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Cultural Criminology: Fear and Fascination of Fire and Why It is Criminalised

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‘Fire smolders in a soul more than it does under the ashes, the arsonist is the most dissembling of criminals. 

Fire is such a fascinating thing, for it is a privileged phenomenon that can explain anything. It is the only phenomenon that truly attributes both good and evil, it both creates and breathes life and destroys. This is why I wish to explore the ‘story’ of fire through cultural criminology and understand the fear and fascination of fire and why it is criminalized. To do this effectively, an understanding of both cultural criminology and the meaning of fire is needed.

Fire has been key in the development of both the natural and human world as it has helped shape the very world around us and how we live in it. Early mankind quickly learned that whilst they were fascinated by fire, they should be wary of its power. Eventually, early humans learned to harness fire as a tool for cooking food and as a weapon to kill and hunt their prey. On top of this, they noticed how much new growth occurred after a fire. Through this observation, a new form of farming with fire was founded, and just like that humans started to play with the power of fire, both the creativeness and the destructive ability. Some experts, such as Freud, argue that civilization did not properly start until humankind figured out how to retain and ‘control’ fire.

The importance of fire was also noted by Levi-Strauss who states that ‘culture and creativity were not possible until humankind moved from the uncooked to the cooked’. Due to fire becoming not only a necessity for human life but important to the extension of social life, fire became an integral part of cultural life and often was used in celebrations and ceremonies. It symbolized both life and death, the beginning and the end of seasons hence the symbolism of passing the torch being seen as a passing of power. In ancient societies, those who possessed the equipment to create fire were called alchemists and were often marveled as magical beings who held the power to create or destroy within their hands. Before the time of science, these people became ‘the keepers of life’ and were the beings who would guide and protect the passage of life and death, becoming the earliest versions of priests for the early religions.

This duality of destructiveness and creativity, held within the abstraction of fire, resulted in a profound polarity buried deep within the consciousness of human cultures to the extent that it seems now in contemporary society to be a natural and therefore instinctive, innate, and emotional cultural response to fire. But it is in reality the result of social actions over time, played out through social structures and relationships that have slowly manifested themselves through forms and formations of culture. Fire has slowly permeated our emotional makeup entering our cultural consciousness in a deep and layered way. Fear yet fascination; destruction yet creation; death yet life. These dualities of fire lie buried within us, erupting from time to time, whenever and wherever the passage or survival of social life and social identity becomes a burning issue.

At the end of the 20th century, cultural criminology emerged as a form of intervention for the archetype of discipline. It confronts the normal focus of developing statistical methods and brings back to light the questions, of what crime is and why it matters which have otherwise been slightly neglected. Cultural Criminology has been developing into a distinctive perspective on modern crime and crime control. As its name would suggest, cultural criminology focuses on and emphasizes the role of culture which ranges from a variety of topics such as subcultures of crime, shared styles and symbols, media dynamics, and other related factors, in the forming of criminal natures, actions, and criminal justice. Cultural criminologists argue that these factors are essential and therefore must be considered for a better understanding of crime in any of its forms such as a moment of victimization in the home or street, crime as a collective activity, or crime as a social issue in regard to politics or the public. Some examples of what Cultural criminologists study would be the way criminal subcultures retain or recruit new members through shared experiences, specific styles of clothing, and secretive or distinctive ways of communicating. They also examine police officers and how they utilize and display their authority through the use of uniforms and how authority over criminal justice is symbolized in both court and prisons. Another area of focus for cultural criminology is the mass media. More specifically how popular films, tv shows, and newspaper reports handle the themes of crime, criminals, and the justice system and how these portrayals influence the public’s perception. In addition to this, they also study politicians and lawmakers and the ways they prioritize and define some crimes as more important than others and then manage to conceal these definitions of theirs into laws and policies of enforcement. By having such a broad focus on both culture and communication, it can be argued that cultural criminology allows criminologists and others to develop a more critical understanding of crime. This is due to the view that crime and criminology itself can not just be criminals and the study of what they do, rather it must include different perceptions of how crime is viewed, and what specific meanings crime develops for offenders, victims, and others involved parties. It also allows a deeper look into the consequences of these meanings and perceptions, whilst also allowing a critical view on the politics of present-day society.

Cultural criminology not only has a qualitative methodological approach but also requires an ‘ethnographic sensibility’, a devotion to being familiar to the phenomenology of crime or as Young calls it ‘versatility, the zest, the sensuousness of the criminal act’. Rather than accepting the positivism of some quantitative scholarship, cultural criminologists believe the importance of the criminal moment is in part the sensation of both participating in crime and studying it, being both analytical and passionate about how the crime affects all people. On the other hand, cultural criminologists have agreed that a focus on the affective and agentive without clarifying the structure would be incomplete work. Rather the point they argue for is that agency and structure constitute each other. There are a few central themes that cultural criminology tends to hover around whilst still offering diverse areas of research. One of the central concepts is ‘edgework’ which is the practice in various activities where the participants push themselves to a metaphorical and literal edge. This theme has come with the idea that maybe these acts that seem ‘out of control’ may actually be attempts to bring back some control and affinity of order to a world that is now characterized by material derivation, in security and loss of meaning. Another important theme that often emerges from cultural studies is space, particularly as a site of cultural contests over meaning and control, and also over public and private claims to spaces of everyday use. It has also pushed analyses of space and place into areas where movement converges with work in social theory and cultural geography to debate themes of consumerism and gentrification as well as other aspects of life in modern society. Cultural criminology is well suited to examine transitional space and the culturally rich ways in which people traverse it. The last theme that we are going to mention is image and representation. Many other disciplines such as media studies, sociology, and anthropology also recognize the importance of image when it comes to understanding social relations. Cultural criminology pushes this further and looks at the role the image plays in the service of subjective positions of crime and crime control. The media and how they frame crime and criminal justice acts provide the perfect source to examine and in the broader sense contest and negotiate representations of crime that generate through the images on constant display. In fact, the very meaning of crime and crime control can be debated to reside in these mediated contexts just as much as it does in data sets and actual criminal experiences.

New work in cultural criminology aims to connect the growing field of green criminology with itself in order to better consider the cultural relevance between the environment and environmental crime, and also look into the role of media construction, resistance, transgression, and space therein. This works well with what we will be exploring which is fire and crime. The theme of the image and representation will be strongly present as we will mainly be exploring the meaning and symbolism behind the use of fire whether that be negative or positive. As we explore how fire has been used and represented in the context of crime, we will reflect on our findings and discuss what areas future research in both cultural and green criminology could explore in order to have a better understanding of crime. All the while, we will be reflecting on what our findings mean for how modern society works, or rather what is wrong with it, and will explore alternatives that may improve both quality of life and our understanding of ‘the criminal’.

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Cultural Criminology: Fear and Fascination of Fire and Why It is Criminalised. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
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