What are the uses and limitations of qualitative research methods for the social scientific study of crime and its control?
One definition of crime is “behaviour that breaks the criminal law.” Crime is constantly changing because of our ever changing society; things that were not considered a crime become so. Though most people would argue that a criminal is someone who breaks the law; many people will break the law at some point in their lives and not be regarded as a criminal. The police are constantly applying different methods to control crime. “Crime control is a reconfigured complex of interlocking structures and strategies that are themselves composed of old and new elements, the old revised and reoriented by a new operation context (Garland, 2001: 23). There are a range of methods and forms of data used such as, ethnography, documentary/textual analysis, and focus group interviewing that provide ways of dealing with the problem of crime. Qualitative research plays a significant role in reducing crime; offering rich insights into the way people’s attitudes, beliefs and values determine their actions; and so is extremely important. Qualitative research is more concerned with what governs human behaviour rather than the blunt facts. In this way, qualitative research goes beyond the statistics and data which is the focus of quantitative researchers. Qualitative research starts from people’s expressions and activities in their local contexts.
Crime statistics are fundamental in determining the level, pattern and trends of crime. Official crime statistics are conducted by the police; these statistics in effect deal with all recorded crime. However, there are major concerns with the recorded crime data. Firstly, as officials only record reported crime, it is the decision of the victim whether or not they report the crime to the police. Victims may feel that the crime is insignificant and would be wasting police time. Or even that the police may not being able to resolve the crime. Moreover, the victims may feel embarrassed or ashamed of the crime that they have been casualty of. For this reason, there is an estimated fifty per cent of unreported crime that criminologist’s term as ‘the dark figure.’ Qualitative research provides a means of researching the ‘dark figure of crime’ Using surveys like the British Crime Survey provides a more accurate representation of the true extent of crime than police statistics. The British Crime survey asks a random section of the population about their experience of crime in the previous twelve months which produces a more realistic picture of all private households in England and Wales. (Newburn, 2007)
However, there are major concerns with this type of research; the evidence is some what subjective. The evidence is drawn from the public and so the data used is predisposed and for this reason is not easily classifiable. The British Crime survey disregards crimes committed against business premises and homeless people. Therefore there are a vast number of crimes not being taken into account for. Furthermore, there lies a problem with the accuracy of the ‘self survey.’ There is potential for exaggeration, forgetfulness and misunderstanding and so this limits the truthfulness of these statistics. (Treadwell, 2004) There has been research conducted to unveil the dark figure and see what types of criminal behaviour that has remained largely hidden from official view. The Qualitative research used such as participant observation, interviews based on ‘snowball’ samples and the analysis of newspaper stories revealed an insight into illegal activities that did not appear in police records. (Maguire, 2008) The sociologists Kitsuse and Cicourel argue that crime statistics represent the organisational processes at work in the criminal justice system where in not all criminal acts are recorded. The research method being ‘method validity’ means questioning official statistics to gain a more...
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