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date: 24 January 2018

Popular Criminology

Summary and Keywords

Popular criminology is a theoretical and conceptual approach within the field of criminology that is used to interrogate popular understandings of crime and criminal justice. In the last decade, popular criminology has most often been associated with analyses of fictional crime film, while in previous decades, popular criminology referred most often to “true crime” literature or, more generally, to popular ideas about crime and justice. While the term has appeared sporadically in the criminological literature for several decades, popular criminology is most closely associated with the work of American criminologist Nicole Rafter. Popular criminology refers in a broad sense to the ideas that ordinary people have about the causes, consequences, and remedies for crime, and the relationship of these ideas to academic discourses about crime. Criminologists who utilize this approach examine popular culture as a source of commonsense ideas and perceptions about crime and criminal justice. Films, television, the Internet, and literature about crime and criminal justice are common sources of popular criminology interrogated by criminologists working in this field. Popular criminology is an analytic tool that can be used to explore the emotional, psychological, and philosophical features of crime and criminal justice that find expression in popular culture. The popular cultural depiction of crime is taken seriously by criminologists working in this tradition and such depictions are placed alongside mainstream criminological theory in an effort to broaden the understanding of the impact of crime and criminal justice on the lives of everyday people. Popular criminology has become solidified as an approach within the broader cultural criminology movement which seeks to examine the interconnections between crime, culture and media.

Keywords: popular culture, criminology, criminal justice, film, television, literature, true crime, theory

Toward a Popular Criminology

The term “popular criminology” refers to the connections and interplay between academic discourses about crime—such as those found in academic books, scholarly journal articles, and criminological theory—and discourses about crime found in popular culture—literature, film, television, the Internet, and in general public attitudes. The use of the term popular criminology has historically taken several forms. First, popular criminology may refer to efforts to popularize criminological concepts by appealing to the general public through the conventions of popular culture. Straddling a fine line between “true crime” and criminological scholarship, this first form of popular criminology seeks primarily to popularize professional and academic ideas about the causes, consequences, and solutions to crime by appealing to a mass audience. A second form of popular criminology links the politics of crime control to widespread popular attitudes and beliefs about crime that circulate via popular culture and mass media. In this sense, popular criminology refers to the interplay between popular ideas about crime and crime control, and the development of criminal justice policy. A third approach to popular criminology refers to efforts to analyze the interplay between academic discourses about crime and its control and the representation of crime and control in popular culture. Adopting a more neutral and analytical stance than the other two forms of popular criminology, this third variant of popular criminology provides a set of conceptual tools for interrogating the relationship between popular culture and criminology. It is in this last sense that most contemporary criminologists researching media and popular culture understand and use the term popular criminology and the bulk of the discussion below will concentrate on this latter use of the concept.

Popularizing Criminology

True Crime

At the intersection of popular literature and criminological analysis lies the true crime genre. True crime is a category of literature that consists of “nonfiction narratives based on actual events, packaged and promoted for entertainment as ‘leisure reading’” (Biressi, 2001, p. 1). Mass marketed, anchored steadfastly in truth claims, and promising to lift the veil on crime and the criminal justice system, the true crime genre has a rich history. According to Rawlings (1998), the earliest example of true crime literature was The Fraternity of the Vagabonds (1561), which described “‘the criminal underworld’ in fairly general terms” (Rawlings, 1998, para. 6). Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) is often cited as the origin of the contemporary true crime literary form. In Cold Blood was a groundbreaking “nonfiction novel” detailing the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas (Tompkins, 1966, p. 125). Through detailed exploration of the killers’ motivations and biographies, Capote provided a popular cultural forum to consider the causes of violent crime in American society, while commenting critically about capital punishment. For Rawlings (1998), “popular criminology” and “true crime” are synonymous. He defines popular criminology as follows:

Popular criminology covers a wide range of apparently factual material, but is, usually, concerned with a particular crime or criminal and the process of detection. It is aimed at a non-specialist market, is cheap, easily available and easy to read. Popular criminologists use techniques familiar to journalists and crime novelists to heighten the tension and to get the pages turning.

(Rawlings, 1998, para. 2)

Importantly, true crime, or “popular criminology,” has key contrasting features when compared with mainstream academic criminology. The former is usually concerned with a single case while the latter focuses on “crime and criminals in bulk” (Rawlings, 1998, para. 4). Academic criminology is a serious and sober discourse with its own specialized vocabulary that is largely inaccessible to lay audiences. Rawlings (1998) colorfully describes the difference between academic and popular criminological discourses:

Academic criminology regards itself as scientific: presenting facts, theories and conclusions in a dispassionate and undramatic manner. It avoids the accessibility which popular criminology craves through the use of obfuscatory language and footnotes, and by burying itself in the catacombs of conferences, journals and books.

(Rawlings, 1998, para. 5)

Similarly, Peay (1998, para. 6) asserts that “academic criminology, through the very methodology it chooses to adopt, requires constant qualification. In stark contrast, popular criminology, with its focus on individual cases, enjoys a spurious certainty and confidence.” True crime as popular criminology is a discourse about crime and crime control that may be read alongside more conventional criminological discourses, but it is a discourse with a distinct style and set of attributes that are in opposition to the approach of academic criminologists and social scientists more generally. Taylor (1999) suggests that a key feature of the true crime genre is an “insistent representation of the criminal in terms of one or other individualistic account—that is of the individual criminal” (pp. 1–2). While sociologically oriented criminologists would find such accounts overly simplistic and reductionist, Bretherick (2006) points out that, in fact, individualistic explanations for criminal offending have held sway historically as well as in more contemporary times where there is a “renewed interest and resulting growth within academic criminology of this individualistic and pathologised view of the violent criminal” (p. 81). Nevertheless, because of its focus on individual, exceptional, and often high-profile criminal cases, and because of the emphasis on the veracity of the source material, the “true crime” genre—or “popular criminology”—provides validation for popular anxieties about crime and violence:

Readers, therefore, bring to true crime their own fears and experiences of crime, of random violence and more generally of injury, abuse and death. The underscoring of “truth,” authenticity and actuality in the promotion of true crime stories about violence and atrocity arguably signals to the reader that these are not foolish fears but patently grounded in verifiable and often notorious fact.

(Biressi, 2001, pp. 9–10)

For Peay (1998), popular criminology’s focus on individual exceptional cases rather than crime in the aggregate leads to the twin processes of “demonizing” and “normalizing,” which she asserts are “of course, a form of simplification of issues, designed to promote maximum impact” (para. 8). Nevertheless, true crime epitomizes popular criminology in that it combines professional and popular discourses about the causes and consequences of crime while focusing on the emotional, philosophical, and psychological dimensions of offending (Rafter, 2007). The true crime genre has helped to popularize a particular conception of criminology and criminality and in so doing, implies a particular approach to crime control. For Taylor (1999) academic criminology has mirrored developments in popular culture: “violent crime movies and the Real Crime books are an expression of a search that has also been being encouraged throughout the 1980s and 1990s in some parts of the academy, especially on the part of clinical psychiatrists and behavioural psychologists” (p. 2). True crime has helped to popularize forensic science and psychological profiling and has thus shifted the focus toward explorations of offender pathology rather than the social contexts of offending. Serial murder in particular has been at the forefront of the genre and is a frequent subject for contemporary true crime authors like Patricia Cornwell, Ann Rule, and John E. Douglas. By shifting the focus to the motivation for serious serial offenders rather than the social contexts of more typical forms of crime, the true crime genre provides a popular cultural endorsement of criminal justice policies that emphasize punishment, deterrence and incapacitation. As Taylor (1999) puts it, “cinematic and televisual representations, and the accompanying forensic and socio-biological literature, are helping to construct and legitimize a form of commonsense and populist criminology” (p. 2).

While the true crime genre is generally the purview of retired investigators, former deputy district attorneys, and writers of creative fiction, some academics have also been at the forefront of popularizing criminological concepts and analysis. These efforts are discussed in detail in section below.

Popular Criminological Scholarship

While the true crime genre bridges professional and lay discourses about crime in a popular literary form, academic criminology may also make use of literary and journalistic styles in an effort to popularize criminological concepts, reach a wider audience and, of course, sell books. American historian Robert Buffington (2000) notes examples of the interplay between “scientific criminology” and “popular criminology” in the work of early 20th-century Mexican criminologist Carlos Roumagnac. In writing Criminales en Mexico: Ensayo de Psicologia Criminal (1904), Roumagnac rhetorically positioned himself as more an “aficionado” of crime than a scientist. According to Buffington (2000), this was a deliberate strategy to attract a general readership for the monograph and Roumagnac could therefore be seen as a “popularizer, someone who could convey basic criminological concepts along with their attendant ideological baggage to an uninitiated if eager reading public” (p. 67). Roumagnac’s writing popularized elite ideas about crime and criminality in Mexico by employing a journalistic writing style and literary techniques of storytelling: “he used his technical mastery of various symbolic languages to weave scientific criminology into a fabric of existing concerns” (p. 68). Thus, Roumagnac’s work can be understood as a popular form of criminological scholarship aimed at popularizing professional criminology by refashioning these ideas within popular literary forms for mass consumption.

A more contemporary example of popular criminological scholarship can be found in the many popular books of Canadian criminologist Neil Boyd, who has reached a mass audience through the use of literary and journalistic techniques that play upon popular fascination, fear, and anxiety about violent crime, drug use, and the rise of feminism and political correctness. In the forward to Boyd’s Canadian bestseller Last Dance: Murder in Canada (1988) he describes his approach to writing a popular volume about homicide:

This book is an attempt to combine academic analysis with popular culture—to describe killings in a way that will both interest and inform the reader. For the most part, I am telling stories—about people who kill family, about people who kill their friends, and so on.

(Boyd, 1988, p. vii)

Thus, like Roumagnac a century earlier, Boyd employs literary structures of storytelling to bring criminological analyses to a mass audience. In a Globe and Mail review of Boyd’s book Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality (2004)—a blunt critique of radical feminism—the reviewer, herself an academic in the behavioral sciences, gave high marks for Boyd’s accessible style and disdain for traditional modes of academic writing:

Boyd is writing about academics, but he does not write like one. That, combined with a certain acerbity, makes Big Sister a good read. (It also helps that it is short.) The book is free of the usual jargon, and it even includes a well-deserved swipe at postmodernism and its pernicious effects on critical thinking.

(Warner, 2004)

Likewise, Boyd’s popular examination of male violence The Beast Within: Why Men Are Violent (2000) elicited a similar reaction from Canadian criminologist Gabor (2001), who enthused that the book “is a genuine tour de force on perhaps the best predictor of violence—gender. In an accessible volume of less than 200 pages, Boyd presents persuasive evidence on the biological underpinnings of male violence” (p. 290). The popular criminological scholarship of Boyd is but one example of accessibly written, mass-marketed books by academic criminologists that present concepts related to the study of crime and criminals to a mass audience. Similarly, Canadian criminal psychologist Robert Hare’s best-selling, mass-marketed books on psychopathy extend the reach of his research beyond academic and practitioner communities and firmly place the concept of the psychopath into the popular imaginary. Bestselling books by Hare such at Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths among Us (1993) and Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2006) present criminological concepts to mass audiences and provide popular templates for understanding predatory crime. Importantly, while Hare’s books offer simplified explanations for criminal offending, he goes much further by connecting to popular anxieties about random predatory violence. At the end of Hare (1993) there is a practical “Survival Guide” that asserts: “your best defense is to understand the nature of these human predators” (p. 207). Clocking in at over 200 pages, Hare’s popular books about psychopathy, like Boyd’s books about homicide and male violence, are assessable, concise, and stripped of technical terminology and scholarly references. Deliberately eschewing complex criminological “jargon” and reframing complex issues in short, accessibly written volumes, Hare, Boyd, and other popular criminologists embrace an ethos of simplicity in their narratives about the roots of homicide, male violence, and other criminological phenomenon. This tendency toward simplicity in popular criminology is a defining feature of a late modern shift in criminological thinking that has been noted by Garland (2000). Describing the writing style of American criminologist Marcus Felson in his popular textbook Crime and Everyday Life (Felson, 1998), Garland (2000) argues that “keeping it simple” is a deliberate rhetorical strategy used to reframe and simplify the causes of crime and potential societal responses to offending behavior. However, while Felson eschews complex criminological concepts, his work has reshaped criminological thinking by advocating a “criminology of the self” that tends to dedramatize criminal offending, while firmly locating the causes of crime within a rational-choice framework (Garland, 2001, p. 184). While popular criminologists such as Hare and Boyd share Felson’s penchant for keeping it simple in their prose, they tend to tackle more dramatic subject matter like murder and serial offending. Unlike Felson’s rhetorical efforts to “dedramatize” many forms of crime, popular criminology tends to reinforce what Garland (2001, p. 184) calls the “criminology of the other” which tends to “redramatize” crime “depicting it in melodramatic terms” (p. 184).

Thus, popular criminological scholarship resembles in style, tone, and subject matter the “true crime” literature written by nonacademic authors such as Patricia Cornwell, Vincent Bugliosi, Ann Rule, and John E. Douglas. Popular criminological scholarship presents criminological concepts—like psychopathy and biological theories of male violence—in simplified terms to a mass audience and thus popularizes criminology by presenting it in an accessible and marketable style. True crime and popular criminological scholarship both buttress popular anxieties about the nature of crime and foreground individual explanations of offending. This literature contrasts with scientific or academic discourses about crime and punishment in tone and style, but may at the same time align with and take up contemporary scholarly theory and approaches. True crime and popular criminological scholarship constitutes one manifestation of popular criminology. However, while Hare and Boyd present ideas about crime and criminal justice that may imply a particular ideological or political standpoint on crime control, there are other examples of popular criminology more intimately tied to the politics of law, order, and justice.

Politicizing Criminology

Notions of populism and “the popular” are central to a politically engaged criminology. Ian Taylor, in Law and Order: Arguments for Socialism (1981) invokes the idea of popular justice in his reimagination of the criminal justice system. He asserts that “social democratic politics has to be reconstructed in a ‘popular democratic’ form” (Taylor, 1981, p. 100). For McMullan (1986, p. 177), Taylor’s polemic is a call for “a popular criminology,” where the people are introduced into the justice process and the institutions of criminal justice are demystified and placed under the democratic control of the public. For Taylor (1981, p. 176) law making must be wrenched from its “traditional class location.” McMullan (1986, p. 177) asserts that

this would be achieved by promoting political action at the local level, and by increasing working class representation in policing, corrections, and the courts, creating thereby a popular justice that would be “authentically responsible to popular demands for justice and social defence.

In a later essay titled “A Popular Criminology for Canada” (in Taylor, 1983), Taylor expressly links the development of a socialist criminology to the term “popular criminology.” Taylor calls for “a popular form of justice that demands a radical decentering and democratization of the police, courts, and prisons” as well as a “return to ‘peoples [sic] justice’” (McMullan, 1986, p. 186). In sum, Taylor’s work expressly draws links between popular socialist democratic movements and popular control of the justice process in a conception of popular criminology. However, this use of the term largely faded in subsequent decades. Nevertheless, the notion of the popular—and the will of “the people”—in the development of criminal justice policy has been picked up by subsequent criminologists who highlight the dark side of populism in the policy arena.

In an essay titled “Change and Influence in Popular Criminology: Public Attributions of Crime Causation,” Flanagan (1987) laments the lack of scholarly attention to the perspectives of ordinary people about the causes of crime. He wryly notes: “Unlike most other social and natural science disciplines, criminology is an equal opportunity science. Legislators, reporters, cab drivers, biophysicists, and nearly everyone else knows the causes of crime in American society” (p. 231). However, rather than debunking the viewpoints of nonacademics on the causes of crime, Flanagan instead argues that we ought to make an effort to take these perspectives seriously because “they are an important input into policy decisions regarding crime control approaches” (p. 231). In so doing, 20 years before Nicole Rafter (2007) was to call for criminologists to interrogate popular criminology equally alongside academic discourses about crime, Flanagan (1987) places the concept of “popular criminology” into a broader discussion of lay perceptions of crime and the development of criminal justice policy. Like Rafter two decades later, Flanagan notes that the popular criminology of laypersons exists on a different register than academic criminological discourse. He notes that while “professional criminologists’ statements about crime causation may exhibit the kinds of cautious, probabilistic presentations of conclusions that characterizes scientific research, the public and politicians are not similarly constrained” and, moreover, “the accuracy of public beliefs about crime causation is probably independent of the influence of these beliefs on crime control policy” (Flanagan, 1987, p. 232, original emphasis). More recently, these ideas have come to inform the work of John Pratt. Using the term “penal populism,” Pratt (2007) argues that popular discourses about crime—whether accurate or not—feed into public policy via various interest groups and the mass media. David Garland (2004) noted that his own analysis of the crime control field in Culture of Control tended to privilege official criminological discourses rather than simultaneously interrogating the popular: “the focus on ‘official’ rather than ‘academic’ or even ‘popular’ criminology had the effect of reducing the field’s complexity and reproducing, in my analysis, the marginal status of currently subordinate voices” (Garland, 2004, p. 168). Thus, there is a growing consensus that criminologists can better understand contemporary patterns of crime control by examining the intersection of popular attributions of crime, politics, and public policy. This form of popular criminology, though not normally framed by its exponents as such, comprises a second broad way that we can understand the term.

Popular Culture and Criminology

Beginning shortly before the turn of the 21st century, criminology was reinvigorated by the rise of cultural criminology. Cultural criminology refocused scholarly attention on the connections between crime, culture and communication (Ferrell, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003; Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2008; Ferrell & Sanders, 1995; Presdee, 2000, 2004). Cultural criminology encompasses an array of work investigating “the stylized frameworks and experiential dynamics of illicit subcultures; the symbolic criminalization of popular culture forms; and the mediated construction of crime and crime control issues” (Ferrell, 1999, p. 395). In this new climate of scholarly interest in the connections between crime and culture, formal distinctions began to break down between “criminology” and other types of popular discourses about crime, such as “shadow criminology” (Downes & Rock, 2003, p. 54) or what Garland (2002, p. 18) described as “rudimentary versions” of criminal etiology. Instead, historic and contemporary narratives about crime and justice found in popular culture, literature, music, and art became a legitimate domain for criminological analysis within the new cultural criminology movement. With the rise of cultural criminology, academic and popular cultural narratives about crime have become blurred and their conceptual boundaries eroded (Rafter, 2007, p. 415). Bretherick (2006) explicitly links the rise of the new cultural criminology to what she refers to as “crime as popular culture,” or more simply, “popular criminology.”

Crime as popular culture is, essentially, popular criminology: the representation of crime and criminals in the form of a system of shared meanings, attitudes and values expressed in various forms that are accessible to and experienced by the masses or “the people.” These representations provide the means whereby some form of knowledge about crime and criminals is imparted to, captured or constructed by “the masses.” Popular criminology therefore makes possible the production of this knowledge.

(Bretherick, 2006, p. 75)

Moreover, for Bretherick (2006) cultural criminology provides “a natural home for the study of crime as popular culture in its many forms” (p. 99). Rafter (2007, p. 406) similarly suggested that the study of crime films could “derive a theoretical infrastructure and impetus from the new ‘cultural criminology’ movement.” However, despite this optimistic read of cultural criminology and its affinity for the study of popular culture, Rafter (2007, p. 407) lamented that it had not yet given rise to much in the way of scholarly analysis of crime films. In response, she redeployed the term “popular criminology” in a way that allows criminologists working within a cultural criminological paradigm to take seriously the analysis of fictional crime films as a legitimate discourse about the causes and consequences of crime. In so doing, Rafter (2007) aimed to imbue the study of popular culture about crime with “a stronger sense of purpose by asking: How do crime films relate to criminology?” (p. 406, original emphasis). Moreover, she argued that crime films and popular culture constituted a popular criminology that is “a discourse parallel to academic criminology and of equal social significance” (p. 404). Importantly, Rafter’s reworking of the concept “popular criminology” positions it centrally within the ambit of criminology, as opposed to early formulations of the concept that suggested popular ideas about crime and justice are somehow distinct from the serious and sober study of criminology. Recently, Wilson (2015) has argued that the term “criminology” must be understood as being far broader than the academic or scientific study of crime. He points out that

the early English history of the word criminology, as well as some recent examples such as “convict criminology,” “popular criminology,” and “visual criminology,” suggest that this pursuit can be conducted by prisoners, professionals such as jailers and lawyers, and even artists, in addition to academics. Criminology is usually, but not necessarily, academic. It can be either academic or public.

(Wilson, 2015, p. 77)

In this sense, popular criminology must be understood not as an object of interest to criminologists, but rather as constituting a type of criminology in and of itself. For Rafter (2007, p. 415), criminology may be defined quite simply as all “efforts to understand crime and criminals.” Consequently, fictional films, literature, TV, and other materials that circulate in nonacademic channels may “yield fertile criminological material” (p. 415). But while these popular criminological materials may draw from and parallel some of the tenets of academic wisdom, popular criminology moves beyond the traditional domain of academic criminology and makes central other dimensions of crime, victimization, and criminal justice that are frequently overlooked and seldom included in what Ferrell, Hayward, and Young (2008) colorfully describe as “the most recent unreadable and table-turgid issue of the US journal Criminology” (p. 161). In other words, popular criminology holds the potential for criminologists to cast a light on some of the blind spots and absences of mainstream, academic criminological discourse.

What exactly is the unique domain of popular criminology? For Rafter (2007), the focus of popular criminology emphasizes those features of crime, criminal offending, victimization and justice that don’t easily fit within conventional academically oriented criminology. When discussing the popular criminology of crime films in particular, Rafter notes:

Philosophically, they raise questions concerning the nature of good and evil. Psychologically, they encourage viewers to identify with victims and offenders—even serial killers—whose sexualities, vulnerabilities and moralities may be totally unfamiliar. Ethically, they take passionate moral positions that would be out of place in academic analyses. Crime films constitute a type of discourse different from academic criminology, one with its own types of truth and its own constraints.

(Rafter, 2007, p. 415)

Rafter and Brown (2011, p. 5) further elaborate on the unique “quality” and “texture” of popular criminology, noting that it can speak directly to “diffuse cultural anxieties” that cannot be fully captured by social scientific research. Moreover, popular criminology places “strong emphasis on emotive elements in crime—its adrenaline rush, pleasure, desperation, anger, rage, and humiliation” (p. 5), as well as “need, loss, violation, desire [and] even mourning” (p. 10).

In summary, Rafter’s (2007) reformulation of popular criminology suggests that it is a discourse about crime and criminals that adds to and extends academic discourse, because of the focus on issues and perspectives that are typically not included in academic literatures. Rafter (2007, p. 415) thus suggests that criminology ought to be conceptualized as an “umbrella category that encompasses both academic and popular criminology.” Furthermore, rather than thinking of the two subcategories as existing in a hierarchy, instead the twin discourses of popular and academic criminology are better thought of as constituting “an egalitarian epistemology in which the two ways of knowing are conceived as partners in the task of defining and explaining crime” (Rafter, 2007, p. 415). In a later refinement of this perspective, Rafter and Brown (2011, p. 2) assert that popular criminology is an “innovative discourse” that results when popular culture and academic criminology intersect. They argue that the discourse that results when criminological theory and crime films are in conversation produces “an engagement that leaves both fundamentally transformed” (Rafter & Brown, 2011, p. 2). Thus, academic and popular discourses about crime are not merely parallel discourses that offer explanations for crime and the experience of justice, but rather they are two domains that “interpenetrate and cross-fertilize each other” (p. 2). If this assertion is the case, then we must logically infer that the depiction of crime in film—particularly those alternative or critical films (e.g., Rafter, 2006) that challenge viewers to consider uncomfortable ideas and to think differently about crime and justice—has the potential to feed back into academic discourse and criminal justice policy. Likewise, academic criminologists might be somewhat relieved to know that efforts to advance knowledge about crime and criminal justice have a similar potential to interpenetrate popular culture and possibly enlighten the public about contemporary social scientific thinking about the causes and consequences of crime. Of course, in operation, the space where popular culture and academic criminology meet—the realm of popular criminology—is very much a contested and dynamic space, where meaning is continually negotiated based on competing popular and academic claims and assertions about the social world, a process that Surette (2007) has outlined in his social-constructionist model of media and crime.

Rafter (2007) set the tone for much of the scholarship about crime films in the decade following her groundbreaking restatement of popular criminology. There has been a gradual movement within cultural criminology to relocate film analysis from the margins to “a more central and legitimate place within the discipline” (Yar, 2010, p. 69). Many efforts to bring film into a central position within criminology do so by invoking popular criminology as a conceptual and methodological tool. In the next section, contemporary applications of popular criminology in the analysis of crime films and other forms of popular culture are discussed.

Contemporary Applications of Popular Criminology

In the decade following Rafter’s (2007, p. 417) call to recognize popular criminology as “integral to criminology” scholars working in the area of criminology and film have been somewhat slow to embrace the concept. Rockell (2009, citing Mason, 2006, p. 41) suggests that popular criminological scholarship on prison films has tended to be “theoretically lightweight.” Instead, she reiterates Mason’s (2006) call for scholarship on prison films to be framed “in Foucauldian terms as a discursive practice” (Mason, 2006, p. 194). Rockell (2009) attempts to reconcile the views of Mason with popular criminology by carrying out an analysis of prison films utilizing

two modes of inquiry, critical social theory and popular criminological thought. Both will be used to discern and contextualize the characters and themes associated with two different eras of penal cinematic history, each of which, it will be argued, can be linked to a distinct set of beliefs and penological discourse at a particular point in time.

(Rockell, 2009, p. 41)

Despite Rockell’s insistence on a modified approach to a popular criminological analysis of the Hollywood prison film, her analysis is congruent with Rafter’s popular criminological approach in that it takes the representation of the prison in film seriously as a barometer of changing societal attitudes and penological techniques. She concludes her study by asserting that there is a reciprocal relationship between crime films and society and that “the penological discourse of each specific period influenced and was reflected in selected prison films of that time” (Rockell 2009, p. 56). In this way, Rockell’s analysis takes up Rafter’s call for criminologists to place popular criminological discourse alongside academic discourses in an effort to more fully comprehend the moral, philosophical, and psychological contours of crime and justice.

Kohm and Greenhill (2011) directly take up Rafter’s (2007) call in their analysis of the pedophile crime film, a subcategory of crime film concerned centrally with “the causes and criminal justice consequences of adult-minor sexual relationships” (Kohm & Greenhill, 2011, p. 196). They argue that the popular-cultural figure of the pedophile—an individual universally reviled and feared—actually serves an important function by acting as “a cultural blank space onto which various debates about the nature and shape of justice become inscribed” (p. 196). Put slightly differently, crime films that centrally focus on the pedophile provide opportunities to safely explore and imagine different models or approaches to justice for society’s most serious crimes. Using Rafter’s popular-criminological template, Kohm and Greenhill (2011) argue that films about pedophiles rehearse and sometimes reformulate classical criminological theories and often contrast competing conceptions of human behavior that have been subject to periods of great debate over the history of the discipline. For example, pedophile crime films may contrast “classical freewill versus positivistic determinism, [or] psychological versus sociological explanations of behavior” (Kohm & Greenhill, 2011, p. 196). Moreover, pedophile crime films contrast and sometimes critique varying approaches to justice including extralegal responses such as vigilantism. As noted above, popular criminology emphasizes the philosophical, psychological, ethical, and emotional dimensions of crime and justice. Pedophile crime films draw attention to these neglected dimensions of criminal offending and victimization, and “work through concepts of justice by making emotion central to understanding and by using child sexual abuse as a moral context for otherwise abstract dilemmas” (p. 197). Importantly, by engaging with audiences at an emotional level and throwing contrasting philosophical and moral positions into stark relief, Kohm and Greenhill (2011) argue that the popular criminology of the pedophile crime film can work to question and even disrupt assumptions about human behavior and the causes and consequences of crime. In a sense, this assertion moves popular criminology beyond the simple recognition that discourses about crime in film, TV, and other cultural products can be read as efforts to understand crime and criminals that may be placed parallel to academic discourses. Instead, popular criminology found in certain critical or alternative films about pedophiles could be used to reorient the public conversation about how best to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse in society. Thus, citing Mike Nellis (2009, p. 144), Kohm and Greenhill (2011) assert that “fictional stories about the redemption of released prisoners in film ‘can accomplish things that academic criminology cannot quite achieve—but of which it ought to make use, pedagogically and politically’” (p. 213). In short, popular criminology in critical films may be used by scholars to engage the public and potentially change attitudes and misconceptions about the justice system.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, popular criminology has been invoked in several recent pedagogical reflections concerning the teaching of criminological theory. Rothe and Collins (2013) assert that popular criminology may be used to “enhance undergraduate criminology and criminal justice students’ ability to grasp criminological theory and apply it in their everyday lives” (p. 228). Noting that much of popular criminological work has thus far focused on fictional crime films (e.g., Rafter, 2007; Rafter & Brown, 2011), they seek to push the boundaries of popular criminology by incorporating popular music in their approach to teaching theory. Drawing on anecdotal comments from students as well as a summary of course grade distributions, they conclude that the addition of popular criminology “can prove a valuable tool to aid students’ grasp of complex, critical and abstract concepts” (Rothe & Collins, 2013, p. 238). Similarly, Atherton (2013) invokes a framework of popular criminology in his pedagogical reflection about using crime films to teach abstract criminological concepts. He notes that “when implemented in a thoughtful way, films influence student learning by reinforcing themes found in course readings, connecting theoretical issues within the films to issues in society, and inspiring students to reevaluate their previous experiences” (Atherton, 2013, p. 77). Recognizing that crime films and popular culture can assist in pedagogical matters, Rafter and Brown’s (2011) book Criminology Goes to the Movies was conceived as a tool to make “criminological theory comprehensible, engaging and memorable” (p. x). While criminology and criminal justice instructors have for many years used films as part of their pedagogy, popular criminology provides a framework to clearly link fictional film and other aspects of popular culture with the application of crime theory in a way that moves the discipline forward.

Recent works by Wakeman (2014) and Poulton (2012) extend popular criminological analysis to an American television series (The Wire) and to autobiographical true crime literature and films, respectively. Building on insights by Ferrell (2013), who set out the intersections between cultural criminology and green criminology, and Avi Brisman and his colleagues (e.g., Brisman & South, 2013, 2014; Brisman, McClanahan, & South, 2014), who examine what they term “green-cultural criminology,” Kohm and Greenhill (2013) have extended the popular criminological framework to an analysis of The Red Riding Trilogy film series, which depicts serial murder, ecological and environmental devastation, political corruption, and the abuse of children in the postindustrial landscape of Northern England. These examples suggest that there are few limits to popular cultural subjects that could be analysed within a popular criminological framework. Though not explicitly framed as popular criminology, diverse works in cultural criminology that take up this ethos include recent works exploring crime and justice in comic books (Phillips & Strobel, 2013), music (e.g., Crawford, 2006; Tunnell, 1995; Tunnell & Hamm, 2009), fictional television (e.g., Cavender & Deutsch, 2007; Force, 2010; Garland & Bilby, 2011; Mopas, 2007), and reality TV (Kohm, 2009; Walsh, 2015). Future extensions of popular criminology may follow the pattern set out in sociolegal studies, where a longer tradition of scholarly interest in “popular legal cultures” has flourished (see, e.g., Asimov & Mader, 2004; Denvir, 1996; Lenz, 2005, Sherwin, 2000). In sum, the scope of popular criminology is wide and diverse and may potentially spawn a sprawling literature.

Limitations and Critiques

A number of scholars working at the intersection of popular culture and criminology have sounded a note of caution around the proliferation of the popular criminology framework. Eamonn Carrabine (2008) points out that “the analysis of representation in criminology is still an underdeveloped field” (p. 138). As such, popular criminological analysis has been accused of being “theoretically lightweight” (Rockell, 2009, p. 194) or even worse, methodologically and conceptually flawed. The essence of this latter charge is that much of the work of popular criminology focuses on the output of the culture industries rather than either reception by audiences or the industrial contexts of production. King (2013, p. 172) suggests that scholars of crime films tend to focus on “consumer products” as an object of analysis because it is easier than the alternative. In other words, it is far simpler to purchase DVDs for analysis than it is to generate robust audience reception data or gain access to key informant interviews of Hollywood production company executives. For King, the problem with this approach to the analysis of crime films is that scholars “draw inferences about them on the bases of intricate interpretation” (p. 172). He urges analysts working in the popular criminological framework to “apply higher standards of evidence by requiring direct indication of filmmaker or audience activity rather than lean upon inferences based on the viewing of films” (p. 172). Lam (2014, p. 19) appears to be in general agreement with this critique, as she notes that “criminological and sociolegal research on pop cultural products have methodologically focused on the content and format of the products themselves, alternately treating them as art, texts to be corrected, or as symptomatic of a particular culture’s ideological orientation.” Lam (2014) urges scholars of popular criminology to move from a “product-centric perspective to a process-centric one” (p. 32). In other words, investigating how the culture industries produce products like crime films, music or television can perhaps add theoretical and empirical heft to our largely interpretive understanding of popular culture and criminology. Canadian criminologist Doyle (2006) has similarly urged scholars of crime stories in the media to move away from focusing on content and toward a greater understanding of the impact of crime stories on institutional actors in the justice system, such as the police. Keeping these limitations and critiques in mind, popular criminology has much scope to extend and refine both its subjects of interest as well as its conceptual and methodological approaches.


“Popular criminology” is a term that refers to the ideas about crime and criminal justice that circulate in culture, media, and the opinions or attitudes of the general public. This review has examined popular criminology by unpacking three broad ways that the term has been understood and used in the criminological literature. First, it refers to literary works that employ the techniques of journalism and popular fiction to popularize criminological concepts and ideas about the justice system. This can include the so-called true crime literary genre written by nonacademic authors as well as popular criminological works written for the mass market by academic criminologists seeking to popularize academic concepts and ideas about crime. While distinctions exist between the two types of literature, both tend to focus on individualistic explanations of offending, both align broadly with popular anxieties about predatory and violent crime, and both employ techniques of simplification in presenting their subjects to their readership. A second way that popular criminology is invoked in the literature is in the attitudes of the general public and the way those popular attitudes may feed back into the criminal justice system. In this variant of popular criminology, there is a link between popular ideas about crime and criminal justice policy and political engagement of the public. Some criminologists advocate a participatory popular criminology or justice system (e.g., Taylor, 1981), while others see the rise of popular punitivity and penal populism (e.g., Pratt, 2007) as indicative of a shift in the culture animating the criminal justice system in late modern times (e.g., Garland, 2001). The third and most common way that popular criminology is invoked in the literature is to describe the interrelationship between academic discourses about crime and justice in scholarly venues and other discourses about crime and justice that circulate in popular culture. This overlapping space, where academic criminology and popular culture intersect, is the domain of popular criminology (Rafter & Brown, 2011). Scholars working in this tradition typically use fictional film, TV, music, and other popular cultural texts to supplement and extend the criminological insights of academic criminology or to provide poignant illustrations of criminological theory in a teaching context. Popular criminology brings to life to dimensions of the issue often neglected in academic treatments of crime and justice, such as emotion, fear, anxiety, and loss. Popular criminology may be extended to include other varieties of popular culture and has already begun to interpenetrate green criminology, as well as the broader cultural criminological movement. While this third and most common use of the term popular criminology appears to be gaining momentum, there is still yet further scope for methodological, theoretical, and conceptual refinements (e.g., King, 2013). Nevertheless, this approach to popular criminology has the potential to reinvigorate and broaden the criminological project in a way envisioned by Rafter (2007) a decade ago.

Further Reading

Kohm, S., & Greenhill, P. (2011). Pedophile crime films as popular criminology: A problem of justice? Theoretical Criminology, 15(2), 195–215.Find this resource:

Kohm, S., & Greenhill, P. (2013). “This is the North, where we do what we want”: Popular green criminology and Little Red Riding Hood Films. In N. South & A. Brisman (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of green criminology (pp. 365–378). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Rafter, N. (2007). Crime, film and criminology: Recent sex-crime movies. Theoretical Criminology, 11(3), 403–420.Find this resource:

Rafter, N., & Brown, M. (2011). Criminology goes to the movies: Crime theory and popular culture. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Rawlings, P. (1998). Crime writers: Non-fiction crime books. In J. Vagg & T. Newburn (Eds.), The British criminology conferences: Selected proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging themes in criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, July 18–21, 1995.Find this resource:


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Kohm, S., & Greenhill, P. (2013). “This is the North, where we do what we want”: Popular green criminology and Little Red Riding Hood films. In N. South & A. Brisman (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of green criminology (pp. 365–378). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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