Integrating Research Across Disciplines: How Connecting Studies on Reporting May Lead to Valuable Insights

April 18, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

When crimes, misconduct and other forms of problematic behavior occur, what makes people willing to report them to authorities? It’s an interesting question—one that’s generated a fair amount of research across decades. But Patrick Bergemann, assistant professor of organization and management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business, has discovered most of this research is fragmented and disconnected. This means researchers studying reporting behaviors through one lens may not know about insights gleaned from studies performed through another lens.

“Organizational sociologists and psychologists tend to study whistleblowing in corporate and workplace settings, while criminologists typically study crime reporting. Historians and political scientists look at denunciations—reports of political or religious nonconformity—while other researchers investigate reports of specific types of wrongdoing, such as child abuse,” says Bergemann. “I wanted to collect all of that theory and research into a single framework, particularly as it relates to how social influence affects different kinds of reporting.”


Sharing Findings Across Domains

Having this framework means future research can utilize a typology of the various ways in which social influence impacts reporting. By situating different reporting contexts within this framework, it becomes possible to develop a more general understanding of reporting and take a more comparative approach across different types of deviance and domains of reporting.

“The reporting of deviance is a universal human behavior. For example, tattling becomes prevalent by age 2, and by age 4, most of the communication children have with adults about peer behavior involves tattling on other kids,” says Bergemann. “It makes sense that this is a similar social issue across different settings, so I believe it’s important to share findings across domains as well.”

That’s not to say social influence’s impact on reporting plays the exact same role in every situation. Bergemann acknowledges social influences vary in relevance and strength depending on many situational factors, such as the ambiguity of the behavior, the victimization of those involved, the anonymity of the reporting process and others. However, in pulling together studies from a variety of fields, he noticed some patterns emerge, namely how the process of social influence in reporting unfolds.


Social Influence Affects Observations of Problematic Behaviors

The first stage of the reporting process is the observation and labeling of a problematic behavior. The observer could be a direct victim of the behavior, someone who witnessed the behavior without being personally victimized or a person who heard about it secondhand. That observer has to then decide how to label the behavior. Is it harmful enough to be considered a wrongdoing or not? This decision is susceptible to social influence, especially if the scenario is ambiguous or uncertain.

For instance, the observer may ask other people about their perspectives, consider the behaviors of others in similar circumstances and factor in the identities of those involved before deciding whether the behavior was wrong.

If the observer does decide the behavior was wrong, they have to then choose whether to report it to authorities. Again, social influence plays a role here, both directly and indirectly. Other people may try to convince the observer to report or not, but the anticipation of reactions by others may also influence the observer.

“The relationship between the wrongdoer and the observer is a very powerful influence, as is the sociocultural identity of each person,” Bergemann says. “For example, sexual assault victims are more likely to report their attackers if they are of a different ethnicity than the victims themselves. This can lead to a misrepresentation of what kind of person is frequently the wrongdoer and potentially create inequalities in the justice system.”


Gaps in the Research: Types of Social Influence and False Reporting

Bergemann’s review also reveals gaps in the literature, thereby highlighting areas where more research is needed. For one, he discovered that most research examines only a single type of social influence. This approach is likely to miss the ways in which different sources of social influence interact with one another. Studies that mix different levels of seriousness of wrongdoing with different social factors may reveal how they collectively inform the reporting decision.

Another gap is a lack of work done on false reporting. In the scant research that has been done, false reports generally have been found to be very rare, but wrongdoers frequently claim reports against them are inaccurate or even completely fabricated.

“We often hear the term ‘false report’ in the midst of the media storms that surround accusations against celebrities. Discrediting the validity of the report is typically the go-to reaction of the PR firms representing these celebrities,” Bergemann explains. “What’s interesting to me as a researcher is how often false reporting is discussed in the media but how little we actually know about it from a research perspective.”


Pushback Against Comparing Disconnected Literature May Inhibit Wider Research

For now, Bergemann realizes that, in compiling the disconnected literature on social influence and reporting, some researchers may push back, saying these studies across various disciplines are not comparable. While he recognizes the differences, he believes they can be accounted for while still benefiting from the understanding of what applies across multiple contexts.

“There’s nothing wrong with researchers studying social behaviors primarily through the lens of their own field. In fact, that’s logical,” says Bergemann. “But I do think if we get too siloed, we can miss the aspects of the research that are applicable to other settings. I hope this review opens up a wider conversation about why it’s helpful to look at what other researchers are doing.”


Patrick Bergemann is an assistant professor of organization and management at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. His research has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review and Organization Science, among others. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and his doctorate in sociology from Stanford University.