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- Criminology and Criminal Justice x
As a discipline, criminology tends to treat terrorism as an objective phenomenon, to be mapped, explained, and managed. Scholars informed by more critical strains of the discipline, however, argue that orthodox criminology is reductive and uncritical. Relying on normative definitions of terrorism, orthodox analyses reproduce assumptions of powerful institutions, thus collaborating and furthering a system of social control marked by increased authoritarianism. Cultural, critical, and constitutive criminologies call for a more politically engaged criminology, which recognizes that power is inherent to knowledge production.
How terrorism is socially constructed and framed is of primary significance, since terrorism is not a given, ontological fact, but rather a power inhered designation. The framing of terrorism through multiple, intersecting, discursive systems impacts radically how we make sense of the world. Cultural discourses (including media representations) intersect with and reinforce other institutional narratives, giving rise to a dominant script, which provides us with a framework for understanding terror.
Examining the cultural and social discourses that constitute this script is not an end point; rather, it is a way into cultural power. It is a means to critically assess cultural myths and ideological frames that are crucial in shaping our perceptions of safety and security, victims and perpetrators, and more. Cultural meanings work their way into our consciousness, engendering a framework for interpreting events and identities, compelling us to understand the world in particular ways, obliging us to consent to real world policies.
Much of the analysis in this vein examines the representation of terrorism and counter-terrorism through Edward Said’s lens of Orientalism. This approach highlights the ways in which terrorism has come to be conflated with Muslim identity, while it also highlights the binary structuring of this “Muslim as terrorist” script, which creates dualistic categories of us versus other, rational versus irrational, modernity versus anti-modernity, and so on. These binaries create essentialized visions of Islam and Muslims as chaotic, violent, and disorderly, who pose an apocalyptic threat to the West. Imagined as Islam’s binary opposite, the West is framed as being perilously at risk from an entire category of people who are discursively transformed into essentialized suspect communities.
These framings come to be institutionalized in the form of anti-terror policies and practices. As an example, the War on Terrorism slogan and the accompanying Orientalist imagery of the Muslim terrorist, was integral to lending legitimacy to international military action, the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and more, post-9/11. Prevailing framings—dehumanizing and devoid of real context—were the scaffolding on which such policies and practices could be built. Indeed, undergirding the ever-increasing nexus of authoritarian, repressive counter-terrorism measures, is a cultural repertoire of Orientalist meanings that provide the cultural conditions necessary for us to consent to increasing social control. The material and often-brutal consequences of these policies are felt most keenly by those who are caught in the expansive, amorphous category of “Other.” This suffering is largely out of the frame, and instead, we are invited to think of the state response as a logical and necessary step to ensure our safety.
Understanding how abstract discourse comes to be embedded in institutional practice is crucial if criminologists are to take seriously the question of (in)justice. This necessitates resisting the troubling dominant discourses that frame terrorism, and it means that we must reflexively be aware of our own role in perpetuating “knowledge” and a cultural climate within which real people suffer.
While there are multiple possible definitions of what makes a gangster film, ranging from the simple inclusion of a villainous gangster in a film to those that follow outlaws on the run, the classic definition of a gangster film has revolved around the rise and inevitable fall of an immigrant gangster protagonist, a career criminal with whom audiences are expected to identify. Yet this classic definition has been expanded by evolving theoretical and methodological considerations of film genre. From the outset, gangster films were one of the first film genres to be considered by early genre criticism. Based on structural and formal analyses of the so-called Big Three Hollywood gangster films from the 1930s—namely, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface—early scholars argued that the gangster genre reflected the ideological tensions that underlay the American Dream of material success. Interpreted as modern tragic figures, gun-toting gangsters in these films were trapped in dangerous cities characterized by anonymity, violence, and death. More recently, genre criticism of gangster films has not only shifted emphasis away from the classic gangster narrative, but also paid far greater attention to institutional intertexts that have highly influenced the production and historical reception of these films. By highlighting variability, contingency, mutability, and flexibility, scholars now speak of genre in terms of specific cycles of production, where each cycle produces different gangster figures to mediate changing societal concerns and public discourses around issues of criminality, class, gender, and race.
More contemporary and culturally-specific extensions, adaptations, or articulations of the gangster genre can also be read as thematic explorations of blackness in the following two ways. First, the cycle of ghetto-centric American “hood” films in the 1990s, a cycle that helped to launch hip-hop cinema, points to a continuity between the mythic figure of the gangster and African-American self-representations as “gangsta.” Secondly, while the gangster genre has been defined as a distinctly and explicitly American genre, owing much to critics’ primary emphasis on examining Hollywood films, the genre has also played a significant role in revitalizing and popularizing Hong Kong cinema in the late 1980s and 1990s. Referred to as hak bong dianying (“black gang films”), Cantonese-language Hong Kong gangster films are part of the fabric of local Hong Kong culture, revealing the moral implications of joining “black society” (the Cantonese-language concept for triad) and the “black paths” that members take.
General strain theory (GST) provides a unique explanation of crime and delinquency. In contrast to control and learning theories, GST focuses explicitly on negative treatment by others and is the only major theory of crime and delinquency to highlight the role of negative emotions in the etiology of offending. According to GST, the experience of strain or stress tends to generate negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and despair. These negative emotions, in turn, are said to create pressures for corrective action, with crime or delinquency being one possible response.
GST was designed, in part, to address criticisms leveled against previous versions of strain theory. Earlier versions of strain theory have been criticized for focusing on a narrow range of possible strains, for their inability to explain why only some strained individuals resort to crime or delinquency, and for limited empirical support. GST has been partly successful in overcoming these limitations. Since its inception, the theory has received a considerable amount of attention from researchers, has enjoyed a fair amount of empirical support, and has been credited with helping to revitalize the strain theory tradition. The full potential of GST has yet to be realized, however, as the theory continues to evolve and further testing is required.
The looting, trafficking, and illicit sale of cultural objects is a form of transnational crime with significant social and legal dimensions that call into question competing ideas of ownership and value, as well as how we define organized crime, white collar crime, and crimes of the powerful. The looting of cultural objects from archaeological and heritage sites is inherently destructive and is almost always illegal. However, through a complex smuggling chain which depends on lack of import/export regulation standardization in transit and opaque business practices at market, stolen cultural objects are able to be passed onto the international market in large quantities and at little risk to market actors.
Gothic criminology was developed in the first decade of the 21st century as a postmodern theoretical model, incorporating elements from key criminological/sociological texts and themes embedded in various literature and film genres, with the goal of highlighting the continued existence of monstrous evil in its various modern permutations. As developed by Caroline (Kay) S. Picart and Cecil Greek, the perspective has been used to compare reel and real-world criminal activity, including, for example, male serial killers (metaphorically depicted as vampires), female serial killers such as Eileen Wuornos, dirty cops (interpreted as Golem), suicidal terrorists, societal responses to chaos-induced contemporary global evil (the Behemoth), and supernatural malevolent forces taking possession of human bodies. The potential usefulness of the theory in explaining other expressions of dystopic societal deviance and crime appears to be expanding.
Graffiti has a long history. There are many examples from the history of human cultures of signs and symbols left on walls as remnants of human presence. However, the origins of modern graffiti reside in the explosion of creative activity associated with the development of urban cultural expression among marginalized individuals, groups, and communities in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Graffiti has expanded in form and content as well as geography to become an almost universal urban phenomenon. It is a ubiquitous feature of cities and an adornment of the modern urban landscape. It has developed beyond its original expression and identification with lettering and spray paint to now encompass a range of media and practices that are associated with street art.
Graffiti in particular, but also street art, has engendered contrasting opinions and reactions about its effect, meaning, and value. It elicits a variety of responses both positive and negative. Is it art or is it crime? Is it a creative expression or resistance to dominant urban design discourses and management? Is it vandalism? Is it the result of deviant youthful and antisocial behavior? It has been linked to urban decay and community decline as well as regeneration and gentrification. Graffiti writers and street artists have been criminalized, while others have been lauded and promoted within the commodified world of the art market. The popularity and spread of graffiti as a global phenomenon have led to an increasing academic, artistic, and practitioner literature on graffiti that covers a range of issues, perspectives, and approaches (identity, youth, subculture, gender, antisocial behavior, vandalism, gangs, territoriality, policing and crime, urban art, aesthetics, commodification, etc.). The worlds of graffiti and street art are therefore complex and have provoked debate, conflict and response from those who view them as forms of urban blight as well as from those who perceive them as an expression of (sub)cultural creativity and representative of urban vibrancy and dynamism. The study of who does graffiti and street art, as well as why, where, and when they do graffiti and street art, can help develop our understanding of the competing and contrasting experiences and uses of the city, of urban space, of culture, of design, and of governance. Graffiti is therefore also the focus for social policy initiatives aimed at youth and urban/community regeneration as well as the development and exercise of criminal justice strategies.
American courtroom films depicting criminal trials have long resonated with audiences around the world, including viewers in countries whose legal systems are very different from those portrayed in the films. Three principal factors account for the broad popularity of these films.
1. Flexibility of the genre: The crimes with which defendants are charged can be carried out in an infinite number of ways and for an infinite variety of motives. Stories can be comedies or dramas; real or fictional; and “who-dunits,” “why-dunits,” or “how-dunits.”
2. The adversary system of trial: The American adversary system of trial is made to order for screenwriters. The question-and-answer format produces verbal duels between lawyers and witnesses that often result in surprise evidence, sudden plot twists, and in-your-face comeuppances. While the nominal targets of the testimony and the arguments are the jurors who are frequently present, the jurors are proxies for the writers’ ultimate targets, the viewers.
3. Subject matter: Defendants in courtroom films are typically charged with murder or other forms of serious crime, topics to which viewers in all countries can easily relate.
For individual courtroom films, the “moment of truth” typically occurs when viewers find out whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. But for the courtroom genre as a whole, “moments of truth” consist of the “macro lessons” that courtroom films “teach” to viewers about the American system of criminal justice. Most viewers, regardless of where they live, have had little or very little exposure to actual criminal trials. For most people, what they think they know about American criminal justice is based on the images of law, lawyers, and criminal justice portrayed in courtroom films.
Historical study of crime, media, and popular culture has been underway since “the cultural turn” in the social sciences and humanities in the 1980s. Since then, a diverse literature has emerged presenting different theories, dealing with various time periods and topics, and challenging contemporary assumptions. Much of this work has focused on the press, because newspaper archives offer a familiar source for researchers accustomed to working with documents in libraries and because “moral panic” has provided a theory that can be easy moved from one time and place to another. However, crime, media, and popular culture presents a vast history and much of this has yet to be examined by criminologists. It includes broadcast radio, television, and feature films, as well as folklore, ballad and song, and theatrical performance, not to mention novels and stories. There has been enough historical research by specialists in literature, journalism history, film history, and other fields to demonstrate the value of historical research for criminology. But making to most of this history will require methodological innovation and theoretical development. To understand the history of crime, media, and popular culture, criminologists will need to move away from document-based historical research and toward digital forms of archived media. They will also need to develop theoretical perspectives beyond 1970s sociology.
The enduring popular fascination with crime and criminality suggests that history matters. In the most obvious sense, current representations of crime in the media bear traces of earlier codes and practices. Recognizing this past enables a more sophisticated understanding of the present—especially since many current controversies have much longer histories than is usually acknowledged. This is not to suggest a long line of steady continuity stretching back to the earliest forms of oral, face-to-face storytelling from the latest mediated technology that encompasses the lives of millions around the world. Instead, the argument is that understanding changing forms of representation requires attention to how developments in communication media are themselves integral to the formation of modern societies. For example, it has been argued that the blurring of fact, fiction and entertainment is indicative of a postmodern “hyperreality,” where the boundary separating reality from its representation has “imploded” to such an extent that there are now no real-world referents (Baudrillard, 1988). However, the boundaries between fact and fiction have always been fairly fluid. For instance, during the 16th and 17th centuries, both novels and news reports were seen as neither entirely factual nor as clearly fictional (Davis, 1980, 1983). Moreover, what we now regard as a “news story” would have to have been cast in the form of fiction for it to appear in the press during the 18th century. None of this is to suggest that people are incapable of distinguishing between the real and the imaginary, but to insist that understandings of crime in everyday life are continually informed by representations of crime in popular culture.
The importance of bringing to bear a historical perspective is emphasized throughout, as is the sheer range of material. The tendency to refer to “the media” in the singular obscures the diversity of media forms (film, television, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, books, and so on) that surround us. The word “media” is the plural of “medium,” which was initially used to refer to the materials used for communication (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 5). From the papyrus, clay, and stone of the ancient world to the plastic, metal, and wire of modern media, it is clear that the technologies of communication have an immense influence, ranging from the most inner dimensions of personal experience to the global organization of power. In a time of fast-paced media developments and rapid information delivery, a thorough understanding of media history and changing forms of representation is needed more than ever.
This chapter analyzes the representation of homicide in contemporary television drama series. The chapter draws upon critical analysis from the fields of criminal law, criminology, law and literature, and cultural studies to provide various analytical frameworks and perspectives through which to understand and critique specific dramas and the portrayal of homicide drama generally. If criminology is an effort to understand crime and criminals, then crime dramas including homicide television dramas can be considered a form of popular criminology that can and should be analyzed in terms of cultural representations of crime and criminal justice. Theorists have proposed that crime fiction can be categorized as mystery, detective fiction, or crime fiction. This framework provides a means for analyzing homicide drama, including the possibility of resolution and justice, geographic and temporal settings, the portrayal of the murder, and the construction of the three stock characters of crime fiction (the victim, the detective, and the murderer). The chapter concludes with a presentation of theories about the impact of media portrayals of crime upon public beliefs about crime, criminality, and the criminal legal system.