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Research Methods In Criminal Justice


Objectives: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Define common terms used in all social research.
  2. Define types of studies generally performed during social research.
  3. Define the variables generally incorporated into social research.
  4. Define what a hypothesis is and how the term is used in social research.
  5. Define the types of data generally incorporated into social research.
  6. Define the units of analysis generally incorporated into social research.
  7. Define the types of studies generally performed during social research.
  8. Identify the components of a social research study.
  9. Comprehend the validity required in social research.
  10. Comprehend how to conceptualize a social research project.


What is Criminal Justice Research, and Why Do It?

  • Gain an understanding of human behavior – the criminal justice system is all about people and how they interact. Social norms define behavior that is acceptable and expected by society; however, acceptance of a behavior or attitude by the individuals in the society is not always universal. The cause of social problems and the effect of social problems on society generally manifest themselves through involvement of the criminal justice system.
  • May provide an ability to interact with people of different backgrounds – ethnic, cultural, and religious. Understanding why people act the way they do is critical to determining the best way to resolve the behavior or attitude within a socially acceptable context. There is within society a band of acceptable behavior. Not every issue is black or white, nor should it be. Generally, a reason can be found for every situation, if properly observed in the proper context.
  • Two key issues here – a band of normal behavior and proper observation. These are the essence of social research in the criminal justice field and explain why we do criminal justice research. Criminal justice research is very similar to defusing a bomb: One needs to understand the components of the bomb, how they work together, and then figure out the best way to neutralize the bomb with minimal damage and loss of life or property. We will explore the “band of normal behavior” in greater detail throughout this course.

Research terms and concepts - The Lexicon of Research

Learning about research is a lot like learning about anything else. To start, students need to learn the jargon that people use. Let us start by considering the major terms that researchers use to describe their work. The basic terms consist of variable, hypothesis, data, and unit of analysis.

The first two terms, theoretical and empirical, go together because they are often contrasted with each other. Social research is theoretical, meaning that much of it is concerned with developing, exploring, or testing the theories or ideas that social researchers have about how the world operates. It is also empirical, meaning that it is based on observations and measurements of reality, that is, on what you perceive of the world around you. You can even think of most research as a blending of these two terms–a comparison of theories about how the world operates with observations of its operation.

The next term, nomothetic, refers to laws or rules that pertain to the general case (nomos in Greek) and is contrasted with the term idiographic, which refers to laws or rules that relate to individuals. Most social research is concerned with the nomothetic, that is, the general case, rather than with the individual. Individuals are often studied, but usually there is interest in generalizing to more than just the individual.

The next term is inference. Most contemporary social research is probabilistic, or based on probabilities. The inferences made in social research have probabilities associated with them; they are seldom meant to be considered as covering laws that pertain to all cases. Part of the reason that statistics has become so dominant in social research is that it enables the estimation of the probabilities for the situations being studied.

The next term is scientific method, or process. The scientific method is considered fundamental to all research and acquisition of new knowledge based upon data gathered, or evidence. Scientists propose new assertions about the world in the form of theories: observations, hypotheses, and deductions. Predictions from these theories are tested by experiment. If a prediction is correct, the theory survives. Any theory that is cogent enough to make predictions can then be tested reproducibly in this way. The method is commonly taken as the underlying logic of scientific practice. The scientific method is essentially an extremely cautious means of building a supportable, evidenced understanding of our world.

The last term is causal, which means that most social research is interested in looking at cause-and-effect relationships. Studies simply observe. For instance, a survey might seek to describe the percent of people holding a particular opinion. Many studies explore relationships, for example, studies often attempt to determine if there is a relationship between gender and income. Probably the vast majority of applied social research consists of these descriptive and correlational studies. This lesson discusses causal studies because for most social sciences, it is important to go beyond simply looking at the world or looking at relationships. You might like to be able to change the world, that is, improve it and eliminate some of its major problems. If you want to change the world, especially if you want to do this in an organized, scientific way, you are automatically interested in causal relationships, namely, ones that tell how causes (e.g., example, programs, and treatments) affect the outcomes of interest.

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