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Book Review | Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime

Published onNov 01, 2016
Book Review | Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime

Lois Presser and Sveinung Sandberg (eds). Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime. NYU Press, 2015; 318 pp.; ISBN: 9781479823413.

Over the last two decades there has been an epistemological push in the social sciences to bring narrative into the methodological fold. Narrative social science is steeped in theories of humans as story tellers. The foreword to Narrative Criminology argues that this theoretical line of thought originates in Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief that people are fundamentally storytelling creatures, or “homo narrativus.” The guiding thought here is that stories are central to understanding how and why we act in society. We are all storytellers, and we enjoy sharing tales with an audience. Furthermore, the way that we construct stories of our social lives is central to our subjective identities. Despite the importance of narratives in everyday life, the movement to narrative methodologies is seen as somewhat radical. Narrative methods remain on the fringe of many social sciences, finding their way in through the side doors of qualitative critical sociology, criminology, and other areas. Various qualitative styles of criminology are a part of the critical perspective that examines agency and power within society, however narrative criminology examines similar topics through the means that individuals tell tales of crime and identity.

In this context emerges Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime, edited by Lois Presser and Sveinung Sandberg. Presser is a criminologist from the University of Tennessee, whose work focuses on discourse’s role in criminal actions as well as restorative justice. Sandberg is a criminologist from the University of Oslo. His work examines how discourse plays into marginalization, violence, and masculinity. Narrative criminology is, according to Presser, “an inquiry based on the views of stories as instigating, sustaining, or effecting desistance from harmful action. We study how narratives inspire and motivate harmful action, and how they are used to make sense of harm” (p. 1). This edited book offers ten chapters on difference aspects of narrative criminology across three distinct sections. The sections are entitled “Stories Construct Proper Selves,” “Stories Animate and Mobilize,” and “Storytelling, Creative and Reflexive.” The 17 contributors bring different perspectives to the table, offering a variety of theoretical and empirical uses for narrative methods in criminology. Many of the chapters use critical and feminist theories to dig into the stories that individuals in the criminal justice system create. Oftentimes the stories that incarcerated individuals weave are attempts to create a new sense of identity separate from the criminal they were or the worse criminals they know. Contrasting one’s self to the past or others is central to many storytellers in the book.

Multiple chapters in this volume stand out as worthwhile and unique contributions. One exemplary chapter of the critical perspective that defines much of the book is by Jody Miller, Kristin Carbone-Lopez, and Mikh V. Gunderman. Their chapter looks at the gendered implications of being a woman offender in the United States. Specifically, it examines “women methamphetamine users’ narratives of self, addiction, and recovery” (p. 69). An important aspect of this chapter is its contribution to the “doing gender” literature (Wester and Zimmerman 1987; West and Fenstermaker 1995). These women’s personal narratives are built on the idea of producing gender as reasoning for their actions. Another chapter that exemplifies narrative criminology’s focus on critical ethnography is by Sveinung Sandberg and Sebastien Tutenges. This chapter explores the narratives of people in drug cultures, specifically tragic drug stories. These stories have personal existential implications for the storytellers, as they deal with perceived meetings with dark forces in contemporary society as well as with challenges to the official discourse on illegal drugs.

A particularly unique chapter in the book is by Carlo Tognato. Tognato uses a Durkheimian approach in his study of Italian narratives on financial crimes. By looking at Italy and the narrative built around tax evasion, the chapter is able to show how collective identity is formed through public discussion of deviance. The study seems to be extremely useful for those interested in how narratives can be used to recreate the boundaries of groups’ identities. The Durkheimian approach offers a fantastic lens through which to view how narratives define groups, and how we change what defines our communities over time (Durkheim 1984; 1995). Another example of a unique contribution is presented by Robert M. Keeton in his examination of how policy makers used religious narrative in the 19th century to gain support for the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The type of narrative described by Keeton allowed for justification of a policy many did not support initially. Keeton argues that this same tactic is used today in public debate. This chapter might be of particular use for those interested in the public sphere and community. The way that narrative is crafted in debating policy within the public sphere offers to shed new light on such studies.

Narrative Criminology: Understanding Stories of Crime is a worthy entry into the growing body of literature on narrative inquiry and criminology. The three sections each offer a particularly interesting way to apply the school  of thought to criminological work. With the varied theoretical approaches,   it should have something for everyone who wishes to apply narrative techniques to their work. Specifically, critical and cultural criminologists will find a methodologically and epistemologically rich approach to their subfields. Furthermore, any sociologist who wishes to apply a narrative method to their work can find an interesting empirical chapter in this book.

A minor criticism can be levied against the book for featuring only one Durkheimian application. More variety could have shown the breadth of the narrative method to criminology. As previously discussed, the Durkheimian approach offers an ontologically and empirically interesting counterpoint   to the other chapters in the book. The Durkheimian lens shows how group boundaries are created and maintained. Using this theoretical approach, one can examine how people come together, create collective identity, and maintain social solidarity. However, this is a relatively small critique in the grand scheme of the work. The various critical and feminist theories offer some interesting insights into why offenders create narratives to justify their actions and experiences.

The work is highly recommended for those who work in critical criminology or perform ethnographies in other subfields of sociology wherein identity construction, maintenance, and presentation is important. This might include the sociology of work, consumption, religion, aging, and other subfields where qualitative work seeks to understand how identity is constructed in the contemporary era. The various chapters offer excellent introductions in how to perform a narrative analysis, as well as how such analyses fit into larger critical approaches to criminology. 


Durkheim, Emile. 1984. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1(2): 125-151.

West, Candace, and Sarah Fenstermaker. 1995. “Doing Difference.” Gender and Society 9(1): 8-37.

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