A statue depicting justice. She is carrying a sword in one hand and a balance in the other.

Research Spotlight: Reconciling the Principles of Forensic Psychology and Cultural Competency 

A team of psychologists from the Clinical Psychology Department at Antioch’s Seattle campus has published their research on how forensic psychologists are taking into account cultural considerations in their pre-trial evaluations and how a failure to do that can perpetuate implicit biases. The authors are Jude Bergkamp, Core Faculty and Chair of the Doctor of Psychology program as well as Katharine McIntyre, who teaches as an adjunct in that program, and third-year PsyD student Magen Hauser.  

Their research was published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Law and Behavior as “An Uncomfortable Tension: Reconciling the Principles of Forensic Psychology and Cultural Competency.” In this study, the authors suggest that some of the fundamental principles of forensic psychology may be incompatible with cultural competency. 

Image to link to  “An Uncomfortable Tension: Reconciling the Principles of Forensic Psychology and Cultural Competency.”

Cultural responsiveness has existed in the field of clinical psychology for over three decades, yet little effort has been made to apply these concepts to forensic psychology procedures like pre-trial evaluations. That’s why they are not just exploring but also calling for forensic psychologists to become aware of how their cultural identities shape their beliefs to prevent the perpetuation of implicit biases. By exploring the core tenets of forensic psychology and cultural competency, the authors offer insights into the potential challenges of applying cultural competency guidelines from clinical psychology to the field of forensic psychology.

One of the most interesting parts of the paper is how Bergkamp, McIntyre, and Hauser highlight the challenging dilemma faced by forensic psychologists as they navigate the intersection of human behavior and the U.S. legal system. They explain that, in order to meet legal standards, the opinions of forensic psychologists need to be grounded in evidence-based science, objectivity, and unbiased neutrality. Yet these core tenets are often seen to be at odds with procedures and methodologies that stem from practices of self-awareness.  

To better understand this research and its implications, we recently had the opportunity to ask Bergkamp some questions about this paper. 

Can you explain briefly what you were exploring in this research and what you found?

We were concerned that there was an unsaid resistance to social responsiveness and cultural considerations of power, privilege, and oppression within the field of forensic psychology. Upon reviewing the literature and an in-depth analysis, we concluded that there appear to be pillars of social responsiveness and forensics that are opposed and opposite from one another. These include the burden of objectivity and evidence-based procedures. 

Our readers might not know what forensic psychology is, so can you define that and explain the role it plays in the legal system?

Forensic psychology spans any activity in which law and psychology overlap and can include both civil and criminal contexts. Our study focused on pre-trial evaluations that include competency to stand trial and insanity at the time of the crime, as well as prospective risk assessment. 

What are the fundamental questions that brought you to this research?

I am passionate about cultural competency and humility in clinical practice as well as forensic psychology. Yet these two worlds never meet, and there is little research on the interaction. I have been studying the scant literature and offering presentations regarding the importance of integrating social positionality into forensics for more than a decade. Katie, then a psychology trainee and now forensic evaluator, joined me in these presentations about seven years ago and brought her extensive knowledge of assessment to the mix. Magen, a current dissertation student, also expressed strong interest in this endeavor. 

What are some of the broader implications and possible applications of your research? How might it change the world?

The American Psychological Association calls on all psychologists to integrate social responsiveness into their work, yet forensic psychology requires other pillars of practice that are not in alignment with this aspiration. In fact, if evaluators move toward this goal, their livelihood could be impacted. This article is calling on the field of forensic psychology to reconcile this important dilemma. When we consider the vast disparities of the criminal justice system, it is imperative that we address the core etiology of white supremacy. By adopting a color-blind approach towards the impossible ideal of objectivity, forensic psychology is continuing to perpetuate oppression. Professional organizations need to provide evaluators with much-needed guidelines and support for integration of practice. In addition, we offer individual evaluators suggestions on how to bridge this gap currently, without taking on too much risk.

Did you discover anything as you did this work that surprised you or might surprise others?

The lack of research in this area, along with some unsaid resistance. 

What influences did you draw on as you decided how to approach these questions, and who do you owe gratitude to in this work? 

I feel gratitude for my colleagues, Katie and Magen, as I haven’t found much support in this work for many years. I also appreciate the few scholars that have written about this dilemma from the margins of the field. 

What comes next? Is there more research to be done, policy work to be advocated for, or broader implications that you or others will need to take into account?

We hope to continue this work through professional presentations and consultation. 

How has this research and your findings affected your work as a teacher and as part of Antioch University?

This is an example of the powerful impact that awareness and articulation of our own social position and the power of acknowledging our own socially-conferred privilege has on our relationships and professional work. Please feel free to access our Decoloniality and Social Privilege Awareness Initiative for more research and resources!