Professor Manuel Eisner is the Wolfson Professor of the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, and the Director of the Violence Research Centre there. His research interests include the comparison of violence across society over time, the prevention of violence, and the dynamics of human development and antisocial behaviour. His All Souls seminar brought aspects of these research interests together to explain his current work, which focuses on how more peaceful societies can be created by global strategies to reduce interpersonal violence. He is part of a multidisciplinary team involved in a longitudinal research project aimed at reducing interpersonal violence by 50% by 2040

Prof Eisner started the seminar by highlighting some of the key issues and problems regarding violence at the global level. He pointed out that around 430,000 homicides occur worldwide per year, accounting for 71% of all violent deaths. Globally, 800 million women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, and 1 billion children have experienced violence in the past year. The negative costs associated with this are wide-ranging, and include poor health, alcoholism, recurring victimisation and mental health difficulties.

Central America, the north of Latin America and Africa bear the greatest costs of the problem.

To counteract this, a growing number of studies are now conducted in low- and middle-income countries, contributing towards the development of global knowledge systems regarding how violence is experienced, and how it can be prevented. One example of what is being done to add to the knowledge base is ‘INSPIRE: Seven Strategies for Ending Violence Against Children’, developed by the WHO and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are a number of strategies that they have put together that are rooted in a public health approach, with the overall aim of helping to ‘end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children’. These are then accompanied by recommendations on implementation, monitoring and evaluation. There is evidence to argue that violence can be prevented by such interventions, with the overall aim to achieve large-scale reductions in global violence. Prof Eisner argues that to further build on the progress already made, more work is needed. Changing norms and values in societies is only one important pillar in creating a climate that is averse to violence. Programmes such as INSPIRE provide a framework for actionable, practical strategies based on research evidence, strengthened by a focus on fostering interagency cooperation and targeting a variety of risk factors across a range of systems.

Prof Eisner suggested focusing on long-term trends to determine what else causes and drives macro-level violence, in order to effectively inform policies. If we want to achieve population-wide reductions in violence, we need to gather robust evidence so that we can make good quality recommendations for societies all over the world. We need to develop our understanding of universal causal mechanisms to bridge the gap between macro- and micro-level research, as well as the gap between law enforcement, criminology and public health. Prof Eisner stated that often in the public health sector there is a perception that the criminal justice system is part of the problem, rather than the solution. This has led to near-rejection of the idea of collaboration between the two systems. Collaboration between the two sectors would allow for better data to design more effective interventions and influence policymakers. An increased focus on prevention of violence, coupled with public health initiatives, would be more beneficial than repression, control and punishment.

The project that Prof Eisner is currently involved in is the Evidence for Better Lives Study, a global cohort study aiming to tackle violence against children. The aim of this project is to contribute to knowledge about the effects of violence against children on childhood outcomes. It aims to do this in three ways. The first is to conduct research on child development. The study will generate knowledge to support positive psychosocial development from the very beginning of a child’s life. It will also aim to ensure that knowledge generated will be widely disseminated, with the hope of influencing national and international violence reduction policies and practices. The third and final aim is to build capacity for all societies by supporting the local expertise in each site studied, as well as strengthening the infrastructure and collaborative networks needed to promote positive psychosocial development from early childhood.

The sites of this longitudinal study are eight medium-sized cities across the globe. They are Kingston in Jamaica, Worcester in South Africa, Cluj-Napoca in Romania, Tarlai Kalan in Pakistan, Hue in Vietnam, Valenzuela City in The Philippines, Ragama in Sri Lanka, and Koforidua in Ghana. The study will combine knowledge at the macro-level with a deeper understanding of micro-level mechanisms by fleshing out the variations between societies’ experiences of violence. The team consists of researchers from an array of disciplines, including criminology, health economics and public health, in partnership with the WHO, UNICEF Child Protection Unit, and UNODC. It will follow 12,000 children across the world born in 2020 for their first 1,000 days, and will focus on various factors in these children's lives to see how we can understand who is exposed to violence and who is not across a variety of contexts. Research will start at the last trimester of pregnancy, and will consist of biological, experimental/observational and questionnaire-type data. The study will focus on fetus/child exposure to community, intimate partner and family violence and parental history of problem behaviour and victimisation. Alongside this, biological and behavioural indicators of child psychosocial and cognitive functioning, and any respective mental health symptoms will also be examined.

A key focus of the study is the link between exposure to intimate violence during pregnancy and outcomes for the child. In some of the research sites, a substantial number of pregnant women are exposed to violence. This has an effect on the mother, but it may also have an effect on the developing child. The aim is to understand what the mediating pathways are that link maternal exposure to violence with child development. It is important to understand what the causal transmission mechanism is so that we can address the processes that may be involved in such situations.

Overall, the study has the ambitious and commendable aim of becoming the first global cohort study focused on child psychosocial health in medium- and low-income countries using a multi-disciplinary perspective. The study aims to foster capacity-building by engaging both public health practitioners and academics in the project in order to enable the countries studied to make long-lasting improvements to how they tackle violence-related issues. This would also promote mutual understanding and support between agencies, with the aim of stronger cooperation taking place as a result. 

Questions from the audience focused on current models of inter-agency cooperation, for instance between the police and the public health sector, and their attempts to tackle interpersonal violence in a variety of settings. Overall, Professor Eisner provided an in-depth overview of his interesting study and a fascinating perspective on how a multi-agency approach can be effective in preventing interpersonal violence in a range of countries across the globe.

A podcast of the talk is available here.

By Kathryn Farrow, a student on the MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice programme.