Offender Profiling - Art, Science or Alchemy?
Posted on 7th April 2017 at 13:39
In this post Criminologist, Joe Barlow, asks "Is offender profiling more of an art than a science?"
Is offender profiling more of an art than a science? This question is hotly contested amongst many academics in the fields of criminology and forensic psychology. A key issue in this debate is described well by Winerman (2004) who explains that because offender profiling is a very new field, it so far has no universal agreement on appropriate methodologies. There is still some disagreement even on the terminology to be used by profilers and researchers. In this post I explore some of the arguments.R
Before we start to answer the question we must carefully consider what we mean by “Art”, “Science” and even “Profiling”. These terms are very generic and can be understood in a multitude of ways. I shall start by considering offender profiling as an art:
If we take “art” to mean a skill where the practitioner has an innate natural talent which is then developed and honed to perfection through years of practice, we can start to consider the application of this term to offender profiling. Jackson, Wilson and Rana (2011) discuss profiling as “educated guesswork” in which they cite John Douglas from his 2007 publication with Johnny Dodd stating that there can be “...similarities between profilers and physicians who ‘learn skills through brainstorming, intuition and educated guesswork” (Jackson, Wilson and Rana, 2011, p.6). Now, this assertion by Douglas that the skills are learnt through intuition and brainstorming suggests that profiling is more of an art form than a science. This is because to have intuition one must have a certain level of experience. More importantly to be able to use intuition the role that the practitioner is fulfilling must not be bound by the constraints of a fixed method. To be working without a fixed method will suggest that the work is less scientific and more focussed on the talent (intuition) of the worker.
Hazelwood et al (1987, cited by Canter 2004) state that profilers “have the ability to evaluate analytically the behaviour exhibited in crime” (Canter, 2004, p.3). Canter himself then goes onto explains how the group that conducted this research saw this as an ability that is unique to the profilers and is not the consequence of much research in social sciences. This may lead us to conclude that offender profiling is in fact, an art form as it requires a level of natural talent and expertise and therefore cannot be done by just anyone.
An equally important argument is that that profiling as a science cannot work. Newell (1973, cited in Boon and Gozna, 2009) suggests that “...the endeavour of psychology was a fruitless, pseudo-scientific one- a ‘discipline’ characterised by pockets of disconnected research that, although, employing a multitude of researchers, is nevertheless hopelessly doomed to failure as a scientific enterprise.” This statement is suggestive of the fact that because psychology is very new as science there is little to no research protocols and therefore everything is very disjointed and out of context. This leads to the inability to use anything other than the talents and skills of the individual practitioner, which will vary greatly from one practitioner to the next due to the lack of uniformity in the psychological world. This, as I suggested earlier, stems from the practise and honing of natural talents giving further weight to the argument that offender profiling is an art rather than a science.
So what do we mean by science? According to Muller (2000) there are 2 criteria that must be fulfilled for something to qualify as a science. These are “the need for a paradigm and the requirement of falsifiability.” (Muller, 2000, p.235). This means that there must be a strong working foundation for the theory to stand up, in the same way that a wall requires an undercoat for the colour of the top coat to have its full vibrancy. Muller (2000) goes on to state how “current approaches to profiling do not yet have any substantial empirical support, but they do have the potential to be scientific if they are worked upon.” (Muller, 2000, p.235). This is very important because it is suggesting that whilst offender profiling is designed as a science and is supposed to be a science it doesn’t yet fulfil the criteria necessary to be a science. However there is a belief that it can become a science.
Conversely Eric Beauregard (2007) makes a bold claim that only “’real’ profilers use scientific knowledge” (Beauregard, 2007, p.16) suggesting that profiling is a highly scientific exercise that requires less art than science and that those that rely on the artistic element are not ‘real’ profilers. Whilst this argument may hold a certain amount of water, it is also largely contested by the likes of Muller (2000) and others who mostly agree that currently there is more art to offender profiling than science.
And so the debate goes on and maybe it is still to early to call -It is has been made clear by several writers such as Winerman (2004), Alison et al (2011), Canter (2004) and Muller (2000) that offender profiling is such a new field of work that a full and proper scientific method has yet to be established. As a result of this profiling in the present day is far more of an art form than science.
This may suggest that in the future offender profiling may become more scientific however but, as well known Offender Profiler Julian Boon told me, offender profiling is a highly skilled job and as such will always require a degree of talent or art from the practitioner.
As to whether the science or the art is more prevalent will depend on the individual practitioner. A more junior profiler may rely on scientific research to do their work but as they gain experience they will rely on science much less and use their own intuition and ability.
Beauregard, E. (2007) Criminal Profiling:
Art or Science?. The Scrivener. 16 (4), pp. 16-17.
Boon, J. (2014) E-mail to Joe Barlow, 25 November.
Boon, J. and Gozna, L. (2009) The British Psychological Society. Available from: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-22/edition-9/firing-pea-shooters-elephants [Accessed: 2 December 2014].
Canter, D. (2004) Offender Profiling and Investigative Psychology. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling. 1 (1), pp.1-15.
Jackson, C., Wilson, D. and Rana, B, K. (2011) The Usefulness of Criminal Profiling. Criminal Justice Matters. 84 (1), pp.6-7.
Muller, D, A. (2000) Criminal Profiling- Real Science or Just Wishful Thinking?. Homicide Studies. 4 (3), pp. 234-264.
Winerman, L. (2004) American Psychological Association. Available from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug04/criminal.aspx [Accessed: 2 December 2014].
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