Cultural Criminology Essay

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Cultural criminology emerged at the end of the 20th century as an intervention into the existing paradigm of the discipline. As criminology’s focus on developing advanced statistical methods deepened and as the discipline became increasingly intertwined with public policy and the actuarial concerns of criminal justice, foundational questions of what crime in fact is, how its definition is historically contingent and politically contextual, and why it matters had been conspicuously ignored or forgotten. Cultural criminology confronts these and other essential questions that both undergird the discipline and frequently go unasked. Cultural criminology asks what the existence of crime communicates about those who define it as such, those who commit it, those who fight it, and the many millions who tune in each evening to see it represented, reinvented, and performed in news media, television shows, and movies.

In contrast to the state-based definitions ascribed to crime, deviance, and social control by much of criminology, cultural criminology considers these categories as dynamic and contested cultural phenomena within and around which struggles for power, meaning, and autonomy take place. Cultural criminology can be understood as both oppositional to and as an articulation away from the more traditional aspects of the discipline. As opposition, cultural criminology critiques the tautological and reductive nature of some central criminological theory, critiques the cozy relationship between the discipline and the state, and offers important analysis of the loss of meaning, texture, and affect in the technocratic abstractions of much criminological scholarship.

As an articulation away from positivism, cultural criminology pushes the boundaries of criminological knowledge production, disrupting static and problematic definitions and centralizing the importance of meaning, contestation, and transgression in everyday life. As perhaps the predominant strain of critical criminology in the 21st century, cultural criminology asks profound questions of the social world—and, crucially, criminology’s dubious place therein—that challenge epistemologies, categories of meaning, and paradigms of thought. Cultural criminology has energized new scholars to approach the study of pressing social problems with a healthy wariness about “commonsense” assumptions and definitions. Graffiti, tattoos, movies, television, music lyrics, and videos have all become accepted subjects of criminological study. Crime, Media, Culture, a peer-reviewed criminology journal, now regularly profiles cutting-edge work at the intersection of criminological and cultural inquiry.

While situated within the discipline of criminology, cultural criminology must also be understood in the context of its broader intellectual heritage. As an important strain of critical criminology, cultural criminological scholarship is in conversation with critical social theory, including Marxism and post structuralism. But cultural criminology must also be understood in part as a critical response to orthodox materialist analysis. In its explicit engagement with subcultures, cultural products, media representation, and resistance, cultural criminology expresses a clear homage to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, or British Cultural Studies. The intellectual architects of British Cultural Studies and their commitment to the interdisciplinary study of the relationship between the state, media, ideology, and culture clearly inspire the contemporary work of cultural criminologists.

In its dedication to examining the social world as a set of sites, codes, and symbols with which actors construct, contest, interpret and play with meaning, cultural criminology must also be understood in the sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism. By integrating cultural studies and symbolic interactionism, cultural criminology sees culture and crime as mutually constitutive and socially produced phenomena. Here, cultural criminology has contributed in important ways to a greater understanding of the very concept of crime—literally an act that has been criminalized—as an inherently cultural process in which people in positions of power can define, shape, and structure social life in ways that attach a cultural-legal meaning to actions that renders some legitimate and others criminal.


Cultural criminology offers both a particular approach to scholarship and a poignant critique of methodology within criminology. In this latter regard, cultural criminologists note the discipline’s cozy relationship to various state agencies that fund criminological research and the reciprocal work the discipline then does on behalf of those same agencies. In the course of such a critique, cultural criminology acutely suggests that methods, far from being empty vessels through which to carry out scientifically objective research, are in fact themselves differentially located within hierarchies of knowledge production. As such, these scholars argue, critical examinations of the problematic nature of criminal justice must also include methodological interventions. Methods can disrupt criminological business as usual by deferring to field research rather than institutional gatekeepers. Cultural criminology challenges the near hegemonic paradigms of criminological thought and method and has offered eloquent— even poetic—critiques on the very foundations of the construction of criminological knowledge.

Cultural criminology is more than just a qualitative methodological approach to crime. Rather, cultural criminology requires an “ethnographic sensibility,” a commitment to being attuned to the phenomenology of crime, or what Jock Young calls the “versatility, the zest, the sensuousness of the criminal act.” Cultural criminology outright rejects the positivism of some quantitative scholarship; it is also distinct from ethnographic approaches that rely heavily on notions of scientific objectivity and detached observation. For cultural criminologists, the importance of the criminal moment lies in part in the feeling of both participating in it and studying it, of being analytical yet passionate about how the “crime” question affects all people. To ignore that feeling, render it anecdotal or even a threat to some construct of objective data is to lose integral insight into the very essence of the act. At the same time, cultural criminologists have pointed out that a focus on the agentive and affective is incomplete without accounting for structure; the point, they argue, is to see structure and agency as constituting each other.

Some cultural criminological work has suggested that the commitment to excavating the feelings associated with crime denotes the importance of verstehen, a term most closely associated with the antipositivism of sociologist Max Weber, and which denotes a methodological commitment to a systematic interpretive process of understanding the social world, in particular those with whom people are otherwise unfamiliar. Criminological verstehen implies the importance of empathic understanding between scholar and research informant so as to better understand the situated meaning of the experiences of crime, deviance, and social control. As such, cultural criminologists argue, the pleasure, adrenaline rush, fear, and excitement that characterizes moments of lawbreaking and law enforcing are vitally instructive for greater criminological understanding.

Cultural criminology’s roots are in the study of subcultures. Central texts include those that examine the everyday lives of graffiti artists, homeless and other scavengers, neo-Nazi skinheads, would-be terrorists, and various groups engaged in high-risk activities that cultural criminologists call “edgework.” In each case, cultural criminological scholarship examines the symbolic codes of belonging, thrill, survival, and transgression that attach meaning to the deviant or criminal act. Because of its dedication to the quotidian, cultural criminology has opened entire worlds of research that necessarily remain outside the heavily structured vantage of traditional sociological and criminological scholarship.

In addition, in more recent years some work has taken the “ethnographic sensibility” of cultural criminology and applied it to analyses of diverse cultural texts, ranging from movies to music lyrics to transcripts from congressional testimonies. Such efforts emphasize that cultural products are tools that not only participate in the construction of identities but also perform important work in the realm of politics and ideology. This work has examined how movies and television programs often rely on racialized and Orientalist tropes when depicting crime or terrorism. In studies of music lyrics, in particular those offered through genres like hip hop, research has examined how rap can affirm or resist hegemonic portrayals of crime, police, and prisons, can offer nuanced portraits of urban life under neoliberalism, and can even communicate the existential crises embedded in moments of terrorism. Congressional testimony, examined as a product and performance, can offer rich insight into how the cultural lives of crime and criminal justice map onto specific policies. These developments in cultural criminology demonstrate that its origins in the study of subculture and transgression carry crucially important insights that can help illuminate other areas of social life in which crime and culture work through each other.

Important Themes: Transgression and Edgework

When crime is understood beyond its legalistic definition and instead as a distinctly cultural phenomenon, rich lines of inquiry and analysis open. Cultural criminology, while offering some diverse areas of research, does cluster around several central themes, including transgression and edgework, space and place, and the image.

At times, cultural criminology walks a fine line between offering nuanced accounts of the embodied and affective transgressive potential of crime and romanticizing every act of deviance as inherently resistant. There is no doubt that, for cultural criminology, crime’s cultural importance lies in part in its expression against authority, of identity, and for meaning. Placing crime on such analytical terrain is helpful in thinking through both the structurally imposed conditions that produce deviance and the resistant expressions contained in acts that violate the routine and quotidian processes and arrangements of a given social order.

One central concept within cultural criminology’s focus on transgression is “edgework,” or the practice in various illicit and licit activities in which participants push themselves to the literal and metaphorical edge. Research on edgework has included studies of motorcycle racing, skateboarding, graffiti writing, train hopping, and BASE-jumping and also has offered the conceptual proposition that acts that perhaps seem “out of control” may in fact be attempts to restore some semblance of order to worlds characterized by material deprivation, loss of meaning, and insecurity.

Important Themes: Space and Place

Cultural criminology has always offered an analysis of space, particularly as a site of cultural contests over meaning and control and over public and private claims to sites of everyday use. In addition to the contested micro politics of space, other cultural criminological scholarship has pushed analyses of space and place into important areas where the movement intersects with work in critical social theory and cultural geography to discuss gentrification, commodification, consumerism, and other aspects of life in the late-modern city. Indeed, across a variety of studies engaging diverse material, cultural criminology consistently locates its objects of study in the context of late modernity, a term that helpfully collapses a temporal location at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries with an epistemological sentiment that sees the contemporary social world as a complex, diffuse, fluid, insecure, and increasingly hyper individuated and exclusive place. Cultural criminology is especially well situated to examine this transitional space and the culturally rich ways in which people traverse, transgress, and transcend its terrain.

Important Themes: Image and Representation

One clear way in which cultural criminology has built on the foundation laid by British Cultural Studies is in its development of a scholarly encounter with the image. Of course, various other disciplines such as cultural studies, media studies, sociology, and anthropology have also recognized the importance of the image to understanding contemporary social relations. Cultural criminology has pushed this project into the explicit consideration of the work the image performs in the service of ideological positions about crime and crime control. Indeed, cultural criminology has examined media framing of crime and criminal justice events and, more broadly, the contested and negotiated representations of crime that proliferate through the vast images on constant display. In this sense, authors argue, the very meaning of crime and crime control resides as much in these mediated contexts as in official data sets and actual experiences of crime. In addition, cultural criminology has contributed meaningful scholarship of the image in the articulation of sub cultural style, the interrogation of the role of the image in attaching an epistemic certainty to the racialized and classed faces captured by surveillance cameras, and an invitation to criminologists to mobilize the image for their own scholarly pursuits.

Emergent Themes: Cultural Criminology, the State, and the Environment

Cultural criminology has traditionally examined the micro politics of subcultures and communities, the everyday contestations of power and struggles for meaning, and the manifestations of capital and state power in media images, in commodification, and in the surplus of commodities ripe for the do-it-yourself dumpster diver. The exercise of state power embodied in mass incarceration, in the everyday genuflections of poor people in courtrooms, in the growth in scope and vertical reach of surveillance technology, and in military occupations has remained largely untouched by cultural criminology until very recently. New work has begun to map a more explicit cultural criminology of formal social control, that is, courtrooms, prisons, and police, and its attendant and justifying logics in the construction of campaigns against methamphetamine, in the push for carceral expansion, and in the increasing encroachment of surveillance technology of those under criminal justice control and of broader communities. In a related direction, exciting new work aims to connect the growing field of green criminology with cultural criminology so as to better consider the cultural significance of the environment and environmental harm and the role of media construction, transgression and resistance, and space therein.

Future Directions and Important Questions

Cultural criminology’s dedication to reflexive engagement with its objects of study often translates into a mature self-awareness. Cultural criminology knows that it exists within a flawed and bounded discipline founded on (and grounded in) colonial histories and presents. Stephanie Kane, commenting on this problem, remarked that “… shadowing us are all the crimes and criminals we do not or cannot see when selecting subjects for research. Sometimes, one must account for even the affectivities of ghosts.”

In cultural criminology’s contradiction of dominant criminological thought it creates new conflicts. While its intellectual architects poignantly locate the discipline’s problematic allegiance to the literal and metaphorical courthouse, they also at times narrowly proscribe what it is that cultural criminologists should be doing in ways that reify dominant definitions of terms—crime, deviance, terrorism—inscribed with capitalist, racialized, and imperialistic logics. In addition, in its focus on the situated meanings of crime and deviance and what is described in Ethnography on the Edge  (1998) as the “emerging experiential web of symbolic codes and ritualized understandings which constitute deviance and criminality,” it is possible that cultural criminology loses sight of the capitalist state and other structural forces in its attention to the symbolic interactions of everyday life.

Important critiques of the absence of a cultural criminology of the capitalist state resonate; it is to cultural criminology’s credit that some critiques have originated from cultural criminologists themselves. As one central text instructively argues, cultural criminology must account for capitalism without reifying it behind an antiquated materialist analysis. For cultural criminology, capitalism is less about the production and distribution of goods than a cultural phenomenon centering on the exploitive manipulation of images. Such a cultural analysis of capital leaves substantial room for a cultural criminology that can explain the material and symbolic work performed by the state in the service of capital accumulation, of growing its police power, of expanding its prison industrial complex, and of intensifying the encroachment of its surveillance regime, to name but a few areas in need of attention.

On a related note, cultural criminology maintains an explicit commitment to intervention into the everyday transmissions of cultural hegemony and into the rigid positivism of criminology. Some critics have pointed out that cultural criminology must move beyond its relativist gaze that sees transgression in every countercultural act and, instead, confront capitalism head on and offer a more explicit politics of resistance. Cultural criminology’s established study of the transgressive potential of creative, theatrical, and “carnivalesque” everyday and momentary actions must also be further extended to studying more coordinated and explicitly politicized acts of resistance, social movement building, and community organizing. Authors have expressed fatigue with these more traditional Old Left forms of political opposition and articulation, but there is no doubt room for a cultural criminology that pays attention to the coordinated and mobilized struggles of workers, oppressed and marginalized groups, and the activists and community organizers who work with and for them.

Criticisms about what cultural criminology does not do and what it should do raise further existential questions about what cultural criminology in fact is. What, for example, distinguishes cultural criminology from a critical criminology concerned with culture, or a cultural anthropology of crime or transgression, or a sociology of punishment that centers in its analysis the work punishment performs through culture? Perhaps cultural criminology’s difference and identity reside in its ethnographic sensibility and commitment to verstehen.

In such a configuration, cultural criminology is distinct not only because it privileges culture or ethnography, but also because of its temporal-methodological-epistemological recognition of the affective and intellectual importance of the moment. It is in these moments, after all, where individuals and communities contest, play with, and symbolically invert meanings, and ultimately attach or detach them to actions and ideas. In the adrenaline rush of crime and edgework, in the transmission of media representations of crime and criminal justice, and in the structured consumerism enabled by the spatial reconfigurations of the late-modern city and experienced at the level of consciousness, cultural criminology enters into, excavates, and then illuminates with depth and texture the moments of crime, deviance, and social control.


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  2. Brown, Michelle. The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, Spectacle. New York: New York University Press. 2009.
  3. Ferrell, Jeff, Keith Hayward, Wayne Morrison, and Mike Presdee. Cultural Criminology Unleashed. Portland, OR: Cavendish Publishing, 2004.
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  9. Hayward, Keith and Mike Presdee, eds. Framing Crime: Cultural Criminology and the Image. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  10. Kane, Stephanie. “The Unconventional Methods of Cultural Criminology.” Theoretical Criminology, v.8/3 (2004).
  11. Presdee, Mike. Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  12. Presdee, Mike. “Cultural Criminology: The Long and Winding Road,” Theoretical Criminology, v.8/3 (2004).
  13. Young, Jock. The Criminological Imagination.Boston: Polity Press, 2011.
  14. Young, Jock. The Vertigo of Late Modernity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007.

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