'New Right' realism

'New Right' realism

Realist criminologies are so called because of their emphasis on treating crime as a real and serious social problem that requires practical solutions, rather than simply a sociological problem that requires understanding. There is a commitment in this approach to pragmatic, policy-orientated research.

These approaches came about in response to an increased concern over crime during the 1980's, and also to a considerable rise in recorded crime. The 'law and order' debate became - and continues to be - (tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime) a central electoral issue.

In the mid 70's in the USA, Wilson (1975) 'Thinking about Crime', claimed that crime resulted from selfish and wicked people, and that the criminal justice system had gone 'soft' on criminals. Wilson (Reagan's adviser on crime) advocated the strengthening of penalties for crime. By the 1990's, the USA had the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.

Much of the right realist approach comes across like common sense, yet it also draws on liberal ideas of freedom, choice (criminals chose crime), and responsibility. There are also functionalist ideas concerning communities and social order, at present reflected in the Labour Party debate concerning communitarianism.

1. Poverty

The link between crime and poverty is questioned, specifically the idea that poverty causes crime. Wilson, in fact argues that affluence and prosperity may well be more linked to rising crime. It was from the early 1960's, a period that saw the longest sustained period of prosperity since World War II that crime in the USA started to soar. It rose at a faster rate and to higher levels than at any time since the 1930's.

'It all began in about 1963. That was the year, to over-dramatise a bit, that a decade began to fall apart.' (Wilson, 1975)

2. Culture

It is suggested that there has been a decline in 'civility' and respect for authority in communities that are characterised by anomie and cultural dis-organisation. Special mention is made of 'fatherless families' and its detrimental effect on young men denied an appropriate role model.

There is a denial of any direct association between unemployment and crime. According to Dennis and Erdos (1992):

'High unemployment was associated with low criminality in the 1930's. Low unemployment was associated with growing criminality in the 1960's. Unemployment between these extremes was associated with high and rapidly increasing crime in the mid-1980's. In the early 1990's, there was high unemployment and high crime rates.'

Given the lack of correlation between unemployment and crime, which could have formed the basis for a structural explanation of crime, the new right turns to a cultural explanation. They see a decline in 'family values', in particular a lack of discipline both inside and outside the home.

Murray (1990), on the other hand, blames the welfare state. He argues that the welfare state has sapped moral fibre and eroded Christian ethics thus threatening family values. The welfare state, it is argued, has created a 'dependency culture', which results in the weakening of the work ethic. The result is a social sickness, which reduces the strength of those moral values and mechanisms of social control so essential for preventing criminal behaviour.

3. Opportunity and choice

Exclusive blame is not placed on cultural factors outside of the control of individuals, such a view would be cultural determinism, and would remove, at least partially the notion of 'blame' and individual responsibility. Given their commitment to the idea that persons exercise choice and freedom of action it follows that they see an important aspect of deviant and criminal behaviour as freely chosen.

People do not have to be deviant.

A similar emphasis on choice can be seen in the work of Clarke and Mayhew (1980) at the Home Office. Their concern is the practical question of how to control crime - hence the term Control Theory. The question, 'why do people commit crime?' is reversed and instead they ask the question, 'why don't people commit crime?' Their answer is because of social control and deterrents. Two factors in particular are identified, 'target hardening' and 'surveillance'. Although not actually right realists themselves, Clarke and Mayhew do lend support to the belief that crime and delinquency is a result of choice.