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date: 01 October 2022

Left Realism: “Taking Crime Seriously”free

Left Realism: “Taking Crime Seriously”free

  • Jayne MooneyJayne MooneyDepartment of Sociology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Summary

Left realism emerged in the mid-1980s as a criminological theory of the Left. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government had been voted into power in the United Kingdom on a largely law-and-order ticket. Thatcher led an administration of the radical Right, close in politics to Ronald Reagan’s Republicanism in the United States, bound to laissez-faire economics, to incentives for work, cutting back on the welfare state, and a heavily punitive response to street crime. Yet, despite Thatcher’s law-and-order agenda, the crime rate continued to rise, and there was widespread public unease about crime and disorder, especially in inner-city areas. Riots, largely the result of political marginalization and aggressive policing, which had occurred against a background of high unemployment and deprivation, impacted several major British cities and, in particular, communities of color. Although central government was Conservative, many of the metropolitan councils (local government) were Labour Party controlled and were committed to addressing the high levels of unemployment, caused by Thatcher’s monetarist policies, together with the growing problem of crime, while, at the same time, curbing the excessive use of police powers. The latter was viewed as the major cause of the riots and as having resulted in a plethora of police malpractices. This provided the impetus and support for left realism: a perspective intent on identifying problems of crime and policing in urban areas, committed to keeping law-and-order issues high on the political agenda, and seeking to find crime-control policies that were progressive and non-authoritarian, with the understanding that ultimately change had to occur at the level of the social structure. The substantive inequalities that tarnish the social fabric had to be confronted. While left realism is concerned with state and corporate crime, it became particularly associated with tackling the problems of street crime—that is, crime which directly affected poor and working-class communities. The aim of left realism is to take the problem of crime seriously, to listen to the concerns of ordinary people, especially those living on inner-city housing estates [projects], and to reclaim the politics of crime and disorder from the Right. The founding text of left realism was John Lea and Jock Young’s What Is To Be Done About Law and Order? (a book greatly influenced by Ian Taylor’s Law and Order: Arguments for Socialism). Initially, conceived as a Left social democratic project that would work to intervene both theoretically in criminological debates and politically in the Party politics of the day, in recent years there has been a revival of interest in left realism and its development. Its aim being that of advancing what John Lea described as “a radical program for social justice” to confront the challenges of the contemporary period.

Subjects

  • Critical Criminology

Background

Left realism falls under what Marty Schwartz and Suzanne Hatty describe as the “umbrella” of critical criminology: “an intellectual space in which a broad variety of people could come together to think through issues related to power, crime and punishment” (Schwartz & Hatty, 2003/2014, p. x) and which is particularly characterized by the “argument that it is impossible to separate values from the research agenda and by a need to advance a progressive agenda favoring disprivileged peoples” (Schwartz & Friedrichs, 1994, p. 222). Critical criminology arose as a distinct field of criminology in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its origins are varied but largely originate from Marxist or neo-Marxist theories, presenting crime as having a materialist basis, “occurring within a specific set of social and economic conditions” (Matthews, 2003, p. 3). Key influences on critical criminology included the new deviancy theory of that immensely creative time in American sociology from 1955 to 1965. This had two strands: subcultural theory, notably the writings of Albert Cohen and Richard Cloward and the early work of Robert Merton, and the labeling theorists, for example, Howard S. Becker, John Kitsuse, Edwin Lemert, and Frank Tannenbaum (Mooney, 2019). The former focused on the deviant act, the latter on reactions to the act. Critical criminology put both strands together in a Marxist-inspired context that examined the dynamics of society as a whole. Widely regarded as the first publication to set the parameters of critical criminology is Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young’s The New Criminology, published in 1973. For the critical or new criminologists, the causes of crime were to be found outside the individual in the macro structure of society, that is, in the “inequalities of wealth and power, and in particular of inequalities in property and life-chances” (Taylor et al., 1973, p. 281) created by contemporary capitalist society, and therefore the solution had to involve the restructuring of the social order. This was to provide the foundation for left realism.

Much of the early work on left realism came out of the Centre for Criminology at Middlesex Polytechnic in London and the criminologists who worked there, including Jock Young, John Lea, Roger Matthews, and Kate Painter, together with Brian MacLean, a visiting Canadian Professor, and Richard Kinsey from the University of Edinburgh. Parallel work was evident in North America, such as that of Elliott Currie, Walter DeKeseredy, Marty Schwartz, and Shahid Alvi, and in Australia in the research and writings of Kerry Carrington, Dave Brown, and Russell Hogg.

Elliott Currie’s 1985 book Confronting Crime is especially important in the development of left realism. In Confronting Crime, Currie put forward a counterargument to conservative approaches to crime and disorder and the liberal/classicist belief that crime is not a problem, certainly not one that impinges on the overall workings of society. He illustrated the inadequacies of right-wing political perspectives in the United States that at best degenerated into a wistful nostalgia for the past,

or, worse, into self-righteous, punitive brutality that finds expression in the resurgent demands for more corporal punishment, harsher discipline in the family and the schools, and the indiscriminate use of prisons as the holding pens for an urban underclass we have decided ‘to give up on’ (Currie, 1985, cited in Mooney, 2019, p. 304).

In identifying the complex relationship between crime and inequity and the need to confront structural problems, Confronting Crime provided, as Gregg Barak (1986) observed, a manifesto that the American Left could use to “rebuff” the Right.

At the core of left realism is the acknowledgment of the need to take crime (“emphatically including ‘ordinary’ crimes in the streets and homes”; Currie, 2010, p. 113) seriously with respect to its impact on communities and particularly on women—so that crime is seen “as part of the lived experience of real people in real communities” (Currie, 2010). As Jock Young stated, left realism treats

seriously the complaints of women with regard to the dangers of being in public places at night, it takes note of the fears of the elderly with regard to burglary, [and] it acknowledges the widespread occurrence of domestic violence and racist attacks (Young, 1986, p. 24).

It embraces the need for an activist—not revolutionary—stance that advances short-term interventions as well as long-term structural change, all aimed at improving quality of life. Left realism is committed to the construction of a more accurate victimology in criminology, one that takes on board the extent and impact of victimization and its social and geographical focus. Thus, left realism set itself against the new administrative or managerial style of criminology, pioneered—also in the 1980s—by British Home Office criminologists, which cast doubt on the validity of the causes of crime and downplayed the problem of crime, seeing fear of crime as more of a problem than crime itself (Clarke, 1984; Hough & Mayhew, 1983; Young, 1992). Left realists also stood against “Right realists,” such as James Q. Wilson in the United States, who had put forward a multitude of causes but with an emphasis on individual factors, so that the focus was placed on the individual rather than the social structure, together with the control theory of Travis Hirshi, who abandoned causation, “to the extent that it is identified with motivation,” with cause metamorphosing from “active desire into absence of restraint” (Young, 1992, pp. 30–31). In Crime and Human Nature, Wilson and Herrnstein had argued that “our intention is to offer as comprehensive an explanation as we can manage of why some individuals are more likely than others to commit crime” (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985, p. 20), and emphasized what they termed “constitutional factors,” which predispose individuals to become criminals and have biological roots. Jock Young described their position as “the new scientific revolution of the ‘born again’ Lombrosians” (Young, 1994, p. 70; see Mooney, 2019). Moreover, for Jamess Q. Wilson—who was appointed as an advisor to both the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations—intervention was to occur where there is a possibility of a gain without radically disturbing the social order. With this in mind, he and George Kelling (Wilson & Kelling, 1982) suggested a zero-tolerance policy against disorderly behavior, the incapacitation of repeat offenders in prison, and strong action against first-time drug users rather than addicts, whom he portrayed as beyond saving (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). For Wilson, order was to take priority over justice, whereas left realism argued for a just society that could in the long run tackle the crime problem and that would necessitate substantial structural change (Mooney, 2019).

The Fundamental Tenets of Left Realism

The aim of left realists was to develop a coherent and comprehensive framework for analyzing the complexities of crime. To an extent, this is similar to the parameters that were laid out in The New Criminology for a fully social theory of crime and deviance, and underscores the realist intention to create an approach that “emphasizes synthesis rather than a simple dismissal of opposing theories” (Young, 1988b, p. 158). The fundamental tenets of left realism are discussed in the following section.

Construction of Human Nature

For left realists, the human situation involves freedom of choice in a world of predetermined circumstances. Human behavior is presented as a problem-solving activity, in the sense that human beings choose to act in certain ways in response to the structural problems that they are confronted with. As Jock Young put it,

As an activity, crime involves a moral choice at a certain point in time in changing determinant circumstances. It has neither the totally determined quality beloved by positivists, nor the willful display of rationality enshrined in classicist legal doctrine. It is a moral act, but one which must be constantly assessed within a determined social context. It is neither an act of determined pathology, nor an obvious response to desperate situations (Young, 1997, p. 487).

Thus, left realism has much in common with subcultural theory (see Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955; Willis, 1977). Crime is “one form of subcultural adaption which occurs when material circumstances block cultural aspirations and where noncriminal alternatives are absent or less attractive” (Young, 1994, p. 111).

Social Ordering of Society

Building on the foundations of critical criminology, left realists are critical of the existing capitalist social order, which is seen as leading to massive inequalities. Taking inspiration from Robert Merton, they stress the fundamental contradiction in capitalist societies between the generally held belief in a meritocracy and a grossly unequal class structure. The meritocratic system that legitimates capitalism gives rise to widespread contradictions between people’s aspirations and the reality of their opportunities. To explain this further, Paul Corrigan, Trevor Jones, John Lloyd, and Jock Young use the metaphor of the racetrack:

Some people start halfway along the track, while others are forced to run with a stone about their necks, while others still are not allowed on the track at all. The result feeds alienation and discontent. Many of the well-off succeed through the right connections rather than through genuine effort: they started at the finishing post. The unsuccessful are rejected from a society that has little respect for them economically or politically (Corrigan et al., 1988, p. 8).

Capitalism is a system that creates disorder, and for left realists, crime is the result of a disordered society. For social order to be achieved, “society must be seen to be fair; [and] society is held together to the extent that it is seen by its members as just” (Young, 1994, p. 116). It is a just politics that is central to the initiating of social change and the eventual reform of the capitalist system.

Causes of Crime

Left realism’s concern is with the social causes of crime. As well as Merton’s (1938) thought, the arguments of Cloward and Ohlin (1960) on anomie and relative deprivation were an important influence (see Lea, 1992). Although left realists do not advocate monocausality, relative deprivation is presented as a major cause of crime. As Jock Young commented, crime occurs “when people experience a level of unfairness in their allocation of resources and utilize individualistic means to attempt to right this condition. It is a reaction to the experience of injustice” (Young, 1997, p. 488).

Therefore, crime can occur anywhere within the social structure, it is not the monopoly of the poor because relative deprivation is experienced throughout the classes. John Lea (1992), for example, relates the concept of relative deprivation to white collar and corporate crime. Relative deprivation is not dependent on absolute levels of deprivation: indeed, the crime rate was low in the 1930s despite extreme levels of poverty. Overall, however, left realists emphasize the importance of working-class crime and point out that it is among the poor, particularly the lower working class, who are excluded “from the ‘glittering prizes’ of the wider society, that the push toward crime is greater than elsewhere in the social structure” (Lea, 1992, pp. 487–488). Crime among the poor is seen to be the result of social injustice, but because it is directed mainly at people who are themselves poor, it is an unjust reaction to an unjust situation. With respect to acts of, for example, men’s violence, relative deprivation plays a role in the construction of a certain form of masculinity, for “men frequently react to adversity by creating a culture of machismo [that] is insensitive to violence, and, indeed, in some groups glorifies it” (Young, 1988a, p. 175). Lea, for instance, suggested that “interpretative ‘expressive’ violence” is a way of “establishing status in the absence of conventional means and symbols” (Lea, 1992, p. 74). The arguments presented by left realists on men’s violence are similar to those of socialist feminists: for example, Elizabeth Wilson (1983), Lynne Segal (1990), and James Messerschmidt (1993, 1997) view violence as the result of class and racial inequities (Mooney, 2000). Hence, as Wilson (1983) wrote in What Is To Be Done About Violence Against Women? (part of the same series in which What Is To Be Done About Law and Order? was published), “the working-class youth’s aggression—‘bovver’—becomes a front to conceal his inner desperation and to protect him from a hostile world that condemns him essentially to failure” (p. 231). Nothing will change “so long as our society is run on the profit motive, which is the elevation of greed as the basic social principle” (p. 242). Crime is ultimately located in the nature of market capitalism: in its unequal class structure and in the rampant individualism that the market engenders, which results in a class structure that systematically frustrates the meritocratic ideals that serve to legitimate the system, and within the core values of a competitive individualism which shape and guide people’s anger and frustrations (Mooney, 2003).

Extent and Distribution of Crime

The well-known problem of the hidden figure of crime unknown to the police led realists to suggest that, “to base criminological theory, or social policy for that matter, on the majority of official figures is an exercise in ‘guesstimates’ and tea-leaf gazing” (Young, 1988a, p. 164). Likewise, they were critical of the findings of the British Crime Surveys utilized by the new administrative criminologists at the Home Office—that had developed around the notion of situational crime prevention—for showing too low a risk of crime and that fear of crime was out of proportion to the reality of becoming a victim. As Lea commented, the 1982 British Crime Survey had

achieved a certain notoriety . . . by showing that the risk of experiencing a robbery in England and Wales was once every five centuries; an assault resulting in injury once every century; a family car stolen once every 60 years; and burglary once every 50 years (Lea, 2015, p. 168).

The implication was that fear of crime was irrational.

National surveys, as Young pointed out, were unable to deal adequately with the fact that crime is focused geographically in certain areas and socially among particular groups of people and, as a result,

to add the crime rates for a suburban area to that of an inner-city area produces blancmange figures of little use to anyone. More invidiously, it allows politicians to talk of irrational fears of crime when compared to the average risk rate of the “average” citizen (Young, 1992, p. 50).

Statistics that conflate low- and high-crime areas tend to obscure the fashion in which crime is pinpointed within a population. Further, as DeKeseredy observed, left realists, such as Jones et al. (1986), were among the first to point out that studies like the British Crime Surveys “primarily used narrow, legalistic definitions of crime and only attempt to capture the experiences of ‘identifiable’ or ‘ideal victims’” (DeKeseredy, 2016a, p. 15).

Left realists were to pioneer the local crime survey: for this was seen as having the potential to present a much clearer picture of the extent and impact of crime than that available from official statistics or national surveys. The local crime survey is seen by realists as

a democratic instrument: it provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of people's fears and of their experience of victimization. . . . 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 the community.

(Young, 1992, p. 50)

Local surveys enable the experience of crime to be broken down in terms of its geographic and, through the use of large samples, social focus (that is, in terms of the area in which it occurs and the social groups affected, based on the combination of age, gender, social class, and race). This level of focus is considered to correspond “more closely to the lived realities of different groups and subcultures of the population” (Young, 1992, p. 38).

The best known of the surveys are the Merseyside Crime Survey (Kinsey, 1985), Islington Crime Surveys (Crawford et al., 1990; Jones et al., 19861), and the Broadwater Farm Survey (Jones et al., 1987). Many of these surveys were commissioned and funded by Labour-controlled metropolitan councils, such as Islington Council and Haringey Council in London. The Broadwater Farm Survey was commissioned by Haringey Council after the Broadwater Farm Estate riot in 1985. As DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2018) noted, in adopting such an approach, “left realists helped many critical criminologists to recognize that numbers are not entirely bad things.” (p.1). Indeed, in the realist-influenced North London Domestic Violence Survey, one of the survey participants commented in support of the local survey,

I think surveys like this are very useful for forming the basis on which to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, people in charge (i.e., police, politicians etc.) only seem to act when confronted by statistics. To ask people is the best source of information and only indication of what is really going on in community and behind people’s front door.

(Mooney, 2000, p. 152)

Impact: The Myth of the Equal Victim

Crime, for left realists, is seen as having a substantial impact on people’s lives. Fear of crime is basically rational: those who fear crime greatest tend to suffer the most from crime, and this fear shapes their lives and quality of life. For example, people avoid going out after dark and feel unsafe in their own homes. Left realists distinguish between risk rates and impact rates and argue that those who are most likely to experience crime—women, minorities, and the working-class—suffer a greater degree of impact because of their relatively “vulnerable” position in the social structure (i.e., they tend to have less access to money and resources and to suffer from other social problems). It has been pointed out that, if we were to draw a map of the city outlining areas of high infant mortality, bad housing, unemployment, poor nutrition, and so on, we would find that all the areas would coincide and that, further, the outline traced would correspond to the areas of high criminal victimization (Young, 1992, p. 52). Crime compounds other social problems. The problem is that “the myth of the equal victim” has “underscored much of conventional victimology with the notion that victims are, as it were, equal billiard balls, and the risk rate involves merely the calculation of the chances of an offending billiard ball impacting on them” (Young, 1992, pp. 51–52). But people “are, of course, not equal; they are, more or less, vulnerable, depending on their place in society” (Young, 1992). Thus, for realists, “it is high time . . . that we substituted impact statistics for risk statistics” (Young, 1992).

Left realism, therefore, treats

seriously the complaints of women with regard to the dangers of being in public places at night, it takes note of the fears of the elderly with regard to burglary, it acknowledges the widespread occurrence of domestic violence and racist attacks (Young, 1986, p. 24).

Furthermore, realists emphasize that we must take “seriously” a whole range of crime, from street crime to suite crime, from crimes of the poor to those of the state and of corporations. Incivilities and harassment are also of great significance. In fact, it is emphasized that incessant acts of what are sometimes considered “lesser” crimes can be more damaging to individuals than a single burglary or act of violence.

By focusing on the impact of crime, especially on poor neighborhoods, left realism attacked what it felt was the tendency of some critical criminologists—who left realists termed “left idealists”—to minimize the importance of working-class crime by one-sidedly emphasizing the crimes of the powerful. Left realists applied the label “left idealism” to this strand of critical thinking not as a comment on its perceived utopianism but philosophically because of its stress on ideas rather than material reality (Young, 1986). Left realists charged left idealists with seeing “the war against crime as a sidetrack from the class struggle, at best an illusion invented to sell news, at worst an attempt to make the poor scapegoats by blaming their brutalizing circumstances on themselves” (Lea & Young, 1984, p. 1). Left idealism, or “liberal minimalism” as Elliott Currie calls the American version, was a “politically disastrous” position (Currie, 2010, p.14), because the failure to acknowledge intraclass crime allowed “right-wing politicians in several countries to claim opposition to street crime as their own issue, giving them the room to generate ideological support for harsh ‘law and order’ policies, such as lengthy prison terms” (DeKeseredy, 2016a, p. 13). The tension between realists and left idealists disappointingly led to a rather acrimonious period of debate for criminologists on the left, especially in the United Kingdom, and, of course, splits between those ostensibly on the same side are not helpful when trying to work towards political change (Mooney, 2019). In more recent times there has been much more of a recognition of similarities rather than differences between the two strands of critical thought, especially in terms of the exclusionary and damaging role of the state (Lea, 2016; Madfis & Cohen, 2016)—although Currie points out that there is still a problematic tendency in critical criminology to place the blame solely on differential levels of surveillance in marginalized communities. As he wrote,

This isn’t to deny that differential enforcement and surveillance are also very real problems that urgently need addressing. It is . . . to say that they are not the whole story. Both the intense surveillance that helps funnel African American youth in Detroit into the prisons and the failure to protect them from violent death and injury are part and parcel of the same over-arching set of social circumstances. Both the decimation of the young male population of these communities by stratospheric levels of incarceration and the continuing threat of routine violence faced by young people in their streets and homes are inseparable aspects of the reality of life in the most socially excluded communities (Currie, 2010, pp. 114–115; original emphasis).

Square of Crime

To reflect the reality of crime, criminology should embrace the totality of the criminal process—left realists depicted this figuratively by utilizing what they term the square of crime.

Figure 1. The square of crime (J. Young, cited in Mooney, 2000, p. 111).

Crime involves formal and informal control systems (the reaction to crime) as well as offenders and victims (the criminal action). Left realists explain crime in relation to the four points of the square and consider previous theories as suffering from the problem of “partiality,” in that they focus on just one part of the square: formal control (as in classicism), informal social control (as in administrative criminology/control theory), the offender (as in positivism), and the victim (as in routine activities theory; Young, 1988b).

For realists, crime rates are necessarily the result of motivated offenders and available victims acting within a situation of social control (or the lack of it) constituted by the formal agencies of the police, local authority, schools, and so on and the informal pressures of peers, parents, and the general public. These are not merely interacting factors but a series of social relationships between each vertex of the square. All of the matrix of relationships needs to be charted. Moreover, the square of crime is related to the social structure, for each point of the square is constituted by the class, gender, race, and age of the individuals involved. In their endeavor to explore the total process of crime—the four points of the square of crime—left realists widened the usual scope of the crime survey. They incorporated a broad range of questions on victimization, including racial and sexual harassment, domestic violence (First Islington Crime Survey), child abuse (Second Islington Crime Survey), and commercial crimes (Second Islington Crime Survey); self-report questions on offenses committed; public evaluation of the police and other agencies (for example, local council, victim support schemes), beliefs about police illegalities, attitudes toward punishment, avoidance behaviors, public assessment of neighborhood problems, and so on. It was suggested that the range of the local survey could be extended even further: “It would be quite easy to add to a criminal victimization survey, a medical epidemiological questionnaire in order to measure the prevalence of illness caused by chemical pollution” (Young & Matthews, 1992, p. 14).

“There is”, as Lea pointed out, “no suggestion of completeness of the ‘square’ as if it were some form of structural functionalist formalism or set of a priori concepts specifying the dynamic of all forms of crime and crime control” (Lea, 2016, p. 59). For, “the interactions between the participants will vary for particular types of crime in particular types of community,” the square of crime is not static and, in fact, should be viewed as a “starting point for critical analysis of crime” (Lea, 2016). Left realism “involves an act of deconstruction” and the square of crime enables it to take

the phenomenon of crime apart, breaking it down to its component pieces and sequences . . . [and then to] . . . place together these fragments of the shape of crime in their social context over time—to capture the real forces behind the one-dimensional time-frozen images of conventional accounts.

(Young, 1987, p. 337)

This approach, as Lea elaborates,

applies equally to other parts of the square: victims, communities, and the criminal justice processes as they interact with each other and to the wider forms of social structure and power relations involving class, gender, ethnicity, politics, law, and the state and, of course, the economy. The purpose of deconstruction is to reconstruct at a more concrete and elaborate level, as a “rich totality of many determinations and relations.” Particular types of crime vary enormously in the relations of power, trust, or conflict between the particular participants to the “square.” . . . The methodology of the square of crime was . . . to see crime as a complex social construction (Lea, 2016, pp. 59–60, emphasis added).

Policy

For left realists, crime is the result of the injustice of victimization and inequality that gives rise to a breakdown in social order. This contrasts with those they describe as the realists of the right (e.g., James Q. Wilson), who view crime as unrelated to social justice, prioritize public order above all, and, therefore, advocate for disproportionately punitive action against minor crimes (as in the example of zero-tolerance policing) and the incapacitation of repeat offenders through long prison sentences. Left realists, on the contrary, argue that the legitimate and effective response to crime must be within the rule of law, that punishment must be proportional to the crime, and that police intervention must not go beyond the bounds of legality. The realist position on the criminal justice system is that every country is likely to “have a criminal justice system for the foreseeable future, and that accordingly one of the . . . central tasks is to figure out how to shape those systems in ways that maximize human rights, social inclusion, and solidarity” (Currie, 2010, p. 115).

Left realists advocate for both short-term policies and longer-term structural change. For left realists, to control crime, interventions should occur at all points of the square of crime. Legal action needs to be discussed, as do structural interventions directed at the causes of crime. Mobilization of public opinion and support of the victim will also have a part to play. Thus, left realists are critical of approaches that focus on just one part of the process: for, although more jobs, increased victim support, or public mobilization through Neighbourhood Watch schemes2 or the target-hardening of buildings (in terms of extra locks, reinforced doors, and other security measures) may make a difference, “intervention on one level alone—even if effective—will inevitably have declining marginal gains” (Young, 1992, p. 41). A multipronged strategy is necessary—although it is pointed out that interventions at the level of the social structure have priority over the others and are most effective in the long run.

Realists have tended to support multi-agency crime-control initiatives. A multi-agency approach can be defined as bringing together, in a planned and coordinated manner, the major social agencies (e.g., the police, social services, voluntary agencies, community representatives) to develop strategies to combat crime and help victims. Crime control in industrial societies is seen to be a multi-agency task, where the various agencies are dependent on each other and each agency, whether it is an agency dealing with domestic violence, child abuse, or youth offending, needs public support. The configuration of agencies involved will differ according to the crime and the stage at which it is being tackled.

Significantly, left realists saw the local survey as having a key role in the democratic process—illustrative of “social policy in action” (Lea, 2016, p. 56). Lea commented that for left realists “democracy was more than the sum of isolated opinions revealed in a social survey” (Lea, 2016). He described the thinking behind the Islington Crime Survey as follows:

The Islington Crime Survey (Jones et al., 1986) was careful to precede the survey with discussions and public meetings with dwellers in high-crime housing estates [projects] and other community groups. These helped garner public support for the survey and a consequent high response rate as well as helping to feed in key survey questions. A similar process followed the publication of the survey results. In other words, the survey is one vital component of a process of public democratic debate and opinion formation, part of an embryonic radical “public” sociology and criminology. In the radical conception of democracy, the split between individual opinions and “generative mechanisms” merges as policy-making becomes a conscious and collective process. The alternative is a dangerous potential for a conservative dependence on “the expert” (the criminologist, the local bureaucrat, the police commander) as the ultimate arbitrator of reality. (Lea, 2016, p. 56)

Lea pointed out that at the core of classic left realism—as elaborated in What Is To Be Done About Law and Order?—is the acknowledgment of the “educative and integrative function” (Lea & Young, 1984, p. 239) of democracy and the necessity of ensuring, “that all members of the community participate and to avoid a situation in which one section of the community either ignores the needs of others or mobilizes against them as ‘outsiders’” (Lea, 2016, p. 56). Thus,

left realism, in focusing on victimization in poor communities, was fully aware of the struggles of victim support organizations and in particular the movement by women’s groups to publicize hitherto silenced discourses on sexual assault and domestic violence as well as all forms of what would today be called ‘hate crime’ based on ethnicity or sexual orientation

and, similarly, “it is vital that those vulnerable to offending, victimization and anti-social behavior participate fully in the democratic structures of the community” (Lea, 2016).

Accordingly, left realism is considered “social democratic” in “its core analysis and implications,” that is, “social democratic with a small ‘s’ and a small ‘d’” (Currie, 2010, p. 115). For it comes as no surprise to left realists that there is an unequal distribution of the risk of harm for, as Currie noted, “serious violent crime is bred by inequality, community fragmentation, deprivation, and lack of supportive institutions (and some would add an accompanying culture of predation, harsh competition, and neglect),” with the blame placed on the criminogenic effect of capitalism and market society. As such,

societies that have set out to reduce inequalities of class and gender, to provide more generous social supports for vulnerable families and individuals, to counter the dominance of market relationships and imperatives generally, are less wracked by serious violence than those that haven’t (Currie, 2010, p. 116).

Change, for left realists, ultimately has to occur at the level of the social structure, but that does not “rule out the potential virtue of less sweeping changes” (Currie, 2010, p. 116).

The Critique of Left Realism

Left realism has been subject to a number of criticisms over the years, this section summarizes the criticisms that have been most frequently voiced.

Gender and Crime

In 1988, Loraine Gelsthorpe and Allison Morris suggested that while left realists note the influence of feminist work, they ignored “the significance of gender relations as a central factor in understanding most crimes against women and [made] no reference to a key concept for a feminist understanding of these crimes: male power” (p. 233). Hence, in early work, it is never fully acknowledged that women’s fear of crime is women’s fear of men (Mooney, 2000). Thus, left realism has been accused of being “gender-blind” (Edwards, 1989; Scraton, 1990) in its approach to women. Further, left realism’s original focus was largely on “mugging,” thefts, and other types of street crime (see Lea & Young, 1984), which led to an overwhelming emphasis on working-class experience and support for an economically based theory of crime causation. As Ian Taylor noted, such a class-based analysis resulted in seeing women victims as “honorary members of the core working class.” By not examining patriarchy and in concentrating on the lower socioeconomic groups and intraclass crime, realism “does not deal ‘seriously’, we may say—to appropriate a left realist use of terms—with the independent importance of patriarchy and sexual inequality across the social formation as a whole” (Taylor, 1992, p. 106). Violence against women is not class-specific: domestic violence occurs throughout the class structure (Mooney, 2000). However, left realists, especially those working in Canada and the United States, have pointed out that this criticism is somewhat unfair, because left realists were among the first critical criminologists to recognize the importance of feminist theorizing (DeKeseredy & Schwartz, 2018). Indeed, it was feminist work that led left realists to recognize “the limits of the romantic conception of crime and the criminal” and discussions “around the issue served to introduce into radical criminology discourse neglected issues of etiology, motivation, and punishment” (Matthews & Young, 1986, p. 2). Furthermore, as already noted, realists did explore men’s violence and the social construction of masculinity—albeit from a largely materialist position. However, it is certainly true to say that there is still a lack of a left realist analysis of women’s offending and, as a result, realism would benefit, as DeKeseredy (2016a) argues, from the input of feminist scholarship in this area, for example, that of Claire Renzetti (2013), Kerry Carrington (2015), and Meda Chesney-Lind and Merry Morash (2013).

A Note on Feminist Realism

Left realism subsequently influenced the emergence of a feminist realism, which combined concepts derived from radical feminism and left realism (see Ahluwalia, 1992; Mooney, 2000; Walklate, 1992). In Gender, Violence and the Social Order (Mooney, 2000), a feminist realist framework was utilized to help explain the prevalence and impact of men’s violence against women in domestic relationships: radical feminism is able to point to the causes of domestic violence, while realism helps to explain the factors that prevent women from leaving violent men and why men are able to get away with such violence. Importantly, both positions emphasize the gendered distribution (that is, it is largely men against women) and widespread nature of violence against women. For radical feminists, violence is seen as central to maintaining patriarchal order. It is a powerful means of subordinating women and serves as key mechanism of social control. The left realist stress on structural inequalities explains why women have less access to money and resources and are frequently economically dependent on men and/or the state. A “realist” policy agenda is also proposed within this analysis, which considers short-term initiatives that are directed at controlling offenders, supporting and protecting the victim, mobilizing agencies, and raising public awareness. This agenda is linked to long-term structural change, in particular that of changing gender relations and challenging patriarchal and capitalist systems of oppression. Moreover, feminist and realist insights into the researching of sensitive subjects were brought together to explore the levels and impact of domestic violence in North London (The North London Domestic Violence Survey). This involved a variation of the crime survey method, incorporating quantitative and qualitative methods, sensitive interviewing techniques, and self-complete questionnaires. A feminist realist perspective is also seen in the work of North American left realists, for example, that of Walter DeKeseredy and Marty Schwartz. A key development in this area was DeKeseredy and Schwartz’s (2002) integration of an economic exclusion/left realist position with a feminist/male peer support model to explain woman abuse in public housing.

Essentialism

It has been argued that realism suffers from the problem of essentialism. This is made clear in Pat Carlen’s 1992 paper where she accused left realism of attributing “to the common-sense phenomenon ‘crime’—a phenomenon that consists of many different types of law-breaking and many different modes of criminalization—a unitary existence known to all people of good will and common sense” (p. 59; see also Smart, 1990, p. 77). Carlen suggested that the populist tendency in realist politics, the tendency to appeal to the common sense of all people and to see the crime problem as a “unifier,” contributes to this essentialism. Alison Young and Peter Rush suggested that such populism is facilitated by invoking the notion that everyone is a victim: As “a soi-disant new criminology once put it, we are all deviants (now,) we are all victims. . . . To be a victim is to be a citizen, . . . (thus) class, age, race, gender are, for realism, only secondary characteristics of the victim” (Young, A. & Rush, 1994, p. 159). As a counter to this, left realists would emphasize that their starting point—whether focusing on victims or offenders or community members—is that of class, race, gender, age, and so on, and, therefore, they work within an intersectional framework. Additionally, by focusing on the reaction to crime or antisocial activities, left realists address how such behaviors are socially constructed and affected by the attitudes and perceptions of those in power.

Method

Left realists, as we have seen, favor local crime surveys. However, it is acknowledged that the use of face-to-face, doorstep interviews, even with sensitive interviewing techniques and a concern with the whole gamut of crime, is likely to lead to an underestimation of crimes such as domestic and sexual violence against women (Crawford et al., 1990; Mooney, 2000). Therefore, while it is claimed that the First Islington Crime Survey “discovered that an alarming proportion of assault—22%—is domestic in nature” (Jones et al., 1986, p. 63), this, in fact, translates to an incidence rate (number of incidents uncovered) of just 8%. The prevalence rate (the number of women affected) would be even lower because of multiple victimization. Although this is a higher percentage than that generated by the first national British Crime Surveys, the hidden figure of domestic violence is still likely to be considerable; thus, conclusions drawn about its distribution and impact must be treated with caution. Women who have experienced domestic violence are likely to be too fearful or embarrassed to talk about their experiences to an interviewer, and the perpetrator may also be near the interview situation, which will obviously inhibit response (Mooney, 2000; Walklate, 1989). There is also a general lack of reflexivity in the realist research process (D. Currie, 1992; Ruggiero, 1992). As Ruggiero suggested,

Their square of crime should evolve into a pentagon, the fifth vertex being occupied by observers. . . . The realists lack the kind of reflexivity which would be necessary to explain the social condition of the existence of their own discipline and its role in constructing and shaping social problems. They do not consider how their own subjectivity and their own role may influence “realistic” depictions of social phenomena (Ruggiero, 1992, pp. 136–138, original emphasis).

Further, an approach that largely focuses on the collection of quantitative data cannot fully explore the nature of a person’s experiences: as Sandra Walklate noted, surveys do not, “necessarily offer a ‘real’ picture, a totality of that individual's response to the incidents” (Walklate, 1992, p. 290).

At the most straightforward level, qualitative data can help with the interpretation of quantitative data (Jupp, 1989) and with moving “from the discovery of correlations to the imputation of social causality” (Young & Matthews, 1992, p. 15). For to understand causality it is necessary to comprehend the meaning and the decisions of the actors involved:

Correlation merely tells us about the juxtaposition and the possibility of social causation. It does not prove causality; it merely insinuates it. Such an insinuation may be high off the mark; high correlation maybe fortuitous and of no causal significance; low correlation may occlude actual causation, which occurs in a few instances where the right combination of circumstances occurs. Qualitative methods can allow us to put the causal flesh on the bones of the empirical findings [that] the mass survey provides us with.

(Mooney, 2000, p. 134)

This is not to suggest that realists were unaware of the importance of qualitative methods (see Young & Matthews, 1992), and many of the surveys did include some open-ended questions. With later realist research stressing that qualitative methods were essential if people’s “lived realties” were to be portrayed (see Mooney, 2000). It is of note that Jock Young’s work, from The Drug Takers (1971) to his forays into cultural criminology, always recognized and stressed the importance of ethnographic work and qualitative interviewing. He constantly fought against the “lure of empiricism,” “quantophilia,” and the “voodoo criminology” that continue to dominate mainstream criminological discourse in the United States (see Young, The Criminological Imagination, 2011).

Omissions

Left realism has frequently been presented as having an overwhelming emphasis on street crime and urban environments. However, as DeKeseredy observes, realism has in actuality “proven itself to be applicable to a wide range of what Lea (2016, p. 54) defines as ‘expanding criminalities’,” including rural crime (DeKeseredy, 2021; DeKeseredy & Donnermeyer, 2008; Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014), antifeminist fathers’ rights groups activism (Dragiewicz, 2010), and aspects of green (Lea, 2016) and southern criminology (Carrington, 2019). DeKeseredy and Donnermeyer, for example, not only developed a rural square of crime (DeKeseredy, 2016a; Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014) but support Wood’s position, “that rural areas can also be impacted by working-class crime provides much to the left realist argument that the study of such behavior must go beyond the perspectives which have been fed to scholars for a long time now” (Wood, 1990, p. 14, cited in DeKeseredy, 2016a, p. 19). Yet, there is a notable lack of work with Indigenous peoples or that which emerges from LGBTQI communities (see DeKeseredy, 2016a). As DeKeseredy recommended, we should “at every public or virtual gathering of realist scholars ‘be conscious of who is there and that we are not hearing their perspectives’ (Gilfus et al., 1999, p. 1207) [and] . . . left realism must be more inclusive to truly advance and grow in strength” (DeKeseredy, 2016a, p. 14).

Additionally, there is as Matthews (2014) and DeKeseredy (2016a) acknowledge, little discussion in left realism of new social media and its impact. Hence, in his book Realist Criminology, Matthews referred to the possibility of a closer relationship between cultural criminology and left realism, which may “provide some foundation for developing a cultural realism” (2014, p. 108). Young, before his death, was returning to a more left realist position: he expressed unease with how little contemporary criminology, including cultural criminology, evidenced commitment to a notion of praxis and the concerns of ordinary working people. He looked forward to a synthesis between cultural criminology and left realism: “There is,” he wrote in his foreword to the 40th anniversary edition of The New Criminology, “a certain serendipity with regard to a synthesis between realism and cultural criminology because both fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: one depicts the form of social interaction that we call crime, while the second breathes human life into it” (2013, p. xxxiv). Cultural criminology brings to the square of crime “meaning, energy, and emotion: it turns its formal structure into a lived reality” (p. xxxviii).

Concluding Comments

What drove prominent left realists, such as Jock Young, to move away from engagement with Labour Party politics, local government policy, and eventually a realist agenda was the election of Tony Blair and the New Labour government in 1997. Tony Blair is well known for his couplet “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” which is essentially a left realist statement. Blair first used the phrase in a 1993 article for the U.K. political magazine The New Statesman—“Why Crime Is a Socialist Issue.” The last part of the couplet it was hoped would mean that the causes of crime would be located in the deep structures of society. But this was not so: “socialism” soon went from Blair’s vocabulary, and “tough on crime” was to mean punishment and support for a large-scale prison system, with “tough on the causes of crime” locating the causes within the family and poor parenting. James Q. Wilson, with his zero-tolerance policing strategies, influenced central U.K. government policy, together with John DiLulio (1995), the right-wing advocate of the American prison experiment, and Charles Murray.3 Taking on board much of the Conservative rhetoric about the underclass and fecklessness as causes of crime (Mooney, 2003), New Labour found Murray’s idea of “underclass” attractive: that is, those who were “unwilling to work, rather than as, in the social democratic version of William Julius Wilson, those cut off from work” (Matthews & Young, 2003, p. 39). As left realists argued, genuine social inclusion is not to be confused with New Labour’s policies of coercive inclusion in the labor market at poverty wages or forcefully created families backed by the threat of hostel accommodation for single mothers (Mooney, 2003). New Labour’s flirtation with Murray, in particular, whose 1994 tract (with Richard Herrnstein) The Bell Curve caused outrage with his claim that Black Americans had lower IQs than whites and his advocacy for the abolition of welfare payments to single mothers, was profoundly disturbing. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, despite vocal opposition, agreed to share a speaking platform with Murray, while Murray was visiting the United Kingdom at the invitation of The Sunday Times (see Mooney, 2019). Jock Young (2000) questioned Murray’s visit and why “alarm bells” were not going off given the extraordinary racial focus of the United States’ “carceral experiment.” The figures of one in three African Americans in prison, on probation, or parole, he said, are “staggering” and if you include “have ever” figures and focused on poor Black people there would be “sizeable slices” of the United States where to be “untouched by the law” would be “regarded as strange.” He concluded that:

To attempt to learn crime control from the United States is rather like travelling to Saudi Arabia to learn about women's rights. The one lesson to be learnt is not to travel down this path of punishment, to realize that if it takes a gulag to maintain a winner-takes-all society, then it is society that must be changed rather than the prison expanded.4

As Sandra Walklate observed, Jock Young’s subsequent publication of The Exclusive Society (1999) and The Vertigo of Late Modernity (2007) revealed his “disenchantment [with] and critique of Labour Party politics and policies” (2015, p. 123).

But this did not mean that the left realist project was over—quite the contrary! Elliott Currie’s 2010 article “Plain Left Realism: An Appreciation, and Some Thoughts for the Future” helped to illustrate left realism’s continuing importance, as did the conversation that was generated by Matthews’ Realist Criminology (2014). Currie, underscoring the need to call left realism “left realism” without capital letters to separate it from the British politics that led to its emergence, argued that it is “not only an essential perspective on the problems of crime and justice in the early 21st century, but it is the perspective that offers the best hope of providing the intellectual underpinnings for a genuinely progressive approach to crime around the world” (2010, p. 113). Left realism has the potential to fill the “vacuum in public discourse and policy around crime and justice” (Currie, 2010). Currie’s arguments are still of relevance today.

In “Plain Left Realism” Currie outlined several important “steps for the future.” These included for left realism “to grapple with the very complex question of what a genuinely progressive criminal justice system would look like” with a “revitalized conception of ‘rehabilitation’” (2010, p. 119), together with how to “develop better proposals . . . to create stable communities of dignity and opportunity” (p. 120). This would require “the capacity to intimately comprehend the contours of local social and economic problems,” and “to apply lessons from around the world [and other disciplines] in grappling with them” (p. 113). Left realism has to become “truly global” for, as in the case of violence, not only is there a “vast disparity between the distribution of the problem of violence and what criminologists focus on,” but also left realism is “well positioned to provide an exploration of violence, in countries such as Mexico,” as it “takes seriously the fearful toll of violence while rigorously linking it to larger social and economic forces” (p. 121). Thus, left realism “offers the best hope for clarifying the roots of this crisis [and others in the Global South] and putting forward credible strategies for addressing it” (p. 121). Left realism, Currie argued, should, in addition, “devote more attention to mass crimes against humanity” (p. 121). Again, it is well positioned for this because of

left realism’s commitment to taking crime seriously: its insistence that crime comes from somewhere, and is driven by some kinds of social organization more than others; its willingness to take on the difficult job of looking for workable solutions to crime that flow from causal analysis; and its insistence that doing so is part of the duty of the criminologist—all of these will necessarily be part of the toolkit of scholars who want to seriously explore these most destructive of crimes, and who see their reduction as a social and moral imperative.

(Currie, 2010, p. 121, emphasis added)

Finally, there is a need “to close the gap between the intellectual accomplishments of left realism” and its impact on “social policy and the practice of justice in the real world” (Currie, 2010, p. 121; see also Currie & DeKeseredy, 2019). This should involve working “assertively to reshape the processes and incentives of the academic world itself in ways that make the universities a more hospitable place for the more engaged, holistic, and progressive work” that critical criminologists do and “the creation of more organizations beyond academia . . . [that are] seriously international and cross-disciplinary” (Currie, 2010, p. 122). For “the core logic of a left realist analysis points to the need to consider crime holistically, not in isolation from such problems as unemployment, concentrated poverty or disruptive economic development” (Currie, 2010).

In whatever direction left realism develops, its starting point remains the concerns of “ordinary” people who are impacted by crime. For—to sum up this discussion—essential to left realism, as Currie so succinctly put it, is the position of

taking crime seriously; recognizing that it disproportionately afflicts the most vulnerable; understanding its roots in the economic disadvantages, social deficits and cultural distortions characteristic of (but not limited to) predatory capitalism; insisting that those conditions are modifiable by concerted social action; and acknowledging the usefulness of some smaller-scale interventions that stand the test of evidence—while rejecting as counterproductive and unjust the massive expansion of repression as a response to crime.

[These] are also propositions that are well supported—indeed, uniquely supported—by evidence, both of research and of history. This is a record that should give us considerable confidence—and maybe even a little pride—particularly again when we compare ourselves to the alternatives.

(2010, p. 118)

Further Reading

  • Currie, E. (1985). Confronting crime. Pantheon.
  • DeKeseredy, W., & Schwartz, M. (2005). Left realist theory. In S. Henry & M. Lanier (Eds.), The essential criminology reader. Westview.
  • Lea, J., & Young, J. (1984). What is to be done about law and order? Penguin.
  • Matthews, R. (2014). Realist criminology. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Young, J. (1997). Left realist criminology: Radical in its analysis, realist in policy. In M. Maguire, R. Morgan, & R. Reiner (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of criminology. Clarendon Press.

References

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Notes

  • 1. The Islington Crime Surveys were replicated in 2016 by Roger Matthews and a group of researchers from the University of Kent. The 2016 survey, which was also supported by Islington Council, aimed to identify changes that had occurred in the 30 years since the first survey (Islington Crime Surveys).

  • 2. The National Neighbourhood Watch Scheme was started in the United Kingdom in 1982. It aimed to foster close relations between households in a neighborhood and the local police, encouraging neighbors to be extra vigilant and to report suspicious incidents, as well as to improve home security. It proved to be highly controversial, with those involved becoming known as “Thatcher’s Troops” (Moores, 2017), after Margaret Thatcher and her emphasis on individual responsibility.

  • 3. A key research influence on the Labour Party was the work of David Farrington, who (with Michael Tonry (Farrington & Tonry, 1995)) prioritized above all “development prevention” as the major strategy to combat crime: that is, intervention in the family and the school to ensure that the development of the child occurs in a way that is “normal” and ipso facto nondelinquent. Hence, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, at a Nexus Conference on the Third Way held in London, spoke of how good schools occur in poor areas because of good head teachers and that poverty does not link with crime because many impoverished families have good parenting skills (Mooney, 2003, p. 107).

  • 4. Jock Young ended his links with the Labour Party by cutting up his membership card and throwing it out of the window of his Hackney home, only for some hopeful soul to tape it back together and post it through his letter box (Mooney, 2019).