Research Program Department of Criminology
Drawing from different disciplines, the field of criminology is empirically vibrant and theoretically rich. Yet its greatest strength, diversity, may also be its greatest weakness due to the risk of theoretical and empirical fragmentation. The field is still in full pursuit of an integrated and unifying theoretical framework. This requires successfully bridging one of its main divides, that between dispositional explanations, which attribute criminal behavior to stable individual differences, and sociogenic perspectives, which identify criminogenic environments and situational factors as the principal causes of crime. Cumulative evidence suggests both are important: Johnny is a badboy because he’s self-centered, aggressive and impulsive. But Johnny also gets into trouble because he lives in a rough neighborhood, is exposed to delinquent peers, and drinks and gets high frequently. Scientific perspectives that can link these findings are crucial for arriving at an encompassing picture regarding the causes and persistence of criminal conduct.
Criminological theorizing is showing a trend towards more integrative approaches. Life-course perspectives in particular have been critical in this respect by demonstrating complementarity between dispositional and sociogenic approaches. The department's ambition with this key area of interest is to take the next step in this research tradition by demonstrating that dispositional and sociogenic perspectives are not just compatible but that they are in fact symbiotic. Additionally, whereas perspectives such as life-course theory explain which factors are related to criminal conduct and desistance, integrated approaches reach beyond this level of explanation as they can also clarify why this is the case and reveal the psychological pathways through which these factors operate on behavior.
The Theoretical Innovation key area of interest is dedicated to theory development from an integrative and interdisciplinary perspective, by examining the interrelation between contextual factors and individual-level factors in the explanation of crime. It will draw from theoretical traditions in criminology, yet it will extend such perspectives by drawing from other fields, such as evolutionary and cognitive psychology and behavioral economics.
Carefully constructed questionnaires, cleverly designed observation and interview schemes, and large-scale registration and longitudinal data have long been the commanding approaches for data collection in empirical criminology. The field has made tremendous progress in improving our understanding of criminal conduct through the use of these methods and reached an impressive degree of qualitative and quantitative sophistication. These methods will continue to be important tools for data collection. Nonetheless, they may be nearing the end of their evolutionary cycle in terms of how much further we can refine them. Importantly, the field’s emphasis on these largely retrospective methods has led to a fundamentally skewed distribution of knowledge in criminology. We know a lot about what predicts the choice for crime, offender characteristics, life events that contribute to criminal careers, how criminals journey to their crimes, and what makes them desist. Literally hundreds of correlates of criminal behavior have been identified. Yet we know surprisingly little about the offending process itself. Realizing step-changes in our understanding of crime and its prevention may not require more of the same but the exploration of novel approaches. The key area of interest Methodological Innovation & Technology builds on criminal decision making research and the application of technology and innovative methods in the domain of criminal conduct.
Novel technologies, such as social media, log files, GPS, sensors, smartphones and the internet are quickly becoming an increasingly influential part of people’s daily lives. The research potential of these technologies is impressive yet remains largely untapped. Consider smartphones, with a penetration rate in Germany of almost 70% in 2017 and a processing power that exceeds that of the average desktop computer less than 10 years ago, today’s broadband, sensor-rich, and GPS-equipped smartphones can collect vast amounts of ecologically valid data, easily and quickly, and from large samples. In spite of often being highly accessible, technologies such as these are currently rarely utilized by criminologists.
The use of novel technology for research and data collection can result in important advances in the way we do criminological research and address both existing and new research questions. Think, for example, of the prediction of public disorder through the analysis of social media activity such as Twitter and Facebook, tracing the causes of victimization to how and where people spend their time using smartphones, the integration of eye-tracking software and motion capture in virtual environments to analyze the behavior of offenders, the use of virtual courtrooms to train law students, experimenting with biosensors that can predict aggressive behavior, or the application of serious gaming for purposes of offender rehabilitation, to name but a few possibilities. To fill the current hiatus in the field, this key area of interest is dedicated to the application of new technologies and innovative methods in crime research.
There is an important disconnect between theory and practice in criminology. Crime research and theorizing regularly proceed without taking much notice of what happens ‘on the ground’. Criminal justice and rehabilitation practices on the ground, in turn, often pay little heed to evidence-based interventions or theory. Following Kurt Lewin’s maxim that there is nothing as practical as a good theory, the third key area of the Department of Criminology seeks to connect theory, innovative methods and technology to policy and practice.
Ultimately, criminology is an applied science seeking to understand not only the occurrence of crime but also to provide concrete input as to how to prevent it from happening and to minimize its harmful consequences. Research in this area will apply state-of-the-art knowledge to provide solutions of an applied nature, for example by providing input for training practitioners in the criminal justice system (e.g., police, youth care, probation services, magistrates) and for policy makers to render policies, laws and rehabilitation instruments evidence-based. Indeed, to fulfill the public service role of the Max Planck Gesellschaft, this key area focuses on applying scientific insights to inform practice. Strong experimental designs, such as randomized (field) experiments, will be the norm for research in this area in order to be able to draw clear cause-effect conclusions. Multidisciplinary groups of Max Planck Institute researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds, invited researchers and other experts with specific domain-specific knowledge, as well as relevant stakeholders will join forces to develop groundbreaking solutions to tackle crime-related problems and realize real-world impact. The Department provides an enabling environment for this type of collaborations. In combination with technologies and methods such as virtual reality, eye-tracking, agent-based modeling, nudging, and serious gaming, there is significant collaborative research potential.