12. Cultural Criminology

12.3 Culture and Late Modernity  

Dr. Steven Kohm

Culture is a foundational concept of this perspective. Cultural criminology takes its starting point from the assumption that culture is “the stuff of collective meaning and collective identity… Culture suggests the search for meaning” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 2). Interrogating culture therefore amounts to a search for the ways in which we create meaning through interaction with others in the world around us. Because cultural criminology asserts that crime and culture are intimately linked, crime itself cannot be understood apart from these very same interactive cultural dynamics. Cultural criminology further asserts that culture is fluid, continually in motion and always resisting efforts to definitively pin it down.  The conception that culture is dynamic is a second foundational principle of cultural criminology. These two foundational tenets of cultural criminology imply an affinity with the sociological theory of symbolic interactionism and the related concept of social constructionism (see 1 What is Crime?).A third key concept in cultural criminology is the idea that we are living in a time period known as late modernity. While there is debate among theorists about how best to characterize our current age, most agree the so-called modern age that characterised most of the twentieth century has been transformed in recent years (Hayward, 2016). Some theorists describe the complete demise of modernity and claim we now inhabit an era of postmodernity (e.g., Baudrillard, 1981; Lyotard, 1984). Other theorists argue that our current time period is a continuation of modernity, but with important transformations in culture, communications and the economy resulting in an era of liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000) or late modernity (Giddens 1990). Cultural criminologists like Ferrell et al. (2008) do not take sides in this debate, but claim the need for “a criminology that is not just aware of these debates… but capable of understanding, documenting, and reacting to the particulars of contemporary circumstances” (p. 63). Cultural criminology is a “criminology of the now” (Hayward, 2016, p. 300), uniquely situated to analyse current transformations, which cultural criminologists refer to as late modernity.  Characterised as “a world always in flux” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 6), capitalism is transformed, becoming focused on selling lifestyles, experience and the image (Ferrell et al., 2008, pp. 14-15). Within late modernity, crime is feared but is also highly valued as an entertaining form of public spectacle. The logic of late modern capitalism and the rise of new forms of communication and creative production mean that the spectacle of crime can be transmitted and consumed in ways never before imagined by criminology. Today, a crime may be committed entirely for the purpose of filming and sharing on social media (Yar, 2012). Crime is packaged and sold in new and unexpected ways in late modernity. For example, iconic American guitar manufacturer Gibson was raided twice by the US Department of Justice and accused of illegally purchasing endangered exotic wood species protected by US federal law. Gibson settled the case out of court and released a series of 1750 guitars made with the illicit wood (Faughnder, 2014). The guitars sold out in minutes and, according to the company, owning an instrument made from wood with a checkered criminal past will make “a bold statement for any revolutionary rocker” (“Gibson.com: Government Series II Les Paul,” n.d.). Cultural criminology tries to make sense of instances such as this where culture, crime and global capitalism collide in unexpected ways in late modern times.

A fourth key feature of cultural criminology is its commitment to critical and politically engaged research. Cultural criminologists focus on the way everyday moments and aspects of culture are intimately linked to broader structures of power—and resistance to power. Crime draws meaning from and gives meaning to contemporary culture, and it is the role of cultural criminology to untangle these multiple threads of meaning to flesh out crime’s central place in our cultural lives. This sounds like a lot of ground to cover in one short chapter—and it is! To help you appreciate the overall feel of the perspective, I will borrow some of the playful spirit of cultural criminology, as lived and embodied by the likes of Jeff Ferrell – a key figure in the movement. The remainder of the chapter is organised into five sections: 1) Boredom and Crime, 2) Crime as Pleasure, 3) Methods of Cultural Criminology, 4) Media, Popular Culture and the Carnival of Crime, and 5) Critiques of Cultural Criminology. In the end, you may be left with more questions than answers, and I think that’s exactly the point.


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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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