Fieldwork in Criminology

Fieldwork in criminology continues to evolve and redefine itself along epistemic, methodological, and analytic standpoints. Contemporary fieldworkers, called street ethnographers, continue to write about dilemmas in the field concerning process and outcomes. For example, publications on the emotionality of initiating and sustaining a field study are becoming commonplace, largely because of an increased number of relevant publication outlets. Modifications made to traditional nonprobability sampling designs, such as respondent-driven sampling, have created opportunities for collaborative work among street ethnographers and statisticians.


I. Introduction

II. Qualitative Research

III. Ethnography

IV. Street (Fieldwork) Ethnography

V. Methods

A. Observation

B. Interviews

VI. Establishing and Enhancing Credibility

VII. Applications

VIII. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Fieldwork has always been a cornerstone of American social science. It was the definitive approach for the first 40 years in its history for the study of social life. It was an intellectual break for “armchair” sociologists who were content with simply theorizing and offering little more than speculative reasoning for the many unparalleled social changes occurring at the time. In these early days, circa 1890 to 1940, fieldwork was both an intellectual movement and a methodological prescription for the sociological analysis of both the community and the individual, with an emphasis on developing a holistic understanding of related social processes. By applying basic anthropological principles, fieldwork in the United States was very much an applied sociological endeavor that has been integral to the evolution of criminology.

II. Qualitative Research

It is rather common for individuals to seek out a “cookbook” approach when attempting to apply qualitative research methods in the field while failing to realize that no method can truly be separated from its philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. In general, researchers are guided by a certain worldview and set of beliefs about exactly how the social world functions, (i.e., a paradigm); specifically, qualitative research embodies an interpretive approach to how one interacts and comes to understand the social world. It is from this particular epistemological standpoint that qualitative researchers view the nature of reality as being something highly interpretive, malleable, and situational (i.e., constructionism). Under this particular ontological view, the subjective is emphasized, research subjects are considered social actors, and the social/ cultural context is paramount in the research enterprise. Unfortunately, individuals seeking “how-to” manuals for qualitative research methods are often perplexed, and at times frustrated, by what seems to be a lack of standardization across the field, leading them to conclude that such methodological steps comprise nothing more than a pseudo–social science. However, the people who make such attributions are often not well versed in its history and/or the impact qualitative research has made throughout the history of the social sciences.

Qualitative research has ubiquitously influenced social science research in the United States for well over 100 years. Throughout the social sciences, qualitative research has been implemented either sequentially (Zimbardo, 1969) or simultaneously (Milgram, 1974) with quantitative designs. Of particular note is the rich history that qualitative methods (e.g., the collection of observational and interview data) share with quantitative (experimental) research designs (see Campbell, 1955; Campbell & Stanley, 1963; Scriven, 1976; Sherman & Strang, 2004).

One can note similar common methodological linkages, especially in related subspecialties, across anthropology, education, communications, urban planning, business, social work, economics, political science, and the health sciences. Of particular note, in terms of American sociology and criminology, are the contributions made, both theoretically and methodologically, by the Chicago School and classical anthropology.

The Chicago School represents a significant cohort of sociologists at the University of Chicago’s department of sociology whose research foci emphasized urban living, deviancy, community/neighborhoods, social structure, social disorganization, social worlds/subcultures, human agency, and social order (see Fine, 1995; Tomasi, 1998). Cohort members of the first Chicago School (roughly from 1892 through the early 1950s) were Albion Small, W. I. Thomas, Louis Wirth, Georg Simmel, Ellisworth Faris, Robert E. Park, and Ernest W. Burgess, along with noted social psychologists George H. Mead, John Dewey, and Charles H. Cooley. Around the same time period, noted anthropologists Margaret Mead, Frank Boas, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, and Bronislaw Malinowski, whose numerous studies highlighting the use of formal ethnography (fieldwork) as a methodological framework for studying non-Western societies and human behavior in their natural settings redefined the very concept of doing research across the American urban landscape.