Jeff Ferrell. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publication. 2009.
Over the past two decades, cultural criminology has emerged as a distinctive perspective on crime and crime control. As the name suggests, cultural criminology emphasizes the role of culture—that is, shared styles and symbols, subcultures of crime, mass media dynamics, and related factors—in shaping the nature of criminals, criminal actions, and even criminal justice. Cultural criminologists contend that these factors must be considered if we are to understand crime in any of its forms: as a moment of victimization in the street or in the home, as a collective or group activity, or as a social issue of concern to politicians or the public.
Cultural criminologists, for example, study the ways in which criminal subcultures recruit and retain members through secretive shared experiences, distinctive styles of clothing, and exclusive ways of talking. They examine the ways in which police officers display their power and authority through police uniforms and special language and the ways in which the authority of criminal justice is symbolized in the court or the prison. Cultural criminologists often focus on media technology and the mass media and the process by which television shows, popular films, and newspaper reports communicate particular images of crime, criminals, and criminal justice and so affect public perceptions of them. Similarly, they look at the ways in which politicians and lawmakers define some crimes as more important than others and then encode these definitions in laws and enforcement policies. This broad focus on culture and communication, cultural criminologists argue, allows scholars, students, and the public to develop a deeper and more critical understanding of crime and criminal justice. From this view, the subject matter of criminology cannot simply be criminals and what they do; instead, it must include the ways in which crime is perceived by others; the particular meanings that crime comes to have for criminals, victims, crime control agents, and everyday citizens; and the consequences of these meanings and perceptions for criminal activities, crime control policies, and even the politics of contemporary society.
It is significant that cultural criminologists intend this perspective to expand the subject matter and analytic approach of conventional criminology—but they also intend for cultural criminology to provide a distinct alternative to conventional criminology and at times to directly confront what they see as its current weaknesses and limitations. As already suggested, this divergence between cultural criminology and more conventional forms of criminology is partly one of subject matter; over the past few decades, conventional criminology has largely dismissed from analysis the very components of social life—media, style, symbolism, meaning—that cultural criminologists argue are essential for a fully developed criminology. In this sense, cultural criminologists push to incorporate these elements—or, as discussed in this chapter, reincorporate them—into criminology.
But, as we will also see, the tension between cultural criminology and conventional criminological perspectives runs deeper than simply subject matter. Cultural criminologists contend that many of the more popular contemporary criminological theories are inadequate for explaining crime precisely because they exclude any understanding of culture, communication, and meaning. They likewise argue that the most widely used research methods in conventional criminology are designed in such a way that they inevitably ignore the most important features of crime, culture, and social life. And they point out that many of these current failings are the result of conventional criminology’s overidentification with criminal justice, and its overreliance on governmental grants and legalistic definitions of crime. In this sense, cultural criminology is designed not only to study crime, but to study and critique the taken-for-granted practices of contemporary criminology.
Cultural criminology has developed from a synthesis of two primary theoretical orientations, one largely British, the other primarily American. In the 1970s, scholars associated with the Birmingham School of cultural studies, the National Deviancy Conference, and the “new criminology” in Great Britain (S. Cohen, 1972; Taylor, Walton, & Young, 1973) began to explore the distinctive cultural dynamics through which power was exercised and maintained. In this context they also examined the ideological dimensions of crime and crime control—that is, the ways in which crime issues and concerns often tapped into larger political agendas—and they linked all of this to emerging patterns of social and economic inequality. Reconceptualizing the nature of social control and resistance to it, these scholars documented the cultural practices associated with social class, investigated leisure worlds and illicit subcultures as sites of stylized defiance to authority, and recorded the mediated campaigns and ideologies essential to social and legal control. In this way they began to conceptualize some of the many links between cultural and criminal processes.
During roughly this same time, a second starting point for cultural criminology was emerging among American sociologists and criminologists who used symbolic interactionist theory and labeling theory in their study of crime and deviance (Becker, 1963). These scholars argued that the nature and consequences of crime were not inherent to an individual criminal act; instead, they were largely determined by others’ reactions to an act or person—that is, by others’ perceptions and by the meanings they attributed to the act or individual. Killing another person, for example, can mean many things to many people: murder, self-defense, heroism, or insanity. Likewise, politicians or police officers or the family of the victim can subsequently make the killing into a symbol of something else: the decline in morality, the dangers of guns, or the need for stronger laws. The social reality of crime—fears about it, models for confronting it, social harms engendered by it, even the visceral experience of it as perpetrator or victim—is therefore seen to be part of an ongoing cultural and political process. Like their counterparts in Great Britain, American symbolic interactionists and labeling theorists were beginning to link crime, culture, and power. Significantly, they were also beginning to document these linkages through ethnographic research inside the worlds of drug users, pool hustlers, and other “outsiders” (Becker, 1963), producing a series of case studies that revealed how criminals and anti-crime crusaders alike constructed meaning and negotiated symbolic communication.
In the following decades, these two orientations co-evolved, with British cultural theorists and “new criminologists” providing American scholars with sophisticated theoretical critiques of ideological control and American interactionists offering ethnographic inspiration to British scholars. In the mid-1990s, the two orientations were synthesized for the first time into a distinct “cultural criminology” (Ferrell & Sanders, 1995) that, while building primarily on these twin foundations, also integrated the work of subcultural researchers, postmodern theorists, cultural geographers, and progressive political theorists. Exploring further the symbolic components of crime, this new cultural criminology focused especially on two dynamics: (1) the ways in which criminal enterprises incorporate cultural components of style, dress, and language and (2) the ways in which cultural enterprises such as art and music are often criminalized by legal authorities and moral entrepreneurs (Becker, 1963). Honoring the informal history of trans-Atlantic co-evolution, this more formalized cultural criminology has also continued to integrate scholarly work from the United States, Great Britain, and beyond.
Cultural criminologists today use a variety of theoretical models that incorporate and expand on these intellectual orientations. Among the more influential of these is the concept of edgework, as developed by Steve Lyng (1990, 2005), Jeff Ferrell (1996), and others (Ferrell, Milovanovic, & Lyng, 2001). These theorists argue that acts of extreme and often illegal risk taking—graffiti writing, street racing, BASE (building, antenna, span, earth) jumping (i.e., jumping off a fixed object with a parachute) from cliffs or buildings—can best be understood not as moments of out-of-control self-destruction but as situations in which participants reclaim a sense of self through an exhilarating mix of risk and skill. This sort of edgework allows participants to develop the sort of finely crafted skills that are today often absent from the tedium of daily life and daily work, and it forces them to test these skills in meaningful situations that matter profoundly. This mix of skill and risk in turn spirals participants closer to the edge; after all, the more polished one’s skills as a street racer or graffiti writer, the more risk one can take—and the more risk one takes, the more polished those skills must become. In this way, cultural criminologists attempt to go inside what Jack Katz (1988) called the immediate seductions of crime—that is, inside its experiential meaning and allure for participants—while also seeing this edgework experience as a response to larger, dehumanizing social forces. The edgework concept also helps explain another, ironic dynamic between crime and criminal justice. Given that edgework generates a seductive adrenalin rush as participants mix skill and risk, aggressive law enforcement strategies designed to stop illegal edgework often serve only to heighten the risk and so to force the development of further skills—thereby amplifying the very experience that participants seek and legal authorities seek to prevent.
Two other cultural criminological theories likewise address the links among experience, emotion, perception, and larger social conditions. Mike Presdee (2000) posited that contemporary crimes such as drug taking, gang rituals, arson, and joyriding in stolen cars can be understood through a theory of carnival. Carnival has in many human societies historically been a time of dangerous excess, ridicule, and ritualized vulgarity; yet since it was ritualized, and so confined to particular periods and places, it also served to contain dangerous desires, to serve as a sort of temporary emotional safety valve after which normalcy was restored. Now, Presdee argued, carnival has been for the most part destroyed, outlawed in some societies and converted into legally regulated and commercialized spectacles in others. As a result, some remnants of carnival are now bought, sold, and consumed in the form of sado-masochistic pornography or degrading reality television shows, but others are enacted as crime, all the more dangerous because now cut loose from their containment within a community ritual.
Jock Young (1999) widened this focus in addressing contemporary economic and cultural dynamics and their connections to criminality. His theory of exclusion/inclusion notes that contemporary society is defined by the increasing economic and legal exclusion of large portions of the population from “respectable,” mainstream society. The loss of millions of jobs, the prevalence of low-wage work, the economic decay of many inner cities, the mass incarceration rates in the United States—all serve to exclude many among the poor, ethnic minorities, and even the formerly middle class from the comforts of mainstream society. Yet at the same time, these and other groups tend to be increasingly culturally included; through the power of the mass media and mass advertising, they learn to want the same consumer goods and symbols of lifestyle success as do others. Increasing levels of frustration, resentment, insecurity, and humiliation are the result—and with them, Young pointed out, crimes of retaliation and frustration as well. Echoing Robert K. Merton’s (1938) famous formulation of adaptations to socially induced strain, Young argued that this heightened strain between economic exclusion and cultural inclusion helps us understand all manner of crimes, from those of passion to those of economic gain.
A final theoretical model focuses especially on the interplay of the media, crime, and criminal justice in contemporary society. Ferrell, Hayward, and Young’s (2008) theory of media loops and spirals argues that we are now well beyond simple questions of how accurately the media report on crime or whether media images cause copycat crimes. Instead, they argued, everyday life is today so saturated with media technology and media images that a clear distinction between an event and its mediated image seldom exists, and so criminologists are confronted by a looping effect in which crime and the image of crime circle back on one another. When gang members stage violent assaults so as to record them and post them on the Web, when reality television shows entrap their participants in actual assaults and arrest, when police officers alter their street enforcement strategies because of their own police car cameras or the presence of news cameras, then crime and media have become inherently entangled. Moreover, these loops often reproduce themselves over time, spawning an ongoing spiral of crime, criminal justice, and media. Videotapes of police activities, for example, often become the basis for later court cases, which are then covered in local or national media; similarly, images of criminality often function over time as legal evidence, marketed entertainment, and fodder for news reporting. Because of this, cultural criminologists argue, any useful criminology of day-to-day crime and violence must also be a cultural criminology of media and representation.
Cultural criminology’s theoretical orientations intertwine with its methods of research. As already seen, cultural criminology and its various theories focus on the meaning of crime, as constructed in particular situations and more generally; on the emotions and experiences that animate crime and criminal justice; and on the role of mediated representation and cultural symbolism in shaping perceptions of crime and criminals. To conduct research that is informed by these theories, then, cultural criminologists need methods that can get them inside particular criminal situations and experiences and that can attune them to emotion, meaning, and symbolism. They also need methods that can penetrate the dynamics of media technology and the mass media and that can catch something of the loops and spirals that entangle crime and its image. Cultural criminologists argue, though, that the research methods conventionally used by criminologists are ill-suited to this task, and so cultural criminologists regularly adopt alternative methods of research.
From the view of cultural criminology, for example, survey research and the statistical analysis of survey results—the most widely used methods in conventional criminology—preclude by their very design any deep engagement with meaning, emotion, and the social processes by which meaning and emotion are generated. Such methods force the complexities of human experience and emotion into simplistic choices prearranged by the researcher and so reduce research participants to carefully controlled categories of counting and cross-tabulation. Such methods remove the researcher from the people and situations to be studied, creating a sort of abstract, long-distance research that excludes essential dynamics of crime and justice—ambiguity, surprise, anger—from the process of criminological research (Kane, 2004). Worse yet, cultural criminologists argue, such methods are often used precisely because they do produce safe findings and abstract statistics in the service of political agencies or criminal justice organizations, thereby forfeiting the critical, independent scholarship that cultural criminologists see as necessary for good criminological research and analysis.
Instead of relying on such methods, then, cultural criminologists often turn to ethnography: long-term, in-depth field research with the people to be studied.
Cultural criminologists who are deeply immersed in the lives of criminals, crime victims, or police officers can become part of the process by which such people make meaning and can witness the ways in which they make sense of their experiences through symbolic codes and shared language. Sharing with them their situations and experiences, and vulnerable to their tragedies and triumphs, cultural criminologists likewise learn something of the emotions that course through their experiences of crime, victimization, and criminal justice.
For cultural criminologists, this goal of gaining deep cultural and emotional knowledge is embodied in the concept of criminological verstehen. As developed by sociologist Max Weber, the concept of verstehen denotes the subjective or appreciative understanding of others’ actions and motivations—a deeply felt understanding essential for fully comprehending their lives. Notice that here the methods of cultural criminology in fact oppose and reverse the methods of conventional criminology. Instead of the “objectivity” of preset surveys and statistical analysis producing accurate research results, as is commonly assumed, it is in fact emotional subjectivity that ensures accuracy in research; without it, the researcher may observe an event or elicit information but will gain little understanding of its meaning or consequences for the actors involved.
A similar difference can be seen in cultural criminologists’ approach to media research. Conventional criminologists most often study media and crime by using the method of content analysis—the measuring of static content categories within media texts. Cultural criminologists argue, though, that the fluid interplay among media, crime, and criminal justice cannot be captured in quantitative summaries of textual word frequency or source type. Numeric summaries of discrete textual categories miss the larger aesthetic within which a text takes shape and ignore the structural frames that shape a text’s flow of meaning. Moreover, content analysis is regularly used with the intent of objectively proving the degree of divergence between the “real” nature of a crime issue and a “biased” media representation of it—but this approach misses the more complex dynamic of media loops and spirals and the multiplicity of audiences and interpretations that will confound the real and the representational as a crime issue runs its course.
In place of traditional content analysis, then, cultural criminologists use two alternative methods. The first is David Altheide’s (1987) method of ethnographic content analysis, an approach that conceptualizes such analysis as a search for meaning and a process of intellectual give-and-take between researcher and research participant. This method is designed to produce deep involvement with the text, such that the researcher develops a deep account of the text and its meanings. It is also designed to approach the media text not as a single entity but as an emergent cultural process incorporating various media, political, and cultural dynamics. Like conventional content analysis, then, this method allows researchers to identify and analyze textual patterns, but it also taps into the fluid, looping media that increasingly define crime and justice. A second alternative approach goes a step further and in fact returns us to ethnography: field work with criminals, criminal justice workers, or others as they go about interacting with the mass media, developing images of their own lives, or even inventing their own alternative media (Snyder, 2009).
The cultural criminological perspective has been applied to a range of subject areas within criminology; put differently, cultural criminologists have investigated the dynamics of symbolism, meaning, and representation amid a variety of criminal and criminal justice situations.
Some of the best-known work in cultural criminology has used ethnographic methods to explore illicit subcultures and their interactions with legal authorities and the media. This close attention to particular subcultural dynamics has allowed cultural criminologists to confront media and criminal justice stereotypes of these subcultures and to deepen scholarly knowledge of them. Ferrell (1996, 2001, 2006), for example, has conducted long-term participatory ethnographies of three urban subcultures: (1) hip hop graffiti writers, (2) street-level political activists, and (3) trash scroungers. In each case, his findings have served to humanize the members of the subcultures, to reveal the ways in which they engage in meaningful collective action, and to challenge the validity of aggressive criminal justice campaigns against them. Alternatively, Mark Hamm’s (1997, 2002) long-term ethnographic research among various subcultures associated with extremist, right-wing terrorism has revealed hidden dimensions of their strategies and ideologies and so has helped strengthen legal efforts to contain them. From the perspective of cultural criminologists, then, a deep understanding of a subculture’s values and practices can help shape more appropriate public and legal responses to them, whether those responses eventually become more tolerant or more condemnatory. In a similar fashion, other researchers have used cultural criminological perspectives in the in-depth, ethnographic study of illegal street racers, youthful brawlers, police officers, immigrant communities, drug users, and youth gangs.
As Ferrell’s three ethnographies of urban subcultures suggest, cultural criminological models have been found to be especially applicable to the swirl of subcultures, images, and interactions that animate urban life and urban criminality. Keith Hayward (2004) in particular has developed a comprehensive cultural criminological analysis of urban crime and urban social control in the context of consumer culture. Drawing on and revitalizing long-standing traditions of criminological theory and urban scholarship, Hayward has revealed the many ways in which consumer culture has come to penetrate urban life and urban spaces, intertwining with the practice of both legal control and crime and in many ways defining the city itself. With the cultural criminologist’s eye for situated meaning and symbolic interaction, he has also documented the existence of two different sorts of city life within large urban areas: on the one hand, the regulated, rationalized city of urban planners and legal authorities, and on the other hand, the ambiguous, spontaneous city of underground economies and illicit urban subcultures.
A variety of cultural criminological studies have explored the interplay of crime, media, and representation. Many of these studies have investigated the complex dynamics by which the mass media construct a particular crime concern or criminal justice issue and the ways in which these media dynamics in turn intertwine with public perceptions and criminal justice policy. In this way, cultural criminologists have studied, for example, mass media campaigns surrounding “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing policy and reform-minded “get smart on crime” movements, and they have analyzed media representations of child sexual abuse, regional drug use, female criminals, and popular music controversies. Cultural criminological perspectives have also been applied to a wide range of popular media forms, including heavy metal music, bluegrass music, cartoons and comic books, television shows (e.g., CSI [Crime Scene Investigation]), and films on prisons and policing. As suggested by the theory of media loops and spirals, though, cultural criminologists have also explored media and representation outside the conventional boundaries of the mass media, focusing especially on the ways in which mediated representation, crime, and criminal subcultures are increasingly interwoven. Cultural criminologists have, for example, carefully studied the cultural symbolism of the shrines constructed in memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the symbolic reminders offered by roadside shrines to victims of automotive tragedy. They have also documented the ways in which graffiti, corporate advertising, and political messages are confused within shared urban spaces and the ways in which criminal subcultures are increasingly defined by their ability to invent their own media and so to communicate beyond any one locality.
As already noted, cultural criminologists often pose their work as a distinct alternative to the practice of conventional criminology, and even as a direct critique of it. Given this built-in sense that cultural criminology exists in contrast to more mainstream criminological approaches, two comparisons are especially worth exploring: (1) the comparison between cultural criminology and some of the more conventional criminological perspectives and (2) the comparison between cultural criminology and other alternative approaches that, like cultural criminology, seek to distinguish themselves from mainstream criminology.
Regarding the first of these comparisons, one aspect has already been noted: the distinction between conventional criminological research methods such as survey research and statistical analysis and cultural criminological methods of ethnography and in-depth field research. This choice of methodological orientations, though, derives from a still deeper difference. The use of survey research and statistical analysis is based on a general assumption that there exists an external and objective social reality to be studied; this objective reality can therefore be tapped into through survey questions, and its meaning can be deduced through statistical analysis and comparison. According to this view, for example, particular rates of crime commission or crime victimization exist in the social world; their frequency can be measured, and their meaning for those involved can be ascertained by compiling survey responses or noting statistical correlations between one act and another. From the view of cultural criminologists, though, the reality of crime and victimization is never objective or self-evident but always in the process of being constructed, interpreted, and contested—and, following the insights of labeling theory, this process is inevitably ongoing. For cultural criminologists, then, the subject matter of criminology is not the objective, “obvious,” and measurable reality of crime or criminal justice but rather the complex cultural process by which this reality is constructed and made meaningful. In this sense, for example, the rate of domestic violence is not an objective fact that can be measured but instead a shifting reality affected by how domestic couples define violence and how they choose to report it to the police, police officers’ subsequent discretion in responding to domestic violence calls, varying legal statutes regarding domestic violence, the greater or lesser visibility of domestic violence in the media—and, moreover, the interaction among all these factors. Because of this, cultural criminologists must have methods such as ethnography or ethnographic content analysis that can immerse them in ongoing, interactional process by which criminals and crime victims, police officers, and news reporters collectively make sense of crime.
It is significant that these different assumptions about the nature of social reality show up not only in the original research that criminologists undertake but also in their approach to information produced by governmental agencies or the criminal justice system. Many mainstream criminologists rely on governmental agency statistics as a relatively accurate measurement of objectively knowable facts, such as the distribution of crime occurrences, increases or decreases in crime rates, or the prevalence of particular crimes in particular areas. Cultural criminologists are, on the other hand, more likely to see such statistics as reflecting not the objective, external reality of crime, but rather the internal workings and biases of the governmental agencies themselves. Because of this, another key difference arises: Instead of relying on governmental statistics as the basis for criminological research into crime or victimization, cultural criminologists argue that these statistics should be a focus of criminological research—that is, should themselves be studied by criminologists—for what they can tell us about criminal justice and its political and legal limitations.
The issue of gangs and gang crime provides a particularly instructive example. As part of governmental antigang policy and the “war on gangs,” the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention conducts a National Youth Gang Survey so as to measure the number of gangs and gang members in the United States, as well as trends in gang membership and activities. The survey seemingly produces precise measurements of gangs numbers and gang members—but in fact the survey, which self-admittedly provides no guidelines or definitions as to what might constitute a gang member or a gang crime, is sent only to law enforcement agencies, where it is then completed on the basis of an unknown mix of personal recollections and/or official records. Cultural criminologists argue that such supposedly “objective” research procedures tell us little or nothing about gangs and their cultures—careful ethnography is needed to gain this knowledge (Kontos, Brotherton, & Barrios, 2003)—but they do tell us much about the inadequate and inherently biased foundations for governmental anti-crime policy.
Cultural criminology’s preferred research methods, and its perspective on more conventional research methods, in this way bolster its critical approach to both mainstream criminology and the criminal justice system. A similar sort of critical stance becomes apparent when cultural criminological theories are compared with some of the more popular theories in mainstream criminology. Recall that cultural criminological theories generally focus on the subtleties of symbolism and representation, on the shared human emotions that animate crime, and on the powerful cultural forces that shape the meaning and importance of crime. In contrast, for example, rational choice theory, which is widely used in mainstream criminology, systematically denies or ignores these factors in its attempts to explain crime and criminality. According to rational choice theory, criminal events unfold along a linear sequence of rational decision making, with criminal perpetrators inevitably seeking through this rational decision making to maximize their own benefits. Rational choice theorists further argue that this sequence of choices as to preparation, target selection, and escape remains rational even if the perpetrator is drunk, drugged, or in a hurried panic. Cultural criminologists counter that this theoretical model ignores the highly charged emotions that often explode in criminal events and that it also ignores the ambiguous, contentious cultural process by which crime comes to have meaning and significance in society. Given this, cultural criminologists also critique rational choice theory for being more a simplistic justification for particular crime control campaigns (e.g., target hardening, increasing security for a specific location or target) than an explanatory theory of crime.
Another popular mainstream criminological approach—in fact, one of the most politically popular and widely applied in criminal justice—also contrasts dramatically with cultural criminological orientations. The broken windows model (Wilson & Kelling, 2003) of crime causation and crime prevention posits that broken windows, graffiti, and similar public displays of neglected property and petty criminality operate as invitations to further criminality. According to the model, such displays suggest to the public and to potential criminals a lack of public concern and a failure of social control; consequently, the public begins to give up hope, criminals see signs of encouragement for further crime, and so a downward spiral of further neglect and accelerated criminality ensues. Widely adopted by politicians and criminal justice officials, the logic of the broken windows model has spawned aggressive police campaigns against small-scale quality-of-life crimes, such as graffiti writing and panhandling, and police enforcement strategies that target marginalized urban populations, such as the homeless.
Cultural criminologists, on the other hand, argue that although the broken windows model may offer a convenient scholarly pretext for such criminal justice campaigns, it is wholly inadequate as a theory of crime—and moreover, that its inadequacy stems directly from its misunderstanding of key cultural criminological notions such as symbolism and meaning. From this critical view, the broken windows model simply assumes the meaning of everyday symbolism and imputes the nature of public perception instead of actually investigating or understanding them. As cultural criminologists have found in their own ethnographic research, the symbolic meanings of phenomena such as broken windows and street graffiti are far more complex than the simple invitations to further criminality or markers of failed social control that broken windows theorists assume. To the extent that the broken windows in a neighborhood building function as symbols, for example, they may symbolize any manner of activities to any number of audiences, depending on the situation and the context: community resistance to absentee ownership, a long-standing personal grudge, errant baseballs from nearby Little League games, the failure of local code enforcement, or the illicit accommodation of the homeless. Likewise, as field researchers have shown, graffiti may symbolize a neighborhood’s intergenerational history, suggest changing patterns of ethnic occupation or conflict, or even enforce a degree of community self-policing. Cultural criminologists argue that the job of the criminologist is to investigate these urban environments and to explore these various meanings and not, as with the broken windows model, to impose assumed perceptions and consequences in the service of a particular political and criminal justice agenda.
In this sort of critique, cultural criminology contrasts clearly with more mainstream criminological approaches, but it also reveals similarities with a variety of other alternative criminological perspectives. The first of these, subcultural theory, is widely used by both cultural criminologists and mainstream criminologists. As developed by Al Cohen (1955) and others, subcultural theory argues in general that criminologists must understand many cases of criminal behavior as being rooted in the collective reality of a criminal subculture. Because of this, criminologists must explore the particular cultural dynamics that define that subculture—codes of speech and conduct, styles of dress, shared emotions, common problems—and in turn must investigate the ways in which subcultural criminality may offer subcultural members a collective (if imperfect) solution to their shared problems. This subcultural approach clearly offers many similarities to cultural criminology; it likewise suggests a similar critique of criminological models that would ignore, or simply assume, the subtleties of meaning, symbolism, and style that shape criminal subcultures.
Other criminological approaches more explicitly share cultural criminology’s critical stance toward mainstream criminology and criminal justice. Convict criminology has emerged primarily from scholars who were themselves once imprisoned and who have transformed their own incarceration into a critique of the criminal justice system; it uses ethnographic research and other approaches to construct a critical, cultural analysis of mass incarceration, the criminal justice policies that have produced it, and the sorts of mainstream prison research and media stereotypes that support it (Richards & Ross, 2001). Feminist criminology likewise shares with cultural criminology an analysis of the sorts of cultural assumptions that tilt both criminology and criminal justice toward privileged groups, as well as a critique of media distortions of female criminals and crime victims (Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2008). More generally, cultural criminology, convict criminology, and feminist criminology all find common ground in that large subfield of criminology generally labeled critical criminology—an approach oriented toward a critical investigation of the many ways in which power and inequality shape crime, victimization, and criminal justice.
Among the current trends in cultural criminology are those that are expanding the substantive range of cultural criminological analysis, especially in the direction of greater diversity and inclusivity. Originally, for example, the cultural criminological concept of edgework developed from the experiences and ethnographic research of male scholars involved in predominantly masculine forms of illicit risk taking. Now, though, the concept is increasingly being explored in the context of women’s lives, with a focus on the distinctive ways in which women experience and make sense of high-risk activities. Recent research by female and male scholars has investigated women who lead BASE jumping underground, women who are members of search-and-rescue teams or whitewater rafting expeditions—even women who hone their skills so as to push the dangerous, outer boundaries of anorexia and bulimia. Similarly, cultural criminology has from its origins incorporated in equal part scholarship from both the United States and Great Britain—and now this international sensibility is widening. Cultural criminologists are now studying, for example, illegal street racing in Finland, immigration cultures and criminal law in the Netherlands, violence against Filipino women in Australia, crime discourse in Japan, the culture of Russian prisons, and the international affiliations of urban street gangs.
Cultural criminologists are also developing new methodologies designed to mirror cultural criminology’s particular theoretical orientations and to resonate with the particular nature of contemporary social and cultural life. For example, ethnographic research and the quest for criminological verstehen have traditionally been defined by the researcher’s long-term participation with the individuals being studied, on the assumption that the more time a researcher spends inside a group or situation, the more deeply he or she can understand its cultural dynamics. Although this can certainly still be the case, the rapid-fire pace of contemporary crime and culture—as embodied in virtual crime and communications, instant news and entertainment, and short-term employment—have suggested to cultural criminologists new possibilities for ethnographic research. Their theoretical models have suggested this as well; concepts such as “edgework” and the “seductions of crime,” for example, focus attention on the immediate, situated dynamics that shape criminal experiences and emotions. Consequently, cultural criminologists have developed the notion of instant ethnography (Ferrell et al., 2008)—a researcher’s immediate and deep immersion in fleeting moments of criminality or transgression—and have begun to use the method in studying BASE jumpers and other groups.
The new notion of liquid ethnography (Ferrell et al., 2008) has developed from a similar rethinking of ethnographic research. Ethnography typically has focused on a single, definable group or subculture that occupies a distinct location as well. Today, though, groups and subcultures are often on the move, migrating into new locations or mixing with new groups as global economies and global migration blur distinct boundaries and identities. Moreover, as already seen with the concept of media loops and spirals, social groups are today more and more likely to be confounded with their own image, as representations of the group come to shape the group itself and to flow among alternative media, the mass media, and other institutions. Liquid ethnography, then, is a type of ethnography attuned to these circumstances—that is, it is ethnography sensitive to the dynamics of transitory communities; immersed in the ongoing interplay of images; and aware of the ambiguous, shifting nature of contemporary social life.
Using this sort of approach, cultural criminologists are now beginning to explore, for example, the ways in which urban street gangs move beyond crime to intermingle political resistance, community empowerment, and religious practice in their shifting collective identities. These cultural criminologists (Kontos et al., 2003) are also finding that global forces regularly intersect with local dynamics, with gangs embodying multiethnic identities, responding to the effects of immigration and mediated communication, and forming global alliances with other groups. Likewise, British cultural criminologists are now conducting liquid ethnographies with prostitutes, immigrants, asylum seekers, and others who are pushed to the legal margins of the global economy, and in this research they are using alternative media, such as art, photography, and street performance (O’Neill, Campbell, Hubbard, Pitcher, & Scoular, 2007). Such research allows cultural criminologists to collaborate with even the most transitory and contingent communities in defining their meaning and identity, developing the verstehen of shared emotional knowledge, and working toward a holistic sense of social justice.
Appropriately enough for cultural criminology, a final trajectory focuses not so much on subject matter, theory, or methodology but on representation and style. Cultural criminologists argue that issues of crime, violence, and criminal justice lie at the very heart of contemporary society and its challenges and that because of this, criminologists must find ways to disseminate their scholarship, contribute to public debate, and so help to work toward a safer and more just society. Yet conventional, mainstream criminology, they contend, is poorly equipped to meet this challenge; too often, criminologists talk and write only for each other, and they do so through dry and confusing language, needlessly abstract concepts, and impenetrable graphs and tables. As a result of this off-putting and exclusionary style, criminology’s potential contribution to the larger society is lost, with criminologists and their scholarship often left on the sidelines of public debate and efforts at social progress.
Aware of this problem, and sensitive to issues of style and representation, cultural criminologists are in response increasingly experimenting with new styles of scholarship and alternative modes of communication, with the intention of making criminology more engaging for students, policy-makers, and the public. In place of lengthy reports, they at times issue manifestos—short, sharply written texts that can communicate succinctly key ideas and issues. Instead of relying on traditional forms of academic writing, they on occasion write short stories that embody cultural criminological themes, or craft true fiction—that is, stories that blend a number of actual, existing crime issues into a narrative form that is more appealing to the reader. Responding to a world awash in media images, they also increasingly turn to the analysis of these images as visual documents, and they produce their own photographs, photographic collections, documentary films (Redmon, 2005), and Web sites as a way of making criminology conversant with this world.
Cultural criminology emphasizes the essential role of symbolism, meaning, and emotion in shaping the complex reality of crime and crime control for all involved: criminals, victims, crime control agents, politicians, the media, and the public. Cultural criminology is in this way designed to operate as a double challenge: to simplistic public assumptions about crime and criminal justice and to the theories and methods of mainstream criminology that exclude analysis of cultural forces. Today more than ever, cultural criminologists argue, there can be no useful study of crime that is not also the study of culture.