Why are people drawn to join organized crime? How do social scientists use their expertise to solve criminal cases? How has federal legislation changed organized crime's nature?

About 50 high school students from the Washington, D.C., area discussed such questions with social scientists at the daylong Young Scholars Social Science Summit at APA headquarters in March. The summit, organized by APA's Esther Katz Rosen Center for Gifted Education Policy, was the second in a series of such meetings that allow interested high schoolers to converse with social scientists about a particular social science issue. While the first summit, held last October, focused on the world's refugees, the March summit discussed organized crime.

"The summit provides an opportunity for bright high school students to probe an issue in depth," explains Dorothy Cantor, PsyD, president of the American Psychological Foundation (APF), which funds the summit and the center.

At the March event, the summit's five social scientists gave students an overview of how their work relates to organized crime, and then each expert led small-group sessions to allow for in-depth learning. The panelists were:

  • Criminologist Jay S. Albanese, PhD, chief of the International Center of the federal National Institute of Justice and a fellow of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Albanese discussed how federal laws and policies have shaped organized crime over the last century: For example, he said, Prohibition created an underground market for alcohol--and the resulting organized crime--because the law didn't include measures to reduce demand for alcoholic drinks.

  • Geographer Phil Canter, chief statistician for the Baltimore County Police Department. Canter explained that geography is much more than place names. In fact, he uses statistical methods to solve crimes by detecting patterns in, for example, a repeat burglar's break-ins. He and his colleagues study such data as how many days elapse between each robbery, the time of the robbery and the location of the offenses. Students in Canter's sessions got to try their hand at solving such a crime spree: He walked them through data from a real, solved case and asked them to determine where and when they thought the repeat robber would strike next.

  • Forensic anthropologist Paul S. Sledzik, curator of the anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Sledzik, who led a team that identified remains at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, discussed how forensic anthropologists identify the dead and determine cause and manner of death.

  • Sociologist Carmel Rosal, PhD, a research scientist employed by the federal government. Rosal discussed sociologists' study of how environmental factors--such as the ability to find legal gainful employment--influence participation in organized crime. She explained that these factors change over time and differ across cultures.

  • Psychologist Steven Norton, PhD, a private practitioner who co-chairs the Law and Corrections Section of APA's Div. 41 (American Psychology-Law Society) and chairs the Criminal Justice Section of Div. 18 (Psychologists in Public Service).

"There's a lot of misperceptions about what forensic and correctional psychologists really do," he told the students. Instead of Hollywood's glamorized portrayal of a psychologist tailing serial killers to a final confrontation, he explained, forensic psychologists are far more likely to help inmates adjust to prison life, conduct pretrial evaluations and work to help criminals change their patterns of thinking so they don't re-offend. Norton also addressed the potential causes of criminal behavior.

According to Norton: "Society has a polarized view of criminals. They're viewed as either the product of evil or the product of a negative and unfair society that fosters the criminal behavior," when the reality is most often somewhere in the middle.

After discussing such issues with Norton and the other experts in the breakout sessions, sociologist Louise Shelley, PhD, founder and director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, gave a keynote address on her experience in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia working to deflate organized crime and corruption. For example, she served as principal investigator on large-scale projects to thwart money-laundering in those countries.

APA organized the summit with the National Association for Gifted Children, National Council for Geographic Education, local public schools, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the Association of American Geographers, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Association of Police Organizations.

Further Reading

For more information, visit APA's Center for gifted education policy.