Psychology and Law: Criminal and Civil Perspectives is an interesting collection of articles written by experts in the field of forensic psychology. The editors, Ronald Roesch and Nathalie Gagnon, have organized the collection into five content areas: (1) Eyewitnesses, Memory, and the Law; (2) Police Investigations, Lie Detection, and False Confessions; (3 Jury Research; (4) Civil Forensic Issues; and (5) Social Science and the Law. The criteria used to select content areas, and to include articles under each area, are not immediately understandable. This opaque, editorial, classification system is not surprising. The field of forensic psychology involves a variety of 'experts' whose primary orientation may be research or clinical intervention and whose background knowledge and training are likely to encompass most of the traditional subjects of psychological interest (e.g., developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, cognitive neuroscience, etc.). Furthermore, articles that discuss 'forensic psychology' usually exhibit the same complexity of background knowledge as that possessed by experts in the field. As such, the content of the selected articles is amenable to multiple classification criteria.
The label 'psychology and law' signifies psychological knowledge and scientifically sound methodologies applied to the legal system, with a goal of examining criminal and civil issues. The stated purpose of Psychology and Law is to introduce readers to this subfield of 'forensic psychology' by relying on seminal articles that provide a comprehensive view of the subfield. This task is not easy. The interdisciplinary nature of the field of 'forensic psychology' is the source not only of the productivity of its adherents and the creativity of their research products but also of its reluctance to fit well-defined conceptual boundaries. The same assertion applies to the field of 'neuroscience', albeit 'forensic psychology' represents mostly an applied science. In both fields, finding a book that can present both a coherent and a comprehensive overview capable of satisfying experts in the field and neophytes alike is quite difficult. Psychology and Law represents a reasonable attempt to achieve both goals. Of course, the selected narratives require some background knowledge of psychology for neophytes to understand the passages. Hence, this book could become an attractive text for a graduate level course, although the instructor may need to supplement the text with additional articles as knowledge in the field of 'forensic psychology' quickly readjusts to novel findings. The book could also be of interest to 'experts' in the subfield of 'clinical forensic psychology', serving to broaden their awareness of how psychological knowledge and the application of scientifically sound methodologies can be used to examine the legal system objectively.
The editors' selection of articles included in Psychology and Law may be questioned, but their content is certain to be captivating. The section entitled 'Eyewitnesses, Memory and the Law' is likely to attract the most attention. Albeit its content is not novel, this section as a whole represents a rigorous critical examination of the reliability and validity of eyewitness testimony and of guidelines and policy recommendations for improving it. Of course, this statement may merely be the expression of a personal preference as most of the other sections also qualify for the rigor of their critical examination of available evidence. Hence one of the most appealing features of the collection of articles selected for Psychology and Law is the writers' reliance on evidence collected through procedures that subscribe to the guidelines of the scientific method. Another feature is the critical scrutiny devoted to evidence and its possible interpretations. Obviously, the section entitled 'Social Sciences and the Law' is conspicuously different from other sections of the book for its intent to examine more broadly the controversies that exist regarding the relationship between social scientists and the legal system in its different implementations. The essay style of this section is also different from the terser, research-oriented style of most articles in preceding sections. Undoubtedly, this style is the necessary choice for addressing the broadening role of social scientists (including psychologists) not only in individual legal cases but also in legislative and public policy issues. Nevertheless, the last section of Psychology and Law could actually become a separate book, where editors, instructors, students, and readers alike could explore each controversy in greater depth.
Although Psychology and Law is an intriguing collection of articles, not all will be interesting to every reader. More realistically, readers will approach this book with some specific questions in mind regarding the usefulness of psychological knowledge to the legal system. These questions will determine first whether the reader will digest an article with passion or as a homework assignment. The second determinant factor of readers' interest will be whether an article or collection of articles can provide satisfactory answers to the initial questions. Answers may be intriguing and satisfying, but they are also likely to be temporary. Namely, answers, at any given point in time, may need qualification or even modification if fresh research findings and novel theoretical viewpoints become available in the literature. Hence, one major weakness of Psychology and Law is that parts of its content may quickly become or are already obsolete. If the editors would update contents of the book by creating a website with links to additional articles that may either complement or contradict the content of the current selection, the book would be even more helpful, especially to instructors and their students. Updated information would provide readers with an accurate picture of the field that the editors purport to explore critically while lowering publication costs. Of course, readers may have such a wish for many other publications whose content becomes outdated at a pace unmatched by traditional publication means.
© 2009 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York