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Popular Culture

Criminal Justice As "spectacle", Critique Of Criminal Justice, "accuracy" Of Popular Representations, Impact Of Popular Culture

As anyone who has spent time watching television or going to the movies understands, crime and criminal justice occupy a prominent place in popular culture. The drama of the law violator brought to justice, the portrait of the lives and work of law enforcement officials, the stories of notorious, sometimes sensational crimes, and of justice done or justice denied are found every day as the common fare of the mass media. Crime and criminal justice live in culture as a set of images, as marvelous morality tales, as spectacles of the human effort to maintain "civilization" against the "forces of savagery." Indeed the semiotics of crime and punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison, or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to the penal colony, but in both "high" and "popular" cultural iconography, in novels, television, and film.

Crime and criminal justice traditionally have been great subjects of cultural production, suggesting the powerful allure of the fall and of our responses to it. "The law," as Ewick and Silbey write, "seems to have a prominent cultural presence . . . , occupying a good part of our nation's popular media . . . . We watch real and fictitious trials on television, often unable to distinguish fact from fiction . . . . We hear reports of crime and criminals on the nightly local news. And . . . millions of us devote hours of our leisure time to reading stories about crime, courts, lawyers and law" (p. 16). In addition, since the early 1970s, politicians have made crime a salient, often dramatic part of American political culture. As a result, the Miranda warnings, or the rituals of interrogation and cross-examination in a criminal trial, or even the internal life of law firms, these and many more, have a rich and powerful vernacular life (Gaubatz; Friedman, 1999). Thus anyone interested in understanding these subjects must, sooner or later, attend to their complex cultural lives and the consequences of these cultural lives for citizens and for legal institutions.

Scholars traditionally have looked to portraits of crime, whether fictional or based in fact, as devices through which cultural boundaries are drawn, arguing that solidarity is created through acts of marking difference between self and other (Durkheim; Mead). Yet today research suggests a more complex picture of the place of crime in popular culture and of its consequences for the cultural life of criminal justice. Some of this work examines the treatment of crime in popular culture for what it says about the adequacy of our institutions, their capacity to accurately assign responsibility and do justice. Still other research examines the representation of crime and criminal justice in popular culture to assess its accuracy or comprehensiveness, with a view to trying to understand the sources of public attitudes toward crime and justice. Finally, scholars analyze the way images in the media contribute to the creation of folk knowledge and assess the impact of that folk knowledge on the criminal justice system.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law