Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime. Edited by L. Presser and S. Sandberg (New York: New York University Press, 2015, 318 pp. £29.99 UK)

Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime. Edited by L. Presser and S. Sandberg (New... This collection stands as a programmatic statement of what narrative criminology is, and is not. It is simultaneously an invitation to researchers to foreground narratives in their research, and an opportunity to interrogate the novelty and viability of this approach. Narrative criminology turns our attention, yet again, to stories. That we need to pay attention to stories is not a new idea—indeed, it has been a tradition in philosophy, psychology, early childhood education, sociology and other disciplines for decades. The editors of this volume, however, posit that criminologists to date have not fully embraced this narrative focus, and consequently urge us to foreground the functions and implications of individuals’ stories about crime, criminal justice and victimization, both for the storytellers themselves and the wider society. In doing so, narrative criminologists remind us that stories have a significant impact on people’s lives and future decisions. To some extent, qualitative criminologists have always used people’s stories as data. What is distinctive about narrative criminology, then, is the focus on narratives qua narratives. That is, the researcher brackets off the question of whether these stories are true or accurate, and instead focuses on them exclusively as stories. As Presser notes, ‘narrative criminologists are largely uninterested in what the world and agents in it are really like’ (Presser 2016: 139). Instead, narrative criminologists see stories as a means to gather insights into people’s understandings of social structure, human interaction, culture, subjectivities and self-identity. These could be narratives about ‘doing crime’, or, in turn, could also be narratives about desisting from crime. The book is divided into three parts. In part I, contributors examine how narratives of crime, criminality, rehabilitation and relapse are deployed to construct ‘proper selves’. We learn how prisoners draw distinctions between morally acceptable crimes and crimes that prisoners in our own research refer to as ‘skin beefs’—i.e. crimes that have some form of sexual and oppressive connotation, such as sexual abuse or rape. The narrative here is that those who exploit weaker members of society are committing dishonourable crimes. Likewise, in Jody Miller’s co-authored chapter with Kristin Carbone-Lopez and Mikh Gunderman, we learn how female drug users draw sharp distinctions between themselves as being able to fulfil normative gendered expectations, and those whom they regard as ‘morally failed’—i.e. women who are unable to take care of their house and children. Part II of the collection highlights works exploring how narratives can promote or preclude doing harm, by looking at religion, drugs and the ‘total institution’ as substantive exemplars of this process. Sandberg and Tutenges argue, e.g., that stories of drug use are not simply retrospective interpretations, but also constructs that ostensibly shape people’s future actions. Drug stories, much like drinking stories, can serve multiple purposes for the narrator, including simple entertainment, but can also be part of more complicated processes of identity work. The authors make clear that framing one’s drug involvement as merely having tried drugs gives people access to a full range of stories without having to carry the stigma of being a drug user. Patricia O’Conner’s critical discourse analysis of prisoners’ accounts of violence and drug addiction reminds us that being able to tell one’s story is also, and perhaps most importantly, an invitation to agency. In the last part of the book, the authors turn to the reflexive and artful dimension of narratives. Particularly interesting, especially to students who need to familiarize themselves with different disciplinary traditions, is Aspden and Hayward’s chapter laying out the similarities and differences between cultural and narrative criminology. Narrative criminology is poised to attract a good number of adherents. While we like a great deal about the approach, it is worth briefly highlighting here two issues pertaining, first, to its disciplinary ambitions, and second, to larger ontological questions. In terms of disciplinary traditions, there is much in narrative criminology that is reminiscent of Paul Rock’s comments on ‘chrono-criminology’ (Rock 2005); i.e. the apparently now incessant need to develop new disciplinary paradigms, which—to some extent—involves dismissing or ignoring what has come before. In particular, narrative criminology has a litany of connections with works that can be positioned broadly in the qualitative/social constructionist tradition. The parallels and continuities are legion, from cultural approaches, symbolic interactionism, Erving Goffman’s work, social problems analysis, vocabularies of motive, discourse analysis, frame analysis and neutralization strategies. Much to the credit of most contributors in this volume, almost everyone points to the similarities of narrative criminology with a range of precursors. However, this ultimately raises the question of the extent to which narrative criminology represents the type of radical departure that the editors, and Shadd Maruna in his brief introduction, portray it to be, or whether it is more accurately an interesting and fruitful gloss on what has come before. There are also some ontological questions pertaining to narrative criminology, most of which revolve around the insistent proposition that narrative criminologists are uninterested in the truth or falseness of the narratives provided by their participants. Again, there are precursors to this type of stance, most notably in the social problems literature. In studying social problems, it seems entirely appropriate for analysts to accentuate how activist claims-makers are involved in politicized competitive struggles to construct claims through selective use of rhetoric to typify issues, while leaving aside the veracity of such representations. However, when interviewing prisoners, rape victims or police officers, it might at times be callous or imprudent to start from the position that one does not care about whether the stories they tell you about their victimization, abuse and violence are true. How might our research participants react if they knew we were indifferent to the reality of their accounts of injustice, suffering and victimization? Moreover, if we claim a disinterest in what the world and agents are really like, does that effectively remove narrative criminologists from the realm of policy impact? Relatedly, there is the question of the degree to which researchers are actually able and willing to maintain this strict agnostic position. Attentive readers will notice that most of the contributors to this volume occasionally move back and forth on this issue, sometimes treating stories as stories, but at other times treating what their participants say as faithful accounts of their views or experiences. And perhaps that is not a bad thing, as there are undoubtedly occasions where we need to assess or even challenge the stories told by our participants. So, to play the devil’s advocate, when white research participants say that they are disproportionately persecuted by African American criminals, are narrative criminologists really willing to just take that at face value and explore how this characterization informs white participants’ sense of self-identity without commenting on whether those claims are true or not? In other words, when might narrative criminologists be inclined or obliged to comment on the accuracy of the narratives of our participants? Does it depend on the story? Overall, then, Presser and Sandberg provide us with an impressive volume that forces us to think about the functions and implications that stories have for storytellers. In doing so, they remind us that stories have an impact on people’s lives and future decisions. At the same time, and as laid out here, there are some open questions about the approach that narrative criminologists still have to tackle. References Presser L. ( 2016), ‘ Criminology and the Narrative Turn’, Crime, Media and Culture , 12: 137– 51. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Rock P. ( 2005), ‘ Chronocentrism and British Criminology’, The British Journal of Sociology , 56: 473– 491. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  © The Author(s) 2016, 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD). All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Criminology Oxford University Press

Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime. Edited by L. Presser and S. Sandberg (New York: New York University Press, 2015, 318 pp. £29.99 UK)

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Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2016, 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD). All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0007-0955
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1464-3529
D.O.I.
10.1093/bjc/azx011
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Abstract

This collection stands as a programmatic statement of what narrative criminology is, and is not. It is simultaneously an invitation to researchers to foreground narratives in their research, and an opportunity to interrogate the novelty and viability of this approach. Narrative criminology turns our attention, yet again, to stories. That we need to pay attention to stories is not a new idea—indeed, it has been a tradition in philosophy, psychology, early childhood education, sociology and other disciplines for decades. The editors of this volume, however, posit that criminologists to date have not fully embraced this narrative focus, and consequently urge us to foreground the functions and implications of individuals’ stories about crime, criminal justice and victimization, both for the storytellers themselves and the wider society. In doing so, narrative criminologists remind us that stories have a significant impact on people’s lives and future decisions. To some extent, qualitative criminologists have always used people’s stories as data. What is distinctive about narrative criminology, then, is the focus on narratives qua narratives. That is, the researcher brackets off the question of whether these stories are true or accurate, and instead focuses on them exclusively as stories. As Presser notes, ‘narrative criminologists are largely uninterested in what the world and agents in it are really like’ (Presser 2016: 139). Instead, narrative criminologists see stories as a means to gather insights into people’s understandings of social structure, human interaction, culture, subjectivities and self-identity. These could be narratives about ‘doing crime’, or, in turn, could also be narratives about desisting from crime. The book is divided into three parts. In part I, contributors examine how narratives of crime, criminality, rehabilitation and relapse are deployed to construct ‘proper selves’. We learn how prisoners draw distinctions between morally acceptable crimes and crimes that prisoners in our own research refer to as ‘skin beefs’—i.e. crimes that have some form of sexual and oppressive connotation, such as sexual abuse or rape. The narrative here is that those who exploit weaker members of society are committing dishonourable crimes. Likewise, in Jody Miller’s co-authored chapter with Kristin Carbone-Lopez and Mikh Gunderman, we learn how female drug users draw sharp distinctions between themselves as being able to fulfil normative gendered expectations, and those whom they regard as ‘morally failed’—i.e. women who are unable to take care of their house and children. Part II of the collection highlights works exploring how narratives can promote or preclude doing harm, by looking at religion, drugs and the ‘total institution’ as substantive exemplars of this process. Sandberg and Tutenges argue, e.g., that stories of drug use are not simply retrospective interpretations, but also constructs that ostensibly shape people’s future actions. Drug stories, much like drinking stories, can serve multiple purposes for the narrator, including simple entertainment, but can also be part of more complicated processes of identity work. The authors make clear that framing one’s drug involvement as merely having tried drugs gives people access to a full range of stories without having to carry the stigma of being a drug user. Patricia O’Conner’s critical discourse analysis of prisoners’ accounts of violence and drug addiction reminds us that being able to tell one’s story is also, and perhaps most importantly, an invitation to agency. In the last part of the book, the authors turn to the reflexive and artful dimension of narratives. Particularly interesting, especially to students who need to familiarize themselves with different disciplinary traditions, is Aspden and Hayward’s chapter laying out the similarities and differences between cultural and narrative criminology. Narrative criminology is poised to attract a good number of adherents. While we like a great deal about the approach, it is worth briefly highlighting here two issues pertaining, first, to its disciplinary ambitions, and second, to larger ontological questions. In terms of disciplinary traditions, there is much in narrative criminology that is reminiscent of Paul Rock’s comments on ‘chrono-criminology’ (Rock 2005); i.e. the apparently now incessant need to develop new disciplinary paradigms, which—to some extent—involves dismissing or ignoring what has come before. In particular, narrative criminology has a litany of connections with works that can be positioned broadly in the qualitative/social constructionist tradition. The parallels and continuities are legion, from cultural approaches, symbolic interactionism, Erving Goffman’s work, social problems analysis, vocabularies of motive, discourse analysis, frame analysis and neutralization strategies. Much to the credit of most contributors in this volume, almost everyone points to the similarities of narrative criminology with a range of precursors. However, this ultimately raises the question of the extent to which narrative criminology represents the type of radical departure that the editors, and Shadd Maruna in his brief introduction, portray it to be, or whether it is more accurately an interesting and fruitful gloss on what has come before. There are also some ontological questions pertaining to narrative criminology, most of which revolve around the insistent proposition that narrative criminologists are uninterested in the truth or falseness of the narratives provided by their participants. Again, there are precursors to this type of stance, most notably in the social problems literature. In studying social problems, it seems entirely appropriate for analysts to accentuate how activist claims-makers are involved in politicized competitive struggles to construct claims through selective use of rhetoric to typify issues, while leaving aside the veracity of such representations. However, when interviewing prisoners, rape victims or police officers, it might at times be callous or imprudent to start from the position that one does not care about whether the stories they tell you about their victimization, abuse and violence are true. How might our research participants react if they knew we were indifferent to the reality of their accounts of injustice, suffering and victimization? Moreover, if we claim a disinterest in what the world and agents are really like, does that effectively remove narrative criminologists from the realm of policy impact? Relatedly, there is the question of the degree to which researchers are actually able and willing to maintain this strict agnostic position. Attentive readers will notice that most of the contributors to this volume occasionally move back and forth on this issue, sometimes treating stories as stories, but at other times treating what their participants say as faithful accounts of their views or experiences. And perhaps that is not a bad thing, as there are undoubtedly occasions where we need to assess or even challenge the stories told by our participants. So, to play the devil’s advocate, when white research participants say that they are disproportionately persecuted by African American criminals, are narrative criminologists really willing to just take that at face value and explore how this characterization informs white participants’ sense of self-identity without commenting on whether those claims are true or not? In other words, when might narrative criminologists be inclined or obliged to comment on the accuracy of the narratives of our participants? Does it depend on the story? Overall, then, Presser and Sandberg provide us with an impressive volume that forces us to think about the functions and implications that stories have for storytellers. In doing so, they remind us that stories have an impact on people’s lives and future decisions. At the same time, and as laid out here, there are some open questions about the approach that narrative criminologists still have to tackle. References Presser L. ( 2016), ‘ Criminology and the Narrative Turn’, Crime, Media and Culture , 12: 137– 51. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Rock P. ( 2005), ‘ Chronocentrism and British Criminology’, The British Journal of Sociology , 56: 473– 491. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  © The Author(s) 2016, 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD). All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com

Journal

The British Journal of CriminologyOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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