Left Realism: The Islington Crime Surveys 1986 – 2016

2nd Islington Crime Survey

One of the initial features of Left Realism, as it was developed by writers such as Young, Matthews and Lea, was the use of a very particular survey method aimed at gathering large amounts of data about a relatively small location: the local crime survey carried-out, in this instance, by Young et. al. (1986) in Islington, London.

While there was nothing methodologically unique about the Islington Crime Surveys – the first combined a relatively simple structured interview with selected follow-up personal / victim  interviews – a number of things made these surveys sociologically interesting:

1. The focus on relatively small-scale localities. Although similar surveys had been carried-out nationally through the British Crime Surveys (now called the Crime Survey for England and Wales) that began in 1982, Left Realist’s considered their focus was too wide and this was a problem, they argued, because crime affects individuals and households in different localities in different ways. The problems faced by police and public in a city area such as Islington, for example, may be quite different to those faced in suburban or rural areas. Consequently, Left Realism argued it requires specialised survey data to identify specific local crime problems in order to develop local crime solutions to particular local crime problems.

Local crime surveys, of which Islington was probably the most well-known, were, as Young et al. put it: a “response to the growing recognition that crime is focused geographically in certain areas and socially amongst particular groups of people: a fact the national crime surveys are unable to deal with. Local surveys have proved successful in pin-pointing areas with a high crime rate and have enabled the impact of crime and policing to be broken down in terms of its social focus, that is on social groups based on the combination of age, gender, social class and ethnicity”.

In basic terms, the argument here was that policing effectiveness depended on a clear understanding of the types of crimes and victimizations that were prevalent in a locality. To use a general example, if minor street crimes were not identified as “a problem” in local surveys police and public resources could be moved to deal with offences that were perceived as local problems.

As Young et al. note: “The wide coverage of the national crime surveys prevents them from producing detailed information about the experience of crime in specific localities. Local crime surveys have, in addition, widened the scope of the crime survey to allow new areas to be investigated, for example, racial and sexual harassment, drug abuse and other forms of antisocial behaviour; the public’s policing priorities with respect to particular types of crime; opinions on the control and accountability of police forces and penality”.

2. Fear of Crime: Following from the above, Left Realism was concerned with demonstrating empirically that in many areas of the country people had a well-founded “fear of crime” precisely because the area in which they lived was likely to have higher levels of street crime than the national average. Such fears could not, they argued, be written-off as the irrational or unfounded outcomes of moral panics, for example. To this end, therefore, “The primary aim of the crime survey was to provide a more accurate estimate of the true extent of crime than that provided by the official statistics compiled by the police”.

3. Crime Victims: They focused on crime victimization and asked about a very narrow range of offences: the first survey, for example, only focused on “crimes of robbery, snatch and pick-pocketing”.

1st Islington Crime Survey Questionnaire

4. Crime Prevention: Local crime surveys demonstrated “the impact of victimization and police effectiveness” to agencies concerned with the development of crime reduction / prevention policies.

The point of this general preamble – aside from I like to think of it as a valuable resume in its own right – is to make you aware that if you want to explore these seminal crime surveys in more detail you now can:

1st Islington Crime survey

2nd Islington Crime Survey

While these artefacts are historically-interesting (or not, depending on your view of Left Realism), the first survey is probably the most-accessible to students because it contains details of the questionnaire and interview schedule used.

In addition, a new Islington Crime Survey was commissioned in 2016 to replicate the original carried-out 30 years previously and this represents a point of comparison that you may find both useful and interesting:

Islington Crime Survey 2016 – Part 1

Islington Crime Survey 2016 – Part 2


T Jones ; B MacLean; J Young (1986) Islington Crime Survey – Crime, Victimization and Policing in Inner-City London

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