THE STATUS OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IN CRIMINOLOGY
THE STATUS OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IN CRIMINOLOGY
Jody Miller, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Standards of Rigor in Criminology and the Place of Qualitative Scholarship
Criminology’s emergence as an independent discipline is fairly recent. For the most part,
criminology developed as a subfield of sociology, and leading criminologists are now housed
both in sociology and criminology programs. Criminologists have long felt marginalized within
the discipline of sociology (with evidence of good reason), and this has been one of the factors
contributing to its independent development. This split is significant, both in terms of situating
the field in the historical linkages between the two disciplines, and in understanding the
consequences of this division for the scholarly study of crime generally, and the place of
qualitative research in criminology specifically.
Qualitative research was very much at the heart of early studies of crime. The field research
tradition of the Chicago School—and its use of the urban landscape as a social laboratory—
resulted in numerous studies of crime and deviance (see Adler and Adler, 1987). As this model
of research was contested within the broader field of sociology, so also it fell out of favor among
those studying crime, particularly with the evolution of survey research methods and the
advancement of statistical techniques (see Hagan and McCarthy, 1997: 3-4).
While there remains a divide within sociology between qualitative and quantitative
methodologies, and interpretive and positivist epistemologies, it is even more palpable within the
discipline of criminology.1 While criminology remains influenced by its sociological roots, its
emergence as a separate discipline (with separate journals and separate audiences) has resulted in
greater insulation of the discipline from theoretical developments in other social sciences. This
has limited the cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplines. It has also meant that many of the
trends that have taken hold, or at least shaken up sociology’s claim as positivist Science—for
instance, the postmodern and poststructuralist turns—have had minimal impact on the
criminological enterprise. Moreover, because large scale crime research is funded by
government agencies in justice and public health, often with the expectation of direct policy
relevance, the claim to “scientific” rigor is ever important, and remains largely defined in
quantitative and positivistic terms. This trend is reflected in the dominance of theory testing
models, often with the use of large, complex datasets that require advanced statistical techniques.
Largely as a result of the revitalization of neighborhood studies of crime, as well as growing
interest in situational aspects of offending, there has been a recent resurgence of appreciation2 for
qualitative research in criminology. Before discussing this further, however, I would first like to
My discussion here applies specifically to the U.S. context of criminology.
Appreciation, though, can co-occur with marginalization, particularly when qualitative work is seen as an “added
bonus” that, for instance, makes for good reading to attract the interest of distracted undergraduates, but does not
have epistemological impact on the core agendas of the discipline.
focus on some of the consequences of the positivist/quantitative dominance in the field for
qualitative scholarship on crime.
First, the distinction between qualitative data collection methods and qualitative analysis is an
important one. It has been common in the field to employ qualitative data collection methods or
use qualitative data for quantitative analyses. This is evident in several areas of research.
Policing scholars, for instance, have relied on large-scale observational studies of police/citizen
interactions to analyze police decision-making (focusing on the impact of citizen behavior on
arrest decisions, and more recently, also examining the impact of police actions on citizen
behavior). In addition, official narrative records such as police incident reports have been
employed in the study of homicide and other crimes. While each of these types of data sources
would be useful for qualitative analysis of social processes associated with crime and criminal
justice, they have been used primarily as source material to create quantitative datasets to
examine event characteristics statistically.
Second is a general lack of training in, and thus understanding of, the epistemological
underpinnings of qualitative research, appropriate qualitative data analysis strategies, and the
particular strengths of qualitative research for illuminating social processes associated with crime
and justice. Qualitative research is routinely characterized as “descriptive,” “exploratory,” and
has even been excluded from what constitutes “empirical data.” This has resulted in some
seemingly contradictory outcomes.
On the one hand, because it is viewed as simply descriptive (and thus easy to accomplish), there
is some use of qualitative methods among criminologists not trained in its methodology. The
result is that qualitative data often appears as supplemental, descriptive data that provides “color”
and “flash” to liven up quantitative analyses. Likewise, it is common to see studies that make
use of qualitative data (most typically in-depth interview data)—but not qualitative analysis
techniques—such that narrative accounts are plugged into preconceived conceptual frameworks
as descriptive evidence (or descriptive illustration), rather than being used inductively for theory
building or theory refinement. Such work is problematic on a number of levels: it is unable to
further social inquiry, because the data is not rigorously analyzed; and it reinforces a sense of the
limited utility of qualitative inquiry for the development and elaboration of social theory. Often,
analysis flaws (or lack of analysis) is apparent to a qualitatively trained eye, but goes unnoticed
to a wider criminological audience.
On the other hand, the lack of understanding also means that qualitative studies are often held to
inappropriate standards of (quantitative) rigor. For instance, this is the case when case studies, as
well as purposive and snowball sampling strategies (typical and often necessary for the study of
criminal offenders), are criticized for failing to adhere to standards of generalizability. In
addition, misunderstanding of the method and its goals sometimes leads to a devaluation of its
validity. For instance, I recently co-authored a paper based on in-depth interviews with African
American young men about their negative experiences with the police. The paper was derided
by one reviewer as “journalistic,” and another reviewer referred to the data—in the case of young
men’s descriptions of their own encounters with the police—as “hearsay,” and—in the case of
their accounts of their perceptions of neighborhood policing—as “double hearsay.” I give this
example not to bemoan a set of negative reviews, but to highlight what I see as dangers to the
qualitative enterprise when reviewers drawn from the broader discipline do not appreciate its
methodological approach, and thus qualitative studies are expected to adhere to standards which
undermine the very strengths and foundations of the methodology.
Standards of Rigor in Qualitative Research within Criminology
It is difficult to identify a uniform set of standards for rigor in qualitative research within
criminology. This results in part from the issues noted above. On the other hand, I noted earlier
a growing appreciation for qualitative research in the discipline. Despite the dominance of
positivist paradigms adopting quantitative approaches, there are many significant qualitative
studies of crime, criminalization, and criminal justice processes.
This research emanates from several sources, including scholars from other social science
disciplines whose research addresses these issues but who do not participate actively in the
discipline (see, for example, Adler and Adler, 1985; Bourgois, 1995; Comfort, 2003; Glassner
and Loughlin, 1987; Ferguson, 2000; Katz, 1988; Pattillo, 1998; Venkatesh, 2002), as well as
criminologists (and criminological sociologists/anthropologists) themselves (see, for example,
Anderson, 1999; Fagan and Wilkinson, 1998; Ferrell, 1996; Fleisher, 1998; Jacobs, 1999;
Maruna, 2001; Moore, 1991; Shover, 1996; Sullivan, 1989; Vigil, 1988; Wright and Decker,
1994, 1997). Qualitative research is perhaps most widely established in criminology among
feminist scholars studying gender, race, crime and criminal justice3 (see, for example, Bottcher,
2001; Britton, 2003; Joe-Laidler and Hunt, 1997; Kruttschnitt, et al., 2000; Maher, 1997;
McCorkel, 2003; Miller, 1998, 2001; Miller and White, 2003; Mullins and Wright, 2003; Richie,
1996). In addition, there have been several notable efforts among criminologists to integrate
qualitative and quantitative research in ways that go beyond my earlier description (see Hagan
and McCarthy, 1997; Nurse, 2002; Sampson and Laub, 2003).
What does not exist, however, is ongoing, active dialogue among qualitative researchers in
criminology to discuss issues of methodological rigor. Nonetheless, I will make note here of
some common themes and lauded works that provide insight into these issues. I focus
specifically on qualitative studies in criminology that have utilized in-depth interview
techniques, as this has been the approach most typically adopted (but see Ferrell, 1996; Fleisher,
1998; Maher, 1997; McCorkel, 2003). Much of this work focuses on what Hagan and McCarthy
characterize as the “foreground” of crime, examining such issues as in situ motivations for
offending, social processes associated with crime and the streets, and situational analyses of
crime events. This is the primary body of work I will draw from here.
SAMPLING. Most qualitative research in criminology relies on purposive or snowball sampling
techniques. The study of active offenders, for instance, requires the use of innovative methods to
locate research participants. One technique successfully employed is the use of a fieldworker
immersed in the social setting to generate contacts (see Jacobs, 1999; Wright and Decker, 1994;
1997). Another is the use of samples identified through various social control agents (Maruna,
2001; Miller, 2001), though this strategy comes with limitations that scholars must address in
their analyses (see Agar, 1977).
Though within a discipline dominated by positivist epistemology, this results in some level of dual marginalization
based on the combination of theoretical and methodological approaches.
THE USE OF COMPARATIVE SAMPLES. An increasingly popular sampling strategy within
qualitative criminological studies is the use of comparative samples. Such an approach allows
for some specification of similarities and variations in social processes and meaning systems
across groups (for instance, offenders/non-offenders, desisters/persisters, females/males, African
Americans/whites/Latinos), settings (neighborhoods, cities, institutional settings) and/or over
time. This strategy can strengthen internal validity by allowing for more refined analysis and
greater contextual specification.
ANALYSIS STRATEGIES. This is perhaps the black box of qualitative research in
criminology. While sampling and data collection procedures are widely discussed, systematic
descriptions of the process of data analysis are typically not provided. Hagan and McCarthy
(1995), for example, who blend qualitative and quantitative data, focus on the research questions
of interest as their description of the analysis strategy. Some researchers describe the use of
triangulation procedures, the examination of deviant cases, the use of interrater checks for
reliability of analysis, and/or the use of tabular data to verify the representativeness of the
patterns presented in data analysis. Such strategies, when described, speak to the internal
validity of the analysis. Issues of reliability are typically addressed through the use of multiple
interviews or repeated question sequences within a single interview, or are assumed by the
current involvement of research participants in the activities of interest.
Finally, Maruna (2001) provides an example of a detailed description of his analysis plan,
strongly influenced by positivist models. His discussion focuses on the use of blind coding by
multiple coders (to achieve interrater reliability) of “episodes or phrases that were extracted from
the body of the larger text” (p. 170) so that the coders had no information about the broader
context of the interview. These pieces of text were then applied to “well validated” (p. 169) a
priori coding schemes. Coding focused on “manifest (rather than latent) content or style” (p.
169), and a small number of women and minorities were included in the sample “in an effort to
uncover the universal rather than the…specific” (p. 176). I highlight this particular study in
detail because Maruna’s use of this analysis strategy was well received by quantitative scholars
in criminology,4 but raises vexing questions about the disciplinary push to inscribe such analytic
strategies to a methodological approach whose strengths include inductive theory development
and detailed attention to context, including the context of speech within the interview process
(see Miller and Glassner, 2004). This problem is exacerbated because of the lack of
transparency in most qualitative scholars’ descriptions of their analysis strategies.
Addressing Areas of Divergence Between Criminology and Other Disciplines
As described, standards of rigor in criminology are neither unified nor well specified. While this
is less the case with regard to sampling and data collection techniques, it is a serious limitation
with regard to standards for data analysis and the integration of theory. Several suggestions
follow from this recognition.
First, it may be beneficial to develop avenues through which qualitative criminologists can come
together to discuss methodological issues and address standards of rigor. This is important both
His study received the major book award in 2001.
to make the process more transparent for scholarly audiences, and to ensure that appropriate
standards are applied in the evaluation of qualitative scholarship within the discipline. The lack
of transparency is also associated with the limited amount of data sharing that takes place, and
the general lack of public availability of the data collected for nearly all qualitative studies in the
field.5 In addition, I noted earlier the broader problem of criminology’s insulation from
theoretical and other developments in other social science fields. Greater cross-fertilization
across disciplines would be beneficial for the field generally, and would benefit qualitative
Second, a serious limitation within the field is the lack of qualitative training for young scholars.
With few exceptions, the training of new generations of scholars within leading criminology
programs is dominated by a quantitative theory-testing orientation. My own program, widely
recognized as more diverse and complementary methodologically than most (and Ph.D. students
are required to take qualitative research methods), nonetheless strenuously trains students
throughout the program in positivist epistemologies. Of course, these are practical imperatives
of the market. But the broader problems for qualitative scholarship within the discipline are
nonetheless replicated. Anecdotally, I would suggest this does not stem from a lack of interest
on students’ part. I have been invited to speak with students in several programs where there is
recognition among faculty of student interest in the methodology, but with limited faculty
specialization to meet this need.
Promising Areas for Investigation in Criminology
Several topics and areas are promising in the discipline for investigation. Qualitative methods
have been applied widely in situational studies of crime, and have included analyses of such
issues as offender decision-making, social networks, and social processes shaping criminal
events. In some cases, this research has been combined with analyses of gender/race
inequalities, as well as neighborhood and street contexts. Such studies will be improved with
greater attention to strategies for making linkages between micro-level interactional processes,
state policies, and structural inequalities (see Wacquant, 2002). Again, this would be facilitated
by decreased insulation from developments in other social science disciplines.
Additional areas have received some limited attention from qualitative researchers, but offer
promise for future investigations. This includes the use of life history narratives to understand
pathways to offending (and desistance) (see Daly, 1992; Gaarder and Belknap, 2002; Giordano
et al., 2002; Moore, 1991; Sampson and Laub, 2003), as well as research on organizational
processes and decision-making within criminal justice and other relevant institutions (see
Britton, 2003; Comfort, 2003; Ferguson, 2000; Frohmann, 1991; Kruttschnitt, et al., 2000;
In addition, a number of opportunities exist for greater cross-fertilization within the discipline
between qualitative and quantitative research. For example, there are promising examples of
efforts to test theoretical propositions emerging from qualitative studies using quantitative
analyses (see Peterson et al., 2001; Stewart and Simons, 2004). Moreover, efforts are underway
Of course, this is a challenging problem for criminology in particular because the protection of confidentiality is
especially important given the potentially damaging nature of data collected from those involved in crime.
to develop studies that are multi-method, multi-level and/or comparative, and these offer
promising approaches for efforts to integrate qualitative and quantitative research (see for
example Hagan and McCarthy, 1997; Klein et al., 2001). Finally, there are underdeveloped
opportunities with data already on hand for such combined efforts: quantitative studies which
draw from qualitative data, such as those I made note of earlier, offer just such an untapped
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