Research Methods for Criminology & Criminal Justice

By Gail Cohen
Research Methods, Criminology

UCLA Radio News

The field of criminal justice may deal with some pretty seedy characters, but when it comes to conducting research into cases presented to the courts, two types of methodology will help solve crimes. The first is quantitative---figures and statistics splashed across graphs, reports, charts and spreadsheets---the nuts and bolts of data that provide irrefutable substantiation of theories. The other, qualitative research methods, help investigators understand why crimes are committed via case studies, interviews and profiling. It's impossible to separate the two, so both are explored in this article.

Two Types of Research

Qualitative and quantitative research methods cover all bases of scientific investigation, pairing mathematical principles with anecdotal data. A criminal justice professional may apply regression analyses to compute time lines, use inductive reasoning, place people and evidence in context and make non-biased evaluations. Running computer models, analyzing evidence and applying technical and personality tools helps the criminalist understand the suspect well enough to draw inferences, develop scenarios and case studies and test theories leading to solved cases.

Quantitative Research Methods

Criminalists use these types of quantitative methods to get convictions: inductive statistics, DNA and ballistics tests, evidence-based comparisons, age/education/poverty ratios, neighborhood and family demographics, previous offender data, patterns of documented crimes in neighborhoods and families, crime mapping, field tests, meta-analysis, computer-based models and evaluation of anthropological data associated with skeletal remains and pathology. It would be impossible to solve most white-collar crimes without quantitative research.

Qualitative Research Methods

Moving from concrete facts and figures to anecdotal research methods, a criminal justice professional conducts these types of research: victimology, profiling, crime theory comparisons, neighborhood and cohort influence studies, multi-cultural conflict models, psychopathic and sociopathic personality studies, bio-social violence patterns and a variety of ethnographic research tools. Without factoring in the human elements of a case, motives might never be understood.

Why Two Research Methods?

The level of sophistication and cunning contemporary criminals exhibit requires myriad approaches to crime solving. Where a DNA sample might not hold up in court, an eye witness, cohort interviews and profiling will enable a criminal justice professional to get at the truth. Conversely, skillful criminals may cover their tracks, leave no witness behind or maneuver friends or relatives into providing solid alibis, but the right DNA analysis may be all that's needed to seal a conviction.

The Future of Criminal Justice Research

Hands-on research opportunities surpass classroom experiences and equip criminal justice professionals with better skills, so internships, mentoring opportunities and practicums held in jails, courtrooms, on the street and in the laboratory are fast replacing methods once relegated to textbooks. In the future, computer-based tools will handle more and more crime solving tasks, so future criminalists will have to be as proficient at computer analyses as he or she is at grilling suspects and witnesses if truth is to be served.

About the Author

Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.