University Of Tasmania
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Ethnography and cultural criminology: What makes a research method critical?

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conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 07:29 authored by Maxwell TraversMaxwell Travers

Whether you view it as original and exciting with a bold political message, or alternatively as a romanticised and even degenerate version of critical theory (Hall and Winlow 2007, O'Brien 2005), no one could dispute that cultural criminology has been easily the most exciting intellectual movement within critical criminology in the last two decades. Unusually, it has also placed considerable emphasis on methodological issues. Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward and Jock Young (2008) have argued that mainstream criminology has become both highly conservative, and also boring, in requiring researchers to collect and analyse quantitative data. They advocate that critical criminologists should conduct ethnographies, or use qualitative methods in analysing cultural processes. Although this is a controversial and deliberately provocative viewpoint within critical criminology,it raises issues about how we should conduct research and produce criminological knowledge that are not usually raised by other traditions.

This paper will not consider every issue relating to cultural criminology, but will focus on the arguments made about method. It will start by reviewing the history of ethnography, and qualitative research more generally, within critical criminology. It will also review how this is understood by cultural criminologists as a critical method that is ethically superior to quantitative research, but also to interpretive approaches that only describe how people understand their own lives. This tradition in critical ethnography seeks to address lived experiences, with a particular focus on the emotions, but understands this within a theoretical and political programme that promises social change.

The rest of this paper approaches these issues from a different direction, through discussing some uncomfortable moments during an ethnographic study about sentencing young offenders in children's courts. These illustrate the tensions and contradictions within cultural criminology in seeking to combine interpretive and critical traditions. They also make one think about the ethical basis of critical ethnography as an intellectual pursuit that seeks to produce a better world. The paper concludes with some observations on the claims made for ethnography as a means of reviving critical criminology.


Publication title

6th Annual Australian and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference Proceedings 2012


I Bartkowiak-Theron and M Travers






School of Social Sciences


University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania

Place of publication


Event title

6th Annual Australian and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference

Event Venue

University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania

Date of Event (Start Date)


Date of Event (End Date)


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Copyright 2013 the author. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

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  • Open

Socio-economic Objectives

Criminal justice

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