Must-have illegal thrills

City Limits
February 3, 2006

In popular as well as academic perceptions, as Keith Hayward remarks, images of crime and the urban environment are closely connected. This book continues the criminological tradition of unravelling the crime-city nexus, and examines the forms that criminal conduct adopts in the contemporary conjuncture. This, in the definition provided by the author, is characterised by a "late modern consumer culture", which contributes to the crime problem we experience in our cities. The book attempts to attune criminology to this emerging culture, whose damage "ultimately outweighs its alluring pleasures and opportunities". Crime is linked with new forms of desire, the pursuit of the "now" and the aggressive marketing of goods whose enjoyment cannot be postponed.

The book starts with a discussion of urban social theories and the emergence of modern industrialised cities. After analysing the socioeconomic transformations and the cultural processes cities are witnessing in the 21st century, the notion of "urban experience" is introduced. This is conceptualised as duality: namely as formal, architectural, rational built environment, and, simultaneously, as subjective consciousness.

Criminological theories related to the urban space are then discussed, while examples are provided of how fear of crime has redrawn the contours of city landscapes.

Paradoxically, the last chapter is, in theoretical terms, the central one.

Here, the author discusses the contribution of authors such as Jack Katz, who studies criminal activity as expression of "desire" and individual "thrilling" experience.

Hayward's analysis extends beyond the seductive character of crime as experienced by individuals and considers "the broader structural, material and historical contexts within which individual experience occurs". He argues that contemporary consumer culture leads to the pursuit of excitement through transgression, to short-termism and impulsiveness and generates a drive towards immediate gratification. The author does link his analysis with classical sociology; it is therefore strange that he fails to connect his central thesis to traditional anomic arguments around the "malady of infinite aspiration" (Emile Durkheim).

Some classics of urban sociology are also ignored, especially those concerned with the social mechanisms and cultural factors that make cities unsafe environments. This concern revolves around a bipolar distinction between rural and urban life. Urban life is frequently conceptualised as the epitome of self-interest. "Each person is truly alone," wrote the German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies, and this loneliness alludes to the likeliness that in cities conflicts will constantly erupt and extreme phenomena periodically occur. Interactions in cities are seen as transitory and superficial because of the mechanic character of urban aggregations as opposed to the organic nature of rural communities. And while organisms evolve, it is warned, machines can only break down.

Crime may be thrilling and exciting, but how does it compound the vulnerability of the social machine?

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture and the Urban Experience

Author - Keith J. Hayward
Publisher - Glasshouse Press
Pages - 248
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 90438 503 6

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