Academic journal article Social Justice

Critical Criminologies of the Present and Future: Left Realism, Left Idealism, and What's Left in Between

Academic journal article Social Justice

Critical Criminologies of the Present and Future: Left Realism, Left Idealism, and What's Left in Between

Article excerpt

This article argues for the benefits of advancing an innovative critical criminological approach that concerns itself explicitly and simultaneously with both the criminology of the present and the criminology of the future. We put forth the idea that left realist policies and practices and left idealist goals and visions may complement and build off one another. We present introductory steps and examples of existing approaches that may help to illustrate the potential for a realist/idealist dialectic that integrates and synthesizes criminologies of the present and the future. We examine the potential for a realist/idealist dialectic and the tensions between these approaches via the analysis of two contemporary issues (police killings and white collar crime) and of alternative models of restorative and transformative justice.


LEFTIST POLITICAL IDEOLOGY AND A CONCERN WITH THE LARGER structural forces at work in society often lead scholars to be attracted to critical criminology and its radical alternative perspectives on the definition, causation, and prevention of crime. Though both left realism and left idealism are situated as rejections of mainstream and right-leaning criminology, tensions have historically existed between the two. According to early left realist scholars, proponents of left idealism were too idealistic, future-oriented, and unwilling to work within existing systems to effect change. Instead, realists purported to offer a pragmatic criminology focused upon actionable solutions that were attainable given present conditions and political realities. On the other hand, many early radical criminologists (none of whom formally self-identified as left idealists) criticized mainstream scholars and realists alike for short-sightedness and neglect of large-scale structural forces. According to the radical critique, left realism lacked a guiding (and fundamentally different) vision for wholesale change within and beyond criminal justice systems or a clear articulation of a more equitable and just future society. Consequently, such radical scholars sought not the social amelioration and reform proposed by realists but advocated large-scale social restructuring, dramatic changes to legal codes or law enforcement, and/or paradigm shifts in correctional ideology.

Historically, these two perspectives, left realism and left idealism, were often juxtaposed as an irreconcilable dichotomy. The fact that such tensions arose between left realists and idealists is not surprising, considering the trend towards theoretical competition, development of general theories of crime, and theoretical/disciplinary myopia among criminological scholars more broadly (Madfis 2012). More recent articulations of critical criminology, however, have attempted to reconcile the tensions between left realism and left idealism (see, for instance, Chancer &Jacobson 2010; Currie 2010). Similarly, we suggest that left realists and idealists both provide valuable insight about criminal behavior and social policy. Their respective contributions reflect different temporal orientations--realists towards the present and idealists towards the future--which may be explored productively via dialectical thinking that tolerates seemingly contradictory beliefs and rejects problematic binaries (Nisbett & Peng 1999).

Although the original left realist critique of idealists in the 1970s for neglecting the genuine harms of street crime was certainly warranted at the time, today there may be potential in new conceptions of realism and idealism that are less dichotomized. Additionally, although the most heated debates between left realism and left idealism took place decades ago, many of these disputes (such as the merits of pragmatism versus idealism or reform versus revolution) are every bit as relevant today.

Both positions provide important insights that can inform a more comprehensive approach to change within criminal justice systems. …

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