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What Is Forensic Psychology?
When my students arrived for their first lecture, I would always start by giving them 10 minutes to write down an answer to the question - what is forensic psychology? (Before reading on, why not jot down your answer).
I did this because despite the fact every undergraduate psychology student chose to do the course, not one of them came to see me in advance to ask what is was about.
Now bear in mind students chose their courses well in advance of the start date, and to make an informed choice they were strongly advised to speak to the lecturer running the courses they were interested in. So why the no show?
I can't hear a thing!
I suspect, actually I know because I discussed it with the students afterwards, that they didn't feel they had to ask what is forensic psychology, because they already had a preconceived idea of what it's all about.
I mentioned that at the start of the first lecture I would give students 10 minutes to write down an answer to the question what is forensic psychology.
What I didn't mention, however, is that after about 2 minutes I would ask for their attention and apologize for forgetting to tell them that they weren't allowed to use the words serial killers, criminal profiling or silence of the lambs in their answer.
It was usually as this point that most of the writing in the lecture theatre stopped. If you're thinking I would have stopped writing as well, please contain your disappointment and don't rush off just yet.
The answer to the question, what is forensic psychology may not quite be what you thought, but that doesn't mean that the subject has to be any less engaging.
A Divided Discipline
The first thing to appreciate when addressing the question, what is forensic psychology, is that even psychologists in the field are divided as to what the answer is.
Gudjonsson and Haward note that the division of criminological and legal psychology within the British Psychological Society argued for twenty years as to whether their members should be entitled to call themselves Chartered Forensic Psychologists. It was finally agreed that they should, however, there still remains a great deal of debate and controversy surrounding the issue.
So what was the problem?
The central problem was that its members are drawn from a wide range of disciplines (see below), so it has always been difficult to state what the boundaries are when addressing the question what is forensic psychology.
Psychologists in the prison/correctional services.
Clinical psychologists in special hospitals & the psychiatric services.
Now while it is important to acknowledge that this fragmentation of role exists, it is just as important to realise that these different groups are linked to forensic psychology because their work, expert knowledge or research activity is somehow connected with the law.
This legal connection makes perfect sense when you consider that the word forensic comes from the Latin forensis, which literally means appertaining to the forum, specifically the imperial court of Rome. So in essence:
The debate as to what is forensic psychology and what is not forensic psychology rests primarily on the nature of psychology’s relationship with the legal system.
Let me give you an example, imagine two psychologists meet at a conference and they begin talking about the work they do.
The first psychologist tells the second that she recently gave expert testimony in court arguing that the defendant in a murder case was criminally insane. The judge and jury agreed and having been found guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility the defendant was going to be sent to a secure psychiatric unit.
Now there’s a coincidence the second psychologist says I work in the unit where they're sending him, so I’ll be dealing and treating this guy when he arrives.
So here you have a situation where 2 psychologists are linked to the legal system by way of a legal decision.
You could argue, therefore, that both deserve to be seen as engaging in Forensic Psychology. However, there’s a crucial difference.
The first psychologist actually helped inform the legal decision based on her psychological knowledge and expertise. The second psychologists involvement on the other hand arose as a consequence of a legal decision that she had no direct involvement with.
My preferred definition within the what is forensic psychology debate acknowledges this key distinction, namely:
That branch of applied psychology which is concerned with the collection, examination and presentation of evidence for judicial purposes’ (Haward 1981).
If you adopt this definition, the answer to the question what is forensic psychology becomes much more clear, because you are stating categorically that Forensic Psychology relates to:
The provision of psychological information for the purpose of facilitating a legal decision (Blackburn 1996).
So in the case of our two psychologists, strictly speaking only the first can be said to be engaged in Forensic Psychology.
Now not everybody would agree with this, because there is a school of thought that would claim that any activity that links psychology to the law deserves to be described as Forensic.
I’m not going to try and convince you which is right (not much anyway!) although I do have a strong opinion on the mater; the main thing is that you know that this debate exists.
So in answering the question, what is forensic psychology we have discovered that:
In essence, forensic psychology refers to the application of psychology within a legal context.
The debate as to what is & what is not forensic psychology relates to the nature of this legal application & the level at which it is applied.
And this debate raises a number of questions that you need to think about. In particular:
The boundaries of forensic psychology?
The role of the forensic psychologist?
The credibility of forensic psychology
If you want to study forensic psychology in depth, the first thing you should do is read a good introduction to forensic psychology text book.
Ideally, the book should discuss forensic psychology in relation to the legal system, most appropriate to you i.e., if you intend to study forensic psychology in the U.S.A, make sure the book relates to the American justice system. Although bear in mind that most introductory texts will address universally important issues within the discipline.
In addition to the essential reading texts listed below don't forget to check out the forensic psychology books page.
This special Kindle collection consists primarily of the landmark articles written by members of the Behavioral Science Units, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, at the FBI Academy. These seminal publications in the history of FBI profiling were released by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the information on serial killers provided by the FBI's Training Division.