Cultural Criminology

II. Theory

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 coevolved, 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 sadomasochistic 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.