Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Jeff Ferrell and Neil Websdale, editors
Making Trouble: Cultural Constructions of Crime, Deviance, and Control.
New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1999, 376 pp., $US 25.95 paper (0202306186), $US 50.95 cloth (0202306178)

Making Trouble is the latest in a series of collections on cultural criminology compiled by Northern Arizona University criminal justice professor Jeff Ferrell and various co-editors (in this case Neil Websdale). Ferrell, one of criminology’s brightest young Turks, was the recipient of the 1998 Critical Criminologist of the Year Award, presented by the Critical Criminology Division of the American Society of Criminology, and is the leading exponent of cultural criminology.

Cultural criminology is both an analytic perspective and a set of topics; it explores the complex interplay between popular culture, media institutions, crime, deviance and social control. In the opening essay, “Materials for Making Trouble”, the editors present cultural criminology not as an attempt to create a unified synthesis but rather as an eclectic intellectual stew of ingredients including critical criminology, symbolic interactionism and social constructionism, feminism and gender studies with a large dollop of postmodern sensibility to give the stew a special flavour. Ferrell and Websdale note (p. 4) that “cultural criminology operates from the postmodern proposition that meaning lies in presentation and re-presentation.” They promise “a journey into the spectacle and carnival of crime, a walk down an infinite hall of mirrors where images created and consumed by criminals, criminal subcultures, control agents, media institutions and audiences bounce endlessly one off the other.”

In addition to the very useful introductory and concluding essays by the editors that describe the antecedents of cultural criminology and future lines of fruitful inquiry, the book is divided into five sections focusing on constructions of history and myth, gender and crime, subcultures and crime, policing and control, and crime and terrorism. The section on gender and crime is the weakest in the collection. Websdale’s article, “Predators: The Social Construction of ‘Stranger-Danger’ in Washington State as a Form of Patriarchal Ideology” provides a distorted view of the legislation it describes. He largely ignores the comprehensive sex offender legislation (the Community Protection Act), of which the Violent Sexual Predator statute he analyzes is one small part. He also overplays the significance of one feature of the statute: its exclusion of offenders who are related to their victims. Indeed, as Philip Jenkins documents in his excellent recent book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester, Washington’s Violent Sexual Predator Act, like the sexual psychopath statutes that preceded it and the Megan’s laws that followed it in every state of the United States, is much more clearly linked to the moral panic around the danger pedophiles pose to children than to concerns with the sexual victimization of women. Meda Chesney-Lind’s article “Media Mysogyny: Demonizing Violent Girls and Women” and Adrian Howe’s “ ‘The War Against Women’: Media Representations of Men’s Violence Against Women in Australia” both tread on familiar feminist ground in their analyses of how media coverage of violence by and against girls and women reflects, not surprisingly, male exploitation of females in patriarchal society. Gray Cavender’s Article “Detecting Masculinity” is a rather superficial examination of crime and masculinity in four Hollywood films.

Now for the very best stuff. The highlights of the entire collection are Peter Manning’s dazzling tour de force, “Reflections: The Visual as a Mode of Social Control” and Philip Jenkins’ theoretically innovative “Fighting Terrorism As If Women Mattered: Anti-Abortion Violence as Unconstructed Terrorism”. Manning’s work is rich with provocative insights on the implications for the self and social control of the ubiquity in contemporary society of visual recording devices and the screens that reflect back the images they capture. Jenkins’ case study is a brilliant analysis of the socio-politics behind the failure of authorities to construct a demonstrably significant issue, anti-abortion violence, as a particular type of social problem, i.e., terrorism.

Rounding out the collection are several other strong pieces including Jon’a Meyer and Gloria Bogdan’s study of traditional stories and their implications for social control, Craig Reinarman and Ceres Duskin’s analysis of a Pulitzer prize winning newspaper essay on a child heroin addict that turned out to be a hoax, and Jeff Ferrell’s foray into the world of freight train graffiti colourfully told from the perspective of his own particular brand of romantic anarchism. Also worthy of mention are Karim Murji’s portrayal of the demonization and lionization of “yardies”, young male toughs of Jamaican ancestry (or occasionally wannabes who pose as such) who are linked to drug trafficking, violence, promiscuous sexuality, and Jamaican popular music. Finally, there is the collection’s Canadian content: “Punky in the Middle: Cultural Constructions of the 1996 Montreal Summer Uprisings (A Comedy in Four Acts)”, Lauraine Leblanc’s clever, stylish and insightful study of the Montreal francophone media’s sometimes antagonistic, sometimes sympathetic coverage of Montreal street youth.

If I have a single bone to pick with cultural criminology in its current state of development, it is with the persistent tendency of some of its proponents (Ferrell himself is a notable example) to romanticize the cultures of the deviant and the marginalized populations it focuses on and, in doing so, to lose analytic acuity at the expense of a colourful, sympathetic (to the point of sentimental), and ideologically correct rendering of the lives of its favoured subjects. Cultural criminologists might do well to read David Matza’s 1969 classic Becoming Deviant, with its warning to avoid the twin dangers of correctionalism and romanticism.

Making Trouble is overall a smart, fresh and insightful collection, Ferrell and company’s best effort yet in their ongoing attempt to develop a cultural criminology that captures the excitement and turmoil of a postmodern age.

Michael Petrunik, Ph.D.
Criminology Department
University of Ottawa
January 2000
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