Radical Criminology Theory

By Ayesh Perera, published Feb 11, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Radical criminology is a conflict ideology that holds that society is governed by the interests of its ruling class which exercises control over the collective and neutralizes the potential for rebellion (Johnson, 1978).
  • Radical criminology rose to prominence in the United States in the 1960s amidst conflicts over racial issues and protests against the Vietnam War.
  • Against this backdrop, the tenets of traditional criminology were challenged, and many were drawn to embrace critical and conflict perspectives.
  • In 1990, the American Society of Criminology officially acknowledged the Division of Critical Criminology thereby bestowing formal recognition upon radical criminology (Cardarelli & Hicks, 1993).

Marxist Assumptions

Karl Marx primarily wrote on economics, law, and power via the lens of class struggle; he did not extensively discuss criminology (Johnson, 1978; Nickerson, 2022). However, drawing on Marxist tenets, radical criminology focuses upon class struggle, and posits that legislation is enacted by the ruling elites to aggrandize and sustain their hegemony over a society’s lower classes.

Consequently, according to the theory, laws deter rebellion against the elites who employ crime as a tool to perpetuate their power. Furthermore, selective law enforcement purportedly ensures that ethnic minorities and the working class are criminalized while the mighty and the affluent enjoy impunity.

Radical criminology, moreover, denies that legislation is the offspring of democracy and public debate, and argues that laws are merely rules defined and enforced by the state which is run by the elites. It also holds that capitalism is chiefly responsible for inspiring crime.

Challenges to Traditional Criminology

Traditional criminology’s theoretical focus centers upon crime measurement and criminal conduct with an emphasis on individual responsibility and crime deterrence (Nickerson, 2022).

Radical criminology contends that this focus empowers the state’s repression of the lower classes, and that underscoring personal responsibility diverts attention away from structural factors that supposedly engender delinquency.

The theory further contends that the leniency purportedly exercised toward corporate criminals and harsh penalties imposed on street criminals demonstrate how the criminal justice system favors those in power.

Example Theories

Strain Theory

Strain theory holds that a society’s social structures can compel citizens to commit crime (Merton, 1938). According to the theory, society may pressure individuals to pursue socially desirable goals despite a possible paucity of means, inducing them to engage in activities such as the narcotic trade or prostitution to ensure financial security.

It bears noting that individual needs herein would be fundamentally shaped by the values various societal structures espouse. Understood in the context of radical criminology, this would mean that the ruling elites, via their values, would compel the lower classes into mannerisms and conduct that perpetuate their subservience (Encyclopedia Britannica, Radical Theory).

This domination is supposedly exerted via the provision of socially desirable benefits, the elevation of certain norms, and when necessary, various means of intimidation.

Cultural Deviance

Cultural deviance notes that individuals perpetrate crimes in response to the demands of their most important milieus (Groves & Sampson, 1987). Delinquency, for such persons, is consistent with their perceived roles in society, and represent the core tenets of their surrounding cultures.

Consequently, the internalization of pro-criminal values may be readily induced by subcultural norms that embrace dangerous risk taking and instant gratification (Matsueda, 1997). The ensuing vicious cycle could further enhance the stereotype that lower-class individuals are decadent and impulsive.

Social Control

The social control theory, which is a mixture of strain and cultural deviance theories, holds that solid social relationships can be engendered by sufficient social controls via actual and possible incentives and penalties associated with adherence to various norms.

In other words, obedience could be purchased, and the personality merits reward for subordination. However, when rewards are scarce, intimidation under the threat of penalty may coerce individuals into conformity.

Thus, a decline of rewards is accompanied by an increase in punishments requisite for the maintenance of compliance (Groves & Sampson, 1987). Moreover, when conformity fails to elicit rewards, the risks of individuals breaking the law and engaging in crime abound (Hirschi, 2017).

Conflict v. Radical Criminology

Also based on Marxist principles, conflict criminology holds that adequately understanding crime in capitalist societies requires the belief that those societies are governed by wealthy elites whose dominance necessitates the economic exploitation and marginalization of others (Bernard, 1981) (Nickerson, 2022).

As such, according to this theory, oppressed groups might turn toward crime to procure wealth or merely survive. Despite the common ground they share in Marxist principles, a closer analysis of the two reveals their distinguishing traits.

While conflict criminologists claim to build their theories on empirical studies, radical criminologists derive their perspective from an ideological base that pays little heed to statistics.

Moreover, while conflict criminology acknowledges that lawmaking generally represents competing values in complex societies even when such laws are exploited by the wealthy, radical criminology argues that laws remain the means whereby the capitalist owners of a society’s means of production oppress the working class.

To radical criminology, overthrowing the capitalist system constitutes the solution. In conclusion, both conflict criminology and radical criminology ignore the multifaceted causes and nature of crime, and have failed to explain why crime in socialist societies does not substantially differ from that in capitalist societies (Nickerson, 2022; Cohen, 1998).

Moreover, both these theories absorb people with significant individual differences into groups for analysis, and view phenomena as primarily the product of unequal power relations and class conflict.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Feb 11). Radical criminology theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/radical-criminology-theory.html

APA Style References

"Radical theory | sociology". Encyclopedia Britannica.

Bernard, Thomas J. (1981). "The Distinction between Conflict and Radical Criminology". The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 72 (1): 362–379. doi:10.2307/1142914

Cardarelli, Albert; Hicks, Steven (Fall 1993). "Radicalism in Law and Criminology: A Retrospective View of Critical Legal Studies and Radical Criminology". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 84 (3): 502. doi:10.2307/1143962.

Cohen, S. (1998). Intellectual skepticism and political commitment: the case of radical criminology. In The new criminology revisited (pp. 98-129). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Groves, W. Byron; Sampson, Robert J. (1987). "Traditional Contributions to Radical Criminology". Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 24 (3): 181–214. doi:10.1177/0022427887024003002

Hirschi, Travis (2017). Causes of Delinquency. doi:10.4324/9781315081649. ISBN 9781315081649.

Johnson, E. H. (1978). "Radical Criminology and Marxism: A Fallible Relationship". Criminal Justice Review. 3: 53–63.


Matsueda, Ross L. (1997). "'Cultural Deviance Theory': The Remarkable Persistence of a Flawed Term". Theoretical Criminology. 1 (4): 429–452. doi:10.1177/1362480697001004002.

Merton, Robert (1938). "Social Structure and Anomie". American Sociological Review. 3 (5): 672–682. doi:10.2307/2084686

Nickerson, C. (2022). Radical Criminology. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/radical-criminology.html