On Criminology and Politics in the Social Sciences
An interview with Dr. Brian Boutwell
Posted Mar 09, 2017
One of my goals moving forward is to use this platform more to feature and have discussions with social scientists doing research or making observations that have important implications for psychology, the social sciences, and the academy more broadly. Fascinated by his work and writing on pressing issues in the social sciences, I reached out to Dr. Brian Boutwell, a biosocial criminologist and Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University. He also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Epidemiology at SLU.
Dr. Boutwell, thanks for doing this interview. Can you provide a little background for readers who might not know exactly what a criminologist is or does?
Certainly, I’m happy to do that. Criminologists, generally speaking, study crime and various topics that are closely related to it (such as other incarnations of antisocial behavior, delinquency, violence, substance abuse, etc.). Some criminologists—like myself—focus on trying to understand the causes of crime among individuals in the population. Other focus more on macro-issues (such as why some neighborhoods experience more or less crime and social disruption). Still others focus on the criminal justice system, how it operates, and how we deal with crime at a societal level. In short, different folks in the field are interested in different things, and there is a pretty diverse range of topics that are covered in the field.
Your research takes a biological evolutionary approach to criminology. Can you explain that a bit and provide an example or two of the kind of work you do?
Indeed, as you said my focus has been on understanding both biological and environmental influences on criminal and antisocial behavior. As an aside, I think that second part—the environmental component—is quite important to emphasize. There has been, for some time, a perception that biosocial criminologists may say that they’re interested in the environment, but in reality, that’s just lip service to something they care very little about. This isn’t true (at least not for me, and not for any of my colleagues). In fact, the techniques we use—such as twin studies and other behavioral genetic methodologies—are some of the very best techniques on tap for understanding both genetic and environmental influences on human behavior. So, the work that my colleagues and I do is directed at exploring genetic and environmental contributions to everything from overt illegal behavior to the personality constructs that predict an increased likelihood of violating societal norms (whatever that might entail).
In addition to behavioral genetics, my work also deals with trying to understand the more distal causes of criminality. In other words, trying to understand how the biological evolution of our species helped to shape the traits that give rise to what we label as criminal behavior in a modern society. Along these lines, much of my recent work has been on the application of life history theory to the study of crime. Concepts in life history theory deal with the trade-offs that organisms make between various life tasks (growth, development, reproduction, etc.). A little while back my colleagues and I published our unified theory of crime, an effort to tie together findings from decades of Biosocial and mainstream Criminology under the umbrella of evolutionary theory. Since then, we’ve set about trying to test various aspects of it. I'm excited for the results to continue coming in, and so far, they seem promising. Though, like any good theory, ours is falsifiable and we may well have to go back to the drawing board. We’ll see.
Does your work have practical implications that could help make society safer, reduce the likelihood of criminal behavior among those who may be naturally disposed to impulsivity or aggression, or better rehabilitate criminals?
I think it's often difficult to say whether some particular finding will have an appreciable impact on policy. Some of my work has been directed toward studying the possible effects of environmental toxins, lead in particular, on antisocial and criminal behavior. From our work (and the work of others, as well), there seems to be an effect. In the case of our work, areas in St. Louis with higher concentrations of lead also experienced more crime (even after adjusting for other important factors). And it's no great secret for public health scholars that lead exposure early in life can be quite damaging for human beings. This certainly suggests we might reap some benefits from continued efforts at lead abatement in places where it's still prevalent. Will this be a panacea for crime? No. Yet, it's one among a host of steps we might reasonably take to improve the general wellbeing of individuals in the population.
In my own research, I often find that environmental variables (the variables I manipulate in the lab) are moderated by individual differences. This is important because otherwise I might have never detected an effect. Understanding inherent traits also allows researchers to target interventions. The idea that traits and the environment interact to influence behavior is pretty old and shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, some social scientists embrace a total blank slate approach. They argue all cognition and behavior is learned. How do you respond to people in your own field that argue that the social environment determines almost everything and individual differences don’t really matter?
It's certainly a tricky proposition. To be blunt, anyone adhering to a purely blank slate-ist understanding of development now is simply wrong. Happily, the tide seems to have changed somewhat over the years and folks are increasingly aware that tabula rasa myths can't withstand the evidence. One of the things that continually injects confusion in to the conversation, however (and I'm certainly not the first to point this out), is the bright line that many still want to draw between “learning” and “biological.” The necessary equipment for learning is decidedly biological (the brain) and its structure and function (which impacts its ability to learn) varies naturally in the population. The variation, moreover, is a product of both genetic and environmental factors. Just to reiterate, there is no doubt that environmental experiences do matter for development. So, in that regard, many social scientists can feel vindicated up to a point. Yet, what we're continually understanding is that “the environment” can often take forms that defy our intuition. Environments like “parental treatment” do not seem to matter as much as most social scientists had presupposed. And surprisingly, chance experiences and pure developmental noise seems to matter quite a bit (part of what behavioral geneticists refer to as non-shared environments). Nonetheless, I think the most benefit will come (in terms of resolving confusion on this issue) as more social scientists rely on genetically sensitive research designs (twin studies, for example). That way, we can systematically drain off genetic influences on outcomes in order to investigate which parts of the environment matter, and when. That’s ultimately my response to them, I guess. It’s an empirical question, and you have to use the appropriate methods to test it.
Do you share any of the concerns that some people have about putting too much emphasis on genetic variables?
That’s a very interesting question. I would have concerns any time a particular set of findings (or a particular variable) might be emphasized past the point that the data will allow. For instance, there is no reason at this point to deny that various indicators of criminality (violence, impulsivity, general intelligence, etc.) are moderately to highly heritable. What this means is that individual differences in the population are explained in part by genetic differences. It's clear that genes matter. Yet, these same quantitative genetic studies show that environmental experiences matter too.
Still, that some trait is heritable is not the same thing as saying that it's immutable. One doesn't logically flow into the other. We have an arsenal of medications and therapeutic interventions that can be quite helpful for some psychological and behavioral outcomes. Moreover, as we refine our knowledge about behavior and possible genetic mechanisms for it, I think we have every reason to believe our interventions will get better. The genetic influences are real, and we should think deeply about them. But, like anything in science, to sensationalize them is potentially irresponsible. Yet, it must also be noted, I think, that to ignore things that we know to be important is also a form irresponsibility.
Have you personally faced any blowback or attacks from academics or activists who don’t like the idea of evolutionary influences or a biological approach to social science?
Absolutely. As biosocial criminologists, my colleagues and I represent a vanishingly small proportion of the field of criminology. All of us have encountered our share of setbacks and frustrations. I can remember as a graduate student strategizing very carefully with my mentor about which topics I should, and should not, write about. Finding a job meant being careful about the topics that appeared on my CV. This is a sad reality in the field. And yet, I can almost understand it. If I’m on a hiring committee, and I’ve got a stack of applications in front of me to evaluate, why would I take the person who has “behavioral genetics” or “evolution” in their list of interests? Don’t get me wrong, these are perfectly acceptable interests in other fields, but they are still aberrant within the field of criminology. Thus, to do so might be seen as almost courting controversy. Someone with a good record and mainstream criminological interest can win awards, is easy to promote and tenure, and runs a very small risk of generating “bad press.” I’m not being flippant at all when I say that I have some level of understanding for why the situation is the way that it is. And I don’t wish to sound overly melodramatic. Getting a job in academia is hard, positions are limited, and everyone (regardless of specialty) will struggle from time to time in a competitive market place. That said, I’ve had colleagues who have gone on interviews only to be called racist by the faculty hosting them. I’ve been—to my face—accused of overt racism (simply because of my research interests, and for no other reason). Moreover, it’s harder to quantify how many interviews you don’t get, for the reasons I mentioned above. Candidates with decent records, but mainstream interests, would naturally be preferred. In moments of self-reflection, perhaps my approach to critiquing the field, in general, has helped elicit some blowback. I like to think that I’ve been conciliatory most of the time in my work. Yet, like right now, I always try and self-reflect on the question of “could I be doing a better or more effective job?” But I’m as human as anyone else, and sometimes frustration over lost opportunities gets the better of me and it feels more gratifying to attack, to burn bridges instead of build them, to come out of the corner swinging instead of seeking common ground. Though, I will say that this is a two-way street. Many of the times when our work has been criticized—either by editors, or peer reviewers at journals—the critiques have not been methodological or rigorous at all. The criticisms are largely platitudes and moral posturing about how biosocial criminology is dangerous and regressive. Publishing is the lifeblood of academia, and it is made all the more difficult at criminology journals when words like “biosocial”, “heritability”, or “evolution” appear in your work. All of that said, I am cautiously hopeful about what the future holds. A younger generation of scholars is starting to get jobs, and a growing number have been exposed to biosocial scholarship in graduate school. Regardless of whether they specialize in it, they don’t view us as villains or dangerous. Because of that, I remain guardedly optimistic about what the field might look like in a decade or two.
In a recent article you argued that sociology is stagnant, in part, because a good portion of the field rejects the fact that natural selection has influenced human nature. You also noted that many sociologists seem ignorant of basic biology. Why do you think this is the case?
I think the most straightforward reason is that ignorance of biology is baked into the curriculums of sociology programs (and Criminology programs, and economics programs, etc.). The social sciences in general are light on exposure to biology. We simply don't require any classes in it. It's incumbent upon interested students to seek out the knowledge on their own time. Sociology and Criminology have an additional component welded onto their resistance to biology, though, in the form of a moral imperative. The idea for some time has been that emphasizing the role of biology in shaping human behavior was a slippery slope to scientific racism.
In fairness, students in other fields who might reasonably want to study human behavior (including in biology) are not often exposed to social science concepts like psychometrics, to mention a prominent example. The result is that some otherwise bright scientists are deeply confused about concepts like general intelligence; a trait we measure exceedingly well, that's valid and reliable, and a hugely important human phenotype. I say that only to make the point that true interdisciplinary training is rare. A colleague and I wrote an essay not long ago describing the problem as monks being sequestered in their own towers. Rarely do most academics venture far outside their own fields. Some fields do a better job of this than others, of course (psychology being a primary example). But improvements could be made across many fields.
I have long been a critic of the postmodernist or social constructionist movement in the social sciences, which seems to be getting increasingly detached from what empirical researchers have established about the human condition. Do you have any thoughts on postmodernism and how it is influencing field such as sociology? Has this movement infiltrated criminology?
There are remnants of postmodernism in the field, but it does not honestly constitute a large proportion of the discipline. Nor do you find much postmodern scholarship in our mainstream journals. In terms of thoughts about postmodernism in general, it's not something that I find particularly compelling (but of course, I’m a fan of the ability of scholars to do work in the areas they find to be important; regardless of what I think about it).
One issue I have written a lot about is the lack of viewpoint diversity in academia, particularly the social sciences. These fields are dominated by liberals and have very few conservatives. On the surface, it seems like social or political ideology shouldn’t really matter. We are professionals after all. However, there are compelling reasons to suspect that ideological homogeneity and resulting groupthink have harmed social science. To provide one of many possible examples in my field, researchers have long associated conservativism with prejudice and intolerance but much of this research was biased because the researchers picked target groups that conservatives are less likely to see as allies. Newer research utilizing a more diverse range of target groups clearly shows that liberals are just as prejudiced and intolerant as conservatives. Flaws in the old research were probably not initially caught because most of the field is liberal. Do you have any opinions you would like to share on this issue? For instance, do you think ideological bias has influenced or harmed criminology. If so, in what way?
This is something I've continued to think about a lot in recent years. For starters, Criminology, as a field, is no different than many other social sciences. We are disproportionately left-leaning. A colleague of mine has done quite a bit of empirical work on this topic, and conservatives are far out numbered in the discipline by liberal scholars. What's far more troubling to me, though, is the work some years back examining the role of political affiliation in predicting the theoretical preference of researchers. Put differently, the authors of the study found an association between political leanings and the types of criminological theories that researchers found most persuasive. This is bothersome because as you might imagine, we would hope that it wouldn't be this way. The only predictor of what theories we find compelling should simply be the evidence that has accrued for a certain theory. But, scientists are humans too, and we all have our biases and blind spots. To the extent that viewpoint diversity helps to serve as a check and balance on that front, I think it's a very good thing. That in large part is why I felt it important to become a member of Heterodox Academy, the organization founded by Jonathan Haidt. I'm not a member of many academic organizations (by design), but I'm not sure that there is a more important organization for academics in our current climate than HXA.
Thanks for your thoughts and please feel free to share anything else you may want to add.
It was really a pleasure to chat with you, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity. I guess as a final thought, I want to emphasize the importance of civility in academia. And I say this as someone who is all too aware of how tempting it can be to speak as forcefully as possible. Academia needs to be a place where all ideas are up for grabs, but the people who propose—their reputations, their safety, and their wellbeing—should always be safeguarded. We can have an academy in which ideas are hotly and openly debated. But I also hope for one where disagreeing with someone does not also demand that we actively seek to do damage to their reputation or impugn their character.