.
- They take a victim- centred approach to crime, putting victims and the public’s concern about crime at the centre of theorising and policy making.
Realist approaches emerged in the 1970s and 80s in the context of right wing neoliberal governments coming to power in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Although neoliberal governments favoured policies of lower taxation and the rolling back of the welfare state, the one area where the state did have a a role to play was in the maintenance of law and order, and realists take a tough approach to offenders, generally emphasising the increased use of police and punishment to keep crime rates in check.
Right and Left Realism
There are two types of realism – both share the above features in common, but there are significant differences:
Right Realism is associated with the right wing neoliberal government of Margaret Thatcher which came to power in 1979, although most of the governments which followed have adopted more right realist policies.
Right Realists Reject the idea put forward by Marxists that deeper structural or economic factors such as poverty are the causes of crime – they mainly hold that the individual is responsible for crime – although they do accept that high levels of ‘social disorder’ and low levels of ‘social control’ are associated with higher crime rates. Right Realism tends to focus on the individual as being responsible for crime, arguing that we need to get tough on criminals to reduce crime.
Left Realists on the other hand are more left wing and and argue that inequality is the main cause of crime and we need more community interventions to reduce crime.
Right Realism – The Causes of Crime
Although they aren’t especially interested in the causes, they still have a theory of what ‘causes crime’ – The two main theories about the causes of crime associated with Right Realism are ‘Rational Choice Theory’, ‘Broken Windows Theory’, and Charles Murray’s Underclass Theory (also a form of subcultural theory).
Rational Choice theory
An important element in the right realist theory of crime is the idea that crime is a matter of individual choice – individuals choose to commit crime.
Rational Choice Theory states that most criminals are rational actors. If the criminal calculates that the risk of getting caught is low, or that the punishment if caught will not be severe, then they are more likely to commit crime, assuming the reward for doing that crime is high enough. They are rational in that they weigh up the costs and benefits in order to assess whether a crime is worth committing.
What rational choice theory predicts is that crime will increase if the following happens:
- If crime brings higher rewards relative to working within the rules of society. Rewards could be material, or they could be things like higher status or more security.
- There is no risk of getting caught committing a crime
- There is no punishment for crime
Routine Activities Theory
Rational choice theory has been developed by Cohen and Felson in their ‘Routine Activities Theory’ (1979). They argued that in most circumstances social control mechanisms, lack of opportunity and/ or the risk of getting caught prevented crime from taking place. Crime therefore needed three conditions to take place:
- Individuals who were motivated to offend
- The availability of opportunity and targets
- The lack of capable guardians such as parents or police who might prevent crime occurring.
Most crime in their view was opportunistic, rather than planned in advance. Therefore, if individuals motivated to commit crimes encountered easy opportunities to commit them in the routine activities of their daily lives then crime was more likely to occur.
Criticisms of Rational Choice Theory
Rational Choice Theory rests on a fiction of ‘economic man’. Economic man is continually looking for opportunities to maximise his personal gains, making immoral and asocial choices if this helps him achieve his goals.
Economic man does not have a past, or complex motives, a rich social life or even a social identity. He just muddles through satisfying based on imperfect information.
RTC on analyses piecemeal episodes, not context. It treats the individual as just acting in the moment, on his own. It doesn’t take into account his social background, or wider social injustice factors.
Broken Windows Theory (Wilson and Kelling 1982)
This approach is based on James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s (1982) article ‘Broken Windows’, which has been described as ‘perhaps the most influential single article on crime prevention ever written’. (Downes, 1992).
Wilson and Kelling use the the phrase ‘broken windows’ to stand for all the various signs of disorder and lack of concern for others that are found in some neighbourhoods. This includes undue noise, graffiti, begging, dog fouling ,littering, vandalism and so on. They argue that leaving broken windows unrepaired, tolerating aggressive behaviour etc. sends out a signal that no one cares.
In such neighbourhoods, there is an absence of both formal social control and informal social control (the police and the community respectively). The policy are only concerned with serious crime and turn a blind eye to petty nuisance behaviour, while members of the community feel intimidated and powerless. Without remedial action, the situation deteriorates, tipping the neighbourhood into a spiral of decline. Respectable people move out (if they can) and the area becomes a magnet for deviants.
Charles Murray and the Underclass
Charles Murray argued that changes to family structure was responsible for much of the increase in the crime rate in the 1970s and 80s – he largely attributes the growth of crime because of a growing underclass or ‘new rabble’ who are defined by their deviant behaviour and fail to socialise their children properly. The children of the underclass fail to learn self-control and also fail to learn the difference between right and wrong.
The underclass has increased because of increasing welfare dependency. Murray argues that increasingly generous welfare benefits since the 1960s have led to increasing numbers of people to become dependent on the state. This has led to to the decline of marriage and the growth of lone parent families, because women can now live off benefits rather than having to get married to have children. This also means that men no longer have to take responsibility for supporting their families, so they no longer need to work.
According to Murry, lone mothers are ineffective agents of socialisation, especially for boys. Absent fathers mean than boys lack paternal discipline and appropriate male role models. As a result, young males turn to other, delinquent role models on the street to gain status through crime rather than supporting their families through a steady job.
Increasing crime is effectively a result of children growing up surrounded by delinquent, deviant criminal adults which creates a perfect crimogenic environment.
For Murray, the underclass is not only a source of crime, its very existence threatens society’s cohesion by undermining the values of hard work and personal responsibility.
Evaluations – THINK about the following…
- Supporting Evidence: Crimes this theory can explain – Is there any statistical evidence or case study* evidence which supports this theory?
- Criticising evidence: Crimes this theory cannot explain – Is there any statistical evidence or case study evidence which criticises this theory?
- Evaluate using other perspectives – What does the theory under investigation ignore?
- Historical evaluation – Has society changed so much that the theory is just no longer relevant
- Evaluate in terms of ideology/ power – Is the theory biased, does it serve the powerful ?
Right Realism – Controlling Crime
Right realists emphasise two main techniques of crime control – situational crime prevention, and environmental crime prevention, both of which involve making it harder for criminals to commit crime and increasing the risk of getting caught committing crime, thus making crime a less attractive proposition to prospective criminals.
- Situational Crime Prevention involves protecting specific targets from potential criminals – by putting window locks on windows, or putting CCTV in a shop for example.
- Environmental Crime Prevention focusses on making whole neighbourhoods or larger areas more crime-resistant, through putting more police on the streets for example, or adopting a more ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to minor crimes.
Situational Crime Prevention (SCP)
Situational crime prevention policies focus on the specific point at which potential victims and criminals come together, making it harder for the criminal to commit crime. They stem directly from Rational Choice Theory and involve either reducing the opportunity for people to commit crime or increasing the risk of getting caught when committing a crime.
There are two basic ways you can do this – through increasing surveillance of the population (monitoring their behaviour and making them aware of the fact they are being monitored) and target hardening (making buildings, objects and people harder to steal or kidnap or damage).
Marcus Felson (1998) gives an example of a situational crime prevention strategy. The Port Authority bus terminal in New York City was poorly designed and provided opportunities for crimes – for example the toilets were a good place to steal luggage, deal drugs and engage in homosexual sex. Re-shaping the physical environment to ‘design out’ crime led to a large reduction in crime. For example, replacing the large sinks which homeless people used for washing reduced the numbers of homeless people hanging around the bus station.
Another example of where situational crime prevention has been successful is around suicide prevention. In the early 1960s, around half of all suicides in Britain were the result of gassing. At that time, Britain’s gas supply came from highly toxic coal gas, but from the 1960s coal gas was gradually replaced by less toxic natural gas, and by 1997, suicides from gassing had fallen to bear zero, with the suicide rate overall witnessing a corresponding decline (ie people hadn’t simply switched to other means of killing themselves.
Other policies associated with Right Realism include ASBOs and the use of prison sentences for minor crimes.
Evaluations of Situational Crime Prevention
One of the major reasons why governments find such policies so appealing is because they are relatively cheap and simple to implement. Situational crime prevention techniques can be carried out by a wide range of actors – not only formal social control agencies such as the government, police but also local councils, schools, business and private individuals can make their property and possessions harder to burgle or steal relatively easily.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal Building is an example where this worked. Newburn (2013) points to an obvious link between improved car security measures and reduced car crime.
Limitations of situational crime prevention
- Ignores factors such as inequality and deprivation as causes of crime (Garland 2001).
- Ignores the role of emotion and thrill as a cause of crime (Lyng 1990)
- Only tackles opportunistic street crime – won’t work for DV, white collar crime, or state crime.
- It leads to crime displacement. – One criticism of situational crime prevention measures is that they do not reduce crime, they simply displace it, or make it move to another place or another time. After all, if criminals are acting rationally, they will simply move on to easier targets.
- It creates divided ‘Fortress cities’ (Bauman), as the wealthy hide away behind gated communities leaving poorer people in the ‘mean streets’ outside.
Environmental Crime Prevention
Environmental crime prevention strategies involve changing the broader area or environment in which crime occurs through increasing formal and informal social control measures in order to clamp down on anti-social behaviour and prevent an area from deteriorating. These strategies tend to rely much more heavily on the police than situational crime prevention strategies.
Environmental Crime Prevention strategies stem directly from Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Window’s theory which suggests that disorder and the absence of controls leads to crime. Examples of ECP policies include Zero Tolerance Policing, ASBOs, curfews, street drinking bans, dispersal orders and the three strikes rule in America.
Zero Tolerance Policing
Zero Tolerance Policing involves strictly enforcing penalties for relatively minor crimes or anti-social behaviour such as begging, drug possession, public drinking.
This approach was famously used to crack down on rapidly increasing crime in New York City in the 1980s, which was suffering from a crime epidemic, linked to high levels crack-cocaine use a that time.
Specific examples of Zero Tolerance approaches adopted at that time included a ‘clean car program’ which was instituted on the subway, in which tube-cars were taken out of service immediately if they had any graffiti on them, only being returned once clean. As a result graffiti was largely removed from the subways.
Other successful programmes were put in place to tackle fair dodging, drug dealing and begging. This resulted in a 50% reduction in crime in New York City between the years 1993 and 1996.
Evaluations of Environmental Crime Prevention
- The New York ‘Zero Tolerance’ study suggests that zero tolerance policies work to reduce crime.
- HOWEVER, Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics found that this correlation was coincidental – other factors were responsible for the decline in crime.
- It is more expensive than situational crime prevention – it takes a lot of police to patrol an area and clamp down on anti-social behaviour.
- Reiner (2015) argues that the police would be better deployed focusing on more serious crime hot spots rather than clamping down on minor forms of anti-social behaviour.
- From an Interactionist perspective, giving more power to the police will just lead to more labelling and more criminal careers.
Rational Choice Theory/ Right Realism and Crime Control Methods (FULLER VERSION)
Below is a more comprehensive list of crime control methods from a rational choice/ right realist perspective:
Increasing the effort needed to commit crime
- Target Hardening – defending objects by shields and other devices.
- Access control – making it difficult for predators to approach targets.
- Deflecting offenders – encouraging them to act in a legitimate manner by graffiti boards, litter bins.
- Controlling facilitators – checks on selling vapes and cigarettes.
Increasing the risk of offending
- screening of people – searches – stop and search, bag checks, borders.
- Formal surveillance by more police.
- Employee surveillance – train guards.
- Natural surveillance – lowering hedges, cctv.
Reducing the rewards…
- Target removal.
- Cards not cash – less cash.
- Removal of rewards – quick clear up of graffiti.
- Property identification. For example markers on phones and laptops.
- Clear rule setting – such as with tax regulations.
Signposting and Related Posts
For more please see my main page on crime and deviance.
Right Realist Criminology is usually followed by Left Realist Criminology
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