Crime & Modernity: Continuities in Left Realist Criminology


John Lea

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    Preface and Acknowledgements

    This book has been with me for some time. Its inspiration is twofold. The first is a desire to consolidate the theoretical gains of the Left Realist criminology of the last two decades which, it has always seemed to me, centre around the perspective known as the square of crime (Lea 1987, 1992; Young 1987, 1992). The study of crime is grounded in a framework of interaction which includes, besides the familar dyad of offender and victim, the state and the criminal justice agencies themselves together with the publics and communities within which crime and crime control take place, as active participants in the construction and regulation of criminality. This framework can of course be deployed in an analytical way, to enable the contributions and interactions of these various participants to produce changes in crime rates. This was the main emphasis of an earlier contribution of mine (Lea 1992).

    However, the present period has seen the problem of crime take on new dimensions besides the traditional issues of rises and falls in the amount of criminal activity. The increasing normalisation of crime, its relationship with economic activity, survival of poor communities, the changing methods of operation of the criminal justice agencies, all point to a sea change in the relationship between key forms of criminality and other aspects of the social and economic system in which crime is less an episodic and rude disruption of normality and increasingly one of its salient features. There is a need, therefore, for a framework within which such changes, and their relationship to wider developments in contemporary capitalist societies, can be located and understood.

    This brings me to the second inspiration for my argument, namely, the necessity of history. To understand the changing relationships between criminality and other socio-economic processes, an historical approach is absolutely necessary. It is a core argument that many of the changes taking place at the present time re-present aspects of modern capitalist societies in their formative stages. This involves abandoning an analytic in favour of a chronological approach. The square of crime thus reappears as the social relations of crime control, a set of social relations through which societies deal with a large part of their interpersonal conflicts and harms as crime, and by means of criminal justice. These relations have their distinct historical preconditions in the processes of modernisation beginning, in Britain, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which are today becoming exhausted.

    Aware that I have only scratched the surface of the task I set myself, I ask attentive readers to prepare themselves for loose ends, unfinished arguments and no doubt flagrant contradictions. But if I have conveyed an orientation, a way of thinking about the subject matter of criminality and its complex relations with the process of modernisation and the crisis facing contemporary capitalist societies, then I will have achieved something.

    I would like to offer thanks to all those friends and colleagues with whom conversations have helped me on my way and who commented on all or particular parts of the manuscript. Trevor Bark, Keir Sothcott and the ‘social crime’ seminar were a constant source of encouragement. Leo Zeilig and Patrick Slaughter read all or parts of the manuscript and saved me from many lapses into incoherence. Sue Lees read everything and tried her best to force clarity on my prose and arguments. All faults are mine alone.

    JohnLea August 2001
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