1. What is meant by the term ‘critical election’ and why is that important in this instance to the rise of realist criminological theories?
For Evans and Norris (1999), a ‘critical election’ involves a radical realignment of, and ruptures in, the ideological basis of competition between political parties. Such ideological changes often have important and long-lasting consequences for public policy agendas, which of course include criminal justice policy.
Critical elections are important for the rise of so-called ‘realist’ criminological theories because during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the national politics of both the UK and the US turned to the right.
Successful right-wing governments put forward neo-liberal economic arguments and had socially conservative views and policies. There was a perception of increasing crime rates, some instances of urban unrest, and a developing fear of crime, and these factors informed the development of right-realist perspectives—which meant calls for tougher crime control strategies, a strengthening of ‘social order’, and so on.
Left-wing variants of realism were in turn influenced by critical elections as they emerged as a challenge to the right-wing criminal justice policies, calling for approaches which prioritised social justice.
2. What, according to Platt and Takagi (1977), are three common themes which unite right realism and give it a form of coherence?
Platt and Takagi (1977) originally identified three common themes that unite right realism and lend it coherence. These are:
- A focus on ‘street crime’. Right realists are united in focusing entirely on legal definitions of crime and in particular on ‘street crime’.
- Anti-intellectualism. Right realists reject any deep analysis of the ‘causes of crime’, especially the idea that crime might have social and economic causes (sociological variants of positivism).
- A focus on punishing criminals. Right realists see what they call ‘predatory street crime’ as the most urgent and damaging threat to a particular ‘way of life’. As a result, they call for tough responses to it.
3. What are the problems of identifying a (criminal) underclass who suffer from ‘moral’ poverty?
The term ‘underclass’ was used to describe a particular group of people—those who were unemployed, who lived on state welfare benefits, were generally poorly educated, and who were unwilling to live up to societal expectations of hard work and industry. Murray (1990) argued that being in the underclass was not simply about being financially poor; it meant living in a specific type of social and moral poverty.
There have been many social shifts since the 1990s that affect our interpretation of, and reaction to, Murray’s work. Characterisations of an impoverished underclass are now highly controversial. The problems with the concept of an ‘underclass’, and the idea that such people suffer from ‘moral poverty’, include that:
- Murray was writing before the idea of single-sex families became acceptable.
- The term ‘illegitimate’ is now seen as a highly problematic term and, in 2017, nearly half of all births were outside of marriage/civil partnership.
- Murray has associated crime and the underclass with male identities and role models.
More widely, the underclass thesis is criticised for the way that it individualises and pathologises people who suffer from what are, arguably, deeply entrenched forms of socio-economic disadvantage—disadvantages which can limit the real choices they have (Lambert and Crossley, 2016). Such a characterisation also fails to consider that forms of disadvantage can or should be addressed through policy initiatives.
4. Why, and in what ways, did Lea and Young (1984) portray previous critical theories as being ‘left idealist’?
When ‘realist’ criminologies emerged in the late 1970s, authors like Lea and Young (1984) used the term ‘left idealist’ to criticise previous critical theories for being utopian and idealistic in their analysis of crime and the methods they advocated for controlling it.
Left realists argued that without fully engaging with ‘real world’ law-and-order politics, the existing Marxist-influenced critical criminological theories were failing working-class (and especially female) victims of crime and not recognising their very real suffering. They argued that working-class offenders were being portrayed in a romanticised way, characterised as victims of structural inequalities and oppression, and that seeing crime as mainly an expression of class conflict and media-inspired moral panic was unsympathetic to those who experienced it and who had to live with its consequences.
The ‘left idealist’ label also refers to the view that previous critical criminological theories had nothing practical to offer policy debates apart from a rather detached call for revolution. A willingness to initiate action is at the core of theoretical claims to being ‘realist’; that is, getting real about the crime problem(s) which exist, being realistic about what can be done about them, and generating solutions which are both workable and have a demonstrable beneficial impact.
5. How can the ideas of individualism, consumerism, and relative deprivation be linked to criminal behaviour?
Left realists (Lea and Young, 1984; Young, 2007) relate the concept of relative deprivation to crime through the argument that late modern societies are increasingly characterised by an ethos of individualism and a culture of consumerism. Consuming and possessing things can give individuals a sense of identity and of recognition, status, and fulfilment. Webber (2007: 114) also agrees that relative deprivation might encourage ‘a tendency towards crime’.
The ethos of individualism and culture of consumption can lead to crime mainly, although not exclusively, within excluded groups (the ‘have nots’) (Lea and Young, 1984). However, this kind of cultural atmosphere can also lead to calls for greater controls from within included groups (the ‘haves’), as these people may break the law in their efforts to maintain their relatively privileged positions and stay within their group.
Though Young (2007) stresses that the relationship between relative deprivation and crime is not a simplistic, unilinear one, he and Lea state: ‘The equation is simple; relative deprivation equals discontent; discontent plus lack of political solution equals crime’ (Lea and Young,1984: 88).
6. What are the four points of Young’s ‘square of crime’? Apply and analyse this conceptual device with regard to one particular form of criminal behaviour.
Young (1997) identified what he saw as the four fundamental elements of a ‘crime’, which form a ‘square of crime’. This is a framework for the analysis of crime and crime control in terms of the interaction between the four ‘participants’ in the process: offenders, victims, criminal justice agencies, and communities (Lea, 2016: 58).
The example we used in the chapter is that a lack of investment in adequate street lighting (community) might result in perceived opportunities for potential offenders with nothing else to do, and consequentially a greater risk to properties or people (victims), for whom protection is unavailable because of pragmatic decisions about deployment of limited police resources (criminal justice agencies).
In applying this framework to a particular form of criminal behaviour you should focus on the interactions and interrelationships between each of the elements. Note also how the framework allows you to see and analyse the complexities involved—in terms of action and reaction, but also the ever-changing relationships between both informal and formal systems of control.