Cultural Criminology

III. Methods

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).