James Q. Wilson and Ernst van den Haag developed Right realism as a response to the failings of sociological criminology. It has many similarities to the functionalist perspective but essentially was a critical response by the New Right to the failings of sociological theory to explain and solve the problem of crime. It locates the causes of crime in agency (selfish and greedy people who believe the benefits of crime outweigh the costs of crime). This is in contrast to Left realism, which adopts a more structural explanation of crime (relative deprivation, marginalisation and subculture). Right realism is rooted in New Right political ideology in contrast to the social democratic philosophy of Left realism.
Although this question is on Right realism, this introduction demonstrates good practice (and gains AO2 marks in the process) by making contrasting comparisons with other sociological perspectives, in this case Left realism.
The New Right adopted the term ‘realism’ to highlight how previous sociological thinking had been theoretical and out of touch with the real situation. This is similar to Thomas Hobbes’ view of humanity as selfish and greedy and supports Durkheim’s view of the need for punishment as a means of maintaining social control. Charles Murray sees cultural factors as a key factor behind crime which is particularly associated with the breakdown of the community, the rise of an underclass with deviant values, inadequate socialisation, single mothers, absent fathers, work-shyness and violence. However, Alan Walker challenges the existence of an underclass and accuses Murray of simply relying on ‘innuendos, assertions and anecdotes’.
This is a useful paragraph beginning with how and why Right realism originated and making comparisons with the ideas of Hobbes about the nature of humanity. Murray is discussed in some detail. Note the good evaluation from Walker that ends this paragraph with a good AO2 point.
Right realism believes that sociological criminology has over-complicated our understanding of crime with largely unproductive and complex theories that have mainly failed to reduce crime levels. However, Right realism is not too optimistic about reducing crime levels either, but argues that selective and appropriate policies could control and prevent crime significantly. This shows that Right realism, through its neo-liberal political ideology, sees the best way to reduce crime is less by government intervention and more by the people behaving as ‘active citizens’ and embracing their responsibility to challenge incivilities and anti-social behaviour whenever they encounter it. However, if people are naturally selfish and greedy, as Right realism argues, why should they take the trouble to intervene and prevent crime?
There is an abundance of AO2 points in this paragraph. This is an area that candidates find challenging, but the more you practise, the easier it becomes. Using the word ‘however’ can become repetitive, but it shows you and the examiner that you are making evaluative points. It’s a good starting point; you can improve and develop your style later.
Right realists pour scorn on sociological thinking, which explains crime as a product of social circumstances. This means that they particularly oppose any connection between crime and poverty. They point out that as capitalism has increased the affluence of people, crime rates have soared, thus challenging any connection between poverty and crime. Adopting a victim-blaming approach to the poor, the deprived and the underclass, Right realism argues that it should not be the responsibility of the state to intervene and attempt to change social conditions. This implies that the poor themselves should take individual responsibility to pull themselves out of poverty. As far as the New Right is concerned, extending welfare services, education reforms etc. has actually led to a significant increase in crime.
Some useful points are made in this paragraph about Right realism’s critique of much of the sociology of crime. A counter point, from a social democratic position, could have been made in the last sentence.
James Q. Wilson sees communal action to promote order as a key factor in controlling crime. Crime thrives in disorderly communities as people do not feel safe on the streets and are unable to challenge antisocial behaviour. Respectable people are likely to move out of an area that is dirty, where graffiti and vandalism are rife, allowing less respectable people to take their place. Most communities, he argues, consist of a balance between those who commit offences and the law-abiding. If the conformists impose ‘informal sanctions’, then social control is maintained. However, most people show little appetite for becoming active citizens and challenging antisocial behaviour.
No answer on Right realism would be complete without discussion of the work and ideas of
James Q. Wilson.
Wilson argues that changes to the way we police the streets could improve the crime situation. He is a strong advocate of ‘zero tolerance’ policing policies, whereby minor incivilities are taken seriously and punished. The implication is that taking all crime seriously sends a message to the community. It also helps to prevent areas from declining into the ‘broken-window’ situation. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced zero tolerance in New York, the crime rate halved. Drunks and drug addicts were moved on or arrested and prostitutes were removed from the streets. However, critics argue that this policy simply moves criminal behaviour into neighbouring districts, as was found when zero tolerance was applied to the King’s Cross area of London.
There are some further points from Wilson here, including a detailed discussion of zero tolerance with the applied example of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s experiment in New York. Examiners will reward appropriate examples from the real world.
In their ‘broken-window thesis’, Wilson and Kelling argued that if minor acts and visual reminders of crime, such as broken windows, are not dealt with, they will signal the start of a downward spiral into serious crime. This implies that areas where minor ‘incivilities’ (litter, graffiti, noise, vandalism etc.) are kept to the minimum will stay respectable and largely crime-free. However, where incivilities occur unpunished, this encourages wider antisocial behaviour and more serious crimes.
The important broken-window theory is included here. A critique of incivilities is that it is the other way round. Serious crime encourages incivilities.
In conclusion, Right realism can take a lot of credit for making criminologists shift from ideology to a practical analysis of crime. It has been an important influence in shaping government policies across the world for the past 30 years or so. However, many feel it is too rooted in blaming crime on agency behaviour (bad, greedy people) rather than on structural factors like poverty, deprivation and blocked opportunities.
This is a useful final paragraph to conclude this answer. It relates back effectively to the question.
Topic 2 The social distribution of crime and deviance
Social class and crime
1 White-collar crime, such as fraud and embezzlement, tends to be hidden and committed by the middle class and above. It also includes workplace crime, such as fiddling expenses, committed by white-collar employees. Some older definitions equated white-collar crime with corporate crime.
2 Jeffrey Reiman sees ruling-class crimes such as corporate crime associated with health and safety violations, environmental damage or the production of unsafe goods, such as pharmaceutical drugs.
3 Pearce said that members of the social elite would not creditably survive close legal scrutiny of their business or professional lives. He also argued that the financial value of working-class crime is insignificant compared with that of corporate crime.
4 Walter B. Miller and Cloward and Ohlin saw crime particularly concentrated in the working class, or more specifically the lower working class; some people might describe this group as the underclass.
5 Murray sees the underclass as a group of people living ‘outside’ society in the sense that they live by deviant subcultural values. He sees them as promiscuous, work-shy, welfare-dependent and inclined to violence.
6 In Merton’s anomic paradigm the working class were innovators.
7 Marxists maintain that corporate crime and white-collar crime grossly exceed the value of working-class crime.
8 The interests of the ruling class. Even when laws apparently exist to benefit everyone, Marxists argue that partisan interpretation and enforcement by the police and the criminal justice system are biased in favour of the ruling class. The CJS focuses attention on working-class crime while the misdemeanours of the ruling class go unpunished or are treated more leniently.
9 Saints: middle class; Roughnecks: working class.
10 White-collar crimes, such as fraud and embezzlement, are crimes committed by the middle class and above. They also include workplace crime, such as fiddling expenses, committed by white-collar employees. Some older definitions equated white-collar crime with corporate crime. White-collar crime is seen as less serious because it is less visible than working-class crime and often people are unaware that they have become victims of it.