Sensory criminology stresses the utility of broader, sensory experience for understanding processes of criminal justice. In doing so, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of over-emphasising the novelty of such approaches, but this would be to overlook the ways in which the sensory is deeply embedded in criminal justice practices. There are a host of exciting and innovative projects and people in a number of fields, doing vital work such as Forensic architecture, a research agency investigating an array of human and nature rights abuses, based at Goldsmiths using all manner of innovative approaches both applied and theoretical. Their Saydnaya project with Amnesty international is a persuasive demonstration of how the sensory can be combined with other techniques to powerful effect. They met with survivors and used their testimony to create an account of what went on behind the prison walls, using architectural and acoustic modelling. Kate McClean’s work in Sensory maps is another example of the ways foregrounding the sensory provide a means of deepening and broadening our understanding. The Odeuropa network, and their site host a number of innovative cross-disciplinary initiatives. It is not new developments I wish to focus on here, but the contention that the value of attending to the sensory is evident in established criminal justice practices – specifically in the form of cognitive interviewing – and that acknowledging this raises interesting and important questions for criminology.
Cognitive interviewing (CI) demarcates emotions and the senses, usefully distinguishing between these separate realms of experience. CI and the ideas that underpin it, provide an example of how sensory sources of knowledge are embedded in forms of criminal justice. Exploring these methods further reveals how an absence of dialogue between practice and theory has – in the case of the sensory – left theory lagging behind. Attending to the broader uses of sensory experience provides powerful instruction for research practice, and a means of deepening our understanding of violence and its impact.
Cognitive interviewing is a technique used for accurate information retrieval and/or “research synthesis” in social science, forensic and health settings (e.g. Miller et al. 2014; Beatty and Willis 2007). CI is a means of improving the quality of questionnaire data as well as a host of other applications for gathering information, but has gained greatest traction as a technique for interviewing victims and witnesses following a crime – most usually of a more serious, violent nature. In England and Wales CI was nationally wheeled out in 1993 (Shepherd et al. 1999). Its implementation across Australian, American and Canadian police services has been somewhat piecemeal though encouraging witnesses to “rely on their senses” in the process of interview retrieval has a long history, if often focused on speedily concluding investigation and suspects’ testimony (Alpert et al 2012). It has been demonstrated to be more effective than either standard interviewing or hypnosis (Geiselmen et al 1985). Its precision has been built upon in subsequent refinements in both practice and theory, while retaining its two core objectives: retrieving as much accurate information as possible, while safeguarding the wellbeing of the interviewee.
How does it work?
CI works to increase the amount and accuracy of memory retrieval, by circumventing the trauma, arousal and/or anxiety induced by witnessing or being involved in a violent event and minimising the conflabulations (the filling of gaps in memory with believed but false recollection) and inaccuracies that can result. CI places the health and wellbeing of the interviewee at the centre of the process by increasing their agency and control over the course of the interview. This is underscored by the crossover in use of these techniques in therapeutic and forensic settings. While cognitive interviewing has been enhanced and further developed, the basic cognitive theory and principles of memory its retrieval remain; i)in times of stress and trauma memory is better elicited when the broad conditions of the event are recreated, ii)when the subject is encouraged to think about all manner of detail, and iii)when they are encouraged to revisit the event from different points and iv)different perspectives.
These four points of memory retrieval strongly insinuate the sensory. They encourage the foregrounding of detail and perspective which might otherwise be regarded as peripheral, thereby utilising the weaknesses and quirks of memory while under duress; e.g. the trauma and/or distress of being caught up in a violent event. Lieutenant Jason Potts illustrates this point when he quotes Lisak (2002): “Victims are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat”. Reliving rich and vivid sensory experience, or “flashbacks”, characterise intrusive recollections; a “hallmark” of post-traumatic stress disorder (Clancy et al. 2020). Lee Broadbent’s tweet powerfully illustrates the debilitating effects of these intrusive, traumatic revisitations for witnesses, victims and those caught up in the aftermath of violent events. Effects cognitive interviewing can work to manage.
It is increasingly acknowledged that these techniques are useful when interviewing suspects too. This more accurately reflects the significant number of perpetrators of violent offences who are identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated symptomscknowled. Acknowledging the complicated relationships between victim, perpetrator, violence and trauma also works to disrupt the simplistic binaries we tend to ascribe these categories (e.g. Ternes et al. 2019).
Why this matters
Cognitive interviewing has the subject/participants wellbeing at its core, providing a means of extending greater agency and control over the narrative course. This allows those being interviewed to reflect on their responses in was which extricate their emotional response from their recollections. In this way, sensory memories form part of a broader repertoire of coping strategies, lending greater power to the interviewee in ways which safeguard their wellbeing and protect them against additional trauma. This distinction between feeling and feelings, provides a useful means of distinguishing the sensory from the realm of emotions for which it often provides a powerful conduit. While memory of our senses can offer a compelling means of evoking emotion, they are entirely separate facets of human experience. The senses are not emotions and collapsing them risks obfuscating both our recognition of the epistemological and methodological potential of the sensory and our understanding of how we make sense of our world.
Potts persuasively argues that cognitive interviewing can enhance police legitimacy when dealing sensitively with victims and witnesses of crime. He demonstrates the value of considering how these long-established knowledges can be better and more consistently incorporated into practice. In the social sciences, these approaches to working with people who may be vulnerable and/or have suffered traumatic experiences, offers instruction for how we may proceed more ethically in the field. Attending to the sensory highlighted this in my own practice, providing me with a means of working carefully when researching sound in the prison environment. Considering the utlity of cognitive interviewing also serves to validate the role of the sensory in understanding matters criminological. In this aspect of criminology, theory is substantially behind practice. We speak about the iterative process between research and theory but attending more closely (and carefully) to the sensory reveals a chasm in communication between those of us who talk and teach and those of us who do and practice. The deeply embedded practices and wisdom of CI illustrate how impoverished our thinking can be in the absence of these conversations.
Being more sensitised to the sensory onslaught which characterises the aftermath of trauma allows us to better comprehend the profound toll of those working with violence and its aftermath. Accounting for how the sensory can be a source of intrusive recollection and distress allows for a more sensitive response to victims of violent crime, as Potts persuasively argued. More controversially, perhaps, this also carves out space for considering the impact of violence – as well as the often complicated and pre-existing relationship with it – for those who engagined in it. It is not so much the extension of these techniques in the field of interrogating suspects I argue for here, but rather what this affords us in greater and deeper understanding of a complex criminological phenomenon. Often, representations of violence become couched in those tensions between moral and legal discourse, to the detriment of disinterested inquiry. We cannot see, hear, smell, feel for the emotions that so frequently characterise responses to criminal justice (Karstedt et al 2011).
CI is an example of the ways in which the sensory informs practice and understanding in the realm of crime investigation. It also demonstrates the value of honouring the iterative process between practice and theory as it extends beyond our academic realm. Here is a means of clearly distinguishing between our sensory and emotional worlds, and an opportunity to reassess our understanding of violence and trauma. Far from being a frivolous novelty, or an academic indulgence, exploring the ideas underpinning the development and deep-rootedness of CI illustrates the profound source of understanding offered by our senses.
For more on this, and the potentials of sensory methods for understanding criminological practices and processes, please see our forthcoming chapter: Herrity, K., Schmidt, B., Warr, J.J. “Sensory “Heteroglossia” and Social Control: Sensory Methodology and Method“ in Dodge, M., Faria, R. (eds) Qualitative Research in Criminology: Cutting Edge Methods. Springer
Alpert, G.P., Rojek, J. and Noble, J. (2012) ‘The cognitive interview in policing: negotiating control’, Australian Research Council, Centre for Excellence in Policing briefing paper, issue 13. Available online: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30678703.pdf
Beatty, J.C., Willis, G.B. (2007) “Research synthesis: the practice of cognitive interviewing”, Public Opinion Quarterly 71(2): 287-311.
Broadbrent, L. (2021) [Twitter]12th August, Available at https://twitter.com/leembroad/status/1425948433731440644 Accessed 12th August 2021
Clancy, K.J., Albizu, A., Schmidt, N.B., Li, W. (2020) “Intrinsic sensory disinhibition contributes to intrusive re-experiencing in combat veterans” Nature: Scientific reports, no. 10, article no. 936 [online]: https://www-nature-com.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/articles/s41598-020-57963-2
Geiselman, R.E., Fisher, R.P, Mackinnon, D.P. and Holland, H.L. (1985) “Eyewitness memory enhancement in the police interview: cognitive retrieval mnemonics versus hypnosis”, Journal of Applied Psychology 70(2): 401-412.
Karstedt, S., Loader, I., Strang, H. (2011) (eds) Emotions, Crime and Justice. London: Hart Publishing
Potts, J. (2020) blog post “Enhanced interviewing techniques to improve memory recall” National Police Foundation 28th September Available at: https://www.policefoundation.org/improved-police-legitimacy-through-cognitive-interviewing-methods-the-challenges-of-memory-recall-post-traumatic-event/ Last accessed: 03/11/21
Shepherd, E., Mortimer, A., Turner, V. and Watson, J. (1999) ‘Spaced cognitive interviewing: facilitating therapeutic and forensic narration of traumatic memories’, Psychology, Crime and Law 5(1-2): 117-143.
Ternes, M., Cooper, B.S., Griesel, D. (2019) “The perpetration of violence and the experience of trauma: exploring predictors of PTSD symptoms in male violent offenders” International Journal of Forensic Health Vol.19, No.1
 I argue this, as well as demonstrate the instructive value of lived experience in my sensory penalities chapter: https://books.emeraldinsight.com/resources/pdfs/chapters/9781839097270-TYPE23-NR2.pdf