Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Why Don't We Just Ask?: Qualitative
Interviews in Criminology Research1

Kenneth W. Mentor
In comparison to surveys and other quantitative methods, the qualitative interview has failed to receive general acceptance as a method of criminology research. This paper addresses this issue in relation to several sources of resistance. Resistance in publishing, the discipline, and within educational institutions are each discussed. This discussion examines the forms of resistance and the implications this resistance can have on efforts to advance criminology theory and policy.

Qualitative research can provide much more robust information than is available through surveys, controlled experiments, or other quantitative methods of data analysis. However, for a variety of reasons, quantitative research methods remain the primary means for data collection in criminology research. This paper examines the ratio of quantitative to qualitative research and offers several explanations for an imbalance that strongly favors quantitative research.

It can be difficult to clearly define qualitative and quantitative research. For the purposes of this paper we will adopt very simple definitions. We will define quantitative research as that which seeks to reduce events or phenomena to a set of numbers which can be statistically manipulated. We will further limit our definition through reference to the methods used, primarily survey based data collection and experiments in which researchers attempt to limit the effects of spurious variables. In contrast, qualitative research includes a wider variety of techniques. For the purpose of this paper we will limit our examples, and much of the discussion, to attempts to collect data through the use of relatively unstructured interviews. Data, to the qualitative researcher, consists of words, subjective observations, and in many cases documents collected in the course of interviews and observations.

Qualitative researchers report results based on data that is very different from that used by the quantitative researcher. This difference is not indicative of quality, in reality, many of the classic works in the field of criminology have used qualitative methods. Many researchers have developed very clear understandings of crime and justice issues by asking questions of those involved in the criminal justice process. As the title of this paper suggests, "why don't we just ask?" There is no clear indication that interview data is consistently inferior to quantitative data, that the results of qualitative analysis are somehow less helpful in our efforts to understand the crime and justice, or that quantitative methods provide advantages related to quality.

Although quality is accepted, we see significant quantity differences, as indicated by the number of quantitative works relative to those that rely on qualitative methods. At this time it appears that the field of criminology,2 at least as it is represented in major journals, is failing to utilize the full variety of research tools available. Reasons for this apparent underutilization are discussed below.

Publication Related Sources of Resistance

Criminology is an active field of research. Much work is being completed and published. At this time I will make no effort to assess the quality of that research. Instead, the focus will be the quantity of qualitative versus qualitative research published between 1990 and 1996. It may seem ironic that I use quantitative methods to suggest that more quantitative research is needed. This is done in light of two realities, each of which is related to the themes presented in this paper.

First, it can be difficult to assess the quality of criminal justice research. Some of this research is clearly superior to the majority, other research is clearly situated at the other end of the spectrum. My reluctance to assess quality is related to the fact that I believe much quantitative research is uninteresting, uninspiring, and not particularly helpful in our quest for understanding. In looking at the research that is nearer the middle of the spectrum, my assessment of quality may be biased. This reality becomes associated with the theme of this paper when we consider the fact that others are more than willing to assess quality. In particular, editors and senior faculty. Those who evaluate research for publication may suffer from a bias that is the opposite of mine. This bias may lead to a high ratio of quantitative to qualitative research. Similarly, a bias against qualitative research may also become apparent in the tenure review process.

The second reason for using a rather simplistic method of quantity measurement is related to time. A qualitative assessment of the body of criminology research would be very time consuming and would involve a significant use of resources. A quantitative assessment involves a simple count of articles in major journals. This can be accomplished by reliance on a research assistant who is willing and able to complete the legwork, although limited in mindwork, that is needed to compile this count. Researchers who are under tenure clock pressure may not have the resources needed to complete a time consuming qualitative research project, especially if that project may be less likely to be published or be taken seriously in the tenure review process. This cost benefit analysis may lead to reduced efforts in the area of qualitative research.

In an effort to assess the ratio of quantitative to qualitative research key criminology publications, along with several other major journals in which criminology papers frequently appear, were reviewed for this research. Review of articles published from 1990 to 1996 included a brief examination of the methods used, rejection of articles that were commentary or purely theoretical in nature, and categorization of those that included a clear research design. Quantitative research methods were used in a majority of the articles. Seventeen percent of the research based articles in Justice Quarterly used qualitative methodologies. Articles published in Criminology used qualitative methods 4 percent of the time, in Crime and Delinquency these methods were used in 11 percent of the articles. The numbers were similar in journals that publish in wider topic areas. Of those articles with a criminology focus, 10 percent of those published in the American Sociological Review relied on qualitative methods. Criminology oriented papers published in the Law and Society Review used qualitative methods 13 percent of the time, while 29 percent of the criminology papers published in Social Problems relied on qualitative methods.

As mentioned above, the low ratio of qualitative to quantitative research articles may be related to bias on the part of reviewers. This bias, if it exist, may be related to several factors. Reviewers may be skeptical about qualitative methods, believing that these methods are "unscientific" (Toch, 1987). This distrust leads reviewers to quickly discount the merits of research that relies on qualitative data collection. Another factor is related to the experiences of those who become reviewers. Perhaps those who become editors and reviewers are in a position of editorial review based in part on their publication track record. If the numbers above are any indication, this track record is most likely heavily weighted toward quantitative research. This bias could be reduced through an editor's efforts to include reviewers with a wider range of research methods expertise. However, editors and editorial boards, in an effort to assist in the development of a "scientific" discipline, may be reluctant to encourage articles that some may perceive as lacking in scientific rigor.

Another publication issue is related to the tenure process. If we are under the mistaken belief that "science" and "quantitative" necessarily go hand in hand, faculty who are involved in an often confusing and rigorous tenure quest may be reluctant to direct their resources toward qualitative research. Negatives related to publication potential and fears of a negative reaction on the part of senior faculty may lead researchers toward quantitative methods. Time concerns are also related to a reluctance to work on qualitative research projects. Young faculty, armed with the knowledge that publication may occur a considerable time after an article is submitted, may not want to delay submission by engaging in a lengthy research project.

Discipline Related Sources of Resistance

Resistance to qualitative research can come from within the field of criminology in ways not directly related to publication. Critical criminologists have been among the most active proponents of qualitative methods. This appears to be related to several issues. First, critical criminologists do not accept the proposition that all research must be value free. In fact, they will most likely assert that the majority of the discipline is fooled to the extent that they believe quantitative research is value free. Escaping the belief in value free research allows the researcher to chose from a wider range of methods. While this may not impress "old school" tenure review boards, it can be liberating to the researcher, who is able to reduce, or openly acknowledge, the bias that may be present in his or her research.

A second reason critical criminologists may choose to avoid quantitative research is related to issues regarding the discipline's collective knowledge of crime and justice. Quantitative methods are most helpful in a situation where you are attempting to expand on existing knowledge. In short, you understand an issue well enough to know what questions to include and what data to collected. The critical criminologist is looking for new, and presumably clearer, understandings of crime and related issues. The idea that we know the issues well enough to limit our investigation is unacceptable to the critical criminologist.

Although I personally feel this is unfortunate, the critical criminologist may not be the best spokesperson for qualitative methods. While the message is logical and clear, it is being presented from within a section of criminology that many do not take seriously. A message presented from a marginalized source is less likely to become mainstream. If critical criminologists are the only producers and consumers of qualitative research, these methods are further separated from the "mainstream." Discipline related resistance is apparent to the critical criminologist, and is apparent in areas far broader than the methods we use to gather and analyze data.

As stated above, this paper is being prepared for presentation at the annual conference of the American Society of Criminology. Many of us have been to these and similar meetings in the past. How often have you been present in well attended sessions where the majority of the presentation involved overheads that summarize the complex statistical analysis of quantitative data? In an obvious departure from neutrality, I am predicting that as I present this paper much better attendance can be expected in sessions where quantitative data is being shared with others. Is the presentation of quantitative data the dominant means of professional communication at these meetings? If this is the case, either real or perceived, should faculty and other researchers who are attempting to show their work, develop working relationships with others, and earn a reputation among peers do so with work that may appear to be less than scientific? Many will choose the path of least resistance. At this time, this path includes quantitative research methods and statistical data analysis.

Educational Resistance to Qualitative Methods

A major source of resistance to qualitative methods is the increasing influence of Institutional Review Boards (IRB's). The institution, in fear of lawsuits, encourages research that is removed from actual human contact. Universities are concerned with researchers as well as the people or issues these researchers are attempting to understand. Research conducted by students can pose unique issues (Wright and Stein, 1996) that IRB's take very seriously. Research directed at certain populations can also be problematic. For example, educational institutions may have strict rules against contact with prisoners. This is clearly not a positive development for researchers with specialties in corrections. In reality, the effects of IRB's are much broader. Criminology research will be very limited if forced to proceed in a sterile, risk free environment. The qualitative interview is especially problematic if the goal is to speak with gang members, juvenile offenders, assault victims, or any real humans who have experience with real issues. The public is increasing led to believe that contact with certain individuals is inherently dangerous. This belief increases the chance that IRB's will react negatively to any effort to interact with these individuals in a meaningful way.

Another source of educational resistance is related to the teaching of research methods. In the past, criminologists learned research methods in many ways. For example, many of us learned research methods as presented within sociology departments. These courses often included clear presentations of qualitative methods. We may have even had an opportunity to take courses that were entirely devoted to qualitative methods. Today, as criminal justice is becoming a distinct field of inquiry and education, we are teaching methods within departments with a narrower focus. This narrow focus, combined with a faculty that is often much smaller than that of many sociology departments, may lead to a narrowing of educational requirements and options. This chance is apparent when we consider that just 1 of 29 criminal justice doctoral programs requires a course in qualitative methods (DiChristina, 1997).

Qualitative research has become an option in criminal justice education. This may be related to the changing nature of criminal justice education. While my goal is not to comment on free standing criminal justice departments, it is clear that these departments may not have the resources necessary for multiple courses in research methods. A related issue is that a number of texts are now being written specifically for criminal justice methods courses. These texts are often arranged in a way that allows the professor to omit the chapter (if that) in which qualitative methods are discussed.

A number of criminal justice research methods textbooks were reviewed for this paper. In general, coverage of qualitative methods is very limited in these texts. The discussion is usually focused on definition rather than on an effort to encourage the development of qualitative research skills. Hagen was one of the first to write a methods book specifically for criminal justice students. His text, now available in a 4th edition (1997), includes chapters on interviewing and participant observation. The chapter on interviewing is of little help to those interested in teaching or learning the skills necessary to become an effective interviewer. Open-ended or unstructured interviews are discussed in less than two pages. The majority of cites on these pages are over 20 years old. Hagen writes that "such interviews are excellent for hypothesis-gathering or exploratory research" (1997:166, quoting a 1956 publication). In the 3rd edition, Hagen writes that "open-ended items may present a tabulation nightmare, but provide the qualitative detail and complexity of response that may be required, particularly if the subject of study is little known" (1993:157). As other disciplines began to embrace the use of qualitative methods they moved beyond the "interviews as preliminary legwork" view of unstructured interviews. Criminal justice research, at least as presented by Hagen, has not reached this stage.

The majority of Hagen's discussion, like the authors of many of these texts, is limited to the use of structured interviews. Much of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of the National Crime Survey. The word "qualitative" does not appear in the subject index of Hagen's textbook. Maxfield and Babbie's (1995) text is similar in its coverage. Interviews are discussed in the chapter on surveys. Interview data is intended to be reduced to quantitative data. Maxfield and Babbie also include a chapter on field research. "Qualitative" is not included in the index and does not appear to be used in the text. Fitzgerald and Cox (1994) also fail to use the term. One page of their text discussed unstructured interviews, like the others, the discussion is definitional rather than instructive.

Taylor (1994) and Senese (1997) provide a more thorough discussion of qualitative research methods. Taylor includes a chapter on qualitative field research. The chapter is helpful and includes several examples of qualitative research. However, the discussion of unstructured interviews is very limited. In fact, in the subject index, the word "interview" tells the reader to "see surveys" (1994:369). Senese, in a new addition to the criminal justice research methods textbook market, provides a relatively thorough chapter on qualitative data analysis. Although a major improvement over the other textbooks, the chapter still seems like a bit of an "add-on" that is not fully integrated with the remainder of the text. His text includes information on computer aided qualitative data analysis, a topic that is not mentioned in any of the other texts. Like the other textbooks, discussion of interviews is limited to structured interviews in all chapters but the one devoted to qualitative research.

Champion (1993) provides the most complete coverage of interviews. His chapter provides good examples of in depth interviews and provides helpful information to researchers interested in attempting to sharpen their interviewing skills. Much of the chapter is devoted to discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of interviews in criminal justice research. While Champion's coverage of the qualitative interview is limited, his coverage is not likely to discourage the student with interests in this type of data collection. A negative regarding Champion's coverage is that he, like the other authors, presents this material in a context in which qualitative methods receive a great deal of attention. Four of the 17 chapters in his book are devoted to statistical analysis of quantitative data.

Interviewing is becoming increasingly technological to many of these authors. Phone interviewing, random dialing, computerized data input and analysis, and other recent innovations are discussed. Unstructured interviews are seldom mentioned and are not taught. The focus on structure, technology, and efficiency runs counter to the dominant themes offered in methods texts used by other disciplines. In light of the fact that there is no evidence that qualitative methods are inappropriate for criminal justice research, it is unfortunate that criminal justice education is so far behind the learning curve.

These textbooks fail to provide students will a well rounded introduction to qualitative methods. This failure is especially apparent in the area of unstructured interviews. The minimal coverage is likely to lead students to conclude that unstructured interviews are not among the skills necessary in an effort to more thoroughly understand the criminal justice system. After reviewing these texts, it should come as no surprise that many criminologists have failed to develop a well rounded repertoire of research methods skills.


Three interrelated sources of resistance to qualitative research have been examined in this paper. Publication issues, the discipline of criminology, and the education system can each serve to limit the use of qualitative research methods. Each of these sources is active in a circular process which further reduces the use of qualitative methods.

Publication, which is clearly related to the discipline as well as education, appears to favor the quantitative researcher. The researcher who works toward publication is likely to be aware of obstacles that he or she will face if qualitative methods are chosen. These obstacles, related to time, tenure, and the odds of publication, each favor the selection of quantitative research methods. As tenure requirements become more demanding, and competition for publication and tenure grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to publish in the "top journals." If researchers believe, whether correct or not, that publication is more likely if certain research methods are used, he or she is likely to choose the favored methods. DiChristina writes that quantitative knowledge "may continue to be emphasized despite its acknowledged limitations because this kind of knowledge sells, but it sells largely because it is emphasized" (1997:191).

The discipline, as reflected in its publications, meetings, and attitudes toward certain modes of inquiry (whether theoretical or methodological) also appears to discourage qualitative research. Is criminology moving away from face to face contact with individuals who happen to have become embroiled in our system of justice? If criminology becomes increasingly separated from the people and issues it seeks to understand, the chance of real knowledge is diminished. Educational sources of resistance also lead to the creation of a circular process in which a move toward increased use of qualitative methods becomes unlikely. Limited coverage of qualitative methods, often presented as an afterthought in a textbook overflowing with quantitative methods, may leave the impression that good science generally includes statistics. As a result, students reject qualitative methods. Many of these students, lacking in qualitative research skills, will become professors. Their ability to teach a variety of research strategies is limited by their education and experience. These future professors may be tempted to skip the easily detachable chapter on qualitative methods. As a result of limited experience and knowledge, few of them will feel comfortable supplementing the text in an effort to provide a thorough introduction to qualitative research methods.

Becker (1953) talked with jazz musicians who happened to be marijuana users. This led to an understanding of learning that applies to many "deviant" or "criminal" behaviors. Scully and Marolla (1984) interviewed rapists and taught us about the motives, excuses, and justifications that men use to explain the sexual abuse of women. Lynch (1983) instructed his students to interview people who have frequent contact with those defined as "crazy." The result was an insightful description of the process through which "normal" is socially constructed. Goldstein (1990) interviewed a number of "experts" on delinquency, the "delinquents" themselves. Currie (1991) provides a clear and compelling picture of the lives of young men and women caught up in a culture of drug use. Currie's data was reported by using the words of those interviewed.

As these examples remind us, qualitative interviewing has clearly led to the collection and reporting of very insightful information. Those involved in our system of justice are experts in relation to the effect their experiences have had on their lives. Criminologists should be asking them about these experiences. If we remain in the quantitative mode we fail to appreciate the personal, cultural, and historical roots of these experiences and the system in which the experiences occur. If we, as criminologists, expect to be fully involved in the policy process we must make an effort to understand the real world implications of our policies.

We should look for opportunities to create a more balanced use of the methods available to qualitative, as well as quantitative, researchers. This effort is not likely to occur if we are unable to free ourselves from the believe that good research includes statistics. Criminology must begin to accept and teach qualitative methods in an effort to minimize costs associated with their use. A strong argument can be made that the benefits of qualitative research outweigh the costs. Nevertheless, criminologists should take steps to reduce these costs in an attempt to include real people in our efforts to understand crime and justice.


Becker, H.S. (1953). "Becoming a marijuana user." American Journal of Sociology, 59, 235-242.

Champion, D.J. (1993). Research methods for criminal justice and criminology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Currie, E. (1991). Dope and Trouble. New York: Pantheon Books.

DiChristina, B. (1997). "The quantitative emphasis in criminal justice education," Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 8(2), 181-197.

Fitzgerald, J.D. and Cox, S.M. (1994). Research methods in criminal justice. Chicago: Nelson Hall.

Goldstein, A.P. (1990). Delinquents on delinquency. Champaign, IL: Research press.

Hagan, F.E. (1997). Research methods in criminal justice and criminology (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hagan, F.E. (1993). Research methods in criminal justice and criminology (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Lynch, M. (1983). "Accomodation practices: vernacular treatment of madness." Social Problems, 31, 152-164.

Maxfield, M.G. and Babbie, E. (1995). Research methods for criminal justice and criminology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Scully, D. and Marolla, J. (1984). "Convicted rapists' vocabulary of motive: Excuses and justifications," Social Problems, 31, 530-544.

Senese, J.D. (1997). Applied research methods in criminal justice. Chicago: Nelson Hall.

Taylor, R.B, (1994). Research methods in criminal justice. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Toch, H. (1987). "Supplementing the positivist perspective." In M. Gottfredson and T. Hirschi (eds.), Positive Criminology, pp. 138-153. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Wright, R. and Stein, M. (1996). "Seeing ourselves: Exploring the social production of criminological knowledge an a qualitative methods course," Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 7(1), 65-77.

1This paper has been prepared for the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology. The paper includes research as well as opinion. The paper is offered in the hope that others will offer suggestions related to the potential for an expanded look at the issues raised.

2"Criminology" is used throughout this paper to refer to a broad discipline in which criminal justice is included. If the reference is to "criminal justice" alone, that term will be used.


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