Is progressive education the cause of declining education standards?

The latest PISA data, published on 5th December 2023, shows that Scottish education standards have dropped between 2018 to 2022. The downward trend in the standards of Scottish education, as measured by the PISA tests, mirrors trends in Scandinavian countries, France and Quebec. 

What all of these countries have in common is the introduction of progressive education models. 

In progressive education less emphasis is given to learning core skills in maths, science and reading, less focus on fact-based learning. More emphasis is placed on teaching transferable and work-based skills. 

This has been a fashionable idea in education for many decades. The theory being that focussing on learning knowledge isn’t the best way to equip today’s students for future jobs. They can, after all, find information at the click of a button (they can just ‘google it’. So it makes more sense to develop skills that may be of actual use later on in life. 

The problem with progressive education theory is that it isn’t based on any evidence. And in fact the statistics suggest that moving away from traditional, knowledge based learning harms children’s education. 

In contrast, those countries which have shown the highest levels of improvement between 2018 to 2022, as measured by PISA, have focused on more traditional, knowledge based curriculums.  

Comparing England to Scotland is informative here. While Scottish schools have become more progressive, English schools have stayed more focused on teaching core knowledge in maths, science and English. English schools have improved, Scottish schools have regressed. 

Norway and Sweden are dropping down the PISA tables!

So is progressive education to blame for declining standards in education?

The data certainly suggests there is a link, but we should always keep in mind that other variables may be the cause. However with Scotland, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Spending per pupil hasn’t decreased and the pupil teacher ratio is better than in England. 

What we should be critical of is the validity of the PISA tests. These test a relatively narrow range of skills: precisely the fact based knowledge which is favoured by traditional education. 

What might be going on is those children who have had a more progressive education are less well trained at answering narrow PISA based tests. It might even be the case that they are less likely to see the point of them than children who get a more traditional education. 

So this drop in the PISA table positions may just mean Scottish children and getting an equal but DIFFERENT type of education to, for example, children in English schools.

It may be that when it comes to employability and the ability to cope with real world, real life situations Scottish and Scandinavian children are better prepared. 

The point of a progressive education isn’t to train people to pass knowledge based test, after all. So maybe we shouldn’t be judging the success of education systems on rankings in PISA league tables! 

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education module.  


Sonia Sodha, The Observer, December 2023: Scottish Schools Have Toppled from the Top of the Class. This is What Went Wrong.

From fear of crime to a general concern about safety and security

The British public today are not so much concerned about crime in the classic sense of the word. They aren’t so worried about being victims of burglary, or theft, or street violence for example. 

People today are less concerned about their chances of being a victim of formally defined crimes. People are more concerned about a broader and more general range of social problems which more subtly undermine their feelings of safety and security. 

For example, people today are more likely to be worried about:

  • Low level bullying such as with children at school. 
  • Gender based harassment, violence and abuse, including grooming. 
  • Hate crimes such as racism.
  • The effects of climate change, so environmental harms. 
  • Immigration and the effects this has on local social cohesion. 
  • People trafficking and human slavery. 

With the possible exception of climate change, not everyone is going to be immediately affected by the above harms. However people are more aware that they exist and that such things are going on in their neighbourhoods. None of these harms are as public or obvious as ‘classic’ crimes such as vandalism, street violence, or thefts. 

The increased awareness that these social harms are part of everyday social life has created a growing sense of unease among many people. 

From fear of crime  in the 1990s to a general concern about safety and security in the 2020s. 

Back in the late 1990s in Britain people were more concerned about ‘classic crimes’ such as burglary and car theft. The crime discourse at that time was largely shaped by mainstream television and newspapers as well as face to face contact. One Ipsos-Mori poll from the mid 1990s showed that 41% of people listed crime (and reducing crime) as one of the three biggest problems facing Britain at that time. 

These findings were largely backed up by a study conducted by Girling et al (2000): Crime and Social Change in Middle England. This was a two year qualitative study of people’s feelings about crime and policing in Macclesfield. (Selected because it was a reasonably affluent, small town where crime wasn’t an immediate day to day problem.) People naturally talked about being concerned about being victims of car theft and feeling threatened by groups of young people hanging out on the street. 

The researchers revisited Macclesfield more recently and found that people were no longer concerned about classic crimes. What they expressed was a complex and varied sense of unease about the issues mentioned in the previous section. 

Why are people more concerned about safety and security today?

People’s increasing sense of unease and susceptibility to feeling insecure is related to the following social changes:

  • Economic growth and then collapse in 2008 has made us feel more vulnerable in general. There is more of a sense that what we have gained can also be lost. 
  • The rise of digital media. The previous 2000 study was done before the age of digital media. Today people access the social world online, meaning a very different, varied, and risk-on public landscape.  
  • Climate change has become much more of a visible issue. 
  • Brexit brought the issue of migration to public attention. 
  • The Pandemic made us more aware of domestic abuse. 

The way the State responds to more global threats such as global terrorism, through increasing surveillance of certain types of people, can also affect how some people experience security issues today. 


The idea of fear of crime seems to have had its day. We need to focus on people’s more general sense of danger and difficulty in their daily lives and how they seek safety and security. 

Traditional victim surveys such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales have tended to measure people’s fear of specific crimes in public spaces, such as fear of being assaulted in public or fear of social disorder. These are possibly no longer fit for purpose! 

We shouldn’t make any presumptions about what people are concerned about. What people are worried about varies. It might be anything from how going online opens them up to potential harm in the form of scams, or risk of flooding due to climate change. 

In this sense security can be conceptualised as ‘a set of political practices, governmental speech acts mobilised to justify decisive, speedy, exceptional measures in the face of what is presented as a conceptual threat’. 

Why did girls’ mental health deteriorated during lockdown?

The number of girls and young women reporting eating disorders and self-harming were significantly higher than expected during lockdown. In contrast, the number of boys reporting these psychosocial disorders was lower than expected during this period. 

This is based on recent analysis of the medical records of 1.9 million females and 1.4 million males from over 1800 GPs, conducted between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2022 (1)

Breakdown of the findings

  • Reported cases of eating disorders were 42·4% higher than expected for girls aged 13–16 years
  • Cases of eating disorders were 32·0% higher than expected for girls aged 17–19 years. 
  • The rates were similar to expected for women aged 20-24. 
  • The rate of girls aged 13–16 years who reported self-harming was 38·4% (20·7–58·5) higher than expected.
  • Conversely, for boys the reported incidents of both eating disorders and self-harm were lower than expected during lockdown. 

Why did eating disorders and self-harm rates increase for girls but not for boys during the Pandemic?

Previous studies had also found a deterioration in youth mental health due to lockdown, and this is possibly due to the disruption to daily life routines, educational routines, and increased stress within the family.

Another contributing factor may be concerns over returning to normal routines after a break and worry about the impacts of lockdown on future achievement.

Interestingly this particular study found that the deterioration in young female mental health was led by those in the least deprived areas.

Thus a further reason for this increase may be better mental health services in the least deprived areas and increased reporting by middle class teenage girls.

Temporal trends in eating disorder and self-harm incidence rates among adolescents and young adults in the UK in the 2 years since onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: a population-based study.

To return to the homepage –

Police and Policing in the U.K. 

Policing, meant to maintain order, is performed by both police and other agencies such as private security firms. It includes functions like crime control, emergency response, and social service. Policing pervades various areas, from local to international levels, and incorporates strategies like community and problem-oriented policing. However, policing faces issues like subculture influences and unequal attention towards different societal groups. Recent years have seen efforts to reform procedures and introduce technology for more efficient policing. The rise of private security firms reflects the growing pluralization in the field.

The police have legal sanctions and are able to use legitimate force to control crime and deviance. Policing embodies the quest for general and stratified order, from parking tickets to class repression. The police are the people who the public turn to when they feel something ought to not be happening, and that someone better do something about it now!

Definitions of the police and policing

It is usual to distinguish between the police and policing.

Police: the specialist state agency tasked with crime control, order maintenance, and emergency response. 

Policing: organised forms of order-maintenance, peace-keeping, rule or law enforcement, crime investigation and prevention and other forms of investigation and information-brokering, which may involve a conscious exercise of coercive power, undertaken by individuals or organisations, where such activities are viewed by them and/ or others as a central or key defining part of their purpose (Jones and Newburn, 19888: 18-19). 

As we will see below policing may be carried out by agencies other than the police, such as private security firms. 

Five Functions of Policing 

Police work performs a variety of social functions:

  • Crime control 
  • Emergency response 
  • Social service
  • Order maintenance 
  • Political repression. 

Police Discretion and Control 

Police discretion is the leeway officers enjoy in selecting from more than one choice in carrying out their work (Mastrofski, 2004: 101). 

Discretion is inevitable given the impossibility of enforcement of every law all of the time and also because of the need for interpretation on the frontline of policing practice which often involves complex and unpredictable situations. 

James Q Wilson (1968) observed that within the police force the amount of discretion increases as one moves down the hierarchy. 

A lot of police work is low in visibility and thus regulating police discretion is difficult. However in recent years the police have been required to spend more time recording their activities and body cams have been introduced in some areas of policing. 

Police Subcultures 

Much social research suggests occupational police subcultures are best understood as a collective cultural adaptation to the everyday realities of police work rather than down to individual personality traits. 

Early studies which were based on the observations of rank and file officers identified a relatively stable set of factors which made up cop culture. 

Skolnick (1996) identified three main aspects of cop culture: suspiciousness, internal solidarity coupled with social isolation, and conservatism. 

  1. Suspiciousness arises because of the pressure to achieve results by catching offenders and the concern with danger. People and places are constantly scrutinised for signs of crime or risk. This also encourages profiling of certain people along stereotypical lines. 
  2. Solidarity and isolation reinforce one another. Solidarity emerges because of the reliance on colleagues in difficult situations, and isolation comes because of people’s reluctance to engage with authority figures, compounded by shift work. 
  3. Conservatism is due to the police’s role in upholding the status quo. 

Later studies added to this checklist: an exaggerated sense of mission, cynicism and pragmatism, machismo and racial prejudice. 

Most studies of cop culture do not support the notion of a freestanding phenomenon into which successive generations are passively socialised. 

Police culture is generated and sustained by the problems and tensions of the role of the police, structured by legal and social pressures. Culture does not determine practice, for example racist officers can be deterred. 

Many reforms over the past 30 years have seen police culture as a problem and reforms have tried to address this in three ways:

  • Introducing more diversity and preventing recruits with inappropriate views from signing up. Also training has attempted to shift views of current officers. 
  • Moves to constrain discretion. This means tightening the rules surrounding what the police can and can’t do. 
  • Making procedural justice more transparent – Building trust and legitimacy…. People are more likely to obey the law if they feel the police and other authorities are acting appropriately and treating the public fairly and with respect and dignity. 
The BBCS’ 2003 Documentary ‘The Secret Policeman‘ explored police subcultures.

Unequal Policing 

Certain groups in society tend to be over-police and certain victims are more likely to be ignored. 

Policing tends to focus on marginalised groups, for example poor young men, and ethnic minorities. Young black men in inner-city areas experience over-policing to the extent that they develop a view of the police as the enemy and distrust them, which makes developing positive working relationships very difficult. 

Domestic abuse cases have traditionally been under-policed and thus the mainly female victims have got a raw deal. Improvements have been made in recent years, but challenges still remain. 

Governance and Accountability 

Police forces are ultimately answerable to the general public, who they serve. However meeting public need is difficult as the public is so diverse and has conflicting views about what the police should be doing. 

Police and Crime Commissioners are responsible for local police force areas. They are 

  • Securing and maintaining the local police force. 
  • Holding chief constables to account. 
  • Publishing a police and crime plan with strategic objectives for the area. 
  • Work cooperatively with community safety partners and develop joined-up responses to local crime and disorder problems. 
  • Commission community safety services including victim support. 
  • Some have responsibility for fire and rescue services. 

The idea behind them is operational independence from local authorities and central government. 

Models of Policing… 

Three popular models of policing are community policing, problem-oriented and linked policing models. 

Community Policing

Community policing proposes greater citizen involvement in the identification of the problems that the police should prioritise and in how they should respond to these problems. At heart, community policing is about overcoming concerns about the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public.

Community policing was very popular during the 1980s when police-community relations had deteriorated in both the United Kingdom and the United States. It was championed by Left Realist Criminologists.

By the end of the 1980s community policing was orthodoxy among senior police officers, which made it difficult for them at a time when politicians were driving home more of a right realist agenda. 

The problem with community policing is that it is a vague concept: almost anything can come under the term. It involves inclusiveness, consensus and consultation, but it is difficult to pin down. 

Problem oriented policing

Problem oriented policing is often considered a variant of community policing. 

POP is an explicit attempt to make police work more analytical in the identification of problems to be addressed and constructive in the way solutions are applied to the problems identified. 

The problem with policing as usual is that it tends to treat crimes or other problems as discrete events. However, with POP it looks for patterns and connections with the aim of finding lasting solutions. 

One tool is the problem analysis triangle: the offender, victim, location. 

Another is the SARA process – scanning, analysis, response, assessment:

Sustaining such strategies continues to be problematic. 

Linked Policing 

Linked policing strategies focus on patterns such as repeat offenders or prolific offenders. There is a growing literature around ‘hotspot policing’. Experimental studies and meta-analysis show significant, if small, crime control gains with potential diffusion of gains.  (Braga et al 2019). 

This is aka evidence based policing. 

However, few forces are equipped to take this approach and the appeal of traditional policing remains strong. 

Intelligence Led Policing (ILP) – prioritises crime hot spots, repeat victims, criminal groups, prolific offenders, aim is to make policing more efficient. 

Predictive policing or smart policing is linked to big data. Uses historical data to detect spatial and temporal patterns in crime and identify likely targets for police intervention to prevent crime or solve past crimes by making statistical predictions. 

Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR)  is a variation on this. This Increases surveillance capacity of the police. 

Technologies such as AFR represent a Move to preemptive policing. This is a sectoral shift in which more responsibility lies outside of the police! 

The Pluralisation of Policing

The pluralisation of policing is the process of policing becoming more diverse including other non-police agencies taking over some of the functions of policing. 

Examples of the pluralisation of policing include…

  • The expansion of private security firms.
  • New forms of public sector policing auxiliaries such as local authority patrol forces and municipal wardens 
  • The creation of new patrolling ranks such as Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) 
  • The increase in informal community self-policing such as vigilante groups. 

Bayley and Shearing (2001) have argued that we may be moving away from the era of one system policing. 

The expansion of the private security sector is the main driver of the pluralisation of policing. There are many more private security personnel in the United Kingdom than there are police officers. 

The Security Industry Authority estimates there are 440 000 licensed security personnel in the United Kingdom compared to only 149 000 police officers. 

Security Personnel work in areas such as asset-protection, body guarding, debt collection, and door-services (‘bouncers’). The most significant expansion in recent years has been the increase in the use of CCTV monitoring, and many security personnel work in surveillance and alarm monitoring. GPS tagging services are also on the increase. 

Shearing (2006) suggests that the State is increasingly less important in providing security. He suggested that we now have a pluralised security network consisting of a range of private and public sector nodes. 

Brodeur (2010) uses the terms ‘policing web’ and ‘policing assemblage’ to describe modern policing to emphasise the idea that modern policing for security is still co-ordinated. 

Why has policing become more pluralised?

Crime has become more diverse and complex. In particular cybercrime and fraud are so complex that the police now have to work in partnerships. 

Public sector cuts mean the police are less able financially to meet security needs, and so private sector agencies have stepped in to plug the gaps. 

In some cases deliberate Tory privatisation policies have shifted previously state functions to the private sector. For example in 2012 Lincolnshire police outsourced 18 police functions to G4S, including custody services. 

The growing privatisation of public space has also resulted in an increase of private security services to manage these. 

Problems with pluralisation

  • Market pressures being involved in security provision are unlikely to improve public safety. 
  • The differential ability to pay for security services may increase inequalities. 
  • The commodification of security services may undermine public trust and civic engagement. 

The Globalisation of Policing 

The increasing globalisation of crime has resulted in the increasing globalisation of policing, where 

Transnational policing refers to activities undertaken by policing bodies that draw their authority from polities that lie beyond individual nation states. 

The International Criminal Commission was first established in Vienna in 1923, succeeded after the Second World War by the International Criminal Police Office, or Interpol. 

Interpol has expanded significantly over the last 70 years, operating in more than 200 countries today, however it is no longer the primary site of transnational policing activity. 

Two key factors behind the increase in transnational policing are the increasing reach of US law enforcement activities and the expanding power of the European Union. 

Europol was established in 1992, becoming fully operational in 1999. Europol is the Europe wide police intelligence agency which receives and provides intel from police forces in member states. 

European policing expanded significantly after the September 11th 2001 attacks Today Europol is mainly focused on transnational organised crime and international terrorism. 

In the last five years Europol’s mandate has expanded to include investigation of murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, racism, corruption, drug-trafficking, people-smuggling and motor vehicle crime. A European Arrest Warrant exists in 15 member states. The UK is still part of Europol, despite Brexit. 

The private security and private military services have also expanded globally. The value of the global private security industry was valued at over $100 billion, and that was over 10 years ago. 

A combination of wars, ecological disasters and global economic instability has resulted in increasing mass migrations and transnational security has become increasingly focused on border control as a result. This control is a fusion of public and private agencies and raises serious concerns about human rights. 

NB it is important not to exaggerate the significance of global policing, a lot of policing remains focused on local concerns. 

Signposting and Sources

This material is mainly relevant to the Crime and Deviance module within A-level sociology.


The Oxford HandBook of Criminology.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) provides a multidisciplinary examination of England’s ageing population by exploring factors ranging from income and social inequalities to physical and mental health. Running for over 20 years, the study integrates biological, genetic, medical, and social data from more than 19,000 participants and is particularly insightful for social policy decisions. Compelling findings show links between inequality and aging rate, and a noticeable rise in social isolation.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) is a scientific examination of how the population of England is ageing from a multidisciplinary perspective.

ELSA explores how a number of factors such as income, wealth, social inequalities, past life experiences, work, spending patterns, physical and mental health and well being are all related through the ageing process.

The study has been going for over 20 years now and the data helps understand the determinants of healthy ageing over a long period of time. It has also contributed to social policy decisions around pensions and social care. 

ELSA started in 2000 with a sample of 10 000 people and their partners, to date there have been over 19 000 participants. It is a a cohort study with the same people being interviewed every two years, 

The study collects a range of biological, genetic, medical, physiological, psychological and social data.

This is an excellent example of a very long standing longitudinal study.

Key questions asked of respondents include: 

  • Basic demographic data
  • Work, income, benefits, savings
  • Health mental and physical 
  • Social and civic engagement 
  • Spending patterns
  • Also end of life with relatives of the deceased. 

Some years involve more in-depth questions and cognitive tests. Every four years a nurse visits to collect blood samples and measures other  health indicators. 

Respondents have recently been interviewed in more depth about their retrospective life histories. Participants have also granted access to their financial and health records.

ELSA: Main aims  

To examine the ways in which different aspects of life are linked: 

  • What is the relationship between financial security and health? 
  • Why does the health of those in lower social positions decline faster? 
  • How have changes in pension arrangements affected decisions about retirement? 
  • How do social relationships change with age, and affect health and wellbeing? 
  • How does declining cognitive function affect the ability to plan a financial future?

ELSA has been designed to be compatible with the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) so direct comparisons can be made. There are 15 similar studies in other countries, meaning broader cross national comparisons can also be made. 

Data from ELSA has been used to model pensions, welfare and disability policies. It has also been used to contribute to policies to get older people back to work and to develop national strategies for loneliness.

ESLA: Selected Findings and contributions 

The report breaks down the main findings into several different areas, below are just a few selected key points:

Inequality drives every aspect of ageing…

  • Greater wealth was linked to slower decline on all health measures used: for example the reduction in walking speed was 38 per cent greater in the lowest quarter of the wealth range than in the highest.
  • People from deprived neighbourhoods more likely to feel socially isolated.
  • Lack of education earlier on life means worse memory deterioration in later life. 

Inadequate health and social care 

The research revealed a large gap between the care that is recommended and care which is actually received, particularly for conditions most strongly associated with growing older….

bar chart showing lack of social care in the UK

Increasing social isolation 

The participants, all aged 52 and older, were asked in 2004 if they had a partner, how often they saw friends and family and whether they were members of clubs, organisations, committees or religious groups. They were also asked if they sometimes felt they lacked company. Around one in five were socially isolated or felt lonely, or both. 

The study followed those people up in 2012 to see how many had died.

 Other social factors that could lead to isolation were taken into account – a lack of social networks was known to be more common among people who were poorer, who had health problems or who had only basic education. In the most isolated fifth of the group around one in five had died, compared with one in eight in the least isolated.

Those who are isolated or lonely die sooner – but a range of background issues such as poverty, poor health and lack of education are a key part of the picture and are linked to mortality.

In England and Wales the proportion of 45- 64 year-olds living alone rose by 53 per cent between 1996 and 2012.

However a counter trend to this is caused by rising housing costs. There has been an 8.5% increase in adult children living with 50-64 year olds. 

Work and Pensions 

Objective measures of poor health only explains 15% of the decline in work for those aged 50-70. 

Among those aged 60-64 in 2013/14 around a quarter of men and almost four in ten women are well enough to work but are not working.

Those in better health are significantly more likely to carry on working, along with married men and highly educated women.

Among those who had full-time jobs, the hours worked were dropping. The change took place across the social spectrum and affected the full age range as well as those in different types of job

When planning for pensions, men underestimate their life expectancy by 10 years and women by nine years. 

ELSA and Social Changes

In 2000, average life expectancy for men in the UK was 75 and for women 80. 

What we learned in the last 20 years maybe something different to what we learn in the next 20 years!

In the first decade of the 21st Century life expectancy increased: the over-50s now constitute 40 per cent of the British population and by 2050 three in 10 will be over 60. And though there are signs the increase may have stalled, there is much that is positive to say.

By 2010 the figures had risen to 79 and 83, though no further increase occurred between then and 2020.But the health and social care needs of older people have grown, too.

We have learned a lot from the last 20 years of ELSA, but already what we have learned may not be relevant going forwards! Times are a changing!


This material is directly relevant to the families and households module, part of A-level sociology.

Radical Criminology, aka New or Critical Criminology

Emerging in the late 1960s and 70s, Radical Criminology, aka New Criminology combined Marxist and Interactionist approaches, emphasizing capitalism’s role in producing crime, and the subsequent societal reactions. It called for understanding crime through several factors such as wealth distribution and societal response to deviance. Critics argue it offers no practical solution to crime and romanticizes criminals, while ignoring crime victimization of women.

Radical, new or critical criminologies of the late 1960s and 1970s had their basis in Marxism, Libertarianism, anarchism or American populism. 

They sought to understand crime control by referring to power, politics and inequalities and emphasised the need for political activism or praxis. 

Chambliss (1976, Box 1983) saw crime control as an oppressive and mystifying force. Legislation and law enforcement and ideological stereotyping preserved unequal class relations. 

The radical political economy of crime sought to expose the hegemonic ideologies that masked the real nature of crime and repression in capitalist societies. 

Most mundane offending was less harmful than exploitation, alienation, racism and pollution. 

Much proletarian crime could be redefined as a form of rebellion or redistributive class justice. Or the possessive individualism endemic to capitalist society. 

Criminal justice itself created visible crowds of working-class black scapegoats to deflect attention away from a capitalist system in terminal crisis. 

If the working classes did turn to crime they were themselves victims of false consciousness which inflated the nature of petit problems while hiding harms the bourgeoisie did. 

Black prisoners were the victims of race wars, prison the ultimate form of state repression. 

Most people were unaware of how power worked and it was the job of the radical criminologist to demystify. 

Socialism was the answer to the problem of crime.  

The New Criminology

In 1973 Taylor, Walton and Young published The New Criminology which combined Marxist and Interactionist approaches to crime.  They argued criminologists should examine all the different aspects surrounding why a crime takes place – the immediate and wider political reasons as well the societal reaction.   

They argued criminologists should examine how capitalism generates the circumstances of crime, the responses of the police, media, criminal justice system, offender and victim, and how all of these factors interact to influence how the situation develops. 

New Criminologists argued that criminals were lashing out against capitalism, in fact they say that they were mistakenly expressing their anger at capitalism through crime, rather than politics.  They also argued the media created moral panics and scapegoats about particular crimes to divert attention away from issues which may potentially be damaging to the ruling classes.

Book cover: the New Criminology
The New Criminology, published 1973.

The New Criminology was similar to Marxism….

  1. It accepted that the key to understanding crime is the material basis of society – the economy is the most important part.
  2. Believed that capitalist societies are unequal and these inequalities are the root of crime.
  3. Supported a radical change of society – theories of crime are useless unless they offer hope to liberate people from oppression. 

The New Criminology also criticised previous criminological theorising…

  • Marx was too economically deterministic. Taylor et al insist that criminals choose to break the law. External forces do not determine human behaviour.  
  • They dismissed most causal theories of crime and saw control, labelling, and biological theories as too determinist. They believed crimes were deliberate and conscious acts with political motives. 
  • Deviants were not just the passive victims of capitalism, they were engaged in active political struggle. 
  • They wanted socialism not communism. They envisaged a society where hippies, LGBTQ people, and maybe even drug users would be accepted and not turned into criminals. 

The Fully Social Theory of Deviance 

Taylor, Walton and Young developed the Fully Social Theory of Deviance to emphasise seven factors we need to look at to fully understand crime. 

To understand Crime fully we need to look at..

  1. The way in which wealth and power is distributed in society. Here we need to look at the Crimogenic Capitalist system and cyclical economic crises within Capitalism. Also the role of the state in oppressing and marginalising certain groups.
  2. The particular circumstances surrounding the decision of an individual to commit an act of deviance
  3. The deviant act itself and the meaning the individual deviant attaches to it. 
  4. How and why other people in society react to deviance – how do family members, friends and the police react? We also need to look at the media’s power to create ‘folk devils’ 
  5. The reaction needs to be explained in terms of the social structure. How do the public and the police respond to the creation of folk devils ? (the societal reaction)? More broadly, who has the power to make the rules? Why do agents of social control punish some deviant acts more severely than others?
  6. The effect labelling has on the people being labelled. How do  the ‘criminalised’ respond to being labelled?
  7. All of the above together. 

Stuart Hall applied this approach to his study of mugging in the 1970s.  He found that the Government wanted to divert attention away from the economic crisis of the time, so a moral panic was created about black youths in London.  

Criticisms of Radical Criminology. 

Critical Criminology offers us no realistic solution to the problem of crime – if it is Capitalism and the state that are the problems – then a revolution is the only answer. Radical criminology did not receive government funded ‘soft money’ for empiricist research. Some departments closed down. 

It was too idealistic. It is based on some idealised vision of a free future. All capitalist societies are not the same an socialism can be repressive. 

The New Criminology romanticised criminals. In reality most criminals are not struggling against their oppressors in the name of political change, they are just thugs. 

Victim surveys of the 1970s and 80s showed the extent of working class victimisation. They showed us that crime was intra-class, not inter-class. In other words the working classes victimised other working class people, hardly a class struggle against the elite! They ignored the impact street crimes can have on Victims – Left Realism in particular gets back to a ‘victim centred’ approach to crime

They also ignored the victimisation of women. 

The legacy of New Criminology 

Reflecting back on Radical Criminology in the late 1990s, new criminologists accepted some of the criticisms, especially from Feminism. 

In defence of New Criminology they pointed out that it stood up against correctionalism. It encouraged agents of social control to not eradicating deviant behaviour, and encouraged more tolerance!

New Criminology does have a critical legacy. Feminism, Left Realism and Postmodernism are all rooted in the New Criminology . 

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This content is relevant to the crime and deviance aspect of A-level sociology.

How many people are destitute in the UK?

3.8 million people in the United Kingdom experienced destitution in 2022, including 1 million children. This is according to the Destitution in the UK report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The number of people experiencing destitution has increased by two and half times since 2017. Three times as many children experienced destitution in 2022 compared to 2017.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation…

Destitution denotes the most severe form of material hardship. People are considered destitute if they have not been able to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2023) Destitution in the UK 2023

The number of people experiencing destitution has increased since both 2019 and 2017.

The main items lacked by people facing destitution in 2023 were food (61%), heating (59%) and clothes (57%).

graphic showing items destitute people can't afford UK 2023

What kinds of people face destitution?

85% of people do not have complex needs, the vast majority are not homeless.

  • 75% of people experiencing destitution are in receipt of some kind of state benefit.
  • Single people are at highest risk of destitution. 60% of those experiencing destitution in 2022 were single.
  • Almost two thirds had a chronic health problem or disability
  • Black led households were three times more likely to experience destitution.

Three main causes of destitution

  • Inadequate benefits. The income threshold for Universal Credit simply doesn’t pay enough for people to meet their basic human needs.
  • Debt. Getting into debt can put people into destitution, trying to get out of debt can keep them there.
  • There is some evidence that Covid-19 was starting point which pushed more people into destitution. However, most people who are destitute in 2022 had been struggling before the pandemic!

Solutions to destitution

Many compassionate people would suggest we need an overhaul of the benefits system. Make sure that Universal Credit pays enough so that people are not destitute. Also we could make it easier for people to access disability payments (PIP) if they are entitled to it. Finally, we need to reform the way we allow people who get into debt to deal with it.

More left leaning sociologists such as Marxists might suggest we need deeper structural reform. We need something in place which makes work less precarious so fewer people are moving in and out of work, for example. Structural reform in terms of more social housing with cheap rent could also help the poorest.

The New Right, in contrast, would say this is precisely what needs to happen to encourage people off benefits.


This is a useful update to income and wealth inequalities. This research demonstrates that life is getting tougher for more people at the bottom end!

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The Opioid Crisis in the United States: A Corporate Crime?

Drug overdose deaths in the US, notably opioid overdoses, skyrocketed from under 10,000 per year in the 1980s to 100,000 in 2021. The crisis began with the FDA’s approval of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin Painkiller in 1995, claimed as non-addictive without proper evidence. Subsequent aggressive marketing led to widespread addiction. Labeled as criminal acts of profit-driven corporations and a co-opted FDA, these actions resulted in significant damage with a reported 1 million deaths and cost of $2 trillion, prompting sanctions and funding to combat the crisis.

For most of the 1980s drug overdose deaths in the United States were fairly steady, well under 10 000 deaths per year. 

Then, in the 1990s, deaths rose sharply. By 2000 nearly 20 000 people were dying from overdoses annually. In 2021 the number peaked at 100, 000, a 500% increase over the decade. 

To put this in context, over the past 25 years more than a million people in the U.S. have died from drug overdoses. This is more people than died in both world wars combined. 

Most of these deaths are caused by opioid overdoses. These deaths are from both natural opiates such as morphine and heroin, and synthetic compounds which have similar properties. 

When did the opioid crisis begin?

The crisis began with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin Painkiller drug in 1995. This drug was designed to be slow release. Purdue claimed that the slow release design would prevent it from being addictive. However, they made this claim without proper evidence. They conducted no clinical trials on how addictive or prone to abuse the drug might be. 

Image of box of Oxycontin pills.

Before the release of OxyContin opioids had been used only in limited cases. They were only administered to cancer patients, those undergoing more invasive surgery and for end-of-life pain relief. 

However Purdue engaged in aggressive direct marketing campaigns to doctors. The company encouraged Doctors to prescribe OxyContin for less serious conditions such as arthritis, back pain and sports injuries. 

What effect did OxyContin have?

Prescriptions peaked in 2012 at more than 255 million in the U.S. that year. OxyContin, and other similar opioids such as Vicodin create a huge new class of addicts. By 2011 OyxContin was the leading cause of drug-related deaths in the US. 

This is known as the first wave of the crises which also drove the second wage. Many addicts found prescription pain killers too expensive or too difficult to buy and so turned to heroin.  Interviews with injecting urban drug users Between 2008-09 found that 86% of them had used prescription painkillers first. The illegal heroine trade expanded greatly because of this, as did the number of heroin overdoses. 

In 2013 came the third crisis. This was caused by illegal, synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. This led to a huge increase in overdose deaths as the strength of the final street product varied widely. 

Why did the crisis happen?

There are several causes, all of which seem fundamentally linked to the Marxist theory of crime…

The chief executives of Purdue Pharma were primarily concerned with making profit, rather than the safety of people. They didn’t do proper trials to check the risks of addiction and sold their product hard to doctors. 

The Food and Drug Administration had been co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry. The FDA regulatory who oversaw the approval of Oxy, Dr Curtis Wright, left the agency shortly afterwards and took a job at Purdue. 

The U.S. healthcare system prefers prescribing rather than other solutions. This is because it puts profits of corporations over the health and wellbeing of ordinary people. 

Many of these overdose deaths are deaths of despair. They are linked to social ills such as poverty, declining wages, and declining stability in social life. 

What is being done now?

The U.S. has tightened conditions for prescribing opioid Painkillers, but the levels are still high.

They have Sanctions on Chinese companies who make chemicals used to make Fentanyl, 

They have allocated $5 Billion for mental health care and treating addiction.

Analysis: supporting evidence for the Marxist perspective on crime…?

This seems to be a case study which strongly supports the Marxist theory of crime

It clearly shows that all classes commit crime. Here we have both the Corporate elite and the government working together. 

Marxism says the ‘crimes’ (or harms) the elite does are much greater than working class crime. With over 1 million dead as a result of Oxycontin this harmful act is extreme.  There were 100 000 overdose deaths in 2022 – 68% of them linked to Opiods, 2 million addicts, monetary cost $2 Trillion, misery can’t calculate. (According to the Stanford-Lancet Commission). 

The Sackler Family managed to get immunity from prosecution. They have to pay $8 billion in damages. However they have been given a number of years to pay this, and they will probably make that from returns on their investments.

Effectively they haven’t been punished for causing 1 million deaths.

Purdue Pharam and the Opioid crisis: find out more.

Netflix recently released an excellent series: Painkiller which covers this case study very well!

Are Single People Discriminated Against…?

The number of single people has increased over the last several decades. However, there is still something of a stigma attached to being single. Society seems to still be geared towards couples and families as the ‘normal’ social unit. Single people are often overlooked and some sociologists suggest single people may be discriminated against. 

This is according to a recent Analysis podcast on Radio 4

The main reason for the increase in single people is women’s liberation. Women now have higher levels of educational achievement than men and are more likely to be in work. Women are more likely to choose to live alone, and more likely to seek divorce. Of divorced people, men are twice as likely than women to recouple. Many more older women live alone than men. 

Are single people discriminated against?

Some of the ways single people may be discriminated against include:

It is more expensive to live alone. SIngle person households spend 92% of their disposable income on necessities such as housing costs, food and bills. This compares to only 83% of disposable income spent by couples. 

Letting agencies tend to discriminate against single people. They prefer couples because there are two incomes coming in, which they think is more secure. 

Employers and employees expect more from single people as workers. The default view is that single people have fewer commitments outside of work than people with families. Thus it is single people who are expected to work odd hours or at the weekends if required. 

Many holidays are geared towards couples, with single rooms often being the most inferior. 

Getting engaged, married, or having children are seen as social markers of progress. Being single is just kind of overlooked. 

You rarely hear single people talked about in the news, and they are rarely the focus of social policy. There is a lot of talk and policies aimed at helping families, for example, but rarely anything for single people. 

An exception to this was during lockdown. The government announced that people living alone could form support bubbles with people in other households. This was one of the few times single people were explicitly mentioned in social policy. 

Single women living alone are seen in a negative light. We have the spinster stereotype for example. 

All of this is a problem when single people are a diverse group. There are many routes into singledom. 

One of the ways social policy could adapt to single people is by allowing single workers time off to look after friends or pets.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This material is mainly relevant to the families and households module.

People in England and Wales are more class conscious today!

People in England and Wales are more class conscious today than they were in the 1980s!

This is according to the latest British Social Attitudes data. The latest wave of the BSA surveys was carried out between 7th September and 30th October 2022. The sample size was 6638, which is double the usual 3000 respondents. 

Social class identity in Britain in 2022

People today are much more likely to identify as working class. 

  • 29% of people identified as middle class
  • 46% of people identified as working class. 
  • In 2022 people are more likely to identify as either working or middle class rather than ‘no class’.
  • From the 1980s of the 2010s there was a stable level of class identification. Around 30% identified as working class, and 20% as middle class
  • Since 2015 class identification has increased, for both classes. 
  • This is despite the decline in traditionally working class jobs!
graph showing changing social class identities England and Wales 1983 to 2022
PINK: percent identifying middle class, PURPLE: percent identifying working class. England and Wales, 1983 to 2022.

Methodological note 

The survey asked people the following question: 

Do you ever think of yourself as belonging to any particular social class?

  • Yes, middle class
  • Yes, working class
  • Yes (other) please write in
  • No

If they didn’t respond as being either middle or working class a prompt question followed. This referred specifically to being either class. The above figures show the unprompted responses, so people who self-identified as either middle or working class.  

Who identifies as working class?

The job someone does isn’t necessarily related to the social class they feel they are. Although people who do traditionally working class jobs are more likely to identify as working class. 

  • 62% of people in working class jobs identify as working class  
  • 38% of people in middle class jobs identify as working class. 

Level of education is correlated with social class identity 

  • 60% of people who left school with GCSEs as their highest level of qualification identify as working class
  • 28% who went to university identify as social class. 

Somewhat surprisingly income levels are less well correlated with social class identity than education. 52% of those in the lowest quintile identified as working class compared to 32% of those in the highest. 

Attitudes towards social class mobility 

84% of respondents said they thought it was fairly or very difficult to move from one class to another in 2022. This has increased from just 59% of respondents  in 2005. 

table showing attitudes towards social mobility UK

Attitudes to politics and social policy 

Those who self identify as working class are more likely to hold left wing values. They are more likely to be supportive of policies which redistribute wealth and which restrict wealth accumulation. 

Interestingly those who identify as working class are no more likely to hold authoritarian views compared to those who identify as middle class. In other words, working class people are no more likely to ‘blame the immigrants’ for our problems than middle class people. 

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This material is an important update to the social class identity topic. This topic is part of the culture and identity module. 


National Centre for Social Research (September 2023) 40 years of British Social Attitudes: Class identity and awareness still matter