Critical Realism and Urban Criminology

Posted on November 27, 2014 · Posted in Uncategorized

by Günter Stummvoll*

Environmental criminology wants to break with the traditional way of thinking (what some may call ‘old school’) in terms of psychological causes of crime (dispositional crime prevention). I agree: There may be some maniacs and psychopaths out there, but the majority of crime is determined by conflict and other social issues (depts due to gambling, drug addiction, showing off to your school-mates, Merton’s anomie theory, conflicts either between next-door neighbours, between ethnic cultures and between nations, etc. etc.).

From the 1980s on there has been a shift in the discipline’s focus: Breaking away from theories of social deprivation, moving towards explanations based on rational choice and utility. Hence, prevention has also shifted from individual and social prevention to risk management and opportunity reduction.

Today, I think, pure opportunity reduction, in terms of forever clever target hardening, is not sufficient to prevent crime and incivilities, at least not in a sustainable way. That is ‘old school’ today! And therefore I suggest moving forward and looking at arguments of our critics (and I pick Situational Crime Prevention as a key term):

  1. Situational Crime Prevention (SCP) is non-theoretical
  2. SCP is pragmatic and dedicated to risk-management and opportunity reduction
  3. SCP does not bother about the causes of crime, it simply wants to limit opportunities and mitigate the risk of victimisation.

We should move on beyond “crime science” and take a look at a “critical realist approach”, which does take crime seriously, but looks beyond empiricism in order to interpret and understand social situations.

Let me quote Roger Matthews (Realist Criminology 2014, palgrave):

  • “Although realists are interested in what works, they are more concerned with why and how things work. Understanding why and how things work, critical realists argue, involves identifying the causal mechanisms that foster change.” … “Realists aim to look beneath the surface of what works with the objective of identifying the generative mechanisms that produce change. It is this unique conception of causal processes and how they work that distinguishes critical realism from pragmatism, empiricism and positivism.” …
  •  “Whereas critical realism sees crime as a complex social construction, naïve realism – in its various forms, including administrative criminology – tends to take the category of crime for granted and believes that the main aim of criminological investigation is simply to report, count, describe or map crime and victimisation.” …
  • “The appeal of social constructionism is that, in opposition to naïve realists, it emphasises social and historical variability, the role of agency and the importance of discourse, meaning, power and communication in making sense of the world.”…

Roger Matthews aims to locate a critical realist approach also in contrast to the attitude of Cultural Criminologists. He first points out the two antagonistic ideologies:

“In rejecting positivism, rational choice theory and administrative criminology, cultural criminologists seek to re-engage with a range of theoretical perspectives: labelling theory, subcultural theory, critical theory, feminisms, as well as theories of late modernity. It adopts a fundamentally social constructionist approach in opposition to those forms of administrative criminology and crime science that take the ‘concept’ of crime as given” (p. 96).

While sympathising with this constructionist view, Matthews breaks with traditional cultural criminology and suggests not to romanticise the suffering and misery that the homeless, drug-addicted population experiences daily. Rather, a cultural realist approach would “embrace theory, cultural issues, political economy, power relations, normative concerns and a strong policy focus” (p. 111).

This theoretical approach to studying crime and deviance also affects the methodology in terms of linking quantitative and qualitative research methods. The use of descriptive statistics may be as important as an ethnographic view on ‘lived experience’ of social groups.

This would be a fresh way to look at “criminogenic situations” in design-led crime prevention, situational crime prevention, or whatever you may call it.

And this, I believe, should be the outcome of our theoretical contribution in COST Action TU1203. We have another 1,5 years to develop this issue further. Let’s take this opportunity!




* Günter Stummvoll

Dr.Günter Stummvoll (Dr.Phil) has studied architecture at the Technical University in Vienna and sociology at the University of Vienna and at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.