What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Realist Criminologies?

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  • Topic: Criminology, Crime, Sociology
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What are the strengths and weaknesses of realist criminologies?

To answer this question, I begin by exploring how right and left realisms emerged as criminological theories in response to radical criminologies. I examine fundamental realism principles, including consideration of commonalities and differences, eg, how they view the cause of crime, their policy implications, etc. From here, I move on to explore their strengths and weaknesses, including what they overlook. Finally, I evaluate how right and left realisms measure up as paradigm examples of theory when compared to the criminologies they superseded.

Realist criminologies emerged in the 1980s as a reaction to radical criminologies of previous decades. The latter shifted the focus of criminology from classicism, with its principles of rational choice and free will (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p7), and from positivism, which propounded that individuals are not responsible for their own actions for biological, psychological and sociological reasons (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p9). In broad terms, radical criminologies such as interactionism, labelling, Marxism and critical criminology concentrate on processes of criminalisation (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p34). These theories study structural factors such as societal relationships and power dynamics, claiming that these perpetuate criminal/deviant behaviour – people become their ascribed labels (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p36). However, such theories have little or no practical political edge, and thus are limited in how well they translate into effective policy. Realist theories represented a significant break from these radical criminologies. They developed in a context of public/political concern with law and order (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p45). The Conservative party was in government and took a tough stance against crime, setting measures to tackle what was perceived to be a growing problem – ideologies which inspired right realism. In reaction, and to stay in the political game, left wing criminologists developed left realism whilst concomitantly shaking off a tight connection to radical criminologies (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p49). I now describe the fundamental principles of realist theories, starting with right realism.

Right realism blends classicism and individual positivism elements into a theory rejecting structural/social impacts on crime. Instead, it propounds that crime results from individuals’ lack of self-control and responsibility, coupled with waning moral standards – the latter being evidenced by poor parenting, erosion of ‘the family’, and welfare dependency. According to right realism, these factors collude to form an ‘underclass’ highly disposed to criminality (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p47). In keeping with 19th century Victorians, Murray differentiates between ‘regular’ poor people and the underclass of ‘dishonest poor’ (2003, p127). He suggests that illegitimacy and single parenthood are key characteristics of the underclass (2003, pp129-130), and that the absence of fathers impacts deleteriously on communities (2003, pp132-133). Furthermore, Murray believes that young male underclass members who chose not to work are harming the community and contributing to familial breakdown (2003, p139). This community fragmentation results in increased property crime and burglary, theft and violent crime (Murray, 2003, pp134-135). The foundations for this selfish underclass behaviour are impossible to pinpoint/treat and so crime cannot be ‘cured’, leading right realists to advocate deterrence of crime through a strong criminal justice system dispensing swift and assured punishments (Muncie and McLaughlin, 2004, p47).

By contrast, left realism argues that crime can only be tackled effectively by looking at its causes. Unlike positivism, which believes that anti-social/criminal behaviour is predetermined...
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