Today I had my first official lecture in Forensic Psychology, on the subject of 'gangs'. The lecturer said we'd be exploring a lot of sociological and criminological theory as "they are the ones who've done a majority of the research". Alarm Bell 1.
Firstly we moved through "What is a gang?" and the problems of establishing anything beyond a 'working' definition. Immediately I was struck by the responses of the psychology students when asked to attempt a definition themselves. With Sociology and Criminology as my 'primary' discipline all that I knew about 'gangs', institutional racism, the New Labour government's 'avalanche of policy' in the 1990s, disproportionate 'stop and search' of ethnic minorities, the War on Drugs, the media, distrust of police, political motivations for punitive policy, etc all ran through my mind. My own definition, to try and avoid these issues, was: "A collection of people who share similar ideas, ideals and goals exercised in spatial and temporal proximity". As ambiguous as I could possibly be. But, critically, incorporating those who are seen as, much less pejoratively, to just operate in 'groups'. For instance, football supporters and those who function within relatively covert monolithic institutions such a employees of financial institutions, and perhaps even politicians.
However, the answers given were: "criminal groups", "violent offenders" and people whose lives were centred around violence which was "part of their identity". Alarm Bell 2.
Those emotive, reactionary examples, I think, make the cause for Alarm Bell 1 (disproportionate research being in sociology and criminology compared with forensic psychology) and 2 (a collection of relatively 'unimaginative' answers made by psychology students) very much related.
The relation between them being that, of course, those psychology students have not learnt what I have and vice-versa. Additionally they may not be interested in this topic as much as they are, say, cognition or memory.
Therefore there becomes a critical part of the education process (and the transmission of knowledge via any channel from books to documentaries) and that is: to ensure that the information is up-to-date but yet ensures readers have a broad, somewhat chronologically organised history, and that it can be conceptualised within a framework.
However, my fears were alleviated when the lecturer began to talk through the main sociological and criminological theory which was applicable to this topic.
Alarm Bell 3.
A lot of the theory was correct but had been generalised so much that it began to overlap where it was distinct. The theories unexplored and therefore vague. The lecturer can not be blamed for that. If his/her research is in forensic psychology then (s)he can be no more excused for being uninterested in sociological/criminological explanations than his/her sociological/criminological research counterpart.
But, this, I believe is where the problem exasperates itself because a lecturer cannot correct a lack of interdisciplinary reading/research/understanding if their lecture is fundamentally characterised by that. What is the solution? One big 'Social Science' degree? Would that be a problem? Why do we have these specialisations?
And here is my question: what purpose does it serve to isolate disciplines, which only through combined efforts can ever realistically create theories and research which are representative of the social beings their attempting to encapsulate?
Today, however, I did find what I was hoping for by taking a related topic seen through another discipline's lens:
The concept of 'entitativity' (where you see one group as sharing such similar characteristics that you see its members as 'all the same') was introduced, which I found fascinating. I had never heard this term before, I saw research to support it (quantitative) and felt as though I finally had a word to encapsulate a concept I'd been aware of for years.
This is exactly the type of thing I expected and hoped to experience on the module. But, still, this is indicative of the inherent problem explored above. That (s)he has rich knowledge within his/her own field but, as shown by the sociological/criminological slides, has vague knowledge outside of it which led to the psychology students leaving with more concrete knowledge of their own field despite the lecturer's first comments as to whom had conducted a majority of the investigations into 'gangs'.
I believe therefore that it is critically important that we all become more open, and interested, in the other social science disciplines to ensure that we do not create ten theories by ten disciplines for one single phenomenon when interdisciplinary communication could yield more complex, but interesting and representative, theories.
Because when I encounter a fellow social sciences student in a pub, or even at postgraduate level, and we are already intrinsically distinct in our understanding of a subject (such as 'gangs) which both of our fields have contributed to, there is a missed opportunity for further understanding, but also on part of the academic research we may produce later on. This separation in our education only serves to entrench itself later when we come to teach and thus the cycle will continue.