Editorial Introduction to Homicide Studies Special Issue: Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Homicide

Zeoli, A. M. 

As one of the leading causes of death for Americans aged 1 through 44 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023), homicide is a societal problem studied by numerous academic disciplines. For example, criminological, sociological, and psychological theories posit why individuals commit homicide and what conditions increase the risk of homicide commission; the public health field is interested in reducing mortality and morbidity and population-level interventions to do so; social workers work with at-risk individuals in homicide prevention and healing from traumatic events; nurses and other health care providers may identify those at risk and work to reduce that risk; and criminal justice practitioners are part of the societal response to homicide commission. Each discipline has made important contributions to the study and understanding of homicide, homicide prevention, and the consequences of homicide, but due to the siloed nature of academia, these contributions may not be well-known to researchers across disciplines. It is likely that at least some of these theories and research findings may be largely unknown to researchers in other disciplines whose work may benefit from their incorporation.
Fortunately, researchers have started to recognize that some of the most pressing social problems of our time are multifaceted and require a holistic understanding to better inform solutions. As a result, there has been a movement toward interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work recently. The differences between these types of research are based on their integration and use of disciplines (Choi & Pak, 2006). Multidisciplinary research incorporates the learning and perspectives of different disciplines, but the contribution of each discipline remains within its boundaries. Interdisciplinary research integrates and synthesizes the learning and perspectives of different disciplines, creating theories, methods, or understandings that cross disciplinary boundaries. Transdisciplinary research integrates and moves beyond academic disciplines, including knowledge and perspectives of non-academics, in efforts to solve societal problems (Choi & Pak, 2006Gehlert et al., 2015). Translation of research findings to programs, policy, and practice is critical to transdisciplinary research (Carew & Wickson, 2010Darbellay, 2015).
To promote the dissemination and integration of ideas from many fields, this special issue of Homicide Studies is dedicated to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies of homicide. This collection of articles explores the risk factors for homicide recidivism, the mental health consequences and needs of individuals who have lost family members to homicide, the potential to solve cold case homicides through law enforcement partnerships with academics, and methods used to identify and study domestic violence homicides and risk factors for intimate partner homicides. The articles are all written by scholars from distinct fields whose collaboration epitomizes interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, and showcase collaborations between criminal justice practitioners, criminologists, forensic pathologists, geospatial specialists, nurses, psychologists, public health scholars, and social workers.
In an example of interdisciplinary research, Reid, Oliveira, and Collier combine the fields of criminal justice, criminology, and psychology, taking a cumulative risk approach, to better explain patterns of recidivism of homicide offenders upon reentry into the civilian population. They suggest that by taking this approach, questions around the association of mental illness with crime commission can be answered with a nuance lacking in prior research, leading to an incomplete literature and mixed research findings. Using a survival model, cumulative disadvantage index, and multiple mental health indexes, they found that both cumulative disadvantage and personality disorders indices were positively associated with recidivism for homicide offenders. This research underscores the importance of providing social support and mental healthcare to offenders during and after incarceration to reduce recidivism.
Examining the mental health needs of a different population, Magee and colleagues focus on the trauma that experiencing the homicide death of a loved one can bring. Using a public health framework, Magee and colleagues focus on the role of firearm violence exposure as a social determinant of health and use death records and Medicaid claims data to link homicides of family members to clinical care utilization and mental health concerns. They found an increase in mental health needs for those who experienced the homicide of a family member versus the comparison group. This study shifts the focus from the homicide offender to the families of the homicide victims, exploring the mental health consequences they experience as a result of the crime. Recommendations include violence prevention activities and greater healthcare service provision in areas affected by homicide.
Pizarro and colleagues’ research note details the building and use of a transdisciplinary approach in a study of risk factors for intimate partner homicides. This study goes into depth on the process the researchers used during the four phases of translational research (development, conceptualization, implementation, and translation). Importantly, steps taken to collaborate with various community partners, including for data collection, are explained. The authors also detail the importance of translating research findings back to those community partners.
In a related paper, Lin and colleagues used a transdisciplinary approach to study domestic violence homicides in Harris County, Texas. Involving researchers from multiple disciplines and community partners, the research team worked with medical examiners to identify domestic violence homicides that had not initially been identified as such. In addition to intimate partner homicides, they found homicides committed by family members and homicides related to intimate partner violence, such as the killing of a former intimate partner’s new partner.
Finally, for knowledge gained from disciplines and multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary research to affect policy and practice, research findings must be translated for practitioner, policymaker, and stakeholder audiences. In their article, Holt and colleagues detail a partnership between law enforcement and academics, including students, with the goal of translating criminological knowledge to investigate a 41-year-old cold case homicide. This partnership had a steep learning curve as criminologists and criminology/criminal justice students faced the reality of working with criminal justice practitioners, the slow pace of investigations, and the staffing needs of the police department. Ultimately, the authors argue for the importance of these collaborations, which do not always go according to plan in the real world, as benefitting all involved, including the homicide victims and their families, who have renewed interest in bringing closure to their cases.
While these articles represent strides taken in integrating and transcending academic disciplines in the pursuit of knowledge regarding and efforts to reduce the burden of homicide, there are disciplines not represented in this issue that have knowledge and perspectives to share. As we continue to study and work to prevent homicide, we must make a concerted effort to look beyond our disciplines for collaborators and to inform our research questions, concepts, theories, methods, and understandings.