by Steve Hall, Simon Winlow, and Craig Ancrum. Portland, Oregon, USA: Willan Publishing, 2008. 264pp. Hardback. $84.95/£58.00. ISBN: 9781843922568. Paper. $37.50/£19.50. ISBN: 9781843922551.

Reviewed by Rixta Wundrak, Berlin 2/2009, Free University Berlin / Law in Action. Email: rixta.w [at]


In CRIMINAL IDENTITIES AND CONSUMER CULTURE, Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and Craig Ancrum study the interrelation between the neoliberal capitalist system and criminal careers. Inspired by post-structuralist theories, a societal phenomenon becomes central to their perspective and investigation into this nexus: consumerism. The three authors, lecturers and researchers at Northumbria University, University of York, and University of Teeside in the UK, argue that consumerism (which is widely understudied in this context) should be a primary issue in criminological theory and anthropology. This book, which links critical theory and ethnography, makes an original contribution to these fields.

For the authors, consumerism is both a performative action in everyday life and a desire, an aspiration to live in the lap of luxury. In their description of the criminals’ habitus, the authors elaborate Zizek’s hypothesis that since the 1980s we witness a reorientation of the superego (2002). The traditional and moral imperatives of the superego – to believe in civilization and solidarity – have been replaced. Instead, the new “Western superego” (Ch.8) of consumer culture encourages individuals (the ego) to orientate themselves towards narcissism and enjoyment; they become trapped in a struggle to acquire and display “the core ethics of contemporary capitalism” (p.8).

These new societal ethics generate a particular relationship between marginalized people (living in a low socio-economic milieu) and consumerism: The more marginalized individuals are, the more they must display consumption to participate and ‘belong,’ and the greater is their desire for consumption. This relation is observable not only in excessive consumption but also in a tendency to drift into a world of dreams and imagination by help of drugs and consumption. The authors emphasize that “consumer culture is at root a belief system founded on the belief that one can perform the impossible task of actually becoming the imago with which one has narcissistically identified, and if one appears not to be this imago then this temporary situation must be false and it needs to be rectified as efficiently as possible with the means at one’s disposal” (p.217).

Closely connected to this central hypothesis is the authors’ differentiated view on labeling approaches. Hall, Winlow and Ancrum emphasize that ‘criminals’ do not show ‘different’ or ‘deviant’ behavior, and that a specific culture of criminals does not exist. Criminal activities are rather conceived [*198] as an ‘over-culturalization’ and assimilation to the dominant social order of consumer culture (cf. Heath and Potter 2007). Furthermore, the authors correct the widespread view that the desire for possessions and the accumulation of consumer goods (as well as their criminal appropriation) is related to materialism. It is not the material value of these goods but their symbolic power which is significant. Calling something of the ‘right’ brand your own and displaying it to others, are the most common and effective ways to socially differentiate and distinguish yourself.

The book is organized in nine chapters: The introduction (1) is followed by two chapters which detail the line of argumentation from societal changes and the resulting marginalization, leading up to consumption as a means of identification for individuals pursuing criminal activities (2 and 3). Here, they combine theoretical arguments and empirical illustrations. Chapter 4 reconstructs biographic careers of individuals adding depth to the hypotheses laid out in the previous chapters. After examining criminal careers and identification in detail, Hall, Winlow and Ancrum shift again to the theoretical level and discuss the phenomenon of consumption in the historic and socio-economic or political context (5). Chapters 6 and 7 reflect on the discipline of criminology from a critical, science philosophical perspective by uncovering myths on this topic that have become part of the discipline. Further criticism is directed against conservative or neoliberal currents within criminology (and its tradition respectively). Therewith, the authors’ “motivation behind” the ethnographic study is the “rehabilitation of criminology” (p.20). For this end, they take their time and space to reflect on the politico-economic embeddedness of criminology (as Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) suggest for sociology). The conclusions (Ch.9) connect consumerism and crime in the wider historical context, theoretically framed by Hall’s “pseudo-pacification process” (Hall 2007).

The book takes the reader into the life-worlds of low-level criminals, dealers, and regional ‘gangsters’ living in areas affected by permanent economic recession in the northeast of the UK. Primarily, the authors make use of their ethnographic observations by focusing on the interviewees’ self-presentations: their appearance, behavior during the interview, and their narrations concerning their past activities. A typical portrayal pictures a young man who grows up in conditions of severe poverty. Lacking structures of security within his family and without any substantial educational background, he gains access to criminal youths who become his peer group. This predetermines his further career: drug dealer scene, recurrent instances of theft/burglary, imprisonment, rapid shifts between rising and falling: a risky life. Long phases of hardship, characterized by poverty and criminality are often disrupted by short, extravagant, excessive phases. He presents himself as if he had no influence on the course of his biography. He takes a fatalistic stance: Everything is down to luck. He takes a pragmatic-utilitarian perspective on his activities (drug dealing, thievery, and the like). He does not argue, but narrates; he neither reflects nor moralizes his actions and behavior. He [*199] amasses money and, once he proved successful in it, leads a hedonistic life. For him, the natural and fundamental rule of life (and, in general, of the social world) requires him to be egoistical, ruthless, neglectful of solidarity, and acting to serve his own interests only.

The accounts of the authors’ ethnographic observations and interviews are very refreshing but also invite some criticism. Unfortunately, we are not offered details of the sample as the authors highlight their wish “to protect” the interviewees (p.18). Although the (global and Western) “economic change” (p.21ff) and its effects on marginalized people living in deprivation are particularly detailed and elaborated, we do not learn anything about the concrete socio-economic and milieu-specific context of the interviewees.

As welcoming as it is that the study stands out due to rich, in-depth and extensive ethnographic research, the more regrettable it is that the authors withhold an explanation of their methodological approach. The reader is left with the authors’ statement that they have only a “passing interest in the institutional rules of criminological empiricism” (p.20), and that they are “not especially concerned about the restrictive doctrines of contemporary social research” (ibid.). Here, the authors distance themselves from opportunistic academics or an apolitical, ‘pure’ science, but at the same time it is not transparent to the reader, how hypotheses and interpretations are developed.

I would like to illustrate my remarks with a look at one interview extract (Ch.2, p.34) presented in the book. Karen (24) is a sex worker and uses drugs, but disagrees with the basic presumption that her ‘profession’ was a result of her drug addiction (p.34). To the contrary, she explains that she consumes drugs to avoid having “to think about what smelly man [she is] going down.” She tells us that she chose this job to get what she needs: money. With the money she earns she can afford luxury items: designer clothes, a spacious flat, and valuable furniture. Hall, Winlow and Ancrum take her statement as a “utilitarian explanation” (p.35), framing her sex work as “a means of acquiring the cash to fund another consumer binge” (ibid.). According to the authors’ interpretation, Karen does not think morally/ethically. Similar to the other interviewees, she chooses ‘criminal’ activities in order to get what she aspires to, namely, a luxurious life.

Here the reader encounters an exceptional example from the sample which is otherwise predominantly composed of male burglars and drug dealers. However, this aspect is not elaborated and no further details are provided. Karen’s job as a prostitute is not explicated: neither its embeddedness in society, nor its relation to low-level criminality, nor the question whether prostitution is a crime, are addressed. This example raises questions as to how the sample of criminal identities was constituted and what criteria were relevant for the selection. The authors may have considered the link between consumer culture and sex as merchandise – the female body as a consumer good – to be sufficient for their purposes. [*200]

Alternatively, a methodology that analyzes lived experience more in-depth (Presdee 2004) would make interpretations more comprehensible. In this sense, dwelling on Karen’s narration, we can note the justifications for her job which permanently, albeit latently, run through her account. She stresses that she has chosen this occupation herself because she has decided for a life without poverty and desolation. The authors do not explore what this argumentation at present means for her life as experienced. Depending on whether one stresses the fear of poverty (conditioned by socialization) as a driving force for Karen’s argumentation at present or whether one highlights the ‘addiction’ to consumption as the essential feature of this extract, the quote acquires a different connotation and may generate different hypotheses (Rosenthal 2006). More generally, the question arises as to why narcissism and the pursuit of individual ‘indulgence’ have to be exemplified by women like Karen or by low-level criminals at all.

Criminal identities are – following some examples of this book – presented as pieces in the puzzle of consumer society. They are fixed, blend in, fit, and thus, complement the picture of a pathological, unsocial society. With a more process-oriented view one can ask: how do criminal biographies vary and alter? Some interpretations leave the reader with just the impression that cultural criminologists actually want to counter, namely to reproduce the labeling of criminality (cf. Featherstone 1995).

Hall, Winlow and Ancrum anticipate the objection that their portraits were one-dimensional (p.192). They justify their findings by emphasizing that “compared to consumer culture and a few vestigial aspects of local traditions, the influence of alternative sociocultural institutions – regional traditions, community, education, religion, politics and so on – on our interviewees’ world-views was, to say the least, minimal” (p.192). This can be considered as the central and essential result of the study.

Criminologists should take this book as an invitation to investigate how criminal biographies are processed differently in the context of capitalistic systems. The more weight such an approach and interest acquires, the better we can understand crime in a wider social context. It should be stressed that the authors contribute to a synthesis of critical, post-structuralist theory and first-hand empirical observation. Citing their interviewees and offering insights into their ethnographic observations add zest to the book. Hall, Winlow and Ancrum provide important incentives to scholars to formulate critical hypotheses which are grounded empirically. It is an essential reading for both students and advanced scholars of criminology and sociology interested in critical theories of crime and deviance.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc, 1992. AN INVITATION TO REFLEXIVE SOCIOLOGY. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hall, Steve. 2007. ‘The Emergence and Breakdown of the Pseudo-pacification Process.’ 6 PARALLAX 36-53. [*201]

Featherstone, Mike. 1995. UNDOING CULTURE, GLOBALIZATION, POSTMODERNISM AND IDENTITY. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2002. HOW TO READ LACAN. London: Granta.

Presdee, Mike. 2004. ‘The story of crime: biography and the excavation of transgression.’ in Jeff Ferrell, Keith J. Hayward, and Wayne Morrison, CULTURAL CRIMINOLOGY UNLEASHED. Oxford: Routledge Cavendish, 41-49

Rosenthal, Gabriele. 2006. ‘The Narrated Life Story: On the Interrelation Between Experience, Memory and Narration.’ In K. Milnes, C. Horrocks, N. Kelly, B. Roberts, and D. Robinson (eds). NARRATIVE, MEMORY AND KNOWLEDGE: REPRESENTATIONS, AESTHETICS AND CONTEXTS. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press, 1 -16

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Rixta Wundrak.