Research Methods in Criminology and Criminal Justice

Research in criminology and criminal justice is a broad and dynamic field that utilizes various methods to study and understand individual and group phenomena. These methods are designed to achieve multiple objectives: from creating general theories that explain certain behaviors to assessing the effectiveness of existing policies and social programs. Throughout this document, we will explore the different research methods used in this field, analyzing their strengths, weaknesses, and practical applications.

Objectives of Research in Criminology and Criminal Justice

  1. Theory Creation: This is a fundamental process in any academic discipline, and in criminology, it focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of crime and criminal behavior.
  2. Testing Existing Theories: Essential for validating the applicability of general theories to specific subgroups or contexts.
  3. Policy and Program Evaluation: Crucial for determining the effectiveness of interventions and programs designed to reduce criminality and improve criminal justice systems.

Types of Data in Criminological Research

Data are the core of any research and can be classified into two main categories:

  • Qualitative Data: Includes verbal descriptions of processes and outcomes observed directly by researchers. These data are fundamental for understanding complex contexts and dynamics within the studied phenomena.
  • Quantitative Data: Consists of numerical information that is collected and analyzed using statistical techniques. This type of data is invaluable for establishing patterns, testing hypotheses, and conducting objective evaluations.

Qualitative Methods


One of the richest qualitative methods in criminology is ethnography, which involves the researcher’s immersion in a specific environment to collect detailed data about social and cultural interactions. A classic example is the study of inmates’ lives within prisons, where researchers can observe and document how inmates adapt to incarcerated life and the subcultures that emerge within the prison.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Advantages: Provides a deep, contextual understanding of social phenomena.
  • Disadvantages: Can be subjective and limited in its applicability to broader contexts.

Quantitative Methods

Surveys and Statistical Analysis

The collection of quantitative data often involves the use of surveys and other measurement instruments that assign numerical values to observations. This approach allows researchers to analyze large data sets and establish correlations and causations more objectively.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Advantages: Allows for objective and generalizable testing of hypotheses.
  • Disadvantages: Can overlook the context and nuances of human behaviors, sometimes resulting in simplistic interpretations of complex phenomena.

Common Problems in Research

Research in criminology faces several methodological challenges, such as:

  • Lack of Objectivity: Sometimes termed “convict criminology,” this issue arises when the researcher’s biases influence theory construction.
  • Poor Model Specification: This occurs when theories are not well conceptualized, leading to errors in the operationalization of concepts.
  • Errors in Applying Statistical Techniques: Such as meta-analyses of quasi and non-experimental studies, which can lead to erroneous conclusions.


The choice of research method in criminology and criminal justice should be guided by the specific objectives of the study, the nature of the phenomenon under investigation, and the specific questions that the researcher seeks to answer. Both qualitative and quantitative methods have their place in this field, and often, a combination of both can provide the most comprehensive and useful insights.

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