Home introduction to Criminology CRITICAL CRIMINOLOGY


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Critical criminology was developed in America and Britain. Among its proponents were George Vold Bonger Taylor, Young Walton, Quinney Reiman and Trick. They were influenced by the works of Karl Marx and friend rich. Engels, and derived much strength from conflict sociology. It was critical of the criminal justice, and politico-economic structures of bias, discrimination and exploitation which they claimed were the reasons certain people commit crimes others are not and why the poor are criminalised and the rich are not and variously called new criminology, conflict radical or liberal criminology.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  explain the critical school of criminology 
  2. explain criminology from the Marxist perspective 
  3.  express the views of the different scholars about the relationship between the capitalist class and the working class 
  4.  formulate the root causes of economic crime in our society
  5.  explain the critique of labelling and conflict theories of crimes. 


3.1 Critical School of Criminology

The critical criminology is also known as the radical school or new criminology. This radical approach to criminology gave expression to the feelings of disenchantment and disappointment arising from the alienation of the poor people in the society. The new criminology
sought to offer a way out and replace the old order, which would automatically bring a new dawn in the history of criminology.
The radical approach perceives crime as a great feature of capitalist society and its system of political parameters, which gives more promise to the position of the exploiting elites. This explanation has support in the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels, (1820-1895) although they were a long way from being criminologists. Their observation was that high incidence of crimes was associated with capitalism. In fact, the thrust of Friedrich Engels’ is the deficiencies of the capitalist economic system resulting in high levels of crime. According to him, “Immorality is fostered in every possible way by the conditions of working class life. The worker is poor, life has nothing to offer him, and he is deprived of virtually all pleasures. Consequently, he does not fear the penalties of the law. Why should he restrain his wicked impulse? Why should he leave the rich man in undisturbed possession of his property? Why should he not take at least a part of this property for himself? What reason has the worker for not stealing? Distress due to poverty gives the worker only the choice of starving slowly, killing himself quickly or taking what he needs where he finds it – in plain English – stealing. And it is not surprising that the majority prefers to steal rather than starve to death or commit suicide” (Carrabine, 2004).
Karl Marx’s theory of criminal behaviour was enshrined on the capitalist tendency to maximise profits in order to expand its wealth and property and by implication exploit the working class (proletariat). The result is that, the worker feels alienated and estranged from his labour; which leads to criminal behaviour. Crime of violence, property offences and drug crimes are the by-products of this economic oppression and alienation and societies’ contradictions that are apparent in capitalist.

Working class crime is an expression of “rebellion” against inequality and against a system that used the legal system – including the law, the police, court and prison as weapon in the class war.

A number of writers have adopted this perspective in opposition to the “left idealism” that crime is not a problem of the working class people” and have developed a realistic approach to law and order. The left idealist position has been criticised for its apparent lack of interest in issues of policy. John Lea and Jack Young (1984), for instance, argue that, in contrast to the left idealist view, crime really is a problem for the working classes; and a problem that needs talking with realistic policies and practices. This is not to deny the impact of crimes of the powerful but to suggest that the working classes are most often the victims of crime.

Young and Matthew (1992) distinguish between what they term the realist and the radical positions. The classical Marxist approach is linked with radical notions that the criminal justice system does not work in the interest of the mass of working people and should therefore be abolished. The legal system, as they observed is just another aspect of the ruling – class domination.
Nevertheless, this left radical view has been attacked by sociologists and criminologists writing from the left realist position. The left realists believed that much to the injustices and marginalisation of some sections of the population encourage crimes. And they proffered no solutions. The Marxist approach believed that socialism will reduce crimes fundamentally as crimes are rooted in social inequality. Young and Matthew (1992) stressed the need for an adequate criminal justice system that works in the interests of all social groups and provides adequate protection for the poor. Left realism is advocated for a social democratic approach to crimes as well as the development of effective policies.

Richard Quinney (1977) allying with Bonger argued that under capitalism, the law is used to oppress the working classes. He suggests that what we now regard as “criminal” will disappear only once capitalism itself has disappeared. He contends that there will be no greed and profit – seeking under socialism; and the ruling class will not exist to use the law as a weapon to define as deviant the working class activities they do not wish to allow. The vital issues of the traditional or orthodox Marxists such as Bonger and Quinney were that crime is the product of inadequate social conditions.
Williem Adrian Bonger (1876 – 1940) believed that there was a relationship between economic situation and criminality. He argued that the propensity to commit crime is higher in the working class than the capitalist class. He suggested that the major shift was in the emergence of capitalism. To him, it was capitalism that generated an egoistic culture-with capitalists being greedy and workers becoming demoralised. In other words, he sought to establish a causal link between crimes and material conditions by looking at the effects of competition and “egoism” on criminal thought. By “egoism” people become self-seeking and think only of themselves. Since the capitalist economic system generally widens the gap between the capitalists class and the working class. This extreme gap often makes the working class to steal from the capitalists in order to survive. Therefore, Bonger concluded that crime can only be eliminated through a radical reorganisation of the mode of production and the dethronement of capitalism.

Jeffrey Reiman considered the preponderance of working class in the criminal group from another perspective. He argued that poor people are often arrested and charged of crimes. Conversely, the crimes of the rich, for example, embezzlement and serious tax evasion, are treated as trivial as if not criminal offences. There was a distortion of criminal justice. Reiman therefore called for an equal distribution of wealth and income to enable equitable opportunities for all and sundry.

The neo-Marxists argued that limitation were found in the early theories (the classicism and positivism) on the explanations of control of crimes but should be discovered on the critical school of criminology; the radical theories (labelling , new deviance, neo-marxism, etc) .This is what they referred to as the wider structural explanations of control of crimes . To them, that is the root of criminal behaviours.
From the works of Taylor, Walton, Young, Bonger, Reiman and Quinney appeared the neo-Marxist positions, based in the “materiality” of crime and were called the critical criminology, working class criminology or neo-Marxist criminology. The background of the exposition was that the poor and the working class were truly the problems of crime. They believed that the poor and the working class are marginalised and deprived of the means of production. Therefore, crime became manifested as a result of the relative deprivation and marginalisation. They concluded that the causes of crime need to be looked for in deep structural inequalities (Carrabine, 2004). This approach implies that its law and other cultural norms are created directly by the rich and powerful. The analysis implies that criminality springs up only to the extent that a society treats its members unequally. In other words, the point of departure is that the Marxists’ framework for the analysis of crime was that crime is a product of the competitive and exploitative conditions of capitalism and as such should be overthrown. But the view of the neo-Marxists was that the elites dominate society and they use the criminal law as an instrument for coercion and domination; a violation of certain inherent rights, a crime based only on a ruling class conspiracy. On the contrary, it is the crimes of the powerful (the elites of capitalism). The works of the neo-Marxists were borrowed from the conflict theory and Marxism.


Compare and contrast the views of the Marxists’ and neo-Marxists’ position to criminal behaviours.


This unit has inundated us with the critical school of criminology. We have examined the Marxist and neo-Marxist perspectives which criticised the capitalist factors of production in the society from the views of Taylor, Young, Engels, Marx, Walton, etc, as well as the relationship between the capitalist class and the working class. In addition, we have been able to garner information and explain the critique of labelling and conflict theories of crimes.


We have examined and discussed the radical criminology .We recalled that the critical school was borrowed from the Marxist’s concept. It defines the social class position where the powerful maintained their position and the powerless became the most criminals as a result of the features of the capitalist society.
1. Discuss the ways in which criminology has become “radicalized” in recent years.
2. Discuss the Labelling theory of Lemert, Becker and Cohen and apply its relevancy to the contemporary Nigerian society


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