Data are not inherently quantitative, and can be bits and pieces of almost anything. They do not necessarily have to be expressed in numbers. Frequency distributions and probability tables don't have to be used. Data can come in the form of words, images, impressions, gestures, or tones which represent real events or reality as it is seen symbolically or sociologically (If people believe things to be real, they are real in their consequences - the Thomas Dictum). Qualitative research uses unreconstructed logic to get at what is really real -- the quality, meaning, context, or image of reality in what people actually do, not what they say they do (as on questionnaires). Unreconstructed logic means that there are no step-by-step rules, that researchers ought not to use prefabricated methods or reconstructed rules, terms, and procedures that try to make their research look clean and neat (as in journal publications).

    It is therefore difficult to define qualitative research since it doesn't involve the same terminology as ordinary science. The simplest definition is to say it involves methods of data collection and analysis that are nonquantitative (Lofland & Lofland 1984). Another way of defining it is to say it focuses on "quality", a term referring to the essence or ambience of something (Berg 1989). Others would say it involves a subjective methodology and your self as the research instrument (Adler & Adler 1987). Everyone has their favorite or "pet" definition. Historical-comparative researchers would say it always involves the historical context, and sometimes a critique of the "front" being put on to get at the "deep structure" of social relations. Qualitative research most often is grounded theory, built from the ground up.


1. Participant-Observation
2. Ethnography
3. Photography
4. Ethnomethodology
5. Dramaturgical Interviewing
6. Sociometry
7. Natural Experiment
8. Case Study
9. Unobtrusive Measures
10. Content Analysis
11. Historiography
12. Secondary Analysis of Data

    PARTICIPANT-OBSERVATION is the process of immersing yourself in the study of people you're not too different from. It is almost always done covertly, with the researcher never revealing their true purpose or identity. If it's a group you already know a lot about, you need to step back and take the perspective of a "martian", as if you were from a different planet and seeing things in a fresh light. If it's a group you know nothing about, you need to become a "convert" and really get committed and involved. The more secretive and amorphous the group, the more you need participation. The more localized and turf-conscious the group, the more you need observation. It's customary in the literature to describe four roles:

    It's difficult to say which of these four roles are the most common, probably the middle two. The key point behind all of them is that the researcher must operate on two levels: becoming an insider while remaining an outsider. They must avoid becoming oversocialized, or "going native", as well as being personally revolted or repulsed by the group conduct.  Going native is sometimes described as giving up research and joining the group for life, but in most criminological circles, it means losing your objectivity and glorifying criminals. Generally, it takes time to carry out participant-observation, several weeks or months to 2-4 years. Gangs, hate groups, prostitutes, and drug dealers have all been studied by this method.   

    ETHNOGRAPHY is the process of describing a culture or way of life from a folk peoples' point of view. Another name for it is field research. The folk point of view is the idea of a universe in a dewdrop, each person a reflection of their culture in that all their gestures, displays, symbols, songs, sayings, and everything else has some implicit, tacit meaning for others in that culture. It's the job of ethnography to establish the hidden inferences that distinguish, for example, a wink and a nod in any given culture. Numerous funding opportunities exist both abroad and domestically for ethnographic research.

    The ethnographic method involves observation and note taking. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz called it thick description. For about every half hour of observation, an ethnographic researcher would write notes for about two hours. These notes would contain rich, detailed descriptions of everything that went on. There would be no attempt at summarizing, generalizing, or hypothesizing. The notes would capture as factual a description of the drama as possible to permit multiple interpretations, and most of all, to later infer cultural meaning. A coding procedure (much like content analysis) would be used later for this. 

    One of the assumptions of ethnography is naturalism, or leaving natural phenomenon alone. In essence, the researcher tries to be invisible. There are a variety of ways the researcher develops trust and rapport with the folk group in order to do this, to watch and listen carefully without being noticed. At some point, however, the researcher has to disengage, retreat to a private place, and take notes. The following are some standard rules for taking field notes (adapted from Neuman & Wiegand 2000):

    PHOTOGRAPHY, or filmmaking, is ethnography with recording equipment. While many ethnographers would advocate staying away from such technology, it's hard to deny the benefits as an aid to recall, multiple interpretation, and reaching a wider audience. Ethnographic film reports on the homeless, for example, may be just what is needed to mobilize community action or public funding. Little has been written on this new qualitative method, but it appears that the technique known as oral history is sometimes combined with it. Oral history is the recording of people speaking in their own words, about their life experiences, both public and private, in ways that are unavailable in writing. You'd be amazed at the things people say, and the nuances they can communicate, while in front of a videocamera. It's unfortunate that this method hasn't caught on in criminal justice or criminology.

    ETHNOMETHODOLOGY is the study of commonsense knowledge, and is an ethnographic technique popularized by the sociologist Harold Garfinkel in the late 1960s. It assumes a more active role for the researcher, one that involves "breaking up" the standard routines of folk groups in order to see how strongly and in what ways group members mobilize to restore the cultural order. The researcher would do weird things, for example, at inappropriate times. One of the classic textbook examples is looking up at the ceiling in a crowded elevator. Some people would glance up to see what you're looking at; another person might ask what you're looking at; and yet another person might demonize you by saying "What's the matter, too good to ride the elevator with the rest of us?" The whole idea is not to break the law or even the norms of social conduct, but just do silly little things that violate customs or folkways, which will most likely get you labeled as odd, eccentric, or a folk devil. The researcher is then in a better position to understand the fragile and fluid processes of social control, as well as the rules that people use for maintaining cultural boundaries. In spite of the great theoretical potential of this research method, it is not all that commonly used. In fact, since 1989, most people refer to refined versions of this method as conversation analysis or sociolinguistics.  

    DRAMATURGICAL INTERVIEWING, or just plain dramaturgy, is a technique of doing research by role playing or play acting your own biases in some symbolic interaction or social performance. Interviewing is conversation with a purpose. Dramaturgy was popularized by the sociologist Erving Goffman in the early 1960s and is also associated with the pseudopatient study "On Being Sane in Insane Places" by Rosenhan in 1973. Both researchers pretended to be mentally ill to find out what it's like in a psychiatric hospital. It's important to note that the acting out doesn't have to be deceptive. In fact, it's preferable if the researcher act out on a self-conscious awareness of their own bias, and just exaggerates a bit, in order to instigate a more emotional response from the person being interviewed. A researcher interested in the beliefs of devout Catholics, for example, might start asking "So you're Catholic, huh? I hear Catholics engage in cannibalism when they go to Mass, is that true?"  Knowing your biases is different from bracketing those biases, the latter requiring not just an awareness, but being hard on yourself, and developing a special openness or frankness that is the hallmark of a dramaturgical researcher.  At a minimum, you should examine yourself according to the following:

    Rapport and trust come from meeting the interviewee's expectations about ascribed and achieved characteristics (gender, age, race, mannerisms, etc.), and then the interview proceeds in a semi-directed manner with the interviewer (always self-consciously) acting out on some bias believed to be associated with their own characteristics or those of the interviewee (if different). In the first case, the researcher is a dramaturgical performer; in the second case, a dramaturgical choreographer. The thing to focus on with this technique is the nonverbal body language, as it is believed that affective messages contained therein are more important than verbal messages. A debriefing session is usually held after the dramaturgical interview. This method is probably one of the most difficult qualitative methods as it's basis is in phenomenological theory, but it has many advocates who point to its therapeutic value for both interviewer and interviewee.

    SOCIOMETRY is the measurement of social distance between group members. More precisely, it is the assessment of attractions and repulsions between individuals in a group and with the group structure as defined by feelings. The method was first established by the social psychologist J.L. Moreno in 1934, and to this day, always involves a graphical depiction of the structure of group relations called a sociogram. The procedure for constructing a sociogram begins with a questionnaire-based sociometric test which asks each group member the following:

    After the mean ratings are collated, and one has identified what social structures exist, the researcher then locates appropriate guides, informants, and gatekeepers to the group. Fieldwork, or ethnography, is engaged in to obtain field notes. Together with a coding and analysis of one's field notes and the collated results of sociometric testing, the researcher draws up a sociogram depicting star and satellite cliques, dyads, triads, and so forth. The arrows in the sociogram contain a number obtained by dividing an individual's column score by n-1. A summary table usually accompanies the sociogram showing the frequency distributions. An example of a sociogram appears below:

    NATURAL EXPERIMENT refers to a situation where a split or division has occurred between group members, and the researcher is afforded an opportunity to study the differentiation process of social structure. For example, suppose one group of students recruited by a college admissions staff received campus crime report cards in the mail, and another group did not. Both groups, however, had a chance to review a second report card once they got on campus. The researcher could then survey or interview all of them once they got on campus, and not only make meaningful comparisons about the perceived helpfulness of first report card with the second, but inductive inferences about concern for crime and campus safety generally. Natural experiments are frequently found in political science as tax codes change or federal legislation forces a state to change its welfare, workplace, education, or transportation policy. Increases or decreases in posted speed limits are natural experiments, for example. In Historical-Comparative research, natural experiments occur when a nation switches from communism to capitalism. Economists use business booms and busts (recessions) as natural experiments. Unless the division has a random effect, interpretations from natural experiments are made in terms of qualitative factors, although a lot of "mathematizing" goes on (as with sociometry). In recent years, researchers who rely on natural experiments have shown an interest in chaos theory.    

    CASE STUDY occurs when all you have is information about one unique offender, and you want to generalize about all offenders of that type. The field of Justice Studies has been slower than Social Work and Clinical Psychology in embracing the value of a single-subject (sample size N=1) or case study approach, yet some examples exist:

    Almost all case studies involve unstructured interview and ethnographic methodology (meaning the subject was allowed to express themselves in their own words). It's difficult to describe the variety of techniques used to arrive at useful generalizations in a case study. Hagan (2000) even covers a few quantitative techniques. One way to generalize from a sample of one is to argue that group data overlooks or blurs the significance of individual success or failure. Nomothetic (group) designs simply add up the totals and look at averages. Idiographic (single subject) designs have the advantage of rescuing individual data from the pile of averages. This argument works best if the individual in question falls into some extreme category (successful at crime or a complete failure at it). Scientists refer to these cases as "outliers", and it is probably better to use someone successful than a failure. Studies of so-called successful, or able, criminals are especially useful at finding out how most offenders try to avoid detection by law enforcement.

    Another way to generalize from a sample of one is to use the "universe in a dewdrop" argument we saw with ethnography. With case studies, this is called "methodological holism" and is quite common in Historical-Comparative research. The idea is to find a subject so average, so typical, so much like everyone else, that he/she seems to reflect the whole universe of other subjects around him/her. Anthropologists used to seek out the witchdoctor of a village, so you need to find someone who is a natural "storyteller". Many offenders, if you can find one you believe to be articulate and truthful, have taken it upon themselves to chronicle, record, or otherwise keep an eye on the careers of others in their particular field of criminal behavior. These particular individuals will often pontificate on and on about what it's like to be someone like them, and some of them can be surprisingly accurate about it, even though they lack self-insight themselves. In order for this to be more than an exercise in typicality, you should use some standard protocol. In other words, try to figure out which issues the subject regards as essential or worthwhile and which ones he/she regards as useless. You'll probably need some nonverbal behavior also. Several complex techniques exist for coding and analyzing the data, from content analysis to historiography to meta-ethnography, but a simple, old-fashioned Q-sort technique works well where you put the subject's different ideas down on 3x5 cards, lay them down on the floor, and shuffle them into 3-4 master categories (called "themes") that you make up the names for. Some standard categories might be: (1) growing up a criminal; (2) becoming a successful criminal; (3) trying to stop being a criminal; and (4) adjusting to the criminal life, but use your own creativity in naming the categories, and stay close to the actual statements by your subject.

    UNOBTRUSIVE MEASURES are ways of gathering data in which subjects are not aware of their being studied, and are sometimes called nonreactive measures. They usually involve clandestine, novel, or oddball collection of trace data that falls into one of two categories: accretion or erosion. Accretion is the stuff left behind by human activity. An example would be going through someone's garbage. Erosion is the stuff that is worn down by human activity. An example would be examining wear and tear on floor tiles to estimate how much employees use the restroom. Examination of graffiti and vandalism are examples of unobtrusive measures in criminal justice. Nobody claims that unobtrusive measures are superior to other research methods. The only advantage is that it is useful when the subjects to be studied are very suspicious and distrustful.

    CONTENT ANALYSIS is a technique for gathering and analyzing the content of text. The content can be words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pictures, symbols, or ideas. It can be done quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and computer programs can be used to assist the researcher. The initial step involves sorting the content into themes, which depends on the content. If you were studying white collar crime, for example, you might have themes like planning, action, and coverup. Then, a coding scheme is devised, usually in basic terms like frequency (amount of content), direction (who the content is directed to), intensity (power of content), and space (size of content). The coding system is used to reorganize the themed content in what is called manifest coding. Manifest coding is highly reliable because you can train assistants to do it, ensuring intercoder reliability, and all you're doing is using an objective method to count the number of times a theme occurs in your coding scheme. At the next level, the researcher engages in what is called latent coding. This requires some knowledge, usually gained from fieldwork or observation, about the language rules, or semiotics, of your subjects. It is less reliable than manifest coding, but involves the researcher using some rubric or template to make judgment calls on implicit, ironic, or doubtful content. Since not everything always fits in categories, there's always some leftover content to be accounted for, and it must be interpreted in context by a knowledgeable researcher who knows something about the culture of his/her subjects. 

    There are strict limitations on the inferences a researcher can make with content analysis. For example, inferences about motivation or intent can not normally be made, nor can the researcher infer what the effect of seeing such content would be on a viewer. Content analysis is only analysis of what is in the text. A researcher cannot use it to prove that newspapers intended, for example, to mislead the public, or that a certain style of journalism has a particular effect on public attitudes. The most common inferences in content analysis make use of concepts like unconscious bias or unintended consequences, and these are not the same as saying intentional bias or intended effect. Content analysis has been applied extensively to all kinds of media: newspapers, magazines, television, movies, and the Internet (see the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture for some examples of recent research). Intelligence and law enforcement agencies also do content analysis regularly on diplomatic channels of communication, overseas phone calls, and Internet emails. A key point to remember is that the more quantitative aspects of content analysis come first; the qualitative part of the analysis comes last, although some advocates say the technique involves moving back and forth between quantitative and qualitative methods.

    HISTORIOGRAPHY is the method of doing historical research or gathering and analyzing historical evidence. There are four types of historical evidence: primary sources, secondary sources, running records, and recollections. Historians rely mostly on primary sources which are also called archival data because they are kept in museums, archives, libraries, or private collections. Emphasis is given to the written word on paper, although modern historiography can involve any medium. Secondary sources are the work of other historians writing history. Running records are documentaries maintained by private or nonprofit organizations. Recollections are autobiographies, memoirs, or oral histories. Archival research, which is the most common, involves long hours of sifting through dusty old papers, yet inspection of untouched documents can yield surprising new facts, connections, or ideas. Historiographers are careful to check and double-check their sources of information, and this lends a good deal of validity and reliability to their conclusions. Inferences about intent, motive, and character are common, with the understanding of appropriateness to the context of the time period. Historical-comparative researchers who do historiography often have to make even more disclaimers about meanings in context, such as how they avoided western bias.

    An interesting variety of historical research is "prosopography" or prosopographic analysis (Stone 1972).  Although doubts may exist about its proper place in research methods and the techniques are more akin to "profiling" in political psychology than anything else, prosopography involves the study of biographical details (family background, childhood events, educational background, religion, etc.) that are found "in common" or "in the aggregate" among a group of people.  The typical groups studied by this method are Presidents, political leaders, generals, professors, terrorists, and/or elites in society.  Sometimes the method yields significant insights by combining the common background elements in individual profiles.  The method is considered a useful corrective to the more one-sided, single biography technique often found in the more-or-less mass market books aimed at those interested in biographies.  Specifically, it corrects the tendency toward "hagiography" or hero-worship.  

    SECONDARY ANALYSIS is the reanalysis of data that was originally compiled by another researcher for other purposes than the one the present researcher intends to use it for. Several datasets in criminal justice and criminology exist just for this purpose. The UCR (Uniform Crime Reports), for example, can be analyzed in a number of ways other than for its purpose as being a health scorecard for the nation. Often, secondary analysis will involve adding an additional variable to an existing dataset. This variable will be something that the researcher collects on their own, from another dataset, or from a common source of information. For example, one could take police call for service data and combine it with lunar cycles from the Farmer's Almanac to study the effect of full moons on weird human behavior. Secondary data analysis is only limited by the researcher's imagination. While the technique is mostly quantitative, limitations exist that often force such researchers to have some qualitative means of garnering information also. In such cases (as with much Historical-Comparative research), the qualitative part of the study is used as a validity check on the quantitative part.

    A related technique, called meta-analysis, is the combining the results of several different studies dealing with the same research question. It is decidedly quantitative, but involves some of the same sorting and coding techniques found in qualitative research. Meta-analysis is no substitute for a good literature review.

Review Questions:
1. Describe the differences between observational data and interview data.
2. Devise a content analysis study of some topic in criminal justice or criminology.
3. How do qualitative and Historical-Comparative researchers use theory?
4. Why is the context of social events important for qualitative researchers?
5. Identify three ways validity and reliability can be ensured with qualitative research.

1. Construct a sociogram of where you work or live. Don't do any of the actual testing or questionnaires. Just draw up a diagram and estimate some numbers. Use a computer drawing program that came with your computer. Don't scan something in. Be sure the kilobyte size is small enough to be sent through email.
2. Read and critique in about 100 words the methodology in any of the archived articles at the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture (Internet link in text above).

A Participant Observation Study of Sense of Community

A Participant Observation Study of Needle Sharing among Heroin Addicts

An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street Gangs

An RFP for Research on Natural Experiments with Immigration

A web page by one of Harold Garfinkel's students

Computer Programs Used in Modern Ethnography

How to Write Up a Qualitative Research Report

Qualitative Methods Workbook on Dramaturgical Interviewing

Qualitative Research Resources on the Web

Summary of Rosenhan's On Being Sane in Insane Places

Adler, P. & P. (1987). Membership Roles in Field Research. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Berg, B. (1989). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Cromwell, P. (1996). Criminals in Their Own Words. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. NY: Basic Books.
Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Hagan, F. (2000). Research Methods in Criminal Justice and Criminology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hancock, D. & Algozzine, B. (2006). Doing Case Study Research. NY: Teachers College Press.
Lofland, J. & L. (1984). Analyzing Social Settings. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Miles, M. & M. Huberman. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Moreno, J. (1934). Who Shall Survive. NY: Free Press.
Neuman, L. & B. Wiegand. (2000). Criminal Justice Research Methods. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Rosenhan, D. (1973). "Being Sane in Insane Places" Science 179:250-258.
Stone, L. (1972). "Prosopography." Pp. 107-140 in F. Gilbert & S. Graubard (eds.) Historical Studies Today. NY: Norton.
Strauss, A. (1987). Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. NY: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Webb, E. et al. (1981). Nonreactive Measures in the Social Sciences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Last Updated: 04/10/06
Syllabus for JUS 308
MegaLinks in Criminal Justice