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Narratives of Crime and Criminals: How Places Socially Construct the Crime Problem


  • The author thanks the Center for Social Policy and the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston for funding this research. In addition, she thanks Mary Thomas, Lauren Krivo, Ruth Peterson, Todd Clear, SRI participants, and anonymous reviewers for feedback on previous drafts, and Jodi Comeau, Lauren Haskell, Paul Anskat, and Angela Cody for their research assistance.


A common narrative about crime in the contemporary United States is that offenders are primarily young black men living in poor urban neighborhoods committing violent and drug-related crimes. There is also a local context to community, crime, and fear that influences this narrative. In this article, I address how narratives of crime and criminals play out differently within particular places. The article is based on participant observation and interviews conducted in two high-crime Boston-area communities. Although both communities are concerned with stereotypical offenders, there are differential community constructions of crime, formed through interactions between crime narratives and place identities. In one, crime is a community problem, in which both offenders and victims are community members. In the other, outsiders commit crime against community members. Media portrayals of crime and community, community race and class identities, and concerns over neighborhood change all contribute to place-specific framing of “the crime problem.” These frames, in turn, shape both intergroup dynamics and support for criminal justice policy.