Cultural Criminology

VI. Future Directions

Among the current trends in cultural criminology are those that are expanding the substantive range of cultural criminological analysis, especially in the direction of greater diversity and inclusivity. Originally, for example, the cultural criminological concept of edgework developed from the experiences and ethnographic research of male scholars involved in predominantly masculine forms of illicit risk taking. Now, though, the concept is increasingly being explored in the context of women’s lives, with a focus on the distinctive ways in which women experience and make sense of high-risk activities. Recent research by female and male scholars has investigated women who lead BASE jumping underground, women who are members of search-and- rescue teams or whitewater rafting expeditions—even women who hone their skills so as to push the dangerous, outer boundaries of anorexia and bulimia. Similarly, cultural criminology has from its origins incorporated in equal part scholarship from both the United States and Great Britain—and now this international sensibility is widening. Cultural criminologists are now studying, for example, illegal street racing in Finland, immigration cultures and criminal law in the Netherlands, violence against Filipino women in Australia, crime discourse in Japan, the culture of Russian prisons, and the international affiliations of urban street gangs.

Cultural criminologists are also developing new methodologies designed to mirror cultural criminology’s particular theoretical orientations and to resonate with the particular nature of contemporary social and cultural life. For example, ethnographic research and the quest for criminological verstehen have traditionally been defined by the researcher’s long-term participation with the individuals being studied, on the assumption that the more time a researcher spends inside a group or situation, the more deeply he or she can understand its cultural dynamics. Although this can certainly still be the case, the rapid-fire pace of contemporary crime and culture—as embodied in virtual crime and communications, instant news and entertainment, and short-term employment—have suggested to cultural criminologists new possibilities for ethnographic research. Their theoretical models have suggested this as well; concepts such as “edgework” and the “seductions of crime,” for example, focus attention on the immediate, situated dynamics that shape criminal experiences and emotions. Consequently, cultural criminologists have developed the notion of instant ethnography (Ferrell et al., 2008)—a researcher’s immediate and deep immersion in fleeting moments of criminality or transgression—and have begun to use the method in studying BASE jumpers and other groups.

The new notion of liquid ethnography (Ferrell et al., 2008) has developed from a similar rethinking of ethnographic research. Ethnography typically has focused on a single, definable group or subculture that occupies a distinct location as well. Today, though, groups and subcultures are often on the move, migrating into new locations or mixing with new groups as global economies and global migration blur distinct boundaries and identities. Moreover, as already seen with the concept of media loops and spirals, social groups are today more and more likely to be confounded with their own image, as representations of the group come to shape the group itself and to flow among alternative media, the mass media, and other institutions. Liquid ethnography, then, is a type of ethnography attuned to these circumstances—that is, it is ethnography sensitive to the dynamics of transitory communities; immersed in the ongoing interplay of images; and aware of the ambiguous, shifting nature of contemporary social life.

Using this sort of approach, cultural criminologists are now beginning to explore, for example, the ways in which urban street gangs move beyond crime to intermingle political resistance, community empowerment, and religious practice in their shifting collective identities. These cultural criminologists (Kontos et al., 2003) are also finding that global forces regularly intersect with local dynamics, with gangs embodying multiethnic identities, responding to the effects of immigration and mediated communication, and forming global alliances with other groups. Likewise, British cultural criminologists are now conducting liquid ethnographies with prostitutes, immigrants, asylum seekers, and others who are pushed to the legal margins of the global economy, and in this research they are using alternative media, such as art, photography, and street performance (O’Neill, Campbell, Hubbard, Pitcher, & Scoular, 2007). Such research allows cultural criminologists to collaborate with even the most transitory and contingent communities in defining their meaning and identity, developing the verstehen of shared emotional knowledge, and working toward a holistic sense of social justice.

Appropriately enough for cultural criminology, a final trajectory focuses not so much on subject matter, theory, or methodology but on representation and style. Cultural criminologists argue that issues of crime, violence, and criminal justice lie at the very heart of contemporary society and its challenges and that because of this, criminologists must find ways to disseminate their scholarship, contribute to public debate, and so help to work toward a safer and more just society. Yet conventional, mainstream criminology, they contend, is poorly equipped to meet this challenge; too often, criminologists talk and write only for each other, and they do so through dry and confusing language, needlessly abstract concepts, and impenetrable graphs and tables. As a result of this off-putting and exclusionary style, criminology’s potential contribution to the larger society is lost, with criminologists and their scholarship often left on the sidelines of public debate and efforts at social progress.

Aware of this problem, and sensitive to issues of style and representation, cultural criminologists are in response increasingly experimenting with new styles of scholarship and alternative modes of communication, with the intention of making criminology more engaging for students, policymakers, and the public. In place of lengthy reports, they at times issue manifestos—short, sharply written texts that can communicate succinctly key ideas and issues. Instead of relying on traditional forms of academic writing, they on occasion write short stories that embody cultural criminological themes, or craft true fiction—that is, stories that blend a number of actual, existing crime issues into a narrative form that is more appealing to the reader. Responding to a world awash in media images, they also increasingly turn to the analysis of these images as visual documents, and they produce their own photographs, photographic collections, documentary films (Redmon, 2005), and Web sites as a way of making criminology conversant with this world.