Partners in crime: the value of cross-disciplinary working

Criminal justice challenges require collaborative working across disciplines, with active academic-practitioner partnerships, argues Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

By: 
Dr Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay
Date: 
Tuesday, 31 May, 2016

Criminal justice faces ever more challenges. While official figures show a drop in police recorded crime in the UK, the distribution of crime shows a more complex pattern with violent crime showing a rise.

The phenomenal increase in cybercrime is challenging even the way we conceptualise and observe acquisitive and personal crime in the digital era.

Meanwhile, areas of emerging political instability and conflict interact with existing criminal networks to present risks not only to personal security but to basic state functions.

Analysis and solutions to such problems transcend conventional categories of measurement and disciplinary boundaries.

To give a few illustrations that suggest the value of a cross-disciplinary team:

1. Violent crime, including domestic violence is a complex societal problem.

When it comes to factors that affect property (or acquisitive) crime, economists have provided models that have good explanatory power. Both law enforcement and socio-economic factors (unemployment, wages, inequality) matter and can predict how changes in these factors can affect crime.

Yet, we have found they do not explain violent crime very well. This has caused people to believe that violent behaviour is unpredictable. But work in psychology shows that there are risk factors or correlates that can predict violent behaviour.

Combining these risk factors with the standard factors that economists look at can give us a good understanding of violent crime.

2. Domestic violence is often situated around a complex interaction of unemployment and alcohol use.

Qualitative work has then enabled us to understand not just what factors are associated with DV but the mechanisms that can trigger it.

Thus, research that combines quantitative analysis with detailed interviews of perpetrators and victims gives us a far richer understanding of the problem, in a way that can inform practical policy implementation.

3. Cybercrime is a growing threat

It is tempting to look at technical solutions to it. Computer scientists have the technical knowhow to create sophisticated security software but one needs to understand what the nature of offences and victimisation are in deciding what to safeguard.

‘Routine activity theory’, with its emphasis on offenders, targets and (lack of) capable guardians offers insights into this, particularly economic cybercrime.

Combined with economic cost-benefit analysis, it offers insights into where to invest in costly technology and where cheaper but effective safeguards will suffice.

4. Youth crime is considered a pressing problem

Some countries, notably the US, took a very harsh approach, leading to high rates of incarceration. Proponents felt that this would be an effective deterrence by setting an example to others and dissuading them from taking to crime.

Yet, recent research in neurobiology suggests that differences between adult and adolescent brains can explain a lot of criminal behaviour which may naturally cease with age. Imprisoning young people may therefore establish a counter-productive dynamic of stigmatisation.

This provides an explanation of why statistical analysis shows that contact with the criminal justice system for young people may increase crime.

Working across disciplines works

These cases illustrate the success when disciplines work together to come up with innovative solutions to the problems of the criminal justice system. Academics are realising the value of collaborating with each other and engaging with practitioners.

The newly established Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham is one such attempt to develop cross-disciplinary practioner-informed research. The centre’s ambition is to bring academics across a range of disciplines to work together with practitioners to develop rigorous research that is relevant.


Dr Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay is a Reader in Economics and Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing at the University of Birmingham. The Centre is holding an inaugural workshop on 1 July, for which one can register using this link: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/business/events/2016/july/crime-just...