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For example, the SPE supposedly illustrates the power of an abusive situation to induce good people to do evil things. In particular, Phil Zimbardo has argued that the study shows that strong situational forces can override individual differences in personality and moral values so that the latter count for very little. Indeed he has even claimed that virtually anybody at all who was put into a situation where they had power over others, such as guards have over prisoners, would act in a tyrannical and abusive way. The fact that the SPE has had the influence it has had is all the more remarkable considering the obvious limitations of the study, such as its small sample size and the ad hoc way in which the experiment was conducted.

Closer examination shows that the design of the SPE did not provide an adequate test of the role of individual differences in a simulated prison, and that no satisfactory account of the individual differences in behaviour shown by participants has been offered.


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Susan Krauss Whitbourne also provides a nice accessible summary of the study on her blog. That is, when guards act in a brutal manner it is because they are brutal people. Alternatively, prisoners are seen as naturally aggressive people unable to control their impulses, and therefore repressive measures are needed to control them.

The Stanford Prison Experiment did NOT show situations overpower personality

According to Haney et al. Supposedly, such simplistic explanations draw attention away from the complex social, economic, and political causes that really underlie this deplorable situation, and which are too difficult to change without radical social upheaval. The alternative hypothesis that Haney et al.


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  • Haney et al. Note the apparent dichotomy here. I think this a false dichotomy that has led to extreme and unfounded conclusions. Furthermore, it appears to be based on a straw man argument. When Haney et al.

    Feminism: Criminological Aspects

    That is, a personality psychologist might argue that people generally make choices about how to behave in order to meet their needs within the constraints and opportunities inherent in particular situations. Furthermore, they also argued that being in such a situation with people with similar personality traits would tend to amplify whatever tendencies one already had to be abusive. However an alternative view of the power of situations is that they provide opportunities that can reveal rather than suppress individual differences Krueger , That is, put two different people with different desires in the same situation, and they may respond in accordance with their personal preferences, within whatever constraints are imposed by the demands of the situation.

    The SPE study sample consisted of 21 [3] men who had been selected from a large pool of 75 volunteers based on psychological assessments to ensure their mental stability and lack of criminal history. One day prior to the study these 21 were assessed on ten different personality trait tests and then randomly assigned to the role of guard or prisoner — 11 to the former, 10 to the latter.

    On the whole it seems, the guards were pretty mean, and the prisoners became demoralised by their situation, and five of the latter had such adverse psychological reactions that they had to be released early. So far, sounds like a big win for the situationist account right? Participants acted the way they did based on their situationally defined roles, so the situation had a strong influence on their behaviour. Did this really happen though? According to the original report by Haney et al. Furthermore, although five prisoners broke down under the stress of being abused, the other five were more resilient.

    The original report by Haney et al. That is, individual differences in participants could influence how they respond to the perceived demands of their assigned role. If there were no differences in the behaviour shown in the two conditions! However, they lacked the resources to perform such an experiment, which hardly surprisingly has not been done to this day.

    Additionally, guards and prisoners did not differ on any of these traits. And finally, these personality measures did not predict variations in behaviour within either the prisoner group or the guard group. Supposedly, these precautions should be enough to settle the matter for good. Such a small single study like this would normally be considered by most scientists just the beginning of enquiry into the matter not the end of it.

    Eight of these measures comprised the Comrey Personality scales. According to a critique by McFarland and Carnahan none of these traits have ever been linked to abusive and aggressive behaviour. For some reason that is not made clear, the researchers used a non-standard scoring method for Machiavellianism that makes comparisons with the general population not possible. Carnahan and McFarland pointed out that participants actually did score higher on authoritarianism than the general population and their scores were actually comparable to those found in a study of actual prisoners in San Quentin.

    MEDIA & CRIME

    Haney and Zimbardo argued that the actual difference from the norm was fairly small, so whether it was enough to contribute to the actual behaviour of participants in their study was a moot point. The second argument is that participants assigned to the prisoner and guard roles did not differ significantly on their personality traits.

    The prisoners obviously did not have the opportunity to reciprocate this treatment, because the guards went home at the end of their shifts. So the prisoners could not engage in such abusive behaviour even if they had felt inclined to do so, because the opportunity was simply not there. As I have argued earlier, personality theorists propose that individual differences are relevant to how people respond to their circumstances, not that individual differences somehow allow people to transcend these circumstances and behave however they feel like.

    They do not deny that there were individual differences in behaviour, just that they could not predict them. I think this is their weakest argument of all. Remember that there were 11 guards and 10 prisoners. So this means that in order to perform a statistical analysis we would have to compare three subgroups consisting of 3 — 4 individuals to determine if there were significant differences in their personality traits. Statistically this is laughable. A basic principle of statistics is that significant differences between groups can only be detected if the sample sizes are adequately large, and the sample sizes in the SPE are so small as to be completely inadequate for the purpose.

    A similar study by Shipley and Cavender examined the violent images in crime films over a four-decade period. Such findings suggest a significant shift in the representational content of crime films, shifts that may be connected to wider social and political changes taking place over the post-war period.

    Despite the obvious appeal of the CA approach to crime films, the method has drawn sustained methodological criticism. Not least it has been argued that counting frequency or incidence of representations does little to help us understand the meanings of those representations Leiss et al. The CA approach reifies cultural codes into objective artefacts that can be grouped, classified and counted. What a representation means can only be appreciated by exploring what it means to real as opposed to hypothetical people — there is no meaning, no symbolic construction, apart from that generated by audiences and viewers, speakers and listeners, through the act of communicative engagement.

    Academics’ Criminals

    For this reason, CA is increasingly supplemented by qualitative research that attempts to uncover audience understandings of cinematic narratives and images. Thus Allen et al chose to supplement their content analysis of crime films with focus group discussions with viewers.

    However, this supplementary introduction of a qualitative dimension to CA research does not necessarily fully overcome its limitations. In the Shadow of Marx: Crime Films as Ideology In marked contrast to the supposed descriptive neutrality of content analysis, the Marxian tradition has inspired a much more politicised approach to reading crime films. Ideology thus assumes a functional role in preserving a false understanding of society including the responsibility for social inequalities, problems and injustices , an understanding that the critic attempts to expose.

    Such a view lead some neo-Marxists, such as Adorno and Horkheimer , to dismiss popular culture as irretrievably corrupted by the interests of capitalism and its ruling class see also Adorno, A more nuanced approach, however, emerges in the Gramscian tradition, wherein the production of political authority or hegemony is viewed as a contested terrain; alongside those images, narratives and texts that encode dominant interests, there will also exist counter-hegemonic understandings that offer critical and alternative understandings of society.

    This approach has been applied to popular films by the likes of Kellner and Ryan , who argue that recent Hollywood movies give voice to competing constituencies within American political culture. The Marxian model of cultural analysis has been applied to crime films most clearly in the work of Rafter , Moreover, where they offer some causal hypothesis an answer to the question of why people offend these tend to be individualised, thereby bracketing-off wider social processes that might in fact play a key role in the genesis of crime.

    Moral panic

    In this way, they reinforce the authority of existing legal institutions and normative codes, and deflect attention away from any critical questioning of the sectional interests that the law serves or the ways in which crime is linked to prejudices and inequalities. Instances of such films include The Bad Lieutenant there are no good cops , Dead Man Walking the futility of the death penalty and its inability to secure a just outcome , and Mystic River the inextricable entwining of guilt and innocence, such that we can no longer clearly demarcate offenders and victims.

    The Marxian approach provides the critical analyst of crime films with a powerful tool for exposing the ways in which popular representations embody dominant narratives of law and order, and in doing so help to maintain existing systems of power and powerlessness, inclusion and exclusion, normalisation and stigmatisation.

    It can be viewed as a valuable contribution to cultural criminology, especially insofar as it makes space for appreciating the cultural and political background against which the work of meaning production takes place. What the former lacks, and a Marxist understanding of ideology can inject, is a sensitivity to the ways in which individual or local constructions of meaning are shaped by macro- level political frameworks, processes, and interests. However, analysing crime films and films more generally in this manner invites also some pertinent criticisms.

    Firstly, the Marxian model can be said to adopt an overly monolithic conception of ideology, such that the meaning content of particular texts embodies a clear and distinctive commitment to upholding dominant class and other interests. This leaves little room to explore the ambiguities and tensions that might permeate any given text, the complex co-existence of meanings that give voice to both socially conservative and critical viewpoints. This leaves little room for appreciating the role played by audiences viewers, readers in actively constructing the meanings of film, a process that may lead different viewers to derive very different messages from the same text.

    Postmodern Pluralism: the Semiotic Free-For-All in Crime Films The critique of Marxian analysis noted above has been most clearly articulated by the postmodern perspectives on culture that emerged in the s and s. While postmodernism is a notoriously difficult concept to define, we can for present purposes understand it as a perspective that disputes claims that it is possible to have a clear-cut and objective understanding of society and its workings, of culture and its meanings, and of the difference between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction.

    Postmodernism turns its critical lens on Marxist accounts, arguing that it is not possible to talk anymore in terms of any dominant ideology that permeates popular culture. Two broad arguments are proposed in support of such a claim. Firstly, it is claimed that the social basis of any dominant ideology no longer exists, as structures of class and their associated interests have irretrievably fragmented through the process of social change.

    Social structures have become so fluid as to undermine the existence of stable social constituencies whose shared interests could provide the basis of any widespread ideology. What we have instead is a multiplicity of transitory voices that reflect the shifting and unstable character of contemporary society for an elaboration of this position see for example Collins, Modernists assume wrongly that the meaning of representation is clear-cut and objective, such that we can determine with confidence what a text means, what it says, and how it is to be understood.

    In contrast, postmodernism holds that meaning is inherently indeterminate, such that it is not possible to attribute a definitive meaning content to any representation. Consequently, we cannot legitimately claim that a film, for example, represents crime is this or that way. This being the case, it becomes impossible to attribute any ideological message to a film.

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    The best that we can do is attend to this variability and flow in meaning, the very absence of clear messages within the text. The movie deals with the deliberations of the jurors in the trial of a young Latino who is accused of murdering his father. All of the jurors bar one are ready to hand down a guilty verdict. However, it can equally easily be read as a damning indictment of the racial prejudices that permeate American society, and of an error-prone system that is only rescued in this instance by the contingent presence a single juror who is atypical in his willingness to reflect on the facts of the case.

    Thus, depending upon the reading position adopted by the viewer, the very same cinematic text offers of potentially divergent and contradictory meanings. In Reservoir Dogs scenes of graphic violence and torture are subverted, as the perpetrator dances and sings along with a musical soundtrack while assaulting his victim. The movie starts as a seemingly conventional tale of two bank-robbing brothers who make their escape by kidnapping a family and forcing them to drive across the US-Mexican border. However, half way through, the film sabotages its own generic framework by abruptly switching genre, transmuting into a comic horror tale about vampires.

    Other crime films that can also be situated within a postmodern frame include Natural Born Killers , Fargo , and Sin City For postmodernists the emergence and popularity of such films is symptomatic of a more general social and cultural shift in which clear ideological and moral messages no longer dominate popular representations. Between Ideology and Contingency: A Synthetic and Critical Framework for Crime Film Analysis In the preceding sections we have seen that there are a number of distinctive approaches available for the criminologically oriented analysis of films.

    The guilt comes from their socialization of societal norms that rape is unacceptable. Cultural norms can conflict with societal norms. This is the dominant premise for Differential Association theory. The premise that because an individual associates with more members of a group who favor deviance, than with members of a group who favor societal norms, that individual is more iess of learning criminal behavior involves all the mechanisms involved in any other learning.

    Accordingly this means that criminal behavior, like any other learned behavior, is not only learned through observance but through assorted methods as well. For example, coercion and seduction could lead to acts of deviance. Also, criminal behavior can be credited to acts of spontaneity. This last principle asserts that even those criminals, who rationalize their behaviors as trying to fulfill basic needs, are not above reproach.

    Non criminals are subject to obtain the same general needs as criminals and do so in a non deviant fashion. Differential associate was intended to create multiple facets to consider when evaluating deviant behavior. The most principal being that if an individual is exposed to more social acceptance of deviance that they are exposed to opposition of deviance, that individual is more apt to function defiantly.

    For example, how does one explain the upper class child who has a law abiding family, is well to do, and has attended private school their whole life going on a shooting rampage or less extreme stealing gum from the grocery store? After Sutherland passed away, the Differential Association theory was most notably expanded upon by sociologist Burgess and Akers in Burgess and Akers called their theory the Differential- Reinforcement theory. In addition, The Differential Reinforcement theory suggests that criminal behavior could be due to non social factors.

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