Fieldwork in Criminology

VI. Establishing and Enhancing Credibility

In general, qualitative researchers, fieldworkers in particular, obsess about credibility. The heightened focus on authenticity is due both to subject matter and to the dominance of the field by traditional positivist and post-positivist approaches. It is not uncommon for people to have some reservations about the ability of fieldwork to produce theoretically driven explanations; the very nature of fieldwork invites such apprehension. Fortunately, since the mid-1950s, fieldworkers have made great theoretical refinements and have methodologically advanced the field in terms of data management and analysis. Overall, transparency (i.e., being honest and clear about one’s intentions) is a vital step in establishing credibility. Transparency of one’s paradigmatic orientation, theoretical framework, methodological orientation, and choices (i.e., informant and subject selection, sampling design, setting, reciprocity, analytical constructs, etc.), as well as one’s position in the research process enhances credibility by means of the comparability, transferability, and external reliability of the results being reported. The key here is to provide a written account for every decision point in the field. The common use of multiple sources of data, called triangulation—for instance, the use of both participant observation and interviews—also enhances credibility.

The use of multiple researchers (observers), variations of collaborative ethnography, and the introduction of technology to help record and preserve qualitative data has enhanced fieldworkers’ thinking and reporting of internal reliability.

Fieldwork is rather strong in terms of internal validity because of its interpretive orientation, its self-reflexivity, and its emphasis on collecting data in situ. Therefore, data based on participant observation and interviews are strong in terms of internal validity.

VII. Applications

Fieldwork, and street ethnography in particular, is most appropriate for studying members of a “hidden” (vulnerable) population. They are hidden in terms of the inherent difficulty in locating them and establishing their true numerical estimates. The difficulty in deriving an accurate population count may be due to their transient nature, their involvement in deviant and/or illegal activities, and/or the fact that the members belong to a “closed” society. Members of a hidden population pose challenges for social researchers because appropriate sampling frames of such prospective respondents are nonexistent, although nonprobability sampling designs (e.g., convenience, snowball/chain referral, maximum variation, criterion based, venue based, extreme or deviant case, and stratified purposeful) offer an alternative. Examples of hard-to-reach groups include the homeless, runaway youth, drug users/addicts, sex workers, gang members, fraternity members, migrant workers, street corner men, people in psychiatric institutions, jail/prison inmates, HIV/AIDS patients, MSMs (men-who-have-sex-with-other-men), WSWs (women-who-have-sex-with-other-women), and transgender individuals.