Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 6. Left Realism

Short set of Notes on a kind of complementary, albeit less revolutionary, approach to understanding crime and deviance that you can either lump-in with Critical Criminology or treat as a separate, neo-critical, perspective.

Your choice.

But let’s just hope it’s the right one, for everyone’s sake…

Left Realism: A Young Man’s Game?

Young (2003) suggests the job of realism is ‘to tackle all three sides of the deviancy process’. This three-cornered approach addresses the multidimensional nature of crime in terms of the relationshipbetween:

  • offender
  • victim
  • social reactions

Only by understanding their interaction – how each impacts on the other – can we understand crime as both a

  • private problem, in terms of its effects on victims
  • public issue, in terms of how it impacts on the quality of community life


In terms of offenders, profiling suggests that most crime is committed by young, working-class males. Although there may be areas of overrepresentation (black youths, for example) and underrepresentation (such as middle-class or female criminality), crime statistics are considered broadly validthere is not, for example, a vast reservoir of undetected ‘crimes of the elderly’. Lea and Young (1984) suggest three related factorsthat influenceoffending: relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture.

  • Relative deprivation refers to how someone sees themselves in relation to others and Lea and Young use this concept because ‘deprivation alone cannot cause criminality’; many poor people do not commit crimes. In addition, relative deprivation means crimes committed by the affluent can be included in any explanation of offending. Millionaires may see themselves as relatively deprived compared to billionaires.
  • Marginalisation relates to status and, as Willis (1977) has shown, young, working-class men are frequently ‘pushed to the margins of society’ through educational failure, unemployment and low-status work. A further aspect of (political) marginalisation is the idea that no one is listening to the problems faced by marginalised youth.
  • Subcultural groups give substance to feelings of relative deprivation and marginalisation because they give them collective expression. Where working-classyouths accept the materialistvalues of capitalist society, they engage in criminal behaviour – the pursuit ofdesired ends by illegitimate means. ‘Subcultural-type groupings’ are not restricted to the young and working class — middle-class company directors who deal illegally in shares or fix prices to defraud the public may have their behaviour supported by a (sub)culture that sees such behaviour as permissible.

These ideas come together, Young (2011) argues, in something like the 2011 English riots:

The background of urban riots is almost formulaic. A substantial section of the population [subculture] who are economically excluded [relative deprivation], a situation of political marginalisation where there is no party or politician to speak for them and, then, the final straw, an act of police injustice, real or perceived”.

Social reactions

Finally, leftrealism focuses on how different social relationships (between police andpublic, offender and victim, and so forth)create different social reactions and solutions tothe problem of crime’.

The ‘square of crime’ shows how relationships between the various parties can affect the way crime is perceived, performed and prevented.

The form of these reactions is specified by Young (1997) in terms of the ‘square of crime’ – how, for example, the police view ‘potential and actual offenders’ and how the latter view their relationship with control agencies, contribute to how crime is perceived, performed and prevented. The relationship between formal control agencies and offenders is further mediated by how the general public as informal control agents view both offenders and their victims. Where offender or victim cannot be easily identified, for example, public reactions may be muted (or uncooperative), which may hinder police attempts to control a particular type of offending (as may occur with complicated and opaque forms of white-collar/business crime).


Criticism of left realism has focused on two main areas. First, the central concepts of the ‘three-cornered approach’ have each been questioned.

  • Relative deprivation is a ‘catch-all’ category that can be applied to explain almost any behaviour.
  • Concepts of ‘marginalisation’ are similarly vague: its existence can only be ‘predicted after the event’. Evidence of political marginalisation is inferred once an offender has been identified – a methodological approach that lends itself to the cherry-picking of evidence to support an argument.
  • Interactionist and postmodern approaches have also questioned the usefulness of subculture as both a concept and its usefulness in explaining young male criminality. If subcultural groupings do not exist in the form specified by left realism – if they are simply very loose gatherings rather than tight-knit groupings – this raises questions about the theoretical basis of the three-cornered approach.

Second, criticism has focused on an unquestioned acceptance of conventional definitions of crime. Feminists such as Smart (1990) argue that the focus on narrow legal definitions and a too-ready acceptance of official crime statistics – at a time when both their reliability and validity has been questioned – exaggerates the significance of low-level street crime and downplays wider questions of harm, particularly as this idea relates to male violence against women.

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