12. Cultural Criminology

12.2 Something Borrowed 

Dr. Steven Kohm

Cultural criminology borrows from several sociological theories of deviance. The earliest is the work of the Chicago School of Sociology of the early 20th century (see 1 What is Crime?). Also influential was the so-called “new deviance theory” from the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, which included subcultural theory and labelling theory (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 26;  Hayward, 2016, p. 298). While mainstream criminology viewed crime and deviance as an expression of cultural dysfunction, new deviance theory granted “criminal and deviant behaviour cultural meaning” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 32 original emphasis). Ferrell et. al (2008) link the rise of this approach with increased awareness of cultural differences in Western nations in the 1960s, resulting from the civil rights movement, international immigration, the mass media, and the rise of mass tourism. These shifts also brought worries about what diversity might mean for society.Subcultural theory shifted the way we thought about deviance and demonstrated that “subcultural responses are not empty, not absurd, but meaningful” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 34, original emphasis). Equally important was labelling theory. Howard Becker (1963) argued that deviance was not the result of a failure of social control, but rather reflected its success (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 37). Also key to the development of cultural criminology was Matza and Sykes’s (1961) techniques of neutralisation [link to chapter??] which are the “cultural work necessary to commit crimes” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 39, original emphasis). Matza and Sykes asserted that deviant culture is similar to the dominant culture in that both value aggression, violence and toughness. Thus, cultural criminology focuses on the paradox that while criminal violence is condemned by law, it is also “widely commodified, consumed and celebrated” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 41).

On the other side of the Atlantic at roughly the same time, British subcultural theory was taking shape. The National Deviancy Conference and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies were influenced by the new deviancy work from the United States. British work was a blend of American subcultural theory and labelling theory that was “given a zest, an energy” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 44). British theorists sought to understand action and reaction, as well as incorporate wider societal analyses alongside the dynamics of small-scale situations.

The most important contribution to what would become cultural criminology was moral panic theory developed by Jock Young (1971) and Stanley Cohen (1972) (see 3 Media and Crime). Moral panic theory drew from the insights of American labelling theory to make sense of “seemingly ill-conceived and irrational reactions to deviance by authorities and the wider public” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 47). Later works like Hall et al.’s Policing the Crisis (1978) expanded moral panic theory to include questions about race, crime and politics in Britain.

Despite its interest in diversity and conflict, the perspective remains mainly a Western-centric one. And while cultural criminology would likely welcome works giving critical attention to issues of colonialism and indigeneity, so far the movement has been dominated by White, Western, male criminologists (Naegler & Salman, 2016). While this is still considered a Eurocentric perspective, given cultural criminology’s focus on culture, diversity, and conflict, one would think the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples for recognition and action in the face of colonial systems of oppression would draw serious attention to this perspective. Indeed, Indigenous peoples were victims of a state-sponsored program of genocide and have seen their cultural practices criminalised and their way of life subject to erasure in residential schools. In turn, Indigenous peoples have engaged in many forms of resistance to colonial power. For some, art and cultural expression is a powerful way to protest these actions and pursue a political agenda of decolonisation. Writing in an Australian settler colonial context, Chris Cunneen (2011) argues that “indigenous art unhinges colonial law as an abstract expression of power and grounds it firmly in the lived experiences of Aboriginal people” (p. 259, original emphasis). In this way, Indigenous art acts as a counterbalance to settler-colonial histories that erase genocide from the official record by providing “documentary evidence that certain things occurred (such as massacres)” (Cunneen, 2010, p. 120). In Canada, some Indigenous activists have recently targeted the public cultural symbols of colonization and oppression that erase acts of historical violence, such as when a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Manitoba Legislature was toppled on July 1, 2021. In its place, a new grassroots cultural and political monument was erected by some Indigenous activists (see Figure 12.1). In this way, the collision of crime, protest, art and culture can be seen in present day struggles for recognition and decolonisation by Indigenous peoples. Cultural criminology could be a valuable approach to analysing the way art and culture are used to both further the project of colonialism and to promote social change. However, as yet, a cultural criminological analysis of colonialism and anti-colonial protest has yet to be written.

A former statue of Queen Victoria. The statue of the Queen is gone, and the base of the statue is covered in red handprints.
Figure 12.1: A Cultural Criminology of Anti-Colonial Protest. The pedestal of a statue of Queen Victoria has been converted to a memorial to the victims of Canada’s residential schools. One form of public art celebrating colonialism is replaced with a new form of public art drawing attention to genocide and state sanctioned crime.

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

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