What Are the Limitations of Qualitative Research Methods?

1 January 2017

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.

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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 accurate evaluation of the social world as it is, or what people think it is. (Jupp, 1989) Quantitative tradition is closely linked to positivism; which has been adopted to study a wide range of social phenomenon.

Positivism can be described as a way of thinking about the basis on which knowledge can be classified as scientific. And that scientific knowledge has the ability to measure criminal behaviour and nature of criminal behaviour using secondary statistical data and methods linked with the biological, psychological and sociological knowledge to identify key causes of crime. In this way, scientific knowledge could ultimately provide universal explanations of crime that would apply to all situations and therefore is always objective. (Walklate, 1998).

Quantitative research continues to be conducted in riminology but no longer adheres to a narrow positivist research tradition in which a casual explanation is used for crime. Instead, quantitative researchers take into account the vast amount of factors that may influence or cause crime. Similarly, qualitative research is significant due to the growth in new theoretical perspectives; qualitative researchers have moved away from causes of crime to exploring the process by which crimes are created and social reactions to crime. For some criminological researchers, adhere strictly to either qualitative or quantitative methodology.

However, some criminological researchers argue that Qualitative and quantitative methods are complimentary rather than competitive approaches. It is sufficient that a study involving qualitative interviews will produce some basic quantitative data. For example, number of interviewees who identified the same issues as important. Secondly, we might use the same data collection methods such as the face to face interview to generate both qualitative and quantitative data by including a range of questions some open ended, others fixed choice.

Thirdly, we might use two different methods, one that will produce qualitative data for example focus groups and another quantitative data for example structured observation. (Noaks and Wincup, 2004). Qualitative and quantitative research helps to inform the development of policies of crime control because both types of research provides a way of identifying emerging crime problems which may concern specific types of crime, groups of known offenders and locations. Due to both types of research there are now ways of deploying resources to deal with the problem of crime.

For example, police forces have developed more sophisticated ways of collecting data and analysing the data for operational use. (Maguire, 2006) The preoccupation of qualitative researchers is to use a variety of strategies and methods to collect and analyse a variety of empirical materials. Data can take the form of field notes, interview transcripts, transcribed recordings of naturally occurring interactions, documents and pictures. Qualitative researchers aim to get close the criminal’s view of the social world and make the subject feel as though they are in natural context.

For example, a qualitative research strategy is the use of focus groups; focus groups encourage participants to react to each other and to be aware of what others might think and might say. The researchers aim to diminish the role of the observer or facilitator to ensure that the social interaction within the group is something that is equivalent to a research social situation. Qualitative research is closely associated with ethnography which involves overt or covert participant observation. Covert observation is used when access would not otherwise have been possible.

With overt participant observation, access is more likely to be regulated by a key person. (Bryman, 2001) Ethnography is the study of people and groups in their natural settings and for this reason is one of the most influential qualitative research method in criminology. The researcher spends prolonged periods of time in order to gather data about their day to day activities (Treadwell, 2004). The use of interviews and the analysis of documents are incorporated into this kind of participatory research design wherein they hold out the promise of further knowledge.

Flick, 1998) In order to understand crime as a social phenomenon, it is central that the reconstructions of everyday life of crime to reflect how closely “deviant” patterns of behaviour and how social structures are tied together. An example of an ethnographic study is one that is conducted by Neil Selwyn who studied the victimisation of undergraduate students. The study looks at why students fall victim, students attitude to crime and what kind of crime is most probable. The study uses qualitative research in order to gain an understanding of the crime being perpetrated.

The research method used is a two page self report questionnaire offering thirteen types of crime that the student may have been involved in. A sample of undergraduates participated in at the end of the autumn term in 2005/2006 academic year. The qualitative data clearly outlines that crime is an accepted element of student life. The use of the qualitative research is that crime can be reduced by addressing the patterns of victimisation. The key findings that stood out in the research is criminal damage was the most likely, higher grade students were less likely to be involved in crime and ethnic crime were of the highest.

Using this analysis, more awareness can be created in the aim of bringing crime levels for students lower. (Selwyn, 2009) However, a limitation of this study is the accuracy of the self report questionnaire. Though ethnographic studies may show flexibility towards the subject under study; it also holds the danger of a methodological uncertainty. Since, the questionnaire is filled in by the students there will always be a case of whether they were filled in with absolute honesty. The students may have exaggerated or even been ashamed of the crimes they have witnessed or been a part of.

Due to this, the crime data is not wholly accurate. Moreover, there is a problem of subjectivity. The experience of the crime that the student has been involved in is only available to them and so we are not gaining an understanding of what they understand. From this study it is apparent that students accept crime as part of a student lifestyle and therefore accept being potential victims of crime. It is clear that the data raises some obvious practical opportunities for organisations to address to bring about controlling these crimes.

However, the main importance that needs to be addressed is the student’s attitudes towards crime whilst at university. Clearly it is there accepting attitude of crime that needs to change. Therefore it can be argued that qualitative research method has brought this to attention and as a result brought about a need for more crime awareness for students and encouragement to report a crime. It can be brought to attention for the university authorities to promote responsible drinking, offer more security around campuses and offer victim support. Selwyn, 2009) In conclusion, a use of qualitative data is that it provides a valid representation of the social World; through the use of ‘method validity. ’

Qualitative research is concerned with exploring the process of crime and the social reactions to crime rather than a positivism approach which looks at secondary research in order to explain the cause of crime. Ethnographic research is important qualitative method as it looks to describe a variety of aspects and norms of a cultural group to enhance understanding of the people being studied.

Even though this type of research is used to bring alight crimes that are not recorded there is still major concerns as to whether we can trust people’s reports on crimes. For example, the self report questionnaire leads to suspicion as to whether the subjects are fully truthful in their answers. Another major limitation is the observational method; observations are generally limited to descriptions of what happens in small groups of people, which also limits the ability to generalize the results.

However, the observation method is superior to other methods of data collection because it describes actual behaviour in a given situation and reflects the emotions that are involved whereas surveys generally provide far less data. In addition, case studies such as the ‘victimisation of students’ provide an easily understood document that gives additional meaning and value to statistical data from surveys. Moreover, focus groups encourage participants to talk about topics they normally would not discuss with strangers.

Qualitative research is fundamental to the social scientific study of crime because the methods used enable the researchers to understand the process of crime and then be able to develop policies in order to control the crime that is being committed.

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