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Cultural Criminology  

Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Michelle Brown

Cultural criminology is concerned with the convergence of cultural, criminal, and crime control processes; as such, it situates criminality and its control in the context of cultural dynamics and the contested production of meaning. It seeks to understand the everyday realities of a profoundly unequal and unjust world, and to highlight the ways in which power is exercised and resisted amidst the interplay of rule-making, rule-breaking, and representation. The subject matter of cultural criminology, then, crosses a range of contemporary issues: the mediated construction and commodification of crime, violence, and punishment; the symbolic practices of those engaged in illicit subcultural or postsubcultural activities; the existential anxieties and situated emotions that animate crime, transgression, and victimization; the social controls and cultural meanings that circulate within and between spatial arrangements; the interplay of state control and cultural resistance; the criminogenic cultures spawned by market economies; and a host of other instances in which situated and symbolic meaning is at stake. To accomplish such analysis, cultural criminology embraces interdisciplinary perspectives and alternative methods that regularly move it beyond the boundaries of conventional criminology, drawing from anthropology, media studies, youth studies, cultural studies, cultural geography, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, and utilizing new forms of ethnography, textual analysis, and visual production. In all of this, cultural criminology seeks to challenge the accepted parameters of criminological analysis and to reorient criminology to contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.


Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies  

Hugo Goeury

In the mid-1970s, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which came to be known as the “Birmingham School,” published two major books that contributed substantially to the field of critical criminology: Resistance Through Rituals (RTR) and Policing the Crisis (PTC). These two groundbreaking and complementary works aimed to contribute to the two main topics of criminological enquiry: deviance/crime and social reaction/punishment. In both cases, the Centre deployed a Marxist-inspired and sociologically driven approach whose main objective was to study both deviance and social reaction from a critical perspective that takes into consideration the broader social, political, economic, and cultural context in which they take place. RTR challenged the dominant discourse of the postwar era, which proclaimed the end of class antagonism and the exhaustion of “class” as a relevant social category. The Birmingham School’s research demonstrated that the many subcultures—punks, mods, teddy boys, rastas, etc. —that flourished in the United Kingdom at the time were not symptomatic, as many argued, of the rise of a “classless youth.” On the contrary, RTR made the case that subcultures are part of a century-long tradition of symbolic, working-class resistance against the hegemonic order. From this perspective, subcultures were seen as an attempt, on the part of working-class youths, to solve the many contradictions of their class experience at a time of broad, multidimensional changes. While the Birmingham School’s work on subcultures was a celebration of working-class resistance and agency, ultimately, it reached the conclusion that this form of resistance, which remained restricted to the symbolic sphere, could not offer a solution to the exploitation and oppression faced by working-class youth, which stemmed from the material, social relations of production of capitalism. While RTR focused on “deviance,” PTC shifted the analysis to the other side of the equation, that of social reaction and punishment. In this second publication, Stuart Hall and his co-authors developed an impressive “conjunctural analysis” approach that allowed them to move from the study of the so-called “mugging crisis” of the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, to the elaboration of their groundbreaking theory on crisis of hegemony and the rise of a new, “law and order society.” PTC is one of the pioneering studies that argued that the rise of “authoritarian populism” and the birth of a “law and order society” that were taking place in the United Kingdom in the 1970s were not temporary phenomena but were representative of a long-lasting change of epoch. More than 40 years after the publication of this seminal work, it leaves no doubt that the Birmingham School’s predictions have been validated, as is corroborated by an extensive literature studying the “punitive turn” that has taken over the globe over the last few decades. Overall, at a time when criminology was becoming increasingly dominated by positivism and disconnected from the sociological tradition, the Birmingham School’s most influential and long-lasting legacy resides in RTR and PTC’s invitation to critically investigate what the CCCS members called the “social and political ‘conditions of existence’” of both deviance/crime and social reaction/punishment.


Cultural Studies Approaches to the Study of Crime in Literature  

Deborah Henderson

Crime in literature takes advantage of two basic assumptions: (1) that the storyline generally begins with a crime (very often murder) that underlies the subsequent narrative, often serving as the driving force of the story; and (2) that the crime itself and its narrative implications will be rooted in the actual workings of a culture’s justice system at any given moment in time. Consequently, crime literature in particular provides readers with a snapshot of prevailing attitudes about the nature of justice in a society and the basic fears about crime that threaten its collective conscience. To understand crime fiction from a cultural studies perspective, it is necessary to develop a broader understanding of the larger culture from which an author and his/her fictional creations emerge. Although writers create fiction for various reasons, publishers put their efforts into projects they hope will be somewhat financially profitable. Thus, published works exist in a culturally-specific space that never veers too far from the values, beliefs, and expectations of its mainstream society. To understand the fictional world conjured by an author a cultural studies approach takes into consideration larger socio-historical phenomena: What kinds of mythologies underlie a culture’s traditions? What historical events have helped shape the culture’s identity? What sort of political and legal systems organize the culture? What specific kinds of crime tend to be highlighted in a culture’s crime literature (guns, drugs, race, violence against women, class warfare, government corruption and repression, etc.)? What role do legitimate legal structures tend to play in a culture’s crime literature? What role does climate play in a culture’s identity? In short, a cultural studies approach begins by trying to determine the assumptions authors make about readers’ cultural knowledge, values, beliefs, and myths about crime and justice in order to develop a context for understanding what is taken for granted in the narrative.


International Cultural Criminology  

Eleni Dimou

Cultural criminology places crime and its control within the realm of culture. Namely, it sees crime and crime control as social constructs or as cultural products; that is, their meaning is defined by the existing power relations of the social and cultural context of which they are part. As such, cultural criminology focuses on understanding how the meanings of crime, justice, and crime control are constructed, enforced, contested, and resisted within an increasingly globalized socioeconomic and cultural context. This is the context of late modernity where capitalism continues to infiltrate one community after the other, transforming people into consumers and experiences; emotions, life, and nature into consumer products. It is a context of transnational networks of flows of people, capital, goods, and images, where identities, communities, politics, and culture are increasingly constructed through the media and the Internet. There is a growing enmeshment of human communities—signified by the term globalization—in a way that events in one part of the world increasingly affect the other, and which make all the more evident perpetuating inequalities between Global North and South, as well as increasing marginality, exploitation, and exclusion of minorities within Global North and South. Simultaneously it is a world with effervescent potential for creativity, political activism, resistance, transcendence, and recuperation. This is briefly the context of late modernity within which cultural criminology endeavors to understand how perceptions about crime, justice, and crime control come to be constructed, enforced, and contested. Cultural criminology adopts a triadic framework of analysis whereby it bridges the macro level of power (i.e., capitalism, patriarchy, racism, anthropocentrism, imperialism) to that of the meso level of culture (i.e., art forms, media, subcultures, knowledge, discourse) and the micro level of everyday life and emotions. Through this intertwined exploration of the macro, the meso, and the micro in the globally connected world of late modernity, cultural criminology embraces a highly interdisciplinary and critical stance that grants it a particular international edge, as it is attuned to contemporary issues that affect communities locally and internationally. Cultural criminology’s international edge, for example, is depicted in challenging globally established forms of criminological knowledge production, which are dictated by state definitions of crime and “law and order”-oriented policies. These definitions and their accompanying policies omit harms committed by the powerful or the state itself along with everyday life experiences of and with crime. The call for a cultural criminology is one of resistance to these dominant forms of knowledge that reinforce and legitimize the status quo at local, national, and international levels. It is a call that aims to reorient criminology to contemporary and perpetuating manifestations of power, inequalities, and resistance within the contemporary context of late modernity and globalization. To do so though, cultural criminology should also be more reflexive on its positionality within the realm of knowledge, as it represents largely a Global North perspective. As such, it should extend its attentiveness to forms of knowledge and perspectives stemming from the Global South and should seek to be critiqued from and open a dialogue with Southern and non-Western decolonial perspectives.


Resistance in Popular Culture  

Marc Schuilenburg

Much of the existing research on video games seems to stall over the issue of whether or not violence in games is as innocent as is alleged. Scientists are still divided as to whether or not there is a causal link between the behavior of young people and violence in video gaming. Much less discussion is devoted to how cultural and political engagement finds new channels in video games to confront dominant opinions and perceptions in society. However, a more recent body of scientific work considers how the image spaces of video games facilitate new forms of resistance and how this opens up possibilities of social change in our daily lives. In this research, the culture of video gaming is used as a tool for a deeper understanding of resistance in our society. In this context, application of theories about “contagion without contact” can add some new thoughts to the way the virtual world of video games offers possibilities for a politics of resistance in real life. From a historical point of view, the work of the 19th-century French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, one of the first theorists on contagion, can be used to understand more deeply this on-going process by which everyday life recreates itself in its own image, and vice versa. Rather than measuring the amount of violence present in video games (“content analysis”) or identifying causal linkages between media representations of violent imagery and behavior, and subsequent human behavior (“media effect research”), it becomes evident that players of games are not passive recipients, but active interpreters of the reality that arises in and is processed by popular culture.


Extortion and Extortion Racketeering  

Atanas Rusev

Extortion as a crime has long attracted the interest of scholars, and much effort has been put into coining a precise definition that would allow distinguishing it from other similar predatory practices such as blackmail, bribery, coercion, and robbery. Academic literature classifies extortive practices according to their degree of complexity and involvement of organized crime. In this sense, the simplest form of extortion displays one offender who receives a one-time benefit from one victim, while the most sophisticated form is illustrated by racketeering, whereby an organized crime group systematically extorts money from multiple victims. Extortion as an organized crime activity can involve both episodic extortion practices and well-rooted systemic practices over a certain territory, where the latter is usually regarded as perpetrated by Mafia-type criminal organizations. Some scholars argue that extortion racketeering as a Mafia crime should be defined as sale and provision of extralegal protection services—protection of property rights, dispute resolution, and enforcement of contracts. However, others contend that extortion by Mafia-type organizations should not be counted as an economic activity but rather be considered as an illegal form of taxation imposed by quasi-political groups. In economic terms, it is a transfer of value and creates no economic output. In contrast with the traditional understanding of extortion racketeering as “defining activity of organized crime,” some scholars have also focused on “extortion under the color of office,” or, in other words, extortion perpetrated by public servants or politicians in their official capacity. Extortion has often been compared with bribery, since both crimes can be defined as an unlawful conversion of properties and goods belonging to someone else for one’s own personal use and benefit. The debate on the differences between bribery and extortion, however, is a contested one, and has followed two lines of argument: respectively, the degree of coercion involved in the crime and the role (or modus operandi) of public officials in the bribery and extortive scheme. The common element for both crimes is the fact that representatives of the state abuse their power and official position for their own benefit.


Critical Perspectives on Gangs  

David C. Brotherton

The majority of studies on youth gangs are in the tradition of positivistic social science. When natural science is taken as the paradigm, a premium is placed on the value neutrality of the observer, the scientific rigor of the methodology, the unpolluted character of the data, and the generalizability of the findings—all with the aim of proving or disproving ideologically free testable hypotheses. In contrast, critical gang studies adopt a different lens that is best suited to the study of subaltern groups whose lifestyles, “habitats,” and characteristics are stigmatized and pathologized by the larger society. Critical gang studies are based on the premise that all social and cultural phenomena emerge from tensions between the agents and interests of those who seek to control everyday life and those who have little option but to resist this relationship of domination. In this way, critical gang studies adopt interpretive, reflexive, holistic, and probing approaches to research, rejecting the penchant for survey-based truth claims and studies whose findings uncritically reflect the race, class, and gendered positions of the investigators. Thus, practitioners of critical gang studies contend that the key to understanding the gang is found in its dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion viewed historically and holistically. Therefore, critical gang students create a counter body of knowledge and an alternative methodology to illuminate (over)shadowed spaces of criminalized social action where hope mixes with survival, creativity with accommodation and, resistance with social reproduction. The data on critical gang studies draw from the entire world of gang members, revealing their agency as well as their structured environments, their organizational systems, rites, rituals, performances, ideologies and cultural products. The critical approach places emphasis on the meaning systems of gangs, their changes across time, and the possibilities that lie within their specific subcultural formations. Welcome to critical gang studies!


Green Criminology, Culture, and Cinema  

Bill McClanahan, Avi Brisman, and Nigel South

Since first proposed by Brisman and South, green cultural criminology has sought to interrogate human-environment interactions in order to locate meaning. Within the broad framework of green cultural criminology, work has emerged that follows visual criminology in looking to the visual cultural register for insights into the intersections of crime, harm, justice, culture and the natural environment. This article turns the green cultural criminological gaze towards motion pictures, by considering how cinema can serve as a central and essential site of the cultural production and communication of knowledge and meaning(s) that inform human interactions with the natural environment. Indeed, environmental crimes, harms, and disasters are constructed and imagined and represented in cinema, and the films discussed in this article illustrate the ways in which the environment-culture connection in the contemporary cinematic mediascape has influenced public discourses concerning environmental change and harm. This article begins by examining the capacity of documentary film to raise public awareness and generate shifts in public consciousness about environmental harms. From here, it explores cinematic science fiction representations of apocalyptic climate disaster, noting the power of the medium in communicating contemporary anxieties surrounding climate change. Finally, filmic communications of a central category of interest for green cultural criminology—resistance to environmental harm—are described, in addition to the various ways that resistance by environmentalists has recently been represented in popular cinema. The films discussed throughout—including An Inconvenient Truth, Cowspiracy, The East, If A Tree Falls, Night Moves, and Snowpiercer—are not an exhaustive sampling of contemporary representations of environmental issues in cinema. Rather, they represent the most salient—and are among the most popular—moments of contemporary cinematic engagement with the nexus of environmental harm and culture. This article concludes by contending that a green cultural criminology should continue to look to the visual register because sites of cultural production often overlooked by criminology (e.g., cinema, literature) can reveal significant and essential information about the moments in which environmental harm, justice, and culture intersect and collide.