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date: 17 January 2021

Crime Dramas as Social Science Fictionlocked

  • Stephen WakemanStephen WakemanCentre for Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University


Popular culture has always displayed a fascination with topics of criminological significance. Crime, deviance, and the agencies of their control have long been a staple concern of multiple entertainment industries, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in television. From classic serialized “whodunits,” to the countless police procedurals, right up to CSI and other investigative shows, the notions of good and bad, law and order, justice and retribution (to name but a few) have never been far away from television screens across the globe. However, in recent years, the quality—along with the availability—of television shows has undergone something of a transformation. From the somewhat kitsch roots of the genre, TV crime dramas such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire are now widely recognized as existing at the very high end of cultural significance. Put simply, these shows and others like them have moved on—they currently demonstrate a standard of production and artistic merit that their forerunners simply could not.

There are good reasons why the television medium transformation occurred how and when it did, yet they are not of great concern here. What does matter is the fact that, as the standard of TV crime dramas has improved, so too has the level of attention they have received from criminologists, sociologists, and other cultural theorists interested in crime and deviance. The evolution of criminology’s relationship with media representations has—just like the representations themselves—moved at an increased pace of late. The case has been made by some scholars that the days in which representations could be understood as existing somehow separately from peoples’ social worlds are now long gone; that the line between representation and reality is now irrecoverably blurred. As such, and crucially here, this has come to mean that representations can—and indeed should—be treated as sites of knowledge and meaning in and of themselves. That is, some crime dramas are now better understood as examples of social science fiction than they are as mere television shows.

The results of these concomitant developments in both the standard of broadcast television and the attention it receives from criminologists have been significant for the broader field of cultural criminology. This is primarily the case because of the ways in which the study of crime dramas can free criminology from some of its intellectual constraints. That is, the study of crime dramas as social science fiction can take intellectual inquiries in directions that—for any one of a multitude of reasons—other forms of criminological investigation do not (or cannot) go. This is not to say that representations constitute a strictly alternative understanding of crime per se (and it is certainly not to say that they constitute a superior one), but rather that they should be understood as offering complementary knowledge of criminological subjects; and moreover, and importantly here, they have the realistic capacity to reshape and redirect on-going criminological debates in new and innovative ways.

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