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date: 21 February 2018

Narrative Criminology: Crime as Produced by and Re-Lived Through Narratives

Summary and Keywords

The origins of “narrative criminology”—meaning not so much the utilization of the narratives of (and on) criminals as the awareness of the importance of the narratives themselves and how they can become a focus of criminological research—are framed within the so-called narrative wave in the field of human sciences; but a deeper look into the history of the discipline allows us to discover that the interest in the narrations of crime dates back to the dawn of criminology and has influenced the development of the science ever since the time of Lombroso. Moreover, it has influenced the various traditions that have characterized criminology itself. The emergence of narrative criminology can thus be traced to narrative psychology, from which it has inherited the search for coherence and consistency in offenders’ narratives (with a view to producing an unified self-narrative); to the work of Goffman and to ethnomethodology, with regard to the view of narratives as self-presentations; to structuralism, for what concerns the presence of “pre-written” narratives, which are available in the broader sociocultural context; and finally, to the postmodern visions of social sciences and literature.

In developing its distinctive approach, narrative criminology has focused on narratives as motivators and producers of crime, discovering that crime narratives often do not appear centered around a unitary conception of a self: they are multidimensional, fluctuating, fragmented, and disarticulated. Moreover, narratives depend on the situation of the narrator, or his or her positioning in the social structure and determination by the cultural or social fields. Sometimes the narrator is not in control of these fields and is pushed by forces he or she does know nothing about.

Crime narratives are full of references to other texts, and their interpretation is complex. Sometimes they are elliptical, concise, short, and refer to what everyone knows and must be simply hinted at: they sign the emergence from the not-said, the not-knowable, anticipating or following an act that often does not find words, or taking its place. It follows that, since its inception, narrative criminology has revealed itself to be interested in the analysis of singular cases (“one is enough”).

Narrative criminology, in sum, positions itself in a space previously not occupied and connects with other new exciting developments in the field (cultural criminology, visual criminology, constitutive criminology), contributing to the study of the relation between individual and social narratives on one side, and among not easily defined individual, structural, and cultural dimensions on the other.

Keywords: narrative criminology, offender narratives, criminal self, institutional narratives, cultural narratives, interdiscursivity

When human beings, in every culture, seek to understand “why did she do it?” the answer is not a mathematical formula but a story: “First, this happened, then, that happened, and she decided to do X.” Moreover, despite two hundred years of non-narrative criminology, human beings around the world continue to tell such stories for why they did or do what they do (Maruna, 2015 p. ix).

I sometimes wonder if criminologists have not neglected self-narrative because of its association with imminent endings—that is, their own mortality, as opposed to a more emotionally safe preoccupation with the mortality of those (e.g., murder victims) they research. Narratives are ways of marking the time of living beings; a story of oneself after one’s being has ended—here or in an afterlife—is unthinkable. Ironically, however, as meditations on action, stories structurally beat back nothingness and passivity. What is more, like all art, stories pursue an existence for eternity. I prove that I am alive and I establish my immortality as a character in my story. At last, then, I want to make a case for narrative inquiry as a means of connecting criminology with the artful and spiritual dimensions of the lives of those we study. We should engage full-on with death . . . as a theme or character, perhaps always merely implied, in stories that promote harm or healing (Presser, 2016, p. 148).

The Precursors of Narrative Criminology

The “narrative wave” in human sciences developed at the end of the 20th century and rippled through all the sciences on which the composite discipline of criminology draws: psychology (Sarbin, 1986; Polkinghorne, 1988; Bruner, 1990), sociology (Richardson, 1990; Polletta, Chen, Gardner, & Motes, 2011), law (Scheppele, 1989; Brooks & Gerwitz, 1996), and even psychoanalysis (Schafer, 1980, 1992; Spence, 1982).

Narrative criminology obviously fits into the cultural context it springs from, but in criminology a whole range of “precursors” can be invoked; these can be classified as recent or remote. With regard to the latter, interest in offenders’ narratives has characterized the European criminological tradition, which chiefly displayed a clinical orientation (from Lombroso to De Greeff on the Continent, and from Burt to Glover in Britain: see Gadd & Jefferson, 2007), while in the United States the orientation toward the offender’s stories characterized the sociological tradition of Chicago. This is manifested in the celebrated cases collected by Shaw, among which the case of Stanley, the “Jack-Roller,” stands out (Shaw, 1966).

Among the more recent precursors, Presser (2008), a seminal text, points to a series of scholars who have shown how far both offender identities and offender narratives are socially constructed and promote offender behavior. Concerning the social construction of identity, the reference is obviously to symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1967; Blumer, 1969) and to its application to the criminological field: labeling theory. Within this framework, the socially constructed identity (including the label) underpins criminal behavior. In a more complex manner, some theories, such as those in Messerschmidt (1993) and the psychosocial criminologists (Gadd & Jefferson, 2007) assert that criminal behavior constitutes a means of constructing an identity of one’s own, thereby solving certain deeply rooted identity problems. But what relationship does the concept of identity have with the specific concept of offender narratives? In pointing out that offender narratives are also socially constructed, Presser (2008) cites the fundamental work of Lonnie Athens on soliloquy and on the interiorized discussion between the subject and his or her “phantom community,” an evolution of Mead’s concept of “generalized other” (Athens, 1994). Presser then broadens the perspective by referring to the influence of the cultural and historical context on the construction of identity narratives (as we will see, this was to become a founding theme in the subsequent developments of narrative criminology). Thus, the explanations of deviant behavior are constructed by means of accounts (Scott & Lyman, 1968), or justified through techniques of neutralization (Sykes & Matza, 1957); these legitimize the subject’s misdeeds by referring to values and beliefs that are often contained in legal norms themselves (Matza, 1969), and on the basis of which the subject redefines his/her own identity, which in turn underlies his/her future actions. With regard to this aspect, we need to refer to the literature on techniques of neutralization, as summarized in an important paper by Maruna and Copes (2005), in which these techniques are seen as a strategy both for legitimizing past behavior and for justifying and motivating future behavior. But, according to Presser and Sandberg (2015b, p. 6) “neutralizations attend only to the offense, not to a lifetime of criminal and noncriminal actions”: narrative criminology moves a step forward.

According to Presser, the offender’s narratives, in addition to explaining and legitimizing offenses committed, can actually promote delinquent behavior. She therefore attributes to the stories concerning the self a fundamental role in the dialectic connection between identity and action. From this point of view, Maruna (2001) is deemed fundamental, in that, by studying the “narratives that determine desistance,” this author paved the way to the conception of what may be defined as “performative effects of self narratives,” which lie at the heart of the conceptualization of narrative criminology. In this regard, Presser (2008) cites Lonnie Athens’s concept of physically defensive interpretation (whereby the subject constructs a narrative in which he is threatened and utilizes it to motivate a defensive behavior) (Athens, 1977, 1997); this appears to be fundamental in motivating deviant actions, as others are branded as “deserving” to be attacked. Conversely, the criminal act is also traced back to a possible narrative. Here, the work of reference is Katz (1988), which points out that the planned imminent action has “narrative possibilities,” in that it conveys what could be defined as an implicit narrative that precedes or accompanies the crime and which is an expression of a system of values: “In acting, one is scripting a moral tale of one sort or another” (Presser, 2008, p. 28).

Initially, Presser also attributes a role to the contributions made by cognitivist theory. Indeed, the “automatic errors of thought” dealt with, for example, by Yochelson and Samenow, in addition to being interpretations of the behavior of others, could be likened to narrative accounts of the self and of one’s own identity, which motivate the actions that the subject will enact (Presser, 2008, pp. 28–29). Subsequently, however, Presser (2009, pp. 187–188) would criticize them for being “internal, psychic phenomena, not necessarily having been articulated”: strategies of cognition and thought are different from “interior narratives,” even if, as we will see, it is difficult to draw the boundaries between the former and the latter from a theoretical standpoint. This is to say that each thought, even the most formal and abstract, is usually on anecdotal experience and on recourse to memory, which may in itself constitute a narrative. Moreover, some years after, Presser and Sandberg (2015b) would deem this line of research to be too closely connected with specific aspects of rehabilitation, and would also see this as not only neglectful of the connection between the action and the narrative—which can legitimize or justify it in advance or retrospectively—but also of the narration of one’s entire life experience.

Presser and Sandberg (2015b) also distance themselves from more theoretical and general approaches, such as the constitutive criminology developed by Henry and Milovanovic (1996), defined as not enough near to “the realist tradition of the discipline,” while narrative criminology would be characterized by its “explicit concern to distinguish causes of crime” (Presser and Sandberg, 2015b, p. 12): in our opinion, this appears as a slightly unrealistic definition. Moreover, as we will see, both fields could overlap in their common interest on narratives that legitimate stigmatization and exclusion and define and justify harm—one of Presser’s fields of study (Presser, 2014).

From the mention of the precursors, we will now try and explain the developments in narrative criminology, from the seminal contribution of Presser to the evolution of the studies in the field. These studies have seen a shift from a conception of narrative as a depicting a unitary self to another that considers narratives both as fragmented and elastic. Moreover, this article will discuss the connection (attempted by other narrative criminologists) of individual narratives to the dimensions of social structure and discourse. Finally the article will also attempt to define the relations and overlaps of narrative criminology and other new tendencies in our discipline.

The Main Contributions of Narrative Criminology

Section 1. Offender Narratives: Presser and Followers

In the words of Sandberg (2010), “When studying the use of language we also experience another paradox; one that is completely opposite to the ethnographic rationale. The more data you have, either from year-long ethnographic fieldwork or from large samples of qualitative interviews, the harder it will be to discover the nuances of narratives. If analyses are detailed, and emphasize semiotics or sociolinguistics, one interview, conversation, or fragment of text can be enough to make an interesting observation” (p. 451). Clearly, this assertion introduces an in-depth, quasi-clinical work on offenders’ narratives that allows further interdisciplinary contacts. Narratives both reveal and hide, explain and veil, and, as will be explained, have been studied by experts in narrative psychology, discourse analysis, ethnomethodology, cultural studies, psychoanalysis. This article will follow the developments of the narrative approach in criminology from Presser’s contributions, which analyze narratives from a phenomenological/sociological approach. Yet this article will also cover subsequent developments, which connect individual narratives to cultural variables and discourses and to social structure as well. In this analysis, the authors that narrative criminology refers to, even if they belong to different cultural fields, are all involved in the dialectics between determination by structural factors and agentic attitudes in the subject: Foucault’s concepts of discourse and power/knowledge, and Bourdieu’s concepts of capital and habitus define and limit the positioning of the self in the narration. On the other side it is possible to envisage a fruitful contribution also from a psychoanalytical and psychosocial approach, in which narratives produce an image of ourselves (an imaginary Ego, in Lacanian terms), and the subject is defined as barred ($) in the sense that it shines through the developing narrative, in the sudden blooming of an unexpected meaning that retrospectively gives a new sense to the narration itself.

To begin with, Presser’s first significant contribution to narrative criminology actually predates the definition of this field. She examined narratives concerning the lives of 27 offenders whom she had interviewed for her doctoral thesis and that were subsequently collected into a volume that still constitutes a milestone in the field (Presser, 2008). In this publication, Presser is among the first within criminology to formulate the view that narratives, seen as constitutive of the criminal’s experience, are able not only to explain, rationalize, or justify the events that have taken place but also, to some degree, to elicit them. In other words, the novelty of narrative criminology is linked to the attribution of value to narratives before the criminal act; thus, in Presser’s view, what the offender says about himself may constitute an important motivational factor of the crime. As we have seen, the authors that Presser invokes as the important forerunners of this operation are Lonnie Athens and Jack Katz.

Moreover, Presser also takes a clear stance on the relationship between narratives and the existence of a “reality” external to the subject; in this regard, she defines narratives not only as precursors to the act but also as socially constructed, context-dependent, and constitutive of experience, beyond outward appearances. By contrast, criminology had taken a different view of narratives, considering them to be independent of the real world that they narrate and, consequently, more or less “true” (narrative as record). On another level, self-narratives may be important because they can depict the subjective position of the actor (narrative as interpretation). Obviously, these approaches can be integrated (as is done, for example, by Agnew, 2006) by distinguishing a “real” narrative from a subjective one (what the individual says about himself for justificatory or utilitarian purposes). Finally, (and this is the view held by Presser), narratives may be constitutive of reality (constitutive view of narrative). This view differs from the previous one in that it favors the dimension of language and highlights the use of the latter for the purpose of self-awareness: “In this view, through linguistic expression we make ourselves known, to others and to ourselves. In contrast, the more representational conceptualizations engender a cynicism about what people say” (Presser, 2009, p. 185); indeed, she stresses the dimension of the self rather than that of the interpretations of social deeds. A subsequent version of this differentiation, proposed by Presser and Sandberg (2015b), distinguishes a view of narratives as an objective description of an external reality that is taken for granted (objective representation of experience) from a subjective description (subjective representation of experience), and finally from an experience that through the narration of the self literally constructs reality (shaping experience) (Presser & Sandberg, 2015b, p. 4).

Another extremely important question concerns the cultural, institutional, and relational context in which narratives are produced. This aspect is emphasized by Presser (2009), who points out that subjects may provide different narrative versions of their story according to relationship with the researcher and the conditions they find themselves in—for example, in a penal institution or free, and whether or not they belong to a delinquent subculture: “To put the matter in positivistic terms, stories are unreliable across settings and listeners. Can today’s narrative be considered a reliable proxy for the one that was articulated prior to offending? Without resolving the problem, I would merely point out that it plagues all qualitative data” (Presser, 2009, pp. 192–193).

All this prompts reflection on the relationship between narratives and the concept of “truth” to which every narrator refers. As previously shown, Presser does not adhere to the typically modern conception of truth that is external to the subject and according to which the subject can be defined as a liar. Nor does she accept the idea that an external truth stands in opposition to the “subjective” truth of the narrator. Rather, she adopts the view that the narrated “truth” constructs the interior and exterior “world” of the person. To paraphrase Bruner (1990), every narration is self-referential and presents itself as true; Sandberg (2009b) adds that the subject positions himself in the discourse and provides versions of the truth that are culturally prescribed or useful in that particular situation. He argues that even if one of these versions were “false,” it would nevertheless express a condition of the interviewee, a belonging, and an aspect of the self (Sandberg, 2010). Sandberg therefore claims that the “function,” rather than the “truth,” of a given narration should be analyzed and cites Potter and Wetherell (1987, p. 73), according to whom speech acts must be analyzed as symbolic resources “used to perform specific tasks.” The question therefore is not “whether or not a statement is ‘true’, but rather what is achieved by using it and what function it has in concrete interactions” (Sandberg, 2010, p. 455). In addition, the stories narrated, regardless of their truth, “tell us something important about values, identities, cultures and communities” (p. 455).

It must be said, however, that this view is partly countered by another one, which connects narratives with emotional life. Again Presser (2014) puts forward this hypothesis in a book devoted to narratives that cause harm: according to the author, the “true” stories are the “ones whose complexity approximates the complexity of the lived experience. True stories integrate all one’s own feelings and ideas, all the allegiances and anchors of selfhood” (Presser, 2014, p. 123). Thus, she defines as “true” the most complex and detailed narratives, which, like a guiding thread, enable the narrator to weave together the greatest number of aspects of his or her experience. In other words, a “true” story moves the subject emotively, depicting a complex, changing self and hence constitutes a way of relating more efficaciously with himself and with the world. Here, we find an important connection with criminology’s recent opening to research into emotions, both of the offender (Youngs & Canter, 2012; Ioannou, Canter, & Youngs, 2016), and of the punitive society (Karstedt, 2002; Karstedt, Loader, & Strang, 2011).

The main objective of Presser’s (2008) text is analyzing violent male offenders’ narratives about their experience with crime. In approaching the matter, the author makes ample reference to Maruna (2001), which asserts that the narratives of those who give up antisocial behavior (“desisters”) have the function of reconstructing experience in a particular way. Indeed, the subjects studied by Maruna succeed in desisting by retelling a coherent story in which both their past transgression and their present commitment to “making good” are woven into a meaningful plot; in this perspective, their current behavior is depicted as actually depending on their transgressive past. Maruna defines such explanations as “redemption scripts,” in which a “true Self” or “real me” undergoes a series of vicissitudes, while remaining essentially “good”: “Even when they were ‘at their worst’, the desisting narrators emphasized that, ‘deep down’, they were good people” (Maruna, 2001, p. 89). Thus, the narrator reconstructs an underlying, intact “old” self beneath the deviant or criminal self and even explains his or her misdeeds by referring to acceptable moral principles. By contrast, those who do not succeed in abandoning their deviant ways produce “condemnation scripts,” in which, despite recognizing the difficulties of their wayward lifestyle (and often acknowledging the utility of reforming) they portray their persistent criminal behavior as inevitable and immutable, as if it were a fate they are condemned to.

Following Maruna, Presser (2008) distinguishes within her sample of subjects three different modalities of narrating one’s own experience with regard to transgression. What they all have in common, however, is the assertion of a “moral Self,” even in the most hardened criminals. Offenders’ narratives are viewed almost as misadventures in a plot, in which, for example, in the first category (reform narratives) morality is lost when the subject begins to transgress and is recovered when one mends one’s ways. In this case, the offender constructs a plot in which, for a variety of reasons (often presented as excuses), he has been led astray and subsequently returns to the right path. By contrast, other subjects (similar to Maruna’s desisters) claim that they have never been “truly” bad (stability narratives) and utilize both types of account highlighted by Scott and Lyman (1968) (i.e., both justifications and excuses). In some instances, crime itself is justified as having an intrinsic morality, and offenders portray themselves as honorable: this category includes, for example, explanations of gender violence in which the offender cites the point of view of a patriarchal society, or those in which the subjects depict their deviance as gratifying or amusing (such as those studied by Katz, 1988). In other cases, committing crimes is regarded as a sporadic occurrence or an occasional deviation from a condition of morality that is nevertheless present. Furthermore, some offenders shift the focus from crime or deviance and adopt a moral point of view, despite admitting their guilt: some highlight their intrinsic goodness, even at the crime scene; some portray themselves as victims so as not to consider themselves criminals; some legitimize the criminal act as a moment of madness (and therefore unintentional); some stress the fact that they, unlike other offenders, have paid for their sins; and some point out that others have done worse things. Finally, there is the subject who portrays himself as a black sheep so as to highlight his or her own strength and will to change.

Presser’s third and most important category is that of the elastic narratives, which are halfway between reform narratives and stability narratives. These offenders produce a “poorly integrated plot” and “a weak evaluation . . . of their past harmful actions, with little commitment to desistance as a consequence” (Presser, 2008, p. 97). This would be the starting point for subsequent research, which tends to view offenders’ narratives as an expression of the self, which is no longer conceived of as unified but rather as fragmented and situation-dependent.

But from a moral standpoint, what is the content of offenders’ narratives? Presser (2008) found that the subjects always depict themselves as being engaged in a heroic struggle against adversity, difficulties and enemies, either internal (personal attitudes, mental illness, addiction) or external (environmental situations, relationships with other people, contact with the justice system). In other words, the self that is constructed in the narrative is morally good and does not encompass the “bad” and “negative” parts; rather, it tends to highlight (project?) bad, negative, or persecutory elements outside.

Other researchers have confirmed this “emphasis on the immoral others,” as, for example, Ugelvik (2015), which study found that prison inmates build narrative accounts in which they attribute a “true wickedness” not to themselves, but to the category of sex offenders. The “goodness of the self” also appears in constructions of one’s own crime as a “mistake” that does not tarnish the offender’s respectability (Fleetwood, 2015a), or when the offender adheres to the values of a gendered self that is respectable in that it conforms to the dominant cultural values (Miller, et al., 2015); or finally, the way that crack users depict themselves as being in control of their habit, unlike the “crackheads,” who are defined as completely hooked (Copes, Hochstetler, & Williams, 2008). This attitude is confirmed by Copes in a qualitative meta-synthesis on the construction of symbolic boundaries between drug users who claim to be in control and the “deviant” drug users (Copes, 2016). This author highlights the fact that the tendency to construct boundaries by means of self-narratives is common; undesired aspects are projected outward, and one’s own behavior is justified or revalued. Thus, not only do the stories define the boundaries, they also contribute to their maintenance by projecting stigma outward; indeed, there are always other categories (in this case, junkies, crackheads, and “tweakers”) who cannot control themselves and who constitute, in the narrator’s view, the true negative “others.”

A problem emerges, however, for those offenders who cannot find “others” in a worse position in the hell of social stigmatization: the sex offenders. Victor and Waldram (2015), two anthropologists who have studied the interior narrratives of such individuals. e, suggest that we should abandon the concept of the “authentic Self,” which is defined as a “necessary illusion”; rather, we should think of the self as a “dynamic subjective and intersubjective representation constructed through multiple narratives that gather strength to further construct a narrative trajectory over time.” Indeed, “narrativization is problematic for sexual offenders because the stigma of their actions makes it more difficult to construct positive meaning for their convictions” (Victor & Waldram, 2015, p. 97). In other words, in this case it is difficult to represent a “positive” self, a self that is not besieged by feelings of guilt and shame and hence to tread the pathway described by Maruna (2001) with regard to those who desist from other crimes.

Another question addressed by narrative criminologists is the possibility of detecting signals of change in offender’s narratives during treatment. O’Connor, since the end of the 1990s, has been investigating this field through a strictly analytical approach to discourse (precuring narrative criminology), and has pointed out that in narrating their crimes offenders portray themselves through the abundant use of deflecting or passivizing structures, of justifying devices and of “delay tactics, or postponing the words that tell of the criminal act” (O’Connor, 2000, p. 40). In respect to these characteristics, O’Connor has also discovered the presence of some key points that signal change in the self, defined as “hot spots” and “telling moments”: when, for example, the subject adopts a heterocentric stance and sees himself from the point of view of the other, or when he or she breaks the narrative frame to introduce personal considerations and comments on the story recounted. The stories may also signal changes in the self-image that the narrator wishes to present to the interlocutor by contrasting the present self with the past self (signaling through juxtaposition), or by changing the subject of the narrative (by shifting from the first to the second person or even to an impersonal form); this can be read as the narrator’s desire to distance himself from the events, which constitutes a signal of therapeutic moments. Moreover, during the therapeutic process, the discourse becomes increasingly complex, and the subject more frequently adopts dubitative formulae, which show a growing complexity of discourse and doubts).

In the 21st century, some researchers have gone beyond the narratives of desistance and change to analyze the narratives of resistance: in other words, why do only a few of the subjects who find themselves in comparable social situations actually become criminals, while others do not (Adjiembaks, 2015)? Joosse, Bucerius, and Thompson (2015) used the methods of narrative criminology to study young adults belonging to an Islamic community in Canada. The authors noted that these subjects displayed resistance to involvement in terrorism (the Somali sect of Al-Qaeda) through the “storied rejection” of terrorist values; the terrorist is portrayed as a bogeyman from whom children flee while laughing and poking fun at him, and an image is constructed of the self as someone who is not stupid enough to fall victim to propaganda. Narratives of resistance, in other words, tend to counteract the idealized image of the criminal and to show his or her frailties and inconsistences.

Section 2. Narratives of Acts, Narratives of the Self

At this point, we are faced with a problem that is both methodological and substantial. The contributions quoted so far refer to stories that are narrated “after” the crime has been committed. However, narrative criminology explicitly states that narratives motivate and produce crime. For example, Presser and Sandberg (2015b, p. 1) point out that “narratives or stories themselves shape future action . . . Narrative criminology is any inquiry based on the view of stories as instigating, sustaining, or effecting desistance from harmful action. We study how narratives inspire and motivate harmful action, and how they are used to make sense of harm.”

How can we solve this apparent contradiction, which has been highlighted, for example, by Francia and Verde (2015)? A possible solution has been to infer the narratives that precede the crime from the narratives that follow it, when the subject and the researcher meet. However, narratives of this kind cannot easily be used to investigate the narratives present in the offender “before” the offense is committed. Indeed, in the first place, as has been seen, narratives are context-dependent and interlocutor-dependent. Secondly, every narrative has a practical function, and post-delictum narratives are strongly influenced by the condition of the offender at the time of the narration; this is not only because of their potential practical impact on both the trial and subsequent treatment (we need only think of the importance that many cognitivist theories of criminological treatment attach to the need for a process of re-elaboration with regard to the crime committed) but also because of their role in the offender’s redefinition and re-narration of the self. Moreover, actions are, by definition, unlikely to be recounted beforehand and are often assigned meaning only “retroactively”; in other words, when the subject addresses himself and motivates his or her behavior ex post. Here, the reference is to the psychoanalytical concept of Nachträglichkeit (àpres coup, deferred action, afterwardsness), as defined first by Freud (Breuer & Freud, 1955; Freud, 1966a, 1966b) and then by Lacan (2006). In Freud’s view, for example, the true meaning of childhood traumas lies in the fact that they are perceived as such only when the subject becomes a sexualized subject—and sexuality unfolds in all its importance from adolescence onward. Lacan broadens this concept and defines the subject as barré, or barred; thus, subjectivity is always precluded and can be “grasped” by placing the deed in a plot: that is, by inserting it into a narrative that, on the one hand, recapitulates the data concerning the experience of the self but on the other hand falsifies these data by fixing them. This difficulty was clearly perceived by scholars who focus more on the action than on the narration, such as in cultural criminology. For example, Katz (1988) claims that the accounts given by offenders after their crimes—case in point, Katz’s “senseless murderers”—might be themselves “fiction,” in that they could be based on a presentation of the self, “a lie about their own lives that portrayed glory, essential nature, and predestination of fate” (Katz, 1988, p. 308); the author therefore urges “methodological caution” (Katz, 1988, p. 309).

Narrative criminologists are well aware of this difficulty. A contribution by Brookman can help us: Brookman (2015) distinguishes narratives of acts from narratives of the self (“action narratives” vs. “reflection narratives”) and studies the bodies of discourse to which each of the narratives provided by the subjects analyzed makes reference: discourses regarding conventional or subcultural values, normality or pathology, the perception of the self as a victim or as a gang member, as a vulnerable subject or as a thrill-seeker, etc. How can we then redefine the concept of “narrative that determines the offense”? We could advance a hypothesis: “before” and “after” the act narratives can be studied as narrative or a changing self, recursively narrating its “truth” “while” actively acting and living experiences that are difficult to narrate.

Narratives “before” the crime are scarce: a review of the literature reveals that these chiefly concern memorials left by offenders before the crime is committed. We may remember, for example, Sandberg’s study of Piers Anders Breivik’s “Manifesto” (Sandberg, 2013), or another important study, carried out by Presser (2012), focused on David Adkisson. Adkisson had attempted mass murder in a church belonging to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC), a syncretic confession, renowned for its adherence to progressive values and its acceptance of homosexuality and diversity: he did not die during the shooting, and it was for Presser to compare his before-the-crime written declarations on his intentions and the motives for which he was going to act and his after-crime narratives: both tended to situate the commission of the crime in tight connection with the self-narrative of the author, constructed by a subject, deployed of his sense of agency and passivized by his personal and political enemies, who decides to retaliate against them, well represented by the TVUUC community.

In sum, these cases reveal the complex nature of the matter; the scarce evidence available shows that the offender does not act in accordance with a “true” narrative but rather builds an artificial plot, both before and after the crime. Moreover, other researchers have shown that sometimes he acts in order to be able to narrate the act afterward. A notable contribution in this regard is that of Jackson-Jacobs (2004); Jackson-Jacobs used the tools of participating observation to analyze a fight involving his boyhood friends in Tucson (Arizona), pointing out how the fight was actually staged in order to yield “narratives” in which the person who started it could appear as a “hero,” as one who was brave enough to fight even though he would surely lose. Similarly, a study of alcohol abuse among young Norwegians on vacation conducted by Tutenges and Sandberg (2013) revealed that the youths indulged in their drinking and transgressive behavior in order to have “stories” to tell in the future. In other words, the subjects often act in order to construct a self-image both for others and for themselves.

We could say that all could be easier if we could access the internal debate that every individual conducts within himself. Although Presser (2009) initially rejected the idea that narrative criminology could investigate interior motivations, she subsequently opened the door to this eventuality (Presser, 2010), and, together with Sandberg, explicitly admitted that “narratives need not be verbalized to influence action. Actors tell themselves stories, which may be considered a basic feature of human experience” (Presser & Sandberg, 2015c, p. 296). It is possible that this reappraisal is due to the fact that the field of narrative criminology has recently been enriched by contributions from the English school of investigative psychology led by David Canter. Indeed, Canter theorized from the outset that there existed in every offender an “inner narrative,” which motivated his or her criminal behavior and determined its characteristics (Canter, 1994; Canter & Youngs, 2009). Thus, the scholars of this school analyzed offenders’ narratives and extrapolated the self-images created before the crime from the narratives that followed it. In this way, they identified four narrative roles in which the subject may place himself: that of the revengeful mission, that of the tragic hero, that of the professional, and that of the victim (Youngs & Canter, 2012). Canter subsequently produced a scheme for the structured interview, that of LAAF (“Life As A Film”) (Canter & Youngs, 2015), and research evolved toward qualitative standardization; this constituted a novel departure from the principal approach of narrative criminology, which is qualitative and oriented toward the in-depth study of cases.

From this standpoint, the self can be redefined in a postmodern perspective, as a sort of character in a fictional unified (or unifying) narrative and capable of lasting over time; it underpins our actions—and motivates and produces them—as a key component in our basic plot. But it may also be modified, retroactively, by the behavior (or behaviors) enacted, or by the decision to abstain from crime. In this way, the opposition between the narratives that precede the action and those that follow it gradually fades out as the focus broadens from the specific action to the image, to the self-narrative that the offender constructs, more or less consciously, for himself and for others. In the words of Brookman, Copes, and Hochstetler (2011): “Narrative identity can be understood as an active information-processing structure, a cognitive schema, or a construct system that is both shaped by and later mediates social interaction. Essentially, people construct stories to account for what they did and why they did it. Narratives impose an order on our actions and explain our behavior with a sequence of events that connect up to explanatory goals, motivations, and feelings. They also act to shape and guide future behavior, as persons act in ways that agree with the stories or myths they have created about themselves” (p. 417).

All of this, however, raises further problems; indeed, in postmodernity the trend has always been toward conceptions that assert the impossibility of thinking of the self as coherent and unified. Structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers have developed a form of theoretical antihumanism that is at odds with some of the key propositions of narrative criminology. Narrative criminology maintains a sense of agency of the subject, even if the focus gradually shifts from the search for a basic self-narrative to the different modes of presenting and portraying oneself through different narratives. As Presser (2016) affirms, however, narrative criminology sometimes seems to shy away from this task, perhaps because the level of the narration of identity always refers to something “beyond” the self, beyond the subject, that a unique narrative can unify with difficulty: sufferings, endings, body, death, the Real (to say it in Lacanian terms) on the side of the subject. But narration of identity also refers to other social and structural forces. Here, as we will see below, narrative criminology has opened to other theories and conceptualizations, from Bourdieu to Foucault, which try and balance structural and agentic determination of human actions.

Section 3. Multiple Narratives and the Subject

As this article has shown, self-narratives prove to be variable and not unified: indeed, following on from the concept of “elastic narratives” proposed by Presser (2008), a series of authors would illustrate what can be called the “principle of multiple narratives,” which was defined as the “interdiscursivity” present in the self-images provided by offenders’ narratives (Fairclough, 1992, 1995).

Self-narratives also vary according to the interlocutor, particularly with regard to contact with rehabilitative agencies. The latest theorization of the traditional “discourses of subcultures” is that of the “code of the street” illustrated by Anderson (1999), which establishes the rules for “tough guys” in hardscrabble neighborhoods and legitimizes the use of violence in order to survive and to gain the respect of others (gangster discourse). According to Sandberg (2009b), within the same individuals, these subcultural discourses alternate with discourses in which the subjects speak of themselves as victims, whose delinquent behavior is dictated by circumstances and by the alienating characteristics of an oppressive society (oppression discourses). The Norwegian drug addicts studied by this author told stories about themselves that made them seem worthy of respect and capable of making personal choices. They did not portray themselves as victims of their situation but rather as possessors of a moral self, which made them feel that they were on the same level as the members of conventional society. However, at other moments, and sometimes at the same moment, these subjects portrayed themselves as interesting and smart and occasionally even as dangerous—although always with the aim of gaining respect. Thus, this research again confirms that self-narratives tend to depict the unwanted aspects of the self as extraneous to the protagonist of the story, who must maintain a minimum of self-esteem by justifying himself and legitimizing his or her own “goodness,” while the negative aspects are projected outward (see also Sandberg, 2009a).

Following the same line of argument, Sandberg, Tutenges, and Copes (2015) analyze the use that subjects (in this case, imprisoned drug pushers in Norway) make of various narratives. These subjects portray themselves variously as rational individuals who use violence to intimidate others or to construct a tough image of themselves; as moral actors who neutralize the reprehensible aspects of their behavior by appealing to loftier values; and as mistreated and oppressed victims who have survived a hostile environment. As can be seen, the first category of narrations refers to the values of a violent subculture (Andersen’s code of the street), while the second two connect with the values of broader society through use of neutralization techniques. Each story told contains variations on the themes illustrated and lends itself to different interpretations, hence constituting the basis for the different theories mentioned earlier (see also Sandberg, Tutenges and Copes, 2015). According to the narrative criminologists, it is precisely the multiplicity of the narratives utilized and their dependence on the subject’s institutional or interactional context (interdiscursivity) that have allowed criminologists to formulate theories that often summarize only one of the aspects observed, while neglecting alternative and apparently antithetical aspects. In other words, the scientific narrative may constitute a simplifying generalization of offenders’ narratives, which in reality are far more changeable and multidetermined than may be expected.

The complex and multifaceted nature of self-representation clearly emerges from the above quoted study of the different versions of the self in Anders Behring Breivik’s “Manifesto,” a long document posted on the Internet shortly before the homicidal spree on the Norwegian island of Utoya. Breivik intended to fight, as a warrior of a new order, against Muslims and foreigners. Sandberg (2013) shows that, far from providing a unified image of his personality, Breivik depicts himself as having four identities: “the professional revolutionary,” “the evangelist,” “the pragmatic conservative,” and “the social and likeable person.” Having considered whether this was a concrete strategy or a matter of the subject’s incapability, Sandberg seems to favor the second hypothesis. Also David Adkisson’s written declaration before the crime, and the content of Presser’s post-crime interviews, contain major discrepancies between the offender’s depiction of himself as a victim of the system and his intention, at the same time, to destroy those he deemed a threat to America. The author postulates that Adkisson was prompted to depict himself as a victim in order to conceal an evident desire for violent retaliation and invokes psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and criminologists open to psychoanalysis, such as Tony Jefferson, in order to understand the origins of this attitude (Presser, 2012). Similarly, a paper by Yardley, Wilson, Kemp, and Brookes (2015) reveals the multiform self-images provided by an ex-inmate of the prison therapeutic community of Grendon (UK): some five “narrative identities.” The study shows that the therapeutic experience provided support for the narratives connected with desistance, while those linked to transgression were relegated to a lower position, although, as the authors note, they were by no means abandoned.

These cases show, as also argued by Miller, Carbone-Lopez, and Gunderman (2015), that there exist “important gaps in individuals’ stories,” providing “important opportunities for theorizing about the meanings of such contradictions, raising questions about the explanatory power of narratives for understanding social action” (p. 91). Colvin (2015), however, stresses that offenders are “normally” the authors of self-narrations that are often contradictory, heterogeneous, and even incongruous, such as those of great characters in literature: part good, part bad, sometimes shifting from good to bad and back again. In this sense, the search for unified narratives can be seen as stemming from the difficulty of researchers—looking for a “mother plot”—in conceiving the incongruous bottom of our fragmented identities.

A question remains open, possibly connected to the degree of capacity shown by the subject of changing oneself and changing the world: “how far” is the subject aware that he or she is adopting a narrative register of one type or another? In other words, are we looking at the conscious utilization of the different ways of portraying oneself (i.e., the Goffmanian presentations of the self) or at unconscious constructions linked to particular conditions of the subject? To put it another way, is it a matter of “states of Self” to which different, co-present narratives of self correspond, in a sort of “multitasking” enacted by a subject capable of agency? Or is there a series of narratives that “recount” the subject, one who is not fully in control and who is defined by the discourse that unwinds by writing the plots of his or her own narratives? Here, we can discern a series of important connections with psychoanalytical reflection and psychosocial criminology (Francia & Verde, 2015), which could affect both the evaluation of the subject for criminological treatment and the possibility to engage in prosocial and reform activities.

Section 4. Storied Identity and Widespread Discourses: Narrative Criminology Opens to Structural and Cultural Influences

In the previous paragraph, we have shown that narrative criminology has discovered the situationally determined and multiple nature of offenders’ narratives, which refer to commonly held discourses and to cultural attitudes and values.

This passage constitutes an important step forward in the field, inasmuch it allows the connection with concepts and theories about the social production of narratives that limit and shape the ways in which one can narratively express oneself. Narratives no longer appear insulated and limited to the subject but rather connect and integrate that subject in the social field, providing a definition and a role (in this view, roles are no longer conceived as fixed positions in a social structure but as narrative roles—i.e., narrative definitions of oneself).

In this way, as pointed out by Fleetwood (2016), narrative criminology directly addresses the way in which the subject may be constituted by the social setting or power structure. According to Fleetwood, the dualistic relationship between the subject’s agency and the determining role of the social structure should be replaced by a more complex one. In other words, subjects narrate themselves by means of the modalities granted to them by the social structure to which they belong, in a dialectic relationship: Brookman (2015, p. 210) again quotes Bamberg (2004, p. 226), who asserts that “subjects position themselves in relation to discourses by which they are positioned” by the structural and discursive environments which surround him.

But at what levels can we situate these “discourses” that express the determining power of an “apparatus” (dispositif) (to employ this important concept from Foucault, 1981) that determines the narrations that the culture makes available to the subject? Loseke (2007) importantly shows that storied identities can be expressed at three levels: a macro level (cultural identities), a meso level (institutional and organizational identities), and a micro level (personal identities); it also reveals that, on descending from the cultural to the personal level, narratives become less generic and more individualized, while overlapping one another. Thus, at the individual level, subjects may define themselves through reference to narratives of a higher level: “In other words, people form identities by connecting abstract cultural and organizational narratives to personal narratives of self” (Copes, 2016, p. 195). At the cultural level, Loseke calls these narratives “formula stories,” and connects them with the various philosophical, anthropological, and sociological theories, among which the Foucauldian and Bourdieusian approaches stand out in terms of their utilization by narrative criminology. Clearly, every narrative is imbued with a variety of cultural references, which are often only implicitly referred to; it may therefore be more or less ambiguous and lend itself to the interpretations of the various narratees.

From this point of view, the “labels” typical of interactionist criminology and of labeling theory can be regarded as cultural and institutional narratives implicit in particular social roles in which individuals may be collocated. Thus, the label may become the trope that summarizes the definitions of the negative self on the part of the generalized other (Mead, 1967) or the phantom community (Athens, 1994) that the subject is called upon to deal with. The individual may accept the label as inevitable, or actively and agenticly struggle against it, as is the case, for example, of those who wish to put aside their deviant ways; indeed, this is the attitude of desisters in Maruna (2001), as was subsequently highlighted by Presser (2008). In such cases, the subject shakes off the label by constructing a positive self-image that can withstand the negative events and pursues change and self-assertiveness (see also Stones, 2015).

Coming to the connections of narrative criminology to Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s theorizations, both approaches, apart from their conspicuous differences, underscore the influence on the subject’s narratives by structural and cultural factors.

The link to Bourdieu’s theory has been developed mainly by Sveinung Sandberg and Jennifer Fleetwood (Sandberg, 2009a; Fleetwood, 2016; Shammas & Sandberg, 2016; Sandberg & Fleetwood, 2016): as is widely known, Bourdieu’s contribution has renovated the sociological approach, reforming the concept of “capital,” including in it non-material values and defining four kinds of capital (economical, social, cultural, symbolic) (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Narrative criminology approaches this complex theorization referring to two Bourdieusian concepts: field and habitus, which are interconnected. In this vision, society is composed by different fields, and in them individuals interconnect and fight. According to Shammas and Sandberg (2016, p. 196), “Field theory is relational in the sense that the domains of social action are interconnected with agents circulating between them and existing in relation to one another . . . Agents struggle over positions and prizes within fields, which is to say that they compete for scarce resources and the right to dominate the direction that the field takes.” The fields are characterized by borders more or less permeable, and the subjects occupy in them differentiate positions, according to the quantity of capital they possess. The authors apply such concepts to the phenomenon of street culture, arriving at the definition of a “street capital” detained by the subjects immersed in the street field. Particularly important are the concepts of cultural capital—the competence needed and the skill requested in order to survive and acquire power in the street milieu (Sandberg, 2008) and that of social capital, represented by the social network the subjects can refer to (Shammas & Sandberg, 2016).

The subjects’ narrative capacity, in this vision, is determined by the field and the amount of capital possessed: Bourdieu speaks of a habitus, an attitude of the subject, who tends “naturally” to interiorize the social field and the power relationships, which is usually taken for granted and often not visible and that determines one’s narrative and actions. Fleetwood (2016), however, provides an interpretation of the concept that renders the subject far more capable of agency than it would appear. In Fleetwood’s view, the habitus is still a “narrative habitus,” and that

the internalization of the narrative doxa [the available discourses] pertaining to the field, including vocabulary, narrative formats, tropes, discursive formats and subject positions etc. Creativity is possible within the limits prescribed by the habitus. The narrative habitus structures individuals’ narratives and narrative identity. It sustains and motivates action in two ways: narratives may be habitual, as ongoing rationalizations for behaviors, or evaluations may take place through the narrative. Finally, narrative doxa pertaining to fields structures how stories are received, including notions of truth (Fleetwood, 2016, p. 183).

In other words, the subject can have (relative) freedom and can exercise agency through the possibility, which Bourdieu also envisioned, of belonging to several “fields”; this is like saying that the habitus is always complex and can give rise to different narrations. An example of this has been provided by Fleetwood herself in a paper in which she points out that female drug dealers, through their self-narratives and by using their belonging to different cultural and social contexts, maintain an identity and a sense of agency (Fleetwood, 2015b). In another paper, based on 40 interviews with imprisoned Norwegian drug dealers, and with regard to the construction of “street capital” in the Bourdieusian sense, Sandberg and Fleetwood (2016) showed that the “field” the individuals belong to also structures itself through the sharing of narratives based on a narrative repertoire available to the actors. Sandberg and Fleetwood also showed that the subjects participate actively in the field’s construction.

Another important aspect is that references to generalized and shared concepts are often made through the use of narratives that are “pre-constituted” at the social level. There is even use of “abbreviated narratives” (formula stories, tropes), which can belong to different fields and need only to be mentioned in order to be understood by the interlocutor. While the relationship of narratives with tropes has been addressed by Sandberg (2016), the concept of “formula story,” which originated with Loseke (2007), has been developed by a group of European and American scholars (Brookman, Copes, & Hochstetler, 2011; Brookman, 2015). Through the use of tropes and formulas, narrations can refer, even elliptically, to whole galaxies of meaning; and the choice of whether to identify subjects or phenomena in one way or another can profoundly influence the tone and nature of the narratives themselves.

The other important contribution that narrative criminology has made reference to is the application to the sociological analysis of the Foucauldian theory. It is well known that the French philosopher regarded the “discourse” as a way of seeing things that is germane to a given sociocultural context. In this perspective, according to Foucault, “Events have to be narrated, and they are therefore embedded in our common pool of interpretative resources, described by Foucault as the ‘archive’” (Sandberg, 2010, p. 454). This would constitute an imposition and “a violence which we do to things, or in any case as a practice which we impose on them; and it is in this practice that the events of discourse find the principle of their regularity” (Foucault, 1981, p. 67). From this perspective, things are taken as “natural,” but in reality they are ordered according to an “apparatus” (dispositif) that orients thought and practice, while delimiting the épisteme and the field of observation—a sort of “artificial horizon” (Ceretti, 1992) in which every discursive practice, and therefore also every narrative, is placed. Here, however, the problem identified at the end of the previous section arises once more: if we adopt this point of view, how successfully are subjects able to make voluntary use of the discursive positions accessible to them? And to what extent are their views limited by the field they are immersed in? The dialectics between structure and agency resurface, but, again, narrative criminology depicts an image of relative possibility of agency. As Sandberg shows, referring to the Foucauldian concept of “discourse,” the Norwegian drug dealers, in their description of themselves, resort to different sets of self-definitionsdepicting themselves both as “victims” of an unjust situation and beneficiaries of the support of the social welfare, as well as members of a subcultural group who couch their beliefs in the language of violence (Sandberg, 2009b; Sandberg, Tutenges, & Copes, 2015), showing their capacity to adjust their narratives according to the context, in order to obtain advantages.

Cultural and Institutional Narratives that Expel or Reintegrate

Another major—and as yet unexplored—area of research in the narrative field concerns the presence of cultural and institutional narratives, in the words of Loseke (2007), regarding crime and deviance from the point of view of respectable society. Such narratives are located both at the general level—that of modes of thinking and of public opinion—and at more institutional levels: that is, those of the individual institutions of the penal justice system and of the rehabilitative system. Within this latter field fall the narratives of the judiciary and of treatment institutions, as well as those of criminology itself, as asserted by Ceretti (1992). Clearly, it is such institutional and group narratives thatdeviant criminal subjects have to reckon with and to fight in order to gain power, at least in Bourdieusian terms.

At the cultural level, the Bourdieusian and Foucauldian concepts crop up again here, but this time, in a manner that is only apparently paradoxical, narratives can prescribe not only criminal violence but also legitimate violence. Presser tackles this theme in Why We Harm (Presser, 2014), in which she talks about violence that is “legitimately” exercised and motivated: see, for example, the author’s examination of narratives that legitimate practices deemed lawful, such as eating meat. Leaving aside literature on totalitarian states, Presser also looks at the narratives that describe, define, label, and ban the object of social reaction, as masterfully illustrated 50 years ago by Matza (1969). Keeton (2015) points out how, in 19th-century literature on the rush to colonize the American West, the Bible was frequently invoked (the Promised Land, Jacob’s deception) in order to legitimize the deportation and extermination of the “Indians.” Similarly, Tognato (2015) points out that the director of the Italian ministerial agency for tax collection has often utilized common family-related rhetoric to depict tax evaders as bad “heads of the family” in order to mobilize public opinion against tax evasion. This type of legitimization provided by narratives finds ample connection with the anthropological work of René Girard. Girard (1986) showed that some narratives have been utilized as veritable “texts of persecution” in order to construct the “other” as a scapegoat (Verde & Bongiorno Gallegra, 2008).

In general, this level also includes the widespread narratives regarding the utility and the objective of punishment, which portray offenders as subject to be treated in any number of ways: all the various ideologies of “treatment” or of “just deserts” find their legitimization here and are spread by means of the media and cultural debate.

At the intermediate level, by contrast, the narratives of the repressive society manifest themselves in the typical stories and the tropes of every institution that deals with offenders. Indeed, the police, the courts, and the individual treatment institutions construct “stories,” proper to their fields and subfields, that are utilized by the agents of social control, from both informal and formal standpoints, to systematize/justify their own intervention and self-image and those of the institution, and to report their activity in writing (police reports, court decisions, accounts of treatment). From this point of view, police narratives have been thoroughly studied (a vast literature is cited by van Hulst, 2013), as well, more recently, the narratives of the staffs of immigration centers (Ugelvik, 2016), showing that telling stories is constitutive of the identity of social control agents. In these cases, even when the “other” is not constructed as a scapegoat, the narratives serve to highlight the narrator’s own role, to define the self and the other, and to legitimize one’s own behavior.

There are important differences in the way in which such institutional narratives are forged and utilized by different social actors. For instance, Verde, Angelini, Boverini, and Majorana (2005) pointed out that among the authors of psychiatric reports for the assessment of insanity in Italy, those inclined to incorporate the offender’s telling into the institutional punishment narrative make more frequent use of psychiatric scientific language; they are also less prone to describing the suffering and tragedy of the situation, which are, by contrast, more clearly expressed in the reports of authors that are more open to the dimension of “otherness.”

With regard to rehabilitative/therapeutic matters, Andersen (2015), analyzing the narrative practices in drug addict treatment centers in Denmark, points out that institutional narratives can vary across the different trecenters, and residents may use different narratives to explain their reasons for undergoing treatment and their subsequent change; likewise, relapse into substance abuse may be conceived differently. Indeed, there are institutional formulas that clients must follow if they want to continue treatment. This evaluation echoes the results of research in psychotherapy, which has shown that patients tend to “adapt” (even in their dreams) to the orientation adopted by their therapist. Another paper by the same author deals with assessments of the “authenticity” or “non-authenticity” of the statements made by drug addicts under treatment. The reasons why their narratives appear to be inauthentic to the operators of rehabilitative facilities have to do with the drug addicts’ passivity, the presence of ulterior motives (often connected with opportunistic aspects and advantages), and finally the presence of psychiatric problems (Andersen, 2014).

In sum, narratives motivate not only deviant and criminal acts but also the general social reaction and the communities and institutions that deal with deviants and criminals. Narratives also reflect the complex and ambivalent attitudes that permeate both punitive and treatment institutions, not to mention society in general.

Connections and Conclusions

Thus far, this article has sketched the broadest possible panorama of the origins, developments, and current orientations of narrative criminology, describing an initial approach in which it shows the picture of the criminal subject given by the narratives that precede and follow the crime: a subject in search of a unitary dimension but that is often poorly integrated, disordered, and inconsistent. But there has subsequently been also a broadening of the borders of narrative criminology, in its connection with important sociological and cultural theories, and description of a subject capable of agency. even if determined by the social structure and by inner forces and able, to a greater or lesser degree,to position him/herself and to withstand the collective or structural narratives he/she is immersed in.

Not that we claim that this is the picture of a “new” criminal subject; rather, it reflects the ability that this new “lens” allows us to see what was previously concealed by the social structure and the dominant culture: on one side, what Lacan (1991) called the substantially imaginary nature of human identity (which pretends to be unitary while it is fragmented) and from the other side its determination by structural (possibly discursive), not-wholly-conscious, and only partially controllable elements. The first discipline to reveal the individual’s substantial emptiness was psychoanalysis, in its non-positivist version, which enabled us to discern inner narratives of which the subject is unaware and that can only be recounted through meeting with another person who enters with him into a relationship of friendship, love, or therapy.

Here, important bonds can be forged with other currents of criminology. Subjects’ narratives provide an access to the individual’s interior and historical dimension. In this regard, the psychosocial criminology of Gadd and Jefferson (2007) (and psychosocial studies in general) have played this important role and have revealed that individuals may make use of collective discursive dimensions (see, for example, the veritable “psychosocial” clinical cases analyzed by these authors, including the well-known cases of Mike Tyson—cf. Jefferson, 1996; 1998—and Jeffrey Dahmer—cf. Gadd & Jefferson, 2007) precisely in order to defend themselves and to stave off anguish that dates back to childhood conflicts.

Clearly, all of this has obliged narrative criminology to be receptive to the unsaid, to the tropes, to the ellipses, evoked (re-narrated) in the narratee, interlocutor of the narrator (Sandberg, 2016). The narratives therefore shift from the speaker to the listener, especially if the speaker does not narrate them in full, but evokes them not only through his/her appearance and personal characteristics, but also through his/her deviant or criminal acts; it is here that the connection and the dialectics of narrative criminology are collocated with cultural and visual criminology (Aspden & Hayward, 2015; Carrabine, 2016; Copes & Ragland, 2016). Thus, as asserted by Katz (1988), a crime may constitute the acting out of a preceding narrative. Or it may express an implicit narrative that is externalized through actions instead of words and waiting for a narrator; then again, a narrative may elicit other narratives that are more hidden and complex. According to Aspden and Hayward (2015), “For narrative and psychosocial criminologists, the issue is what lies beneath the surface of the articulated account: the negative and destructive psychodynamic meanings and symbols that are hinted at in the data but that require subsequent excavation and interpretation” (p. 241). Aspden and Hayward (2015) mention however that a difference exists, in that “. . . cultural criminologists recognize that while the criminal act may be pure, it is almost always emblematic of wider socio-cultural and psycho-dynamic forces that are only partially understood by the transgressor” (p. 241) and refer to the strictly cultural aspects of transgression in a given epoch and in a given social context (constitutive criminologists could surely agree). However, references to the formula stories, to the tropes, to the discourses and to the habitus allow us to think about such difference as fading and to conceive of a narrative criminology that is receptive to other narrations and to the collective and individual dimensions. It is a narrative criminology that finds its borders in what is not said, what often cannot be said, what is untellable, the Lacanian terrible Real, the death and ending of the subject (Presser, 2016).

In sum, there exists a common ground with other important approaches, just as there exists the potential for useful and advantageous reciprocal inputs: this article has argued that the narrative approach is firmly positioned in the criminological panorama of the new millennium, with the awareness that it is only by recognizing and studying complexity that criminology can develop.

Further Reading

Presser, L. (2008). Been a heavy life: Stories of violent men. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Presser, L. (2009). The narratives of the offenders. Theoretical Criminology, 13(2), 177–200.Find this resource:

Presser, L. (2010). Collecting and analyzing the stories of offenders. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 21(4), 431–446.Find this resource:

Presser, L. (2012). Getting on top through mass murder: Narrative, metaphor, and violence. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(1), 3–21.Find this resource:

Presser, L. (2014). Why we harm. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

Presser, L. (2016). Criminology and the narrative turn. Crime, Media, Culture, 12(2), 137–151.Find this resource:

Presser, L., & Sandberg, S. (Eds.). (2015a). Narrative criminology: Understanding stories of crime. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S. (2009a). A narrative search for respect. Deviant Behavior, 30(6), 487–510.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S. (2009b). Gangster, victim or both? The interdiscursive construction of sameness and difference in self-presentations. British Journal of Sociology, 60(3), 523–542.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S. (2010). What can ‘lies’ tell us about life? Notes towards a framework of narrative criminology. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 21(4), 447–465.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S. (2013). Are self-narratives strategic or determined, unified or fragmented? Reading Breivik’s Manifesto in light of narrative criminology. Acta Sociologica, 56(1), 69–83.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S. (2016). The importance of stories untold: Life-story, event-story and trope. Crime, Media, Culture, 12(2), 153–171.Find this resource:

Sandberg, S., & Fleetwood, J. (2016). Street talk and Bourdieusian criminology: Bringing narrative to field theory. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 1–17.Find this resource:

Shammas, V. L., & Sandberg, S. (2016). Habitus, capital, and conflict: Bringing Bourdieusian field theory to criminology. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 16(2), 195–213.Find this resource:


Adjiembaks, S. (2015). Countering the master:Taboo, secrets and stigma in lifestories of resisters. Paper presented at the Panel on Narrative Criminology, European Society of Criminology (ESC), Eurocrim 2015, 15th Annual Conference of the ESC, September 2–5, 2015, University of Porto, Portugal. Abstract in ESC Eurocrim 2015: Book of Abstracts, Porto, 116.Find this resource:

Agnew, R. (2006). Storylines as a neglected cause of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 43(2), 119–147.Find this resource:

Andersen, D. (2014). Storytelling in drug treatment: How professionals make sense of what they consider inauthentic client claims. Contemporary Drug Problems, 41(4), 491–506.Find this resource:

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