Cultural criminology centres on how cultural practices mix with those of crime and crime control in a modern societal setting. It stresses the importance of meaning, symbolism and power relations in explaining the causes and effects of crime and deviance. Generally cultural criminology considers culture to be something that gives significant meaning to groups and gives them identity, however the do details vary from theorist to theorist but it is agreed that culture cannot be seen solely as a result of social factors such as class and ethnicity whilst these do contribute in a major way they are not the only things that affect it (Ferrell, Hayward and Young, 2008, p2). By taking a cultural approach cultural criminologists have a better opportunity to see why certain norms are created, how certain actions threaten them and why laws are created and broken. The focus on culture helps provide an insight towards the relationship between order and disorder, towards understanding the actions of criminals and law enforcement and the law makers, as well as looking into the perceived cultural conflict between the legal authorities and deviant subcultures in modern society (Ibid p4).
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When looking at crime, cultural criminology sees two things, crime as culture or culture as crime that is crime as a creator of culture or a culture as a creator of crime. The former crime as culture sees criminal behaviour as a stemming from subcultures, it sees crime as a group activity caused by that groups identity. Though what constitutes a subculture shifts over time the associations that they create do not, for example biker and skinhead are all name of groups but are also names for those within the group’s (Ferrell,1995 p25).Within each of the criminal subcultures are a symbols, meanings, and knowledge. Members learn the norms and values of the group, adopt the language and appearance and so participate greater in group life and the crimes that that life involves (Ibid p26).
Criminal subcultures as with many things are shaped by class, age, gender and various experienced inequalities. Criminal subculture is not the only thing that needs to be looked at but the authorities who label these subcultures as criminal (Ibid p27). Images of crime are common place in the media and it is through the media that social/political powers criminalise subcultures by creating folk devils those being groups who are blamed for some social problems quite similar in essence acting as a scapegoat for societies ills and moral panics which is the creation of issues being seen as a threat to society. For example public information films about marijuana in 1950s America were seen as “an educational campaign describing the drug, its identification, and evil effects.” In the 60s the media reported stories of violence committed by hell’s angels in America and the mods and rockers here in the UK. By using choice words such as evil and focusing on the negative sides of the subject matter and by using sources biased in favour of those doing the criminalising the media reinforce the criminalisation process and cement into the minds of the public that these groups are in fact deviant and criminal (Ibid p28).
Just as those in positions of “authority” be it self imposed or otherwise, criminalise subcultures they also criminalise art, music, and fashion. Creative mediums often get involved in controversies over public decency, morality and how it affects the youth of today. In many causes the creators of the work intentionally create these controversies to fuel consumption of their work and in other cases political groups, lobby groups and religious groups protest about these works and with help of the media in creation of folk devils and morals panics push their own usually right wing agenda. Ironically the original creators of the controversy and those protesting against it usually end up working together to eventually fuel more interest in the controversial item by bringing it into the public eye via media coverage which inevitably leads to an increase in consumption of the offending item.
Popular music over the past 50 years has provided us with many examples of the criminalisation of culture for instance punk in the 1970s. The Sex Pistols for example had a violent image and a sense of anarchy which lead the media to represent the punk subculture as a threat to society. This led to the authorities ruling their album Never Mind the Bollocks to be having indecent artwork, inappropriate artwork and lyrical content (Ibid p29). This trend continued throughout the 80s with heavy metal in relation to satanic, violent and sexist imagery lyrical and artwork wise and in the 90’s with gangster rap where legal authorities confiscated 24,000 copies of an album by N.W.A due to it containing a song titled “F**k tha Police” which by some was seen as a response to police brutality towards black youths in America to others it was seen to condone violence against the police. The epitome of criminalisation of certain music genres laid on Tipper Gore and the American pro censorship movement Parents’ Music Resource Center, who in 1985 saw certain musicians as promoting violence and their music as affecting the minds of the American youth negatively affecting their decency and sense of morality as well falsely accusing bands predominately of the rock genre such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest of placing subliminal messages into their work promoting Satanism drug use and suicide. Through their actions and despite heavy opposition the “parental advisory: explicit content” stickers came into being and were placed on any material they declared as dangerous and promoting youthful disobedience and social decay (web ref 1). Not surprisingly, these campaigns mainly demonise minorities such as ethnic groups, homosexuals and others who do not adhere to the hegemonic norms and values of the society they liv e in. This confusion as to what is culture and what is crime affects all aspects of everyday life so much so that individuals often experience culture and crime as the same thing making them uncertain as to what is deviant and what is culture thus possibly creating more deviance in the process (Ferrel, 1995, p32). The criminalisation process then is how those in power come to define and shape forms of social life. It gives them the ability to define how and what we see and in doing so how we perceive the behaviour of others. They define what is criminal based on what they do not want to see or what they see as a threat to their position of power and they go through the law to legitimatise this (Presdee, 2000, p17).
Apart from criminalisation of culture there are five key concepts within cultural criminology. The first of which is the lens of adrenaline. The two main approaches to crime are rational choice theory and positivism. In rational choice theory crime occurs because of logical choices such as opportunity and reward and the second crime occurs as a way to combat inequality. The cultural criminological view has puts these aside as they see crime as not having the monetary payoffs that the rational choice theory would suggest nor that it is an answer to inequality that the positivist model would suggest but that it has more to do with the adrenaline and sense of excitement that committing a crime as well the act of going through the justice system causes giving them something that dreary every day life cannot (Hayward and Young, 2004, p264).
The second is the soft city which is of the view that there are two sides to one city. On one side he sees a rationalistic bureaucratic scene with consumption and laws that gives the impression of everyday life or ‘official society’ but is where the individual is controlled and constrained and underneath, there is the ‘soft city’ or second life to some theorists which is a place where anything can happen that has no individual restraints (Ibid p265). In this view deviance is something that lies underneath the rationalistic world that controls every aspect of society and represses groups and individuals. As Presdee in 2000 puts it: ‘The second life is lived in the cracks and holes of the structures of official society. Whilst official society seeks to dam up the holes, and fill the cracks, criminalizing as it does and making punishable the previously unpunishable’ (Ibid p266). Here crime is seen as the inevitable struggle between the rational domineering society we live in and the individual desiring to have freedom in effect bursting out of ‘official society’ and breaking into the second life.
The third concept is the transgressive subject which looks at the attitude towards rules and ones motivation to break them. It is through acts of transgression that subcultures attempt to fix their problems, to resolve inequalities. Here the experience or foreground of the individual is important, rather than the background which involves such things as poverty and various other inequalities (Ibid p266). Poverty in regards to cultural criminology, for example is seen as a form of social exclusion specifically in these consumerist times. It is a troubling experience to those in it, not just due to the material deprivation but in terms of the injustice they feel and the uncertainty it brings. In modernity, individualism is of great importance and material deprivation would severely hamper this so crime can be seen as the forging of an identity for oneself, a way to stick out of the herd and to become part of modern society. (Ibid p267)
The fourth is the attentive gaze. Cultural criminology is highly focused on culture and the lifestyle of criminal subcultures and so time and place of research must be taken note of as culture is constantly shifting that. The researchers also have to be taken account of for they have culture of their own which naturally affects how they see others as explained earlier in regards to criminalisation and also must be taken into account when undergoing research. The idea that groups are so heavily linked with their representation to others that it makes it so that if they are to be studied at all then it must be along side these representations as to gain the fuller picture, as Ferrel and Sanders in 1995 stated “Criminal events, identities take life within a media-saturated environment and thus exist from the start as a moment in a mediated spiral of presentation and representationâ€¦As cultural criminologists we study not only images but images of images, an infinite hall of mediated mirrors.” (Ibid p268).
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The fifth and final is dangerous knowledge first covered in David Sibleys, 1995 work Geographies of Exclusion where he wrote “The defence of social space has its counterpart in the defence of regions of knowledge. This means that what constitutes knowledgeâ€¦ is conditioned by power relations which determine the boundaries of ‘knowledge’ and exclude dangerous or threatening ideas and authors..” (Ibid p269) So through these dangerous ideas, thoughts and questions one is indirectly opposing authority, who in turn see them as a risk to the current balance of power and so removes them to cease any potential future acts of transgression against them. The exclusion of this knowledge was common place in dictatorships such as in Soviet Russia and still is in such places as North Korea and China where purveyors of it are imprisoned and potentially executed and it also very similar to one of the main themes of George Orwells 1984 that of thought crime.
Cultural criminology is a relatively new field so there are obviously some flaws within it for instance it can be said that cultural criminology places too much focus on everyday crime and the individuals or groups that cause it whilst overlooking the large-scale, industrial or political crimes of seemingly greater importance (Ferrell, Hayward and Young, 2008, p15). In defence of this, criminal acts cannot be easily defined as important or unimportant, all crimes emerge from the same system and it’s the system that should be looked at not the individual crimes that come from it (Ibid p22). It can also be said that cultural criminologists have a tendency to find resistance in some form or other in every transgressive act ranging from DVD piracy to graffiti, this could lead someone to believe that they see resistance where in fact there is none, presumably making their findings less reliably valid and full of bias (Ibid p16) There is also the idea that they are sympathetic towards criminals, justifying their behaviour, legitimising their resistance and making them seem as less of a threat to others than they really are once again filling their findings with potential bias (Ibid p21).
In spite of focusing on culture as a reason for behaviour, cultural criminologists haven’t precisely defined what constitutes as culture and how studying it would help criminology as a whole (O’Brien, 2005, p604) nor have they defined what criteria is there to aid researchers in separating culture from economic, social and enviromental factors (Ibid p605), which is worrying as they represent it as a new kind of criminology yet they haven’t fully and concretely defined the thing they are supposedly interested in. Also all theory in the area contradicts what culture actually is, their definitions can be seen as the result of a lack of knowledge of classic anthropological thought and by confusing anthropology as merely ethnography with a hint of biography. For example Presdee defines it as a “minute by minute creation of our own realities often resulting in what appear to others to be senseless criminal acts” (Ibid p608) Clifford Geertz on the other hand says that it is something that “endlessly produces novel symbolic through which to organise collective life” whilst Marvin Harris called it “a survival instinct that generates patterned responses to environmental pressures” (Ibid p606).
At this point in time cultural criminology is in a order of disarray and only when culture is given a set definition within cultural criminology and when one can overcome individual bias and cease becoming too attached to those being observed and be fully objective to their actions can this field be of any real use though such issues are acceptable in a manner of speaking as it is still quite young and obviously researchers may get attached to their subjects because they are after all human. Despite its flaws cultural criminology does allow for a better understanding of crime what with its dabbling in areas that do not usually belong to criminology such as anthropology, cultural studies, and a greater look at the media and the criminalisation process, all of which offer it a unique viewpoint of the subject and creates a worthy addition to the field of criminology.
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