Visual Imagery in Criminology Texts Reinforce Social Construction of Race and Gender

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Reviewed by Didier Dumerjean


Textbooks, including their visual portrayals of a discipline, play a central role in education. Many studies have found that racial and gender biases are common in textbooks. In particular, women and racial and ethnic minorities have been excluded and/or portrayed in a stereotypical manner. If pictures tell stories that we believe to be true, it’s important to analyze the nature of these images and the messages they convey
to students. The study was designed to contribute to the dialogue around visual imagery in criminal justice and criminology textbooks.

Previous studies analyzing images of textbooks in several disciplines provide evidence that images often perpetuate stereotypes about race and gender. In government and politics textbooks, for example, African Americans, Asian Americans, and women were overrepresented in sections dealing with poverty while white and Hispanic Americans were underrepresented when compared to actual rates of poverty in society. Across all of these studies, one thing holds true: women of color are rendered invisible given a general tendency to view gender and race as separate and distinct categories, resulting in images where all the women are white, and all the people of color are men. This study seeks to answer the following five questions to better understand this phenomenon in the context of criminal justice and criminology textbooks:

  1. How often are women and people of color represented?
  2. Do portrayals of women and people of color perpetuate stereotypes about their roles in the criminal justice system?
  3. Are images of women and people of color placed adjacent to content that contributes to stereotypical views about race and gender?
  4. Are women of color especially marginalized in terms of their overall representation and portrayal?
  5. Has representation of people of color, especially women, improved over time?

Dr. Helen M. Eigenberg was a Professor in the Criminal Justice department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga focused on women and crime, victimology and institutional corrections Dr. Seong min Park is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas researching patterns of crimes and victimization.

Methods and Findings

A total of 2,965 images were identified from 23 criminal justice and criminology textbooks published between January 2008 and May 2012. Images were coded by race and gender, role being portrayed (criminal, professional, victim or peripheral person), racial composition (singular vs. mixed race or genders depicted) and placement relative to five categories of text (overview, theory that reviews explanations of criminality, examples of crime, criminal justice system components, and special subject areas).

  • Men and white people were most visually dominant, each appearing in 73% of images. Men of color and white women were similarly represented in 20% of images. Women of color were underrepresented, appearing in just 7% of images.
  • Across status categories, white men accounted for 51% of criminals, followed by men of color (26%), white women (19%), and women of color (4%). Professionals were majority white men (66%), followed by men of color (15%), white women (13%), and women of color (6%). White women were overwhelmingly portrayed as victims at 43%, followed by men of color (26%), white men (21%), and women of color (10%). Women of color were twice as likely as white women, men and men of color to be in minor, or peripheral, roles (42%).
  • White men were more likely to be represented in the sections that focused on criminal law, criminal justice history, cybercrime, white-collar crime, and property crimes. Men of color were located in sections focused on overview of materials and theory. White women were particularly prominent in sections focused on criminology and victimology.
  • Women of color were notably absent from most sections, but most often present in sections relating to victimology and violent crime.
  • Compared to data from a similar 1994 analysis, representation of white men decreased approximately 10 percentage points, representation of white women increased slightly by approximately 4 percentage points, depictions of men of color have remained approximately constant, and depictions of women of color have increased approximately 3 percentage points. There has also been a slight increase in representations of men of color as victims and a slight decrease in their representation as criminals.

Compared to population Census data, the researchers found a vast overrepresentation of white men, a slight overrepresentation of men of color, a relatively significant underrepresentation of white women, and a drastic underrepresentation of women of color. It is difficult to draw comparisons of representation in textbooks to real-world interactions with the criminal justice system because most datasets reflect bias in enforcement that results in overrepresentation of people of color.


This study is largely consistent with other studies of visual images in textbooks. In particular, the underrepresentation of women, people of color, and women of color has been consistently documented. Portrayals of various race and gender groups also continue to reinforce traditional views about race and gender.

The authors acknowledge some limitations of this study. Namely, their approach to racial categorization based on visual identification is subject to human error and obfuscates distinctions between Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Additionally, the inability to compare image representation to real-world levels of interaction with the criminal justice system leaves room for further research.

Introductory textbooks expose many students who are not yet critical consumers of knowledge to a particular field. They may also be the only material students are exposed to if they’re taking a general studies class or elective. For these reasons, the authors recommend that publishers own the creation of a more diverse pool of images, and that authors demand diversity, attend to the selection of pictures, and negotiate how images are used in order to present a balanced view of criminal justice and criminology. They also recommend that final versions of textbooks with images be made available to reviewers prior to publication. Until then, faculty can either responsibly contextualize the intersectionality and marginalization omitted by these images or refuse to require textbooks until their visual images are diversified.


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