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Forensic Or Criminal Psychology: History, Practice And Relevance

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Table of contents

  1. History of Forensic Psychology
  2. Requirements to Practice Forensic Psychology
  3. Relevance and Application of Forensic Psychology

The word forensic was derived from a Latin word forensis which means forum, a place where trials were conducted in the Roman times; the word is currently being used to denote a relationship between one professional field like psychology with the legal system (Goldstein & Weiner, 2003). Bartol and Bartol (2004, p. 4) have defined forensic psychology as “the research endeavor that examines aspects of human behavior directly related to the legal process and the professional practice of psychology within, or in consultation with, a legal system that embraces both civil and criminal law”. Forensic psychology can be looked at from an area of practice and an area of research. As an area of practice, forensic psychologists focus on mental health issues pertaining to the legal system, are also concerned with the assessment and treatment of individuals with mental disorders within the bracket of law- they work in varying settings like schools, prisons and hospitals (Bartol & Bartol, 2004). On the other hand, as an area of research or experiment, experimental forensic psychologists’ concern is mental health issues pertaining to the legal system, but ca also be concerned with any other research issue relating to the law and they are found in different criminal justice settings- the practical and experimental roles of forensic psychology do not necessarily have to be separate (Goldstein & Weiner, 2003).

History of Forensic Psychology

Some of the first references that are related to criminal insanity can be located with the original Roman law which maintained that insanity was a punishment on its own and hence the law advocated for leniency against the criminally insane (Webb, 2015). The recent history of Forensic Psychology began in 1893 when the first psychological experiment on the psychology of testimony was conducted by J. McKeen Cattell and multitudes of historical events have taken place in the Forensic Psychology field since then (Bartol & Bartol, 2014).

Hugo Munsterberg’s beliefs that psychology has practical applications to everyday life contributed to the development of the field and published an advocacy book for the use of psychology on legal matters, ‘On the Witness Stand’ in 1908 (Cherry, 2018). In 1917, it was found that systolic blood pressure had a strong correlation to lying, this discovery by William Marston later led to the design and development of the modern polygraph detector (Cherry, 2018). Marston further testified in the Frye v. the United States court case in 1923, a significant case which established the precedence for the use of expert testimonies in court but the procedure, assessment or technique must be generally accepted within its field of study for it to be admissible and used as evidence in court (Cherry, 2018). Furthermore, one of the recent and memorable event which took place was when Forensic Psychology was recognised as a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2001 and the APA further reaffirmed this status in 2008 (Bartol & Bartol, 2014).

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Requirements to Practice Forensic Psychology

Training opportunities for forensic psychology have increased since its establishment but the need for forensic practitioners is still on the rise and because of this reason, continued attention must be paid to training since the demand for psychologists with expertise in legal matters is still on the rise (Otto, Heilbrun, & Grisso, 1990). The current status in South Africa is that the registration of forensic psychologists with the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s Board of Psychology is still being reviewed and there are no specific courses to qualify an individual as a forensic psychologist, the common route to work in the field of forensic psychology is to qualify as a clinical psychologist but focus on forensic psychology when in practice (How do I become a Forensic Psychologist?, 2017). One must obtain a bachelor’s degree from any accredited university offering an undergraduate course in psychology, thereafter, it is clearly stipulated that in order for one to qualify as a clinical psychologist, one must complete a master’s degree qualification in clinical psychology (MA Clinical Psychology degree), then complete a year community service, and thereafter register in the Clinical Psychologist Independent Practice category with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (How do I become a Forensic Psychologist?, 2017).

Relevance and Application of Forensic Psychology

Psychological research is generally dominated by Americans and this is a global concern because 95% of the world’s population and their living conditions differ from those of Americans, and his has been ignored (Pheko, Monteiro, Kote, & Balogun, 2013). A potential cause of this status quo is that the growth of the Psychology discipline within developing countries like South Africa and Botswana seems to be following a process where individuals are trained abroad and upon return to their native countries, they import what they learnt to the academic departments in their countries. However, in some countries, they may transform their departments to be more culturally appropriate through indigenization (Pheko, Monteiro, Kote, & Balogun, 2013).

Generally, there is a dire shortage of psychologists in a violent country like South Africa, most of the few that are available work in private practice, they are available to only a small proportion of the population who can afford them while the rest of the country is in dreadful need of psychologists, and those available in public health systems are based in urban areas (What It's Like Being a Psychologist in South Africa, 2017). There has been a rising trend for legal professionals to utilise services of psychologists in legal proceedings in South Africa since the 1970’s and psychologists have increasingly started to appear in court cases as expert witnesses, but the field of forensic psychology still remains undefined (Genis, 2009). Forensic psychology is relevant in South Africa, though there is no psychologist who is registered as a forensic psychologist, some do practice forensic psychology but registered under any field of psychology that is available in South Africa (Genis, 2009).

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Forensic Or Criminal Psychology: History, Practice And Relevance. (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“Forensic Or Criminal Psychology: History, Practice And Relevance.” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022,
Forensic Or Criminal Psychology: History, Practice And Relevance. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2023].
Forensic Or Criminal Psychology: History, Practice And Relevance [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2023 Dec 6]. Available from:
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