Cultural Criminology – consumerism and the changing crime

Last Updated on January 11, 2024 by Karl Thompson

Cultural criminology seeks to understand how consumer culture has changed the motives and nature of crime in contemporary society. 

Cultural criminologists argue that crime in contemporary society has changed because of hyper consumerism. 

Today crime is more about:

  1. Instability of Desire – consumer culture encourages insatiable desire, crime is one way to get what one wants!
  2. New forms of ‘hyper strain’ – people commit crime because they want to stand out, rather than just accumulating stuff.  
  3. Engagement with Risk – crime is more likely to be about seeking thrills and excitement and seeking escape from mundane, regulated, working life.
  4. Instant Gratification/ Impulsivity – people commit crime because they want a thrill now, they don’t think about the future as much as they used to. 

Crime and emotions 

Cultural criminologists stress the highly emotional nature of crime – instead of what the criminals will gain, these researchers are interested in how committing the crime actually makes people feel. The focus of cultural criminologists is on the thrill of the act. Crime can offer a brief escape from an otherwise grey emotional existence. They argue there is an intoxicating mix of fear and pleasure that often accompanies risk taking.

Crime is not a rational mundane activity, where costs and benefits are weighed up. Rather it is a reaction against the mundane. It is a time when those involved momentarily experience status, excitement and even some control over their own lives, which are otherwise characterised by feelings of worthlessness and insecurity.

The crime consumerism nexus 

The crime-consumerism nexus is a theoretical concept used by cultural criminologists. The crime-consumerism nexus refers to the relationships that exist within consumer societies between the values and emotions associated with consumerism and various forms of acquisitive criminality. 

The crime-consumerism nexus asserts that consumerism cultivates new forms of subjectivity based around desire, individualism, hedonism and impulsivity, which can find expression in transgressive and even criminal behaviour. Examples include gang activity, rioting, mugging and drug use. This applies especially to young people. 

The crime-consumerism nexus simply outlines the striking convergence between novel forms of subjectivity propagated by consumerism and many aspects of criminality as outlined by traditional criminological theories. 

It does not claim there is any causative link between capitalism, consumerism and crime. 

Cultural Criminology: four themes

Cultural criminology is interdisciplinary and draws on behavioural economics, consumer research, and the sociology of risk and identity. Cultural criminology has four main themes: 

  1. Instability of Desire
  2. New forms of ‘hyper strain’ 
  3. Engagement with Risk 
  4. Instant Gratification/ Impulsivity 

Instability of desire 

In contemporary consumer culture insatiable desire is not only normalised but essential to the survival of the economy. Insatiable desire is actively cultivated in consumer culture. 

The flip side of this is a constant sense of unfulfillment, dissatisfaction and disillusionment. The criminogenic consequences of this are that a lot of crimes – from shoplifting to street robbery – are an attempt to bridge a perceived ‘consumer deficit’ and as a form of identity construction. A lot of crimes are no longer simply a response to poverty. 

New forms of hyper strain 

Contemporary hyper-consumerism is contributing to the crime problem in ways qualitatively different from those expressed by classic strain theorists such as Merton. Today people are feeling deprived of not just the physical products themselves but also the sense of identity that products bestow on people. This means that crimes which happen because of hyper strain rather than just ordinary strain are about people expressing themselves, rather than about the instrumental desire to simply have a product they can’t get through legitimate means. 

Engagement with risk 

In contemporary society there is a tension between the desire for excitement which is a part of consumer culture and the over-controlled nature of ordinary, mundane life – as we see in the over surveilled and drudge like nature of many jobs. 

People try to compensate for this by exerting more personal control – or rather a ‘controlled loss of control’ through engaging in risky activities. Many crimes within urban areas such as street fighting and graffitiing can be interpreted as risk-seeking activities. 

Instant gratification and impulsivity 

Consumer culture cultivates a need for immediate rather than deferred gratification. We see this in the buy-now nature of advertising and the expansion of buying on credit. This constant focus on the ‘now’ separates people from the longer term consequences of their immediate actions.  People are more likely to pursue excitement in the moment rather than thinking longer term. 

Examples of cultural criminologists 

Two examples of cultural criminologists are Katz (1988) and Lyng (1990). 

Katz (1988) He argued that people get drawn into crime because it is seductive, because it is thrilling. He saw this simply as part of a postmodern society which calls on us to enjoy our leisure time – crime is one means whereby some people do just that – this is very much the feeling of many people who took part in the London Riots in 2011.

Lyng (1990) developed the concept of ‘edgework’ – by this he meant that crime was a means whereby people could get a thrill by engaging in risk-taking behaviour – going right to the edge of acceptable behaviour, and challenging the rules of what is acceptable. Again, we can see this very much as an outgrowth of a postmodern society which encourages and rewards risk-taking behaviour.

The risks involved in law breaking act as a challenge, and crime is carried out precisely because the rules are in place. Cultural criminologists argue that most young offenders do not set out on their escapades assessing the chances that they will be arrested, and this is why the steady increase in control in culture over our lives (CCTV, ASBOs, anti-terrorist legislation and creation of new offences) does nothing to deter, but actually creates more law breaking as they are faced with more ‘thrilling’ challenges

Relevance to A-level sociology

Cultural criminology can be used to criticise many earlier criminological theories within the crime and deviance module.

Cultural Criminologists argue the exact opposite of Right Realists who focus on the ordinary motivations and repetitiveness of much crime. For cultural criminologists crime is about feelings and identity, not just accumulating stuff. 

In a way they develop some aspects of Marxism by looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and crime. However they do not argue that capitalism is criminogenic, they don’t see capitalism as causing crime. 

We can regard cultural criminology as a postmodern theory of crime. This is because they look at how consumer culture encourages crime. Also because they focus on how crime makes individuals feel, and ultimately hold them responsible for the crimes they commit. 

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