the criminology and criminal justice network
In this case study I have chosen to look into an area of crime that has been at the centre of the criminal justice systems debate over the contradiction between punishment, restoration and rehabilitation. The subject of Youth Crime and especially Youth Gangs has been a concern of the public and authorities for decades, however only within the past twenty years has the topic been much of a threat or concern with regards to rising crime rates and a change in the public’s idea of what is to be considered as crime. The topic of Youth Gangs in our late modern society is a highly debated subject as there is no, and there is likely to never be, a concrete definition of what a youth gang really is. The two studies I have chosen to examine adopt similar techniques of data collection, however the way in which they go about using their chosen methods differ slightly. I will examine the two research studies that I have chosen in detail and conclude as to whether or not; the methods of research and study were suitable for the subject area, whether there could be any bias from the aims and objectives and those who carried out the research and look into the strengths and weaknesses of each study according to their chosen methods and their findings.
The topic of Youth Gangs has existed for decades, some of the earliest records of youth gangs date prior to the 20th century, especially in the United States. According to Decker and Curry (2010) ‘the industrial revolution in the United States in the late 19th century led to a massive number of immigrant youths that were heavily involved in crime’. However in the United Kingdom there has not been a shift or turning point in the emergence of Youth Gangs. The youths in the UK have been described as Americanised, in that their behaviour originated from the spread of American culture across the Atlantic in politics, social economy and now apparently behaviour. The topic has also not received a massive amount of attention with regards to research and study until quite recently. It was recorded through official statistics from the BCS and the ONS though there were not many individual studies focused on youth gangs and juvenile offending. One of the possible reasons for this lack of study on the subject may be because of the relatively recent emergence of youth crime and gangs through the 1980s and 1990s. This was particularly noticeable in Scotland where there is a massive lack on juvenile offending research.
The two methods of research gathering commonly used in Criminological study are; qualitative and quantitative, both are suited to different kinds of study and, in some ways, to different subjects. Of course both can be used in the same study and under the same topic; however the results that one would gain from such research would be measurably different. Both of my chosen studies adopted the quantitative technique; however they both adopted different methods in which they chose to conduct their study with regards to; study location(s), interview numbers and most noticeably the consideration over the studies autonomy.
The quantitative research method starts with a theory or hypothesis on a chosen subject and using various methods of data collection and analysis the researcher will attempt to prove or disprove that theory or hypothesis. It is based around quantification, which is the means to transcribe a study of a subject into some kind of numeric format which will allow it to be mapped out and studied in detail, this makes it a deductive study. A helpful way of thinking, when you are carrying out or planning to carry out quantitative research, is to consider Positivism. Positivism in Criminology is the theory by which it is seen that a scientific and methodological approach is the best way to gain an understanding of human behaviour. It is quite obvious then that combining the quantitative research method with the Positivist theory is the best way of gaining the correct type of data and information for a quantitative study. I believe that the best summary of the Positivist Criminology theory, which also supports quantitative research methods, is shown in Tim Newburns; Criminology. Newburn cited Bottoms summary of the main assumptions associated with Positivist Criminology, these assumptions are; “Fact must be distinguished from values. The core method involved the collection of data, the development of hypothesis, and the testing of these for verification or falsification (hypothesis-deductive reasoning). The combination of natural scientific methods and deductive reasoning led to a ‘powerful preference’ for quantitative over qualitative data.” (Bottoms, 2000, cited in Newburn, 2007, p.121)
According to QSR International, 2007; qualitative research “seeks out the ‘why’ not the ‘how’ of its topic through the analysis of unstructured information” which is derived from; “interview transcripts, open ended survey responses, emails, notes, feedback forms.” Moreover, QSR notes that qualitative research includes methods such as ‘focus groups, ethnography and in-depth interviews’ which are much more specific to the qualitative methods. Ethnography is a concept that is at the heart of a qualitative study, this is because “the emphasis in ethnography is on studying an entire culture”, “but it has been broadened to include a virtually any group or organisation.” (Social Research Methods, 2006).
The first study that I will be examining is from The Economic and Social Research Council, (E.S.R.C.); ‘Youth Gangs in an English City: Social Exclusion, Drugs and Violence’. The Economic and Social Research Council funds research and training in social and economic issues, as it is an independent organisation and therefore there is no risk of any bias affecting the research. The study was ethnographic and holistic; it attempted to examine every important aspect of Youth Gang culture, behaviour, their activities and their hierarchy. Being a qualitative study, it conducted a number of different data gathering techniques. The study was conducted over twenty six months, using close observation of specific groups that were identified to be ‘gangs’. In total there were one hundred and seven interviews with gang members, their associates, and a number of key informants. Lastly the study conducted nine focus groups with non-gang youths, community representatives and parents. Judith Aldridge and Juan Medina-Ariza chose to keep the study completely anonymous, this made the conduction and transcription of interviews harder than if they were able to include the details of the interviewees.
The study began with background research into the history of the topic in the study location, the study location in this piece is named ‘research city’. In the research city there were areas that were dominantly of the black minority with high levels of gang activity which was mainly orientated around drugs and guns in gang territories, where as in the predominantly white areas of the city, the gang, gun and drug crime had much less attention from; the authorities, the public and the media. This factor did not contribute to focused research on either area in the research city, however it did help to decipher why those in different areas find the concept of gangs more attractive than others. The findings from this study are presented in relation to: gang formation, life-course, violence, earnings, drug use, the roles of females, ethnicity and their community.
This study used Participant Observation to gather most of its data on youth gangs in the research city, ‘the participant observation took place over 26 months and it included the team engaging in community events, volunteering in youth centres, community groups (concerned with gang violence and independent advisory groups) and most importantly, socialising with gang members and their associates in their areas of the community.’ (Aldridge, J., Medina, A. 2009). There are of course dangers to the latter method undertaken by the researchers, as dealing directly with youth gangs can put them into direct contact with all kinds of crime, directed towards others or themselves. There were other, more serious drawbacks shown in this research study that could apply to all others carried out in the same way.
During the study there were many occasions where, in interviews, focus groups and other interactive transcriptions with gang members and officials, events were described in such detail, the interviewee could be easily identified by their side of events. And as nearly every gang member used some kind of identifying nickname for others, the anonymity of the study could again be easily compromised. Another threat to the security of anonymity in this study was a laptop that was stolen from a researcher’s home in a burglary. Even though this does not seem to be relevant to the study itself, it does speak for how the information gathered, is so sensitive, that when things beyond ones control endanger the information, it can cause huge amounts of damage to; the study, it’s progress and its ethical standing in the researcher community. Aldridge and Medina-Ariza, 2009, realised that ‘they were very fortunate that none of the information contained details of events or people as the laptop was stolen very early into the study’. This highlights how important the security of information is in detailed studies such as this, as when put in perspective; a quantitative load of data featuring numerical results from surveys is not nearly as personally and professionally sensitive as detailed information normally transcribed in one on one interviews.
The second study that I will be examining is from The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (S.C.C.J.R.), called “Troublesome Youth Groups, Gangs and Knife Carrying in Scotland”. Scotland does have a slightly different youth justice programme than England and Wales, however this study is not concerned with the justice system, but of the youth gangs, territoriality, criminal and non criminal activity, income, the role of female members and hierarchy. Therefore I find this study to be relevant in analysing whether or not the methods taken are suitable for topic area and the objectives set out by the S.C.C.J.R.
Unlike the E.S.R.C. study; this uses a number of large research areas, these included; “Aberdeen, Dundee Edinburgh, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire” (S.C.C.J.R. 2010). A large study area is normally used for a quantitative study to ensure an accurate representation of a large population. Using such a large area for this piece of research is plausible however, unless you have adequate funding and resources, the large area and number of interviews, etc, needed could become more of an inconvenience. These locations in particular were chosen because of the amount of information that was found to be available to the team on the subject. Arksey and Knights’,1999 comparison of quantitative questionnaires and qualitative interviews best describes the pros and cons of quality over quantity; their comparisons show that ‘qualitative interviews allow for “questions to be clarified” with a rather heavy cost of limited coverage and that the questionnaires ensure anonymity to a greater degree than interviews as well as having a virtually unlimited coverage area’ (Arksey & Knight, 1999)
There is also a massive lack of research and publications on the subject of youth gangs in Scotland which caused a problem with regards to understanding the scope of the groups they will be getting involved with as well as how to properly begin distinguishing the term ‘youth gangs’ without exacerbating already confused definitional issues. “There is a range of competing views, with no clear consensus in relation to the definition of what a ‘youth gang’ is, or how it might be defined or understood in the Scottish context.” (S.C.C.J.R. 2010).
The researchers found their interviewees and other participants through youth organisations. I’d consider this to be a serious weakness in a qualitative study into youth gangs, as those who are attending youth organisations and other projects that help troubled youths, are in the mindset of leaving a gang. This therefore can give a slightly different point of view than that of those who are still committed to their gangs and their activities. Similarly, ‘they also found participants in prisons, HMP Barlinnie, HMP Perth and HMPYOI Polmont.’ (S.C.C.J.R. 2010). The same question can be asked as to whether or not those interviewed could give an accurate account for their feelings as they are not longer attached to their gang. The emotional attachment to their fellow gang members may mimic that of a family, and with these emotional ties, lays the underpinning notion of dependency.
Both of these studies used interview transcripts in displaying their results; however it is highly visible that due to the S.C.C.J.R.s lack of concern over the anonymity of their interviewees, they are able to use full and detailed transcripts. Unlike the E.S.R.C. who unfortunately had to strike out a majority of their transcripts which made them virtually indecipherable and often very misleading. There is a considerable difference between the studies in the number of interviews and interactions that had taken place given the sizes of the research areas. For example, the E.S.R.C. study took place in research city, the city its self was kept anonymous, and in this area they conducted one hundred and seven interviews and nine focus groups. And the S.C.C.J.R. had a massive study area of 5 separate towns and cities though only conducted ninety five interviews with gang members and associates.
The subject of Youth Gangs is a highly untapped area of criminality and has caused a mass debate on the very fluid definitions of what a youth gang really entails. Both of these studies acknowledged this issue and within itself tried to find or create a more solid definition, they did this by observing gang activity to try to understand what actually constitutes a gang, and what could simply be considered as more of a delinquent group of youths. From what I discovered; the E.S.R.C. study revealed that it used far more in depth methods using participant observation as well as finding its interviewees in more appropriate locations, whereas the S.C.C.J.R. seemed to rely on their surveys and interviews which were conducted from such organisations that may affect the answers given. Both of the studies rightly favoured a qualitative study into this subject, this allowed them to find out the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how much’ and ‘where’. The E.S.R.C. published a small publication on the work that they and their funded research had done into the subject of Youth Gangs, it stated that “their findings case doubt on stereotyped images of drug-dealing and gun violence involving young people from marginalised ethnic minority areas.” (E.S.R.C., no date). This is a common misconception about Youth Criminality and Gangs, and these two studies used the correct types of research methodology to give detailed answers to why Youth Gangs seem so predominant and what activates they are really involved in.
Aldridge, J., Medina, A. (2009) Youth Gangs in an English City: Social Exclusion, Drugs and Violence [Online]. Available at: http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/ViewOutputPage.asp... (Accessed: 20-10-2010)
Arksey, H., Knight, P. (1999) Interviewing for Social Scientists. London: SAGE Publishings
Decker, S., Curry, G. (2010) Juvenile and Youth Gangs - History, Scope Of Gang Problems, Correlates Of Gang Proliferation, Gangs And Crime, Drugs And Gangs [Online]. Available at: http://law.jrank.org/pages/1488/Juvenile-Youth-Gangs.html (Accessed: 09/11/2010)
Economic and Social Research Methods, (no date) Youth Gangs: The Facts Behind The Headlines [Online]. Available at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/Images/RESEARCH%20GRANT%20-%20... (Accessed: 21-11-2010)
Newburn, T. (2007) Criminology. Devon: Willan Publishing
Q.S.R. (2007) What is Qualitative Research? [Online]. Available at: http://www.qsrinternational.com/what-is-qualitative-research.aspx (Accessed: 15-11-2010)
The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, S.C.C.J.R. (2010) Troublesome Youth Groups, Gangs and Knife Carrying in Scotland [Online]. Available at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/324191/0104329.pdf (Accessed: 21-10-2010)
Web Centre for Social Research Methods, (2006) Qualitative Approaches: Ethnography. Available at: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/qualapp.php (Accessed: 15-11-2010)
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