12. Cultural Criminology

12.1 Something Old 

Dr. Steven Kohm

Jeff Ferrell (2006), one of the leading scholars of cultural criminology, spent a year between academic jobs scrounging the back alleys of Dallas, Texas, learning about those who made a small living dumpster diving and trash picking in America—and sometimes running afoul of the law. Ferrell discovered a wide array of useful items discarded by a society characterised by hyper consumption on a global scale. Americans, it seems (and Canadians too—see Walby & Kohm, 2020), can’t stop buying stuff. We also can’t stop throwing stuff away—even perfectly good things end up in the trash, including brand-new items never opened or used. Yesterday’s fad or fashion is today’s trash. Ferrell discovered a cornucopia of discarded scrap metal, aluminum cans, electronics and consumer goods, clothing, and even books that could be reused, redeemed for deposit, or sold at scrap metal yards to eke out a small living. Ferrell (2006) chronicled his experience as an urban scrounger in his book Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging. 
Shortly after the publication of his book, I listened to Ferrell give a speech at an academic conference where he delighted the crowd by showing off all the useful items he had scavenged from dumpsters and trashcans – from his shiny new shoes to his distinguished looking blazer. Like a mischievous schoolboy, he used these examples as a way to make us think about how criminology itself might sift through its previously discarded and disused theories and find new applications for ideas that still hold some value, even if they are out of fashion. If we can recycle aluminum cans, beer bottles, or even shoes, why can’t we look to past criminological theories for inspiration in our present world? Maybe a theory of deviance from the 1960s could be applied in new ways in the 2000s and beyond. Or perhaps a method used by early 20th century sociologists to study urban subcultures in Chicago could be used to study contemporary cultural life in other places and spaces in our present. Using the metaphor of recycling, Ferrell illustrated a key feature of cultural criminology: its propensity to revisit and rework older ideas and breathe new life into the study of crime and crime control. While I think this is a strength of the perspective, some find fault with this approach. One critic charged that cultural criminology is “a theoretical soup that has not condensed into a criminological analytic that moves beyond previous criminologies” (Spencer, 2011, p. 198). Ouch!
I concede that perhaps cultural criminology is a stew of ideas borrowed from the past, brought together with fresh seasonings and presented with new style and pizazz. However, I think that critics miss the point of cultural criminology if they focus too much on substance over style. While the critiques of this theoretical approach are outlined in more detail toward the end of this chapter, it is important to emphasise here that the aim of cultural criminology is to shake up the established order and bring new interest and energy to a topic that has become boring and lifeless—where criminologists seem stuck in an analytical rut, and the subject matter is reduced to a pale shadow of the real experience of crime, victimisation and control. Cultural criminology tries to bring the experience of crime to life by focusing on the foreground, rather than abstract background factors, like age and social class. Cultural criminology focuses on the smaller moments and events surrounding crime, but it also draws our attention to the broader social forces that shape and constrain these everyday moments. Cultural criminology analyses how popular culture reflects crime back to us in ways that are enjoyable and highly profitable, but it also shapes how we think about crime and its control. For example, while learning about how scrap metal scroungers drift in and out of crime in the back alleys of Winnipeg, Kevin Walby and I discovered something about the broader forces of global capitalism that demand a never-ending supply of cheap raw materials to feed distant factories in places like China (Walby & Kohm, 2020). We also discovered that when scrap metal theft was reported in the local news, stories tended to gloss over corporate criminal abuse while focusing moral outrage on the actions of the most minor players in an industry driven by global commodity prices (Kohm & Walby, 2020). So while the building blocks of cultural criminology may not be entirely new, the perspective offers fresh insight by shifting our analytical lens to the everyday, the ordinary, and the mass-mediated world where crime and culture merge and collide in sometimes unexpected ways.  


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Steven Kohm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book