MSU social scientist among leading U.S. 'stalking' researchers

Contact: Harriet Laird

STARKVILLE, Miss.--As an eager college student in the early 1990s, Colleen Sinclair saw herself entering a professional career as a psychological therapist, putting in long, but rewarding, hours as a counselor to rape victims and battered women.

All of that changed as a senior at the University of Colorado when she enrolled in "Experiments in Psychology"--an interesting course that would change her life.

"I was an immediate convert," said Sinclair, now a researcher in Mississippi State's Social Science Research Center. "I realized I would be reactive to societal problems with the work in shelters, but, by doing research, I could be more proactive."

Proactive seems a mild term for someone whose investigations of perpetrators and societal attitudes has made her among the nation's foremost authorities in an oft-misunderstood research field--stalking.

Before anti-stalking laws became common in the 1990s, states often struggled with a legal label for a behavior clearly considered to be wrong. Many called it "psychological rape" or "separation assault," or thought it mostly happened to celebrities and other public figures.

According to Sinclair, also an assistant professor of psychology at the university, no one really knew the prevalence of stalking until 1997, when a national survey revealed more than 1.4 million annual reported cases. Another surprise: the majority of perpetrators were considered intimate partners.

By way of contrast, a new U.S. Department of Justice study reports that 3.4 million persons recently identified themselves as stalking victims over a 12-month period.

Sinclair's current studies are focused primarily on two projects: stalking case coding and media coding. Through the work of student research assistants and opinions from public court records, data from the case coding project reveals the nature of relationships between the victim and perpetrator, as well as the severity of the stalking incident and the judicial sentence.

According to Sinclair, stalking perpetrators who are former romantic acquaintances and are most likely to become more violent--attempting murder in some instances--"receive the lowest (court) sentences, while 'stranger stalking' receives the highest sentences." She added: "Therefore, the context in which the stalking occurs, relational or non-relational, makes a difference."In the media coding project, Sinclair and her team have examined primetime television shows and award-winning movies to determine how stalking-like behaviors are portrayed. Romantic, funny, successful, or secretly wanted seem to be most prevalent depictions.

"More often than not (in film and TV situations), the unwanted pursuits are portrayed as all of these things, sending the message that stalking behavior is acceptable not only to 'romantic' pursuers, but to jurors and judges as well," she observed.

Sinclair, who came to MSU in 2005 after receiving a doctorate at the University of Minnesota, credits much of her success in groundbreaking stalking research to support provided by MSU's Social Science Research Center.

Saying she enjoys the SSRC's focus on applied research "that helps make a difference" in the world, Sinclair added: "When I was on the (job) interview circuit, MSU came out ahead. There was a 'we can do that' attitude, and everyone was supportive and enthusiastic."

SSRC director Art Cosby returns her compliment, calling Sinclair's work "one of the most exciting areas" of research in the center. "Not much was known about stalking until this past decade, and Colleen definitely is a leader, discovering great things about relationships and associated dangers," he said.

Her positive, personal approach to research can be credited, in part, to a professional relationship with University of Pittsburgh professor Irene Frieze. A leading psychology researcher in her own right, Frieze gave Sinclair a volunteer position in 1996 while Sinclair completed research associate work at nearby Carnegie Mellon University.

"Dr. Frieze asked me, 'What do you want to research?' and I replied, 'How about something on stalking?'" Sinclair said. What followed was a collaboration that blazed the trail of stalking research as Frieze and Sinclair completed one of the first college-level surveys that focused on victimization and perpetration.

NEWS EDITORS/DIRECTORS: For more information, contact Dr. Sinclair at 662-325-5108 or

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Tue, 01/27/2009 - 06:00