Reflections on Realism
The complexities of the changing socio-
economic conditions during the 1970s in Britain
contributed to the emergence of radical realist
criminology in the 1980s.
In the field of „law and order‟, the problem of
crime and its control had begun to take on new
dimensions and significance.
On one side there had been a persistent rise in
the number of recorded offences; increasing
almost five-fold between 1960 and 1980, and on
the other side, most of the principle agencies
involved in the criminal justice process appeared
increasingly unaccountable, inefficient and
There was a growing problem of delivering the
required services to an increasing number of
victims of crime.
The police, in particular, who were popularly
seen as being in the front line of the „fight
against crime‟, were identified as the primary
agency for reorganization.
Consequently, much of the effort expended
during the early 1980s by policy makers and
criminologists was aimed at improving police
performance and increasing accountability.
Subsequently, other agencies – prison officers,
probation officers, and to a lesser extent, the
judiciary, came under review.
During the 1980s crime continued to rise in
Britain while the leading agencies, despite
attempts to change their organization and
practices, continued to present serious problems
in terms of performance and accountability.
Victimization studies showed the impact of
crime as uneven.
It falls disproportionately on the powerless and
more vulnerable sections of the population and
serves to compound the growing economic and
social inequalities that rose dramatically through
Paradoxically, it is the more disadvantaged
groups who pay a disproportionate amount of
the cost of financing an increasingly costly
criminal justice system. The growing problems
associated with crime and its control created
new situations and challenges for criminologists.
The priority accorded to the issue meant that it
became more difficult to remain purely
contemplative and politically engaged.
Developing consistent and viable alternative
methods of crime control can be a daunting
But these challenges were compounded in
Britain during this time period by the swings and
variations in government policies.
The Thatcherite policy was diverse, uneven, and
at times even contradictory.
For example: the „get tough‟ policies, which
were widely publicized at the beginning of the
decade (1980s), were substantially reviewed.
Although punitiveness remained an essential
ingredient of conservative policies, it was
increasingly conditioned by fiscal concerns as
well as the development of more „privatized‟ and
corporatist responses in some areas.
The net effect of these different and competing
strands was the production of a peculiar mix of
There has been a toughening up of responses to
certain categories of offenders and a softening
By the same token increased prison sentences
for some have been accompanied by the
increased use of cautioning and diversion for
Often implicit in these bifurcated strategies are
contradictory assumptions concerning the
aetiology of crime and the dynamics of
A massive prison-building program occurred in
a period that had witnessed a levelling off in the
Funding for the police increased 60 percent over
a decade in which police performance dropped
consistently and against a background of official
publications which stressed that extra police and
resources were likely to provide minimum
advantages in terms of crime control.
Most remarkably, despite the massive increase in
public and private expenditures on crime control
during the 1980s, crime continued to rise to
Thatcherism itself, however, was only one
particular manifestation of an international
political shift which placed various „new right‟
administrations in power in a number of western
countries during the 1980s.
Some countries, like Britain, experienced a
peculiar political transformation in which the
power of the parties of the center has declined
as well as those on the Marxist left.
These created new political alignments and a
sharpened opposition between right and left
social democratic parties.
These changing political configurations
translated into criminological discourse, which
in the process became re-politicized.
Alongside these political changes, which set new
agendas in criminology, there was a general crisis
in criminology theory.
This crisis had at least four dimensions:
1. The first was what was referred to as an
2 The second dimension involved a crisis of
identity – a profound uncertainty about its
own development and its future direction.
3 The third level of crisis arose from its
underlying androcentrism and the
inapplicability of a wide range of existing
criminological theory to women.
4 The final dimension related to the low level
of policy relevance of much criminological
The growing realization through the decade that
these limited policies, with their weak theoretical
base, were not providing an adequate response
to the problems of crime and its control
encouraged the development of alternative
approaches which offered a broader focus and
Radical realism, in Britain, was an attempt to
respond to this challenge.
1. First, the perceived seriousness of crime is
such that it requires a response which goes
beyond piecemeal engineering and short-term
2 The term „radical‟ is meant to convey the
construction of a political response which was
not subsumed within the traditional liberal-
3 Thirdly, it was radical in the need for a more
comprehensive theoretical framework which
could uncover the underlying processes that
produced these problems and provide a more
solid basis for designing interventions.
4 It considered itself to be radical in the sense
that it drew freely on a tradition of critical
theorizing which aimed to demystify and
dereify social relations.
The term „realism‟ is meant to indicate the creation of a
criminology which while remaining „radical‟ was
simultaneously competing and applied.
It is a criminology which expresses a
commitment to detailed empirical investigation,
recognizes the objectivity of crime, faces up to
the damaging and disorganizing effects of crime,
and emphasizes the possibility and desirability of
engaging in progressive reform.
There has also been during this time period
(1970s and 80s) new influential neo-conservative
criminologist who have fed directly into the
policy programs of „new right‟ administrations.
They are referred to as „new realists‟ and, for
example, in America, they have significantly
influenced criminal justice policies (think of
James Q Wilson (1983) and Ernest van den
One way of thinking of right and left realism is
RIGHT = order/justice and LEFT =
Left and Right Realism
Although there are some points of overlap
between the „new realists‟ and the „radical
realists‟, these two approaches represent
distinctly different theoretical and political
They share a concern with the corrosive effects
which crime can have on communities and with
the formulation of workable policies, but they
are ultimately oppositional and competing
They differ in a number of important
First, the new realists tend to take conventional
definitions of crime for granted.
Radical realists on the other hand, although
adopting the general categories of crime as their
point of departure, are not constrained by either
commonsensical definitions nor by official
modes of prioritization.
Rather, the issue of „seriousness‟ and
significance of different crimes is seen as the
object of investigation.
By the same token it employs a much wider
frame of reference than „new realism‟ which
concentrates almost exclusively on street crime.
Radical realism has, through the use of
victimization surveys, sought to broaden the
parameters of enquiry and began to examine a
range of „white collar‟ and occupational
There are also substantial differences in the type
of explanations offered – particularly to the
question of causality. New realists offer
essentially, a behaviouristic theory of
Crime is, from this perspective, ultimately a
function of trans-historical „human nature‟. As a
result, their analysis lacks a social economic
context and may be considered excessively
The relation between the individual and society
and the role of socioeconomic processes in
structuring choices and opportunities is
conveniently played down.
The absence of a material context for social
action and lack of appreciation of the socio-
economic constituents of crime allows the „new
realist‟ to operate with a predominantly
voluntaristic conception of the criminal and to
embrace essentially punitive policies aimed at
controlling the „wicked‟.
Left realism (radical realism) is the opposite of
Right realism (new realism).
Whereas realists of the right prioritize order over
justice, left realists prioritize social justice as a
way of achieving a fair and orderly society.
Left realists point to the social injustice which
marginalizes considerable sections of the
population and engenders crimes.
Right realism was a new right philosophy: left
realism stemmed from the debates in democratic
Thus it argued that only socialist interventions
would fundamentally reduce the causes of crime,
rooted as they are in social inequality, that only
the universalistic provision of crime prevention
will guard the poor against crime, that only a
general democratic control of the police force
will ensure that community safety is achieved.
Ten Points of Realism
in Rethinking Criminology: The Realist
Four processes which have
transformed criminological thinking
can be traced:
1. The crisis of causality as a consequence of
rising crime rates.
2 The crisis in penalty in terms of the failure of
prisons and a reappraisal of the role of the
3 The increased awareness of the victimization
and of the crimes which had previously been
4 A growing public demand and criticism of
public service efficiency and accountability.
Realism attempts to deal with all of these areas
and to enter into debate with the responses of
new right establishment criminology and left
idealism. To a differing extent all of these
problems and issues have been manifest in the
recent history of advanced industrial societies.
Thus, although the general problems which
realism seeks to answer exist internationally in
advanced industrial societies , their specific
configuration depends on the political and social
context of each society.
The Principle of Naturalism
Social Control The
The Public VICTIM
The most fundamental tenet of realism is that
criminology should be faithful to the nature of
The form consists of two dyads:
a victim and an offender, and
actions and reactions
Realism, then, points to a square of crime
involving the interaction between police and
other agencies of social control, the public, the
offender, and the victim.
Crime rates are generated not merely by the
interplay of these four factors but as social
relationships between each point on the square.
The Principle of Multiple Aetiology
Crime rates involve a fourfold aetiology. It
involves the causes of offending (the tradition
focus of criminology), the factors which make
victims vulnerable, the social conditions which
affect public levels of control and tolerance, and
the social forces which propel the formal
agencies such as the police.
Deviance and control can not be studied
independently of each other. (foucaulian) The
two items are necessary parts of the equation
and both variable interact with each other.
The Principle of Specificity
It is central to the realist position that objective
conditions are interpreted through the specific
subcultures of groups involved. This is the
nature of human experience and social action.
Generalization is possible, but only given
specific cultural conditions and social
Thus absolute deprivation (poverty,
unemployment) is not guide to the genesis of
crime. Relative deprivation, experienced
injustice in certain limited political situations, is
at the root cause of crime.
The Principle of Focusing on Lived
Realism focused on lived realities.
Realism has a close affinity with sub-cultural
theory (Cohen 1965). Sub-cultures are problem-
solving devices which constantly arise as people
in specific groups attempt to solve the structural
problems which face them.
Such an approach in realist methods is termed
on awareness of the specificity of generalization,
the need to base analysis firmly grounded in
specific areas and social groups.
Realism places the behaviour of the offender,
the victim the police officer and the public at
large in the actual material circumstances that
each individual experiences (Lea and Young
Realism, then, does not deal in abstractions; the
principle of specificity demands that explanation
The Principle of Social Control
To control crime from a realist perspective
involves intervention at each part of the square
of the crime.
Realism prioritizes structural intervention, but it
concedes that interventions at all levels, from
target hardening to policing are inevitable.
Realist therefore stress the primacy of
intervention in the social structure over the
interventions of the criminal justice system
Realists posit that the use of criminal sanctions,
Albeit in a diminished fashion, are essential for
the maintenance of social order, and, indeed, as
a back-up measure to strengthen the efficacy of
informal modes of conflict resolution.
The Principle of Multi-agency
Multi-agency intervention is the planned,
coordinated response of the major social
agencies to problems of crime and incivilities.
The central reason for multi-agency social
intervention is that of realism: it corresponds
both to the realities of crime and to the realities
of social control.
Different agencies are involved with different
parts of the trajectory of the offender.
1. The background causes of crime
2. The moral context of opting for criminal
3. The situation of committing crime
4. The detection of crime
5. The response to the offender
6. The response to the victim
The Principle of Rational
The social survey is a democratic instrument: it
provides a reasonably accurate appraisal of
people‟s fears and of their experiences of
Social surveys allow us to give voice to the
experience of people and they enable us to
differentiate the safety needs of different sectors
What is a useful rule of thumb is that the mass
media have greatest influence on opinion where
people have little direct knowledge of the matter
in question and the least where they have direct
Victimization surveys pinpoint which social
groups within the population face the greatest
risk rates and geographically pinpoints where
these occurrences most frequently occur.
People who have the least power socially suffer
most from crime. Most relevant here is the
social relationships of age, race, class and
Realist analysis, by focusing on the combination
of those fundamental social relationships, allows
us to note the extraordinary differences between
social groups as to both the impact of crime and
the focusing of polices.
It is high time to replace risk statistics with
The Principle of Rational
Outcome – we must ask; what crimes are being
controlled, at what cost, and where do these
crime figure in public priorities.
The task of an effective crime policy is to reduce
crime in general. To this effect, we must not
only seek to reduce the crime rate universally,
but we must allocate greater resources to those
who suffer the most. Once again, community
health becomes a model.
Unfortunately, and this has been a general
problem of welfare provision, resources are not
distributed so much to those in greatest need, as
to those with greater political muscle and social
The Principle of Democratic
The problem of criminal statistics is the baseline
problem of criminology. The problem comes
down to answering the question of what is the
“real” rate of crime, and , indeed, is there such
Realism propounds that rates of crime are by
definition a result of the interplay of actors and
reactors; of victims and offenders, on one hand,
and of informal and formal control of the other.
Rates of crime change as these interacting
sectors change and the simple belief that the
crime rate is a gauge of offenders is wrong.
The crime rate is not a „natural‟ act, crime rates
do not spring automatically out of aggregates of
illegalities. Someone has to embark on an act of
collecting these varied, moral infractions
There is no objective yardstick for crime, but a
series of measuring rods dependent on the social
group in which they are based.
The Principle of Theory and Practice
The history of criminology may be written as a
interior dialogue of ideas and debates, but it
exists always in an exterior world of changing
problems of crime and penalty, of funding from
central and local government agencies, of
contemporary conceptions of human nature and
If empirical research frequently involves the
projection of preconceptions on its subject
matter, criminological practice displays a welter
of unmonitored projection.
Theory and practice are thus both our subjects
of investigation. They both belong to the orbit
Realist criminology starts from the
deconstruction of the criminal act into its
fundamental components; law and state
agencies, the public and various institutions of
civil societies, the victims and the offenders.
And central to realist criminology is the micro-
macro link between interaction and police and
This being said, many of the points of realism
are applicable to other social science disciplines.
The difficulty of social intervention is scarcely
one which is limited to criminology.
Indeed, the key problematic of realism is rooted
in the shortcomings of social democratic
attempts to engineer a more equitable social
Critiques of left realism by feminist
Left realism criticizes “idealist” criminology for
its inability to offer viable alternatives to the real
social disorganization that results from capitalist
oppression (Lea and Young 1984).
By reducing all oppression to class domination,
Marxist criminology has failed to provide
comprehensive information on the problems
caused by the activities of the state.
As Lea and Young (1984) demonstrate, crime,
whether working class or white-collar class, is
likely to be levelled against those who are
economically and socially vulnerable. Left
realism argues that the working class are victims
of crime from all directions.
The left realist perspective argues more
optimistically that measures such as welfare,
social services, and the right to organized union
activity show the organized power of different
classes in creating contradictory pressures that
the state must address.
Left realism offers a practical political agenda
based on the premise that emancipatory gains
may result from the democratic state apparatus.
Feminist writing has stressed the importance of
left realist‟s work on the victimization of women
in criminology (Carlen 1992).
Women‟s experiences with violence as victims
of crime and violence are taken seriously.
1. Feminists argue that the realist‟s call for
decreased state control and minimized police
activities may contradict the need for women
to be kept safe (Schwartz and DeKeserady
2. Realists do not take prisoners‟ and
lawbreakers‟ experience as seriously as the
experience of the victim, and feminist argue
that no political agenda can successfully reduce
crime without an agenda informed by the
„criminals‟ standpoint. (Carlen 1992)
3. Feminist writings criticize left realists, who in a
rather conservative, conventional manner, but
that argue that economic conditions and class
status may cause criminal activity because
some individuals who live under deplorable
conditions do not commit crimes, then most
criminal law-breakers choose criminal life-
styles, and must take responsibility for their
4. Another criticism focuses on left realisms
return to individualistic explanations for
criminal behaviour (Carlen 1992). For women
and crime, this theoretically backward step
denies that the problem of the status of
women and problems of social justice
contribute to the experiences of women.