Reflections on Realism

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					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
    the 1980s.
   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
    of others.
   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
    custodial population.
   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
    unprecedented levels.
   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
         aetiological crisis.
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
    firmer foundation.
    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-
    conservative consensus.
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
    Haag (1975).
   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

             Jack Young
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
State                     OFFENDER

        Social Control        The
                                Criminal Act

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
    be grounded.
    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
             Democratic Input
   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
    of society.
   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
    empirical evidence.
   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
    impact statistics.
         The Principle of Rational
           Democratic Output

   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
    an entity?
   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
    social order.
   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
    of criminology
   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
    state intervention.
   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.

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