“Visual” Green Criminology? – The Green Criminology Monthly #13 – September 2013

Thank you to everyone who has read, written, and contributed to the Green Criminology Monthly since our debut in September of last year. This article by Chris J. Moloney is our 13th release and marks our first year as an online journal. Each month we publish an issue of The Green Criminology Monthly, written and edited by members of the International Green Criminology Working Group.

The Green Criminology Monthly is a source of original research and publication on green criminology, environmental crime, and other issues concerning criminology.

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“Visual” Green Criminology?
Some thoughts on the future of green crime studies

Christopher J. Moloney
Center for the Study of Crime and Justice
Department of Sociology
Colorado State University


In this edition of the Green Criminology Monthly, I suggest that green criminologists begin thinking about the future of the discipline and its role in our modern “green” culture. Since green criminologists are, by definition, positioned at a crossroads of highly relevant topical research spanning the realms of crime, harm, victimization and the environment, it seems only fitting that they seek novel ways for conducting their research and conveying their findings to others. In addition to some other considerations green criminologists might keep in mind as the discipline moves forward, I discuss how adopting visual methods into green crime research projects might be especially useful for expanding our knowledge of green crimes. I hope, once again, to provide some “food-for-thought” for both established scholars and those new to the discipline.

The Importance of Green and Green Criminology

As consumers we can now choose from a host of “green” products; we can judge the quality of a corporation based on how green its business practices are; we can invest our money in so-called green mutual funds—even newly constructed buildings are increasingly green by their design. “Green” is, without a doubt, a new and popular trend. The rise of our contemporary green culture is a positive sign of progress, even if the meaning and mission of going green has been diluted in some ways by the overuse of slogans (like “Go Green!”) and by the corrosive effects of corporate interests to whom going green is more about increasing profits than improving the world.

At the very least, the greening up of our lives and choices signals a heightened awareness among many people that the relationship between humans and the environment is a tenuous one. Beyond indicating a change in how we think about the natural world and our relation to it, the contemporary green movement hints at a desire to see action replace words in our efforts to improve the long-term fate of people, animals and the planet. In short, our modern culture and discourse are infused with “green.” It is therefore necessary to acknowledge the force that green, as a word with numerous connotations, has in our daily lives. Green today is much more than a color; it is a powerful linguistic sign whose meanings are capable of influencing the ways we interact, communicate and process information.

But what does all of this have to do with the discipline of green criminology? In order to understand where green criminology is now, where it might go in the future, and how it might get there, we must be aware of the significant implications that working under a “green” heading have for the success of the discipline and for how we do green criminology as praxis oriented researchers.

Green criminology encapsulates within its domain of study issues vitally important to the mission and process of “going green”—issues and topics dealing with pressing concerns about environmental crimes, harms, victimization, laws and policies. As a result, green criminology is positioned to capitalize on the interest and excitement that surround the “green” movement. The socially conscious and justice oriented nature of green criminological studies will undoubtedly have much to offer a world facing a host of major and minor environmental issues (and an untold number of as-yet-undiagnosed problems). As conflicts and crises—big and small—over natural resources, environmental policies etc. increase, as they are likely to do, green criminologists will be able to offer insights, evidence and explanations from their case studies and research that will help draw these issues, and potential solutions to them, into the open.

In the process of doing green criminology, however, green crime scholars incur a significant obligation extending well beyond the walls of academia. This obligation is to disseminate high-quality research that advances our collective knowledge of green crimes and related environmental issues, so as to ultimately promote the evolution of a greener planet and healthier, safer human/environment relationship. As a result, green criminologists will increasingly have to make their research available outside of academia—meaning that people who don’t possess academic journal subscriptions, or Ph.D.’s, will be able to access and engage with it. Without compromising the rigor or scope of their research, green criminologists should start thinking about how they can make their findings increasingly accessible to a wider audience.

Taking Green Criminology “Public”

Taking green criminology “public”, that is, expanding the audience for green crime research well beyond the typical academic crowd, will entail building relationships with various groups outside academia. First, green crime researchers will have to engage with publishers and others who work in non-academic print and online media fields. One thought here is that a quarterly newsletter, or better yet, a monthly print or online magazine, could serve as a dedicated outlet for green crime research, news, events, editorial columns etc. Picture The Green Criminology Monthly, with more content, written and presented in an appealing way for a broad public audience.

In any case, green crime researchers have to find outlets for their important works outside standard academic venues. Doing interviews, writing or contributing to news articles and reports, writing monthly columns for magazines, other periodicals and websites etc. are all steps in the right direction. Capitalizing on new methods of communication (i.e. Twitter, Facebook etc.) to promote green crime research and causes, as some already do, is another useful tool for expanding the audience for green crime research.

Green criminologists will find this easier than it sounds because green crime research is inherently interesting and relevant to today’s world, and, because, as green criminologists build relationships with groups and populations outside academia, opportunities to contribute more and more to the public discourse will increase as well. Thus, one key point about the future of green criminology is that it must become a more public endeavor. Like Burawoy’s public sociology, a public green criminology will necessitate building relationships with various local, national and international groups, community members and/or coalitions whose interests and objectives intersect with our own—something many green crime scholars are already doing. Becoming active members in the communities in which we work and live, and contributing to those communities when a tit-for-tat career payoff isn’t involved, will reflect positively upon green criminology and its practioners, ultimately aiding the dissemination of green crime research to wider audiences.

Finally, translating our research—both how it is written and presented—into appealing forms that people outside academia will take interest in will be a key aspect in the success of the preceding points. Quite simply, green crime research is interesting, but in being made to fit an academic template some of the excitement and appeal it holds is lost. Thus, translating our research is as much about introducing a modicum of pleasure and excitement or even joy into the process of discovering (for the reader) what it is that we (the researcher) have found and why it is important, as it is about finding alternate ways to describe a complicated phenomena.

A growing, global population of green crime researchers has handled all of the forgoing quite well to this point. The proliferation of texts, journal articles, and green criminology related conferences and conference presentations, along with discipline’s increasingly robust online presence (e.g., www.greencriminology.org), point to the growing success of the discipline at garnering attention and acceptance from audiences both inside and outside academia.

But, I think there is still much that can and should be done. I am especially hopeful that incorporating visual methods into green crime research can serve multiple ends: advancing the discipline methodologically and empirically, while also creating a novel and appealing way of presenting green crime research that will make accessing a wider public audience easier.

Visual Methods and the Future of Green Criminology

It is an interesting fact that while most criminologists utilize visual media (i.e., images, video etc.) to present their findings at conferences, or as illustrative accents to accompany important research and teaching points in the classroom, visual methods have only a very meager presence within the discipline. This is not true, of course, for the place of visual methods within anthropology and sociology, both of which embraced the visual” long ago (e.g., Bateson & Mead 1942; Stasz 1979). It is from those two disciplines that most of our knowledge about how to apply visual methods in our research stems, and from whence most of the discussion surrounding the merits of visual methods in the social sciences originated (see, for example, Becker 1974, or Wagner 1979, and all of research subsequent to those pieces).

Only very recently, in the past decade, has a concerted effort been made by a small faction of criminologists—many working in the U.K. and calling themselves “cultural criminologists”—to carve out a place for visual research within criminology (see: Carrabine 2008, 2011, 2012; Ferrell & Van de Voorde 2010; Francis 2009; Greek 2005, 2009; Hayward 2009; Hayward & Presdee 2010; Van de Voorde 2012). Even still, visual methods within criminological research are far more the exception than the rule, with proponents of a visual paradigm for studying crimes, deviance and social control going so far as to argue that visual methods are necessary to break the “stranglehold” that textual and mostly quantitative research has within the discipline (Greek 2005; Hayward 2009; Van de Voorde 2012).

Depicting the traditional methods of doing and presenting research on crime in a negative light is probably counter-productive, since it sets up an antagonism between those who use visual methods and methodologies and those who don’t—as if one cannot, or should not use both, or whichever is most suitable to their work. One thing the advocates for visual methods in criminology have done nicely is to highlight the inexplicable reticence on the part of criminologists over the past fifty years to pursue visual research with the same gusto as our counterparts in sociology and anthropology. Certainly, there are unique challenges faced by crime researchers trying to use photography, videography, or various other visual methods of data collection and analysis (e.g., photo-elicitation, photovoice etc.), but there is no reason these challenges, which center around access to research sites and populations, ethics and other problems cannot be overcome with careful consideration, strategizing and creativity. Indeed, as Jackson’s prison research from the 1970s demonstrates, obstacles to visual crime research have been overcome in the past (Jackson 1977) and continue to be surmounted today (see Greek 2005/2009 and others).

Thus, given the emerging state of visual research within criminology, green criminologists can, and should, adopt visual research methods. In doing so, they will position themselves at the forefront of a unique and interesting emerging paradigm for the study of crime and, in particular, the study of green crimes.

Many of the topics green criminologists pursue have inherently visual components that should be explored both for analytic and other reasons. Visual images not only capture evidence of the nature and extent of green crimes both during and after their occurrence, but images can also be utilized to provide glimpses into the lived experiences of the individuals and groups who become victims of green crimes. Sociologist Kai Erikson did not fully pursue the use of visual images as a method for tapping into the lives of West Virginia residents coping with the aftermath of the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1976—a green crime in which corporate negligence and government ineptitude cost the lives of over 120 people. In his seminal work on the disaster, Erikson relied mainly on textual descriptions and interviews with only a few photographs used to illustrate the flood’s devastating effects. It is interesting to consider how his important work might have been improved had visual methods and methodologies been adopted to guide the research, or at least more fully accompany his other more traditional methods.

The adage that a “picture is worth a thousand words” invites green criminologists, crime scholars and others to incorporate visual methods into their research where possible. In discussing the “ways in which green criminology has—or might be—conducted” Heckenberg and White (2013) discuss various research methods and methodologies that might be applied to the study of green crimes. Noting that “studying environmental crimes and harms demands new ways of looking at the world” (p.85), they offer readers a wide-ranging list of potential ways to investigate and study green crimes. Yet, even Heckenberg and White don’t fully explore how visual research methods could be usefully applied to the study of green crimes aside from noting that “images” and “cinema and documentaries” could be useful “types of data sources” (see their Table 5.3, p.93). A significant opportunity thus exists to begin exploring how a broadly conceived “visual criminology” (Greek 2005) could be integrated with the goals of green criminology to produce innovative and important research on various types of environmental crimes, harms, laws and policies at various scales and across multiple, diverse locales.

The work of Smith & Smith in the mid-1970s provides an idea of what visually oriented green criminological research might look like. For several years in the mid-1970s, the team of Eugene and Aileen Smith lived in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, which had been poisoned by corporate mercury dumping. While living there, the Smith’s (Eugene was a successful LIFE magazine photographer) took hundreds of photographs documenting the painful after-effects of mercury poisoning in the bodies and lives of villagers still living in Minamata (see: Smith & Smith 1975). Those photographs were then incorporated into a successful book (Minamata) chronicling the fate of the village, its inhabitants and the history of the Chisso Corporation’s dumping of chemicals, including mercury, into Minamata Bay.

Certainly, the Smiths’ work is an exceptional example of how visual imagery can be successfully used to illustrate what we would consider a “green crime” by any definition. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all green crime research incorporating visual methods, like still photography, need be as time consuming or emotionally and labor intensive as that conducted by the Smiths’. Nor must one be an accomplished professional photographer or visual artist in order to use visual methods in the course of researching green crimes. Indeed, while Minamata is a prime example of how green criminological concerns and visual methods might be merged, it was not itself an academically grounded, or oriented, work, lacking theoretical and/or explanatory components one would expect to find in academic research. The Smiths’ photojournalistic work in Minamata is therefore somewhat disconnected from larger trends, causes, consequences and narratives that one would expect a more academically grounded project to tap into.

Discussing Minamata as an example of the blending of visual and green criminological concerns forces us to come full circle and grapple once again with questions about the place of visual methods in green crime research. In the world of book publishing, including academic books, there exists much greater flexibility in terms of form, content and presentation than is found in academic journals, such that one could conceivably conduct visual green crime research that could be embraced by publishers in either arena and by audiences inside and outside of academia. But, publishing in academic journals is a different beast altogether, with certain unique expectations and limitations not found in other publishing arenas that might make it exceptionally difficult for a green criminologist to find and maintain a balance between the academic rigor of their visual research and its general merit external to academic considerations.

Obviously, many questions and concerns about using visual research methods for studying green crimes remain to be discovered and addressed. However, many of these questions are best answered by each individual researcher as she/he plans their next green crime research project and by building a strong practical knowledge of the various types of visual research methods that exist and how they have been successfully utilized by others. Certainly, visual methods may not be applicable in every research context—in some cases they may be useful only as a secondary, or tertiary method to provide nuance or support for other data.
The extant visual criminology and visual methods literatures from sociology and anthropology contain discussions about how visual methods are limited in their application primarily by the creativity of the researcher to figure out how to implement them to greatest effect. This is an excellent point that I hope encourages other green criminologists to see the merit of visual methods as useful tools for elucidating the types of green crimes occurring in the world and for disseminating their research to the largest possible audiences. Keeping in mind Heckenberg and White’s admonition that we need to find new and creative ways for “looking at the world” of green crimes, adding visual research methods to our methods tool kits should prove quite beneficial.

Bateson, G., Mead, M. 1942. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York, New York: Academy of Science.

Becker, H.S. 1974. “Photography and Sociology.” Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1(3): 3-26.

Carrabine, E. 2008. Crime, Culture and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

—————. 2011. “Images of torture: Culture, politics and power.” Crime, Media, Culture 7(1): 5-30.

————–. 2012. “Just Images: Aesthetics, Ethics and Visual Criminology.” British Journal of Criminology 52:463-489.

Erikson, K. 1976. Everything in its Path: Destruction and Community in the Buffalo Creek. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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—————–. 2009. “Documenting and framing police public interaction with citizens: a study in visual criminology.” Criminal Justice Matters 78(1): 18-20.

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