Review of Gisela Bichler's Understanding Criminal Networks: A Research Guide
"An introduction to SNA for criminologists by a criminologist" ...but also so much more!
I was recently asked by the journal Social Forces to review Understanding Criminal Network: A Research Guide, which is a book I had been looking forward to reading ever since I heard it was in the works. As you can read from a version of my review to SF below, it did not disappoint!
Social network analysis (SNA) is not your typical research methodology; it is a world view masquerading as a mere statistical and methodological tool. The eclectic, multidisciplinary foundations of SNA is a singularly difficult hurdle to overcome for students (and teachers). This is a problem for graduate students who are busy enough mastering a single discipline. This is a problem for practitioners who have no time (or no real need) to review jargon, theories, and methodologies from different fields.
Gisela Bichler’s Understanding Criminal Networks: A Research Guide is precisely what the burgeoning area of criminal network scholarship needs at its current stage of evolution: A handbook for a practical and realistic (i.e., not too idealistic, not overly prescriptive) approach to SNA in criminal justice and criminological research. Understanding Criminal Networks is designed as a graduate-level introduction to SNA for criminologists by a criminologist, a first of its kind. It is also intended to appeal to practitioners and crime analysts who may have an intuition that SNA could become a valuable tool for their methodological belt, but have to produce useful results quickly—not after 4 to 5 years of graduate school. Its target audience may not be seasoned criminal network scholars, but they would be missing out on the many theoretical innovations Bichler contributes to the field.
The approach taken by the author is to throw the reader in the deep end, diving into examples, terminology, and methodological quirks within the first two chapters. It is a strategy that may not be effective for everyone and may scare some novice analysts and students. To be fair, there is no way around jargon for any new methodology, so the reader is better off pulling off the bandage quick and early. Considering the many complex and unique notions associated with SNA, the author is letting the reader off easy, covering the basics clearly and concisely.
Bichler then tackles the SNA “worldview” by providing the reader with a more than adequate crash course in the cannons of network theory from the sociology, anthropology, and organizational sciences. The author then skillfully applies these ideas to the most popular criminological theories. The first of the two chapters on the applicability of SNA to criminological theory testing is an excellent overview, particularly for new criminologists or practitioners. However, several other writers have highlighted how SNA applies to the study of individual criminal behavior, deterrence, and group crime.
It is in the second theoretical chapter dedicated to crime pattern theory and routine activity theory, where Bichler shines and innovates. This chapter alone is worth the price of admission, even for seasoned network researchers. The author highlights the many low hanging fruits that remain to be plucked by those who will be willing to blend SNA and spatial analysis. Prior reviews of networks and crime research barely give lip service to the potential contributions SNA could bring to ecological theories of crimes. Bichler not only rectifies this oversight but even proposes the foundations of an “Integrated Theory of Networked Opportunity” complete with a set of testable hypotheses.
The remainder of the book provides the reader with detailed information critical to conducting effective research on criminal networks. In the second part of the book, Bichler returns to the nuts and bolts of designing network studies and analyzing network data. While there are a plethora of general-purpose methodological textbooks on SNA available out there, the author’s approach of embedding the technical lessons within the confines of criminal justice research is useful for at least two reasons. First, as a teaching companion for a graduate seminar on criminal network analysis, it allows students and teachers to focus on relevant and reasonable applications of SNA to criminology—like learning a technique in your mother tongue rather than another discipline’s dialect.
Second, collecting and analyzing criminal network data comes with its own set of challenges unique to this field of research. Analyzing central positions in the social structure of a street gang or a hockey team in a garage league is a substantively similar task. Still, it involves very different challenges, techniques, and caveats. Bichler’s research guide provides a complete overview of these peculiar challenges and ways to navigate issues associated with criminal network analysis. The author does not merely sprinkle criminological terms onto standard network analysis terminology. Instead, Bichler demonstrates—often with considerable creativity given the limited history of SNA in the field—the applications of techniques in their specific, relevant contexts, including some that are seldom used in criminology. For example, the discussion of sensitivity analysis and the identification of corrupted data is particularly apropos in a field that relies on increasingly large, complex, and prone-to-error datasets.
Perhaps one aspect lacking from this research guide is a more extensive discussion of software used for network analysis. This choice is a conscious one by the author and can be easily understood, given the everchanging landscape of software. This may not be an issue for academics, who are more likely to be familiar with statistical software and packages but may leave some practitioners wanting more. An online companion to replicate some examples with open-source software would make this research guide incredibly complete.
Finally, Bichler leaves the reader with one of the most original and refreshingly pragmatic conclusions to a textbook. The final chapter is dedicated to helping the reader produce professional research products. Writing an effective report or getting through the peer review process using a methodology many people are unfamiliar can be as daunting a task as executing the analysis itself. As a pioneer in criminal network analysis, Bichler shares the many lessons she learned trying to get innovative work past hostile reviewers and provides invaluable advice to produce compelling visualizations and accessible presentations. In doing so, the author gives the reader an opportunity to learn from her mistakes. By extension, Gisela Bichler provides scholarship on criminal networks a roadmap to graduate from “method of the week” to a disciplinary staple.