Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Criminology Goes to the Movies

Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture

Nicole Rafter
Michelle Brown
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 236
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Criminology Goes to the Movies
    Book Description:

    From a look at classics like Psycho and Double Indemnity to recent films like Traffic and Thelma and Louise, Nicole Rafter and Michelle Brown show that criminological theory is produced not only in the academy, through scholarly research, but also in popular culture, through film. Criminology Goes to the Movies connects with ways in which students are already thinking criminologically through engagements with popular culture, encouraging them to use the everyday world as a vehicle for theorizing and understanding both crime and perceptions of criminality. The first work to bring a systematic and sophisticated criminological perspective to bear on crime films, Rafter and Brown's book provides a fresh way of looking at cinema, using the concepts and analytical tools of criminology to uncover previously unnoticed meanings in film, ultimately making the study of criminological theory more engaging and effective for students while simultaneously demonstrating how theories of crime circulate in our mass-mediated worlds. The result is an illuminating new way of seeing movies and a delightful way of learning about criminology.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4529-8
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Use of Dates
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 Introduction: Taking Criminology to the Movies
    (pp. 1-13)

    What is the relationship between criminology and crime films? What kinds of intellectual enterprises occur at the intersection of criminological theory and cinema? What sorts of encounters might occur were criminology to go to the movies? These questions lie at the heart of this volume.

    Theory—whether it be theory of crime or of the image—has a bad reputation. Students often find theory dry and abstruse, and they discover that it is difficult to relate theory to practice. Scholars are in part responsible for theory’s bad reputation, for too often they take a narrow and rigid view of theory,...

  6. 2 “For Money and a Woman”: Rational Choice Theories and Double Indemnity
    (pp. 14-27)

    Billy Wilder’sDouble Indemnity(1944) begins with the film’s protagonist, Walter Neff, mortally wounded and confessing to murder. “Yes, I killed him,” declares Neff. “I killed him for money and a woman. And I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” Here the conventions of film noir, Hollywood’s most original and distinctive mode of crime drama, and rational choice theory, the oldest criminological perspective, converge in a narrative that depicts crime as the calculated choice of individuals who weigh crime’s benefits against its costs in the headlong pursuit of their own self-interests. Hollywood cinema...

  7. 3 “He’s Alive!”: Biological Theories and Frankenstein
    (pp. 28-46)

    The very first efforts to explain crime scientifically—those made in the 1870s by the Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso—held that the causes of crime lie inside criminals themselves: in the inherited, primitive quality of their bodies and brains. Lombroso’s theory ofcriminal anthropologycaught the imagination of social reformers worldwide: it had a scientific ring at a time when people were turning to science for the answers to life’s big questions; and it was literally spectacular, for Lombroso illustrated his books with grisly images of living and dead criminals whose twisted bodies seemed to mirror their twisted minds.


  8. 4 “Blood, Mother, Blood!”: Psychological Theories and Psycho
    (pp. 47-66)

    The umbrella termpsychological theories of crime coversexplanations drawn from three “psy-sciences”: psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry. The three types of theory resemble one another in nomenclature and in subject matter, since all deal with mental phenomena and the causes of human behavior. Otherwise, however, they are often at odds.

    Psychologyas a field aims at creating a science of the mind and behavior, and it is itself multifaceted, including such diverse branches as applied, behavioral, clinical, and empirical psychology. As one historian explains, “Psychology occupies a peculiar place among the sciences, suspended between methodological orientations derived from the physical...

  9. 5 “You Talking to Me?”: Social Disorganization Theories and Taxi Driver
    (pp. 67-82)

    In recollecting his pioneering work in the formation of the Chicago school of sociology, W. I. Thomas recalled, “I explored the city.”¹ Robert E. Park, another Chicago school founder, described his work this way:

    I wrote about all sorts of things and became in this way intimately acquainted with many different aspects of city life. I expect that I have actually covered more ground, tramping about in cities in different parts of the world, than any other living man. Out of all this I gained, among other things, a conception of the city, the community, and the region, not as...

  10. 6 “You’re Giving Me a Nervous Breakdown”: Strain Theories and Traffic
    (pp. 83-100)

    This chapter deals with strain theories—explanations arguing that individuals turn to crime when they cannot cope with the strains and stresses of life through legitimate means. We begin withTraffic(2000), Steven Soderbergh’s celebrated film about the effects of drugs trafficking. Then we turn to strain theories, showing how they informTrafficand other movies.

    Trafficdeals with the drug trade on three levels: the national level, where it explores trafficking relationships between the United States and Mexico; an intermediate level, where it focuses on midlevel drug distribution and U.S. government efforts to curb it; and the individual level,...

  11. 7 Getting the Drift: Social Learning Theories and Mystic River
    (pp. 101-118)

    Social learning theorists argue that crime is the result of the same learning processes that are involved in all types of behavior. In their view, criminal values are learned mainly through associations with others, especially those who belong to deviant subcultures, groups that transmit criminal values across generations. This chapter focuses on both social learning and subcultural theories of crime, in particular on the work of Edwin Sutherland, the dominant figure in twentieth-century criminology and a man whose work profoundly shaped both types of explanation.

    Sutherland, who earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago’s sociology department during its early...

  12. 8 “Pornography in Foot-High Stacks”: Labeling Theory and Capturing the Friedmans
    (pp. 119-137)

    One of criminology’s theoretical assumptions is the idea that the causes of crime precede criminal justice interventions. Labeling theory counters this perspective, arguing instead that social responses to deviance, including defining individuals as “criminals” or “labeling” them, may worsen criminality. One of the foundational tenets of this perspective is that society is narrow in its understandings of deviance and that the criminal justice system, in particular, is limited in its capacity to restrain crime. Worse, state intervention may intensify the deviant acts and criminal behavior it had hoped to stop, anchoring individuals in these identities. At a moment when the...

  13. 9 Fight the Power: Conflict Theories and Do the Right Thing
    (pp. 138-152)

    Criminologists have long confronted the fact that those who get caught up in the criminal justice system are disproportionately drawn from the lower social classes. Some have examined biological, psychological, and social factors that may help explain this disparity, while others—conflict theorists—go further, questioning the very processes through which crime and criminality are constructed in a class-based society, one where elites define crimes in the first place. Conflict theorists look to social imbalances in power to explain the disproportionate representation of poor and marginal people in the criminal justice system. Conflict theory is rooted in Marxism, but the...

  14. 10 “Let Her Go”: Feminist Criminology and Thelma & Louise
    (pp. 153-166)

    The open road. Blue skies. The great American West. Traditionally these have been settings for cowboy movies about men’s adventures, masculinity, and male bonding. So how do two women wind up in this landscape, on the lam with state and federal law enforcement in close pursuit, speeding through conventionally masculine terrain in an attempt to reach Mexico? In a word, violence. Specifically, violence against women.Thelma & Louise(1991) stands out as one of film history’s first, most celebrated, and most controversial visions of women on a crime spree. In some respects their story parallels the way in which feminist...

  15. 11 A Matter of Time: Life-Course Theories and City of God
    (pp. 167-183)

    What would happen if criminologists took time more seriously? How might the field change if, instead of simply studying incidents of criminal behavior and types of crime, researchers examined offenders’ personal histories from birth through old age, studying the impacts of crime on their entire lives? Would we have to modify our understandings of criminal behavior if we focused on why and how offenders exit from crime as well as why and how they get into it? And if we could figure out how to study the effects of historical contexts on offending, could we develop better theories of crime?...

  16. 12 Conclusion: The Big Picture
    (pp. 184-186)

    What happens, then, when criminology goes to the movies? It has fun, of course, and sees itself in a new mirror, but there are a number of more important results.

    When criminology goes to the movies, we discover, first, that domains that often seem to belong to different universes—academic discourses on crime, on the one hand, and popular culture, on the other—actually overlap. These overlaps are the topic of popular (or cultural) criminology, a relatively new discourse in the criminological world that takes its place alongside discussions of subcultural formations, rational choice models, strain theories, and other strands...

  17. Appendix of Films
    (pp. 187-190)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 191-204)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-220)
  20. Index
    (pp. 221-226)
  21. About the Authors
    (pp. 227-227)