Realism and Right Realism | tutor2u Sociology
Study notes

Realism and Right Realism

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Many traditional sociological theories of crime are criticised for being too theoretical, too abstract and not useful in terms of developing social policy.  For realists, crime is a real social problem that requires solutions. As such, sociological theory and research should inform policy. Conclusions like crime being functional, or the product of labelling, or criminals being victims of capitalism are not useful for policy-makers.

However, while all realist sociologists argue that criminology should treat crime as a real problem, they do not all have the same perspective on the nature of that problem or the possible solutions.  Realist sociologists divide into two groups: right realists and left realists.

Right Realism

Right realists like James Q. Wilson argue that most traditional criminology is unhelpful for policymakers who try to deal with crime as a real problem. Their view on what causes crime is similar to some functionalist theories; thisis particularly true of the New Right. 

New Right sociologist, Charles Murray developed the idea of an underclass.  He suggested that the welfare state created dependency; and that there were perverse incentives in the welfare system which could encourage single parenthood and discourage working for a living.  He argued that generations of young boys grew up without male role models and without the example of paid employment, leading to a criminal underclass of jobless, welfare-dependent, dysfunctional people. However, realists are more interested in crime prevention and control than why people commit crimes in the first place.

Right realists share the view of functionalists like Travis Hirschi that firm social bonds and tight-knit communities help to prevent crime. They argue that even minor crime needs to be dealt with rigorously through policies like zero tolerance in order to maintain social order and coherent communities.  This idea was expressed most famously in the broken windows theory.

Evaluating Right Realism

  • The New Right explanations for crime and deviance, shared by right realists, are disputed by some sociologists. For example, although children from lone-parent families are more likely to commit crimes than those from two-parent families (by 10-15%) they are more likely to commit low-level, anti-social behaviour rather than serious crime. Furthermore, it is impossible to isolate lone-parent families as the factor from other factors like social class and ethnicity which may be more significant.
  • The view that people choose to commit crimes because they see a lack of community cohesion, while obversely, they choose not to commit crimes where such cohesion is apparent, suggests that crime is a rational choice. The same applies to the supposition that people are deterred from crime by the thought of tough punishments. Post-modernist sociologists challenge the notion that people weigh up the costs and benefits of crimes before committing them; they suggest that the thrill of taking risks is part of what is alluring about criminal activity. From that perspective, the bigger the danger, the more appealing the crime might appear.

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