Qualitative versus Quantitative Research

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Two predominant types of method are available for crime analysts, as well as other criminologists. Those are quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative research is typically considered to be the more scientific approach to doing social science (Tewksbury, 2009). The focus in quantitative research is on using specific definitions and carefully operationalizing what particular concepts and variables mean. Quantitative research usually involves statistics and data that can be scored and presented easily on graphs or in tables. Qualitative research methods, on the other hand, place more emphasis on interpretation and providing consumers with complete views, looking at contexts, environmental immersions, and a depth of understanding of concepts (Tewskbury, 2009).

Tewskbury (2009) argued that because of the differences in data, how data are collected and analyzed, and what the data and analyses are able to tell us about our subjects of study, the knowledge gained through qualitative investigations is more informative, richer, and offers enhanced understanding compared with that which can be obtained via quantitative research.

At its most basic, qualitative research focuses on the meanings, traits, and defining characteristics of events, people, interactions, settings and cultures, and experience.

Strategic crime analysts must use qualitative methods in order to gain a true understanding of the social aspects of how crime occurs and how the agents, structures, and processes of responding to crime operate in culturally grounded contexts. Thus, qualitative methods provide a depth of understanding of issues that is not possible through the use of quantitative, statistically based investigations.Therefore, if trends are to be understood and lead to problem solutions, then qualitative methods must be utilized.

Qualitative Methods

Strategic crime analysis is, then, the systematic study of crime and disorder trends and problems in order to assist the police in crime and disorder reduction, crime prevention, and evaluation. Crime analysis is not haphazard or anecdotal; rather, it involves the application of social science data collection procedures, analytical methods, and statistical techniques.

While crime analysts employ both qualitative and quantitative data and methods, strategic crime analysts use qualitative data and methods when they examine nonnumerical data for the purpose of discovering underlying meanings and patterns of relationships. The qualitative methods specific to crime analysis include:

  • • Field research
  • • Content analysis
  • • Interviews
  • • Surveys
  • • Focus groups
  • • Environmental assessment

Field Research

If a crime analyst is going to help to deal with a crime trend, he or she is most likely going to have to get off the computer and get out and do research. While police data have always been available, and while various units or command personnel have discussed the particular trend or problem, no solution has been found. Continuing to go over the same data is not going to be productive for the strategic crime analyst. He or she has to do something different.That something different is likely to involve field research.

Field research can mean observing the characteristics of various crime locations or immersion in a setting where crime occurs so as to gain a better understanding of the who, what, how, when, and where of the social structure or the action and interaction of a neighborhood, a group, or victims.

Observation, the actual looking at and breaking down of actions and interactions of people, is an approach to data collection that looks quite simple and straightforward (after all, we all do this as we go through our daily lives), but is actually a very challenging method for gathering systematic information about people, places, and things. Researchers who draw on observational data do so in one of two general ways: overtly, in which they openly acknowledge to those being observed that this is what the researcher is doing; and covertly, when the researcher “spies” on the people, places, and things that he or she is studying. The approach that is used varies according to the setting in which observations are conducted and, most importantly, according to the research questions being addressed (which will necessitate different things to be observed, some of which may not be accessible to an “outsider” who appears and proclaims that he or she wants to see what is going on). The challenge of observational data collection methods is to be able to simultaneously see the obvious (e.g., large and surface-level) actions involved; and to look beyond the obvious and see those things that might always be present, but are so “normal” and taken for granted that the observer typically fails to note their presence. These challenges are most difficult in settings and with people and things with which the researcher is most familiar.That which is known to us on a regular basis is often seen with little attention to detail, or a failure to realize that details are important to the larger scheme of actions and interactions.

The actual data that comes from a crime analyst’s observations are the notes the researcher takes while doing observation.To be able to take notes on everything one sees, and to be sure to get beyond the obvious, surface level of structures and events can be very challenging. Especially for researchers observing things covertly, identifying a means to simultaneously watch, think about what one sees, make notes that capture the details of actions and structures, and manage their own presence so as not to be detected presents a serious challenge that requires significant amounts of both intellectual ability and expenditure of energy.

Immersion in a setting, for purposes of gaining an understanding of how that setting operates, is the data collection method that drives the production of ethnography. Originally advanced by anthropologists, ethnographic methods combine observational skills with the interpersonal skills of navigating a new environment so as to find ones way through a new world while learning how to be a nondisruptive presence in that new world. If a crime analyst was taking on the task of analyzing gang violence or crack addiction, he or she would likely end up living in the world of a gang or spending time in rundown crack houses.While the analyst may have a new appreciation for the problems of adolescent gang members or crack addicts, the observations are likely to be indelibly etched in the mind of the analyst, or the inherent dangers of the environment may cause chills—if not nightmares.

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