Herzog über Representing Crime

Representing Crime

The Risks and Rewards of
Trans-Disciplinary Investigation

  • Hans-Jörg Albrecht / Afroditi Koukoutsaki / Telemach Serassis (Hg.): Images of Crime. Representations of Crime and the Criminal in Science, the Arts, and the Media. (Kriminologische Forschungs-Berichte aus dem Max-Planck-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht Freiburg im Breisgau 97) Freiburg i. B.: Max-Planck-Institut f. ausländ. u. inter. Strafrecht 2001. 310 S. Kartoniert. EUR (D) 21,00.
    ISBN: 3-86113-042-4.
  • Hans-Jörg Albrecht / Telemach Serassis / Harald Kania (Hg.): Images of Crime II. Representations of Crime and the Criminal in Politics, Society, the Media, and the Arts. (Kriminologische Forschungs-Berichte aus dem Max-Planck-Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht Freiburg im Breisgau 113) Freiburg i. B.: Max-Planck-Institut f. ausländ. u. inter. Strafrecht 2004. 354 S. Kartoniert. EUR (D) 31,00.
    ISBN: 3-86113-061-0.



The study of crime has long provided a space in which various disciplines have gathered and entered into a dialogue with one another. Writers of crime and detective fiction regularly consult criminological studies to aid them in constructing their novels. Criminologists, in turn, frequently cite fictional works to illustrate their scientific arguments. Scholars and jurists have interpreted legal codes as literary texts. Others have sought and found legal arguments in literary texts. For several centuries, crime has consistently found itself at the intersection of several bodies of knowledge: literary, scientific, legal, and political. The two volumes of essays, Images of Crime, which have appeared in the wonderful series »Kriminologische Forschungsberichte« published by the Max-Planck Institut für ausländisches und internationales Strafrecht, stand in this long tradition of trans-disciplinary exchange and suggest possibilities for its further developments in the 21st century.


The first volume of Images of Crime was published in 2001, and was based upon a volume published two years earlier in the Greek language. It consists of ten essays by Greek and Italian experts representing disciplines ranging from sociology to philosophy. The second volume appeared in 2004, and contains sixteen essays by European experts in disciplines ranging from law to literature. The range of texts discussed is equally diverse: detective stories, newspaper reports, criminological treatises, comic strips. The historical periods covered stretch over two centuries, from the early 1800s to the present. Projects of such ambitious scope and deliberate diversity, while exciting to contemplate, run the risk of rendering the discussion too diffuse, thereby disintegrating into a collection of largely unrelated studies. I am happy to report, however, that this collection avoids this problem. Indeed, a remarkable coherence emerges when these essays are considered alongside one another. Taken together, these essays point not toward the historical evolution of a body of knowledge about crime and criminals (as one might initially expect), but rather demonstrate the stubborn dominance of the 19th-century positivist model of a criminal other and its repeated deployment in the service of social control.




All of the essays in the first volume of Images of Crime attempt to develop a critical criminology and put it into practice examining representations of criminals and crime in science, the media, and the arts. The essays group themselves into three large areas of investigation. The Italian criminologist Dario Melossi and the Greek sociologist Telmach Serassis each turn their attention to the history of the science of criminology. Melossi identifies a cyclical nature in the discipline, arguing that the image of the criminal in scientific literature is closely related to social conditions. In times of rapid change, the representation of the criminal becomes a contested issue in which some criminals are celebrated as innovators and heroes. Such periods of social fracture are inevitably followed by periods of stabilization, in which authority, unity, and hierarchy are re-constituted and the criminal is cast a deviant outsider and public enemy. Serassis also focuses on the role played by the dominant authority in constructing the scientific image of the criminal, but finds less fluctuation than Melossi. He argues that criminology has always directly served established authorities in their desire for social control, while denying its political involvement. These two essays, which both see representations of criminals and crime serving the interests of established powers, set the tone for all of the essays to follow in both volumes.


The following two essays, for example, continue the identification of the functions of power and ideology in images of crime by turning their attention to media representations of foreigners within the discourse of crime. Christina Konstantinidou examines how sensational reports in the Athens press of Albanian criminal activities serve to generate support for repressive state practices that suppress entire social groups rather than individual offenders. Alberto D’Elia draws his case study from the major immigration hub of Salento in the mid-1990s and reaches similar conclusions. The remaining essays turn their attention to the sphere of fiction and popular culture, but maintain their focus on the social and political uses and abuses of images of criminals and their crimes. Each scholar brings the expertise from his field to bear on works of fiction and popular culture, resulting in new and interesting approaches to these texts. Petros Martinidis argues that detective fiction has, since its invention by Edgar Allan Poe, served to mold public impressions of delinquency to support established powers more effectively than scientific writings can hope to. Whereas Martinidis rushes through a long history of international detective fiction, Alexander Chryssis focuses on one moment in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which he uses to examine questions of individual action and historical determinism. Alfredo Verde draws on Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider as a case study, reading it from his perspective as an expert in forensic psychology. Two essays, by Adolfo Francia and Afroditi Koukoustaki, discuss the Greek prison comic strip, The Lifer, for its insights into penal practice and its submerged subversive opposition to the official discourse on penal policy. Massimo Pavarini’s essay on the ideological underpinnings of prison photography rounds out the collection.


The second volume of Images of Crime appeared three years after the first volume, and not only reaffirms the commitment to the development of an interdisciplinary and international critical criminology, it greatly expands both the scope and impact of the project. The sixteen essays included in this volume by scholars from Greece, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain once again turn their attention to representations of criminals and their crimes in a wide body of texts. The essays are grouped into four sections: the first examines representations of the criminal in politics; the second focuses on social attitudes, values and fears; the third turns its attention to the mass media; and the final section deals with literary and pop cultural texts. In general it traverses much the same territory as the first volume, but the essays range more widely in both topics and methodologies. One contributor, for example, analyzes Belgian parliamentary reports (see Ronnie Lippens, »White Integrity: A Speculation on Images of Sovereignty in a Belgian Parliamentary Inquiry Report«). Another analyzes Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics (see Karl-Ludwig Kunz, »Criminal Policy in Duckburg«). What is so fascinating and provocative about this collection is how such seemingly different cultural products are informed by remarkably similar ideologies.




Despite the great differences between the twenty-six essays that make up this two-volume collection, nearly all share one crucial methodological approach in common: each represents an attempt by an expert in one discipline to examine texts usually considered to belong to a separate discipline. In most cases a social scientist is matched with a literary or cultural text. In one of the most insightful articles to appear in either volume of this collection, Heinz Müller-Dietz directly addresses the use of literature for social analysis, arguing that it can »serve as a course of discovery« (Bd. 2, S. 262). At their best, these essays represent discoveries of new ways to read both familiar and unfamiliar texts. By reading these texts across disciplinary boundaries, armed with a different set of questions and unburdened by traditional disciplinary assumptions, the scholars in these volumes are able to offer imaginative and useful new interpretations of representations and their meanings.


But, alongside the rewards, there are risks associated with such trans-disciplinary approaches. Alberto D’Elia represents this danger in his analysis of the image of the deviant foreigner in Italian culture, which considers representations of deviancy in a wide variety of texts. »What we can therefore claim,« he asserts near the end of his investigation, »[…] is that violence or crime are always presented through the same ›representation‹, in the frame of specific categories, whether in detective novels, fairy tales, or police journalism« (Bd. 1, S. 160). But is it really the same representation in each of these radically different texts? Does not each have different aesthetic strategies and political ideologies? Are they not aimed at different audiences? Do they not ask to be read in different ways? Many of the essays collected in Images of Crime are guilty of flattening the differences between different types of texts, categorizing each as employing a similar strategy of constructing criminality to serve a dominant established authority in its aim to further socially repressive policies. At their best, however, these essays overcome such flattening of distinctions without losing the freshness of an approach that transcends boundaries between disciplines, genres, and media. At their least convincing, these essays collapse texts into a pre-determined ideological system.


The risks of such a bold endeavor as Images of Crime are perhaps unavoidable and certainly worth taking for the rewards provided within these essays. The editors and contributors have done a great service to the growing number of scholars around the world who are working across disciplinary and national boundaries to examine representations of crime and their effects on society and culture. The Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law also continues to serve as an outstanding resource for this discipline that is still very much developing. I hope that there will be a third volume of Images of Crime, and would suggest that, in the spirit of the first two volumes, the scope of the project continue to expand. If volume one focused largely on Southern Europe and volume two covered most of the European Union, then I hope that volume three will expand to include scholars working in other parts of the world. From my own perspective as a North American-based scholar, I would like to see an increased trans-Atlantic dialogue. One could also imagine incorporating the fascinating work by South African scholars on images of crime before and after Apartheid. And that just covers three continents; the list could (and should) continue from there. These two volumes represent an excellent first step in a very promising field of study.