Read Our Interview with Sandie Taylor

Sandie Taylor sits down with Routledge to discuss her book Crime and Criminality: A Multidisciplinary Approach and where the study of crime and criminality is heading.

What first got you into criminology and forensic psychology?

This is an interesting question. I think I can relate this back to when I had to choose my ‘A’ levels. I knew I could be persuaded by a career in the natural or social sciences. My mind at the time was split between a more scientific approach to studying crime and criminality which is why I selected human biology and chemistry as natural sciences and following an approach of focusing on the individual and society – hence psychology and sociology. Just as well I left my options opened because I did in fact change my career direction a few times. After completing my ‘A’ levels, I embarked on a career in Medical Sciences as a Medical Laboratory Science Officer (MLSO). I enjoyed the discipline of histopathology best. I was particularly interested when a man was brought into the hospital morgue and analysis of how he died was used as part of a police investigation. This, coupled with my fascination in the televised programme, ‘Crown Court’ which I watched avidly during the 70s, made me realise that I definitely wanted a career that had links to understanding crime and criminality. Working/studying as a MLSO was more hospital related and far from the subject of forensic science, so I did a degree in Psychology. I did well and found criminological and forensic psychology the most interesting. I went on to do a DPhil about face recognition and ways of improving it using sequential line-up formats. After my DPhil I did a Criminology Masters degree. I now had a foot in both camps – psychological and sociological approaches to understanding crime, the criminal and criminality.

What areas in criminology and forensic psychology excite you currently?

I think it is the way in which both criminology and forensic psychology have broadened their horizons. Especially in the case of criminology this has happened in the last 10 years. It might be a factor relating to the number of young and innovative teachers and researchers filtering through the education system and into criminology as pointed out by Tim Newburn in a previous interview with Routledge. This is a good thing as new ways of considering what criminology is about percolate into its core. I’ve always believed that in order to understand and explain as best we can the occurrence of crime, why people commit crimes and the processes of criminality, we have to stop being so academically territorial and open our boundaries to other disciplines. Criminology lends itself to both sociological and psychological influences in particular, and many other disciplines such as biology, neurology, geography, cultural studies, economics and politics, ethics, philosophy and religion (and more no doubt). New technology has also been useful to the study of criminology and forensic psychology, not just in neuroscience, with the advent of brain scanning techniques but also in developments made in computer science. Computer simulations have also been of value in identifying offender activity locations and offending patterns per se. As indeed have computer statistical programmes. For example David Canter used ‘Smallest Space Analysis’ to make sense of different crime scene characteristics left in many different serial killings. I have used ‘cluster analysis’ as a means of testing the validity of the FBI organised-disorganised typologies of serial murderers. We found this organised-disorganised distinction does not stand up well to scrutiny. The use of such statistical programmes has contributed to the development of geographical and offender profiling for instance.

What directions do you think these fields are going in?

This relates strongly to my answer to your previous question. Criminology is expanding on what was traditionally perceived as a sociological sub-topic. In fact, I see it as breaking its ‘maternal bond’ with sociology. It is becoming a far more developed discipline in its own right. I think it is still developing and is not only opening its borders to encapsulate a multitude of disciplines, but is moving into the International arena. For example, the influence of culture on behaviour is a big page turner. How does our cultural background impact on the way we behave? Research suggests there are two types of society: individualistic and collectivistic which tends to divide into the West and East. Individualistic cultures value independence, goal achievement and self-expression contrasting with collectivistic cultures which emphasise respect for your elders who pass on valuable information, belief in the importance of community spirit and the necessity for altruistic or prosocial behaviour. How these two contrasting cultural attitudes impact on behavioural conformity and, in particular, antisocial behaviour is an important area of study. This difference might help to explain why we see a much lower crime rate in Japan (a collectivistic society) when compared to Western countries. Cultural diversity has also been an important issue in forensic psychology. With the incorporation of other disciplines, criminology has at its disposal a variety of methodological approaches. The survey method, for example, has typically been used by criminologists to collect statistical data for the Crime Survey for England and Wales. The use of experiments alternatively, is commonly used by forensic psychologists. An experimental approach for example, used to test the effectiveness of alcohol and drug intervention programmes such as that pioneered by a British based Probation Service in the early 1990s. I was involved in testing the clinical effectiveness of the Alcohol Educational Groups (AEGs) devised for drivers convicted of drunken driving. As part of their Probation Order these offenders had to attend an AEG. These AEGs were tested experimentally using carefully selected measures (one of which was the ‘Attitudes towards Alcohol’ tool I devised). Both forensic psychology and criminology have been influenced by computer and neuroscience technology which has impacted on the way different research questions are framed, addressed and researched. For example, having a more scientific understanding of the way a psychopath’s brain might function has come from advancements in brain scanning technology. 

What debates within criminology and forensic psychology have surfaced in recent years?

This is an interesting question because I think the same debates have been occurring in criminology as in forensic psychology. Both disciplines have had to engage in what is known as the nature-nurture debate to varying degrees. This is an old division which used to be a two-prong ideology such that your approach to understanding crime and criminality either aired on biology or sociology. This no longer exists – for most researchers and academics there is a robust interaction between the two. What varies between researchers and academics, regardless of being a criminologist or forensic psychologist, is the extent of interaction between nature and nurture explanations and the form it takes. For example, young children diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) show disruptive and antisocial behaviours. These children are considered to have a predisposition to developing ODD (i.e. nature) but their symptoms can be attenuated with appropriate environmental input (i.e. nurture). Here is a good example illustrating a nature-nurture interaction and how nurture can potentially mitigate nature. Although an old debate, it hasn’t gone away, it has just taken a different turn. An important debate for criminologists and forensic psychologists alike!

Why did you adopt a multidisciplinary approach in your book? Surely it would have been easier to stick with say criminology or forensic psychology?

You are certainly right that it would have been an easier option to stick with writing a purely criminological or forensic psychological book. It was difficult to perceive crime and criminality across disciplines but I felt it was essential. I think many different disciplines have important contributions to be made when it comes to understanding complex concepts such as crime and criminality. This is something that crosses over into many different subjects. For example, David Farrington’s work on criminal careers offers a psychological perspective. In contrast sociologists emphasise the relationship between demographic information and the behaviour of young offenders. I believe it is time to stop being so precious about our subject borders and to do justice to understanding and explaining the many processes involved in crime and criminality by being eclectic. Disciplines such as sociology, psychology, biology and neuroscience, cultural studies, economics and politics, ethics and philosophy and religion have explanations of crime and criminality coming in at different levels of the argument. For example, psychology can pitch a micro-level understanding (i.e. focusing on an offender’s motivations) whereas sociology a macro-level (i.e. focusing on how the Global Recession can motivate individuals to steal). What is more, I think criminology can be that vehicle – this subject can assimilate many types of explanation and become a mixing pot for ideas. Because criminology, as a discipline in its own right, is still developing, it has the opportunity to do this. Exciting times ahead!

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

I hope they feel excited (as I did during the writing process) by the different angles and ways of explaining why crime occurs and what purpose it serves for the offender. I hope readers can embrace the biology and neuroscience with an open-mind and value its contributions to understanding crime and criminality even if they prefer other avenues of explanation. I hope my book helps readers to consider areas they would not have normally considered venturing into. And most of all, I hope it helps to breakdown those inter-disciplinary boundaries and enable readers to think across different academic domains and ‘out of the box’.

If you were approached to do a second edition, what else would you include?

That’s a tricky question to answer. As you know this is an area that moves along quickly. There are many topics covered in the book which I would like to extend and other topics I would like to include. I think I would like to write more about aspects of rehabilitation geared towards different types of offender. The issue of why rehabilitation works for some offenders and not others is so often dismissed. We should be asking questions such as, ‘Is the failure of a particular rehabilitation programme due to its inappropriateness for the individual concerned or the type of offender it has been offered to?’ There is a difference, and I would like to explore this more.

If you were approached to do a second edition, what else would you include?

That’s a tricky question to answer. As you know this is an area that moves along quickly. There are many topics covered in the book which I would like to extend and other topics I would like to include. I think I would like to write more about aspects of rehabilitation geared towards different types of offender. The issue of why rehabilitation works for some offenders and not others is so often dismissed. We should be asking questions such as, ‘Is the failure of a particular rehabilitation programme due to its inappropriateness for the individual concerned or the type of offender it has been offered to?’ There is a difference, and I would like to explore this more.

What makes criminology and forensic psychology so popular with students?

I think this must certainly have something to do with the nature of the beast. The content of both these disciplines is fascinating and despite there being differences in approach (in some areas not all), both are essentially focused on deriving ways of understanding why crimes are committed. Both criminologists and forensic psychologists want to know which factors influence criminality. What encourages individuals to lead criminal lives? The Rational Choice Model of Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke asks three questions: how does an individual became involved in crime, what decisions are made about how to commit a specific crime and which factors influence decisions to stop committing crimes. They considered psychological factors pertaining to the individual and sociological environmental triggers contributing to criminal activity. This model considers more than one level of explanation. I find it more interesting when these different levels of explanation can come together and create a bigger picture.

What advice would you give aspiring students studying criminology or forensic psychology (beyond buying your book)?

Reading and gathering as much information as you can about your subject area not only increases you subject-specific knowledge but creates an extensive global understanding. I used to say to my students when asked, ‘how can I get a first-class degree’, that you need to be an eagle that soars over the landscape taking it all in to find its prey. In other words, all the different patches of land making up the landscape can be conceived of as information from different areas which widens ones global knowledge. By doing this you get to see the whole picture. I also think it is important to strike a healthy balance between learning and socialising. Sure it is important to learn as much as you can about your subject by reading and discussing topics with your tutors, but constantly doing this without peer interaction stops the cogs from working efficiently. There is a phenomenon in psychology known as the ‘spacing effect’. It goes like this: you remember information more efficiently when the learning time is distributed rather than being a continuous affair. Hence, learning and taking time-out to socialise then returning to study helps to consolidate information. Now there’s a good tip – work a little, play a little then work and play some more!  

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