CSI and the discursive infallibility of science in post-9/11 crime drama.

Feminism and identity politics has, and I imagine, always will be my main passion in academia. But, alongside that, I adore media studies, and in particular the analysis of television. I imagine that this blog will house my reflections on television at various intervals in the future, and I thought that I would share one such musing with you now. This week in the class I’m teaching on the module ‘Introduction to Visual Cultures‘ we’re looking at issues of science and scientific looking, and so I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to revisit an essay I wrote as an undergraduate, an essay I recall I loved to write and the content of which I (in the most part) still agree with. So today, I present to you an analysis of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which argues that in the years after 9/11, where we discovered that ‘people lie’ and not all people are ‘good’ that the ‘truth’ of science offers certainty in an uncertain time in the aftermath of trauma. I’ve edited its length down, but its still a little longer than I’d usually write:


 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is an American-made programme of vast worldwide  appeal. Averaging 26 million viewers in the US alone (BBC, 2003), this highly popular prime-time drama “follows the activities of a team of forensic experts or ‘criminalists’ in Las Vegas” (Lury, 2005:44). If we consider popular culture as “a form of entertainment that is […] made available to large groups of people” (Street, 1997:7) with availability as being “measured by the opportunity to enjoy the product or by the absence of social barriers to enjoyment of it” (Ibid) we can see that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with its mass worldwide appeal (it was ranked sixth in the most watched television series in the world (BBC, 2006)) is very much an example of popular culture.

I seek to uncover the politics of popular culture within CSI through a plot based analysis. I consider the ideologies that are presented as ‘normal’, such as the role of forensic science in legitimising the police force. I draw upon Kellner’s analysis of Rambo (1995: 62-75) in order to strengthen my analysis, and I aim to greater inform my argument through the ideas discussed by Cavender and Deutsch (2007). I question whether or not the ideologies that are presented within the show conform to the dominant ideologies within Western society or if they challenge them, in doing so questioning the politics encoded within the text.

If we understand popular culture as having the ability to make us feel things, and through this come to shape our expectations and preferences (Street, 1997: 9-10), it is evident that through this process we develop ways of making sense of the world, making assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and what is not. For these reasons it is important that we study what ideologies are presented as ‘normal’ in CSI as “ideology mobilizes sentiment, affection, and belief to induce consent to certain dominant core assumptions about social life” (Kellner, 1995:58) thus making CSI inherently political. As Kellner notes, media texts have the ability to “advance the interests of the dominant groups […] or oppose hegemonic ideologies” (Ibid:56). I argue that CSI in the most part serves the dominant ideology, but this is achieved by subtly ‘transcoding’ (Kellner, 1995:64) ideologies into the text. 

Grissom in the lab.

Grissom in the lab.

Transcoded into the text is post-9/11 American solidarity, where good and truth triumph over evil. The Reganite era is crucial to the understanding of Kellner’s analysis of Rambo and I argue that the post-9/11 Bush America is crucial to understanding CSI. As Lury notes, “Grissom and gang are the archetypal comic book good-guys” (Lury, 2005:45) heroes in a time when not only are they at war in the middle-east, but when they are also at war with evil in the own land. While it may be argued that the investigative crime drama has always been popular I would like to draw upon the point that Cavender and Deutsch make which places CSI within the post-9/11 climate. They argue that the police have lost some of the “moral authority that is necessary for their legitimacy in society today” (2007: 68) as a result of their failure to “process evidence that might have prevented the attacks on September 11” (Ibid). With the police acting as enforcers of the dominant ideology it is very important to understand how CSI reaffirms the position of the police. One of the ways in which a show like CSI can restore moral authority to the police through the infallibility of forensic evidence. Moral authority is also restored to the police, through the appearance of a competent team that works together in the interest of social order. This is displayed to the audience through a lack of arguments within the team, with the team displayed almost as if they are a family (a signifier of solidarity in American culture), and through the utilisation of team members’ specialities. To exemplify these specialities: Gil is an entomologist, Catherine is a blood-spatter analyst and Nick a hair and fibre analyst. By having each team member in possession of an objective scientific speciality the audience can ‘trust’ the outcome of their cases. The audience is never once asked to bring into question the abilities of the team in coming to a conclusion, thus relating this to the conclusions of real life investigation teams.

CSI_labThis is important because it brings the assumption that forensic evidence never lies into the real world, but this has brought with it its own problems. The ‘CSI Effect’ refers to the unreasonable expectations of jurors as a result of their perceived knowledge of forensic science (Shelton et al., 2006). This illustrates to us the ways in which CSI can alter our sense of the world and why we should take seriously the ideologies transcoded within the text. 

However, not all aspects of CSI conform to the dominant ideology. For example, within the general narrative is the mantra of the show ‘the evidence never lies’. This indicates to the audience that the only thing that you can really trust is the evidence; this is further reinforced through the visibility of a frustrating and corrupt bureaucratic system. For example, while the police seek to bring criminals to justice, “lawyers are the villains who impede their quest” (Ibid:69) attempting to nullify evidence with red tape. We also see that corrupt senators, mayors and district attorneys use their power over the lab to slow warrant issues and try to blackmail investigators in pursuit of their own interests. If we consider the visibility of politicians in this framework we must draw upon Van Zoonen’s idea that politics is often displayed as conspiracy and that “no one can be trusted” (2005:118) a notion mirrored by the mantra of the show.

Of course, while I have argued that moral authority has been restored to the police through CSI, some viewers may bring a different ‘framework of knowledge’ to the show opposing this reading of the text (Hall [1977] in During ed. 2007:480). A real-life criminalist for example may find the techniques used in the show laughable and see it as nothing more than a display of fantasy. In such a case it is unlikely that they will reassert moral authority to the police, as the basis of knowledge used to do so would be deemed unrealistic by the ‘expert’. However, although such an argument asserts the polysemic nature of televisual texts we must not ignore the fact that this study highlights the ways in which politics is intrinsically linked with popular culture. Whether an audience member chooses to read the text from an oppositional, negotiated or dominant viewpoint (Ibid) it assumes that the viewer in some way relates to the text, if they choose not to relate then it illustrates that it does not conform to their ideology of the world. In either instance it exemplifies that all audience members have their own way of making sense of the world and that these ideologies are used to make sense of popular culture, CSI and beyond.


BBC. (2003) US crime drama tops Friends http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3049577.stm

BBC. (2006) CSI show ‘most popular in world’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/5231334.stm

Cavender, G. Deutsch, S. (2007) ‘CSI and moral authority: The police and science’ in Crime Media Culture 3 (1) 67-81

During, S. (2007) The Cultural Studies Reader, New York: Abingdon

Julien, I and Mercer, K [1988] in D. Morley (ed) (1996) StuartHall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.

Kellner, D. (1995) Media Culture, London: Routledge.

Lury, K. (2005) Interpreting Television, London: Hodder Headline Group.

Shelton, D. Young, K. Barak, G. (2006) “A Study of Juror Expectations and Demands Concerning Scientific Evidence: Does the ‘CSI Effect’ Exist?” Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 9 (2) 331-368

Street, J. (1997) Politics and Popular Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Van Zoonen, L. (2005) Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Maryland.


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