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The number’s up for quantitative research! Or is it?

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As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.

Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.

Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.

All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.

All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.

Blog birthday wordle

However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!

More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.

Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).

Instead we should always consider:

[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).

Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).

References:

Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880

Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)

A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.

[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.

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A help or a hindrance: The Crime Survey of England and Wales

MJ BLOG

I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter.  This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.

My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.

Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.

I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.

In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.

 

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