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What are the strengths and weaknesses of realist criminologies?

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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evaluate how right and left realisms measure up as paradigm examples of theory when compared to the criminologies they superseded.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).


Currie argues that ignoring social and structural factors and instead pursuing capitalism and a right-wing free market model of service demand/supply promotes crime by increasing inequality, fragmenting the family, creating competition for resources and stripping away public provision of basic services for vulnerable people (Currie, 2003, pp370-373). Instead, a long-term strategy against crime should focus on reducing societal inequalities and promoting competent citizenship via supportive labour market policy and investment in families and young people (Currie, 2003, pp375-377). Moving on to weaknesses, both realist theories share two major limitations, with wide-ranging implications. These are: (i) an acceptance of normative/populist constructions of crime, criminals and criminal behaviour; (ii) a focus on street crime, which offers no opportunities for tackling crimes of the powerful. Due to this commonality, it is useful to consider both realisms together initially. Firstly, realist theories concur with media and statistical representations of the stereotypical criminal being a young, little-educated, unemployed male from a minority ethnic background, living in a poor inner-city neighbourhood (Box, 2004, p272; Lea and Young, pp144-145). This ignores that crime is intra-class and intra-racial (Young, 2004, p322) and can fuel 'moral panics' ie, media, political and public over-reaction to particular social groupings or certain events (Muncie, 2001, p54).


With the seriousness of crime firmly in mind, realist theories offer practical preventive and punitive policies for crime. Right and left realisms share many characteristics, such as an unquestioning perspective of crime as an empirical entity, and a belief that the 'problem of crime' must be tackled. However, their approaches are very different: the right takes a hard stance against what it sees as declining moral standards to maintain social order; the left sees tackling relative deprivation and marginalisation as key to challenging crime through enhanced social justice. Both theories can be seen to be contradictory: right realism says people chose to commit crimes, but that these choices are rooted in genetics; left realism says social factors are key to tackling crime, yet overlooks institutional oppression and inequalities. A criticism of realist theories is that the close focus on ordinary crime overlooks the serious social harms that arise from organised, state and corporate crimes - something to which radical criminologies are more open. When examining criminological theories, it becomes apparent that they both inform and are informed by each other; elements of early criminology can be seen in present day theories. No theory in isolation gets everything right. However, perhaps future criminologists might pursue a combination of practicable principles to inspire political policy that deters against crime and addresses social factors to reduce crime, thus enhancing quality of life for all social groupings.

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