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Cultural Criminology

Author(s): Jeff Ferrell

Source: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 25 (1999), pp. 395-418
Published by: Annual Reviews
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Annu.Rev. Sociol. 1999. 25:395-418
Copyright? 1999 by AnnualReviews.All rights reserved

Jeff Ferrell
Departmentof CriminalJustice,NorthernArizonaUniversity, Flagstaff,Arizona,
86011-5005; e-mail:

KEY WORDS: crime, culture,media, subculture,meaning

As an emergent orientationin sociology, criminology, and criminaljustice,
culturalcriminology explores the convergence of culturaland criminalpro-
cesses in contemporarysocial life. Drawing on perspectives from cultural
studies, postmoder theory, critical theory, and interactionistsociology, and
on ethnographicmethodologies and media/textualanalysis, this orientation
highlights issues of image, meaning, and representationin the interplay of
crime and crime control. Specifically, culturalcriminology investigates the
stylized frameworks and experiential dynamics of illicit subcultures;the
symbolic criminalizationof popular culture forms; and the mediated con-
structionof crime and crime controlissues. In addition,emergingareasof in-
quirywithin culturalcriminology include the developmentof situatedmedia
and situatedaudiences for crime;the media and cultureof policing; the links
between crime, crime control, and cultural space; and the collectively em-
bodied emotions that shape the meaning of crime.

The concept of "cultural criminology" denotes both specific perspectives and
broader orientations that have emerged in criminology, sociology, and crimi-
nal justice over the past few years. Most specifically, "cultural criminology"
represents a perspective developed by Ferrell & Sanders (1995), and likewise
employed by Redhead (1995) and others (Kane 1998a), that interweaves par-
ticular intellectual threads to explore the convergence of cultural and criminal
processes in contemporary social life. More broadly, the notion of cultural
criminology references the increasing analytic attention that many criminolo-
gists now give to popular culture constructions, and especially mass media


constructions,of crime and crime control. It in turnhighlights the emergence

of this generalareaof media and culturalinquiryas a relativelydistinctdomain
within criminology, as evidenced, for example, by the number of recently
published collections undertakingexplorations of media, culture, and crime
(Anderson & Howard 1998, Bailey & Hale 1998, Barak 1994a, Ferrell &
Sanders 1995, Ferrell& Websdale 1999, Kidd-Hewitt& Osborne 1995, Potter
& Kappeler 1998). Most broadly, the existence of a concept such as cultural
criminologyunderscoresthe steady seepage in recentyears of culturalandme-
dia analysis into the traditionaldomains of criminological inquiry, such that
criminologicalconferences andjournalsincreasinglyprovideroom and legiti-
macy for such analysis under any numberof conventionalheadings, fromju-
venile delinquency and corporatecrime to policing and domestic violence.
Given this range,acrosstightly focused theoreticalstatementsandparticular
case studiesto wider analyticand substantive(re)orientations,this essay incor-
porates the work of the growing numberof scholarswho consciously identify
their work as cultural criminology but also includes the work of those who
more generally explore the various intersectionsof culturaland criminal dy-
namics. Further,while it considers existing works that might now be retroac-
tively gatheredunderthe heading of culturalcriminology, it focuses on recent
scholarship,and especially on worknow developing in andaroundthe fields of
criminology and criminaljustice. Thus, culturalcriminology at this point can
be seen to denote less a definitive paradigmthanan emergentarrayof perspec-
tives linked by sensitivities to image, meaning, and representationin the study
of crime and crime control. Within this broad and fluid framework,a number
of theoretical, methodological, and substantive orientations can be seen to
provide a degree of commonalityas well.

Historical and TheoreticalFrameworks
At its most basic, culturalcriminologyattemptsto integratethe fields of crimi-
nology and culturalstudies or, put differently,to importthe insights of cultural
studies into contemporarycriminology. Given this, much scholarshipin cul-
turalcriminology takes as its foundationperspectives that emerged out of the
British/BirminghamSchool of culturalstudies, and the British "new criminol-
ogy" (Tayloret al 1973), of the 1970s. The work of Hebdige (1979, 1988), Hall
& Jefferson (1976), Clarke (1976), McRobbie (1980), Willis (1977, 1990),
and others has attunedculturalcriminologiststo the subtle, situateddynamics
of deviant and criminal subcultures,and to the importanceof symbolism and
style in shapingsubculturalmeaningand identity.Similarly,the work of Cohen
(1972/1980), Cohen & Young (1973), Hall et al (1978), and others has influ-
enced contemporaryunderstandingsof the mass media's role in constructing

the reality of crime and deviance, and in generating new forms of social and
legal control. At times, contemporary scholarship in cultural criminology
simply assumes this intellectual foundation or utilizes it only partially. At
other times, though, culturalcriminology's lineage in British culturalstudies
and the British new criminology is made explicit (Cohen 1996, Redhead
1995:33-46). In the introductionto a recent volume on crime and the media,
for example, Kidd-Hewitt (1995) outlines five key works that set the agenda
for subsequentresearchinto crime, representation,and social control:Young
(1971), Cohen (1972/1980), Cohen & Young (1973), Chibnall (1977), and
Hall et al (1978).
As a hybrid orientation,though, culturalcriminology has been built from
more thana simple integrationof 1970s Britishculturalstudies into contempo-
rary American criminology. Certainly, cultural criminologists continue to
draw on the insights of cultural studies as a developing field and on current
cultural studies explorations of identity, sexuality, and social space (During
1993, Grossberget al 1992). Moreover, with its focus on representation,im-
age, and style, culturalcriminology incorporatesnot only the insights of cul-
tural studies, but the intellectualreorientationaffordedby postmodernism.In
place of the modernistduality of form and content, and the modernisthierar-
chy thatproposesthatformmustbe strippedaway to get at the meaningfulcore
of content,culturalcriminologyoperatesfromthe postmoder propositionthat
form is content, that style is substance,that meaning thus resides in presenta-
tion and re-presentation.From this view, the study of crime necessitates not
simply the examinationof individualcriminals and criminalevents, not even
the straightforwardexaminationof media "coverage"of criminals and crimi-
nal events, but rathera journey into the spectacle and carnivalof crime, a walk
down an infinite hall of mirrorswhere images createdand consumedby crimi-
nals, criminal subcultures,control agents, media institutions, and audiences
bounce endlessly one off the other. Increasingly,then, culturalcriminologists
explore the "networks...ofconnections, contact,contiguity, feedbackand gen-
eralized interface"(Baudrillard1985:127; see Pfohl 1993) out of which crime
and crime control are constructed,the intertextual"media loops" (Manning
1998) through which these constructionscirculate, and the discursive inter-
connections thatemerge between media institutions,crime controlagents, and
criminalsubcultures(Kane 1998b). As partof this exploration,they in turnin-
vestigate criminaland deviant subculturesas sites of criminalization,criminal
activity, andlegal control,but also as "subalterncounterpublic[s],"as "parallel
discursive arena[s]where members...inventand circulate counterdiscourses"
and "expanddiscursive space" (Fraser 1995:291).
Groundedas it is in the frameworksof culturalstudies andpostmodernism,
culturalcriminology is at the same time firmly rooted in sociological perspec-
tives. Perhaps because of its emergence out of sociological criminology,

though, culturalcriminology has to this point drawnless on the sociology of

culture than it has on various other sociological orientations more closely
aligned, historically,with criminology. Centralamongthese is the interaction-
ist traditionin the sociology of deviance and criminology (Becker 1963, Pfuhl
1986). In examining the mediatednetworksand discursive connections noted
above, cultural criminologists also trace the manifold interactions through
which criminals,controlagents, media producers,and otherscollectively con-
struct the meaning of crime. In so doing, cultural criminologists attempt to
elaborate on the "symbolic" in "symbolic interaction"by highlighting the
popularprevalence of mediated crime imagery, the interpersonalnegotiation
of style within criminaland deviant subcultures,and the emergence of larger
symbolic universes within which crime takes on political meaning. These un-
derstandingsof crime and crime control as social and political constructions,
and this endeavor to unravel the mediated processes through which these
constructionsoccur, also build on more recent constructionistperspectives in
sociology (Best 1995). Yet while culturalcriminologycertainlydrawson con-
structionistsociology, it also contributesto constructionistorientationsa sen-
sitivity to mediatedcircuits of meaning otherthan those of the "mass"media,
and it offers a spiralingpostmoder sensibility thatmoves beyond dualisms of
crime event and media coverage, factual truthand distortion,which at times
frame constructionistanalysis (Ferrell& Websdale 1999).
Finally, cultural criminology emerges in many ways out of critical tradi-
tions in sociology, criminology, and culturalstudies, incorporatingas it does a
variety of criticalperspectiveson crime and crime control.Utilizing these per-
spectives, cultural criminologists attemptto unravel the politics of crime as
played out throughmediatedanti-crimecampaigns;throughevocative cultural
constructionsof deviance, crime, and marginality;and throughcriminalized
subculturesand theirresistanceto legal control. To the extent thatit integrates
interactionist,constructionist,and critical sociologies, cultural criminology
thus undertakesto develop what Cohen (1988:68) has called "a structurally
and politically informedversion of labeling theory,"or what Melossi (1985)
has similarly described as a "groundedlabeling theory"-that is, an analysis
that accounts for the complex circuitryof mediatedinteractionthroughwhich
the meaning of crime and deviance is constructed and enforced. Put more
simply, culturalcriminology heeds Becker's (1963:183, 199) classic injunc-
tion-that we "look at all the people involved in any episode of alleged devi-
ance...all the parties to a situation, and their relationships"-and includes in
this collective examinationthose culturalrelationships,those webs of meaning
and perceptionin which all parties are entangled.
In its mix of historicalandtheoreticalfoundations,culturalcriminologycan
thusbe seen to incorporateboth more traditionalsociological perspectivesand
more recentlyascendantculturalstudies andpostmodernapproaches.As such,

culturalcriminology likewise embodies the creative tension in which sociol-

ogy and culturalstudies/postmodemismoften exist (Becker & McCall 1990,
Denzin 1992, Pfohl 1992), a tension which at its best producesattentivenessto
structuresof power and nuances of meaning, to fixed symbolic universes and
emergentcodes of marginality,to the mediatedexpansion of legal control and
the stylized underminingof legal authority-and to the inevitableconfounding
of these very categories in everyday criminality.

Methodological Frameworks
Culturalcriminology's melange of intellectualanddisciplinaryinfluences also
surfaces in the methodologies that culturalcriminologists employ. In explor-
ing the interconnectionsof cultureand crime, researchersutilize ethnographic
models rooted in sociology, criminology, culturalstudies, and anthropology;
modifications of these models suggested by recent developments in feminist,
postmodern,and existentialistthought;and a range of methods gearedtoward
media and textual analysis. Further,as will be seen, researchersat times com-
bine or overlay these methods in the course of particularprojects.Nonetheless,
thereremainswithin the broadframeworkof culturalcriminologya significant
split between methodologies oriented toward ethnography and field work
practice, and those orientedtowardmedia and textual analysis.
Ethnographicresearch in cultural criminology reflects the long-standing
attentiveness of cultural studies researchersto precise nuances of meaning
within particularculturalmilieux. Willis (1977:3), for example, notes that his
use of ethnographictechniques was "dictatedby the natureof my interest in
'the cultural.'These techniquesare suited to recordthis level andhave a sensi-
tivity to meanings and values...." At the same time, ethnographicresearchin
culturalcriminology reflects the sociological and criminological traditionof
deep inquiry into the situated dynamics of criminal and deviant subcultures
(Adler 1985, Becker 1963, Humphreys 1975); especially influential here are
Polsky's (1969) manifesto on the necessary politics and practice of field re-
search among deviant and criminalpopulations,and Hagedor's (1990) more
recent echoing of these themes. In addition, the practice of field research
within cultural criminology incorporates recent reconsiderations of field
method among sociologists, criminologists, and anthropologists(Burawoy et
al 1991, Ferrell & Hamm 1998, Van Maanen 1995a), and among feminists,
postmodernists,and existentialists (Fonow & Cook 1991, Clough 1992, Den-
zin 1997, Sanders 1995, Adler & Adler 1987) inside and outside these disci-
plines. Together,these works suggest that field researchoperatesas an inher-
ently personal and political endeavor, profoundly engaging researcherswith
situationsand subjects of study. These works thus call for reflexive reporting
on the researchprocess, for an "ethnographyof ethnography"(Van Maanen

1995b), which accounts for the researcher'sown role in the constructionof

An extremeversion of this ethnographicperspective within culturalcrimi-
nology, yet one rooted in sociological paradigms,is the notion of "crimino-
logical verstehen"(Ferrell& Hamm 1998). Drawing on Weber's (1978:4-5)
formulationof verstehenin termsof "interpretiveunderstanding"and "sympa-
thetic participation,"and on laterrefinementswithin qualitativemethodology
(Adler & Adler 1987), the concept of criminologicalverstehendenotes a field
researcher's subjective appreciationand empathic understandingof crime's
situatedmeanings, symbolism, and emotions, in part throughthe sorts of di-
rectly participatoryresearch that can foster a methodology of attentiveness.
From this view, the researcher's own experiences and emotions emerge as
windows into criminalevents and criminalsubcultures,and into the collective
experiences and understandingsof those involved in them. While certainly
fraughtwith personal and professional danger, and limited by issues of indi-
vidual and collective identity,this approachseeks to move deep inside the cul-
turesof crime and crime controlby dismantlingdualisticepistemic hierarchies
that position the researcherover and apart from research subjects, abstract
analysis over and beyond situatedknowledge, and sanitaryintellect over and
outside humanexperience and emotion. The concept of criminologicalverste-
hen thus includes the researcher,and the researcher's own situated experi-
ences, in the collective constructionof crime's reality.
Alternatively,otherbodies of researchin culturalcriminologyarebased not
in researchers'deep participatoryimmersion in criminal worlds, but in their
scholarly readingof the various mediatedtexts that circulateimages of crime
and crime control. The range of substantive scholarship that has recently
emerged is itself remarkable,exploring as it does both historical and contem-
porarytexts, and investigatinglocal andnationalnewspapercoverage of crime
and crime control (Brownstein 1995, Websdale & Alvarez 1998, Perrone &
Chesney-Lind1997, Howe 1997); filmic depictionsof criminals,criminalvio-
lence, and criminaljustice (Newman 1998, Cheatwood 1998, Niesel 1998);
television portrayalsof crime and criminals(Tunnell 1998, Fishman& Caven-
der 1998); images of crime in popular music (Tunnell 1995); comic books,
crime, andjuvenile delinquency(Nyberg 1998, Williams 1998); crime depic-
tions in cyberspace(Greek 1996); andthe broaderpresence of crime and crime
control imagery throughoutpopular culture texts (Barak 1995, Marx 1995,
Surette 1998, Kidd-Hewitt & Osbore 1995, Kooistra 1989). Many of these
studies utilize conventionalcontentanalysis techniquesto measurethe degree
of crime coverage, the distributionof source material,or the relativepresence
of crime imagery. Others incorporate less formal, descriptive accounts of
prominent media constructions (Barak 1996), or illustrative case-by-case
comparisons among media texts. Still others, often influenced by feminist

methodology and epistemology, develop imaginativereadings, counter-read-

ings, and "sociological deconstructions"(Pfohl & Gordon 1986, see Young
1996, Clough 1992) of crime texts and criminaljustice formations.
While this divergencebetween ethnographyand textual analysis does char-
acterizemuch of the scholarshipin culturalcriminology, a numberof scholars
have in fact begun to produceworks thatusefully integratethese two methodo-
logical orientations.Chermak(1995, 1997, 1998), for example, has combined
content analysis with ethnographicobservation and interviewing to produce
multilayeredstudies that explore not only the sources and symbolic character-
istics of mediatedcrime accounts,but the organizationaldynamicsunderlying
them. Situating her work in "the overlapping fields of ethnographyand cul-
turalstudies,"Kane (1998b:8, 1998a) has engaged in extensive, cross-cultural
field researchin orderto analyze and place herself within, "contrastingpublic
discourses of public health and law" aroundAIDS and HIV. By integrating
ethnographicresearch among neo-Nazi skinheads with detailed analysis of
popular music's historical and thematic structures,Hamm (1993, 1995) has
succeeded in explicating the broad symbolic underpinningsof the skinhead
subcultureandthe specific place of musical idioms within it. Ferrell(1996) has
likewise interwoven extended participantobservation among urban graffiti
writerswith an analysis of media and criminaljustice campaignsagainstthem
to reveal the ongoing, reflexive process by which each partyto the conflict has
reappropriatedand reconstructedthe meanings of the other.
These and other emerging works suggest that any sharp disjunction be-
tween ethnographicresearchand textual/mediaanalysis in culturalcriminol-
ogy not only makes little sense methodologically, but to some degree actually
underminesthe very mandate of cultural criminology itself. At first glance,
this methodological disjunctionwould seem to be justified by a parallel dis-
junction in subjectmatter,with ethnographybest suited for exploringcriminal
subculturesand situations, and textual analysis best suited for investigating
media constructionsof crime and crime control.Yet, as contemporaryresearch
begins to show, these subjectsarenever as distinctas they first seem. The mass
media and associated cultureindustriescertainlyproducean ongoing flood of
crime images and crime texts; but media audiences, deviant and criminalsub-
cultures,controlagencies, and others subsequentlyappropriatethese texts and
images, and in partreconstructtheirmeaning as they utilize them in particular
social situations. Similarly, the many subculturesconcerned with crime and
crime control-from gang membersand graffiti writersto police associations
and political interest groups-themselves produce complex circuits of com-
munication,and within this circuitryall mannerof images and symbols. These
situated media in turn circulate within and between social worlds, generate
competing symbolic referencesand public perceptionsof crime, and regularly
reappearas caricaturewithin the realm of mass media entertainmentand re-

porting on crime. Thus, as before, it is not criminalsubculturesand situations

that merit the attentionof culturalcriminologists, nor mediatedconstructions
of crime,butratherthe confoundingandconfluenceof these categoriesin every-
day life. And in this hall of mirrors,in this world of spiralingsymbolism and
fluid meaning, neithertraditionalethnographynor textual analysis suffices-
but instead some mix of method that can begin to situatethe researcherinside
the complex swirl of cultureand crime.
In this sense ethnographyandmedia/textualanalysis, whetherutilized indi-
vidually or in combination, produce at their best interpretivecase studies-
case studiesthatexpose the dynamicculturalsituationsout of which crime and
crime control are constructed.In fact, Ferrell & Sanders(1995:304-8) argue
thatthe subtletyand complexity of these dynamicsare such thatculturalcrimi-
nology is best served by an accumulationof in-depthcase studies, ratherthan
by more shallow survey research or more abstract statistical analysis. Yet
while this reliance on case study method (Geis 1991, Ragin & Becker 1992)
may enhance the analytic sophisticationof culturalcriminology, it may also
function to marginalize it from the criminological and sociological main-
stream.Feagin et al (1991:270), for example, contend that case study sociol-
ogy has now been overtaken,and to some degree delegitimated,by a form of
"mainstreamjournal-articlesociology" which "accentsquantitative-statistical
data interpretedin a hypothetico-deductivepositivistic framework."
The long sweep of scholarly history remindsus that, for culturalcriminol-
ogy as for other emergentperspectives, such marginalizationmay or may not
develop, and may or may not endure.Should marginalizationresult from cul-
tural criminology's reliance on case study method and interpretiveanalysis,
though, it would dovetail doubly with the largerproject of culturalcriminol-
ogy. First, this sort of methodological marginalizationwould perhaps suit an
approachdeveloped out of culturalstudies, postmodernism,critical and femi-
nist theory, and other perspectives long suspect within certain quartersof
mainstreamsocial science. Second, as will be seen, the contemporarypractice
of cultural criminology embodies not only theoretical and methodological
frameworksexterior to the positivist mainstream,but an intellectual politics
foreign to traditionalnotions of objectivity and detachmentas well.

Framedby these theoretical and methodological orientations,culturalcrimi-
nological research and analysis have emerged in the past few years within a
numberof overlappingsubstantiveareas.The first two of these can be charac-
terized by an overly simple but perhaps informative dichotomy between
"crime as culture"and "cultureas crime." The thirdbroad area incorporates
the varietyof ways in which media dynamicsconstructthe reality of crime and

crime control;the fourthexplores the social politics of crime and cultureand

the intellectualpolitics of culturalcriminology.
Crimeas Culture
To speak of crime as culture is to acknowledge at a minimum that much of
whatwe label criminalbehavioris at the same time subculturalbehavior,collec-
tively organized aroundnetworks of symbol, ritual, and sharedmeaning. Put
simply, it is to adopt the subcultureas a basic unit of criminological analysis.
While this generalinsight is hardlya new one, culturalcriminologydevelops it
in a number of directions. Bringing a postmodern sensibility to their under-
standingof deviantand criminalsubcultures,culturalcriminologistsarguethat
such subculturesincorporate-indeed, are defined by-elaborate conventions
of argot, appearance,aesthetics, and stylized presentationof self and thus op-
erate as repositories of collective meaning and representationfor their mem-
bers. Withinthese subculturesas in otherarenasof crime, form shapes content,
image frames identity. Takeninto a mediatedworld of increasinglydislocated
communicationand dispersedmeaning, this insight furtherimplies that devi-
ant and criminalsubculturesmay now be exploding into universes of symbolic
communicationthat in many ways transcendtime and space. For computer
hackers, graffiti writers,drugrunners,and others, a mix of widespreadspatial
dislocation and precise normative organization implies subculturesdefined
less by face-to-face interactionthanby shared,if second-hand,symbolic codes
(Gelder & Thornton1997:473-550).
Understandably,then, much research in this area of cultural criminology
has focused on the dispersed dynamics of subculturalstyle. Following from
Hebdige's (1979) classic exploration of "subculture:the meaning of style,"
cultural criminologists have investigated style as defining both the internal
characteristicsof deviant and criminalsubculturesand externalconstructions
of them. Miller (1995), for example, has documentedthe many ways in which
gang symbolism and style exist as the mediumof meaning for both streetgang
members and the probation officers who attempt to control them. Reading
gang styles as emblematic of gang immersion and gang defiance, enforcing
court orders prohibitinggang clothing, confiscating gang paraphernalia,and
displaying their confiscated collections on their own office walls, the proba-
tion officers in Miller's study constructthe meanings of gang style as surely as
do the gang members themselves. Likewise, Ferrell (1996) has shown how
contemporaryhip hop graffitiexists essentially as a "crimeof style" for graffiti
writers, who operate and evaluate one another within complex stylistic and
symbolic conventions, but also for media institutions and legal and political
authoritieswho perceive graffiti as violating the "aestheticsof authority"es-
sential to their ongoing control of urbanenvironments.More broadly, Ferrell
(in Ferrell& Sanders1995:169-89) has exploredstyle as the tissue connecting

culturaland criminalpractices and has examined the ways in which subcul-

tural style shapes not only aesthetic communities, but official and unofficial
reactions to subculturalidentity. Finally, Lyng & Bracey (1995) have docu-
mented the multiply ironic process by which the style of the outlaw biker sub-
culture came first to signify class-based culturalresistance, next to elicit the
sorts of media reactionsand legal controlsthatin fact amplifiedand confirmed
its meaning, and finally to be appropriatedand commodified in such a way as
to void its political potential. Significantly, these and other studies (Cosgrove
1984) echo and confirm the integrative methodological frameworkoutlined
above by demonstratingthat the importance of style resides not within the
dynamics of criminal subcultures,nor in media and political constructionsof
its meaning, but in the contested interplayof the two.
If subculturesof crime and deviance are definedby theiraestheticand sym-
bolic organization,culturalcriminology has also begun to show that they are
defined by intensities of collective experience and emotion as well. Building
on Katz's (1988) wide-ranging exploration of the sensually seductive "fore-
ground"of criminality, cultural criminologists like Lyng (1990, 1998) and
Ferrell (1996) have utilized verstehen-orientedmethodologies to document
the experiences of "edgework"and "the adrenalinrush"-immediate, incan-
descent integrationsof risk, danger, and skill-that shape participationand
membershipin deviantand criminalsubcultures.Discovered across a range of
illicit subcultures(Presdee 1994, O'Malley & Mugford 1994, Tunnell 1992:
45, Wright& Decker 1994:117), these intense and often ritualizedmoments of
pleasureand excitementdefine the experienceof subculturalmembershipand,
by members' own accounts, seduce them into continuedsubculturalparticipa-
tion. Significantly for a sociology of these subculturalpractices, research
(Lyng & Snow 1986) shows that experiences of edgework and adrenalinexist
as collectively constructedendeavors, encased in sharedvocabulariesof mo-
tive and meaning (Mills 1940, Cressey 1954). Thus, while these experiences
certainlysuggest a sociology of the body andthe emotions, and furtherverste-
hen-orientedexplorationsof deviant and criminal subculturesas "affectually
determined"(Weber 1978:9) domains,they also reveal the ways in which col-
lective intensitiesof experience, like collective conventionsof style, construct
Culture as Crime
The notion of "cultureas crime"denotes the reconstructionof culturalenter-
prise as criminal endeavor-through, for example, the public labeling of
popular culture products as criminogenic, or the criminalizationof cultural
producersthroughmedia or legal channels. In contemporarysociety, such re-
constructions pervade popular culture and transcend traditional"high" and
"low" culturalboundaries.Art photographersRobertMapplethorpeand Jock

Sturges, for example, have faced highly orchestratedcampaigns accusing

them of producingobscene or pornographicimages; in addition, an art center
exhibitingMapplethorpe'sphotographswas indictedon chargesof "pandering
obscenity,"and Sturges's studiowas raidedby local police andthe FBI (Dubin
1992). Punkandheavy metalbands,and associatedrecordcompanies,distribu-
tors, and retail outlets, have encounteredobscenity rulings, civil and criminal
suits, high-profilepolice raids,andpolice interferencewith concerts.Perform-
ers, producers,distributors,and retailersof rap and "gangstarap"music have
likewise faced arrestand conviction on obscenity charges, legal confiscation
of albums, highly publicized protests, boycotts, hearings organizedby politi-
cal figures and police officials, and ongoing media campaigns and legal pro-
ceedings accusing them of promoting-indeed, directly causing-crime and
delinquency (Hamm & Ferrell 1994). More broadly, a variety of television
programs,films, and cartoonshave been targetedby public campaigns alleg-
ing that they incite delinquency, spin off "copy-cat" crimes, and otherwise
serve as criminogenic social forces (Ferrell 1998, Nyberg 1998).
These many cases certainlyfall within the purview of culturalcriminology
because the targets of criminalization-photographers, musicians, television
writers, and their products-are "cultural"in nature,but equally so because
their criminalizationitself unfolds as a culturalprocess. When contemporary
culturepersonas and performancesare criminalized,they are primarilycrimi-
nalized throughthe mass media, throughtheirpresentationandre-presentation
as criminal in the realm of sound bites, shock images, news conferences, and
newspaperheadlines. This mediated spiral, in which media-producedpopular
cultureforms and figures are in turncriminalizedby means of the media, leads
once again into a complex hall of mirrors.It generates not only images, but
images of images-that is, attempts by lawyers, police officials, religious
leaders, media workers, and others to craft criminalized images of those im-
ages previously craftedby artists,musicians, and film makers.Thus,the crimi-
nalizationof popularcultureis itself a popular,and cultural,enterprise,stand-
ing in opposition to popularcultureless thanparticipatingin it, and helping to
constructthe very meanings and effects to which it allegedly responds.Given
this, culturalcriminologists have begun to widen the notion of "criminaliza-
tion" to include more thanthe simple creationand applicationof criminallaw.
Increasingly,they investigate the largerprocess of "culturalcriminalization"
(Ferrell 1998:80-82), the mediatedreconstructionof meaning and perception
aroundissues of cultureand crime. In some cases, this culturalcriminalization
stands as an end in itself, successfully dehumanizingor delegitimatingthose
targeted, though no formal legal charges are brought against them. In other
cases, cultural criminalizationhelps construct a perceptualcontext in which
direct criminal charges can more easily follow. In either scenario, though,
media dynamics drive and define the criminalizationof popularculture.

The mediatedcontext of criminalizationis a political one as well. The con-

temporarycriminalizationof popular culture has emerged as part of larger
"culturewars" (Bolton 1992) waged by political conservatives and cultural
reactionaries.Controversiesover the criminalor criminogeniccharacteristics
of art photographersand rap musicians have resulted less from spontaneous
public concernthanfromthe sorts of well-funded andpolitically sophisticated
campaigns that have similarly targetedthe National Endowmentfor the Arts
and its supportof feminist/gay/lesbianperformanceartistsand film festivals.
In this light it is less thansurprisingthatcontemporaryculturalcriminalization
is aimed time and again at marginal(ized) subcultures-radical punk musi-
cians, politically militant black rap groups, lesbian and gay visual and per-
formance artists-whose stylized celebrationof and confrontationwith their
marginalitythreatenparticularpatterns of moral and legal control. Cultural
criminalizationin this sense exposes yet anotherset of linkages between sub-
culturalstyles and symbols and mediatedconstructionsand reconstructionsof
these as criminalor criminogenic.In addition,as a process conducted largely
in the public realm,culturalcriminalizationcontributesto popularperceptions
andpanics, andthus to the furthermarginalizationof those who areits focus. If
successful, it constructsa degree of social discomfortthatreflects off the face
of popularcultureand into the practice of everyday life.

Media Constructions of Crime and Crime Control

The mediatedcriminalizationof popularcultureexists, of course, as but one of
many media processes thatconstructthe meanings of crime and crime control.
As noted in earlierdiscussions of textual methodologies, culturalcriminology
incorporatesa wealth of researchon mediated characterizationsof crime and
crime control,rangingacross historicalandcontemporarytexts and investigat-
ing images generated in newspaper reporting,popular film, television news
and entertainmentprogramming,popularmusic, comic books, and the cyber-
spaces of the Internet.Further,culturalcriminologists have begun to explore
the complex institutionalinterconnectionsbetween the criminaljustice system
and the mass media. Researcherslike Chermak(1995, 1997, 1998) and Sand-
ers & Lyon (1995) have documentednot only the mass media's heavy reliance
on criminaljustice sources for imagery and informationon crime, but more
importantly,the reciprocalrelationshipthatundergirdsthis reliance. Working
within organizationalimperativesof efficiency and routinization,media insti-
tutions regularlyrely on data selectively providedby policing and courtagen-
cies. In so doing, they highlightfor the public issues chosen by criminaljustice
institutionsand framedby criminaljustice imperatives,and they in turncon-
tributeto the political agendasof the criminaljustice system andto the genera-
tion of public supportfor these agendas. In a relatively nonconspiratorialbut

nonetheless powerful fashion, media and criminaljustice organizationsthus

coordinatetheir day-to-day operationsand cooperate in constructingcircum-
scribed understandingsof crime and crime control.
A large body of research in cultural criminology examines the nature of
these understandingsandthe public dynamicsof theirproduction.Like cultural
criminology generally,much of the researchhere (Adler & Adler 1994, Goode
& Ben-Yehuda 1994, Hollywood 1997, Jenkins 1992, Sparks 1995, Thornton
1994) builds on the classic analyticmodels of culturalstudies and interaction-
ist sociology, as embodied in concepts such as moral entrepreneurshipand
moral enterprisein the creationof crime and deviance (Becker 1963), and the
invention of folk devils as a means of generatingmoral panic (Cohen 1972/
1980) around issues of crime and deviance. Exploring the epistemic frame-
works surroundingeveryday understandingsof crime controversies, this re-
search (Fishman 1978, Best 1995, Acland 1995, Reinarman1994, Reinarman
& Duskin 1992, Websdale 1996) problematizes and unpacks taken-for-
grantedassumptionsregardingthe prevalence of criminality and the particu-
lar characteristicsof criminals, and the research traces these assumptions to
the interrelatedworkings of interest groups, media institutions, and criminal
justice organizations.
Emerging scholarshipin culturalcriminology also offers useful reconcep-
tualizationsand refinementsof these analytic models. McRobbie & Thornton
(1995), for example, argue that the essential concepts of "moralpanic" and
"folk devils" must be reconsideredin multi-mediatedsocieties; with the prolif-
eration of media channels and the saturationof media markets,moral panics
have become both dangerousendeavorsandmarketablecommodities,and folk
devils now find themselves both stigmatizedand lionized in mainstreammedia
and alternativemedia alike. Similarly,Jenkins's (1999) recentwork has begun
to refine understandingsof crime andjustice issues as social and culturalcon-
structions.Building on his earlier,meticulous deconstructionsof drugpanics,
serial homicide scares, and other constructed crime controversies, Jenkins
(1994a,b) arguesthat attentionmust be paid to the media andpolitical dynam-
ics underlying "unconstructed"crime as well. Jenkins explores the failure to
frame activities such as anti-abortionviolence as criminal terrorism,situates
this failure within active media and political processes, and thus questions the
meaning of that for which no criminalmeaning is provided.
Through all of this, cultural criminologists furtheremphasize that in the
process of constructingcrime and crime control as social concerns and politi-
cal controversies, the media also constructthem as entertainment.Revisiting
the classic cultural studies/new criminology notion of "policing the crisis"
(Hall et al 1978), Sparks(1995; see 1992), for example, characterizesthe pro-
duction and perception of crime and policing imagery in television crime dra-
mas as a process of"entertainingthe crisis." Intertwinedwith mediatedmoral

panic over crime and crime waves, amplified fear of street crime and stranger
violence, and politically popularconcern for the harmdone to crime victims,
then, is the pleasure found in consuming mediated crime imagery and crime
drama.To the extent that the mass media constructscrime as entertainment,
we are thus offered not only selective images and agendas, but the ironic
mechanismfor amusingourselves to death(Postman 1986) by way of our own
collective pain, misery, and fear. Given this, contemporarymedia scholarship
in culturalcriminology focuses as much on popularfilm, popularmusic, and
television entertainmentprogramming as on the mediated manufactureof
news and information,and it investigates the collapsing boundariesbetween
such categories. Recent work in this area targets especially the popularityof
"reality"crimeprograms(Fishman& Cavender1998). Withtheirmix of street
footage, theatricalstaging, andpatrol-carsermonizing,realitycrimeprograms
such as "C.O.P.S.,""L.A.P.D.,"and"TrueStories of the Highway Patrol"gen-
erate conventional,though at times contradictory,images of crime and polic-
ing. Along with talk shows devoted largely to crime and deviance topics, they
in turnspin off secondarymerchandisingschemes, legal suits over videotaped
police chases and televised invasions of privacy, and criminalactivities alleg-
edly inducedby the programsthemselves. Such dynamicsdemonstratethe en-
tangledrealityof crime, crimenews, and crime entertainment,and suggest that
as mediated crime constructionscome to be defined as real, "they are real in
their consequences"(Thomas 1966:301).

The Politics of Culture, Crime, and Cultural Criminology

Clearly, a common thread connects the many domains into which cultural
criminology inquires:the presence of power relations, and the emergence of
social control, at the intersectionsof cultureand crime. The stylistic practices
and symbolic codes of illicit subculturesare made the object of legal surveil-
lance and control or, alternatively,are appropriated,commodified, and sani-
tized within a vast machineryof consumption.Sophisticatedmedia and crimi-
nal justice "culturewars"are launchedagainst alternativeforms of art,music,
and entertainment,thereby criminalizing the personalities and performances
involved, marginalizingthem from idealized notions of decency and commu-
nity and, at the extreme, silencing the political critiquesthey present.Ongoing
media constructionsof crime and crime control emerge out of an alliance of
conveniencebetween media institutionsand criminaljustice agencies, serve to
promoteand legitimatebroaderpolitical agendasregardingcrime control,and
in turnfunctionto both trivialize and dramatizethe meaningof crime. Increas-
ingly, then, it is television crime shows and big budget detective movies,
nightly newscasts and morning newspaper headlines, recurrentcampaigns
against the real and imagined crimes of the disenfranchisedthat constitute

Foucault's (in Cohen 1979:339) "hundredsof tiny theatresof punishment"-

theatres in which young people, ethnic minorities, lesbians and gays, and
others play villains deserving of penalty and public outrage.
At the same time, culturalcriminologistsemphasizeand explorethe various
formsthatresistanceto this complex web of social controlmay take. As Sparks
(1992, 1995) and othersargue,the audiences for media constructionsof crime
are diverse in both theircomposition andtheirreadingsof these constructions;
they recontextualize,remake, and even reverse mass media meanings as they
incorporatethem into their daily lives and interactions.Varieties of resistance
also emerge among those groupsmore specifically targetedwithin the practice
of mediatedcontrol.Artistsandmusicians caughtup in contemporary"culture
wars" have refused governmental awards, resigned high-profile positions,
won legal judgments, organized alternativemedia outlets and performances,
and otherwise produced public counterattacks(Ferrell 1998). Within other
marginalized subcultures,personal and group style certainly exists as stig-
mata, inviting outside surveillanceand control, but at the same time is valued
as a badge of honor and resistancemade all the more meaningfulby its endur-
ing defiance of outside authority(Hebdige 1988). Likewise, as Lyng (1990,
1998) and Ferrell (1996) emphasize, those immersed in moments of illicit
edgework and adrenalinconstructresistance doubly. First, by combining in
such moments high levels of risk with precise skills and practiced artistry,
those involved invent an identity, a sense of crafted self, that resists the usual
degradationsof subordinatestatus and deskilled, alienated labor. Second, as
these moments become more dangerous because targeted by campaigns of
criminalizationand enforcement, participantsin them find an enhancement
and amplificationof the edgy excitement they provide, and in so doing trans-
form political pressureinto personal and collective pleasure. In investigating
the intersectionsof cultureand crime for power relationsand emerging forms
of social control,then, culturalcriminologistscarryon the traditionof cultural
studies (Hall & Jefferson 1976) by examining the many forms of resistance
that emerge there as well.
Moreover,culturalcriminology itself operatesas a sortof intellectualresis-
tance, as a diverse counter-readingand counter-discourseon, and critical "in-
tervention" (Pfohl & Gordon 1986:94) into, conventional constructions of
crime. In deconstructing moments of mediated panic over crime, cultural
criminologists work to expose the political processes behind seemingly spon-
taneous social concerns and to dismantle the recurringand often essentialist
metaphors of disease, invasion, and decay on which crime panics are built
(Brownstein 1995, 1996, Reinarman1994, Reinarman& Duskin 1992, Murji
1999). Beyond this, Barak (1988, 1994a) argues for an activist "newsmaking
criminology" in which criminologists integratethemselves into the ongoing
mediated construction of crime, develop as part of their role in this process

alternativeimages andunderstandingsof crime issues, andin so doing produce

what constitutive criminologists (Henry & Milovanovic 1991, Barak 1995)
call a "replacementdiscourse"regardingcrime and crime control. Much of
cultural criminology's ethnographicwork in subculturaldomains functions
similarly, as a critical move away from the "official definitions of reality"
(Hagedorn 1990:244) producedby the media and the criminaljustice system
andreproducedby a "courthousecriminology"(see Polsky 1969) thatrelies on
these sources. By attentively documentingthe lived realities of groups whom
conventionalcrime constructionshave marginalized,and in turndocumenting
the situatedpolitics of this marginalizationprocess, culturalcriminologistsat-
tempt to deconstructthe official demonizationof various "outsiders"(Becker
1963)-from ruraldomestic violence victims (Websdale 1998) to urbangraf-
fiti writers (Ferrell 1996, Sanchez-Tranquilino1995), gay hustlers (Pettiway
1996), andhomeless heroinaddicts(Bourgoiset al 1997)-and to producealter-
native understandingsof them. Approachingthis task fromthe otherdirection,
Hamm (1993) and others likewise venture inside the worlds of particularly
violent criminalsto document dangerousnuances of meaning and style often
invisible in official reportingon such groups.In its politics as in its theory and
method, then, cultural criminology integrates subculturalethnographywith
media and institutionalanalysis to produce an alternativeimage of crime.


In describing an emergent orientationlike culturalcriminology, it is perhaps

appropriateto close with a brief consideration of its unfinished edges. The
following short discussions are thereforemeant to be neither systematic nor
exhaustive; they simply suggest some of what is emerging, and what might
productivelyemerge, as culturalcriminology continues to develop.
Situated Media, Situated Audiences
The dynamic integrationof subculturalcrime constructionsand media crime
constructions has surfaced time and again in this essay as one of cultural
criminology's essential insights. This insight furtherimplies thatthe everyday
notion of "media"must be expanded to include those media that take shape
within and among the various subculturesof crime, deviance, and crime con-
trol. As noted in the above methodological discussions, various illicit subcul-
tures certainlycome into regularcontactwith the mass media, but in so doing
appropriateand reinvent mass media channels, products,and meanings. Fur-
ther,illicit subculturesregularlyinvent their own media of communication;as
McRobbie& Thornton(1995:559) point out, even the interestsof"folk devils"
are increasingly"defendedby their own niche and micro-media."Thus, alter-

native and marginalizedyouth subculturesself-produce a wealth of zines (al-

ternative magazines) and websites; street gang members construct elaborate
edifices of communicationout of particularclothing styles, colors, and hand
signs; and graffiti writers develop a continent-wide network of freight train
graffiti thatmirrorsexisting hobo traingraffiti in its ability to link distantsub-
culturalmembers within a sharedsymbolic community.As also suggested in
above discussions, multiple, fluid audiences likewise witness efflorescences
of crime and crime controlin theireverydayexistence, consume a multitudeof
crime images packaged as news and entertainment,and in turn remake the
meaningof these encounterswithin the symbolic interactionof theirown lives.
Investigatingthe linkagesbetween "media"and crime, then, means investigat-
ing the many situationsin which these linkages emerge, andmoreoverthe situ-
ated place of media, audience, and meaning within criminal worlds (see
Vaughan 1998). Ultimately, perhaps,this investigation suggests blurringthe
analytic boundary between producer and audience-recognizing, in other
words, thata variety of groupsboth produceand consume contested images of
crime-and moving ahead to explore the many microcircuitsof meaning that
collectively constructthe reality of crime.
The Media and Cultureof Policing
Increasingly, the production and consumption of mediated meaning frames
not only the reality of crime, but of crime controlas well. Contemporarypolic-
ing can in fact hardlybe understoodapartfrom its interpenetrationwith media
at all levels. As "reality"crime and policing television programsshape public
perceptionsof policing, serve as controversialtools of officer recruitmentand
suspect apprehension,and engender legal suits over their effects on street-
level policing, citizens shoot video footage of police conduct and miscon-
duct-some of which finds its way, full-circle, onto news and "reality"pro-
grams. Meanwhile, within the police subcultureitself, surveillance cameras
and on-boardpatrol car cameras capturethe practices of police officers and
citizens alike and, as Websdale (1999) documents, police crime files them-
selves take shape as "situatedmedia substrates"which, like surveillance and
patrol car footage, regularly become building blocks for subsequent mass
media images of policing. The policing of a postmodernworld emerges as a
complex set of visual and semiotic practices, an expandingspiral of mediated
social control (Manning 1998, 1999a,b).
From the view of culturalcriminology,policing must in turnbe understood
as a set of practices situated, like criminal practices, within subculturalcon-
ventions of meaning, symbolism, and style. In this regard,Kraska& Kappeler
(1995:85) integrateperspectives from police studies, feminist literature,and
critical theory to explore the subculturalideologies, situated dynamics, and
broader"culturaland structuralcontext"within which police deviance andpo-

lice sexual violence againstwomen develop. Perhapsmost interestinghere, in

light of the reflexive methodologies discussed above, is Kraska's (1998)
groundedinvestigationof police paramilitaryunits. Immersinghimself andhis
emotions in a situationof police paramilitaryviolence, Kraskadetails the styl-
ized subculturalstatusaffordedby particularforms of weaponryand clothing,
and he documentsthe deep-seated ideological and affective states that define
the collective meaning of such situations.With crime control as with crime,
subculturaland media dynamics constructexperience and perception.

Crimeand CulturalSpace
Many of the everyday situations in which crime and policing are played out,
and in fact many of the most visible contemporarycontroversiessurrounding
crime and policing issues, involve the contestationof culturalspace. Incorpo-
ratingperspectives from culturalstudies, culturalgeography,and postmodern
geography(Merrifield& Swyngedouw 1997, Scott & Soja 1996, Davis 1992),
the notion of culturalspace references the process by which meaning is con-
structedand contested in public domains (Ferrell 1997). This process inter-
twines with a variety of crime and crime control situations.Homeless popula-
tions declareby theirpublic presence the scandalof inequality,and they are in
turnhoundedandherdedby a host of loitering,vagrancy,trespass,public lodg-
ing, and public nuisance statutes."Gutterpunks"invest downtown street cor-
ners with disheveled style, "skatepunks"and skateboardersconvertwalkways
and parkinggaragesinto playgrounds,Latino/astreet"cruisers"createmobile
subculturesout of droppedframesandpolished chrome-and face in response
aggressive enforcement of laws regardingtrespass, curfew, public sleeping,
and even car stereo volume. Street gangs carve out collective cultural space
from shared styles and public rituals; criminaljustice officials prohibit and
confiscate stylized clothing, enforce prohibitionsagainstpublic gatheringsby
"known" gang members, and orchestratepublic gang "round-ups."Graffiti
writers remake the visual landscapes and symbolic codes of public life, but
they do so in the face of increasingcriminalsanctions, high-tech surveillance
systems, andnationallycoordinatedlegal campaignsdesignedto remove them
and their markingsfrom public life.
As with the mediated campaigns of cultural criminalization discussed
above, these conflicts over crime and culturalspace regularlyemerge around
the marginalized subculturesof young people, ethnic minorities, and other
groups, and thus they raise essential issues of identity and authenticity
(Sanchez-Tranquilino1995). Such conflicts in turn incorporatea complex
criminalizationof these subculturesas partof a systematiceffort to erase their
self-constructedpublic images, to substitutein theirplace symbols of homoge-
neity and consensus, and thereby to restore and expand the "aesthetics of

authority"noted in above discussions. Ultimately, these disparate conflicts

over crime and cultural space reveal the common threadof contested public
meaning, and something of the work of control in the age of cultural repro-

Bodies, Emotions,and CulturalCriminology

Perhapsthe most critical of situations,the most intimate of culturalspaces in
which crime and crime control intersect are those in and aroundthe physical
and emotional self (Pfohl 1990). Throughoutthis essay such situations have
been seen: the developmentof subculturalstyle as markerof identityand locus
of criminalization;the fleeting experience of edgework and adrenalinrushes,
heightened by risk of legal apprehension;the utilization of researchers'own
experiences and emotions in the study of crime and policing. These situations
suggest thatothermomentsmeritthe attentionof culturalcriminology as well,
from gang girls' constructionof identity throughhair, makeup, and discourse
(Mendoza-Denton 1996) and phone fantasy workers' invocation of sexuality
and emotion (Mattley 1998), to the contestedmedia andbody politics of AIDS
(Kane 1998b, Watney 1987, Young 1996:175-206). Together,these and other
situations in turn suggest a criminology of the skin (see Kushner 1994)-a
criminology thatcan accountfor crime and crime control in termsof pleasure,
fear, and excitement and that can confront the deformities of sexuality and
power, control and resistance that emerge in these inside spaces. They also
demandthe ongoing refinementof the reflexive, verstehen-orientedmethod-
ologies and epistemologies described above-of ways of investigating and
knowing that are at the same time embodied and affective (Scheper-Hughes
1994), closer to the intimatemeaning of crime and yet never close enough.

As an emerging perspective within criminology, sociology, and criminaljus-
tice, culturalcriminology drawsfrom a wide rangeof intellectualorientations.
Revisiting and perhapsreinventingexisting paradigmsin culturalstudies, the
"new" criminology, interactionistsociology, and critical theory; integrating
insights from postmoder, feminist, and constructionistthought;and incorpo-
ratingaspects of newsmaking, constitutive,and other evolving criminologies,
culturalcriminology seek less to synthesize or subsumethese variousperspec-
tives than to engage them in a critical, multifacetedexplorationof cultureand
crime. Linkingthese diverse intellectualdimensions, andtheirattendantmeth-
odologies of ethnographyandmedia/textualanalysis, is culturalcriminology's
overarchingconcernwith the meaning of crime and crime control. Some three
decades ago, Cohen (1988:68, 1971:19) wrote of "placingon the agenda"of a

culturallyinformedcriminology issues of "subjectivemeaning,"and of devi-

ance and crime as "meaningfulaction." Culturalcriminology embraces and
expands this agenda by exploring the complex construction,attribution,and
appropriationof meaning that occurs within and between media and political
formations, illicit subcultures, and audiences around matters of crime and
crime control. In so doing, culturalcriminology likewise highlights the inevi-
tability of the image. Inside the stylized rhythms of a criminal subculture,
readinga newspapercrime reportor perusinga police file, caughtbetween the
panic andpleasureof crime, "thereis no escape fromthe politics of representa-
tion" (Hall 1993:111).
I thank Neil Websdale for his generous contributionsto this essay; Phoebe
Stambaugh and Brian Smith for assistance with source material; and two
anonymousAnnual Review of Sociology reviewers for their insightful com-

Visit the Annual Reviews home page at

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