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The Link Between Relative Deprivation and Crime


To better understand radical criminology theory, it is important to first have a basic idea on what is criminology. Criminology is a field of study that endeavours to establish the main causes of crime, definition of crime in terms of law and the reaction of people in the society towards crime in general.

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Thus, radical criminology theory is based on the Marxist’s assumption that crime is caused by social and economic factors in the society. This means that those committing crime are doing so as a result of socio-economic push factors in the society such as unemployment and poverty. Another assumption of radical criminology theory from a Marxist perspective is that criminal justice systems primarily exist to serve those in positions of political power and those who are affluent.

At the same time the criminal justice system appears to oppress the poor in the society for the benefit of the elite. Radical criminology theory is also referred to as critical criminology since it borrows its main ideas from the works of Karl Max.

Radical theorists on their part seek to challenge the idea of the legitimate power of the state and its capacity to use the law and other instruments of power such as the police and other law enforcement agents. This administrative system has been criticised as a source of social injustices and inequalities because it protects the capitalists and their properties.

Radical theorists are in support of socialism which later gives way to communism. According to these theorists, embracing socialism and subsequently communism is likely to drastically reduce the number of crimes in the society. As much as this author supports the arguments of these radical theorists, they disagree with the notion that an overthrow of capitalism which has perpetuated class distinction and inequalities will be the solution to crime in the society. In light of this, the author is going to critically analyse the above mentioned characteristics and assumptions of the radical criminology theory.

In this paper, the author notes that radical theory has the potential to promote noble ideals as far as social equality and justice is concerned. However, it is noted that it is impractical to implement the ideas of this theory in contemporary 21st century society. The author is going to critically analyse this position in light of how radical criminology theory can supplement criminological research. This is with special focus on the link between relative deprivation and crime in contemporary society.

The Birth of Social Inequalities and Injustices according to Karl Marx

It is important to look at the birth or origin of social inequalities and injustices in contemporary society. This is according to the father of radical theory, Karl Marx. This way, the author will be able to identify the link between these social inequalities and injustices and radical theory in general.

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As earlier mentioned, most of the radical theorists base their arguments on the writings of Karl Marx. According to Karl Marx, social injustices can be traced back to the industrial revolution era and which gave rise to modern capitalist societies (Shlomo 1970). For Karl Marx, the few wealthy individuals controlled the factors and means of production.

These are land, raw materials, factories and capital. The rest of the people were reduced to wage labourers. Even though Karl did not address the criminal justice system, his writings brought about a radical perspective of looking at the society. Majority of the people revolted against the dominance and discrimination of the few rich individuals in the society.

To countercheck these uprisings, law was formulated defining criminal acts and an instrument of control (the police) was set up to ensure that the capitalists did not lose their wealth due to the revolutions. Therefore, this system was biased and did not administer justice to all. As a result, crime escalated because the poor tried to get what they have been deprived of forcefully thus the birth of radical crimes (Shlomo 1970). This argument augurs well with the assumptions of radical criminology theory.

Here, relative deprivation is seen as the major cause of crime. This being the case, it is obvious that radical criminology theory can be used by a criminological researcher in this field today.

Definition of Crime and Radical Theory in Contemporary Society

Lily, Cullen & Ball (2002) defines crime as the human actions that are against the provisions and expectations created by the agents of law in an organised society. Radical theorists argue that the law serves the interests of those in political power, social and economic elites. This is together with those occupying influential positions in the criminal justice system.

It is the law which outlines the behaviours and actions that should not bring conflict in the society. If conflict arises there are ways of settling them through the said systems. These judicial systems have been structured in a manner that favours those who are wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Thus, crime varies between societies depending on the prevailing social and economic structures (Daly & Maher 1998). This means that what is considered crime in one society may not be considered as a crime in another society. Additionally, what is considered as crime today may not be considered as such tomorrow and what was not considered as crime yesterday may be viewed as crime today. For example, slavery was not a crime during the early years of industrial revolution in America and other western nations. This however is not the case today. Slavery is proscribed as crime in America, Europe and practically every other nation in the world today.

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Some are of the view that crime reduces surplus labour by creating employment for criminals and those entrusted with law enforcement and criminal justice. This as a result diverts the attention of the lower classes from the exploitation they experience and directs it towards others in the working class rather than those in positions of power (Lily et al. 2002, p. 145).

This is a position that a criminological researcher in contemporary society should be aware of. These are some of the benefits of crime as outlined in radical criminology theory. This shows that radical criminology theory is still relevant to the criminological researcher in contemporary society.

Radical Criminology Theory: Focus of Analysis

Radical criminology theory mainly focuses on social and economic orders that bring forth criminals. The capitalist order according to Marxists is protected by the state. This is especially the right to property ownership aspect of capitalism. This is evident in today’s society where laws have been put in place to protect private property.

Those individuals depriving others their property are treated as criminals. Most of the political and social elites as well as officers of the judiciary went to the same up market high schools and universities. They are also members of the same social clubs. This is for example social golf clubs.

As already indicated earlier in this paper, radical theory may promote noble ideas of social and justice equality in the society. However, this may not be applicable in contemporary society especially considering the legal structures put in place and the relationship between the social and political elites on one hand and the criminals drawn from economically deprived backgrounds on the other hand.

To this end, it is noted that the law is meant to check the activities of those in the lower economic classes in their struggle to get what they perceive as having been deprived (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner 1997). This prompts those who feel economically and socially deprived to sacrifice their peace resulting to chaos and anarchy in the streets.

Chaos and anarchy are characterized by looting and vandalizing the property of the rich. They are also characterised by demonstrations and riots in the streets thus creating social unrest which is detrimental to the investments made by the rich and economic elites in the society. But with the law skewed against them, activists are prosecuted and punished severely to serve as examples to discourage future riots and cases of social unrest.

Types of Crimes and Radical Criminology Theory

Criminological scholars are also interested in the classification of various forms of crimes in the society today. It is important to look at how radical criminology theory assists these researchers to this end. This is especially so considering that classification of crimes is crucial when it comes to linking crime to relative economic deprivation in the society. This is by identifying the forms of crimes that are related to deprivation and those which are not.

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According to a scholar by the name of Williams (2008, p. 446), there are three main types of crimes associated with radical criminology theory. These are crimes of domination, those of accommodation and those of resistance. A criminology researcher can use this classification to analyse crimes in contemporary society. Crimes of domination consist of crimes of control where one group strives to dominate the other. These crimes include police brutality, political corruption and crimes of economic domination such as organised crimes.

Crimes of accommodation aim at provoking the conditions of capitalism and consist of predatory crimes such as theft and personal crimes such as homicide. These are crimes that are intended to offset the balance that capitalists sought to establish in the society. The crimes are meant to offset the comfort of the capitalists.

Lastly crimes of resistance are said to have active elements of political struggle against a state. Some of the factors that lead to these crimes are for example over- dominance and exploitation by the wealthy members of the society and the politicians. This form of crime is characterised by acts such as terrorism and unprecedented attacks on the judicial system.

By identifying this classification of crimes, radical criminology theorist can be seen as trying to promote noble ideals of social equality and justice in the society. This is given the fact that they are trying to link all crimes in the society to social injustices and equality. However, this may be impractical to implement in contemporary society given the fact that not all crimes are caused by economic deprivation. For example, crimes such as bigamy may not be entirely caused by economic deprivation (that is if at all bigamy can be linked to economic deprivation). Radical theorists fail to acknowledge such crimes in their classification.

Nature of Offenders and Radical Criminology Theory

Most of the offenders prosecuted under today’s criminal justice system are poor and they struggle to penetrate through the social classes. They are the majority in the society. According to the crime exists because it is created by those in positions of power under the criminal law. According to Maguire et al. (2002), most of the criminals according to the radical criminology theory commit the crimes unwillingly.

At times it is noted that they did not even have the intention to commit them but the circumstances they are subjected to forces them to accept the wrongs. This therefore means that they are the ones to be punished for the misdeeds of the social elites. Thus, criminal and non-compliant behaviors stem from people’s conscious actions within the legitimate dictates of their class position and their life as reflected by social class. With this in mind, it becomes obvious why it is impractical to implement the noble ideals of radical criminology theory in today’s society.

Response to Crime and Radical Criminology Theory

To ensure that the interests and property of the social and political elites are safe, the law uses its institutions and instruments to punish crimes. Evident of this is the manner through which these instruments are used to subdue the criminals. Extrajudicial killings of activists have been recorded in most countries undergoing civilization. Use of force and violence in dispersing rioters is also evident. Critics of the capitalist order have been intimidated by both the police and politicians.

What is defined as crime in radical theory is seen as what the majority have been deprived of. Penalties are meted out to those suspected of acting contrary to the law. Due to the biasness of the law, the rich commit the crimes but the poor person is the one punished for those wrongdoings.

Remedies to Crime

It is only the collapse of the capitalist system that will bring an end to radical crime. Seigel (2000) acknowledges the fact that the reality of crime did not exist in early society but was brought to existence by the formation and application of procedures defining crime thus bringing forth the issue of legitimacy and illegitimacy of human actions (Downes & Rock 1998).

This definition was later enforced by state instruments and agencies. Moreover the creation of new societal orders such as communism based on the principles of socialism will ensure equity in all spheres of life (Williams 2008, p. 457). These principles can create a balance between the social elites and the subordinate social class thus reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Each and every individual will take full responsibility of their actions thus reducing the collision between the affluent and the subordinates. Institutions, agencies and instruments of power like the police will be streamlined to ensure social and economic rights are upheld with respect to the laws of nature.

Professionalism will be reinstated by the political rulers when they start treating those in the upper and lower social classes equally. This theory suggests that if socialism is adopted, rates of crime will reduce and there will be less dependence on the criminal law as a control for human beings. This will satisfy members of the lower class as they will get what they initially thought they were deprived of (Muncie, McLaughlin & Langan 1996).

A critical analysis of the assumptions above will reveal that they are just noble ideals. They are impractical in contemporary society. It is not possible to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich completely. As such, social and economic inequalities will always prevail.

Shortcomings of Radical Criminology Theory

There are some shortcomings inherent in this theory which makes the noble ideals it promotes impractical to implement in contemporary society. One of them is overemphasis on the fact that poverty causes crime. This does not take into account or explain why many poor people do not commit crime. The theory takes the legal definition of crime for granted. Radical theorists fail to address the question why certain behaviors are defined as criminal while others are not.

The theory also assumes that “……people agree on most things most of the time” (White & Haines 2008, p.23). The problem with such an assumption is apparent when one considers the death penalty which is legal in some countries and illegal in others. Death penalty is a controversial issue in many countries in the world including in the United States where different states may adopt approaches to death penalty that are completely different from those of other states (Vold, Bernard & Snipes 2002).

Determinism is central to radical criminology. This is the belief that individuals have no control or choice over their actions but adapts and react to circumstances outside their control. This belief ignores the fact that humans create new circumstances or ways of thinking. Objectivity and positivism assume that social science is objective. But the description and evaluation of criminal behaviour is fundamentally moral and therefore subject to bias.

Radical criminologists have been accused of allowing their theoretical perspectives to intrude into their interpretation of past forms of behavior. The criminologists’ assumption that the political rulers and social elites work towards the same goal (that of oppressing the poor) is fallacious since some politicians are true activists of the downtrodden in many states (Mullard 2003).

Impacts of Radical Theory of Criminology

If this theory and its assumptions are to be sustained, states that adopt socialism might experience economic stagnation. It might be brought about by the exit of both foreign and internal investors since investors want to be assured of the security of their investment. Economic stagnation might also occur in the area of population’s productivity. Productivity of the population might drop due to reduced efforts in working. This can be evident during the transition period.


Even though developments such as the ‘new criminology’ have made adjustments on this theory (with view of crime as a social construct), this theory is not fully dependable. It is important to note that this theory defines crime from a historical perspective. The economic and social order of the capitalist society deprives those in lower classes their rights leading to crime.

The author also notes that even though the theory provides the solution to this social and economic inequality, it is unrealistic to adopt socialism. This is mainly because socialism skills development and creativity. To conclude, the author emphasises that radical theory postulates noble ideas to ensure social equity and justice to all but the suggested solutions are unrealistic in the dynamic universe the world has come to be.


Daly, K & Maher, L 1998, Criminology at the crossroads, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Downes, D & Rock, P 1998, Understanding deviance: a guide to the sociology of crime and rule breaking, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lily, JR Cullen, FJ & Ball, RA 2002, Criminological theory: contexts and consequences, 3rd edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.

Maguire, M Morgan, R & Reiner, R (eds) 1997, The Oxford handbook of criminology, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Maguire, M Morgan, R & Reiner, R (eds) 2002, The Oxford handbook of criminology, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Mullard, M 2003, Democracy, citizenship and globalization, Nova Science Publishers, New York.

Muncie, J McLaughlin, E & Langan, M 1996, Criminological perspectives: a reader, Sage, London.

Seigel, LJ 2000, Criminology, 7th edn, Wadsworth/Thomson, Belmont, California.

Shlomo, A 1970, The social and political thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Vold, GB Bernard, TJ & Snipes, JB 2002, Theoretical criminology, 5th edn, Oxford University Press, New York.

White, R & Haines, F 2008, Crime and criminology, 4th edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Williams, KS 2008, Textbook on criminology, 6th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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