Left Realist Criminology, as its name implies, is radical in its criminology and realistic in its appraisal of crime and its causes. Radical, in that crime is seen as an endemic product of the class and patriarchal nature of advanced industrial society. It is not a cosmetic criminology of an establishment sort which views crime as a blemish which, with suitable treatment, can be removed from the body of society which is, in itself, otherwise healthy and in little need of reconstruction. Rather it suggests that it is within the core institutions of society (its relationships of class and of gender) and its central values (such as competitive individualism and aggressive masculinity) that crime arises. Crime is not a product of abnormality but of the normal workings of the social order. Secondly, it is realistic in that it attempts to be faithful to the reality of crime. This involves several tasks: realistically appraising the problem of crime, deconstructing crime into its fundamental components (the square of crime), critically examining the nature of causality, being realistic about the possibilities of intervention and, above all, fully understanding the changing social terrain in which we now live.

The particular political space in which left realism emerged was in the mid-1980s. The juxtaposition was the emergence of conservative ('neo-liberal') governments in many Western countries which pursued an overtly punishment-oriented approach to crime control and a liberal/social democratic opposition on the defensive. The right set out, quite consistently from their perspective, to generate market incentives in the work sphere and penal deterrence in the field of illegitimate behaviour. They actively pointed to the rise in the crime rate and entered vigorously into law and order campaigns on behalf of 'the silent majority', holding the offenders responsible and punishment the solution. The New Left position, which had its origins in the libertarianism of the 1960s, tended to resemble a mirror image of the right. That is it denied or downplayed the level of crime, portrayed the offender as victim of the system, and stressed a multiculturalism of diversity and struggle where radicalism entailed the defence of the community against the incursions of the State, particularly the police and the criminal justice system. What was necessary was a criminology which could navigate between these two currents: which took crime seriously but which was radical in its analysis and policy (see Gitlin, 1995; Currie, 1992). Thus it was no accident that the first work in a realist vein appeared at approximately the same time, What is to be Done About Law and Order? (by John Lea and myself) came out in 1984, the Canadian, Brian MacLean set up one of the first realist victimisation studies in 1985, which was the same year that the distinguished American radical, Elliott Currie, produced Confronting Crime, to be followed in 1987 by William Julius Wilson's pathbreaking study: The Truly Disadvantaged.

Let us turn now to the fundamental components of realism, noting how it is clearly differentiated both from conservative policies and from those traditionally and currently associated with the left.



Taking Crime Seriously, the Critique of Left Idealism

The springboard for the emergence of realist criminology was the injunction to 'take crime seriously', an urgent recognition that crime was a real problem for a large section of the population, particularly women, the most vulnerable sections of the working class and the ethnic minorities. It emerged as a critique of a predominant tendency in left wing and liberal commentaries which down-played the problem of crime, talking about media instigated moral panics and irrational fears of crime. Such commentaries argued that public discourse about crime involved a displacement of the 'real' problems of the population (eg unemployment, exploitation, poverty) on crime as a potent symbol of social anxiety and enabled governments to legitimise their ever-increasing expenditure on law and order, often in fact directed at social unrest, at political and industrial militancy rather than crime itself. Crime control was, in fact, social control and the development of new policing and crime prevention techniques, such as the introduction of Neighbourhood Watch, CCTV, and even police domestic violence units, have been depicted in this light. Such left idealism (or what Elliott Currie calls 'progressive minimalism') has been frightened of entering the law and order debate for fear of adding to the prejudices of the population and whipping up public support for conservative crime control strategies. Thus, Elliott Currie points out that although minimalism, although originating in the 1960s, is still with us today:

"Twenty or so years later, under considerably changed conditions, minimalism is still probably the dominant voice of American progressives on these issues, a fact that has helped keep progressives on the fringes of public debate. Part of the problem is that minimalism, in its desire to downplay the severity of the crime problem, is often just plain wrong in its empirical understanding of serious crime and drug abuse in the United States today. ... They help to perpetuate an image of progressives as being both fuzzy-minded and, much worse, unconcerned about the realities of life for those ordinary Americans who are understandably frightened and enraged by the suffering and fear crime brings to their communities and families." (1992, p.91)

Such a minimisation of the effect of crime is combined with an idealisation of reality, that is a denial of the level of pathology and dysfunction which occur amongst oppressed groups. Whereas generations of radicals in the past pointed to the way in which material conditions such as poverty caused massive problems on the level of the family and community, and, indeed, pointed to crime as an index of this, left idealists trenchantly reject such assertions as ethnocentric and even racist in their nature.

Thus we have the characteristic syndrome of left idealism: great emphasis is placed on the criminal justice system as an autonomous agent which shapes and causes problems. Crime itself is played down, marginalised, and is not the focus of attention. Pathology and dysfunction within oppressed groups is minimised or denied. The causes of crime are either seen as obvious (eg poverty) or the product of criminal justice system intervention (eg the war on drugs) or, more radically, to be a chimera because crime is seen to have no reality itself other than the arbitrary definitions of criminal law (see Hulsman, 1986).


A Critique of Establishment Criminology

Let us turn now to establishment criminology. Its key agenda is what might be termed distancing: that is to explain crime in a way which denies that there is any relationship with the core structure and values of society. The fault lies not in society, but in the individual who, because of some biological or psychological or social reason, has been rendered dysfunctional. The causes are numerous and sometimes accumulated willy nilly in a multi-factor 'theory', thus we can have genetics/low intelligence (Hernnstein and Murray, 1994), racial propensity (Rushton, 1995), genetics and inadequate child rearing (Eysenck and Gudjonsson, 1989), inadequate single mothers (Murray, 1994), inadequate socialisation in first five years of life (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990) and all of these (Wilson and Hernnstein, 1985). Such propensities to commit crime are combined with opportunities to provide an 'integrated theory' which could be summed up as: differential human frailty confronting variable temptations gives rise to crime (Felson, 1994). Such a neo-positivism differs from the individualised positivism of the past: it freely acknowledges that crime is widespread, it grants free will but only in terms of the determining choices available, the criminal is more 'normal' than before but still the propensities of genetics and early childhood socialisation create more or less vulnerability to crime. The actuarial criminal calculates the pluses or minuses of an action, just as in the legitimate market place, but some are more capable of rational calculation than others and some are more able to resist temptation (Murray, 1990). But above all the wider social structure of inequality and injustice is left out of the picture. In establishment criminology a simple materialism is propounded but it is a materialism divorced from reality. Detached pieces of causality pirouette around a universe of isolated atoms: the family is blamed as if autonomous from the economy (see Currie, 1985), a decline in morality is evoked without any notion that morals may find their genesis in the market society.

Crime, furthermore, is a problem to be administered, to be dealt with by piecemeal interventions. This is a cosmetic criminology which views crime as a blemish on an otherwise trouble-free society. It thus reverses causality: crime causes problems for society rather than society causes the problem of crime. Thus, just as left idealist attempts to disconnect the criminal justice system from crime, establishment criminology attempts to disconnect crime from the wider society. In a sense neither are serious about crime. Left idealism because it underplays crime as a problem, establishment criminology because, although often admitting the severity of the crime problem, insists on regarding it as of superficial nature. Here, then, is the task of a radical realism: to make the proper connections between crime, the criminal justice system and society: to be realistic in opposition to left idealism, to be radical in contrast to establishment criminology.


The central aim of left realism is to be faithful to the reality of crime: to the fact that all crimes must, of necessity, involve rules and rule breakers (i.e. criminal behaviour and reaction against it) and offenders and victims. The problem with previous criminology, according to realism, is that it is partial. It has tended to focus on only part of the process of crime and not to encompass all of it. The focus was on the victim or on the offender, on the social reaction to crime or on the criminal behaviour itself. Realism intends to bring together all aspects of the process: in this its approach emphasises synthesis rather than a simple dismissal of opposing theories.

The most fundamental tenet of realism is that criminology should be faithful to the nature of crime. That is, it should acknowledge the form of crime, the social context of crime, its trajectory through time, and its enactment in space.


The form consists of two dyads, a victim and an offender. and of actions and reactions: of crime and its control. This deconstruction gives us four definitional elements of crime: a victim, an offender, formal control and informal control.

Realism, then, points to a square of crime involving the interaction between police and other agencies of social control, the public, the offender and the victim.

The Square of Crime

Police/Multi Agencies





Social Control



The Criminal Act

The Public



Crime rates are generated not merely by the interplay of these four factors, but as social relationships between each point on the square. It is the relationship between the police and the public which determines the efficacy of policing, the relationship between the victim and the offender which determines the impact of the crime, the relationship between the State and the offender which is a major factor in recidivism; it is the burgled public who create the informal economy which sustains burglary, or the police who create, through illegalities, a moral climate which spur delinquents into crime. Lastly, the relationship between the four points of the square (offender, victim, state agencies and the public) varies with differing types of crime (see J Lea, 1992).

Crime rates are a product, therefore, of changes in the number of possible offenders, the number of potential victims, and the changing levels of control exercised by the official agencies of control and the public. No explanation which does not embrace all these four factors can possibly explain crime rates. Let us focus, for the moment, quite simply on the relationship between social control in all its manifestations, and the criminal act consisting of the dyad of victim and offender. That is on the criminal act and the reaction to it. If we examine changes over time: realists would point to these necessarily being a product of changes in criminal behaviour and changes in reactions to crime. Crime by its very nature is not a fixed objective thing: it varies with the definer. None of this makes it any the less 'real': for this is exactly what crime rates really are.


The social context consists of the immediate social interaction of these four elements and the setting of each of them within the wider social structure. Such an agenda was set out within The New Criminology (Taylor, et al, 1973), namely, that the immediate social origins of a deviant act should be set within its wider social context and that such an analysis should encompass both actors and reactors. Realism takes this a stage further, insisting, not only that actions of offenders and the agencies of the State must be understood in such a fashion, but that this must be extended to the informal system of social control (the public) and to victims.

The Temporal Aspect of Crime

The temporal aspect of crime is the past of each of the four elements of the square of crime and their impact on each other in the future. A realist approach sees the development of criminal behaviour over time. It breaks down this trajectory of offending into its component parts and notes how different agencies interact. Thus we can talk of (1) the background causes of crime; (2) the moral context of opting for criminal behaviour; (3) the situation of committing crime; (4) the detection of crime; (5) the response to the offender; (6) the response to the victim.

Criminal careers are built up by an interaction of the structural position the offender finds him or herself in and the administrative responses to his or her various offences. Such moral careers are not confined to the offender. Other points of the square of crime change over time. Policing practices change in their interaction with offenders, the public's fear of crime in the city creates patterns of avoidance behaviour which consciously and unconsciously develop over time, victims - particularly repeated victims such as in domestic violence - change the pattern of their life as a consequence of such an interaction.

As an activity, crime involves a moral choice at a certain point in time in changing determinant circumstances. It has neither the totally determined quality beloved by positivism, nor the wilful display of rationality enshrined in classicist legal doctrine. It is a moral act, but one which must be constantly assessed within a determined social context. It is neither an act of determined pathology, nor an obvious response to desperate situations. It involves both social organization and disorganization. Realism eschews both the romanticism of left idealism which grants exaggerated levels of organization, and rationality to deviant behaviour and the desiccated scientism of positivist criminology which does just the reverse (see Wilson, 1987; Young, 1987; Matza, 1969).

The problem of the causes of crime is one which has perplexed criminologists and confused public opinion throughout the century. This is not the place to enter into the complexities of this subject, but it is pertinent to point to three notions which inform the debate: that is absolute deprivation, total determinism and mechanistic causation. All of these concepts are central to social democratic positivism and are fundamentally mistaken.

There is no evidence that absolute deprivation (e.g. unemployment, lack of schooling, poor housing, etc.) leads automatically to crime. Realist criminology points to relative deprivation in certain conditions as being the major cause of crime. That is, when people experience a level of unfairness in their allocation of resources and utilise individualistic means to attempt to right this condition. It is an unjust reaction to the experience of injustice. Needless to say, such an experienced injustice, coupled with an individualistic 'solution' can occur at different parts of society: like crime itself, it is certainly not a monopoly of the poor. Such individualistic responses of 'every man for himself' are particularly prevalent at certain times rather than others; it is the ascendent ethos of modern-day Britain, with its rising crime rate, and it is particularly prevalent in the United States, which has by far the highest crime rate of any advanced industrial society.

The notion that certain social conditions lead to crime is associated with the notion of total determinism. To say that poverty in the present period breeds crime is not to say that all poor people are criminals. Far from it: most poor people are perfectly honest and many wealthy people commit crimes. Rather it is to say that the rate of crime is higher in certain parts of society in certain conditions. Crime, like any other form of behaviour, involves moral choice in certain restricting circumstances. It is not inevitable in any particular circumstances. That is why an ethos of individualism has such an effect on public morality and the incidence of crime. Conversely, however, crime is not merely a matter of moral choice: a wickedness distributed randomly throughout the world. Material circumstances differ widely in present-day society - some would suggest far too widely - and this greatly affects the crime rates.

To say that crime is causal is, therefore, not to suggest a mechanistic notion of causation: like, for example, when we push a table - the table moves. Rather, that because of the subjective element, certain circumstances facilitate increases in crime amongst parts of the population. Because of this, simple attempts to relate social factors such as unemployment to crime will, inevitably, fail, however sophisticated their statistical techniques. Unemployment leads to discontent in those situations where people experience their circumstances as unjust, unnecessary and, above all, preventable. Discontent leads to crime where individuals feel marginalised socially and politically. As we have seen, there are various, quite pronounced, reasons why such marginalisation and relative deprivation has increased in the present period. Furthermore, we have a generation which has grown up used to Keynesian interventions in the economy, and which consequently sees unemployment, not as part of the natural order, but as very much a political product. To them unemployment and relative impoverishment is no longer a fact of life, it is a failure of society and of government.

The common problem of mechanistic notions of crime causation is that it assumes an immediate causation. But if we consider that it takes time for people to evaluate their predicaments and even longer for them to build up alternative solutions, then the notion of an immediate causation becomes ludicrous. Unemployment now does not relate to crime the day after tomorrow. Sub-cultures of youth, for example, build up and develop appraisals of their situation, but they may not flourish until several years after the initial problem of unemployment. Perhaps, even more significantly, the development of a hidden economy, including a level of illegal activity, will take a considerable time to build up. Thus to correlate crime and unemployment at one moment of time completely obscures the fact that human evaluation and enterprise develop through time.

Finally, with regards to human constitution and crime, realism does not reject the fact of correlations between biology and crime, whether one is talking about body shape, hormone systems, size, or age. In rejecting biological reductionism, theories such as left idealism and labelling theory, throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject biology itself. It is a fact that larger, more powerful, people commit more violence than smaller people, that their male hormones correlate strongly with violence, that the well-muscled are more of a threat than the plump and unfit. You do not, after all, cross the street at night to avoid old ladies. Realism does not deny the correlations between biology and crime: that men are more violent than women, and the young more violent than the old. Rather, it argues the causes of patriarchal violence against women or the machismo of lower working class youth are rooted in social situations, not biology, and that physical capacity to commit crime is merely an intervening variable.


Criminology typically seeks generalizations which are independent of culture and social setting. Of course, unemployment leads to crime; it is self-evident that the recession has led to the rise in heroin use amongst young people, etc. Such a mechanistic relationship between objective conditions and human behaviour is absurd. Because of the fact of human reflexivity and consciousness realists would be extremely sceptical if a simple linear relationship were found, say, between levels of unemployment and crime, inequality and violence, crime rates and imprisonment rates. Indeed, if a linear relationships were to be found then it is likely that it would be an artifact of the methods of measurement rather than of reality itself. Tendencies in a particular direction in a specified culture is another thing, but linear relationships abstracted from human meaning and social situation are a positivistic chimera. It is central to a realist position that objective conditions are interpreted through the specific sub-cultures of groups involved. This is the nature of human experience and social action. Generalization is possible, but only given specific cultural conditions and social understandings. Thus, to be precise, the problem of specificity refers to generalizing about crime, law or victimization from one country or one social group and assuming that one's conclusions apply to all countries or social groups. It is being unable to see how general variables come together in a very specific and meaningful form in any particular situation.

Realism focuses on lived realities. It is concerned with the material problem which particular groups of people experience in terms of the major social axes of age, class, gender and ethnicity and spatially within their locality (see DeKeseredy, 997). Generalisations based solely on age or class or gender or ethnicity are essentialist and are a mistake in specificity. It is these structural parameters which give rise to subcultures. Subcultures are problem-solving devices which constantly arise as people in specific groups attempt to solve the structural problems which face them. The problems are evaluated in terms of the existing subculture and the subculture changes over time in order to attempt a solution to those perceived problems.g Crime is one form of subcultural adaption which occurs where material circumstances block cultural aspirations and where non-criminal alternatives are absent or less attractive


Being Tough on Crime Means Being Tough on Criminal Justice

We must reject the notion of 'nothing works', the prevalent slogan of the 1980s; our problem is that we do not know exactly what works, for what offences with regard to which offenders. The problem is both on the level of explanation and the level of monitoring. We must stop asking what works and begin to look at how things work. And once we have set up interventions based on reasoned analysis rather than folk wisdom we must halt the flood of badly maintained projects whose main theme is self-congratulation. If one-tenth of the projects which claimed success were half as successful as they claim, we would have 'solved' the crime problem years ago. Part of our predicament is because the number of scientifically monitored interventions in crime control is surprisingly small, part that such monitoring is much more difficult than is usually supposed. There is a certain innocence about such interventions. Legislators expect that laws, once enacted, will be both satisfactorily implemented and once implemented effect the stated aims of the statutes. Hallowed police practices, such as large-scale stop and search, are maintained in all their costly arbitrariness despite the fact that research shows 'yield' to be small and the resulting alienation of innocent individuals likely to not merely be ineffective but actually counterproductive (see Young, 1994). Above all the problem is naïveté rooted in commonsense notions of obviousness. There is no reason to suspect that successful intervention in the social world is less difficult than in the natural world. Yet scientific interventions in the physical world around us are the result of a wealth of experiment and validation whilst the actual product, whether it be a bridge, aeroplane, or motor car, is a function of incessant research and development. Obviousness and commonsense did not create the space shuttle, why on earth should such principles dominate intervention in the much more complicated systems of social reality? It is this conception of the social as simple which beguiles the nature of criminal justice interventions and precludes adequate monitoring of effects. Furthermore, it would be completely incorrect to assume a simple linear relationship between the quantity of an intervention and the amount of effect. For example, more police equals less crime or more punishment means greater deterrence, etc. We must be aware not only of the declining marginal returns of any particular intervention but of the notion of 'too much' as well as 'too little'. To take a dramatic example: saturating an area such as Brixton in south London with police officers may start a riot and produce crime statistics greater or equal to that of no policing whatsoever. Simple linear relationships must, therefore, be discarded; rather we must be on the look out for the particular set of circumstances which produce effective policing. To do so requires us not only examining what works, but more vitally what are the mechanisms by which successful (and unsuccessful) policing operates (Sayer, 1984). What is it that makes policing effective? What are the mechanisms that come into operation under what specific circumstances? Such an analysis clearly indicates that it would be false to generalise from the present combination of effective, ineffective and downright counterproductive parts of the criminal justice system. Some things work, some things don't, some things might work in certain situations and not in others. None of this is to suggest that the criminal justice system is, or feasibly could be, the dominant mode of crime control. No manner of reform and change would achieve this. What it does suggest is that its present contribution could be raised but that to do so requires a much more circumspect level of design and monitoring. Research, design, evaluation: all of these processes make sense, particularly if we take into account the vast sums which we spend on the criminal justice system and other forms of crime control. But such vigorous examination must be matched by a determination to change practices and shift resources when something palpably does not work. Part of the process then of being tough on crime, is to be tough on the criminal justice system.


But the Social Has Priority Over Criminal Justice

For realism, then, the control of crime involves interventions on all levels: on the social causes of crime, on social control exercised by the community and the formal agencies, and on the situation of the victim. Furthermore, that social causation is given the highest priority, whereas formal agencies, such as the police, have a vital role, yet one which has in the conventional literature been greatly exaggerated. It is not the "Thin Blue Line", but the social bricks and mortar of civil society which are the major bulwark against crime. Good jobs with a discernable future, housing estates that tenants can be proud of, community facilities which enhance a sense of cohesion and belonging, a reduction in unfair income inequalities, all create a society which is more cohesive and less criminogenic.


Short Term Gain, Long Term Transformation

Realism attempts immediate interventions yet seeks long term fundamental change. It is, firstly, a radical discipline which sets itself against an establishment criminology intent on standing in the way of change and which believes that crime is a mere technical hitch in the social system which can be corrected by disparate, unconnected, piecemeal measures. Secondly, it is a realist criminology which critiques those radicals who, believing that nothing much can be done short of fundamental transformations, focus defensively on the inequities of the criminal justice system in a series of one-off campaigns. Vital as such activities are, it is necessary to fully enter the debate about law and order and to suggest immediate policies which will ameliorate the impact of crime and disorder upon wide sections of the population. This, of course, involves reform of the criminal justice system in terms of aims and effectiveness, but it is vital to note that immediate interventions in terms of social improvements may be just as effective in their impact.

But such immediate reforms cannot be seen as separate from the problem of long term social change (Cohen, 1990). Indeed, not only do such measures improve the morale of the community and thus facilitate the capacity for change, but they are unlikely to be successful if not couched in terms of long term goals of social justice (Matthews, 1988; Lowman, 1992; Loader, 1997). For crime is about social justice gone wrong, its solution is not order divorced from justice but an order that springs out of a just society. We live in an era where there has been a widening division between those in secure employment and those who are insecure, and a chasm between those in work and those who are structurally unemployed. The days of the inclusive society of full employment and secure careers are over. The meritocratic racetrack on which all are supposed to run and gain prizes proportionate to our effort has become more and more exposed for what it always was, a dream. The tracks separate out to a fast lane and a slow lane, with a substantial section of the population allocated to the role of spectators (the losers) watching the glittering prizes doled out to the successful (the winners!). Relative deprivation abounds, matched by a rise in economic precariousness and insecurity. A rampant individualism, itself a spin off of market values, adds to this and creates a society which is crimogenic, and self-destructive. Crime becomes a normality of life, incivilities part of the fabric of everyday existence. The problems are most pressing amongst the growing body of people excluded from full citizenship but they occur at all reaches of society and indeed within the family, the basic building block of liberal democracy. The motor of disorder thus lies at the heart of the system in the inequalities of merit and reward, which grow more evident as we enter the Twenty-First Century, and in the values of individualism which break down the acceptance of the status quo which was necessary for it to smoothly function.

Establishment criminology eschews all talk of social injustice. Its first response is actuarial, its second nostalgic. Most immediately there arises a criminology which is about the management of risk (Feeley and Simon, 1994; van Swaaningen, 1997; Young, 1999). It is a actuarialism where the calculating criminal confronts the calculating public: the risk maker meets the risk taker, with no element of justice, indeed moral judgement, in the picture. As crime becomes a normal part of everyday life and the trouble free management of the growing imprisoned population becomes more and more necessary, the task of the administrative criminologist becomes that of designing barriers, evaluating surveillance and calculating the risk of disturbance - the protection of property, public space and the management of prisons. A flourishing evaluation industry occurs here much of it of little scientific validity, with few bothering to ask whether all this cost is worth it to maintain a system which is at basis fundamentally flawed. Instead of this, establishment criminology evokes the unthinking order of the control theorists where basic values are drilled into the child from infancy, and morality is 'caught not taught' (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). It attempts to revive the strong family (itself a prime site of crime and violence) where authority is unquestioned and to rekindle the community which prioritises order and certainty over justice and equality (Etzioni, A, 1993). All of these things are lost causes: they are attempts to bolt nostalgia onto the fast changing world in which we find ourselves. Such a nostalgia has, of course, attractions to politicians of both the left and the right (indeed their policies become increasingly indistinguishable) but there is no going back. "For", as Marshall Berman evocatively puts it, "our past, whatever it was, was a past in the process of disintegration; we yearn to grasp it, but it is baseless and elusive; we look back for something solid to lean on, only to find ourselves embracing ghosts" (1983, p.333). Any realism, worthy of its name, must go with the rapid changes which late modernity brings upon us (Hofman, 1993; Lippens, 1994). We must argue for work but we must not deceive ourselves that it will support the graduation to grave careers of yesteryear, we must argue for strong support for child rearing, but take note that the nuclear family for life is becoming a dwindling option, we must build strong communities but not expect them to resemble the soap operas we so avidly watch. If we are to construct a social democracy for the next century, we must use new building blocks - work, family and the community will all be transformed yet the demand for citizenship and justice will be even greater. Only in this direction can we realistically talk of a programme which reduces crime and moves towards a social order which will be in the interests of the majority.

Jock Young



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