Friday Faculty Focus: Joe Schwartz


October 14th, 2016

Dr. Joe Schwartz is a Assistant Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UNO. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Joe Schwartz is a Assistant Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UNO. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

On this week’s Friday Faculty Focus KVNO’s Brandon McDermott has a conversation with Dr. Joe Schwartz, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, about his research on the biological and environmental factors that influence criminal behavior.

Brandon: Dr. Joe Schwartz, thanks for coming on the show.

Dr. Joe Schwartz: Thanks for having me.

Brandon: You’ve got a long list of interesting research and studies here. I’d like to touch on several topics. During your time at Florida State there was a shooting involving a student. Now as a researcher, did that elicit any type of concern or tension in your work?

Dr. Schwartz: Yeah it absolutely did. In fact the shooting that occurred at Florida State actually occurred in the library, in one of the regions that I would go to pretty frequently as a graduate student at Florida State, and so it definitely hit home. You read about these stories, you hear about these stories on the news, but to actually have it happen kind of in your own backyard, it was a bit jarring. So it definitely elicited quite a bit of thinking and reflecting on my part. So, I caught my co-authors and I decided ‘well you know let’s explore this more empirically’ and some of the factors that may have contributed to this pretty horrific event. We decided to explore really an under research topic what we came to find out was a relatively under research topic which was mental health and violence prevalence on college campuses. So, using a nationally representative sample of college students from the United States and what we found is that on average college students in the U.S. tend to suffer from mental health problems at a relatively lower-rate than people in the general population. But for those individuals who do have mental health problems, they’re at just as much risk of ultimately engaging in some form of violent behavior later as individuals in the general population who have similar problems. What that means is not that individuals who have mental health problems are a massive risk or can ultimately flash to handle or engage in violent behavior, in fact most of them do not, but it just really reified the need for more services and really advertising the services making them more readily available for college students.

Brandon: Your research examines the role of peer groups and how they have influence on individual misbehavior. You wrote that delinquency is collectively shaped by genetic and environmental influences. Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Schwartz: Sure, that’s a really good question. A lot of current research is really been focused on understanding really the collective factors that shape behavior. For a really long period of time, particularly in my field of Criminology, we focused pretty much exclusively on social factors. We looked at the family, we looked at neighborhoods, we looked at schools and we certainly looked at peer groups. That’s one of the foundational issues that we tend to look at when we’re explaining crime and criminal behavior. Those factors certainly matter and they certainly do contribute to behavioral patterns including delinquency as well as criminal behavior. But, there’s been quite a bit of research done over the last 50 years or so indicating that behavior in general is really a multi-faceted kind of construct. It’s really shaped by multiple sets of influences and those influences are social but they’re also biological in nature.

More recently over the last couple of decades there’s been a proliferation of studies really examining both sets of influences and giving weight to both of those. So the study that you’re referring to – we were looking at peer influences. We were actually interested in looking at whether individuals underlying predisposition towards delinquency was ultimately shaped or altered by exposure to delinquent peer groups. People have looked at delinquency and peer delinquency for quite a while in the field of criminology but, we wanted to take a more modern sort of 21st century approach to it and look to see whether those genetic influences that ultimately shape or contribute to delinquency are also influenced by peer delinquency. In the study that we were currently finishing up a couple graduate students and I basically we were interested in taking into account really a question that’s been sort of hotly debated within the field of criminology and that is whether exposure to peer delinquency causes subsequent changes in delinquency or whether we have delinquent youth just sort of being drawn together in time and space.

We have this old adage of whether ‘birds of a feather flock together’ or whether ‘if you lie down with dogs you want you stand up with fleas,’ that’s the actual verbiage that’s been used in the literature to sort of explain these two competing ideas. What our research tends indicate is that when you take into account the underlying biological influences on peer delinquency, it’s a little bit of both. You have birds and dogs sort of combining together to ultimately shape that pattern of behavior. What we ultimately found is that in very pro-social peer groups you tend to see that the underlying genetic influences are maximized and underlying predispositions tend to shine through a bit more. But when you take into account the exposure to highly delinquent peer groups extremely delinquent peer groups, you see that those experiences within that peer group tend to contribute more or overpower any underlying predisposition on delinquency or delinquent behavior.

Brandon: Do you approach your work to help improve the lives of others and if so how?

Dr. Schwartz: I’d say so. More recently, I’ve been thinking a lot more about this. What we what we see really in the in the medical sciences right now is individualized medicine. So people who suffer from a disease or disorder or something like cancer, we can really use information from their genome from their biology to help tailor treatment for their particular problem. We can use that information to have the most effective and efficient treatment regimen possible. I think that’s something that we’re going to begin to see becoming more popular in the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems as well.

Brandon: Dr. Joe Schwartz thanks again for joining me.

Dr. Schwartz: Thanks again for having me.

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