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.