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by Rafe McGregor
18th September 2020

This is not an article about the lessons of lockdown, about the decrease or increase of street crime and crime behind closed doors and the conclusions we can draw about causation and reduction. It is, instead, about what we learned about crime in lockdown, particularly those of us who watched more television or read more books than usual.

According to Ofcom, average viewing time increased by a third from March to June, with almost a fifth of the UK’s population signing up for a streaming service for the first time. Similarly, The Guardian reports that almost everyone who was reading before lockdown read more during lockdown, with many doubling their reading hours. The most popular books in the UK were from the crime fiction genre and four of the five most popular Netflix shows followed suit: Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty and Killing Eve.

Did we learn anything about crime from all that fiction? My answer, which goes against the grain of both received wisdom and scientific inquiry, is ’yes’. What I find particularly interesting about this question is that it would not even have been asked until relatively recently. For more than two millennia, European audiences accepted that fiction – most commonly theatre and poetry – communicated knowledge in a pleasurable way, but the combination of the rise of positivism and the differentiation of fiction into its literary and popular forms in the 19th century severed representation from reality. Contemporary fiction is for fun, for the reasons cited by those who read more during lockdown – enjoyment, entertainment and escapism. I wrote A Criminology of Narrative Fiction as a reminder that fiction is not just for pleasure, but an important source of insight and data that readers, audiences and academics often ignore.

My claim in the book is that complex narrative fictions – feature films, television series, novels and graphic novels – communicate criminological knowledge, and by criminological knowledge I mean knowledge about the causes of crime and social harm. While fiction often misleads and misinforms, documentaries and reports can also be unreliable and all sources are subject to verification and corroboration. If we select our fictions carefully, then there are at least three types of criminological knowledge we can gain from them: phenomenological, counterfactual and mimetic.

Phenomenological knowledge is knowledge of what a specific lived experience is like. Fictions are especially good at communicating this type of knowledge because of the way narrative form and narrative content are combined to represent actions from a particular point of view and to create patterns of meaning. Counterfactual knowledge is knowledge of reality that is provided by the exploration of alternatives to that reality. Fictions are essentially rather than accidentally counterfactual, adapting and adjusting historical and contemporary reality to produce test cases. Mimetic knowledge is knowledge of everyday reality that is detailed and accurate. This type of knowledge is usually associated with documentary rather than fiction, but fictions can provide access to people, places and events that cannot be documented for safety, legal or ethical reasons.

But how does it actually work? How do stories about fictional characters, settings and actions provide knowledge about real people, places and events? The core idea, which originated in Ancient Greece, is that where documentaries represent particular people, places and events, fictions represent types of people, places and events (called universals). The best way of explaining this is an actual example, and my final fictional analysis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is Martin Scorsese’s 2006 feature film, The Departed.

First, The Departed provides mimetic knowledge of how necessary levels of secrecy and unnecessary levels of interdepartmental rivalry create chaos in undercover operations. I use a historical example from my previous research to show that fact is often more fantastic than fiction: that of the unsolved murder of Anton Lubowski during the last-ditch defence of apartheid by the Civil Cooperation Bureau in Namibia in 1989. Second, the film provides phenomenological knowledge of the lived experience of working as an undercover police officer or intelligence agent. Third, it provides counterfactual knowledge of the threat posed by agents of organised crime in and to policing, a theme that is also explored in Line of Duty. The Departed thus both educates and entertains audiences by deploying the aural–visual resources available to cinematic fictions.

The process is of course more complicated than I have described, but it should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in crime and social harm. Understanding that there is truth in fiction would allow readers and audiences to realise that they have in many cases gained genuine insight from spending time with their favourite fictions. For researchers, narrative fictions are overlooked sources of data of the perpetration, collaboration in and facilitation of crime and social harm that can be employed in the same manner as any other source, to inform public policy and evidence-based practice.

Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University.

A Criminology of Narrative Fiction by Rafe McGregor is available on the Bristol University Press website. Pre-order the hardback here for £48.00, or the EPUB for £17.59.

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