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 research paper, 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.