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The Concept of Cultural Criminology

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Criminology has been developed in the 18th century and since then, many theories have been created, proven, and disproven. Some approaches have been expanded or adjusted to fit the current times and politics. It is a constantly evolving field and in contemporary criminology, new ideas emerged, such as green criminology or cultural criminology. This essay will look into the field of cultural criminology, what its characteristics and goals are, how and why it emerged and what this new field has contributed toward the revitalisation of criminology.

The concept of cultural criminology emerged in the mid-1990s in the United States and the United Kingdom and thus, research studies had an impact across borders. The biggest influence of cultural criminology has been the Chicago School of Sociology as well as Marxist criminology from the 1970s. Cultural criminology is defined as a theory that examines practices of different cultures and how these practices interact with crime and crime control in contemporary times. To cultural criminologists, symbolism and power relations are important to look at in order to explain how criminal behaviour is created and how it can be controlled. As with all cultural phenomena, for example, subcultures, culture gives people a form of belonging and identity. While most theorists agree on this observation, the details in how culture is a form of identification vary by the theorist. Furthermore, theorists also agree that social factors alone are not what defines a culture. In criminology, culture helps to explain how cultural standards are created and how these standards get challenged by laws. As a response to laws created against a culture, those who belong to the culture find ways to break these laws so that they can live their identity without barriers. Theorists who focus on culture as a cause for crime try to gain an understanding towards the actions of criminals and law enforcement alike. For researchers of cultural criminology, two things are important to look at: Crime as the creator of a culture, and culture as a creator of crime. According to Ferrell, crime as a creator of culture comes as a result from subcultures who use criminal behaviour as a form of group activity, eg. biker gangs who participate in the illicit drug trade, human trafficking or weapons smuggling. Those who want to belong to the subculture have to learn the group’s system and values, their slang and their chosen way of appearance, for example, certain ways to shave their heads in Skinhead groups or clothing styles in the Cholo subculture. Members of subcultures come from a similar social class, are of a certain age or gender and often experience hardship and social inequalities. And it is not to be forgotten that law enforcement, who label subcultures as criminal entities, are helping to form the groups’ identities. In addition, media coverage is another big influence: they are the main influence to the public as to which groups or behaviour is seen as criminal and which groups are seen as harmless. The effect of media coverage and its wording can be witnessed all around the world. By focusing on violence and negative wording (eg. “dangerous, violent Skinheads”) as well as resorting to biased sources that would add to the negative conception of the public toward certain groups. This leads to a form of self-fulfilling prophecy scenario because all of this reinforces the criminalisation process. Similarly, pop culture and especially music is another example where culture gets criminalised. For example, punk culture was deemed a threat to society by the media because a few bands had a violent image in combination with the overall theme of anarchy. Similarly, during the time of the “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s in the United States, heavy metal groups like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden were deemed as violent, evil, and criminal, leading young people to commit crimes, use drugs, and commit suicide. The appearance of many serial killers during the 1970s and 1980s added to the public’s opinion that people who are influenced by music or drugs are a danger to society. However, the most poignant example of subculture and law enforcement response was the Hip Hop subculture in the 1990s in the US. The lyrics, clothes and slang of rap stars were provocative and seemingly glorified crime. As a response, there was an increase in police brutality towards young African-Americans. To this day, this is still an issue. In everyday life, people could not differentiate between what is a crime and what is culture because it did not seem as clear-cut as it used to be. Crime and culture were experienced as the same thing by some people. Presdee acknowledged that people in power are able somewhat to control how we think about the behaviour of others and thus, they decide the criminality of an act based on whether they see certain behaviour as a threat to their power.

Cultural criminology has five key concepts: (1) The lens of adrenaline, (2) the soft city, (3) the transgressive subject, (4) the attentive gaze, and (5) dangerous knowledge. The lens of adrenaline covers the rational choice theory and positivism to explain deviant behaviour. While rational choice covers the opportunity and reward logic that offenders use, positivism describes crime as a result to battle inequality. In cultural criminology, these views have been invalidated with the reasoning that the (monetary) reward of the rational choice theory would not be a big enough reward. Similarly, crime is rather the rush of adrenaline than an answer to inequality. The excitement of committing a crime and the rush of the aftermath of being caught, especially if being caught for the first time, would satisfy an offender more than fighting inequality. The soft city concept explores the idea that there are two sides to a city: one with an official society where everything is seen rationally and full of consumption and laws, where an individual is controlled and restricted (eg. by-laws). The second city is the ‘soft city’ where anything can happen because there are no restraints on individuals. Crime is caused because the rational, official society represses individuals and groups. Criminal behaviour reflects the struggle between the official society and the individuals in the soft city that strive for freedom. The transgressive subject, the third key concept in cultural criminology, entails a person’s attitude towards rules and whether or not they have the desire to break these rules. Often, subcultures use transgression in an attempt to resolve their problems. The person in their current state is important and not their background. An important factor, in cultural criminology in general, is poverty because it is a special form of social exclusion in modern times. Many factors flow into poverty: deprivation of material things, the uncertainty of everyday life as well as a feeling of injustice. Thus, a person chooses offending as a form of their identity that overshadows their poverty or other struggles that are seen negatively by society. Cultural criminology deals with the lifestyles of criminal subcultures and research must be adjusted to the constant changes and shifting of these subcultures. This is known as the fourth concept, the attentive gaze. In addition, researchers must take their own upbringing and culture into account as it affects their views in terms of criminal behaviour. Ferrel and Sanders believed that, as cultural criminologists, they would not study images but rather images of images, heavily influenced by the media and their own culture. Finally, the last and fifth key concept is dangerous knowledge. David Sibley wrote that authority is opposed by dangerous ideas, thoughts and questions. As a result, those in power see individuals who have these thoughts and questions as a threat to their rule and strive to remove them from society before the ideas spread. In the past and even present, many dictators have used this approach, eg. in former Soviet Russia or modern-day North Korea. ‘Thought crime’ in Orwell’s novel 1984 is also very similar to this concept.

As a relatively new field in criminology, cultural criminology shows some flaws. Critics say that there is too much focus on individuals or groups who commit everyday crimes instead of ‘more important’ crimes in the political or industrial field. However, crimes cannot be ranked in importance as many crimes emerge from the same system with the same reasoning behind them. Another criticism is that cultural criminologists find transgression in the smallest act, be it movie piracy or graffiti. This may seem like they are trying to find criminal behaviour where there is none. Furthermore, critics say that cultural criminologists seem to justify criminal behaviour and make them out as less of a threat as they really are which influences their research. While cultural criminologists focus on culture, they have yet to define what culture is and why the study of culture would help the field of criminology. A problem is that theories in the field often contradict the original definition of culture and seem like researchers have a lack of knowledge of anthropology, confusing it with ethnography. While Presdee explained that culture is a creation of one’s own realities resulting in what others see as criminal behaviour, Harris defines culture as a survival instinct that responds to environmental pressures.

In conclusion, cultural criminology is still a developing field. Once the term ‘culture’ has been given a set definition by researchers, and individual views and biases can be detached from observations to be fully objective, this new field can be a big aid in criminology. It allows for a better understanding of criminal behaviour supported by anthropology, the media and cultural studies which in combination, provide a bigger, more unique view into criminology. By taking new observations and findings into consideration, especially when taking time and places of deviant behaviour into account, cultural criminology has not only brought a new idea into criminology, but it has revitalised the field with new, thought-provoking aspects. Human, and thus criminal, behaviour can be explained through individual traits but also through everything that influences someone, such as belonging to a subculture. Overall, cultural criminology still needs a lot of research to be done but it does have the potential to successfully explain criminality and may appoint ways in which crime can be fought.  

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