Book Review: The CSI Effect by Michele Byers and Val Marie Johnson (Editors)
- Last Updated on Friday, 02 March 2012 10:32
- Liam Leonard and Louise Currid
Key Chapters of review
Intro: CSI as Liberalism Byers and Johnson
Ch 1. Science Fiction or Social Fact? Elizabeth Harvey and Linda Derksen
Ch.2. CSI & Law & Order. Kurt Hohenstein
The authors are concerned with the prevalence of ‘CSI’ style programmes, and point out that the actual series of CSI ‘was being heralded in many spheres of public discourse as a television revolution, its effects on the public unprecedented’ (Byers and Johnson 2009). They indicate that at the time they began their study in 2003, criminologists were not paying much attention to television programmes that focused on crime. In the main, they found that frontline professionals and journalists were more likely to be interested in the impacts of such programmes. In fact, they note that crime shows were not even highly rated amongst TV industry professionals.
**Outline details about both the CSI Series and other forensics orientated programmes here. This may be the focus for another chapter.
The authors highlight some issues in crime series which are also relevant to CSI: Gender, Class and Race
The main focus of the series is presented as a shift in usual crime show concerns with ‘catching criminals’. ‘CSI’ style programmes instead focus on ‘bodies of evidence’ in a literal manner (B & J xv, 2009), and as such have presented the public with a unique insight into a once less well known aspect of the criminal justice system; that of using forensic science to solve crimes. What may seem ‘mundane’ and even irrelevant to the untrained eye can become vital evidence to the forensics investigator, and on CSI, every crime is solved in this manner. In fact, the authors outline that only occasionally do plots from the show deviate into areas of ‘human interest’ that dominate other genres, so keen is the focus on forensic criminalistics. The authors call this focus ‘the forensic gaze’.
Another theme highlighted in the book’s Introduction is the innovative use of special effects to relive crimes and in some ways let the victim speak through forensic findings on their bodies. The interest in forensic technologies is described as ‘hyper-orientated’ and ‘clearly fetishistic’. One important theme which the authors introduce is that of societal ‘risk’. As Ulrich Beck has outlined, the ‘Risk Society’ is one whereby human development has now incorporated everyday risks into contemporary society, and the authors are keen to locate that risk within the context of the neo-liberalism which has shaped it.
Essentially, the authors wish to critique neo-liberalism through a wider critique of the over-prevalence of risk in neo-liberal society. They highlight how forensics can establish ‘the Truth’ even when the agencies of the state, as represented by the police or the courts, have failed. This ‘Truth’ is an elusive one in their eyes, and remains a measure of societal morals or values, which in themselves are based on the expertise of the forensics investigators and the wisdom of their incorruptible chiefs who direct operations in the background. The crucial issue for the authors is that this morally determined and applied expertise can mitigate the risk which has become so prevalent in modern society.
A more straightforward theme in the book is that of the distinctions between understanding media and understanding crime. This is done by locating that debate again within a neo-liberal framework, in what the authors term a ‘post September 11, 2001, era (B & J xvi, 2009). As the sub-title of the book suggests, the ‘CSI Effect’ combines television, crime and governance. The work of Jonathan Simon is cited as an explanation of the phenomena of ‘governing through crime’. This is outlined in the following manner:
We see governing through crime at work in the franchise’s gestures via forensic heroism at both critiquing the state and legitimating policing powers as essential and moral-scientific; its refusal of the social as a realm informing human action, conflict, and solutions except through the local workings of forensic teams; its central focus on the individual responsibility of crime fighter and criminal (Byers and Johnson 2009, xviii).
Of course the main area of influence over forms or layers of governance which is relevant to this study is that of the ‘CSI Effect’. The authors point pout that many social commentators or practitioners who maintain an interest in media and crime argue that the ‘CSI Effect’ has shaped:
‘Many ideas and practices outside of the televisiual realm…This is primarily understood to mean that watching CSI inspires an anti-prosecution tendency…by raising their (jurors) expectation and perception of the need for forensic evidence of guilt in all criminal investigations and trials’ (Byers and Johnson 2009, xviii).
Therefore, the authors note that the ‘CSI Effect’ is itself a part of the contemporary ‘Risk Society’, and as such becomes a ‘hindrance to crime fighting on several fronts’ (ibid). This hindrance is located in the de-legitimation of traditional methods of governance criminal justice such as policing the community for the ‘leads’ from reliable sources which may then assist with solving crime. Such human competencies which underpin community policing such as vigilance, human empathy and social-psychological or community intelligence are relegated in the face of the scientific certainty produced by forensic examinations.
Furthermore, the authors locate forensics science in a contemporary milieu which includes media studies and socio-political studies, with a grounding in critical analysis-in a type of ‘political economy of crime television’. The key forum for much of this is the debate about governance and crime or governance and justice. The ‘governmentality’ (Dean) of crime becomes a central element of the rise of the CSI phenomena, as the media response to crime has been shaped and shapes populist politics. In order to highlight the link between media and understandings of crime, the authors set out three ‘key elements’ of the ‘CSI universe’:
- Risk as omnipresent
- Responsibility for risk and agency
- Provision of security
(Byers and Johnson 2009, xix)
Security and risk are located in the social realm, both a challenging part of the experience of contemporary life and also as a Bourdieuvian process of social bonding or coming together in response to these challenges. And within this framework, we find two competing elements presented in CSI programmes; ‘forensic heroes or criminal villains’ (Byers and Johnson 2009, xix). From a governmental perspective, we come to understand the place and functions of the characters which have become a staple of crime programming: investigators, police, criminals and victims, all juxtaposed and intrinsically linked, but sometimes just by a random thread or hair particle.