Culture and crime in Malawi: Assessing foundational dynamics

Citizens experience police brutality in many countries

By Billy Abner Mayaya* Ph.D

This article has been prompted by interrogations of whether wayward actions of criminal behaviour by cultural groups are compelled by elements within a given culture or not. The second question revolves around the emergence of “Cashgate” culture. Locating the precise answers to these queries is not the intent of this essay. Rather, I intend to simply lay down the theoretical and foundational framework that underlies the narrative behind cultural criminology.

Working definition

Cultural criminology centres on how cultural practices mix with those of crime and crime control in a societal setting. It stresses the importance of meaning, symbolism and power relations in elucidating the causes and effects of crime and deviance. It is agreed that culture cannot be seen solely as a result of social factors such as class and ethnicity whilst these do contribute in a major way, they are not the only things that affect it (Ferrell, Hayward and Young, 2008).

By taking a cultural approach, scholars have a better opportunity to see why certain norms are created, how certain actions threaten them and why laws are created and broken. The focus on culture helps provide an insight towards the relationship between order and disorder, towards understanding the actions of criminals and law enforcement and the law makers, as well as looking into the perceived cultural conflict between legal authorities and deviant subcultures in a society.

When looking at crime, cultural criminology sees two things, crime as culture or culture as crime that is crime as a creator of culture or a culture as a creator of crime. The former crime as culture sees criminal behaviour as a stemming from subcultures, it sees crime as a group activity caused by that groups’ identity.

Though what constitutes a subculture shifts over time the associations that they create do not, for example kabwerebwere and zigawenga are all name of groups but are also names for those within the group (Ferrell,1995). Within each of the criminal subcultures are symbols, meanings, and knowledge. Members learn the norms and values of the group, adopt the language and appearance and so participate greater in group life and the crimes that life involves.

Gross generalizations

Criminal subcultures, as with many things, are shaped by class, age, gender and various experienced inequalities. Criminal subculture is not the only thing that needs to be looked at but the authorities who label these subcultures as criminal. Images of crime are common place in the media. It is through the media that social/political powers criminalise subcultures by creating folk devils those being groups who are blamed for some social problems quite similar in essence – acting as a scapegoat for societies’ ills and moral panics which is the creation of issues being seen as a threat to society.

For example, public information films about kusuta chamba, kumwa mowa, kachasu and kucheza ndi mahule often focus on the evil effects. The media reports stories of violence committed by those who indulge in these acts. By using choice words such as evil and focusing on the negative sides of the subject matter and by using sources biased in favour of those doing the criminalising the media reinforce the criminalisation process and cement into the minds of the public that these groups are in fact deviant and criminal.

Activists up against police brutality

Just as those in positions of “authority” be it self imposed or otherwise, criminalise subcultures they also criminalise art, music, and fashion. Creative mediums often get involved in controversies over public decency, morality and how it affects the youth of today.

In many causes the creators of the work intentionally create these controversies to fuel consumption of their work and in other cases political groups, lobby groups and religious groups protest about these works and with help of the media in creation of folk devils and morals panics push their own usually right wing agenda.

Ironically the original creators of the controversy and those protesting against it usually end up working together to eventually fuel more interest in the controversial item by bringing it into the public eye via media coverage which inevitably leads to an increase in consumption of the offending item.

Reggae as antithetical to those in power

Popular music provides many examples of the criminalisation of culture for instance reggae. The image of dreadlocks provokes a sense of non-conformity and a sense of anarchy which lead the media to represent the reggae subculture as a threat to society. This led to the authorities ruling Peter Tosh’s album Legalize It to be having indecent artwork, inappropriate artwork and lyrical content.

This confusion as to what is culture and what is crime affects all aspects of everyday life so much so that individuals often experience culture and crime as the same thing making them uncertain as to what is deviant and what is culture thus possibly creating more deviance in the process.

The criminalisation process then is how those in power come to define and shape forms of social life. It gives them the ability to define how and what we see and in doing so how we perceive the behaviour of others. They define what is criminal based on what they do not want to see or what they see as a threat to their position of power and they go through the law to legitimatise this.


Apart from criminalisation of culture there are key concepts within cultural criminology. The first of which is the lens of adrenaline. The two main approaches to crime are rational choice theory and positivism. In rational choice theory, crime occurs because of logical choices such as opportunity and reward and the second crime occurs as a way to combat inequality.

The cultural criminological view has put these aside as they see crime as not having the monetary payoffs that the rational choice theory would suggest nor that it is an answer to inequality that the positivist model would suggest but that it has more to do with the adrenaline and sense of excitement that committing a crime as well the act of going through the justice system causes giving them something that dreary everyday life cannot (Hayward and Young, 2004, p264).

Ku mayadi ndi ku ma ghetto

The second is the soft city which is of the view that there are two sides to one city. On one side he sees a rationalistic bureaucratic scene with consumption and laws that gives the impression of everyday life or ‘official society’ but is where the individual is controlled and constrained and underneath, there is the ‘soft city’ or second life to some theorists which is a place where anything can happen that has no individual restraints.

In this view deviance is something that lies underneath the rationalistic world that controls every aspect of society and represses groups and individuals. crime is seen as the inevitable struggle between the rational domineering society we live in and the individual desiring to have freedom in effect bursting out of ‘official society’ and breaking into the second life.

Inclusion or exclusion

The third concept is the transgressive subject which looks at the attitude towards rules and one’s motivation to break them. It is through acts of transgression that subcultures attempt to fix their problems, to resolve inequalities. Here the experience or foreground of the individual is important, rather than the background which involves such things as poverty and various other inequalities.

Poverty in regards to cultural criminology, for example is seen as a form of social exclusion specifically in these consumerist times. It is a troubling experience to those in it, not just due to the material deprivation but in terms of the injustice they feel and the uncertainty it brings. In modernity, individualism is of great importance and material deprivation would severely hamper this so crime can be seen as the forging of an identity for oneself, a way to stick out of the herd and to become part of modern society. (Ibid p267).

Intellectual waffling

Cultural criminology places too much focus on everyday crime and the individuals or groups that cause it whilst overlooking the large-scale, industrial or political crimes of seemingly greater importance. In defence of this, criminal acts cannot be easily defined as important or unimportant, all crimes emerge from the same system and it is the system that should be looked at not the individual crimes that come from it.

It can also be said that cultural criminologists have a tendency to find resistance in some form or other in every transgressive act this could lead someone to believe that they see resistance where in fact there is none, presumably making their findings less reliably valid and full of bias. There is also the idea that they are sympathetic towards criminals, justifying their behaviour, legitimising their resistance and making them seem as less of a threat to others than they really are once again filling their findings with potential bias.

Lack of precision

In spite of focusing on culture as a reason for behaviour, cultural criminologists fail to precisely define what constitutes as culture and how studying it would help criminology as a whole (O’Brien, 2005) nor have they defined what criteria is there to aid school in separating culture from economic, social and environmental factors, which is worrying as they represent it as a new kind of criminology yet they have not fully and concretely defined the thing they are supposedly interested in.

Police chasing protesters

Also, all theory in the area contradicts what culture actually is, their definitions can be seen as the result of a lack of knowledge of classic anthropological thought and by confusing anthropology as merely ethnography with a hint of biography.


At this point in time cultural criminology is in an order of disarray and only when culture is given a set definition within cultural criminology and when one can overcome individual bias and cease becoming too attached to those being observed and be fully objective to their actions can this field be of any real use though such issues are acceptable in a manner of speaking as it is still quite young and obviously researchers may get attached to their subjects because they are after all human.

Despite its flaws cultural criminology does allow for a better understanding of crime what with its dabbling in areas that do not usually belong to criminology such as anthropology, cultural studies, and a greater look at the media and the criminalisation process, all of which offer it a unique viewpoint of the subject and creates a worthy addition to the field of criminology.

*Mayaya is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine