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Dorling and Simpson (1999) suggest that statistics are the 'arithmetic of politics.' Before Margaret Thatcher's political reign (1979-1990) crime was not considered a political issue. However, when Thatcher introduced crime (its trends and preventions) into her elective strategy, it became very much a political issue; political parties use 'crime' to gain votes; they present the problems and suggest solutions. In order to do this, data is needed to back up theories, which is why in recent years more emphasis has been put on collecting crime data to help understand trends and patterns of crime and victimisation. One method of data collection is quantitative, which Tim Newburn (2007: 898) defines as "relatively large scale", which "uses numeric data and statistical procedures to analyse such data and reach conclusions". The research is large scale because it aims to present reliable data that can be representative and can be generalised. The research is normally deductive, in that a hypothesis is tested, with the aim to prove or disprove it. This essay will attempt to explore the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative research methods for criminological understanding by giving examples, and providing alternative methods that would ensure the most reliable results.
Official statistics are one quantitative method of measuring trends of crime. The first criminal statistics produced in England and Wales were in 1876 (published by the Home Office), and comprised of data drawn from crimes reported to the police and courts. These statistics are published annually and are used regularly by the media and politicians, who believe them to be a true measurement of crime. The main publications of statistics are criminal statistics, sentencing statistics and prison statistics (Newburn, 2007).
One use for official statistics is that it enables one to get a rough idea of the extent of crime because they are well resourced and the government use data that researchers would not be able to access. There are also no ethical considerations with the use of secondary data, and the results can be used as a starting point for criminologists (Treadwell, 2006). In addition they help to gain insight into the class based structure of the criminal justice system, because they show that the poor and ethnic minorities are the majority of those prosecuted by the authorities conveying not only their greater criminality but their lack of social power (Miles and Irvine, 1981).
However, no data set could ever be a true representation of the pattern and trends of crime, and there are many problems with using quantitative research for this. Firstly, is the problem of the "dark figure" of crime; crimes not recorded in official statistics. Non- reporting could depend on many factors such as; believing the crime is too trivial to report, embarrassment, and a lack of respect for the police (Newburn 2007). Problems also arise even if a crime is reported because it is up to the police to decide whether to record it or not (i.e. whether it is a 'notifiable offense'), and as classification of crimes is ever changing, generating reliable results becomes difficult. Another problem with official statistics is the lack of context, there is no information of the victim or offender so one would not be able to asses why criminal acts were occurring, they would just see the trends. Statistics are also subject to the activities of the police, which are ever changing with other agencies being introduced to deal with certain crimes (e.g. TV licence evasion). There is also the problem that if an offender is taken to court on three charges, the only one that is recorded is the 'principle offence', however if one is charged of three offences at three different times, all offenses are counted (Newburn, 2007). The statistics fail to contain all offenses; they have a limited sub-set of offenses which vary due to counting rules. These limitations effect the reliability of the data so cannot be used as a complete accurate measure of patterns of crime and victimisation.
Another quantitative method measuring crime is victimisation surveys. These were introduced in the late nineteenth century for "improvements in accuracy and corrections of bias" (Tim Hope, 2005: 39) that official statistics could not provide. Data taken from victim surveys can be used to estimate the extent of the dark figure in official statistics - Sparks et al. (1977) suggest that it is eleven times the official figure. Farrington and Langan (2004) go further and suggest that victimisation surveys are a more accurate measure of crime levels and trends than data by law enforcement agencies. Victimization surveys use a sample survey to measure crime by questioning a representative sample of population about their experience of criminal victimisation (Coleman and Moynihan, 1996). This technique aims to find crimes that have not been reported to the police (i.e. eliminate the 'dark-figure'). One notable crime survey is the British Crime Survey (BCS) which was first published in 1983 and was funded by the Home Office. A representative sample of the population (over sixteen years of age) is questioned on their experiences of victimisation over the previous twelve months. Some criminologists argue that national surveys cannot gain detailed information on the nature and distribution of crime, which led to local crime surveys, which produce trends of crime in the area questioned. Although they have the advantage of assessing problems in a certain area, there is the pitfall of not being able to generalise to other areas.
Sparks et al (1977) asked why we should bother measuring crime and came up with a few ideas which is how victimisation surveys could be used. Firstly, they suggested the crime rate is a 'social barometer' which the health of society is judged on, so any data could give a more accurate estimate of crime. It was also suggested surveys could be used to estimate the public's reporting habits in relation to perception of crime and victimisation to assess changes in reporting and recording changes in crime rate. Another use of surveys is in crime prevention, and assessing societal reaction to crime (attitudes and responses to crime for individuals in society). It was also suggested data could be valuable to those concerned in Victimology; who the victims of crime are and why.
The first problem with victimisation surveys is the fact that there has to be an identifiable victim, so 'victimless crimes' (e.g. drug offenses) are omitted. Sparks at al (1977) pointed out that victimisation surveys can only be used to measure incidents that have been perceived and defined as crimes, which means the surveys work well at measuring crimes such as theft but are not as reliable for crimes such as domestic violence. Another issue with any sampling is sampling error, where the results of the sample cannot be generalised as if the whole population were questioned (because of the small sample). Some people may refuse to take part (Crawford et al, 1990 found that those who refused to take part in the Second Islington Survey were more likely to have been recent victims of crimes than those who participated), and those that do may suffer from interviewer effects, and fabricate details. Some people may not want to admit crimes due to embarrassment or fear (e.g. domestic violence, the person being interviewed may be sat next door to their abuser). Most surveys only question those above sixteen, when Anderson at al (1991) found high levels of victimisation in people aged eleven to fifteen. Household surveys omit sections of the population who are likely to be victims of crime such as the homeless, and those in prisons. There are also problems with memory decay, because people may not realise they were victim to a crime, or it may be so trivial they have simply forgotten. All of these limitations affect the reliability of research, which in turn means results can not be generalised, so the trends of crime and victimisation that are found should be looked at with caution.
Both quantitative and qualitative research has its uses and limitations in helping to understand patters and trends of crime and victimisation and to combine them would help produce results that are reliable and can be generalised. In this case, triangulation may be used; i.e. the combination of quantitative and qualitative research "in order that they may be mutually corroborated" (Bryman, 2008: 608). If conducted properly, one would be able to gain knowledge of the trends and patterns for both crime and victimisation. One example of this is Neil Selwyn's (2009) research paper into attitudes that students have towards crime. He presented 1, 215 questionnaires (i.e. quantitative data) to undergraduate students, who were asked to report how often they were victims of crime before university and the previous three month academic term. Students were also given open-ended questions (i.e. qualitative data) where they could reflect on the reasons why they might have been victim to crime. Selwyn found 31.4 percent of students reported being victims of crime whilst at university. Students rationales for being victims varied from having a naive attitude towards crime, not being 'street-wise', false sense of security being around other students (and therefore will not fall victim) and being away from home for the first time. This helps the reader understand the trends of crime and victimisation. Although this approach could be deemed more reliable than using just one method for research (because one can generalise from the large sample size, which was relatively quick to asses) this research lacked context and could suffer from interviewer effects, with people answering how they believe they were expected to answer. In general, it is important that mixed method research is conducted properly, with appropriate research questions, spread resources, and the research should explain what the combined results signify (Bryman, 2008: 624)
In a society where moral panics can be created overnight by the media, pressure is put on the police to reduce crime rates (with good clear up rates). In order to do this the support of statistical data is needed, which is why data collection is increasing. Official statistics focus on recorded crime, whereas victimisation surveys are offense-based; so both are measuring different things from different people. Both have their uses and limitations in helping understand patterns and trends of crime, and should never be considered as a complete accurate measure of crime trends. Quantitative data lacks context that could be gained from qualitative data, so considering the uses and limitations of quantitative research for understanding patterns and trends in crime and victimisation, it would appear that a mixed methods approach would be the best way to produce reliable data that could be generalised.