Evaluation Research and Criminal Justice: Beyond a Political Critique

By Travers, Max | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, April 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Evaluation Research and Criminal Justice: Beyond a Political Critique

Travers, Max, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

This article is intended to stimulate reflection and debate about the relationship between pure and applied research in criminology. The central argument is that evaluation research, which has almost become a dominant paradigm in researching criminal justice, has lower methodological standards than peer-reviewed social science. It considers this case in relation to quantitative and qualitative methods, and examines examples of a 'flagship' and 'small-scale' evaluation. The article concludes by discussing the implications for evaluators (who are encouraged to employ a wider range of methods), funding agencies and criminology as an academic discipline.


There has been considerable disquiet among critical criminologists in both Australia and the United Kingdom about the rise of evaluation as a research paradigm (Hillyard, 2001; Israel, 2000; O'Malley, 1996; White, 2002). It has been suggested that this has a managerial bias, and serves the needs of the powerful; and that there are tremendous institutional and financial pressures to conduct this kind of research. It is not, however, often recognised that academics not known for their political radicalism (Hood, 2001; Pawson & Tilley, 1997) and many professional evaluators are also concerned about the type of research being done in this field.

This article seeks to unpack this issue, in a provisional way, by focusing on a complaint that is not directly political. This is the charge that most evaluation research is methodologically poor, and intellectually uninteresting, when assessed by the standards employed in the academic peer-reviewed disciplines of criminology and sociology. The paper will consider this criticism in relation to quantitative and qualitative methods. It will also examine two examples of evaluation research: a well-funded 'flagship' project and a 'small-scale' evaluation conducted for a local agency.

This review of the methodological deficiencies of evaluation (which are acknowledged in the evaluation literature) raises disturbing issues for both academic criminologists and evaluators. In the first place, it suggests that applied research does not have to be rigorous, in academic terms, to be useful; so claims that evaluation is a robust, scientific discipline that produces 'objective' findings cannot be sustained. However, it also raises difficult questions about method for criminologists, as many academic studies use similar methods, but with a different political slant.

The Political Critique of Evaluation Research

The main argument advanced by critical criminologists is that evaluation research serves the needs of the powerful and has a managerial bias. Those teaching criminal justice courses may have some sympathy with this critique as they often rely heavily on evaluation reports. (1) These always present an upbeat picture of organisations struggling with and overcoming problems in a process of 'continuous improvement' that must reflect the views of those who commissioned the research, rather than cynical and disaffected practitioners on the ground. Academics sometimes complain that their reports are shelved or censored because they produce unpalatable findings or recommendations (see, e.g., Morgan, 2000; White, 2001). One can also easily imagine how researchers practise a form of self-censorship by steering clear from anything that might be controversial or damaging to the sponsoring agency. Reports do not, for example, contain lengthy interviews with staff about the grievances that inevitably arise from successive cut-backs or organisational changes, or reveal personality conflicts within management teams, or document abuses of power or entrenched racist or sexist attitudes inside institutions. (2) They also never criticise government policy, although one would expect practitioners and managers to have a range of political views. Academics working as consultants have sometimes criticised the implementation or success of evaluations (e.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Evaluation Research and Criminal Justice: Beyond a Political Critique


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?