Criminological Ethnography: An Introduction


James Treadwell

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    This book has been a long time coming, and it would not have happened without a lot of input and learning from others, such is the way of the ethnographer.

    I would like to thank Dr Steve Wakeman. The project began with him and would not have happened without him, however he would not take any credit. I would also like to thank those amongst the Critical Criminology group of the BSC and colleagues and students in and of Criminology interested in ethno-graphy, some of whom I have the pleasure of working with and alongside, many more I have learned from and with. My colleagues at Staffordshire University and in Law, Policing and Forensics, and all those involved in the BSC at BCU in 2018. There are too many criminologists to mention, and lots appear in the book. I hope I didn’t miss anyone out.

    However, most of these people only work with me. It’s living with an ethno-grapher that is really difficult. In that respect I want to thank Abi and Evie, who put up with many of the negatives that come with living with a long term ethnographer. I love you both and this is dedicated to you.

  • Glossary


    the term used to describe the initial process, and then the ongoing and continually re-establishment of admittance and acceptance into the field of study and to participants. Access essentially describes the process of gaining contact to field settings, participants and fieldwork sites, determining whether and to what extent the ethnographer will conform to overt and covert roles, and how they will explain, rationalise and justify their place in fieldwork, both at the commencement of the project, and as part of a continued and re-negotiated contact throughout and potentially beyond the fieldwork processes.


    the term aetiology denotes cause, and specifically in criminology relates to issues around the causes or generative features that drive crime and criminality. Much early criminology was concerned with aetiology and, specifically, in criminology Jock Young made much of criminological abandonment of concern with aetiology as part of its administrative turn during the late 1970s and 1980s as part of a rational choice inspired governmental perspective.

    Analytic realism

    is a postmodern ethnographic methodology that seeks to challenge the postmodernist view that ethnography occupies no particular scientific or privileged position. In the late 1980s, claims to objectivity, accuracy and truth brought about by thick description were being challenged by scholars who argued that such accounts did not represent reality as it is. Analytic realism details the view that researchers need to substantiate their findings via a reflexive process – to investigate ourselves while we are investigating others – and through that process ethnography becomes research that is privileged and stands above everyday accepted wisdom and observation, ‘allowing ethnography to rise above the morass and meaninglessness of post-modern relativism and scepticism’ (Brewer, 2000: 50).


    in ethnography, analysis is not a neatly defined period or phase of research, or a linear or simple process of considering data and making sense of data, but rather tends to be an iterative phase (O’Reilly 2009) where the process of sense making is one that is ongoing, and where the researcher seeks to make sense of and continually re-appraise data and research strategy. There are various approaches for analysis of ethnographic data, from analytic realism through discourse and narrative analysis and grounded theory, and occasionally methods of analysis are combined.


    the study of humans and human behaviour and societies in both the past and present. Social and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans. As a research approach, anthropology has tended to traditionally employ ethnography and ethnology and it was traditional early anthropology and its practitioners that developed ethnographic approaches incorporated into the social sciences.


    a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political and social meanings and understandings. Auto-ethnography is a self-reflective form of writing used both to validate findings and a heuristic device, particularly in criminological ethnography.


    the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was a research centre at the University of Birmingham, England. It was founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, its first director, the Centre played a major role in developing the field of cultural studies, and advances in associated disciplines such as sociology and criminology. The Centre was led by Stuart Hall (1969–1979) and it pioneered a variety of approaches to the study of culture, including: ideological analysis, studies of working-class cultures (and specifically subcultures), the role of media in construction of news and media audiences, feminist cultural and ethnographic research, and struggles in state politics such as in regards to race, and often the link between race and crime and control. While it championed an array of research approaches, some notable ethnographies such as Paul Willis (1978) Learning to Labour emerged from academics working in the centre.


    in the social sciences, coding is an analytical process in which data, in both quantitative form (such as questionnaires results) or qualitative (such as interview transcripts) is categorised and sorted in order to facilitate analysis. In some forms of analysis, such as grounded theory, the coding process assists in theory building and selecting prominent themes.


    in the social sciences, the department of sociology at the University of Chicago has long held a special symbolic appeal, due as much to its association with the transformation and incorporation of qualitative methods as with the theoretical ideas or topics it studied. This Chicagoan sociology was framed in symbolic interactionism. The Chicago School (sometimes described as the ecological school) produced the first major body of work during the 1920s and 1930s specialising in urban sociology, and research into the urban environment combining theory and ethnographic fieldwork. A second wave Chicago School became more prominent in the years after the Second World War and proved to be influential on the development of British criminology and sociology through the National Deviancy Symposium.


    covert participant observation is a method in social science research. Participant observation involves a researcher joining the group he or she is studying, and in the case of covert observation, the researcher’s status is not made known or disclosed to the group. While this creates an association with deception, Calvey notes, covert research linked to ethnography has a long and established tradition in the social sciences and has been employed to study a range of phenomena where traditional informal informed consent and overtly negotiated access would not be possible (Calvey, 2017).

    Critical (criminology)

    a theoretical (criminological) perspective that focuses on challenging traditional understandings and uncovering false beliefs about crime and criminal justice, often but not exclusively by taking a conflict perspective, such as Marxism, feminism, political economy theory or critical theory. Critical criminology frequently takes a perspective of examining the genesis of crime and nature of ‘justice’ within the social structure of a class and status inequalities and power dynamics, with the functions of empirical criminological research being to unearth and expose such social processes.

    Deductive (reasoning)

    the process of reasoning from one or more statements (premises) to reach a logically certain conclusion. Deductive reasoning goes in as linear direction and follows a sequential process, and links premises with conclusions. If all premises are true, the terms are clear, and the rules of deductive logic are followed, then the conclusion reached is necessarily true. Deductive reasoning is a top-down logic and contrasts with inductive reasoning (bottom-up logic). In deductive reasoning, a conclusion is reached reductively by applying general rules which hold over the entirety of a closed domain of discourse, narrowing the range under consideration until only the conclusion(s) is left. Ethnography, as an inductive process, is often contrasted with more deductive styles of positivistic research.


    this simply means the written or spoken communication or debate, so criminological discourse is communication or debate as it applies to criminology. However, in social science research it also used in ‘discourse analysis’, which is an approach that essentially seeks to analyse that discourse.


    as the OED notes, emic is traditionally an anthropological term relating to or denoting an approach to the study or description of a language or culture in terms of its internal elements and their functioning rather than in terms of any existing external scheme, hence in criminological ethnography it is the attempt to understand the research subject or participants’ inner world view.


    means ‘theories of knowledge’ and describes beliefs about how knowledge can be generated. In general terms, in the social science epistemological standpoints are generally positivist or interpretivist, although some also suggest a critical epistemology.


    are moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. In the social sciences, the focus on ethics in relation to subjects or participants is framed around the fact that the subject is human, and hence the presumptions in general are against doing harm through research. To that end, the social sciences are guided by general ethical principles, and research ethics laid down in codes or guides seek to limit the potential harms of unethical research conduct.


    the counterpoint to the emic perspective. In anthropology an ‘etic’ account is a description of a behaviour or belief by an observer, in terms that can be applied across cultures. Etic accounts and understandings seek to be ‘culturally neutral’, hence they limit any ethnocentric, political and/or cultural bias or alienation by the observer. It is often suggested that etic is the outsider overview or the objective descriptor of events in contrast to the emic internal meanings.


    a research approach drawn from anthropology and the study of people and groups in their natural settings. Typically it involves a researcher (or team of researchers) spending prolonged periods in the setting in which the participants or subjects are normally encountered, gathering data about the everyday activities, practices and associated meanings for the group of individuals or individual that they are studying.


    while there is no single feminist perspective (and feminists may ascribe to different branches or variant schools of feminist thought), feminism more broadly is a term used to describe perspectives that share a concern with the inequality of women and the discrimination that they face in a society that is patriarchal, and which disempowers women by structures and attitudes that assume and presume or promote the dominance and prioritisation of men.


    qualitative notes and data records that are gathered and recorded by social scientists or researchers in the course of field research, during or after their observation of a specific phenomenon that they are studying. The notes are intended to be read as evidence that gives meaning and aids in the understanding of the phenomenon. Fieldnotes allow the researcher to access the subject and record what they observe in an unobtrusive manner.


    the process that involves the collection of data outside a laboratory, library or normal setting. The approaches and methods used in field research vary across disciplines, but social scientists conducting field research may interview or observe people in their natural environments to learn their languages, folklore and social structures. In particular, fieldwork is often described as ethnographic if it is done over a sustained period of field research involving variable methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, results from activities undertaken off- or on-line, and life-histories. Although the method generally is characterised as qualitative research, it may (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Qualitative fieldwork involving theories of law making, law breaking and law enforcement and issues of crime, crime control and deviant behaviour are the stuff of criminological ethnography.


    a key or core contact (sometimes, though not always a research participant themselves) who stands between the data collector and a potential respondent. Gatekeepers, by virtue of their personal or work relationship to a respondent, are able to control who has access, and when, to the respondent.

    ‘Getting out’

    the term that ethnographers use to denote the formal leaving of the field research setting, a short hand for withdrawal from the fieldwork data collection stage of a qualitative project. However, while it denotes a simple process of entry, immersion, withdrawal, in contemporary criminological research, some academics are sceptical about the extent to which such notions of sequential and segmented research phases actually apply in reality to the complex and multifaceted forms of relationship that researcher and participants might establish (e.g. see Ancrum, 2014).


    a heuristic technique is any approach to problem solving, learning or discovery that employs a practical method that is not perfect but is sufficient for the immediate aims. Where finding an optimal solution is not possible, heuristic methods are utilised to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory explanations. Heuristics can be conceived of as the mental process of decision-making and coming to an understanding. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgement.

    Hypothetico-deductive method

    is a description of an approach to scientific method linked with positivistic perspectives that promotes scientific inquiry and empirical investigation whereby research proceeds by means by formulating hypotheses, which are then subject to testing, whereby they can be either proved (or disproved) through empirical experimentation and observation. The hypothetico-deductive method can never absolutely verify (prove the truth of a hypothesis) but commonly exists to falsify or disprove hypothesis. It is different and rooted more to the physical sciences from other research models such as the inductive approach or grounded theory which ethnography is more commonly traditionally associated with.


    the opposite of deductive, inductive reasoning, also sometimes called induction or bottom-up (ground up) logic, constructs or evaluates general propositions that are derived from specific examples. Inductive reasoning, or induction, is reasoning from a specific case or cases and deriving a general rule, and hence, ethnography is a form of inductive research.


    (or symbolic) interactionism is a sociological theory that develops from practical considerations and alludes to people’s utilisation of interactions and engagements with others. In other words, it is a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shape individual behaviours. It originates from a sociological perspective which developed around the middle of the twentieth century and that continues to be influential in some areas of the discipline, particularly associated with American philosophy of pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, and became a significant influence in the onset of the first and subsequent waves of Chicagoan sociology.


    in the social sciences, interpretivism is a theoretical stance that proposes that the social realm cannot be studied with the scientific method of investigation applied to the natural world (as is claimed in positivism) and that investigation of the social realm requires a different epistemology. Fundamental to this epistemology is the belief that the concepts and language researchers bring to their research shape their perception of the social world under investigation where knowledge must be gained via interpretation.


    or interviewing in qualitative social science are often the most popular form of gathering data for analysis. Ranging from structured and scripted through to semi-structured and unstructured (purely conversational), interviews have long been part of the underpinning method that informs the ethnographic approach alongside participant observation.

    Life history

    a social research method first coined in anthropology for use with native American populations, but the method was latterly incorporated into Chicagoan sociology in its first phase as a means of documenting the lives of migrants, the homeless, criminals and prostitutes. Interviewers looked at social and police records, as well as the society in general, and asked subjects to talk about their lives. The resulting research sought to understand not simply the individual but their place in the social order, the subject’s view of their own life (i.e. what it was like to be this particular person) and how society perceived the subject.

    Narrative analysis

    seeks to analyse the stories which occur when one or more speakers engage in sharing and recounting an experience or event. Typically, the telling of a story occupies multiple turns in the course of a conversation and stories or narratives may share common structural features, and irrespective of veracity or truth of such stories, lessons can be learned merely from the very construction of that narrative., In criminology in particular at present, narrative approaches are being popularised when combined with qualitative inquiry, particularly as part of what has been termed ‘narrative criminology’ (Presser and Sandberg, 2015).


    the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies and seeks to understand concepts that directly relate to being or the existence of reality. Ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist, can be known or may be said to exist and how such entities may be understood, for example whether there is a reality that can ever be known or understood.


    (observations) are those which are undertaken with the knowledge of the group, or some members of the group under study where access has been negotiated through a process of gaining admission and participant consent. In contrast to covert research, which involves some degree of concealment or deception, overt research is presumed to be the default ethical standard to which ethnographers and qualitative researchers conform, with ethical norms expecting that most field research is undertaken with the participants’ informed consent.

    Participant observation

    one type of data collection method typically used in qualitative research (and one of the two foundational methods employed in ethnography, alongside interviewing). It is a widely used approach and strategy in many disciplines, particularly employed in research in anthropology, sociology, communication studies, human geography and social psychology. Its aim is to gain a close and intimate understanding via watching and recording, and researchers tend to observe and, to various degrees of immersion, participate in the culture and practices with a given group of individuals in their natural and organic cultural environment, usually over an extended period. The method originated in the field research of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and his students in Britain, before its incorporation into the urban sociology of the Chicago School of Sociology in the United States from the 1920s.


    the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the twentieth century and incorporated into modern social science by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their seminal work The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), where they positioned phenomenology as a perspective rather than as an alternative paradigm in sociology. In their rendering of a sociology of knowledge from a phenomenological perspective, they demonstrate how reality as such, not just social reality, is constructed and installed as objective reality, which in turn affects society’s members subjectively through processes of internalisation and socialisation. The phenomenological perspective focuses on the subjective and everyday aspects of human existence, and hence has used ethnography as a means of attempting to understand this, for example in works such as that of Charlesworth (1999) on poverty and being working class in Rotherham, although phenomenology and ethnography are rarely connected in attempts to study crime or its control.


    a philosophical theory and standpoint in the social sciences that traditionally holds that the social sciences can mimic the natural sciences and arrive at understandings based on testing of hypotheses and experimentation with the ultimate goal to formulate abstract and universal laws on the operative causal dynamics. Hence society can be studied in a manner that is informed by the importation of general scientific principles where clarity, replicability, reliability and validity and the use of quantitative data tend to be hallmarks.


    a general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction and cultural and literary criticism, alongside the social sciences. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of modernist scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality, progress or truth through meta narratives or grand theory, progressive rationalism or enlightenment. As a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late twentieth century it marked a departure from modernism, and is characterised by an attitude of scepticism, irony or rejection towards grand theory and universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language and social progress.

    Qualitative research

    essentially qualitative research is a scientific method of observation to gather non-numerical data. This type of research is orientated to meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols and description of things rather than numerical counts or measures. Hence qualitative research approaches are employed across many academic disciplines, focusing particularly on the human elements of the social sciences.

    Quantitative research

    quantitative research gathers data in a numerical form which can be put into categories, or in rank order, or measured in units of measurement. This type of data can be used to construct graphs and tables of raw data. Quantitative researchers aim to establish general laws of behaviour across different settings and contexts. Research is used to test a theory and ultimately support or reject it. Hence quantitative data tends to be traditionally associated with a positivist epistemological orientation.


    in philosophy, realism accords with the view that things that are known or perceived have an existence or nature which is independent of individual cognition (i.e. they exist independent of whether or how individuals think about or perceive them). It has slightly different meanings in other contexts such as in the arts where it is associated with the attempt to depict subjects naturally, truthfully or with accuracy. In criminology, particularly during the 1970s onwards, it describes approaches that for the most part have tended to be affiliated with the political right and left, but which share a commonality in so far as they accept the general harmful nature of crime as it is commonly and conventionally understood as damaging for social cohesion and the social fabric.


    in ethnographic research reflexivity involves two things. First, it requires that researchers reflect upon the research process in order to assess the effect of their presence and their research techniques on the nature and extent of the data collected. Crudely put, researchers must consider to what extent respondents were telling the truth as opposed to what the subject perceived they wanted to hear, whether other factors may influence the data or the data collection process, whether the format of the data collection restricts the kind of data being collected, and any other factor that may have a bearing on the project and the data collection including the influence of their own presence in the field. Second (and probably more significantly), it is the term ethnographic researchers use to describe the process of critically reflecting upon the theoretical structures they have drawn out of their ethnographic analysis. Researchers are expected to reconceptualise their evidence using other possible models; rather than just fit details into a preformed schema they should try to reform the schema to see if the details have different meanings.


    essentially a schema (plural schemata or schemas) describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organising and perceiving new information. Hence in ethnography it is the internalised system of organisation cognitively that the fieldworker uses to make sense of data.


    or snowball sampling is a means of generating participants or interviewees. In sociology it is a non-probability sampling technique where existing study subjects recruit future subjects from among their acquaintances. Thus, the sample group is said to grow like a rolling giant snowball. As the sample builds up, enough data are gathered to be useful for research. This sampling technique is often used in hidden populations, such as criminals, drug users or sex workers, which are difficult for researchers to normally gain access to. As sample members are not selected from a sampling frame, snowball samples are subject to numerous biases. As a technique it has been employed and well documented as a strategy by a number of US criminologists including Richard Wright, Scott Decker and Bruce Jacobs.

    Social constructionism

    essentially an anti-realist, relativist stance which is rooted in both symbolic interactionism and phenomenology. It is a theory of knowledge in the social sciences that considers the development understandings of the world via human interactions where meanings are made and constructed rather than existing externally and independently. Constructionists and interpretivists in general tend to share that they focus on the process(es) by which meanings are created, negotiated, sustained and modified. It is particularly associated with British sociology from the 1960s onwards, and with second wave Chicagoan sociology.


    a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, agency, personhood, reality and truth. These various definitions of subjectivity are sometimes joined together in philosophy. The term is most commonly used as an explanation for that which influences, informs and biases people’s judgements about truth or reality. It is the collection of the perceptions, experiences, expectations, personal or cultural understanding and beliefs specific to a person into a specific category. Subjectivity is contrasted to the philosophy of objectivity, which is described as a view of truth or reality that is free of any individual’s biases, interpretations, feelings and beliefs.


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