Inside the murder box – exploring some of the more extreme realities of our culture

Rowland Atkinson – University of Sheffield

Our culture is creating spaces of exception – places and experiences that allow us to dehumanise and exert our total will over others, or representations of others. This is the argument that Tom Rodgers and I made in this article which can be read fully and freely via the link.

This is a two-page summary of that article for the lay reader, an attempt to distill a fairly complex argument into a few paragraphs. Around us today we see the mainstreaming of more extreme forms of sexual and violent conduct. This is a fairly well-worn point to make. But the point today is that we do so through ever more easily accessed interfaces that include video game consoles, mobile phones, tablets, networked televisions and so on. Access to these points of access is also more or less unregulated, as any parent of a teenager will tell you. Alongside these means of accessing media the content of these spaces is not only more explicit, violent and largely unregulated, it is often interactive in environments that are photo-realistic (videogames) or involve interacting with other people (such as the use of webcams connected to remote places at which we can make requests for ‘whatever we want’). These spaces are relatively new, but more importantly they invoke a different kind of engagement with others that invokes a capacity to engage our desires, to rampage, to rape, to degrade, to observe. Whether we believe the impact of these engagements with real and virtual environments and actors is another question, but certainly the idea of spaces of cultural exception in which we can, and are encouraged to do whatever we want by providers of these services raises important questions about who ‘we’ are and where as a globally linked culture, we are going and the harms involved in these technologically mediated social changes.

Many accounts of crime and harm stress the decline in the volume of crime and in homicide globally. These trends are well evidenced but belie the fact that many forms of violence persist, have enormous variability between countries and key victim groups as well as being frequently under-reported. The idea that we are becoming more civilized can be undone fairly swiftly by some easy web searching. If we chose to do so we can experience any form of sexual conduct, real and staged forms of violent atrocity and the ‘fails’ and voyeurism of much online culture. These image- spaces in which violence and harm is experienced and indeed celebrated are important aspects of our culture today. In light of these changes it seems important to consider the kind of ‘state of suspension’ we find ourselves in as we unendingly flit between both the reality and infinite digital spectacle of crime, violence and social harm around us via online media.

In the article we tried to develop the concept of a ‘murder box’. The murder box is a way of thinking about how we privately engage in what are ultimately mass experiences of harm, extreme and sadistic pleasures that are increasingly shared aspects of our social condition. We can slip into violent sandbox games (the usual example to offer here is Grand Theft Auto precisely because it is a very good example of these possibilities) or choose from enormous menus of what sexually interests us. By association, hyperlinks and recommendations our initial tastes and ideas can be reformed and connected to more extreme practices. Crucially, our experiences are shaped in what feel like enclosed and private spaces of experience that allow us to do away with the idea that we are morally obliged to others or that we risk some kind of infraction. A quick read of the straplines for many pornographic websites reveals a world in which we are invited to do what we want, to experience anything with an unending supply of avatars, actors or passive (mostly female) participants who are there just for us. In the world of videogaming the trope of all-powerful, hyper-masculine destroyer is too frequent to be noticeable, as is the vague use of a background state of emergency that justifies extreme violence to ‘terrorists’. Whether we might be concerned about these experiences is another question. Who is being harmed? Who cares? Could such outlets for raw desire help to reduce ‘real’ violence? Kids get old pretty quick these days, they can handle this. Many such responses seem to suggest we are in denial about the relationship between our new-found freedoms to do what we want online and retaining a hold on notions of humanity, reciprocity, altruism or behaviour that is conducive to a sense of togetherness and positive identity. Such ideas may indeed feel like fuzzy nonsense to you, or perhaps they need to be rendered in such terms because the enormity of challenging or redirecting these cultural shifts (embedded in many ways in what some refer to as geek masculinity) either appears impossible or because we would not want to see these spaces closed down because of our own needs. These are uncomfortable possibilities but plausible nevertheless.

When I used to lecture my criminology students I would tell them that snuff movies were not real but that the possibility that one had been made was an open question. Today it is possible for a child with a wifi connection to watch a series of beheadings. The desensitising and traumatising possibilities of these available media do indeed seem worrying. Worse, the desire for profit underlies the ways in which uncomfortable or appalling forms of pornography are produced for sale via monthly subscriptions across globally networked internet systems. The idea that simply nothing is wrong here or that this is just ‘ok’ seems, to put it mildly, hard to sustain. The next question, what we might do about the hidden harms of our culture, is much harder.

‘The Last Night of Freedom’ Consumerism, Deviance and the Stag Party

Anthony Ellis and Daniel Briggs


Photo by Anthony Ellis

“Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the firm instruction and advice that is given to ‘Doug’, played by American actor Justin Bartha, as he is about to embark on his ‘bachelor party’; his ‘last night of freedom’ before his marriage in the popular comedy film The Hangover. After journeying to Las Vegas with three friends with the intention of just having some drinks together to celebrate Doug’s impending marriage, the following morning his three friends wake up on their hotel room floor, hungover, to find a live tiger in their bathroom, a baby in their wardrobe, a chicken wandering aimlessly around empty wine bottles, beer cans, clothes and broken furniture strewn across the floor, and ‘Doug’, the groom, missing. Told through a series of flashbacks as the characters attempt to piece together the night’s events and find their missing compatriot under a mist of collective amnesia, the film focuses upon one night of seemingly unintended extreme drink and drug fuelled revelry that involves deviant and criminal behaviour. The film was released in 2009 and was greeted with positive reviews from critics; earning it the accolade of one of the highest grossing films worldwide during the year of its release. Continue reading

Slavery and Dark Tourism in New Orleans: Then and Now

Thomas Raymen, Plymouth University

Members of the Deviant Leisure research network recently attended the American Society of Criminology Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. During our time in New Orleans, there were certainly plenty of experiences and observations that were of interest to a band of critical criminologists interested in crime, harm, and commodified leisure. There were the obvious seductions and temptations of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, in which many of us enthusiastically immersed ourselves. We toured around the fascinating and eerie ‘Museum of Death’. We observed racial abuse and sexual harassment associated with the tradition of ‘flashing’ in exchange for Mardi Gras beads (Redmon, 2015); and we had discussions with locals about the political state of the US, the rise of Donald Trump and racial violence. In many ways, it was the ideal location for the conference—a festival of criminology and deviant leisure.

However, the topic of this blog post is about my reflections on a different and perhaps more mundane deviant leisure experience in which several of us participated during our time in Louisiana. This was a trip to the Whitney Plantation, a former slave plantation that now offers guided tours of the plantation site. The tour presents an education and a history about the horrors of slavery, with a focus on the lived experience of enslavement and plantation life through both touring the buildings and grounds, but also the historically recorded narratives of former slaves themselves. The Whitney Plantation continues to shape the inequalities of New Orleans today, as the family name of the plantation persists in the banks, financial institutions and other prestigious buildings of the New Orleans landscape.


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Deviant Leisure Stream, American Society of Criminology, NOLA 2016

Members of the Deviant Leisure group are presenting this week at the American Society of Criminology conference in New Orleans.

Panel 1: Deviant leisure, resistance and harm

The non-work activities of human beings have long been a central issue within the social sciences. For the most part, studies gravitate to the leisure practices of the young and marginalized. Whether scrutinizing drug use, joyriding, graffiti, sex work, skateboarding or smoking, much research in this area focuses on the activities of young people, engaging in behaviours that, if not always illegal, appear close enough to the boundary between deviance and illegality to invoke discussion around police responses, policy initiatives and key criminological terminology such as antisocial behaviour and crime prevention. Deviant Leisure perspectives draw upon advances in both cultural criminology (see Hayward, 2015) and ultra-realist criminology (Hall and Winlow, 2015). This collection of papers brings together these theoretical approaches to present a conceptual framework for deviant leisure which illustrates how individual, social, economic and environmental harms are structurally embedded within many accepted and normalized forms of leisure.

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Deviant Leisure at the British Society of Criminology Conference 2016

Thursday, July 7th, Nottingham (LT4: Level 1)

This panel focuses on the emergence of the Deviant Leisure perspective, engaging critical perspectives on the role of commodified leisure in crime and various forms of harm

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Broadly speaking, leisure and recreation have been viewed as fundamentally positive in their pursuit and ends, offering the subject the opportunity of freedom and liberation to create their own unique lifestyles and identities in the cultural fluidity of late modernity. Consequently, this has left little room for a consideration of how normalised harm and deviance can feature in the realms of leisure. This collection of papers provides a corrective to this trend, re-considering the myriad harms associated with familiar, culturally embedded and celebrated forms of leisure through a critical interrogation of the socially corrosive nature consumer culture and late-capitalism. Reflecting upon the wider theoretical concept of ‘Deviant Leisure’ (Smith and Raymen, 2016), these papers begin to outline a typology of harm for a deviant leisure perspective. The papers presented here cover a range of topics. The first will address the broader importance and necessary theoretical shifts for a critical criminological approach to leisure and harm in contemporary consumer capitalism. The second paper discusses the allure and consumption of interpersonal violence within sport; and the final paper considers the politically-corrosive marketization of allegedly ‘progressive’ forms of ‘feminist pornography’. In doing so this panel brings addresses the fetishistic disavowal of the social, economic, interpersonal and environmental harms of commodified leisure to bring leisure and consumer culture out of the shadows and into the spotlight of a more critical and culturally-nuanced theoretical criminology.


Thomas Raymen, Plymouth University

Reclaiming Deviant Leisure: A criminological perspective

This paper explains why an understanding of ‘deviant leisure’ is significant for 21st century criminology. Through reorienting our understanding of ‘deviance’ from a contravention of norms and values to encompassing that which transgresses a moral ‘duty to the other’, the new ‘deviant leisure’ perspective describes activities which have the potential to result in harm through their adherence to the values of consumer capitalism. This paper outlines the theoretical and conceptual underpinnings of a deviant leisure perspective which draws upon ultra-realist and cultural criminological theory. Using the ideological primacy of consumer capitalism as a point of departure, this paper explores the potential for harm that lies beneath the surface of even the most embedded and culturally accepted forms of leisure. Such an explanation requires a reading that brings into focus the subjective, socially corrosive, environmental and embedded harms that arise as a result of the commodification of leisure. A deviant leisure perspective is vital if criminological theory is to correct its ongoing inability to keep up with the proliferating and mutating forms of normalised harm that are an emergent feature of contemporary commodified leisure.


Theo Kindynis, University of Greenwich

Urban Exploration: From Subterranea to Spectacle

Recreational trespass or “urban exploration” is the practice of researching, gaining access to, and documenting forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, including abandoned buildings, high-rise construction sites and infrastructure systems. Over the past two decades a global subculture has coalesced around this activity. More recently, however, the practice has begun to transform along divergent lines. As numerous corporations have sought to cash in on what they see as the latest edgy urban branding opportunity in an attempt to market their products to young urban consumers, new and increasingly image-centric, spectacular and conformist variants of the practice have emerged. Based on ongoing (auto)ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with urban explorers, this chapter considers how processes of commodification and corporate sponsorship, in conjunction with the emergence of new social media platforms, have drastically altered both the firsthand experience of the practice and the dynamic of the subculture more generally. The chapter suggests that urban exploration has been thoroughly assimilated into a dominant neoliberal culture of spectacular consumption, exhibiting the kinds of individualistic, competitive and risk-taking behaviours valued within the current social conjuncture, and asks: to what extent, if any, can urban explorers recuperate the practice’s transgressive potential?

 Dr. Victoria Silverwood, Birmingham City University

‘Don’t hate the player; hate the game’: Shifting the focus of a criminological understanding of violence in professional ice hockey.

Violence in professional ice hockey has received a great deal of attention in the light of our improved understanding of concussion and brain injuries. Traditionally, an understanding of violence or intentional injurious behaviour in other sports has focussed on the legality of the violent act (Groombridge, 2016) or on the motives of individual players (Silverwood, 2014). This paper reverses that gaze by focussing on the broader political, economic and cultural structures which impact and shape the prevalence and consumption of violence within leisure and organised sport.

By focusing on the contradictions surrounding the normalisation and consumption of hockey violence within the broader social and cultural context of late-capitalist consumer culture, a more nuanced theorisation of violence emerges that can theorise the seemingly senseless and culturally specific act of violence within the broadest structural circumstances. Integral to our understanding of this subject are considerations of an ‘insulated society’ and the notion of culturally-embedded harm, a broad typology of harmful leisure from the Deviant Leisure theoretical perspective (Smith & Raymen 2016). By approaching ice hockey violence through this deviant leisure perspective, this paper contends that a critical criminological understanding of leisure and normalised harm is essential to understanding the actions of individual players.

Corina Medley, Northeastern University, USA

Political Fantasies: Feminist Pornography, Creative Resistance, and Consumer Culture

Pornography has become increasingly more accessible and visible in/as popular culture (Tibbals 2013). Consequently, in academe, it has gone from being a marginal subject, to a field in its own right (Atwood and Smith 2014). Although pornography has received more scholarly attention in recent years, a preponderance of the theoretical and empirical work from the left on the topic has remained polarized between camps that emerged decades ago during the academic ‘sex wars’ or the ‘feminist sex debates’. Broadly conceived, one side claims that pornographic culture exacerbates inequalities, while the other maintains that it ameliorates disparities. This paper works outside of those paradigms in order to examine the propagation of ‘feminist pornography’ as a pornographic niche market that emerged from, and exists within, neoliberal-capitalism. Based on critical cultural criminology (Hayward 2014), and the critical stance of ultra-realism (Hall and Winlow 2015), this paper asserts that the commodification of feminist pornography can be seen as inseparable from consumer markets, representing another type of culture in which the new, the political, or, in this case, pastiche novelties that are a hybrid of both, can be turned into capital. Accordingly, it is improbable that the tack of commodifying feminist ideology will disrupt material reality. While it could be said that feminist pornographic culture entails the creation of political sexual fantasies, as a form of creative resistance, feminist pornography is merely political fantasy.

Fashion and Faking It: Consuming Fashion as Deviant Leisure.

Jo Large, Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology

This post draws upon my research on the consumption of counterfeit fashion goods, with the aim of developing a more critical understanding of this work in relation to leisure, consumption and harm: outlining some ideas from my forthcoming paper “Negotiating Harm, Consumption and the (Counterfeit) Fashion Industry”. I’ve argued elsewhere (Large, 2011) that despite suggestions from anti-counterfeiting agencies that consumers view counterfeit fashion as a ‘victimless crime’, this belief reflects quite a simplistic view of victimisation and crime. Indeed, data I collected from qualitative interviews and focus groups with consumers (who identified both as counterfeit and non-counterfeit purchasers), suggested that most people recognise the counterfeit fashion industry as in some way bad. This begged an analysis that situated the consumption of counterfeit fashion goods and associated harms in the wider socio-economic and political context. Further, lending weight to Raymen and Smith’s call for criminology to ‘interrogate more closely the underlying drives, meanings and motivations at the heart of the quintessential consumer experience of shopping’ (2015:390).


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What’s Deviant about Deviant Leisure?

Tom Raymen, Plymouth University


Throughout this blog and our conceptual development of ‘deviant leisure’ we have placed an emphasis on two core and interrelated issues. First is the issue of normalised harm within many areas of commodified leisure. The second is how many new, traditional and normalised forms of ‘deviance’ are arguably not ‘deviant’ at all in the sense that they contravene social and cultural values. Rather, as we and other scholars have been at pains to stress, in an era of ‘cool individualism’ in which it is culturally imperative to form a unique and individual identity that is distinct from ‘the herd’, to transgress or cultivate deviant identities is steadfastly conformist (Hall et al, 2008; Hayward and Schuilenberg, 2014; Smith, 2014). In this sense, what could under a more ethical social order be conceptualised as deviant behaviour is harnessed, pacified and repositioned as a very specific form of dynamism that serves to propel desire for symbolic objects and experiences – desires which are translated into demand within the circuits of consumption dominated by the leisure economy. Continue reading

Deviant Leisure: A Criminological perspective

Oliver Smith and Thomas Raymen

The broad area of deviant leisure has garnered increasing interest within criminology and the social sciences over the last several months. Robert Stebbins has very recently returned to issues of hedonism, incivility and the negative or ‘deviant’ side of leisure. Members of this research network, such as Steve Redhead, have begun to communicate deviant leisure perspectives to an increasingly global audience, whilst cultural criminology is beginning to expand its gaze beyond the limited constructs of crime and deviance to take interest in the relationship between consumer culture and normalised harm. Dedicated panels and streams at various international conferences serve to compound the suggestion that this is a perspective that is gaining traction within the social sciences.

Of course for us and to those who have been following this blog, such interest is entirely unsurprising. As evidenced by the wide array of topics covered here and beyond, deviant leisure is indeed a ‘broad church’ of exciting research areas. However in light of this spate of recent activity, we feel it is time for us to  bring greater clarity to the deviant leisure project by explicitly outlining our understanding of deviant leisure as a theoretical concept. What follows below is an abridged version of a forthcoming journal article in which we begin to present the fundamental theoretical principles of a deviant leisure perspective. Continue reading

Podcast: What is Deviant Leisure?

This week, Deviant Leisure has been the topic of discussion on the popular series of podcasts by Professor Tara Brabazon and Professor Steve Redhead of Flinders University, Australia. During the podcast Professor Redhead sketches out the core principles of deviant leisure and its expanded focused upon forms of normalised harm within culturally embedded forms of leisure, in addition to exploring its conceptual origins in ultra-realism and cultural criminology. Most importantly as interdisciplinary scholars, Professor Brabazon and Professor Redhead analyse deviant leisure’s capacity to cross disciplinary boundaries of critical criminology, leisure studies, geography, media studies, the sociology of sport and even the philosophy of harm itself; considering some of the potential trajectories for deviant leisure and a more critical and politicised academy.



The legitimate bare-knuckle fist fight – what makes ice hockey so unique?

By Victoria Silverwood

There are many forms of leisure, organised sports and even occupations where there are clear lines between deviant behaviour and that which is law-abiding, but that line can be blurred substantially when there exists a physical contest that is sanctioned. When violence is legitimised or permitted in any circumstance such as policing, security, the military or in sports, it could be argued that it ceases to be a matter of concern for criminologists, or those who study deviancy. However, there are many useful reasons for considering legitimate forms of violence as being deviant, or locating the discussion within the discipline of criminology. Indeed, the concept of legitimisation and the issues of power, money and law that surround it are integral to an understanding of the discipline itself and the study of violence that is not affected by criminocentric definitions of violence can be fruitful, as highlighted by Jackman:

Once we step away from the legal and moral imperatives that have shaped research on violence, we are confronted with the diverse and sometimes complex motivations that shade the variegated practice of violence in social life.
(Jackman 2002:400) Continue reading