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Study Notes

Left Realism

AS, A Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 22 Nov 2017

Left realists, like Lea and Young (1984), have their roots in Marxism and radical criminology yet criticise Marxists for their "left idealism".

Their argument with traditional Marxists and others on the left is that:

  • Crime and the fear of crime are very real social problems that should be taken seriously, and actually most victims are working class
  • Therefore, sociologists should consider solutions to all crime and not view only white-collar and corporate crime as a problem

They identify a number of causes of crime, including subcultures, marginalisation / social exclusion and, most importantly, relative deprivation.  

Relative deprivation

Relative deprivation refers to inequality: the idea that people are deprived (materially or otherwise) compared with others in society.  

Left realists suggest that this, together with marginalisation and subcultures, is a significant cause of crime.  This perspective differs from a more traditional Marxist view that poverty (and therefore capitalism) causes crime; they argue that people were better off in the 1980s (when they were writing) than they were in the 1930s, yet crime was much worse in the 1980s. The difference is not that people are poorer, but that they live in close proximity with people who are much richer.  Although the divide between rich and poor was greater in the 1930s, those in poverty were less aware of the lives of the wealthy because society was more socially segregated.  Today, particularly in cities, people on the poverty line may well live on the next street to the very rich.  

This conspicuous inequality could be a significant cause of crime, according to left realists. It was also a key factor in social exclusion: people feeling they did not have a stake in society, were on the margins, and in the formation of subcultures. Both were factors in criminality. Left realists also argue that the process of globalisation (see globalisation and crime below) has exacerbated this problem by exporting many manufacturing jobs to the developing world, and increasing unemployment and social exclusion in post-industrial countries like the UK.

Left realists favour police reform to create a more consensual force that would better represent the population it polices. If there were genuine consensus policing and the public had more confidence in the police, they would report more crimes. The public would work with the police rather than feel threatened by them and ultimately this would improve the policing for communities and reduce crime.

A significant part of the reform was the inclusion of more democracy in the police. Interestingly, David Cameron's coalition government introduced elected police and crime commissioners, first elected into position in 2012. Although that was not exactly what left realists proposed - they preferred directly-elected police authorities - the rationale behind the new post was very similar, despite coming from a different political perspective.

Ultimately the left realist propose that social order will come from a fairer, more equal society. They argue that this is not just the responsibility of the police or the government but of everyone; and partnerships between a wide array of agencies and individuals need to exist in order to reduce the problem of crime. This philosophy was at the heart of much police and crime policy under the Tony Blair government after 1997 and can be summed up by his famous soundbite: "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

Evaluating Left Realism

  • One problem with left realism is that its central proposal is arguably still quite idealistic rather than realistic. Yes, a fairer, more equal society might well have less crime than the one we currently live in, but is that any more realistic a proposal than more traditional Marxists who argue that we need a revolution?
  • If social exclusion and marginalisation cause crime then it might be expected that women would commit more crimes than men in a patriarchal society, and yet this is not the case. Feminists, therefore, would criticise left (and right) realism as being "malestream" for ignoring gender as a factor.
  • While the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government introduced directly-elected police and crime commissioners in 2012, there is no evidence to suggest that this increased public support for or confidence in the police. The average turnout was 15% for the elections in 2012; and while it increased to 26% in 2016, there were still areas where turnout was as low as 17%. The 2012 election was held on the same day as the Welsh Assembly and English local government elections which artificially increased the turnout. The reality is that the public have little or no interest in the police and crime commissioners and most could not name them or say what party, if any, they represented. In some towns nobody cast a vote for a commissioner at all. This reform has not changed the relationship between the public and the police in the way left realists hoped.


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