Introduction: The Criminology of Popular Culture

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of the introduction to Popular Culture, Crime, and Social Control, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2010. Also available as pdf file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2010. "Introduction: The Criminology of Popular Culture." Pp. ix-xi in Popular Culture, Crime, and Social Control, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Crime and social control present important issues that move and affect large segments of society. Whether we consider the impact of criminal events in terms of victimization, the construction of deviance into criminalized acts, or the many socially relevant aspects related to criminal justice policies and other social control activities, crime and justice are matters that deserve our most serious attention. It is largely for this reason that scholars develop astute theoretical models and sophisticated methodologies to study crime and social control in their many significant components. Yet, the world of popular culture, which we tend to associate with playfulness and fun, has also embraced themes related to crime and its control. It is perhaps a sign of the very earnestness associated with crime and social control that these themes are also dealt with in the social institutions of entertainment. The study of such portrayals of crime and criminal justice in popular culture is the focus of the present volume.

Francois Truffaut once remarked that the task of the movie director is not to say something but to show something (Truffaut, 1985). Undoubtedly, this is true and, surely, this should be true of all exciting art. Yet, while not intent on saying something, artists also do say something and do transmit ideas, whether consciously or not, through their aesthetic expressions. It is possible therefore to analyze dimensions of popular culture from the viewpoint of various academic disciplines. Social scientists have particularly sought to unravel many aspects of social life as they are revealed in popular culture. Among the many sociologically relevant issues, crime and social control have received considerable attention.

More work has been done in the criminology of popular culture than can be reviewed here (see, e.g., Bailey and Hale, 1998; McMahon, 2008; Murley, 2008). Suffice it to say that diverse artistic and cultural expressions, such as paintings, sculptures, photographs, cartoons and other visual arts in the print media, music, movies, television, and internet-based audio-visual materials have been analyzed from the viewpoint of important matters relating to crime and social control. There also exist specialized journals in this area, such as the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture and Crime, Media, Culture. It is in this rich burgeoning field of criminological analysis that the present volume is situated.

This work offers a range of innovative contributions that contemplate on some of the many ways in which themes related to crime and its control are addressed in a number of different manifestations of popular culture. In Part I, chapters are brought together that focus on the representation of criminologically relevant themes in the visual arts, including movies, comic books, and television. Susan Boyd’s chapter addresses arguably one of the most famous and infamous examples of the treatment of drug abuse in the world of the cinema by discussing the representation of marijuana use in the cult classic Reefer Madness. Also focusing on other movies that portray illegal drug use, Boyd draws on feminist and critical criminology to argue that there are enduring links presented between illegal drugs and immorality that involve a stigmatization and moral condemnation of drug users. Nickie Phillips turns to a very topical theme by analyzing the popular movie The Dark Night in the wake of the events of September 11. Phillips’ analysis focuses on the ideological messages of crime and justice that are presented in The Dark Knight and specifically shows how these messages reinforce the notion of the evildoer as an outsider. Bradford Reyns and Billy Henson next focus their criminological attention on the relatively unexplored art form of comic books. The authors find that crime control and crime prevention themes can be found across a broad range of comic books. They suggest that such representations may influence the public’s perception of crime and thereby affect the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. In a final chapter on the visual arts, Dawn Cecil looks at televised images of incarceration in documentaries and reality-based programs. The author shows that jails of all sizes and types are presented but always in a sensationalized manner that is supportive of official criminal justice policies.

Part II focuses on criminological themes in popular music. Judah Schept first analyzes the lyrics and music videos of Palestinian hip-hop, with a special focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Based on a semiotic analysis, Schept finds that Palestinian hip-hop artists rely on terms from criminal justice to narrate their lives under occupation in contrast with an organically conceived connection to the land of Palestine. Charis Kubrin and Ronald Weitzer also focus on rap music, but their attention is centered on the existing academic scholarship about rap. The authors argue that this scholarship reveals several weaknesses in lacking rigidity of research. Accordingly, they make several recommendations to strengthen such contributions. Turning attention to black musicianship, Viviane Saleh-Hanna uses the scholarship that can be found in music lyrics to broaden the focus of mainstream criminological discourse. In particular, the author argues that black musicianship can offer an antidote to the colonialism and racism that is often reproduced in criminology. A final chapter on music is offered by Ellen Leichtman, who centers her scholarly attention on protest music during the civil rights era and in the Punk movement. On the basis of her analysis, Leichtman argues that music should not be overlooked in the study of criminal justice as it can serve an important function to those who fight for justice.

The final part of this book brings together chapters that study themes of crime and justice in the non-fictional world of popular culture. Anneke Meyer first explores the representation and regulation of child sex crimes in the news media. On the basis of discourse analysis of newspaper stories, Meyer shows that the media construct pedophiles as members of a distinct and dangerous category of people and that this image also informs formal policies. Likewise focusing on news publications, Greg Justis and Steven Chermak analyze the manner in which forensics television programs are used in the news media. The authors find that such representations of forensics entertainment have been increasingly relied upon in the news and that they greatly influence public perceptions. Stephanie Kane shifts the attention to popular culture as it is practiced in everyday talk, especially in discourse on crime. The author shows that the carnivalesque lifestyles on Brazil’s beaches are confronted with the reality of armed robberies and that this duality informs popular culture as practical living. In the final chapter to this volume, Nicole Rafter and Per Ystehede analyze the criminology of Cesare Lombroso in the context of late-19th century Gothicism. The authors argue that Lombroso’s criminals were Gothic creations, drawn from literature and art, thereby manifesting a connection that exists between the worlds of fiction and science. Collectively, the authors of this volume hope to have offered analyses that may further stimulate scholarship on the criminology of popular culture and bring about stimulating discussions and debate.

  • Bailey, Frankie Y. and Donna C. Hale. (1998). Popular culture, crime, and justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
  • McMahon, Richard (editor, 2008). Crime, law and popular culture in Europe, 1500-1900. Cullompton, UK: Willan Publishing.
  • Murley, Jean. (2008). The rise of true crime: 20th-century murder and American popular culture. Westport: Praeger Publishers.
  • Truffaut, Fran├žois. (1985). Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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