Sensemaking in detective work: The social nature of crime investigation

DOI10.1177/1461355720980759
Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Article
Sensemaking in detective work:
The social nature of crime investigation
Markus Ha
¨llgren
Umea
˚School of Business, Economics and Statistics, Umea
˚University, Sweden
Department of Education, Umea
˚University, Sweden
Ola Lindberg
Department of Education, Umea
˚University, Sweden
Oscar Rantatalo
Department of Education, Umea
˚University, Sweden
Abstract
In this article, we contribute to the knowledge on police detectives’ work practices, and report how police detectives
make sense of casework in a social manner. As our research question, we address the ways in which detective work can be
understood as a social process. To target this question, we conducted an ethnographic study that examines how
detectives who work with domestic violence and high-volume crimes strive to frame and understand events in
everyday investigative practice. The data consist of approximately 200 hours of ethnographic data and interviews from
two departments in a Swedish police station. The results indicate that detectives’ sensemaking of casework took place
through two principal practices: a concluding practice and a supporting practice. Furthermore, the findings show that
detectives’ work is highly social and procedural. This suggests that detectives’ work practice is of a social nature and that
contacts between investigators are important to take into account in the organization of an investigative department.
Keywords
Sensemaking, detective work, domestic violence, minor crime
Submitted 20 Sep 2019, Revise received 17 Sep 2020, accepted 16 Nov 2020
This article is an ethnographic study of Swedish crime
investigation in two areas: high-volume and domestic
crime. We show how detective work is embedded in sen-
semaking activities that involve multiple actors and a web
of interactions, and we advance the knowledge of detective
work and crime investigation work pra ctice by showing
how detectives collectively make sense of their investiga-
tive work. Using this approach, our study follows research
by Innes and Brookman (2013), Salet (2017) and Westmar-
land (2013), who described how the lived realities and
day-to-day work of police detectives can be characterized
as complex social systems in which the investigative pro-
cess entails a variety of roles and responsibilities among
investigators and specialists within the police. These
researchers examined how decisions and interpretative
work regarding investigations emanate from negotiations
within units and teams, and also between investigators and
actors outside the police authority, thus making investiga-
tions an inherently social accomplishment (Brookman
et al., 2018; Salet, 2017). Although this body of research
has shown convincingly how the social context informs
detectives’ sensemaking and decision-making in high-
profile major investigations, an existing open question is
Corresponding author:
Markus Ha
¨llgren, Umea
˚School of Business and Economics, Umea
˚
University, 901 87 Umea
˚, Sweden.
Email: markus.hallgren@umu.se
International Journalof
Police Science & Management
2021, Vol. 23(2) 119–132
ªThe Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/1461355720980759
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