Covert Ethnography in Criminal Justice and Criminology: The Controversial Tradition of Doing Undercover Fieldwork
The role and value of covert ethnography in the fields of criminal justice and criminology, a controversial and somewhat marginalized tradition due to its association with deception. It is a transgressive approach with ethical baggage that runs counter to the received wisdom on informed consent. Despite this, it is a creative and innovative approach which can yield rich types of insider data and lived experience leading to nuanced analyses and understanding of crime and deviance in society. There is a classic fear and fascination with covert research. It is a methodological pariah, which has been routinely demonized, particularly in the current climate of ethical regimentation. It is typically associated with harm and risk to both the researched and the researched. The covert researcher has been seen as a belligerent figure in the criminological landscape, which marginalizes its worth.
My exploration and unpacking of this controversial tradition shall be undertaken in several ways: Firstly, by outlining the controversy surrounding deception, which covert ethnography is squarely associated with. This association is partly related to how the understanding of covert observation is deeply embedded in popular culture. Secondly, by exploring the rich diversity of covert ethnography in criminology and criminal justice, both classic and contemporary. Part of the logic here is to rehabilitate and celebrate the sociological aspects of criminology and criminal justice, partly by examining some heartland topics in the field as well as studying deviance across different settings and subcultures. Thirdly, by drawing on some of my own field experiences from a covert study of bouncers in the night-time economy of Manchester, which I compare to others in the field. Fourthly, by offering some brief reflections on the future directions of covert ethnography via a discussion of the revival in covert research. Lastly, by providing some concluding sentiments on covert ethnography.
Cara Rabe-Hemp and John C. Navarro
In the study of crime media and popular culture, researchers have a wide range of research methodologies at their disposal. Each methodology or standardized practice for producing knowledge involves an epistemological foundation and rules of evidence for making a claim, as well as a set of practices for generating evidence of the claim. The research methodology chosen is contingent upon the question being studied, as each methodology has strengths and weaknesses.
As the most stringent research design, experiments are unique because they are the only methodology able to establish causality. This is because experimental design’s major advantage is that researchers can control the environment, conditions, and variables that are being studied. However, experiments suffer from a major disadvantage as well: the precision and control utilized in experiments make it difficult to apply the findings to the real world, referred to as generalizability. This is especially poignant in crime media and popular culture studies where researchers are often interested in exploring how the criminal justice system, participants, and processes are socially constructed and how the mediated images impact our conceptualization of criminality and appropriate criminal justice system responses.
Nick Malleson, Alison Heppenstall, and Andrew Crooks
Since the earliest geographical explorations of criminal phenomena, scientists have come to the realization that crime occurrences can often be best explained by analysis at local scales. For example, the works of Guerry and Quetelet—which are often credited as being the first spatial studies of crime—analyzed data that had been aggregated to regions approximately similar to US states. The next major seminal work on spatial crime patterns was from the Chicago School in the 20th century and increased the spatial resolution of analysis to the census tract (an American administrative area that is designed to contain approximately 4,000 individual inhabitants). With the availability of higher-quality spatial data, as well as improvements in the computing infrastructure (particularly with respect to spatial analysis and mapping), more recent empirical spatial criminology work can operate at even higher resolutions; the “crime at places” literature regularly highlights the importance of analyzing crime at the street segment or at even finer scales. These empirical realizations—that crime patterns vary substantially at micro places—are well grounded in the core environmental criminology theories of routine activity theory, the geometric theory of crime, and the rational choice perspective. Each theory focuses on the individual-level nature of crime, the behavior and motivations of individual people, and the importance of the immediate surroundings. For example, routine activities theory stipulates that a crime is possible when an offender and a potential victim meet at the same time and place in the absence of a capable guardian. The geometric theory of crime suggests that individuals build up an awareness of their surroundings as they undertake their routine activities, and it is where these areas overlap with crime opportunities that crimes are most likely to occur. Finally, the rational choice perspective suggests that the decision to commit a crime is partially a cost-benefit analysis of the risks and rewards. To properly understand or model these three decisions it is important to capture the motivations, awareness, rationality, immediate surroundings, etc., of the individual and include a highly disaggregate representation of space (i.e. “micro-places”). Unfortunately one of the most common methods for modeling crime, regression, is somewhat poorly suited capturing these dynamics. As with most traditional modeling approaches, regression models represent the underlying system through mathematical aggregations. The resulting models are therefore well suited to systems that behave in a linear fashion (e.g., where a change in model input leads to a predictable change in the model output) and where low-level heterogeneity is not important (i.e., we can assume that everyone in a particular group of people will behave in the same way). However, as alluded to earlier, the crime system does not necessarily meet these assumptions. To really understand the dynamics of crime patterns, and to be able to properly represent the underlying theories, it is necessary to represent the behavior of the individual system components (i.e. people) directly. For this reason, many scientists from a variety of different disciplines are turning to individual-level modeling techniques such as agent-based modeling.
What is a “snowball”? For some, a snowball is a drink made of advocaat and lemonade; for others, a mix of heroin and cocaine injected; for yet others, a handful of packed snow commonly thrown at objects or people; for gamblers, it refers to a cash prize that accumulates over successive games; for social scientists, it is a form of sampling. There are other uses for the term in the stock market and further historical usages that refer to stealing things from washing lines or that are racist. Clearly then, different people in different contexts and different times will have used the term “snowball” to refer to various activities or processes. Problems like this—whereby a particular word or phrase may have various meanings or may be interpreted variously—are just one of the issues for which cognitive interviews can offer insights (and possible solutions).
Cognitive interviews can also help researchers designing surveys to identify problems with mistranslation of words, or near-translations that do not quite convey the intended meaning. They are also useful for ensuring that terms are understood in the same way by all sections of society, and that they can be used to assess the degree to which organizational structures are similar in different countries (not all jurisdictions have traffic police, for example). They can also assess conceptual equivalence. Among the issues explored here are the following:
• What cognitive interviews are
• The background to their development
• Why they might be used in cross-national crime and victimization surveys
• Some of the challenges associated with cross-national surveys
• Ways cognitive interviews can help with these challenges
• Different approaches to cognitive interviewing (and the advantages of each)
• How to undertake cognitive interviews
• A “real-world” example of a cognitive interviewing exercise
• Whether different probing styles make any difference to the quality of the data derived.