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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Howard Journal Virtual Reader Volume 4 Research Methods Selected and introduced by me

Go to the Virtual Issues page of the Howard Journal to see articles

This volume is a selection of 18 articles published in the Journal from 2001-2010 that are interesting and valuable in their own right but illustrate practical and theoretical issues around doing research. It is hoped that researchers, whether students, practitioners or experienced academics will find these useful. Not unsurprisingly many of these articles relate to prisons but other elements of the criminal justice system or aspects of crime are considered too. The contents or findings of the research are touched on but here the main concern is the methods chosen and discussion of them. It is slightly artificial but to assist more quickly finding a relevant article they are grouped below as quantitative and qualitative. Additionally the full, and often, self explanatory titles have been bolded and a keyword highlighted. But first some ethical issues and ‘mixed methods’ by way of introduction. 

Introduction: ethics and mixed methods 

Prison is, in many jurisdictions, the most extreme removal of human rights. In England and Wales one ongoing human rights dispute is the extent to which prisoners should have the right to vote (Hirst v the United Kingdom) but the first article presents a more stark affront to a prisoner’s human rights. 

Geraint Osborne examines ‘Scientific Experimentation on Canadian Inmates, 1955 to 1975’. Once it was established that prisoner’s claims to have been experimented on were true it was the ethical issues that came to the fore. It is this ethical issue that means this article is put first. 

The psychologists and pharmacologists and their backers decided that their research was justified by the context of the time. The research/human-rights-breach/abuse comprised: sensory deprivation, electric shock ‘therapies’, extreme cold, tranquiliser and LSD prescription, toxicity and allergy tests. All with ethical approval at the time and sometimes the ‘consent’ of the prisoner. Results were often mixed and rarely or poorly written up. The article usefully runs us through the history of modern ethical concerns, the Nuremberg Code and Helsinki Declaration - the final draft of which omitted a specific ban on the use of prisoners. 

The methodologies war may have died down but there are still cultural, political and attitudinal disagreements over methods. Some now seek to avoid these issues by opting for ‘mixed-methods’. The majority of these articles use single methods but often refer to others or follow on from other research. However the work of Samantha Banbury is considered next as she uses a variety of methods and also addresses the ethical issues raised by her own research and that of others. 

The Howard League have, at the time of writing, announced their intention to research sex in prison: consensual sex in prisons; coercive sex in prisons and healthy sexual development among young people in prison. Banbury’s article concentrates on, ‘Coercive Sexual Behaviour in British Prisons as Reported by Adult Ex-Prisoners’ but also reports to occurrence of consensual sex. She used both one-to-one interviews (106) and self-completed questionnaires (302) elicited by adverts in the personal columns of mainstream and alternative press. Ethical issues and absence of official assistance lead to the use of ex-offenders. Differences in the actual content of adverts (describing or not describing the purpose of the study) lead to some respondents being tagged as ‘victims’ (200) and the rest as ‘participants’ (208). ‘Victims’ were more likely to report concerns and a history of victimisation but ‘participants’ were far from immune. Some ‘victims’ reported being perpetrators. The self selected nature of the samples and raft of disaggregated data means it is difficult to draw conclusions but the sheer quantity of material and some of the qualitative observations make it a good place to start. 
We turn now to quantitative methods. 


It might be said that the sine qua non of quantitative methods is the survey. In ‘The Performance of Volunteer Appropriate Adults: A Survey of Call Outs’ Harriet Pierpoint sets out why and how she did her survey in a very clear fashion relating it to the methodological literature and her own critical reflection. In her conclusion she supports the method chosen but examines participant observation and the use of a police interview simulation video. Importantly she recognises that the survey method allowed her to find the proportion of volunteer appropriate adults who contributed or did not contribute during an interview but not how appropriate that was.

Lorraine Sheridan et al in ‘The Course and Nature of Stalking: A Victim Perspective’ also use a survey but not of their own. The sample and 46 item questionnaire was provided by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust of 95 individuals who had approached the Charity about being stalked. Necessarily their methods discussion is much shorter and its limitations noted. As the first survey just after the change in the law in E&W on stalking it has some value but other methods and researcher controlled data would be better. 

If surveys are the typical of the quantitative method then surveys of public opinion are the archetype. They are the method most often used by and in the media to tell ‘us’ about ‘ourselves’ and in ‘Individual Differences in Public Opinion about Youth Crime and Justice in Swansea’ Kevin Haines and Stephen Case found, ‘local public opinion is shaped by national media and political rhetoric, rather than the local realities of youth offending.’ Their survey asked 500 people 18-64, and an impressive (even for an opportunity sample) 496 replied, about youth crime in Swansea. They set out a methodology and justification and even include some of their questions and helpfully review some of the literature on such surveys including the British Crime Survey. 
We now turn to the variety of qualitative work - often forms of interviews but also observation, documents and focus groups. As we shall see ethical issues continue to feature. 


Whilst it is a qualitative piece of work Cowburn’s ‘Men Researching Men in Prison: The Challenges for Profeminist Research’ raises many theoretical and practical issues that arise in research. Nine men imprisoned for sex offences told him their life histories in semi-structured interviews based around life transitions. They were serving sentences of between four and ten years. Six had offended against children and three against adults. Only one had previous convictions for sexual offences. All of the men were white and aged between 25 and 61. The interviews lasted between four and seven hours in total. Running through epistemology and feminist interventions he interrogates his own position as white male researcher and concludes, perhaps in hope, ‘To listen, to record and, in publication, to critique dominant male practices from a clear and explicit standpoint, may be a positive way forward for further research’ (2007: 287). 

Nowhere is such a challenge greater than in work with sex offenders and Nicholas Blagden and Sarah Pemberton cite Cowburn in ‘The Challenge in Conducting Qualitative Research With Convicted Sex Offenders’. They examine the recruitment of participants, informed consent, establishing researcher-participant rapport, avoiding collusion and ensuring confidentiality and anonymity and reflect on the social, political and ethical-legal dilemmas, as well as the emotional aspects (both for the researcher and participant) of researching such populations. For instance: in one interview the participant was recalling his account of the offence and he offered the justification that the offence was not rape, but ‘rough sex’. This was followed by the disclaimer: ‘all men like rough sex’ and then the tag question: ‘you can’t tell me you don’t like rough sex? Come on be honest’. This was an uncomfortable moment and one where the male researcher’s values were the object of the interview. (2010: 273) 

Cowburn was considering the issue of gender in a single sex situation. Clare Byrne and Karen Trew’s ‘Pathways Through Crime: 
The Development of Crime and Desistance in the Accounts of Men and Women Offenders’ directly compares nine male and nine female offenders accounts of their lives and offending and specifically addresses gender. Semi-structured interviews were supplemented with access to official records as all were attending offending behaviour programmes run by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland. 

But as with much qualitative work some rigorous and sometimes quantitatively oriented methods may be required. As they say: 
Interview data were analysed in detail through processes of: categorisation (clustering and describing like units of data); conceptual analysis (exploring links between categories to develop abstract concepts); relating emerging concepts to existing theories; and ultimately generating a ‘theory’ of offending grounded in the interview data. In order to explore gender during this process, data from men’s and women’s accounts were analysed independently and then in light of one another, then in light of existing theoretical frameworks. (2008: 241) 
Gwyneth Boswell’s research for ‘Imprisoned Fathers: The Children’s View’ involved interviews with fathers in prison, partners in the community and staff at prisons but crucially with 17 children. The data on the 209 families involved showed 424 children under 18. Through the mother/carer 25 were approached and 17 agreed to be interviewed. A further 8 wee partially interviewed as part of the mother’s interview. No claim is made that this is representative of the sample. It included only one black child and no children on YOI fathers. The intention was to give the children a ‘voice’ within the wider research. On the ethical front; it was already clear to the child that the father was in prison, indeed half of the interviews occurred in prison visit centres and they were accompanied by their mother. The article then provides many quotes from the children on various aspects of their experience of having a father in prison. 

And it is with ‘voice’ we stay This time listening to very persistent young adult offenders. The in-depth interviews in Wing Hong Chui, Bill Tupman and Colin Farlow’s ‘Listening to Young Adult Offenders: Views on the Effect of a Police-Probation Initiative on Reducing Crime’ include offenders’ attitudes to offending, self-explanations for their criminality, views of peer associations and the usefulness of the Project ARC intervention. The eleven offenders’ first hand accounts also offer insight to the police and probation services on how the project can and should be further improved in order to reform their offending behaviours. 

Ros Burnett and Shadd Maruna's ‘So ‘Prison Works’, Does It? The Criminal Careers of 130 Men Released from Prison under Home Secretary, Michael Howard’ is a rich analysis in its own right and reanalysis of Burnett's earlier work , ‘The Dynamics of Recidivism’. It is also a case study in what can happen to your research as it was (mis)used by Michael Howard. They reanalysed her prospective work and then followed up the offenders she had interviewed ten years earlier. They found that offenders often had a good appreciation of the challenges facing them and their chances of ‘going straight’ - or desisting in the terminology. It was ‘hope’ not prison that worked. 

Better known for their ethnographic work, Geoffrey Pearson and Dick Hobbs, offer interviews with ‘middle market’ (the which definition they discuss) illegal drug dealer/distributors and enforcement personnel to provide a case study of one network. In ‘King Pin? A Case Study of a Middle Market Drug Broker’ they also reveal the ‘glocal’ nature of such networks and even cooperative and trust-based actions and not the early resort to violence that might be expected. Pearson and Hobbs note the prevalence of studies of drug consumption and the rarity of those on drug supply. 

Our next article is one of those rare ones and cites Pearson and Hobbs. The work that Ben Crewe did for ‘Prison Drug Dealing and the Ethnographic Lens’ was at a medium-security men’s prison. Prison ethnographies are rare but have, ‘formed the cornerstone of the field’ (2006: 347) and this one examines the part played by heroin in the internal economy. The method of ‘reserved participation’ and long interviews provided a case study of three dealers. In addition to setting out his method and findings Ben discusses the value of ethnography and reasons for its decline in criminology in the face of quantitative penology. He also addresses the difficulties that some researchers face in setting up such research - having a good sponsor helps. 

Far from prison but equally constrained we find South Asian women experiencing domestic violence. Aisha Gill’s ‘Voicing the Silent Fear: South Asian Women’s Experiences of Domestic Violence’ allows 18 women to ‘speak’ through interview about ‘honour’, ‘shame’ and domestic violence at the hands of husbands and mothers-in-law. The women were contacted through refuges and she sets out the methods and efforts to prevent the process becoming one-sided. 

Gill’s women were hidden in many ways but Elaine Crawley and Richard Sparks find a different and unexpected ‘injured’ group, older men convicted of imprisonment which they describe in, ‘Hidden Injuries? Researching the Experiences of Older Men in English Prisons’. In this they consciously follow Sennett and Cobb’s ((1993) [1972] The Hidden Injuries of Class, New York: Norton.) emphasis on a biographical understanding of structural people’s positions. They breezily observe, ‘The simple fieldwork tasks that we dignify with the name of ‘method’ were as follows: 
(i) Observation (...) 
(ii) Prisoner interviews (80 in depth ...) 
(iii) Staff interviews (11 one hour interviews ...) 

A further ethical note is provided in their endnotes when they reveal that one prisoner respondent asked that his tape only be listened to by the team (so not by an outside transcriber) because he had discussed his suicidal thoughts and another feared he might be identified. 

The biographies in Crawley and Sparks were taken in interview but Mike Nellis argues for the use of already existing written ones. In ‘Prose and Cons: Offender Auto/Biographies, Penal Reform and Probation Training’ he argues that the few uses of such materials should be extended to the training probation officers. Whilst this work is now 10 years old it contains good starting points for research into the lives of prisoners through their auto/biographies. And Tracy Irwin adds her own experience of teaching in Maghaberry Prison in ‘The ‘Inside’ Story: Practitioner Perspectives on Teaching in Prison’. 

Many of these qualitative articles have used interviews as part of their research armoury, Sarah Miller, Carly Sees and Jennifer Brown introduce us to focus groups as a method in their ‘Key Aspects of Psychological Change in Residents of a Prison Therapeutic Community: A Focus Group Approach’. As they say in their abstract, ‘In an attempt to gain a person-centred perspective of therapeutic change, exploratory focus groups were conducted with men in Dovegate Prison’s Therapeutic Community (TC)’. They set out: the design (four focus groups with 27 men encouraged to see themselves as co-researchers); sample (resident in the TC between 1 and 18 months an aged 22 to 57); procedure (2 researchers low involvement facilitator and note taker with a wide and deep topic range attending to specific and contextual factors) and analytical (searching for meaningful themes across and not within the group). They report that Dovegate’s resident found the method a good one to discuss their experiences. 


These articles offer a wide variety of methods and a wide variety of engagement with methods. Whilst not selected by using quantitative means we might conclude that qualitative methods have been the preferred method in research published by the Howard Journal. This represents no bias at the journal but might in its potential contributors. 

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