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Research methods are procedures for obtaining information on individual or aggregate phenomena in order to: (1) create a general explanation or theory to explain a phenomenon; (2) test the applicability of an existing theory; or (3) test the effectiveness of a policy or program. Criminologists examine juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, and victimization. Criminal justice researchers focus primarily on issues related to police, courts, and prisons. The methods employed for these topics are borrowed from the behavioral and social sciences.
Data is information gathered during a study, either qualitative or quantitative in form. Qualitative data involves verbal statements describing particular processes whereas quantitative data involves numerical information. Qualitative research is common for theory development and quantitative research for theory/hypothesis testing.
Ethnography is qualitative research involving detailed descriptions of the phenomena of interest. An example of ethnography is a study of prison inmate social systems and adaptation to incarceration. Observations are made about types of prison inmates and how they interact in order to formulate a theory of why some inmates adapt to incarceration more easily than others.
Quantitative research involves attaching numerical values to information. Some information is numeric by nature (e.g., years of age), whereas other information is assigned numerical values (e.g., a person’s sex, where ”male” is coded as ”0” and ”female” as ”1”). Numeric data are gathered when a researcher intends to apply statistics in order to produce new information that cannot be obtained verbally.
The research design of a quantitative study is experimental, quasi-experimental, or non-experimental, reflecting differences in the ability to establish the causal order of events. Steps involved in quantitative research often include the following:
- Begin with a theoretical model, or a general perspective of an individual or social process. For example, a ”conflict” perspective argues that many social problems in a capitalist society (discrimination, poverty, environmental pollution, crime) are consequences of economic/ power conflicts between groups.
- Apply the model to a particular problem (e.g., crime).
- Relevant theoretical concepts are transformed into operational definitions that can be observed (e.g., ”economic power” may be measured as earned income). These definitions are placed into a hypothesis, or a statement about the predicted relationship between variables (e.g., persons with lower incomes are more likely to be arrested). The specific nature of any hypothesis means that the more general theory can never be tested directly.
- Plan the data collection, involving determination of (a) target population to which the results will be generalized, (b) units of analysis (individuals, organizations, cities, etc.), (c) time dimension of the data (1 versus 2 + points in time), (d) research design based on the hypothesis and level of rigor desired (e.g., matched pairs, factorial, pretest-posttest), (e) probability sample representing the target population (drawn with simple random sampling, systematic random sampling, sampling proportionate to size, etc.), (f) data collection instrument for compiling the information (e.g., survey questionnaire), and (g) procedures for gathering information (telephone, mail, face-to-face, reviewing archived data, etc.).
- Collect the data by obtaining completed instruments for all sampled cases.
- Check data for accuracy (typically accomplished with computers).
- Examine data using statistics to test the hypotheses and describe the empirical relationships. Investigators must apply these statistics correctly in order to derive accurate conclusions.
- Campbell, D. & Stanley, J. (1963) Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research. Rand McNally, Chicago, IL.
- Moser, C. A. & Kalton, G. (1972) Survey Methods in Social Investigation, 2nd edn. Basic Books, New York.
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