Jeff Ferrell Discusses Cultural Criminology

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    • 00:05

      [Cultural Criminology][How would you define cultural criminology?]

    • 00:15

      JEFF FERRELL: Culture criminology livesat the intersection of cultural dynamics and issuesof crime and justice.And so on the cultural side, typically culturesuggests a sort of collective way of life,symbolism and what that means to people,how people represent themselves either personallyor through media.Those sorts of issues.And crime issues of course, not just crime, but crime actors,

    • 00:36

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: criminal justice, policing courts, corrections.So if you bring those two together, what we look at thenare things like how subcultures, criminal subcultures engagein meaningful activity, have codes of conduct,and ways of presenting themselves.The culture of policing and why wesee certain abuses or problems with policing.Certainly how the media constructs crimeand presents it to us.How political leaders define crime problems.

    • 00:58

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: And all that in a sense resolves into a single notionof meaning.So cultural criminologists are alwaysgoing to argue that it's not what happens,it's more the meaning of what happens.And that that's always debatable contested.That means that different groups will participatein trying to seize the meaning of somethingas we see with Ferguson, or terrorism, or other issues.How we define domestic violence, how we define victims.

    • 01:19

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: Always definition, perception, and the issue of meaning.[What is the value in learning about cultural criminology?]Well, we tried, and as we developed this fieldover the last 20 years, we reallywere trying to create a criminologyfor the present moment.Criminology that is brought up to datewith what's often called late modernity.

    • 01:41

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: And so that's a world in which people's identities arefluid more than they once were, a world of, as we know,24/7 digital access, cellphones, media coverage.We were eating lunch over there and there were four televisionson in the cafe.And so in that kind of world wherethere's multiple identities, multiple media sources,it seemed to many of us we can't do criminologyas though it's simply about facts, as statistics

    • 02:01

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: and numbers.We've got to look at learning how to read the media,learning how to be media literate, culturally literate,understand how cultures come together and clash.So for students, I find it very usefulthat it helps them see that there'smore to an issue than crime rates or police and clearancerates.It's you really have to acquire into the way thingsare represented, what's on television.We can talk later perhaps how what's on television

    • 02:23

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: actually feeds back into the way crime and policing occurs,in a kind of looping dynamic.So to understand what police officers do,you actually have to understand how they'rerepresented on television.To understand a subculture, you gotto understand their website, their literature, their media.That to many of us is what we needto help ourselves do and help students do.[What first inspired you to start academic workin the field of cultural criminology?]

    • 02:48

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: The first thing that inspired me wasthat 20 something years ago, I was trainedin symbolic interactions and labeling theory, conflicttheory, and a more US or Northern American orientedapproach.I really never heard in grad school about British theory.About the new criminology out of Britain.Cultural studies, that sort of thing.I'm not quite sure how I got turned on to it,but I begin to read that literature.

    • 03:09

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: And it struck me that there was a great amount of conversationpossible between the two.And so I coined the term cultural criminology,which was sort of a British cultural studiesapproach melded with what I saw as the bestof American criminology.So theoretically, cultural criminologyhas always been transatlantic, always being global.And has always been intentionally a sort of mashup of theories.Not any one tradition.

    • 03:31

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: But the immediate antecedent was that Iwas engaged in a five year ethnographywith graffiti writers.I became a graffiti writer.I was deep in that world, partly to study who they were,but also to look at media and government reactionsto graffiti.And the longer I did that work, the moreI realized that when both sides were actually talking aboutwas style and appearance.That the city government was sayingthat graffiti ruins the image of the city,

    • 03:52

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: makes the city looked like it's full of crime.The graffiti writers were saying wehave a right to paint the city the way we want to.We're all about style.We measure status by style.Uncannily, both groups actually wereabout meaning, interpretation, and style, even though theywere battling each other.So that case study confirmed for methe idea that we had to have a criminology thatcould bring in cultural interactionist symbolictraditions into more mainstream criminology.

    • 04:13

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: So it was both a sort of grounded experience of Iguess what was to become culture criminology.But also then seeing how the two theories could come together.[What key thinkers have most inspired you,and continues to influence you?]I think the thinker that probably most inspiredme early on was Howard Becker.

    • 04:35

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: For a couple reasons.One was Becker was a good ethnographer.Howard Baker went inside jazz clubs and marijuanadens and other places.Becker was a brilliant theorist.He really revolutionized sociological and criminologicalthought by thinking about how it's not--you'll notice the parallel here-- not what you do,but how it's labeled.So labeling theory.But the other thing I loved about Howard Beckerwas that Howard Becker never rested on what he'd done.

    • 04:57

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: And he always reinvented himself.So about the time he could have rested on labeling theory,he went off and looked at art worlds.And after that he went elsewhere.So I really liked his sense of exploring new terrain,and re-imagining what criminology and sociology couldbe.So a very strong influence.The British tradition, Stuart Hall and Stan Cohen.People who again, were doing politics,doing good critical work, but through the lens

    • 05:18

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: of moral panics and media manipulation and youthsubcultures.And then I think the third area for me has alwaysbeen the documentary tradition.Ethnographic fieldwork, photo-documentary work.To me, the exemplar of that is James Agee and Walker Evans.Let us now praise famous men whereone of the great documentary photographersworked with one of our great writers

    • 05:38

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: to write a 400 or 500 page detailed studyof southern sharecroppers in the '30s, whereyou're all but inside their lives when you read the book.So those theorists, and then that sortof sense of deep immersion really shapedhow I see the world.[What new research directions in cultural criminology do youfind the most exciting?]

    • 05:60

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: In terms of new directions in cultural criminology,there are a couple things that really have me excited.One is we're now seeing what's calledgreen cultural criminology, which is Avi Brisman, NigelSouth, some other theorists who are takingthe concerns of environmental criminology,but thinking about how that relates to consumerism,consumer culture, the interpretations wehave in the environment.Do we see the environment as something to use,

    • 06:20

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: or something we're stewards of?So very provocatively, they're takingthe cultural criminological view and blending itwith the idea of environmental harm and environmental justice.I can't wait to see where that's going to go.I think one of the other interesting directionsis visual as work.And so culture criminologists have reallybeen at the forefront of saying not onlydo we have to look at image and representation

    • 06:41

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: in terms of creation of interpretation,we also have to look literally at images.That much of what our students know, much what we knowis driven by pictures, by images of crime and justiceand subcultures and style.And so we're seeing both the attemptto engage with the image critically,and think about what you see in the media.And what's on the front page of The New York Times.But also create images.And so my colleague David Redman, who's

    • 07:03

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: a documentary filmmaker and a cultural criminologist,is doing brilliant documentary films that are in a sensecultural criminological.They're trying to explore-- for example,his film on Mardi Gras.How the beads that are used at Mardi Gras and partof drunken revelry and exposed breasts,themselves come from 14-year-old girlsworking in horrific conditions in South China.And so to see the culture and crime

    • 07:24

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: and globally come in together.So I think that idea of the visual turn,and also looking at cultural chronologyas a lens by which we can see other aspectslike green issues, environmental issuesis-- those are some of the exciting directions.[What are some of the key challenges that researchersface when studying cultural criminology?]

    • 07:45

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: Culture criminology is really in many ways,granted in ethnography.Not that everyone is a long term ethnographer,but the sort of sensibility of going out in the world,observing, listening, becoming part of what people are doing.So one of the challenges there, of course,is that if you're sending criminals out in the world,you're yourself breaking the law.So one of the real challenges to that kind of research

    • 08:05

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: is where you draw your own moral boundaries, howthe police see you.In my own work there have been many timesthey've argued that I was actually a criminal, nota researcher, which technically was true.How your department chair sees you.How your dean sees that.So I think really the vitality that comes outof cultural criminology also pushes researchers outof their comfort zone.And sometimes pushes their bossesor their supervisors out of their comfort zones as well.

    • 08:28

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: That's related to a bigger challenge.And really a challenge that I would say cultural criminologyis now accepted, but in some ways engineered.Which is that cultural criminology alsohas, from the very first, been meant to challenge positivism.The sort of unexamined assumptionthat there is an objective world with objective factsthat can be reduced to numbers, statistics, big data, which

    • 08:49

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: drives much of mainstream criminology.If you look at the flagship journals, much of itis statistical analysis, tables, derived interpretationsfrom numerical manipulation.We've argued very strongly in fact,tried to be as provocative as possiblethat that really misses the subject matter of criminology.You can't deduce what people are doing from those numbers.

    • 09:09

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: You can't understand the meaning of a crimefrom seeing it later in the data set.So really the biggest challenge Ithink for cultural criminology has been a mythological one.Which is the kind of work that wedo is often dismissed by more mainstream people as notscientific, not objective.We, in turn, argue very strongly their work is actuallyinappropriate, inhuman, in many ways,reducing people to numbers and data sets.

    • 09:30

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: So interestingly, along with the theories and the politics,method is in some ways really the grinding momentabout what we think we know, who are people,what is the world we're studying?And there are really two very different views of that.[How important is theory in the study of cultural criminology?]I would say cultural criminology was in fact, overtly designed

    • 09:53

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: to revitalize theory in criminology.Another of the debates is that our argumentas cultural criminologists is that many of the theories thathave become popular like rational choice theory,for example, are actually not much in the way of theories.They're actually very simplistic models of human behavior,often barred from economics or other fields that really don'ttheorize the subtleties, the nuances of crime and justice,

    • 10:16

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: but really reduce it to sort of formulas.And so among the things we set outto do was to bring theory back inand to revitalize some of the longstanding theoreticaltraditions that have sort of gottenlost really in some ways in the turnfrom criminology to criminal justice.So for us, theory is tremendously important.And is something to be thought about, honored,

    • 10:36

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: but also revitalized and brought forwardinto the present moment.So in some ways, what cultural criminology has tried to dois take these traditions of conflict theory,critical criminology, interactionism,British cultural theory, and reimagine them as lensesto understand what's going on today.So I would say we are deeply theoreticalas cultural criminologists.[How important are research methodology and methods

    • 10:58

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: for a rigorous analysis of cultural criminology?]I think what, in a sense, put cultural criminology on the mapwere some ethnographic studies that I and others didthat were long term, years-long investigations that came outin book forms.And these books became somewhat influential in Mark Hamm'slong term enthnographies of neo-Nazi terrorists,

    • 11:20

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: my own long term ethnographic research with dumpster diversand book from that, and graffiti writers, and train hoppers,and the kind of work I do.So that gave it a sort of vitalityand a sort of seductive quality.To read cultural criminology was to read-- we helpedin a way sort of good account.Almost like reading a novel.But I want emphasize that's not all that's done.It's more that sensibility that you

    • 11:42

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: want to try to write well, communicate meaning, givepeople a voice and hear what they say.But that can happen in many other ways.And so other aspects of cultural criminologyare looking at voices from the media,analyzing media depictions.Although not quantitatively, so much.Not sort of counting how many wordsare in a newspaper account, but looking at how it's structured.

    • 12:02

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: How a headline leads you to see things in a certain way.But in the same sense, it's tryingto sort of unpack the meaning that'sthere in the headline of The New York Times,or on the CNN website, or out in the streets.So in each case, a sense of needing longer, needingmore time, needing deeper involvement to figure outhow the media works, or why street criminals dowhat they do, or why bankers embezzler, or whatever it

    • 12:24

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: is that we want to study.Or why police officers make the choices they do.There's some interesting work on the sortof culture of policing.So in each case, it seems to us very clearlythat's not reducible to mailing a survey,compiling data, and running numbers on it.That in fact, is an act of misunderstanding.And that understanding requires some sort of sensitivityto what people say, how they communicate, what they wear,

    • 12:46

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: the way they move around the world, the way they live.Which means that some sort of deeper, slower understanding.[Are there any major academic debates in the fieldof cultural criminology?]Well, one debate we've touched on,certainly that's ongoing, and in some ways becoming more heated,

    • 13:07

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: is the debate over method and really over knowledge.What does it mean to know about crime or know about justice?And so that debate between a more positivistquantitative approach on the one hand, and cultural criminologyis more empathic, situated long term approach.It not only continues, but I thinkin some ways is accelerating in the journalsand in the sessions here in ASC in public debate.So that's ongoing.

    • 13:27

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: I think it's healthy.I think the discipline needs to think about its own boundaries.Within culture criminology, it's interesting.Because now what set out to be an alternative, in some waysalmost insurrectionary approach, to really upsetthe cart of criminology, I suppose has done so.But also has become popular enoughand there are now graduate and doctoral programsin cultural criminology.And there are now numerous books that perhaps ironically

    • 13:51

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: cultural criminology has also now become partof the canon of criminology.So I think it's a friendly debate.But in some ways those of us who I guesswere there at the beginning, are nowtrying to think about do we want to continue just to workour way into criminology?Or do we want to continue to sort of stay on the margins,because there is some vitality and energy there?So that's a friendly debate.And I think the answer is both.

    • 14:12

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: I think we want to see this become part of how criminologyis taught and understood.But also to maintain that sort of tensionas a critique and an alternative way of seeing the world.[Can you provide any examples of key research in the field thathas had a direct impact on policy or practice outsideof academia, and what has changed as a result?]To me, in cultural criminology, thereis one case that stands out from all the others in terms

    • 14:34

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: of how the world exists today and what some of the issuesare.And that is terrorism, and the attemptto understand and confront and prevent terrorist attacks.Almost all terrorist research is based on governmental data,phone tapping, collection of big databased on emails and surveillance.Mark Hamm, who I think is one of the finest

    • 14:55

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: cultural criminologists is a terrorism expert,and widely respected for that.But one reason he is one of the world's leading terrorismexperts is that unlike the other approaches,Mark has for many decades now, takena cultural criminological approach.So as per our earlier discussion,from Mark that's meant going and sleeping in the hotel roomwhere Timothy McVeigh slept as hegot ready to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building.

    • 15:18

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: Watching the movies Timothy McVeigh watched,going and finding his friends, thinkingabout how methamphetamine affects judgment,going inside his network of contacts, the literature heread.He's now doing this with international terrorism,as well as other forms of domestic terrorism.Hanging out with victims of terrorist attacksand feeling their pain.And hearing them tell stories about how the pain lingers.

    • 15:41

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: In many ways then Mark has again,tried to understand the meaning of terrorismand the logic of it as exists within certain cellsand certain worlds.So he has brought to terrorism research, not onlya vitality of intellectual understanding,but invaluable insights into what pushes terrorism forward.So Mark Hamm, a man who is slept in Timothy McVeigh's bed,

    • 16:03

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: and spent years hanging out with skinheads in the streets,and this sort of thing, now speaks at the Hague and beforethe UN, and before the European High Commission because heunderstands terrorism in a way that data sets and phonesurveillance simply can't.He in a sense, understands the emotional seductionsof terrorism, the emotional harm it does,and the sort of situated logic.One of his questions is, what could lead someone

    • 16:25

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: to blow up 200 kids?That's a fascinating and troubling questionthat you can only answer by sort of unravelingthe culture of the meaningful world that got them to imaginethat was somehow justifiable.So to me, if we did nothing else,I think that's a phenomenal contributionof this kind of approach to one of the more pressing issues wehave before us.

    • 16:45

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: I would add, by the way, that Markwrote a piece a while back about, I would,say becoming temporarily insane.About being in Kingman, Arizona, among skinheads and neo-Nazistrying to understand Tim McVeigh.The more he understood him, the more depressed and anxioushe became.But that becomes, you see, part of the researchis to realize what that feels like.To realize the lived horror of that mindset

    • 17:09

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: can then help you understand why you would blow upa building full of children.So in a sense-- by the way, part of the research model we useinvolves what's called [INAUDIBLE]which is not sympathetic so much, but empathicunderstanding.That whether I appreciate what you do or want to stop it,I can still understand it better if I canfeel what it feels like to you.And that applies to victimology, it applies to prison research,

    • 17:30

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: it applies to understanding crime as well.[How has the field changed in recent years,and what developments do you consider most significant?]One of the things about cultural criminologywas from the very first we wanted it to be inclusionary.And one way we conceptualized it wasto open up new space for critical and creative thinking.One problem was that almost all that space

    • 17:52

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: was owned up originally by straight white men,including myself.So no matter how much we tried, we-- back to this approach--we in a sense couldn't fully understandother points of view or other waysof understanding the world.So one of the things I'm happiest aboutis that cultural criminology has increasingly been influencedby feminist criminology.We've got more and more women and men

    • 18:12

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: doing gendered research.That's part of the debate.Although a friendly one about are some of these issuesgendered?And if so, how do they play out differentlyin meaning and emotion, interpretation.Cultural criminology as we talked about earlier,has always been transatlantic.But now it's being taught in Brazil and throughout Europe,and then in Eastern Europe.

    • 18:33

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: So given our approach, we're verypleased that the sort of international interdisciplinaryapproach that we developed has becomeincreasingly international, and increasingly interdisciplinary.[What do you think the future holds in terms of culturalcriminology?]I'm excited about the future because since we did,

    • 18:56

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: I think, try to create a criminology thatwas both of the present moment and catching criminology upto the current issues, and also very intentionallya criminology that is least we hope, engaging, well written,provocative.It does seem that a younger generation of scholarsis finding this a very useful approach.There's certainly still people doing other approaches,as they should be.But we seem to see more and more doctoral work

    • 19:18

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: and young scholars coming up through the field.And of course every generation brings new perspectivesand insights.I'm not able to do good digital research.I'm not conversant with those roles as well.I'm better on trains and alleys.So every new generation brings with them,in a sense, a better awareness of what's now emerging.But we hope steeped in some of these theoretical models.

    • 19:41

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: So it does seem to me that cultural criminologyis both more global, but also I would say more sort of diversein terms of age.And that the next generation is alreadyreinventing it, which is very much the idea, by the way.The idea was not to create a definitionthat everyone had to abide by, but open upsome new ways of thinking.So one of my great pleasures is to hear someone define for mewhat cultural criminology is in a way that I don't agree with.

    • 20:03

      JEFF FERRELL [continued]: I think that's a real sign of vitality and growth.So I hope to hear further alternative definitionsin the next few years.

Jeff Ferrell Discusses Cultural Criminology

View Segments Segment :


Professor Jeff Ferrell explains cultural criminology as the intersection between cultural dynamics and crime and justice. It is concerned with understanding why crime occurs and how culture affects and is affected by crime. Ferrell discusses debates in the field, future directions, and challenges of researching cultural criminology.

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Jeff Ferrell Discusses Cultural Criminology

Professor Jeff Ferrell explains cultural criminology as the intersection between cultural dynamics and crime and justice. It is concerned with understanding why crime occurs and how culture affects and is affected by crime. Ferrell discusses debates in the field, future directions, and challenges of researching cultural criminology.

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