12. Cultural Criminology

12.8 Critiques

Dr. Steven Kohm

Sometimes cultural criminology has been accused of romanticism by portraying criminals and deviants as cultural heroes who are fighting back against oppression through purposeful acts of transgression and deviance (Hall & Winlow, 2007). In response to this criticism, cultural criminologists would argue that mainstream criminology, particularly positivist, rational choice variants that reduce human action to a cost-benefit analysis, focuses too much on statistical equations and mathematical models and lacks any empathy for the plight of criminals. In fact, cultural criminologists have suggested that this can make criminology boring and take away from what makes crime and criminology fascinating to students and the general public alike.

Cultural criminology is also criticised for placing less emphasis on wider social structures and giving more attention to individual human action. However, proponents argue that this ignores the objective of cultural criminology to critique power. Cultural criminology takes up a critical position against power resulting from broader structures that produce inequality, such as capitalism. For example, cultural criminology examines the way violence reflects power relations in society. Certain forms of violence may be deemed entertainment when filtered through the lens of media and popular culture, while acts of state-perpetrated violence or abuse in times of war, such as in the aftermath of 9/11, may be deemed justified and culturally appropriate given the threat posed by foreign terrorists. For cultural criminology, “violence, it seems, is never only violence. It emerges from inequalities both political and perceptual” (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 13).  A cultural criminological analysis of power examines how we understand particular acts of violence. For instance, some cultural criminologists have called for a new visual criminology that analyses the way images are central to the meaning of crime and violence (Brown, 2014; Rafter, 2014; Brown & Carrabine, 2017). Some of the most iconic and horrific photographic images of violence are captured in times of war. However, the meaning assigned to these images exemplifies the work of power. For example, stark black and white images of liberated World War II concentration camps evoke horror and outrage over the atrocities committed by the Nazi state against humanity. These images unambiguously attest to the total corruption of the Nazi state and confirm that genocide must be understood as the crime of all crimes (Rafter, 2016). Alternatively, shocking digital photographs of American soldiers sexually humiliating prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were invested with a very different meaning. Rather than suggesting a political culture of criminal corruption and state sanctioned torture among the occupying US military, public outrage focused only on the individual soldiers caught smiling for the camera. Carrabine (2012) points out that images of Abu Ghraib failed to provoke the same outrage as photographs of the Nazi Holocaust because they bore a resemblance to other forms of popular culture that celebrate violence and humiliation such as internet pornography and reality TV. In fact, he argued that “these violations of humanity scarcely trouble consciences” (Carrabine, 2012, p. 486). Images such as these reflect power, and are themselves powerful to look at. I will not reproduce these images of torture here, but the photographs are widely circulated on the Internet, and there are several documentaries that provide greater context and commentary. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) provide a critical look at this incident and the meaning of the photographs.

A final critique of cultural criminology is that it is primarily the view of white male academics from a Western-centric point of view. Naegler and Salman (2016) point out that the kinds of crime that interest cultural criminology are mostly masculine pursuits, like graffiti-writing, joyriding and base-jumping. As noted above, the struggles of Indigenous activists for recognition and decolonisation have not yet been the subject of cultural criminological analyses. However, that does not mean the perspective can not offer the tools to engage with Indigenous struggles for justice. Cultural criminology would be well positioned to analyse the way culture may be used to advance an anti-colonial agenda. Many of the tangible acts of resistance embodied in recent activities by Indigenous activists—like pulling down statues, positioning children’s shoes on the steps of Catholic churches, and placing dozens of tiny orange and pink flags on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislature (see Figure 7)—are imbued with cultural meaning. To some politicians, these acts of resistance are crimes against culture deserving of criminalisation or simply acts of mindless vandalism. Conversely, activists see culture as a key battleground for advancing an anti-colonial agenda for social change. While there is some intriguing new cultural and critical research being done in the settler colonial context of Australia (see Cunneen and Tauri, 2016, Cunneen, 2010, 2011), more work is needed in Canada and beyond to fully realize the potential of this perspective to address historical and ongoing injustices for Indigenous peoples. Acts of resistance by Indigenous activists that play out via culture call attention to the deafening silences of politicians and religious leaders who have never been held criminally responsible for acts of abuse and genocide but who instead offer hollow cultural performances of contrition rather than material reparations. Cultural criminology holds great potential to understand the present struggles of Indigenous peoples for justice and decolonisation and associated attempts to criminalise these actions as well as the institutionalised denial by the Canadian state and the Vatican (see Cohen, 2001). However, it is up to a new generation of criminologists to realize the full potential of this perspective and decolonise cultural criminology.

Figure 12.7: Crimes of Culture and Culture as Resistance. Hundreds of orange and pink flags have been placed by Indigenous activists on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislature to draw attention to the abuse and deaths of Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools in Canada.

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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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