Translating Causal Claims: Principles and Strategies for Policy-Relevant Criminology
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CitationSampson, Robert J., Christopher Winship, and Carly Knight. 2013. “Translating Causal Claims: Principles and Strategies for Policy-Relevant Criminology.” Criminology & Public Policy 12, no. 4: 587–616.
This article reviews the causal turn in the social sciences and accompanying efforts by criminologists to make policy claims more credible. Although there has been much progress in techniques for the estimation of causal effects, we find that the link between evidence and valid policy implications remains elusive. Drawing on criminological theory and research insights from disciplines such as sociology, economics, and statistics, we assess principles and strategies for informing policy in a causally uncertain world. We identify three distinct domains of inquiry that form a part of the translational process from evidence to policy and that complicate the straightforward exportation of causal effects to policy recommendations: (a) mechanisms and causal pathways, (b) effect heterogeneity, and (c) contextualization. We elaborate these three concepts by examining research on broken windows theory, policing, video games and violence, the Moving to Opportunity voucher experiment, incarceration, and especially the rich set of experimental studies on domestic violence that originated in Minneapolis, MN in the early 1980s. We also articulate a set of conceptual tools for advancing the goal of policy translation and offer recommendations for how what we call “policy graphs”—causal graphs used to analyze the policy implications of a system of causal relations—can potentially integrate the theoretical and policy arms of criminology.
Evidence, even if causal, does not necessarily inform policy. In fact, the question of “what works,” the focus of the growing evidence-based movement in criminology, turns out to be a different question than, “what will work?” Evidence-based policy research must therefore be concerned with much more than providing policymakers with research on causal effects, however precisely measured. The implication is that we must separate criminology’s increasing focus on causality from its policy turn and formally recognize that the latter requires a different standard of theory and evidence than does the former. In particular, criminologists interested in making policy claims must ask hard questions about the potential mechanisms through which a treatment influences an outcome, heterogeneous effects across people and time, contextual variations, and all of the real-world phenomena to which these challenges give rise—such as unintended consequences, policies that change incentive and opportunity structures, and the scale at which policies change in meaning. Theoretically guided causal graphs enhance this goal and help inform policy in a causally uncertain world. Translational criminology is ultimately a process that entails the constant interplay of theory, research, and practice.
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