Cultural Criminology

V. Comparisons

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 anti-gang 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.