Radical Realism

[First published Fall 2014, for the blog, Simply Criminology.]

Realism is generally defined, in a broad sense, as a concern with or interest in the so-called actual or real rather than the abstract or speculative. It is a tendency to view affairs or events supposedly “as they are” rather than as we would like them to be. This is typically contrasted with idealist (or utopian or radical) that are accused of forgoing a focus on everyday life “as it is” and instead focusing on abstract visions of a world imagined or yet to come.

In art, realism refers to a straightforward depiction of things in a way that corresponds with their visual appearance. In literature, it is a “matter of fact” representation of daily events, typically of “regular folks.”

Criminology has its own variations of realism—both critical and orthodox or conservative. There is, in fact, a big push in criminology today for realism (particularly orthodox approaches). It is associated with calls for positivism and “job ready” curricula in criminology departments coming from governments and businesses alike.


Orthodox, or Right, realists accept criminal justice system (statist) definitions of crime as representing the “world of crime” or criminal events and focus on the breaking of established, formal laws rather than social harms (whether “against the law” or not). For orthodox realists the state is viewed as the primary, even sole, legitimate mechanism for addressing crime. Means such as policing, courts, punishment are preferred Right realist responses.


These conservative realists take as a starting point perceived public fears about crime, particularly around street crime (burglary, assault, car theft, etc.). Conservative realists follow classical theories in criminology in viewing crime as an outcome of poor decision-making and individual choices. Individual factors such as socialization impulse control are said to contribute to crime. It is especially posed to be so for poor males in urban centers who may face more limited choices or have less inhibitive socializing influences or fewer social bonds. For Right realists, this is reflected in their higher rates of arrest and conviction.


On the other side of the political spectrum, Left Realism emerged in response to the “law and order” policies of the orthodox, Right, realists. Left Realism has also positioned itself as a reaction to so-called critical or radical theories that supposedly offer an idealist criminology. Left Realists like Jock Young note that while victimization is relatively rare in society it happens predominantly to the working class and the poor. They experience crime in a very real way. They are supposedly not interested in hearing about more thoroughgoing analyses of the capitalist system (exploitation, patriarchy, oppression, etc.).