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Left Realism and Our Understanding of Crime

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

Yellow police tape blocking off a crime scene

Yellow police tape blocking off a crime scene

What Do Left Realists Believe?

Left realists believe that crime is caused by relative deprivation. When an individual feels resentment towards others who are perceived as less deprived than themselves, they may turn to crime in order to combat these frustrations. Left realists also argue that being a member of different subcultures can influence whether someone goes into a criminal career or not. For instance, religious subcultures may encourage conformity, whereas criminal subcultures will encourage illegitimate means of achieving goals.

In order to tackle crime, left realists argue that police need to gain public support so citizens will be more cooperative with them. Although this solution is important, they argue that the most effective way to control crime is to break down the structure of society to prevent unfairness and discrimination. However, right realists criticise this belief; they argue that crime can be explained by biological factors and that a zero- tolerance policy is the most efficient way to combat crime and deviance.

Left realists believe that crime is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with effectively. They accuse other sociologists of not dealing with crime correctly.

  • They criticise Marxists for focusing on white-collar crimes and neglecting working-class crime—which is just as important.
  • Neo-Marxists are prone to romanticising working-class ‘Robin Hoods’ who steal from the rich, despite the fact that the majority of working-class criminals steal from others of the same class.
  • Labelling theorists blame proletariat criminals as a product of labels created by social controls; this victimises the criminals rather than the actual victims of crime.

Left realists believe that these approaches to crime don’t take it seriously enough. The rise in crime in the 1950s inspired them to formulate their own method of tackling deviance. The increase in crime led to what Young refers to as an 'aetiological crisis' (a crisis in explanation). Although labelling theorists blame this rise on increased reporting, left realists point out that such a large increase cannot be reduced to merely a social construction.

Local victim surveys provide evidence for a rise in crime, a rise even greater than the official statistics show, which suggests that crime is an increasingly menacing issue in society. However, interactionists criticise the reliability of these surveys as they cannot explain the motives behind the crimes—they act as an observation but provide no insight or reasoning behind deviant behaviour.


The Causes of Crime: Relative Deprivation

Left realists have deepened our understanding of crime and deviance by providing explanations for such anti-social behaviour. Lea and Young argue that one of the causes of crime is a term first used by Runciman—relative deprivation. This type of deprivation isn’t a reflection of actual deficit but rather an individual’s perceived deprivation compared to others.

Our modern society has had a phenomenal burst of technological improvements over the past few years. Revolutionary breakthroughs such as the invention of TV or media platforms such as Facebook means everyone can compare what people have to what they have themselves. These advertisements of wealth and material possessions have raised expectations for material items, so those who cannot afford to ‘keep up with the Jones’ may revert to crime to achieve such goals.

However, relative deprivation is criticised for over-predicting the amount of crime being committed, many people experience relative deprivation, yet not everyone turns to crime. Young acknowledges this and says that deprivation alone does not lead to crime. He argues that ‘the lethal combination is relative deprivation and individualism’. Young believes individualism is even more dangerous as it encourages crime through an emphasis on self-interest at the expense of others.

Left realists use Cloward and Ohlin’s theories on criminal subcultures as a foundation for their own explanations on the influence of subcultures on crime. They strongly agree that when opportunities are blocked due to barriers such as discrimination, people will find illegitimate ways of achieving their goals.

Left realists argue that a criminal career depends on the type of subculture an individual is in. Some may turn to crime to close the ‘deprivation gap’ while others may turn to religion as a comfort. Marxists would agree that religious subcultures are less likely to fall into crime because religion keeps the proletariat compliant with a false consciousness (beliefs that distort reality) that legitimises the exploitation executed by the ruling class. Lenin argued that religion is a ‘spiritual gin’ that creates this false consciousness which encourages conformity. These explanations provide insight into possible reasons why crime is or isn't committed.

The Causes of Crime: Exclusion

Young believes that instability, insecurity and exclusion make the issue of crime even worse. The current structure of society compared to society during the 1950s, which is considered the ‘Golden Age’, is hugely different. People had more stable jobs and marriages, and communities were more inclusive. Since then, de-industrialisation has led to fewer available jobs for skilled workers, this has destabilised families and communities.

Exclusion has increased as a result of the illusion of meritocracy. Although society is told merit is gained through hard work, in reality, the marginalised are denied the opportunity to achieve their goals. Such anomie may influence them to turn to crime in order to achieve them; individuals experience status frustration as a result of their exclusion which is a potential explanation for crime. However, during the 1960s, crime levels decreased. This implies that crime is no longer such a prevalent issue within society; this poses a detrimental weakness to the left realist understanding of crime and deviance.


Tackling Crime: Police

Many left realist strategies in combating crime have been adopted into government policies, particularly under the New Labour government. Kinsey, Lea and Young propose one method of tackling crime is increasing rapport between the police force and the community. 90% of known crimes are reported by the public, yet when people distrust or dislike the police they are unlikely to cooperate; instead, the police revert to military policing (e.g. random stop and searches) which can result in a loss of support within communities, particularly ethnic minorities.

In America, there have been many accounts of police brutality. For example, the tragic shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 that led to many protests throughout the country. Events such as this have led to a distrust and contempt towards the American police force.

Kinsey, Lea and Young argue that police should be made accountable for 'beat patrols' as this only causes more conflict. Instead, they ought to improve their relationship with the community. They also suggest the use of a multi-agency approach which will provide individuals with many services such as housing, schools and victim support centres.

The Nottingham police department now use an online rating system to help evaluate the behaviour conducted by the police in an attempt to bring them closer to the community. This is an example of how left realist ideas have been used to improve the fight against crime.

Tackling Crime: Government Policies

Left realists believe that although policing and control are important, it doesn’t directly stop crime it just mutes some of the symptoms. They believe that the main cause of crime is the unequal structure of society, so to stop crime one must look at tackling discrimination and improving living conditions. These beliefs are strongly emphasised during the 1997- 2010 New Labour government. They introduced a harsher emphasis on hate crimes, sexual assault and domestic violence; thus attempting to reduce intolerance within society and instead promote diversity.

Another example is the ‘New Deal’ for unemployed youth which attempted to prevent them turning to crime. Although these policies support left realist views, Young criticises the ‘New Deal’ as it did not achieve its intended goal, it did not result in secure and permanent jobs for youth. Young criticises government policies for not treating causes, just symptoms. Marxists also criticise the left realist approach to tackling crime as they accept the definition of crime to be associated with the working class and they ignore white-collar crimes, their theories fail to explain or reduce more harmful crimes such as corporate crime. Although left realism has provided inspiration for government policies, they are criticised for not implementing the change within a capitalist and intolerant society necessary to effectively tackle crime.


Right Realists and Crime

In contrast, right realists blame individual lack of self control rather than structural inequalities within society. Right realists believe there are three causes of crime:

  • Biological: Some are genetically predisposed to be aggressive.
  • Socialisation: Incorrect socialisation of mainstream norms and values may result in crime.
  • Rational choice: a calculation of the costs and rewards of committing a crime

This explanation places the blame onto the criminals instead of blaming external factors for an individual’s behaviour. Many argue this is an advantage as it allows individuals to accept responsibility for their actions but left realists criticise this explanation for ignoring structural causes such as poverty.

To tackle crime, right realists firmly believe in a zero-tolerance policy—even minor undesirable behaviour is treated harshly to prevent more severe secondary deviance later on. Wilson and Kelling’s ‘Broken Window’ proposes that maintaining seemingly minor problems such as a broken window, can prevent more 'broken windows' and more serious crimes. This approach to crime has been criticised on several grounds. Marxists argue that the focus on petty crimes means more serious white-collar crimes are ignored. Another issue is that it can displace crime as the policy is often pressed onto specific locations. This deters crime in that area but instead criminals will commit a crime somewhere else. This means that it does not solve or prevent crime.


Overall, left realists argue that crime is caused by relative deprivation, subcultures and marginalisation. To tackle these issues they aspire to reduce inequality within society by creating a friendlier relationship between the police and the community and by promoting diversity. These ideas have greatly influenced our understanding of crime and deviance, they have even sparked change through government policies. However, many argue that no improvement has been made and that government policies have not helped to prevent crime. Despite this, left realist ideas have certainly added to our knowledge about the causes and potential solutions to deviance.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

Townend, A., Trobe, K., Webb, R., Westergaard, H. (2015) AQA A level Sociology Book One Including AS level. Published by Napier Press, Brentwood

Townend, A., Trobe, K., Webb, R., Westergaard, H. (2016) AQA A level Sociology Book Two Including AS level. Published by Napier Press, Brentwood

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Angel Harper