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Cultural Criminology and the Importance of Meaning

The notion that criminologists should take a more overt interest in the construction of meaning is hardly novel. Hayward (2004, p. 259) has long argued that criminologists should seek to adopt an approach which prioritises the meanings that surround crime and crime control as ‘creative constructs’. Indeed, this critical engagement with crime, crime control and punishment has developed into a growing body of research using a range of methods to examine an array of cultural phenomena. Both crime and punishment exist in a hall of mirrors, continually reflecting, and at times distorting, reality with each new image (Ferrell 1995). The task of the cultural criminologist then, is to explore these images, reflections, (re)presentations and performances in order to examine how they construct meanings, messages and metaphors about crime and punishment. Cultural criminology has therefore embraced the stories we tell. It is by listening to the ‘quiet stories, dramatic stories, dangerous stories [and] desperate stories, depicting the span of human life’ that cultural criminology is able to focus on the production of meanings (Presdee 2004, p. 282).

Similarly, in the past two decades the matter of culture has become much more significant within the study of punishment (Garland 1990; Jarvis 2004; Kudlac 2007; Massingill and Sohn 2007; Poveda 2000). Although the term ‘culture’ has been present in the sociology of punishment for some time (see Garland 2006), it is now widely accepted that any institution of punishment has important cultural meanings (An-Na’im 1995; Smith 2008; Vidmar 2000) and consequences (Sarat 2002; Sarat and Boulanger 2005), and that various aspects of culture play important roles in the shaping of penal practices and populist support (see Simon 2000, 2001, 2009; Whitman 2003; Zimring 2003).

Scholars have sought to develop and refine the ways in which punishment and control as a cultural practice-or as Brown (2009) calls it cultural work-is theorised, researched, examined and explained. The ‘cultural turn’ has engendered analyses which are able to address the political, the structural, the organisational and the legislative as well as the nuanced and complex cultural position of the punishment process. Punishments such as the death penalty along with prison, public sex offender registers and chain gangs are recognised as institutions with a cultural character as complex as the legislation which seeks their abolition, retention or reform (see Pratt 2000).

Garland (2006) has reviewed the ways in which the concept of culture has been deployed in the sociology of punishment, and building on the work of Sewell (1999) he identifies two commonly used definitions. First, we find scholars speaking about culture as ‘collective identity’ (a culture) and second, there are those for whom culture is better understood as ‘an analytical dimension of social relations’ (the cultural). The two definitions have encouraged two different types of approach to the study of punishment in America: the first prioritises the examination of culture (usually the culture of the Southern states) while the second is more interested in exploring the cultural (that is cultural representations). Studies that employ the first conceptual meaning (a culture) therefore tend to explore the unified features of ‘dominant value systems’ (Garland 2006, p. 424), while those evoking the second meaning (the cultural) tend to deal with ‘leisure time activities and products of the culture industry’, such as media representations, art, film and literature (p. 426). However, while certain representational formats receive much attention within criminology-crime news for example-others seem to receive far less. Within this list of cultural products offered by David Garland, we also find the museum.

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