This piece takes a look at the chapter ‘The failure of criminology: the need for radical realism’ by Jock Young from the 1988 publication Confronting Ctime edited by Young and Roger Matthews.
Young’s opening to this chapter serves as a good introduction to this piece (actually this is the second paragraph). ‘If there has been a measure of the lack of success of radical criminology it has been its failure to rescue mainstream criminology from the conceptual mess in which it has increasingly found itself. It is my contention that the core of this problem revolves around the causes of crime and that this aetiological crisis emerged most blatantly in the 1960s, engendering a period of intense creative development within the discipline including the emergence of radical criminology. However, by the eighties the Thermidor set in and a silent counter-revolution occurred within the mainstream with the emergence of what I will term the new administrative criminology involving a retreat from any discussion of causality…’ (pg4).
Young’s chapter is on the emergence of critical/radical criminology and administrative criminology. Both emerged as groups of ideas within criminology as a result of the collapse of support for positivism. How they emerged is significantly different though, with critical/radical criminology emanating from subcultural and other theories taken from US sociologists and worked up by those around the National Deviancy Conference (NDC). Indeed the story of the National Deviancy Conference could possibly have lessons for those interested in left unity, but that is for another post – the main point for this posting is that it eventually split of into many different groups. One of these was the ‘left realists’ which Young belonged to. Young counterposed himself and his co-thinkers to the ‘left-idealists’ who these are you never really know – but from my reading I take them to be thinkers influenced by the SWP (some of whose members were part of the NDC) and the communist party (which was influenced at this time by the cultural theorists around Stuart Hall).
Administrative criminology, on the other hand, emerged from within the criminological establishment. Two of it’s most prominent theorists were James Q Wilson in the US and Ron Clarke in the UK Home Office. Although as Young notes there were many differences between people who can be classified in this group of thinkers, their main thrust was towards a dropping of the search for the causes of crime (traditionally associated with positivism) and towards situational crime prevention (installation of locks, alarms etc.). Indeed as one of my lecturers has pointed out they were the middle part of the What Works – Nothing Works – Something Works cycle of criminology – this is to do with the role theory plays within trying to do something about crime.
As Young notes later on in the chapter – although outwardly very different “A convergence between left idealism and the new administrative criminology emerged. Bith thought that investigation was fruitless, both agreed that rehabilitation was impossible, both thought that crime control through implementation of programmes of economic and social justice would not succeed, both focussed on the reactions of the state, both were uninterested in past theory, both attempted to explain the effectiveness of crime control without explaining crime and both believed it was possible to generalise in a way which profoundly ignored the specificity of circumstances.”(pg.27)
Moreover, left ‘idealist’ criminology tended to create a functionalist theory that was top-down and explained everything in relation to capitalism’s need to preserve itself. As Young notes, “Central to a Marxist perspective is that capitalism creates the conditions and possibilities for it’s own demise: that is that functional equilibrium is not achieved. It is the assumption that the values and institutions of capitalism obviously aid its equilibrium which is a key weakness of left functionalism.”(pg.18)
So what about Young, self-styled as a left realist? For him, “Realism must navigate between these two poles, it must not succumb to hysteria or relapse into a critical denial of the severity of crime as a problem. It must be fiercely sceptical of official statistics and control institutions without taking the posture of blanket rejection of all figures or, indeed, the very possibility of reform.”(pg.23)
All very good, but for me the place realism found between the poles was the wrong one – they opted for the ‘so-called centre ground’, despite this I think left realist criminology attempted quite a number of useful things – not least local victimisation surveys. Indeed, if ‘left-idealism’ was attached to the ultra-left, and administrative criminology to the bourgeoisie, then rather than being attached to the genuine revolutionary elements, left realism was attached to the ‘soft left’ and the labour bureaucracy.