Doing Ethnographic Research:
Lessons from a Case Study
The politics of police research and its funding have changed considerably over the last couple of decades. One author has noted the tendency since the late 1980s for research to focus increasingly on ‘the search for good prac- tice rather than issues of police discretion, deviance, and accountability’,1 research which he describes as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘governed by the overriding goal of crime reduction.’2 This is no doubt partly due to the fact that since the 1980s successive governments have become increasingly concerned with ‘value for money’ when it comes to research funding, and accordingly much of the recent research into criminal justice has focused on whether or not the latest government crime reduction initiative has worked. In this political climate, there is unlikely to be any meaningful funding for studies which focus on the behaviour of actors within the criminal process in order to discover and explain low-visibility practices.
Against this backdrop, PhD and Masters students have become critical (at least in the short-term) to the survival of a fine tradition in criminology, namely the detailed study of the day-to-day world of police officers, lawyers, social workers, probation officers, suspects, offenders, prisoners or prison officers which sets out to discover how they make sense of the world within which they operate, and how their views influence behaviour and the operation of the criminal process. In the jargon of the academy, this is often referred to as ‘ethnographic’ research, the salient qualities of which have been helpfully sum- marised in the following way:
First and most obviously, its preference is for carefully-nuanced
reportage, based on deep immersion in the life-worlds of the subjects
being studied; hence ethnography has a preference (usually a strong