Academic Disciplines and Storytelling: Teaching Law with Popular Culture Stories

Story is a metaphor for life.

—Robert McKee (1997)


Academic disciplines tell stories. Law tells the story that it is possible to regulate human conduct through laws, which judges can enforce objectively to restore justice when there has been a breach of the law. Criminal justice tells the stories of police, the courts, and prisons. These stories have a structure that resembles the structure of stories found in popular culture. The great number of popular culture stories on law and criminal justice has given rise to the field of law and popular culture, which is concerned with the mutual influence that each exercises over the other. However, popular culture texts are not often used as sources for the study of law or criminal justice. Teaching law and criminal justice with stories from popular culture offers students the possibility of examining substantive aspects of the legal and criminal justice disciplines while at the same time they help them develop the skills and competences that are essential for legal and criminal justice professionals.


Higher education institutions have dissected academic disciplines “into tiny, specialized fragments” (Hedges, 2009) and have given them an elitist vocabulary that made them impenetrable for any outsider, including students and other highly educated academics (Hedges, 2009). However, at their core, academic disciplines tell simple—and at the same time grandiose—stories about most essential aspects of human life. Popular culture also tells stories about these same essential aspects with a narrative structure that is not altogether different from the structure of disciplinary stories.

This chapter begins with an analysis of the stories that academic disciplines tell. Then, I will focus on the stories that law and criminal justice narrate both inside and outside the courtroom. I will analyze the existing compatibility between legal and criminal justice stories and stories told in popular culture. Then, I will explore the law and popular culture field, focusing on its shortcomings with respect to teaching and student leanring. Finally, the chapter considers the use of popular culture as an alternative to casebooks and legal and criminal justice textbooks. It includes many concrete examples of how to use popular culture texts in order to foster discussion aimed to both help students discover and construct new knowledge about law and criminal justice and to develop skills and competences that are essential for the legal and criminal justice professionals.


The Accused (Kaplan, 1988) tells the story of a victim of a sexual assault and a prosecutor who does not understand the victim’s story at first. Sarah Tobias is gang raped in a bar frill of people who cheer and clap to incite the rapists. Sarah, a low-class, uneducated young woman with an expunged criminal record and a promiscuous sexual life, tells Kathryn Murphy, assistant deputy attorney, her story. Kathryn discusses Sarah’s story with her boss and a colleague. After tying up some loose ends, Kathryn prepares quite hard for the bail hearing. She works on the story to adapt it to use it in court.

In a difficult bail hearing, the judge releases the accused on bail. Then, Kathryn works on the story to tell it to the defense attorneys in a plea bargain. Sarah learns about the plea bargain through a story she watches on television. Although her rapists will do prison time, they will not go to trial because the prosecution does not believe that she is a strong witness. Sarah desperately wants to tell her story in court. So, Kathryn agrees to prosecute those who cheered, yelled, and clapped for criminal solicitation. Knowing that she will need to improve Sarah’s story for the trial, Kathryn continues to work hard in refining the legal principles applicable to the case. She also keeps investigating, talking to key witnesses, and uncovering new evidence. Meanwhile, the defense attorneys also work on their stories. They interrogate witnesses, they gather evidence, and they obtain data about the victim. They tell their stories to the press and in court. Sarah finally gets to tell her story in court, which helps put the accused behind bars and to feel redeemed. The film narrates all the multiple legal and criminal justice stories related to the rape and its solicitation. And it does so by respecting the logic, language, structure, and narrative style of both legal and film stories.

Every discipline tells a story, a foundational story that glues all members of the discipline together (Quintana and Hermida, 2019). Sociology tells the story of human social behavior. In this story, sociologists narrate the origin and development of social institutions and organizations. They tell this story by focusing on the analysis of social class, religion, work, gender, and social stratification, among other themes. Biology tells the story of life and living organisms. Biologists focus their story on cells, genes, and evolution. Human beings, animals, and plants are all protagonists of this story. History tells the story of human past. It narrates historical events. It does so by focusing on texts and other sources that reconstruct lives, cultures, and events. Psychoanalysis tells the story of the human mind through a fascinating journey into the unconscious, which takes the protagonists to navigate then own dreams, fears, and fantasies. Protagonists engage in telling stories by spontaneously saying the first things that come into their minds no matter how painful, irrational, or illogical they might sound. This permits the spectator to penetrate their childhood traumas, desires, and repressed thoughts and emotions. Criminology tells the story of crime. It deals with the causes, nature, extent, control, and prevention of criminal behavior, as well as society’s reaction and response to crime. Similarly, criminal justice tells the story of the system that deals with crime and each of its agents and organs, such as police, the courts, and prisons. Law is no exception. It tells the story of the regulation of human behavior through a system of rules and principles that officials enforce through punitive and privative sanctions.

These stories are sacred. The members of the disciplines believe these stories almost as a matter of faith, without questioning their authenticity or core elements. The stories of academic disciplines contain myths that intend to explain what the discipline does and can achieve. Thus, for example, sociology created the myth that it can explain all social phenomena through its method and that it can influence social policy. The myth in the biology story is that evolution can account for the emergence and development of all forms of life. History created the myth that human beings can get rid of present preconceptions and that they can understand their past without employing present worldview lenses. Criminology’s myth is that it can explain why people commit crimes. Criminal justice perpetuated the myth that it can protect individuals and society, while at the same time it can control and prevent crime with equity and fairness. Law, particularly in the common law world, created the myth of the rule of law that separates the laws from the people (and the ruling class) that enacted them, as if the law had a life of its own and as if respecting the law were not the same as obeying those who created it (Hermida, 2018). Another aspect of this myth is that given the right resources and circumstances, a good lawyer can swing a verdict any way he or she wants in court without altering or damaging the public’s image of the legal system. Popular culture, with its multiple stories about law and lawyers, help perpetuate this myth.

Apart from the general, foundational, story of the discipline, each discipline also tells a multitude of smaller stories that, in turn, contribute to the larger disciplinary story. To continue with the examples, sociology tells stories about particular social institutions, discrimination of certain groups, and the prevalence of deviance in a certain community. Biology tells stories about the evolution of the human brain, the mechanical and biochemical processes of animals, and the interaction between specific organisms and their environment. History tells stories about long-forgotten civilizations, historical figures, wars, and revolutions. Criminology tells stories about victims of crimes, perpetrators of crime, domestic violence, crime prevention, and juvenile delinquency. Similarly, criminal justice tells stories about police officers, prosecutors, judges, criminal defense attorneys, parole and probation officers, and prison wardens. Law tells stories about individuals who committed crimes, corporations that failed to comply with government regulations, couples who divorce, and rich people who leave their fortune to their lovers and mistresses.

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