Friday, November 03, 2006

What is Forensic Psychology?

When my students arrived for their first forensic psychology 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 quickly write down what you think forensic psychology is.

The reason I did this was because despite the fact that every single undergraduate psychology student (about 180 of them) chose to do the forensic psychology course; not one of them came to see me in advance to ask what the course was about.

Now bear in mind students chose their courses well in advance of the start date, and in order to make an informed choice they were all strongly advised to speak to the lecturer running the courses they were interested in before making a final decision. So why the no show?

I can't hear a thing, can you?

I suspect, well actually I know because I discussed it with the students afterwards, that they didn't feel they had to find out what forensic psychology is, because they already had a preconceived idea.

I mentioned 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 apologise for forgetting to tell them that they weren't allowed to use the words serial killers 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.

The first thing to appreciate when addressing the question is that even psychologists in the field are divided as to what the answer is.

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.

A fragmented discipline?

The central problem is that its members are drawn from a wide range of disciplines, so it is always difficult to state what the boundaries are when you talk of Forensic Psychology.

  • Psychologists in the prison/correctional services

  • Clinical psychologists in special hospitals & the psychiatric services

  • Educational psychologists

  • Occupational psychologists

  • Academics

  • 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 and what isn’t forensic psychology rests primarily on the nature of psychology’s relationship with the legal system.

    My preferred definition of forensic psychology is:

    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 you are stating categorically that Forensic Psychology relates to the provision of psychological information for the purpose of facilitating a legal decision (Blackburn 1996).

    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, although I do have a strong opinion on the mater; the main thing is that you know that this debate exists.


    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

    This article is taken from my main forensic psychology website.

    Click Here To Visit The Site


    Anonymous said...

    can you please cite your credentials as I am citing this article in a paper I am writing, thanks!!

    mdw said...

    You can access my details via the main forensic psychology website. See following link.

    Good luck with the paper