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date: 18 October 2017

Cultural Criminology

Summary and Keywords

Cultural criminology is concerned with the convergence of cultural, criminal, and crime control processes; as such, it situates criminality and its control in the context of cultural dynamics and the contested production of meaning. It seeks to understand the everyday realities of a profoundly unequal and unjust world, and to highlight the ways in which power is exercised and resisted amidst the interplay of rule-making, rule-breaking, and representation. The subject matter of cultural criminology, then, crosses a range of contemporary issues: the mediated construction and commodification of crime, violence, and punishment; the symbolic practices of those engaged in illicit subcultural or postsubcultural activities; the existential anxieties and situated emotions that animate crime, transgression, and victimization; the social controls and cultural meanings that circulate within and between spatial arrangements; the interplay of state control and cultural resistance; the criminogenic cultures spawned by market economies; and a host of other instances in which situated and symbolic meaning is at stake. To accomplish such analysis, cultural criminology embraces interdisciplinary perspectives and alternative methods that regularly move it beyond the boundaries of conventional criminology, drawing from anthropology, media studies, youth studies, cultural studies, cultural geography, sociology, philosophy and other disciplines, and utilizing new forms of ethnography, textual analysis, and visual production. In all of this, cultural criminology seeks to challenge the accepted parameters of criminological analysis and to reorient criminology to contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.

Keywords: control, edgework, ethnography, meaning, transgression, power, resistance, visual criminology


Cultural criminology seeks to develop a criminology that incorporates a notion of culture which is constantly in flux and which always has the potential for creativity and transcendence.

While drawing on and reconceptualizing a number of long-standing criminological traditions, cultural criminology itself is a relatively new theoretical approach, having first been formalized in the 1990s. In this brief time, however, cultural criminology has developed as a relatively comprehensive theoretical model and has spawned within this model a number of distinct analytic foci. In addition, cultural criminology has emerged as an intellectual and theoretical alternative to many of the orientations that inform more conventional criminological approaches.

At its most basic, cultural criminology undertakes to investigate the dynamic interplay of culture, crime, and crime control. Put differently, cultural criminologists propose that both crime and crime control operate as cultural processes, with their meanings and consequences inevitably constructed out of shared symbolism and collective interpretation. From the view of cultural criminology, then, the subject matter of criminology must include not only “crime” and “criminal justice” as narrowly conceived, but phenomena as varied as media representations of crime, subcultural definitions of violence, and public displays of emotion by crime victims. In each of these cases, the experience of crime and crime control is shaped by the meanings that are assigned to it and by the cultural stockpile of historical references, established and evolving vectors of power, and common perceptions from which these meanings are drawn.

As a critical theory of crime and crime control, cultural criminologists argue that seemingly “natural” or “objective” phenomena—the official rate of crime in a particular neighborhood, for example, or the degree to which people fear one sort of crime or another—are in reality neither natural nor objective occurrences. Instead, they are cultural constructions; that is, they are phenomena constructed in particular ways by those with the influence or power to do so. Political institutions decide which acts are to be made legal or illegal; media institutions portray particular crimes in such a way as to spawn more or less fear of them; local police officers negotiate everyday situations in ways that determine rates of arrest or incarceration. The cultural processes that shape the meaning of crime and crime control, then, are regularly those of power and conflict, with crime and crime control consistently making up the terrain on which conflicts over morality and identity are fought. As a result, cultural criminologists contend, it is not possible to account for the politics and emotions surrounding crime—indeed, it is not possible to account for the contemporary politics of social order and social change—without critically analyzing the cultural dynamics that shape crime and its control. Criminological theories and methods that are unable to account for crime’s situated meanings and existential motivations, or that reduce crime and victimization to emotionless abstractions, cannot do justice to the excitement, dread, outrage, and pleasure that animate crime’s awful appeal. In taking this view, cultural criminology has emerged as a theoretical counter to a number of contemporary trends in criminology, including its drift toward an administrative criminal justice orientation—that is, its reliance on survey research, statistical reasoning, and quantification; and the embrace of theories predicated on rationality and predictability.

Furthermore, cultural criminology has sought to revitalize criminology in such a way as to attune it to the changing dynamics of a late modern world. The ever-expanding reach of unfettered consumer markets suggests not only a general examination of “culture and crime,” for example, but a focused examination of consumer culture’s complex interplay with crime—the selling of crime as entertainment, for example, or the allure of illicit consumption. Meanwhile, the ongoing migration of the world’s population to urban centers demands a criminological analysis of the city’s spatial, physical, and cultural controls, and of the city as a site where crime, consumption, and exclusion collide. Widening the lens further is the fact that the global degradation of work, coupled with the growing cultural emphasis on individual self-realization and emotional satisfaction, points to new forms of illicit emotional resistance and of criminality organized around risk-taking and identity creation. Perhaps most significantly for cultural criminologists, the saturation of everyday life by multiple media forms and media technologies suggests that any clear distinction between “crime” and “the image of crime” is long past. In its place is a world in which criminal events, their mediated images, and others’ perceptions of crime increasingly loop back on and amplify one another. If “real” suggests real consequences and real effects, then the culture of crime is today as real as crime itself. Perhaps, cultural criminologists point out, they are increasingly indistinguishable. In this way, cultural criminology positions itself as definitive to any criminology of late modernity.

Intellectual and Theoretical Influences

Because, fundamentally, cultural criminology seeks to bring back sociological theory to criminology—that is, to continue to (re)integrate the role of culture, social construction, human meaning, creativity, class, and power relations into the criminological project—it is carefully situated in a lively genealogy of social, cultural, and criminological theory.

The term “cultural criminology” emerged in the mid-1990s as a distinct movement within the field. The key text inaugurating this emergence was Cultural Criminology, a collection of essays edited by Jeff Ferrell and Clinton Sanders that sought to “confound categories of ‘culture’ and ‘crime’” and “necessitate journeys beyond the conventional boundaries of contemporary criminology” (1995, p. 16). Cultural criminology emerged as a synthesis of older theoretical traditions including the labeling perspective, symbolic interactionism, and various media and subcultural approaches. Such concerns ensured that, in its early years, the focus of cultural criminology was largely on the production of meaning and (sub)cultural representation, including a strong interest in style, symbolism and criminal aesthetics. In the main, this early manifestation of cultural criminology owed its greatest debt to the symbolic interactionism of Howard Becker and Erving Goffman, the subcultural reflections of Al Cohen and David Matza, and the associated critical media analysis of Stan Cohen, Jock Young, and Stuart Hall. Simply stated, in its early years, cultural criminology’s focus was on the contested production of meaning and (sub)cultural representation in and around contemporary conflicts over crime and crime control (Ferrell, 1999, p. 395; Ferrell, 1996). By the end of the 1990s, these works were augmented by British and European contributions that focused more on the structural implications of late modernity, consumer capitalism, and debates around spatiality (see, e.g., Hayward, 2004). Uniting these complementary analyses was an interest in the phenomenological work of Jack Katz and Stephen Lyng (see Jack Katz’s path-breaking Seductions of Crime [1988] and Stephen Lyng’s [1990] concept of edgework), in particular the way these sociologists prioritized the powerful experiential and emotional aspects of offending, or what they called the existential “foreground” of crime (see also Ferrell, 1997).

At its core, cultural criminology constitutes a synthesis of two theoretical orientations, the first North American, the second British. The North American orientation dates to the mid-20th century, and the emergence of symbolic interactionism and labeling theory in the analysis of deviance and crime. For interactionist and labeling theorists, the appropriate subject matter of criminology was not crime as an individual act, but rather the web of social interactions and interpretations by which any act might or might not be constructed as crime. At issue were the meaning of crime and the exercises of power and discrimination by which that meaning was determined and redetermined within an ongoing social process. As regards crime and crime control, the “symbolic” dimensions of symbolic interaction suggested that a transgressive act could be made to symbolize heroism or horror, self-defense or assault; similarly, the practice of crime control could be presented as a matter of good policing, patriotic participation, or political repression. For these theorists, the reality of crime was inherently a social and cultural reality—and a political reality as well. By understanding the symbolic construction of crime and crime control, criminologists could begin to penetrate the proselytizing claims of moral entrepreneurs, the discriminatory dynamics of the criminal justice system, and the lived experiences of those labeled criminal. These lived experiences could in turn be documented through “naturalistic” case studies and careful ethnographies that revealed patterns of shared meaning and symbolic communication within marginalized subcultures. Here, then, was one foundation of cultural criminology: an attentiveness to symbolism and meaning in the construction of crime, and a critical analysis of crime, culture, and power.

Influenced by the work of the North American interactionists, sociologists and criminologists associated with the National Deviancy Conference, the Birmingham School of cultural studies, and the “new criminology” in Great Britain began in the 1970s to develop what would become cultural criminology’s second intellectual foundation. Sharpening the critical potential of interactionist and labeling approaches, they carefully investigated the cultural avenues through which power was by turns enforced and resisted. Situating crime and crime control in historical and political context; they likewise analyzed the shifting ideological utility of crime, exposing the ways in which crime concerns and anticrime campaigns were made to fit within larger political agendas and historical trajectories. These researchers also engaged in the sort of case study and ethnographic research developed among interactionist criminologists, finding amidst the leisure worlds and illicit subcultures of their subjects moments of stylized defiance and collective resistance to legal authority. Taken as a whole, this work not only continued the interactionists’ reconceptualization of crime as a social and cultural construction; it also began to reconceptualize the very nature of power and social control in contemporary society. Power in many ways now denoted the power to control the meaning of public events, and social control the ability to control the terms by which the activities of marginal groups came to be understood and interpreted.

In the 1990s, these two orientations were synthesized for the first time into a distinct “cultural criminology” that explicitly drew on both the North American and British traditions in an attempt to theorize contemporary intersections of crime and culture. To supplement and expand these earlier approaches, cultural criminologists now included a variety of additional disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives: anarchist criminology and other critical and conflict criminologies, social theory and contemporary philosophy, anthropology, cultural geography/critical cartography, and others. Utilizing this synthetic approach, they focused especially on the components of style, language, and symbolic meaning that animate illicit social worlds, and on the ways in which legal and political authorities in turn utilize mediated representation to criminalize such worlds (Ferrell & Sanders, 1995). Cultural criminologists also sought to revitalize the tradition of ethnographic research into illicit subcultures, both by theorizing the epistemic and emotional dynamics of this approach in distinction to quantitative research methods and by engaging in in-depth ethnographic explorations of graffiti writers, neo-Nazi skinheads, street-level sex workers, and other groups.

For cultural criminologists, the goal has been to reclaim these early perspectives as essential components of criminological inquiry, to reimagine and reinvigorate them in the context of contemporary crime and crime control trajectories, and to enliven them with new perspectives from other disciplines.

Key Contemporary Orientations

Edgework, Transgression, and the Seductions of Crime

Contemporary cultural criminology has generated a variety of theoretical models that build from earlier work on the situated meanings and symbolic politics of crime and crime control. A number of these models explore both the immediate, sensual experience of crime, and the dynamics that link such illicit experience to larger patterns of cultural meaning and historical change. The concept of edgework, for example, is utilized by cultural criminologists to analyze incidents of extreme, risky behaviors that are generally seen as deviant or illegal (Lyng, 2005); cultural criminologists have employed this model in investigating gang membership, street racing, BASE jumping (parachuting from built structures or cliffs), anorexia, sadomasochistic sexual practices, and other contemporary phenomena. In contrast to conventional understandings of such practices as simply destructive or individually out of control, cultural criminologists argue that these practices often involve a conscious exploration of the “edge” between chaos and order, danger and self-determination. Essential to this exploration is the way in which such practices blend high levels of risk with the practiced skills necessary to negotiate such risk; for participants, great risk requires great skill, and the greater the skill, the greater the risk that can be taken. This dynamic of risk and skill in turn appeals to more and more people precisely because both risk and skill are increasingly expunged from contemporary life; low-skill, service sector jobs predominate in the emerging consumer economies of late capitalism, and whether at work or play, “risk management” strategies now regulate nearly every aspect of social life. If in this way the concept of edgework links illicit experiences with larger social and economic changes, it also helps to explain a particular crime control problem. Cultural criminologists have found repeatedly that edgework produces for participants an alluring “adrenalin rush” out of its mixture of extreme risk and practiced skill. But because of this, crime control strategies meant to stop such activities often serve only to heighten the risks and sharpen the skills involved, and so to enhance the appeal of edgework activities for those engaged in them.

This edgework model resonates with the broader notion of the seductions of crime (Katz, 1988). From the view of cultural criminology, much traditional criminological theory has been constituted back to front; that is, such work has theorized the background factors that lead up to the criminal event but has had little to say about the immediate dynamics of the criminal event itself. Cultural criminologists argue that this immediate “foreground” of crime, animated as it is with interactional exchanges and powerful emotions, is indeed worthy of analytic attention. Within it, participants can come to be “seduced” by the momentary meanings and emotions that emerge; within the criminal event, issues of stigma, honor, and respect can become a powerful, if fleeting, impetus for violent, exploitative, or courageous behavior. As with the model of edgework, the notion of crime’s seductions suggests that crime cannot be reduced to abstract causal explanations; instead, moments of criminality often harbor a host of complex, negotiated meanings that both reflect and reconstruct larger cultural forces. Moreover, these meanings may drive the very dynamics by which a criminal event is resolved; more than physical violence or monetary gain, they are often what matter most to those involved.

A similar intertwining of meaning, emotion, and culture emerges with the cultural criminological theory of the carnival and crime; here the frame of reference is also historical and comparative (Presdee, 2000). Cultural criminologists note that, historically, carnival has served in many societies as a well-defined time of vulgarity, ridicule, and ritualized excess. Because it was predefined and regulated, though, carnival functioned both to celebrate and encourage misbehavior and to contain it within social and cultural boundaries. In this sense, carnival maintained the sort of delicate balance between dangerous human desires and defined social roles essential to the vitality of the societies in which it flourished. In contemporary Western societies, though, the delicate balance of carnival has largely been upended—in some cases through the criminalization of carnivalesque activities, in other cases through the legal and commercial cooptation of carnival into commodified experience and abstract spectacle. As a result, some aspects of carnival’s historical practice can now be bought and consumed, in the form of explicit pornography or degrading “reality television” programming. Other aspects are today enacted as crime (e.g., drug taking, sexual predation, “joyriding” in stolen automobiles) but now all the more dangerously because these acts are freed from their containment within community ritual.

Central to these accounts is the idea of transgression. From the view of cultural criminology, often more is at stake in crime and crime control than simple law-breaking and the legal response to it. Instead, crime seems often to embody a breaching of social and cultural boundaries, a dynamic of crossing over or breaking through—and if those boundaries to be breached encode dominant economic arrangements or long-standing cultural norms, then indeed much more is at issue than simple law-breaking. Yet, transgression also involves a moving dialectic between boundaries made and boundaries breached; in this sense, transgression constitutes an ongoing social and cultural process, a series of negotiated actions and reactions, more than a single act. In addition, as the edgework model suggests, those engaged in transgressive activities sometimes cross the boundaries of safety or respectability with an emerging intentionality. They begin to understand the world and their place in it differently precisely because of the boundaries they breach, and so from transgression they acquire a critical lens for seeing anew those arrangements that engender it.

Furthermore, one of the key contributions of cultural criminology is found in its attention to emotion and embodiment. Cultural criminologists look for the ways in which the largest of issues—human freedom, social control, contemporary economy—are often embodied and contested, in what may seem the smallest of criminal events (Ferrell & Ilan, 2013). As highlighted by labeling theory and by Katz’s notion of the criminal “foreground,” crime and crime control are here seen as emergent, interactional human processes—processes suffused with conflicting meanings and embodied emotions. The human emotions that accompany crime and crime control in this way also become a specific focus of cultural criminology, and from the same analytic perspective, with emotions understood not simply as individual responses of fear or anger, but as shared states shaped by common experiences and collectively meaningful “vocabularies of motive” (Mills, 1940; Ferrell, 1997).


The theory of (“bulimic”) exclusion/inclusion posits that contemporary society suffers from a particularly problematic contradiction (Young, 1999). On the one hand, the social order is defined by increasing economic and political inequality, and with this the increasing economic and legal exclusion of larger and larger segments of the population from full membership in mainstream society. Ongoing financial and housing crises, high levels of unemployment and homelessness, the prevalence of low-wage and temporary work among those who remain employed, and mass incarceration and systematic legal disenfranchisement in the United States and elsewhere all serve to exclude many among the poor, ethnic minorities, and the formerly middle class from full participation in conventional social worlds. On the other hand, though, these and other groups are, by design, culturally included. The power of the mass media, and especially mass advertising, is such that these groups are systematically taught to desire the same consumer goods as others. Moreover, like others in late capitalist society, they are encouraged to see these goods as essential markers of lifestyle success and to define their own status and identity by goods and services consumed. The result of this contradiction is a culturally induced epidemic of resentment, insecurity, and humiliated desire, and with this a parallel explosion in economic crimes of acquisition and expressive crimes of retaliation and frustration (Hayward & Kindynis, 2013). With this model of exclusion and inclusion, then, cultural criminologists attempt to build from Merton’s foundational formulation of socially induced strain and adaptations to it, while at the same time reimagining it within the contours of late capitalist culture and economy (see especially Hayward & Smith, 2017).

Everyday Criminality, Control, and Consumption in Late Modernity

A large body of cultural criminological work explores forms of low-order, everyday criminality like loitering, graffiti writing, shoplifting, vandalism, and scavenging, while also documenting the legal responses and public controversies that surround such criminality (Ferrell, 1996, 2001, 2006; Presdee, 2009; Ilan, 2011). Developing the insights of labeling theory, cultural criminologists argue that the “importance” or “seriousness” of any form of criminality is largely determined by the legal response to it and by the ability of those in power to encase it in particular cultural meanings and public interpretations. As cultural criminological research shows, campaigns of aggressive enforcement or media panic often transform inconsequential transgressions into first-order offenses, both in the eyes of the law and in the mind of the public. Equally, power and control flow in the other direction; activities that might otherwise be considered dangerously consequential can be hidden behind ideological constructs that define them as legal, harmless, or necessary (Jenkins, 1999; Ferrell, 2004). For cultural criminologists, then, the cultural construction of crime remains always at issue.

In this way, cultural criminologists emphasize a particular understanding of late modern power in their explorations of everyday criminality and control. In a late modern world awash in mediated communication, surveillance technology, and divisive identity politics, they suggest, power is less likely to operate as a blunt instrument of physical violence than it is to circulate insidiously, encoded in spatial arrangements, hidden behind ideologies of risk management and public safety, and deployed via mythologies of daily comfort and convenience. In this sense, social control is most potent, and most dangerously problematic, precisely to the extent that it comes to be hidden away in the little domains of everyday life—in the credit card and the corporate database, the sidewalk and the shop window, the CCTV camera and the school counselor (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015, pp. 87–123). Here lies the hegemonic, or at least the late modern tendency toward hegemonic control: forms of social and legal control, unnoticed and meant to be unnoticed, that operate in ways that come to seem natural, if not inevitable (Hayward, 2012; Raymen, 2016). And yet, as cultural criminologists have also documented, the denizens of everyday life sometimes do notice, and do resist—and when they do, their seemingly “small” battles over a park wall or an urban advert therefore also invoke larger issues of power, control, and social justice (Ferrell, 1996, 2001).

This analytic approach requires close attention to the microcircuitry of surveillance and control; it also necessitates locating this microcircuitry within the larger trajectories of late modernity. Over the past few decades, for example, global cities have developed increasingly aggressive approaches to the everyday policing of the homeless and other dislocated populations. Encased in ideologies of public safety and public civility, and buttressed by the conservative pseudocriminology of the “broken windows” model, these approaches range from the installation of anti-homeless sprinkler systems and the ongoing police dispersal of public gatherings to the privatization of public space and the criminalization of those feeding homeless and migrant populations. Yet, importantly, these strategies constitute something more than simple meanspiritedness; they are strategies for policing the crisis (Hall et al., 2013) of late modernity. Late modern cities rely on the economic engine of “consumption-driven urban development,” where the city is reconstructed as an image of itself and sold to the privileged as a constellation of lifestyle preferences, designer properties, and retail experiences. In such environments, homeless and migrant populations come to be defined, and policed, as issues of image, as threats to the city’s carefully crafted aesthetic, to be excluded lest they intrude on the city’s consumerist economy. Moreover, the vast economic inequalities of late modernity, and the predations of its retail and service industries, produce profound precariousness for more and more people, who are left to drift between occupation, abode, and country. The injustice is in the irony: the rampant inequality of late modern political economies engenders the very sort of drifting dislocation on which much contemporary law-making and everyday policing focus (Ferrell, 2012a, 2018).

The city is essential to understanding the convergence of these forces. And while it has long constituted a flickering presence within criminology, variously the source of concern, visibility and inspiration, the concept of “the city” has rarely been fully integrated into analyses of crime. Within contemporary criminological theory, the city is all too frequently lost to abstraction, appearing only as an afterthought, a sort of theoretical shadow. Urban crime is thus torn free from its physical context: the city. Cultural criminology has sought to redress the balance by placing the city firmly back on the criminological agenda—though this has been no simple revival of Chicago-style sociology. Instead, the goal has been to augment contemporary criminological analyses of urban crime by including the subtle yet discernible ways that urban space is transformed by the many socioeconomic and cultural processes afoot in the 21st century city—not least among these processes that of late modern consumerism. As cultural criminologists have argued, prevailing systems of consumption are now bringing about macroscopic transformations and microscopic fluctuations not only in the physical and structural configuration of urban environments, but in the subjective experience of crime and control (Ferrell, 2001, 2006; Hayward, 2004).

Cultural criminology, then, approaches “criminogenic space” in the same way that the new cultural geography approaches “postmodern space,” adopting a strongly interdisciplinary approach and a willingness to think beyond purely rational or structural perspectives (Hayward, 2012; Kindynis, 2014). From the view of cultural criminology, the complex, contradictory social world of the city demands this sort of careful cultural analysis. Cultural criminologists therefore focus on both sides of the exclusionary urban dynamic—on those who can afford to protect themselves and those who are forced into the unprotected margins of society—while striving to look forward as well as back, and to remain attentive to specificities of locality, culture, nation, and experience. Pushed and pulled by the economic riptides of turbocharged neoliberal markets, overrun by enhanced police powers and hypersurveillance, individuals and groups today confront, and sometimes resist, new connections between economy, crime, and control in their everyday lives. Cultural criminologists seek to unearth these connections not only in the wide sweep of transcontinental capitalism, but also amidst the most local of situations and common of transgressions.

A Cultural Criminology of the State

In recent years, cultural criminologists have also developed a keen interest in the many harms caused by the state—harms that extend beyond the everyday and into the realm of global conflict—from genocide to state terrorism, imperialism to militarized policing. Within cultural criminology there is now a considerable body of work on both state crime (Morrison, 2006, 2010; Hamm, 2007; Cunneen, 2010; Klein, 2011; Burrows, 2013; Linnemann et al., 2014; Wall & Linnemann, 2014a) and various agents of state control (Kraska, 1998; Morrison, 2004; Ferrell, 2004b; Wender, 2004, 2008; Root et al., 2013; Aiello, 2014; Wall & Linnemann, 2014b). In undertaking this work, cultural criminologists have in turn developed a theoretical position that differs from previous criminological work in the area of state crime and state control. Instead of limiting their analysis to international humanitarian law, the perspective of “social harm,” or the sociohistorical contingencies that constitute state power, cultural criminology looks to draw together the macro influence of structure (in the form of governance and ideology) with more midlevel theories of subculture and “learnt transgression” (Hayward, 2011)—a combination that also allows for an analysis of how state crimes and mass killings can be “neutralized” by both the state and by the collective forces involved in human rights violations (e.g., Hamm, 2007; Linnemann, Wall, & Green, 2014).

Media, Representation, and the Commodification of Crime

A defining feature of the last two decades—and of cultural criminology—has been the rise of the “Mediascape” (Appadurai, 1996)—that tangle of media which manufactures information and disseminates images via an ever expanding array of digital technologies. In this enveloping world of media festival and digital spectacle, the logic of speed accelerates the liquidity of form as images bleed from one medium to the next. Uploaded and downloaded, copied and cross-posted, Flickr-ed, Facebook-ed, and PhotoShop-ped, the image today is as much about porosity and transmutation as it is about visual fixity and representation. This fluidity of representation is never more apparent than in the contemporary construction of crime’s image. From criminals who post their crimes on YouTube to the grainy CCTV footage that drives the slurry of primetime “cops and robbers” compilation shows, from unreal “reality TV” moments that shape moral values and social norms to stylized representations of crime in comic books and on criminology textbook covers, ours is a world “where the screen scripts the street and the street scripts the screen” (Hayward & Young, 2004, p. 259). It is one of the primary goals of cultural criminology, then, to attempt to understand the ways in which mediated processes of cultural reproduction and exchange “constitute” the experience of crime, self, and society under conditions of late modernity (see Sandberg & Ugelvik, 2017).

In a world where power is increasingly exercised through mediated representation and symbolic production, battles over image, meaning, and cultural representation emerge as essential moments in the contested negotiation of late modern reality. Cultural criminology takes up an urgent call for criminologists to become familiar with the various ways in which crime and its construction are imaged and visually “framed” within late modern society (see Hayward & Presdee, 2010). With mediated anticrime campaigns, visually constructed crime waves, social justice protests and uprisings, and media fabrications of criminal subcultures now all circulate in “an endless spiral of meaning, a Möbius strip of culture and everyday life” (Ferrell et al., 2004, pp. 3–4), cultural criminologists argue that the time for a criminology capable of understanding the dynamic force and power of visual culture is now. Cultural criminology embraces a holistic approach to tracing the flow of meaning in a world suffused with images of crime and violence; in place of cause-and-effect linearity, cultural criminologists explore the looping and spiraling dynamics of crime and media—that is, the way in which various images of crime and justice play off of and reproduce one another, while at the same time seeping out into the courtroom and the street (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). In addition, cultural criminologists highlight the affective processes of crime’s representation, showing how visceral crime images affect people not just in terms of policy or criminal justice practice, but bodily and sensually as well (Young, 2004, 2010).

To think critically about “crime and the media”—to move past simple measures of media content or media effects, and on to a holistic sense of loops and spirals, of fluidity and saturation—is not only to understand the dynamics of crime and transgression in late modernity, but to open new avenues of intellectual inquiry appropriate to these confounded circumstances. In this context, cultural criminology endeavors to develop new criminological models and criminological critiques that can converse with late modern culture at large and that can account for the complex cultural interplay of crime, crime control, and representation. “Instant” and “liquid” ethnographic approaches can attune researchers to the swirling, looping dynamics of the contemporary mediascape and to the affective immediacy of its impact. Forms of visual ethnography and “documentary criminology” (Redmon, 2015a; Hayward, 2017a) can likewise trace the image-driven contours of the contemporary world and can capture a late modern world where crime and crime control are increasingly inseparable from the politics of representation (Brown & Carrabine, 2017; Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015; Hayward & Presdee, 2010).

The Method(s) of Cultural Criminology

So what specific methodological approaches do cultural criminologists employ in their alternative attempts to frame problems of crime, inequality, and criminal justice? In its early years, cultural criminologists typically utilized either one of two main research methods (Ferrell, 1999): ethnographic and qualitative fieldwork techniques or the scholarly deconstruction of media images and cultural texts (Altheide, 1996). However, as cultural criminology gathered momentum, its mélange of intellectual and interdisciplinary influences impacted on the range and type of research methods employed. As a consequence, cultural criminologists are today as likely to employ research methods such as participative action research (O’Neill et al., 2004), netnography (Kozinets, 2010) or “narrative criminology” (Presser, 2009; Sandberg, 2010; Presser & Sandberg, 2015), as they are more established tools of ethnography or discourse analysis.

The tradition of ethnographic research within cultural criminology reflects a long-standing attentiveness to the particularities of meaning within cultural worlds. In this sense, the inspiration for much ethnographic cultural criminology can be seen as stemming from the rich history of symbolic interactionism and such classic studies as Becker (1963), Polsky (1969), and Willis (1977). This, then, is an ethnography immersed in culture and interested in lifestyle(s), the symbolic, the aesthetic, and the visual. Yet, cultural criminology is anything but a simple rehash of these classic ethnographies. Instead, it adds a considerable extra range of ingredients to the mix, including recent reconsiderations of field method from such disciplines as anthropology (Kane, 1998, 2004), documentary filmmaking (Redmon, 2015b), feminist methodology (Fonow & Cook, 1991), cultural studies (Denzin, 1992, 1997), and social psychology (Nightingale, 1993). Ferrell explains: “Together, these works suggest that field research operates as an inherently personal and political endeavour, profoundly engaging researchers with situations and subjects of study. These works thus call for reflexive reporting on the research process, for an ‘ethnography of ethnography’, which accounts for the researcher’s own role in the construction of meaning” (Ferrell, 1999, p. 400). Thus, Jeff Ferrell and Mark Hamm talk of the methodology of attentiveness, of a criminological verstehen (Ferrell, 1997; Ferrell & Hamm, 1998) where the researcher is deeply immersed within a culture.

Foundational to the work of cultural criminologists is the ability to meld methodologies in the empirical needs of the moment. As Ferrell and Sanders (1995, p. 14) write:

Criminal events, identities, and styles take life within a media-saturated environment, and thus exist from the start as a moment in a mediated spiral of presentation and representation … Criminal subcultures reinvent mediated images as situated styles, but are at the same time themselves reinvented time and time again as they are displayed within the daily swarm of mediated presentations. In every case, as cultural criminologists we study not only images but images of images, an infinite hall of mediated mirrors.

Cultural criminologists have developed techniques known as “instant ethnography” and ‘liquid ethnography (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, pp. 215–221): instant ethnography concerned with single “decisive moments” of phenomenological serendipity—whether unpredictable or predictable, unexceptional or exceptional—that illustrate or embrace something of cultural criminology’s progressive mandate, and liquid ethnography involving a research strategy perfectly attuned to the permutations of late modernity and thus sensitive to the ambiguities and uncertainties of inter alia destabilized or diasporic communities, the interplay of images, or even the shifting boundaries between research, research subjects, and cultural activism. They no longer limit themselves to the traditional techniques associated with media/content analysis that invoke simple analyses of the static image/picture. Rather, cultural criminologists regularly employ the techniques of documentary and autoethnographic diary photography, semiotics and iconology, image signification systems and other indexical film studies techniques, video filmmaking, participatory digital cartography, and other forms of videorecorded social activism. Others, often influenced by feminist methodology and epistemology, develop imaginative readings, counter-readings, and sociological deconstructions of crime and criminal justice formations (Ferrell, 1999, pp. 400–401).

Future Directions

From the first, cultural criminology has embraced an open, invitational orientation toward criminological analysis and has been less interested in definitional certainty than in dynamic, emergent critique. The question, then, is not so much what cultural criminology is, as how cultural criminology continues—how, that is, cultural criminology has drawn on existing perspectives within and beyond criminology, and continued to reinvent and resituate them with the intent of developing a criminology conversant with the contemporary world and its crises.

Certainly, cultural criminologists will continue to analyze crime across structural, contextual, and subjective levels, searching for empirical evidence both in the wide sweep of neoliberal capitalism and amidst the most local of situations and common of individual transgressions (e.g., Brotherton, 2004; Ferrell, 2006; Hayward & Hobbs, 2007; Muzzatti, 2010; Kane, 2012; Redmon, 2015b; Smith & Raymen, 2016). This multidimensional critical framework based on micro, meso, and macro levels of explanation extends the critical analysis of capitalism and the treatment of capitalism itself as criminal.

[For us] unchecked global capitalism must be confronted as the deep dynamic from which spring many of the ugliest examples of contemporary criminality. Tracing a particularly expansionist trajectory these days, late modern capitalism continues to contaminate one community after another, shaping social life into a series of predatory encounters and saturating everyday existence with criminogenic expectations of material convenience. All along this global trajectory, collectivities are converted into markets, people into consumers, and experiences and emotions into products. So steady is this seepage of capitalism into social life, so pervasive are its crimes—both corporate and interpersonal—that they now seem to pervade most every situation.

(Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 14)

Of course, late modern capitalism is but one form of oppression; numerous other sources of crime and inequality exist, including patriarchy, racism, the rise of fascism, and institutional and fundamentalist religion. In this context, cultural criminology seeks out new understandings of what constitutes (and what does not) meaningful resistance among historical and emergent cultural forms. This complex situation demands ontologically differentiated forms of criminological knowledge to which cultural criminology is committed.

Like most areas of criminology, the main progenitors of cultural criminology were largely men, and the focus of most of the early studies were transgressive male subjects. Cultural criminology’s ongoing commitment to a synthesis of intellectual perspectives, importantly, has built upon and opened up room for various forms of feminist thought. Drawing on the work of Kathy Daly, Meda Chesney-Lind, Susan Caulfield, and Nancy Wonders, cultural criminologists have argued, “as with cultural criminology’s theoretical underpinnings, the methods of cultural criminology are thus ‘feminist’ in their epistemological assumptions, their rejection of abstraction and universality, and their attention to the lived texture of culture and crime, whatever the gender of those who employ them or those they are designed to study” (Ferrell & Sanders, 1995, p. 323). Emergent intersectional work in this area continues to explore relationships to gender, sexuality, race, and beyond (Naegler & Salman, 2016).

Furthermore, in terms of methodologies, a more discerning approach to social scientific method would also have the benefit of breaking down existing barriers between quantitative and qualitative methodology, including new focal points of sociospatial analysis and cartography. For example, new geoethnographic and affective maps using information bars and other visual interactive platforms are now being developed that can be used to counter or augment traditional representational crime maps that simply reproduce criminal justice data biases (e.g., Matallana-Villareal’s [2010] cultural criminological research on the crimes of the powerful in Bogotá). Likewise, meta-data fields can now be used to store qualitative information (or so-called deep contextual information) that can greatly aid map interpretation (Schuurman, 2009)—something very useful for those communities that are often the target of geographic profiling by narrowly defined GIS (Global Information System) crime analysis.

Another possible area where quantitative and qualitative work might coalesce within cultural criminology is demography. Cultural criminology can provide an alternative interpretation that enhances understanding of the demographic correlates of crime. Just as the social transformations of the 1960s were all about the combination of youth aspiration and demographics (the so-called demographic “pig in the python”), today a more significant, and more worrying, international “baby boom” is emerging. For example, in the 67 countries that are experiencing a youth bulge, 60 of them are currently experiencing either civil war or regular mass rioting. Add to this phenomenon the centripetal force of mass urbanization and the confusion surrounding the demographic data on immigration and diaspora, and it becomes clear that such important matters can no longer simply be handed over to quantitative researchers. Instead, the goal must be the creation of new methods capable of fusing the best aspects of quantitative analysis with data gathered from various qualitative spheres.

Cultural criminology has grown from an upstart intervention to a bustling subdiscipline in a short space of time, shifting its lens back and forth between the most excluded of street criminals to the seemingly unconquerable leviathans of state crime and the criminalization of exclusion. Its message, however, remains relatively straightforward: that power affects how different people interpret the world differently, that these interpretations affect the experience of situated moments of meaning, and that these processes all feedback onto each other with important consequences for how we should understand crime and its control.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

Many of the ideas and themes covered in this discussion are explored in greater detail in Cultural Criminology: an Invitation (Ferrell et al., 2015). Aimed at undergraduate students, and replete with numerous examples and illustrations—even a filmography—this is the most accessible and comprehensive introduction to the field to date and provides an excellent starting point for future research. Two other useful overviews are Hayward’s (2017b) four-volume, 80-article collection Cultural Criminology in Routledge’s Critical Concepts in Criminology series, and Ferrell and Hayward’s Cultural Criminology: Theories of Crime (2011), a collection that consolidates classic precursor works with key examples of contemporary cultural criminology. An alternative starting point is the annotated bibliography of around 100 cultural criminology references in the 2012 Oxford Bibliographies Online.

A number of edited compilations exist. The first collection of essays entitled Cultural Criminology was compiled by Ferrell and Sanders (1995). In this work (and in subsequent early review articles such as Ferrell, 1999), cultural criminology is seen in its original U.S. manifestation—that is, tending to focus on illicit subcultures, labeling theory, and various criminalized forms of music and style. A later 24-chapter collection that focused on crime and culture across a variety of local, regional, and national settings is Ferrell et al.’s (2004) Cultural Criminology Unleashed. Although more suitable for postgraduate students, the 2004 Special Edition of the international journal Theoretical Criminology (Vol. 8, No. 3) is also of interest.

If early cultural criminology was concerned with the contested politics of meaning, subculture, and media representation, more recent work has sought to add a more materialist dimension. See, for example, Hayward’s City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture and the Urban Experience (2004) on the relationship between consumerism and expressive criminality; Presdee’s Cultural Criminology and the Carnival of Crime (2000) on the commodification of crime and punishment; Hayward and Yar’s (2006) work on the British “Chav” youth subculture and how consumerism is now a locus around which exclusion is configured and the excluded, identified and surveyed; and the intentionally polemical dialogic exchange about crime, culture, and capitalism between Jeff Ferrell, Steve Hall, and Simon Winlow in the journal Crime, Media, Culture (Vol. 3, No. 1). See also Morrison (2006), Hamm (2007), and Hayward (2011) for examples of an emerging cultural criminology of the state. Relatedly, recent developments in “deviant leisure” (e.g., Smith & Raymen, 2016) and “green cultural criminology” (Brisman & South, 2014) illustrate the way cultural criminology has adapted to address new areas of analysis associated with the social harm perspective.

A primary feature of cultural criminology is its interest in the emotions and existential realities associated with the commission of much crime. The foundational work in this reconstruction of experiential aetiology is Jack Katz’s The Seductions of Crime (1988), a text that serves as a touchstone for subsequent cultural criminological analyses on crime and emotionality such as O’Malley and Mugford (1994), Morrison (1995, chapter 15), and Fenwick and Hayward (2000). The dialectic between excitement and control is also a major interest of cultural criminology; as evidenced by Stephen Lyng’s seminal concept of “Edgework” (1990, 2005; see also Rajah, 2007), and Hayward’s critique of rational choice theories of crime (2007, 2012).

For student-friendly introductions to cultural criminology’s interest in the way crime is woven into the fabric of everyday life, see the chapters by Ferrell (2009), Presdee (2009), and Ferrell and Ilan (2013) in the second and third editions of the Oxford University Press textbook Criminology (edited by C. Hale et al.). For book-length (ethnographic) examples of how cultural criminologists attempt to communicate the criminological, political, gendered, and theoretical importance of the everyday, see Dunier (1999), Ferrell (2006), Miller (2008), Garot (2010), and Ilan (2015).

For examples of cultural criminological research on crime and the media, see Framing Crime: Cultural Criminology and the Image (Hayward & Presdee, 2010); Frankie Bailey and Donna Hale’s (1998) book Popular Culture, Crime and Justice; Alison Young’s (2009) The Scene of Violence; Nicky Rafter and Michelle Brown’s Criminology Goes to the Movies (2011); and the international journal Crime, Media, Culture (London: SAGE), a periodical dedicated to exploring the relationships between crime, criminal justice, and the media.

Finally, in terms of research methodology, see Jock Young’s The Criminological Imagination (2011) and chapters 7 (“Against Criminological Method”) and 8 (“Dangerous Knowledge”) of Cultural Criminology: An Invitation (2015) for covering statements. On the ethnographic aspect of cultural criminology, see Ferrell and Hamm’s Ethnography at the Edge (1998); Ferrell’s (1997) account of criminological verstehen; and Kane’s article, “The Unconventional Methods in Cultural Criminology,” in the aforementioned Special Edition of Theoretical Criminology. For introductions to cultural criminology’s approach to documentary filmmaking/criminology, see Hayward (2017a) and especially the growing body of work by David Redmon (2015a, 2015b, 2016).

For further examples of cultural criminological research, readers are advised to explore the following references.

Further Reading

Brown, M. (2009). The culture of punishment. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J. (1999). Cultural criminology. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 395–418.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J. (2009). Crime and culture. In Hale, C., Hayward, K., Wahidin, A., & Wincup, E. (Eds.), Criminology (pp. 157–176). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Hamm, M. (Eds.). (1998). Ethnography at the edge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Hayward, K. (Eds.). (2011). Cultural criminology: Theories of crime. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., Morrison, W., & Presdee, M. (2004). Cultural criminology unleashed. London: GlassHouse.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2015). Cultural criminology: An invitation (2d ed.). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Ilan, I. (2013). Crime, culture and everyday life. In Hale, C., Hayward, K., Wahidin, A., & Wincup, E. (Eds.), Criminology (pp. 368–384). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Sanders, C. S. (1995). Cultural criminology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J. (2004). City limits: Crime, consumer culture and the urban experience. London: GlassHouse.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J. (2017b). Cultural criminology, critical concepts in criminology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hayward, K., & Presdee, M. (Eds.). (2010). Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J., & Young, J. (2004). Cultural criminology: Some notes on the script. Theoretical Criminology, 8(3), 259–273.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J., & Young, J. (2012). Cultural criminology. In M. Maguire, R. Morgan, & R. Reiner (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of criminology (5th ed., pp. 113–137). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Katz, J. (1988). Seductions of crime. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Lyng, S. (Ed.). (2005). Edgework. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Presdee, M. (2000). Cultural criminology and the carnival of crime. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Rafter, N., & Brown, N. (2011). Criminology goes to the movies. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Young, J. (1999). The exclusive society. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Young, J. (2007). The vertigo of late modernity. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Young, J. (2011). The criminological imagination. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:


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Ferrell, J., & Hayward, K. (Eds.). (2011). Cultural criminology: Theories of crime. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2008). Cultural criminology: An invitation. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2015). Cultural criminology: An invitation (2d ed.). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., Morrison, W., & Presdee, P. (Eds.). (2004). Cultural criminology unleashed. London: GlassHouse.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Ilan, J. (2013). Crime, culture, and everyday life. In C. Hale, K. Hayward, A. Wahidin, & E. Wincup (Eds.), Criminology (pp. 368–384). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Ferrell, J., & Sanders, C. (Eds.). (1995). Cultural criminology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

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Hayward, K. (2011). The critical terrorism studies: Cultural criminology nexus. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 4(1), 57–73.Find this resource:

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Hayward, K. J. (2017b). Cultural criminology, critical concepts in criminology. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J. (2017a). Documentary criminology: A cultural criminological introduction. In M. Brown & E. Carrabine (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of visual criminology (pp. 135–150). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J., & Hobbs, D. (2007). Beyond the binge in Booze Britain: Market-led liminalization and the spectacle of binge drinking. British Journal of Sociology, 58(3), 437–456.Find this resource:

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Hayward, K. J., & Smith, O. (2017). Crime and consumer culture. In A. Liebling, S. Maruna, & L. McAra (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of criminology (6th ed., pp. 306–328). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J., & Yar, M. (2006). The “Chav” phenomenon: Consumption, media and the construction of a new underclass. Crime, Media, Culture, 2(1), 9–28.Find this resource:

Hayward, K. J., & Young, J. (Eds.). (2004), Special edition on cultural criminology. Theoretical Criminology, 8(3).Find this resource:

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Jenkins, P. (1999). Fighting terrorism as if women mattered. In J. Ferrell & N. Websdale (Eds.), Making trouble (pp. 319–346). New York: Aldine.Find this resource:

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