This article explores criminal violence within the framework of cultural experience from a more sophisticated position rather than locating blame for crime in culture. A research project explored interview data from convicted and incarcerated male violent offenders and the data was analysed within a qualitative framework using a process of Modified Analytic Induction (see Gilgun, 1995). This research is a novel area of inquiry and brings together knowledge from various disciplines including psychology, criminology, sociology and cultural anthropology. The findings of the research suggested that violence is, in part, a means of achieving identity, as well as a way of gaining social capital, which can be understood within the context of culture. On the basis of this research, I suggest that taking a culturally-situated approach to understanding criminal violence can facilitate a richer understanding of violence and its motivations by extending existing theory, which has implications for clinical practice, for criminological theory, for the criminal justice process and for the community as a whole.
Based on my clinical experience in forensic psychology in Australia, I became interested in the stories that offenders told regarding their violence, both sexual and physical. In particular, I was interested in how offenders explained their criminal violence. Through the process of participating in culture, certain beliefs, values and expectations are created and these inform how people live and interact. Culture is an especially complex concept within modern multicultural societies such as Australia and informs not only identity but also how people understand relationships. I believe that culturally-influenced understandings of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ can add in important ways to understandings of the nature and manifestation of violence.
The development of the criminal is a complex process that combines personal vulnerabilities (e.g., low intelligence, poor attachment, exposure to abuse), with social disadvantages (e.g., poverty, poor role modelling, lack of educational opportunity), the effect of which is to remove avenues of social capital leading to achievement of important personal needs. In this context, crime becomes a means by which a person can achieve social capital.
Crimes of violence that are interpersonal in nature, such as murder, necessarily implicate identity and relationship and I believe that this is the pathway through which cultural experience can influence criminal behaviour. The mediating factor is how the offender seeks to account (both personally and publicly) for the person that they have hurt in offending, whether this is through sexual or physical violence.
Cultural experience and criminal behaviour
To explore this hypothesis, I analysed interview data from convicted male (interpersonally) violent offenders in New South Wales. The findings of the research suggest that interpersonal violence is one of the ways that offenders can achieve identity, particularly in situations where other, more conventional means of achieving identity are limited, such as professional status or wealth. Essentially, crime becomes social capital by which offenders can negotiate the expectations of society to achieve status, especially within certain subcultural groups (such as criminal gangs). Moreover, the particular ways in which identity is achieved through violence is also informed by cultural experience. Specifically, offenders from more individualist cultures were motivated to offend in ways that established personal identity, whereas those from cultures emphasising collectivism offended in ways that prioritised cultural pride to make the ‘group’ look ‘good’. However, culture is not just about ethnicity. Other ‘cultures’, such as masculinity and a criminal subculture, also shape violent crime through providing people with particular norms to behave according to and particular ways of understanding social interaction (e.g., Staub, 1988; Westen, 1985).
Secondly, it appears that those offenders for whom identity is most fragile, as a function of their personal and social experiences, are most prone to engaging in violence as a means of establishing their status in relation to others. For those offenders with experience of cultures that prioritise collectivism, fragility in identity is constructed primarily in ethnic terms and appears to be particularly influenced by migrant experience, in addition to the specific cultural and personal challenges that this poses. In other words, first generation Australian offenders tended to see themselves as belonging to the culture of their parents and to see themselves as being disadvantaged by not belonging to the dominant majority, which contributed to their perceived motivations for violence.
For those offenders from individualist cultures, fragility in identity appears to be constructed more in personal terms, such as in reference to masculinity or sexuality rather than ethnicity. Crime may become an especially potent source of social capital, which can facilitate interpersonal violence for those whose identity is most fragile. In other words, crime can provide a vehicle to belong socially when one does not feel as if one can compete with the majority.
With respect to motivations for violence, offenders from individualist cultures perpetrated violent crime in ways that promoted self-interest through the pursuit of hedonism and getting one’s needs met, including coping with personal pain and the promotion of important personal principles. Offenders from cultures that were more collectivist in nature seemed to offend for group-oriented reasons, which included standing up for the perceived group (i.e., family, race, gang), fulfilling important interpersonal obligations, or ‘saving face’.
These differences in culturally-situated motivations for criminal violence have their foundation in notions of Self and Other, which are constructed differently according to cultural experience (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Succinctly, offenders from individualist cultures offended in the interests of their own needs, whereas those from collectivist cultures offended for what they perceived the needs of others
Understanding criminal violence in culturally-situated ways has implications in a number of areas. Firstly, clinicians are encouraged to be mindful of cultural experience and its impact and to listen for stories of culture in offenders’ accounts of their violence, especially those for whom identity is most fragile. Secondly, it would be fruitful for clinicians to ask questions of offenders that explore culture in order to develop psychologically ‘rich’ stories about crime, rather than the typically ‘thin’ and culturally-absent stories that are developed through the criminal justice process (e.g., James, Seddon, & Brown, 2002).
Another obvious implication of this research is for clinicians to work in culturally sensitive ways with offenders within the forensic treatment process, which may even include working collaboratively with cultural representatives in order to develop a more responsive treatment process (Andrews & Bonta, 2007). This should also include establishing culturally relevant issues as treatment targets in forensic practice. For example, issues of identity, pride and group allegiance may be useful avenues to pursue in working with offenders to address their criminogenic needs. Crucially with respect to offence-specific treatment, offenders should be encouraged to develop an understanding of the ways in which their needs for identity have informed their behaviour and, moreover, to develop skills by which they may make other, more prosocial choices in offence situations, particularly those that challenge identity.
Crime prevention has been an important public agenda for some time and issues of law and order, at least in Australia, have been prioritised in the public forum in recent years. What does this data mean for the community, particularly in Australia, where we are faced with many of the social challenges engendered by the uneasy practice of multiculturalism? In taking a culturally-situated understanding of criminal violence, I think it is important that we consider, as a society, how we are managing our community and, in particular, developing and maintaining relationships with minority and migrant groups who continue to be marginalised and disenfranchised. Perhaps, there are ways in which our society may prioritise connectedness and obligation to others that might restrain violence. Until we understand this better, it is my contention that we should pay greater attention to culture and how it contributes to choices in crime for some offenders.
This research highlights the importance of taking a culturally-situated perspective when seeking to understand criminal violence. In particular, the significance of fragility in identity was highlighted and migrant experience may be a source of this. Taking a culturally-situated approach to violence engenders psychologically ‘deeper’ and ‘richer’ narratives of crime, which speak to the lived experience of offenders with respect to their motivations for violence. This should be a focus in understanding and working with criminal violence (both sexual and physical), from all angles of the criminal justice process – through the community, the legal system and the frontline practitioners who work to reduce an offender’s risk to the community. n
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Andrews, D.A., & Bonta, J. (2007). The psychology of criminal conduct. Ohio: Anderson Publishing.
Gilgun, J. F. (1995). We Shared Something Special: The Moral Discourse of Incest Perpetrators. The Journal of Marriage and Family, 57, 265-281.
James, K., Seddon, B., & Brown, J. (2002). ’Using it’ or ‘Losing it’: Men’s constructions of their violence towards female partners. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearing House: Research Paper.
Markus, H.Z., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.
Staub, E. (1988). The evolution of caring and nonaggressive persons and societies. Journal of Social Issues, 44(2), 81-100.
Westen, D. (1985). Self and society: narcissism, collectivism, and the development of morals. USA: Cambridge University Press.