Corporate crimeEnglishInterdisciplinarity – er, what?

Interdisciplinarity – er, what?

Clarissa Meerts

Criminology is often said to be inter- (or at least multi-) disciplinary. You only have to look at the backgrounds of the people working for university criminology departments to see the diversity of what we call ‘criminology’ (see for example ESL Criminology). The criminology department of Erasmus University is situated within its School of Law – so legal courses are part of the curriculum. At the same time, law as a discipline has been opened up to approaches from sociology, psychology, history, economics and other academic fields.

The minimum result of this mixing is multidisciplinarity, that is to say, knowing a little about a variety of approaches. Even more challenging is getting into conversations and analyses that are interdisciplinary, in the sense that the research integrates different approaches into a coherent entity (Van den Besselaar & Heimeriks, 2001). A PhD is one way of sorting out what sort of academic one is – mono-, multi- or interdisciplinary – as I am currently finding out. I am not a lawyer, nor am I a sociologist, nor for example an accountant. Yet it turns out that some knowledge of these subjects is important for my research, so I am at least multidisciplinary. As to whether I am also interdisciplinary, well, that’s something that I am still finding out, as I digest my quite extensive research data.

My research interest was piqued by a subject which is not often studied within any of the above disciplines – ‘corporate security’. I am researching this through (so far) 59 interviews, 520 hours of observation in private investigation units, scrutiny of over 21 unpublished cases, a study of legal requirements and, naturally, literature from various academic fields.

Corporate security involves, inter alia, the investigation of suspicions of wrong-doing within organisations (in the private or public sector) and responding to the findings of such investigations, in a manner that typically does not involve police or prosecutors (Meerts, 2014). My focus is on internal investigations, involving the relationship between employer and employee.

In their day-to-day business, corporate investigators move within and across a variety of legal jurisdictions (both within and across national borders). Labour law, civil law, criminal law and privacy legislation are some of the usual ingredients of corporate investigations. The backgrounds of those working as corporate investigators are equally varied. There are many former police officers working as corporate investigators and so are accountants, IT-specialists, lawyers (and yes, criminologists). Corporate investigators may be situated within an organisation (in-house security departments), or in an external firm that is contracted in – a private investigative firm, a forensic accountancy department or an investigative unit of a law firm. Equipped with one or several of those types of professional expertise, they investigate the matter and offer employers a basis for action against the employees who are alleged to be responsible. In sum, corporate security brings together diverse actors, occupational cultures and legalities, making it particularly intriguing from an interdisciplinary point of view. Given all this variety, does corporate security really cohere as a field and, if so, how?

In sum, corporate security brings together diverse actors, occupational cultures and legalities, making it particularly intriguing from an interdisciplinary point of view.

In my view, the coherence of corporate security comes primarily from a separation, which is constitutive of it. Corporate security is a field which remains largely out of sight of the state, which however moves towards and uses the resources of the public sector when this is deemed beneficial in one way or another. Corporate investigators are skilled forum shoppers – on behalf of their clients making use now of labour law, now of civil law instruments, now of the criminal justice system. A case may be shaped in different ways, leading to a solution that is based in private law or, more rarely, in public law. Note that I say ‘based in’ – that is, utilising. That utilisation remains typically private in the everyday sense of the term: out of sight of authorities. Corporate security convenes multiple social and legal resources in a zone that police, prosecutors and judges certainly know exists but rarely witness.

Interestingly, the Dutch legislator seems implicitly to have construed the corporate investigation industry in multidisciplinary terms. Each type of investigator has her own type of regulation – be that in the form of formal laws and/or self-imposed regulation. Only those who are professionally investigating for profit, in as far as these activities are carried out at the request of a third party, are obliged to have a permit and fall under the specifics of the law regulating private security organisations and private investigations firms (the Wpbr). This definition excludes in-house security departments and Parliamentary discussion has made clear that forensic accountants (and lawyers) are also excluded since they have their own regulation. This makes for a scattered field of regulation, with different investigators being regulated by different rules, while largely doing the same work. ‘Practice’ seems to be a little less rigid in separating different professions however, since most investigators use the privacy code of conduct of the Wpbr as a guideline for their investigations.

People with different professional backgrounds, applying themselves to the same subject matter, doesn’t that remind one of a certain academic field? More multidisciplinary than interdisciplinary! In this sense, criminology and corporate security are strangely alike.

Yet one could ask – and I hope to be able to form an opinion on this by the end of my PhD – whether the legislator should regard corporate security in a more interdisciplinary light. That is to say, should there be just one over-arching code, defining, delimiting and governing private investigations, regardless of the background, skills and preferences of those carrying out such investigations?

should there be just one over-arching code, defining, delimiting and governing private investigations, regardless of the background, skills and preferences of those carrying out such investigations?

In other words, maybe the legislator should seek to end – or at least curtail – the forum shopping that is inherent in much of corporate security today. That of course would be politically and practically difficult. At the moment, consideration of such a possibility seems far from being a public policy priority. Yet it is not just academic ‘blue sky’ thinking: many of my interviewees were rather interested in these ‘high policy’ issues. Maybe some of them are more interdisciplinary than some of us.

This PhD research is funded by NWO Research talent grant.

About the author: Clarissa Meerts

Clarissa Meerts holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in (international) criminology, both from the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Before starting her PhD project she worked as Academic researcher and lecturer at the Criminology department of the EUR. During this time she participated in research projects about organised and corporate crime. Her current PhD project is funded by a NWO Research talent grant.

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