Criminology Narrative Criminology
Lois Presser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0171


Narrative criminology is an emerging paradigm with roots in a cross-disciplinary literature. It adopts a constitutive approach to the relationship between stories and crime, that is, the narrative itself, as opposed to the events and circumstances reported in the narrative, is taken to be the immediate cause of offending. For example, a story of poverty, but not poverty itself, is seen as influencing offending patterns and trajectories; the story of poverty would thus be the focal point of research. Any approach that posits stories as antecedents to crime and other harmful action qualifies as narrative criminology. The fact that people’s stories may be fabricated, in part or whole, poses no problem for narrative criminology. Stories need not recall actual lived experience in order to motivate storytellers and mobilize those who hear their stories. Narrative holds a particular meaning within narrative criminology and narrative studies generally. It is a text, brief or lengthy, that recalls experience in some meaningful order and makes some point. In narrative criminology—despite helpful distinctions elsewhere in narrative studies—“narrative” generally stands in for self-narrative and is synonymous with story. A narrative/story makes a point about one’s self or one’s group. Narratives/stories self-identify; they set out who one thinks one is, in the past, present, and future. Hence, they articulate motives for past action as well as orientations toward future action, the latter being of primary concern to narrative criminologists.

General Overviews

Within criminology, only a handful of scholarly publications attend to the influence of stories on offending. All are of relatively recent vintage. Toch 1993 states that violence is an enactment of certain stories. For example, what Toch calls “war stories” rest on a definition of certain violence as good. Although violence is storied in Toch’s work, the author refers to psychological phenomena, such as a predisposition to aggression, as the ultimate source of the story. Katz 1988 argues that through offending, one is playing out an intricate moral tale of some sort—one that is associated with “senseless murder” or “sneaky thrills,” for example. The crime helps one to realize a particular self-story. Katz devotes less attention to analyzing the relationship between stories and criminal conduct than he does to describing the way criminal conduct feels to the actor. But Jackson-Jacobs 2004, which takes a similar tack as Katz 1988, attends squarely to that relationship in its ethnographic analysis of young men in Arizona who engaged in brawling: they start these brawls for the promise of narrative payoffs, or the gratification of being able to tell “good stories” about oneself (p. 232). In this formulation, action and stories of action are interpenetrable. Smith 1997 is an analysis of narratives in American civil society, disseminated through the mass media, pertaining to two widely condoned instances of violence—a shooting by would-be robbery victim Bernhard Goetz on a New York subway, and the first Persian Gulf War. These lead Smith to conclude that the legitimization of violence must meet certain narrative conditions. The act must be a last resort perpetrated by a selfless hero against an evil antagonist for transcendent reasons. Importantly, Smith cites the need for a narrative accounting of violence both before and after it is perpetrated. Maruna 2001 studied the influence of narrative on repeat crime. The stories of desisting and persisting property offenders, samples of which Maruna and his research team matched on circumstances and traits, had different plotlines. Desisters described essentially good selves having succumbed to external forces in the past but mastering their futures. They conjured redemptive acts in the present as evidence of the journey back to the essentially good self. In contrast, those who persisted in crime conjured no such journey. Maruna’s research was honored with the 2001 Michael J. Hindelang Award by the American Society of Criminology, suggesting that narrative criminology has mainstream appeal within the discipline. Case studies in Presser 2012 and Sandberg 2013 are explicitly framed by narrative criminology. Presser 2012 analyzes the story told by Jim David Adkisson, a mass murderer in Tennessee, United States, in a manifesto he released in advance of his shooting rampage and in open-ended, prison-based interviews with Presser. This story emphasized Adkisson’s need to overcome despised social groups. Setting aside Adkisson’s “real” grievances and experiences, Presser pays special attention to the linguistic structuring of the story, such as its use of metaphor. Sandberg 2013 analyzes the story recounted by Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Sandberg highlights the fragmentation evident in Breivik’s manifesto, thereby critiquing the assumption that stories are necessarily coherent, and Breivik’s creative deployment of collective stories that nonetheless guided his actions.

  • Jackson-Jacobs, Curtis. 2004. Taking a beating: The narrative gratifications of fighting as an underdog. In Cultural criminology unleashed. Edited by J. Ferrell, K. Hayward, W. Morrison, and M. Presdee, 231–244. London: Glass House.

    Ethnographic examination that seeks to understand young men’s initiation of fights that would seem to be unwinnable. According to Jackson-Jacobs, the narrative rewards of having participated in such fights motivate them.

  • Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil. New York: Basic Books.

    Katz urges attention to the foreground of criminal activity in this classic exposition of the phenomenology of particular conventional crimes. At points, he suggests that stories are told through criminal activity.

  • Maruna, Shadd. 2001. Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10430-000

    Maruna conducted qualitative interviews with desisting and persisting property offenders in Liverpool, England, to solicit narratives. He distinguished plot devices in the two sets of narratives. Desisters constructed themselves as newly in control of their lives, often through the force of God.

  • Presser, Lois. 2012. Getting on top through mass murder: Narrative, metaphor, and violence. Crime, Media, Culture 8.1: 3–21.

    DOI: 10.1177/1741659011430443

    This case study of mass shooter Jim David Adkisson illuminates the influence of metaphors, embedded in stories, on the motivation to harm. Adkisson simultaneously claimed a license to harm and to vanquish a constructed adversary, and insisted on harm’s inevitability and thus his own powerlessness to behave otherwise.

  • Sandberg, Sveinung. 2013. Are self-narratives unified or fragmented, strategic or determined? Reading Breivik’s manifesto in light of narrative criminology. Acta Sociologica 56.1: 69–83.

    DOI: 10.1177/0001699312466179

    Sandberg analyzes the writings of the Norwegian anti-Islamist terrorist Anders Behring Breivik through the lens of narrative criminology. He demonstrates that Breivik’s terrorist attacks were shaped by a complex self-story creatively adapted from collective narratives.

  • Smith, Philip. 1997. Civil society and violence: Narrative forms and the regulation of social conflict. In The web of violence: From interpersonal to global. Edited by Jennifer Turpin and Lester R. Kurtz, 91–116. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    Smith clarifies the role of narratives in citizens’ legitimation of violence. He analyzes narratives surrounding the 1984 Bernhard Goetz shooting case and the Persian Gulf War of 1991 for exposition. Smith notes that these are today’s narratives: the narrative requirements of violence vary with time and place.

  • Toch, Hans. 1993. Good violence and bad violence: Self-presentations of aggressors through accounts and war stories. In Aggression and violence: Social interactionist perspectives. Edited by Richard B. Felson and James T. Tedeschi, 193–206. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10123-000

    Toch is concerned with presentational aspects of violence as promoting violence. He stresses face-work but does not locate the origin of violence there. Rather, a preeminent psychological tendency is implied.

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