12. Cultural Criminology
In the middle class suburb where I grew up, there wasn’t much to do, so we made our own fun— often by breaking things. Everybody knows it’s fun to break stuff. Heck, I can remember one year when the carnival came to town they sold tickets for a chance to swing a sledgehammer three times against a new car. So yeah, breaking stuff was always a thrill and when I was kid, we broke shit whenever we got the chance. So I didn’t give it much thought when I saw some empty wine bottles laying in the alley behind the old boarded up gas station near my house. I had probably smashed three of them against the cinderblock wall of the abandoned service station before I heard an angry voice ring out behind me: “Hey, what are you doing?” I felt a hot jolt of humiliation rising up from my gut and spreading like fire across my cheeks as I spun around and saw a middle aged woman with folded arms standing behind me in the lane. I hesitated and then shot back with a lie – “nothing!” – but it was no use. She scolded me and ordered me to pick up the broken glass and put it in a nearby dumpster. I did so and the red hot sting of humiliation completely washed over me like a swarm of fire ants. The woman demanded to know my name and where I lived, so I lied again – this time with complete confidence and without hesitation. I jumped on my bike and pedaled quickly away from the scene. That overwhelming feeling of humiliation was now giving way to anger and just a little bit of excitement and exhilaration. The further I pedalled, the more energised I felt. I also felt satisfied that my parents would probably never find out, and I got away with it. Also, I realised that I was anything but bored in that moment.
The above anecdote is a slightly fictionalised amalgam of my experiences growing up in a dull, middle-class suburb in a Canadian city and is meant to illustrate the immediate sensations of minor acts of vandalism and transgression a key focus of cultural criminology. This account probably strikes many of you as very different from most detached analyses in typical criminology textbooks. Reading many mainstream accounts, you would think crime is like a bad rash, or a sprained ankle—most criminology treats crime as if it were an unfortunate affliction caused by bad luck, poor decision-making, or even social, psychological, biological or environmental conditions that drive human behaviour. For many criminologists, the search for the elusive all-purpose explanation of crime amounts to a Quixotic quest for determinate background factors that exist behind the day-to-day immediacy of human life that are thought to condition human behaviour. Crime has been blamed on factors including under-socialisation, over-socialisation, the influence of delinquent peers, poor environment, a lack of social control, flawed biology, and abnormal psychology. As Ferrell et al. (2008) lament, mainstream criminology with its Likert scale surveys, government datasets, high-powered statistical analyses and detached scientific objectivity drains the life out of its subject matter—often to the disappointment of students—and reduces “the vivid experiential agony of crime victimization… into abstract empiricism, the sensuality of the criminal event tabulated and footnoted” (p. 166).
What accounts for the multiple—often minor—and seemingly irrational episodes of transgression and violence that occur every day in the back alleys and streets of contemporary cities? Is breaking shit an outcome of background causal factors or a deliberate attempt to find meaning and excitement in the dull and dehumanising routines of late modern life? Cultural criminology takes as a starting point the realisation that contemporary life in Western nations like Canada is structured by features that can lead to a condition of institutionalised boredom. Ironically, widespread boredom seems to characterise a time period in which our culture is “saturated with an unprecedented range of activities designed to engage and entertain” (Steinmetz et al., 2017, p. 343). Moreover, society’s key institutions appear designed to produce well-socialised—and bored—citizens:
public schools emerge as training centers for the new boredom, rehearsal halls for the sublimation of individuality to disciplined efficiency; and for those insufficiently socialized to the new order, the mental hospital, the prison, the juvenile lockup offer entire institutions dedicated to the enforcement of tedium. (Ferrell, 2004, p. 291)
Boredom may generate “turmoil for the individual, triggering resistance ranging from the mundane to the explosive” (Steinmetz et al., 2017, p. 356). For Ferrell (2004, p. 293), this raises an intriguing question for criminology: “Are certain crimes committed not against people or property as such, but against boredom?” It is certainly an oversimplification to claim that all crime is a reaction to boredom—just as it is overly simplistic to attribute all crime directly to class conflict (e.g., Chambliss, 1975). However, cultural criminology aims to counter mainstream criminological theories focusing on background factors by shifting the analysis to the immediate feelings and experiences of the criminal event itself (Ferrell et al., 2008). Cultural criminology therefore analyses the foreground of crime, “the immediate, interactional dynamic through which criminals construct crime” (Ferrell, 1992, p. 110). Hayward and Young (2004) urge criminologists to examine “the adrenaline rush of crime… the various feelings of anger, humiliation, exuberance, excitement, and fear” (p. 264) that reverberate through the whole process, including “the intense gutted feelings of the victim, to the thrill of the car chase, to the drama of the dock, to the trauma of imprisonment” (p. 264).
As the opening vignette illustrates, the decision to engage in low level deviance may be a deliberate reaction against the tedium of modern life and a search for excitement. Cultural criminology invites us to explore actions spanning a continuum of transgression from breaking shit in the back alleys of middle class suburban communities, to the organised protests of urban cyclists who gather together in critical masses on the streets of cities, to thrill-seeking car thieves and joyriders whose crimes seem motivated by the search for meaning and excitement in a world of conformity and sanitised consumption. Rather than viewing crime as the end result of poor socialisation, blocked opportunities, or rational forms of cost-benefit analysis, cultural criminology invites us to appreciate the immediate experience of crime as an action filled with emotions such as fear, anger and excitement. Crime for some is a “sneaky thrill” (Katz, 1988, p. 52) and an escape from the everyday. After all, as Wilson and Kelling (1982, para. 11) pointed out several decades ago, breaking windows is free and “it has always been fun.”