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Sociology has kindled the passion to observe and study societal and individual behaviour for decades. A questionable topic however, arises when Sociologists tend to examine, criticise and evaluate extreme human behaviour, particularly regarding the subject of Crime and Deviance. Nevertheless, crime and deviance take a different aspect when seen through the perspectives of Left and Right Realism. This essay will critically evaluate Left Realism as a means of explaining its main principles towards Crime and Deviance. The discussion will also engage with the criticisms of left realism and identify the contradictory perspectives.
During the 1980s, Left realism emerged as a dominant theory primarily in Great Britain, driven partly by sheer discontent with the disreputable rise of crime and deviance rates of the time and partially influenced by the prevailing political climate. Jock Young and John Lea remain as the most significant sociologists working in the field of Left Realism, while American sociologists James Wilson and Richard Hernstein thrive on the subject of Right Realism.
Starting from Britain, Left Realism also started to influence parts of Canada and Australia. Left Realist perspectives are generally critical of perspectives which consider longer and harsher sentences and numerous prisons as a solution to crime. In particular, left realists were extremely critical of the way that fundamental criminological theories demonstrated a portrayal of criminals as 'political catalysts against bourgeois hegemony' and therefore, to attempt to explain criminal behaviour in terms of it being a revolution against the injustices imposed upon the majority of the population by the ruling classes (Moore, 1991)
'Lea and Young (1984) describe themselves as practical socialists and support the reform of society rather than revolutionary changed advocated by Marxists,'(Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 345). Young suggests that being 'tough' on crime is significant, but an attempt in trying to change social factors that cause and create crime in the first instance and readily important as well. Focusing on the varying situations and eras that become a part of societies universally, Left Realists have produced an overall theory is set to deal with different aspects of crime and justice.
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The main focus of Left Realists relies heavily on crimes that are not considered serious and need to be resolved. Young therefore, argues that a high increase in crime has occurred since the Second World War. Although a number of sociologists may discard the crime statistics recorded as unreliable, Young believes the rises have been so great 'that changes in reporting and recording cannot account for all of the increase.' (Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 345) The Left Realist approach also categorizes the working class as more susceptible to street crime than the rich. 'In the USA, figures indicate that black men and women are more likely to be murdered than to die in a road accident,' (Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 345)
'Crime is one form of egoistic response to deprivation. Its roots are in justice but its growth often perpetrates injustice,' (Lea and Young, 1984: 72).
Young and Lea explain that crime is an inevitable consequence of a social situation in which a particular group feels that it is subject to disadvantages. For instance, a situation whereby there is a common ideological drive to measure success in material goods but barriers occur to the attainment of these goals for some members of society. In such a situation, particularly if there appears to be no way of improving the obstacles, crime is certain to result. Young and Lea also found that a rising crime rate is an unavoidable consequence to the rising expectations of living standards. To Young, Relative Deprivation can cause frustration, which can ultimately cause violence.
Subculture is another factor which is used as an explanation to crime by Left Realists. According to Young, if a group within a society share relative deprivation, they will by default produce a group that allows them collectively to deal with problems. The concept of Marginalization however, refers to groups that lack official bodies to represent their interest in political life. Lea and Young argue that marginal groups are more prone to violence, in the form of riots or strikes generally as a result of lack of political action directed towards their groups.
Solutions with practical features were provided by Young, Lea and Kinsey towards changing the crime rates. According to a research, 90 per cent of crimes known to the police are notified to them by the public.
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However, in recent years, the share of public has lost credibility in referring to the police. ' The Police Studies institute found that in 1983, 75 per cent of black British people in London aged 15-24 thought that the police fabricated evidence,'(Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 347).
This particular situation results in military policing (Kinsey et al), where a large number of stop and search incidents occur. For instance, during the Brixton riots in 1981, the police started to stop and search every passer by suspected of offences. Young on the other hand, expresses his views regarding the focus of policing on minor instead of serious crimes i.e. drug offences and underage drinking.
While Kinsey focuses on the improvement of crime, Young is driven towards the improvement of living standards and the reduction of low-wage incomes. Alongside Matthews, Young is in favour of raising leisure facilities for the young, reducing income inequalities, raising the living standard of poor families and unemployment will enhance 'cohesion and belonging to reduce crime,'(Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 348).
Vital participation is also encouraged by the public besides the police and state resorting to performance. The multi-agency approach, introduced by Young, is a concept that promotes shorter-term and easily achievable methods in achieving lower crime rates.
By encouraging councils to refurbish and improve house conditions, families encouraging moral context through religion and culture, and social services with improved security can reduce the amount of potential crime victims.
The previously mentioned methods of dealing with crime have therefore, been further moulded into a specific theory known as 'The Square of Crime' theory. As Figure 1.0 shows below, Left Realists present a practical portrayal of explaining crime by focusing on all the aspects and the four elements of the state, offender, informal control and the victim, unlike the other approaches of Marxists and Labelling Theorists.
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'Each particular form of crime will have a different set of determinants within this framework and will involve a different combination of the key elements within the square. Thus corporate crime and street crime involve different types of victim-offender relation and are regulated by a different combination of formal and informal controls.'
-Matthews and Young, 1992
The square is further discussed by Young as an important element for understanding any type of crime. Together, they determine the cause of the crime as well as the crime itself. The Square of Crime can further be illustrated by an example. A society must have laws prohibiting a certain action, which is then performed by an offender towards a victim. During this process, the victim may or may not be offended by the performed offence (wives reluctant to report domestic violence). This factor therefore, determines the impact of the crime on the public as a whole itself.
When reported, the police authorities hold the decision again to define the offender as a criminal or not. Changes in any of these areas therefore, can heavily influence crime.
Left Realism highly contradicts with existing theories of crime and deviance. However, a certain level of criticism is often expressed towards their own particular theories.
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Although the Left Realist approach investigates the causes and explanation of crime rates, the research heavily relies on quantitative material and speculation. Gordon Hughes agrees on this criticism,' New Left Realism offers no empirical account of the subjective worlds of the street criminal but, instead, appears to rely for the most part on speculation,' (Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 349). The focus on victimisation studies has therefore, neglected an equal attention towards the motives of offenders.
Hughes also criticises the subculture theory by comparing it to the errors which were introduced by the existing theories. The repeated mistakes are inclusive of the generalisation of similar culture values throughout society. The concentration on ethnic minority groups further creates an unannounced stereotype. Moreover, Left Realism also tends to simplify crime by 'reducing law-breaking to the effects of deprivation and selfishness.'(Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 349)
Regarding relative deprivation, Stephen Jones considers the argument of one individual turning towards crime due to deprivation while the other remains stable. Left Realism fails to address this particular situation. Jones further argues that the theory is better applied to property crime than violent due to individuals conforming towards theft and burglary as a medium to resolve their material problems.
When individuals are studied under the victimization process, Jones believes that the 'victims are only empowered at the level of providing information,' (Haralambos & Holborn: 2008, 350). Therefore, left realists only listen to victims on certain issues. Ruggiero (1992) further argues that the theory of left realists also tends to neglect detailed investigation into thorough crime. For instance, offenders can themselves become victims of crime organizations (prostitution and drug trafficking offenders being exploited).
Nonetheless, critics conclusively acknowledge the work performed by Left Realists as it has brought an insight into useful sociological concepts, promoted debate and theoretical development as well as highlighted problems of street crimes aimed towards weaker members of society. Left Realists have also explored the conditions of victims than other theories, while presenting a neutral view towards policing and state agencies.
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The most prominent contribution performed by Left Realists is their influential result on policies concerning crime.
The Neighbourhood Policing is a major outcome of Left Realism, involving dedicated groups of officers working towards the betterment of local communities through public meetings and discussions. Police Community Support is another important consequence which involves police employees working together with police officers.
In conclusion, Left Realism has been examined for its negative and positive aspects by various sociologists. Although the approach has been criticised for its vagueness and narrowly-focused views at times, it has, however, provided a building block upon which other theories can build a broader and more wide-ranging explanation of criminality.