Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Factors and Conditions Influencing the Use of Research by the Criminal Justice System

Academic journal article Western Criminology Review

Factors and Conditions Influencing the Use of Research by the Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

Whither We Are Tending

"If we could know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it," said Lincoln in his famous "house divided" speech in 1858 (Angle, 1991). While we might imagine that the debate over criminological research and its applicability to practice is inconsequential compared to the coming crisis Lincoln was addressing, such a judgment ignores the reason the debate is so important. On any given day, over two million people are being held against their will in jails or prisons in the United States and over twice as many more are under community supervision or otherwise entangled in the criminal justice system (Harrison and Beck, 2006; Glaze and Bonczar, 2006). Collectively, they represent tens of millions of victims. About 350,000 people a year are seriously injured in a crime and over the last decade an average of 20,000 have died violently each year (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1990-2000; Rennison, 2001). One in three Americans are afraid to walk alone in their own neighborhoods at night (Gallup, 2000). These and many other statistics may define where we are, but the fact is that our own professional house has long been divided between researchers and practitioners and this has hobbled our society's response to crime and violence.

What is most interesting about Lincoln's remark is the distinction he drew between what to do and how to do it within the context of the goals we wish to set. This manner of framing the issue is a classic statement of Pragmatism; Lincoln was speaking at a time when that tradition was emerging as the dominant philosophical perspective in America (Menard, 2001). Much later, John Dewey (1929:7-8) captured the Pragmatic spirit of inquiry when he argued that knowledge should be tested by asking the questions

Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering the things of ordinary experience more opaque than they were before, and in depriving them of the having in 'reality' even the significance they had previously seemed to have?

For Dewey and the Pragmatists this test applies equally to any type of inquiry, including those that use the methods of science. Like everyday knowledge, science must begin and end with experience and its ultimate test is how it can be used. From the Pragmatist perspective, a science that begins with experience, but ends with a published report providing an explanation is incomplete. In this paper, we will discuss the contrast between this perspective and the more common practices of social science research inherited from a Positivistic view of the scientific enterprise to examine a number of issues that influence the relationship of research and practice.1

Central to the Pragmatist critique of Positivism is the argument that the latter relies exclusively on an attenuated understanding of experience. In Pragmatism, the concept of "experience" joins the dual meanings of the term in ordinary language to include, 1) experience of something as when we observe the world around us and 2) experience with something when we participate in an activity (Dewey, 1925; Murphy and Rorty, 1990; Ratner, 1939). When we have observational experiences, including when our observations are systematic as in scientific research, it produces empirical evidence. When we have participatory experiences, we develop skills. We can say, for example, that a person has a great deal of experience in substance abuse programs and mean by it either 1) they have done many studies, 2) have run programs for many years, or even 3) have been treated for dependency several times. It is the union of these differing senses that constitutes the full meaning of experience in the Pragmatic sense. Keeping these multiple aspects of the concept in mind helps us think through the supposed division between research and practice. …

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