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Radical Criminology

Radical Criminology

Until this century criminology was almost entirely based around a very traditional view of crime, whereby people believed there was a ‘criminal’ class of generally ‘bad’ people who could not control themselves. It seemed to the upper classes that those below them in the class system were savages whose every move was based on animalistic instincts. Traditional criminology was also based around the crimes set out in the law and it accepted this as the definition of their study. Recently however, criminology adapted, quite dramatically in fact, with the birth of radical criminology.

Labelling theories had already suggested that some of the crimes committed by the lower class were actually caused by the labels that they had been given, but some still asked the question, why are certain behaviours viewed as politically deviant and others not? Radical theorists therefore suggested that crime could not be understood properly without also considering society and state. Class is such an important part of this, and so was considered to be important in determining crime. These theorists considered – Why is the law the way it is?

These questions tied in with Marx’s ideas about capitalism and communism at the time. In a capitalist system those who are of a higher class have greater power. This means that they can oppress members of lower classes. Since in a capitalist society people have the freedom to make themselves rich and improve their power status, those in the higher classes may worry about being usurped (having their position stolen). The dominant class in society will wish to keep their place at the top and therefore criminalise behaviours that are specifically dangerous to their position. Bonger said “hardly an act is punished if it does not injure the interests of the dominant class”, suggesting that rules are only in place to keep the power positions stable. He goes on to argue that capitalism creates crime not only by designing rules to keep the poor in their place, but also by creating the competition that causes people to act immorally.

Chambliss realised that there was a strange contradictory nature to capitalism and this is what in turn causes crime. He noticed that the capitalist society both teaches people to want money and wealth, but also reduces individuals’ ability to gain these things. Quinney suggests that the criminal law is merely a tool of the state and the ruling class to keep the existing social order in place.

Radical criminology sees that there is an unfairness in the way that the law is made and in our class system and suggests that these mechanisms are what causes crime itself. Therefore, the only way to prevent crime, according to this approach, is to change these systems. Radical criminologists also believe that other sectors controlled by the ruling class are used to keep the lower classes in their place. For example, the media can be used to point the blame at specific groups in society, but can also be used as a distraction from mistakes of the government to make it seem like they are doing everything right.

Some criminologists for this reason now define crime as ‘social harm’ as opposed to just following what the law of their specific country says. This means that they also look at acts not specifically defined under the criminal law, but that are morally wrong. Whether or not the entirety of radical criminology is helpful, it does seem fair to extend criminology to study all social harms, since crimes do differ between societies and it may be more appropriate to have a uniformly understood code whereby crimes are all things that are harmful to an individual or to society as a whole. In terms of other ‘radical’ ideas, I believe that these may give an interesting way of looking at crime, but are not useful for making real world differences in the prevention of crime.


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