2 Chapter 2: Getting Started: The Beginnings and Pitfalls of Research

CASE STUDY: Stanford Prison Experiment

Research Question

What are the behavioral and psychological consequences of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard?

The Experiment and Basic Design

The Stanford Prison Experiment began on August 14, 1971.1 The experiment was scheduled to last for two weeks but, due to ethical concerns, was shut down after only six days. The experiment was conducted in the basement of the psychology department building on the Stanford University campus where Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his research team had re-created or “simulated” the prison environment. The purpose was to simulate not only the physical features and discomforts of a prison environment, but also the mental rigors of incarceration to determine its effects on participants. University offices were converted into the “Stanford County Jail” with three prison cells, a guard room, the warden’s office, and the superintendent’s office. The hallway served as the recreation yard, and there was a small closet that served as solitary confinement, or “the hole.” There was a hidden camera set up to record the study as it progressed.

Experimental Procedure

An advertisement was placed in the city newspaper to recruit participants. The researchers received more than 70 applications from which 24 individuals were selected. Prior to beginning the experiment, the participants were examined for mental health issues, medical disabilities, and histories of crime and/or drug use. Once the researchers determined there were no psychological differences among the participants, there was random assignment of participants into the prisoner group and the guard group. The warden was played by an undergraduate student and two other psychology students played prison staff roles. Dr. Zimbardo acted as the superintendent and, prior to the prisoners’ arrival, he called a meeting with prison guards to explain their role. While not allowed to physically abuse the prisoners, guards were instructed to instill feelings of boredom, frustration, fear, and suffering. The goal was to make prisoners feel powerless and totally controlled by their environment. To enhance realism, guards wore military style uniforms and carried a whistle and billy club, or baton, signifying their power and authority.

To begin, participants randomly selected to play prisoners were told to be at their homes at a certain time. Local police, working with Dr. Zimbardo, picked up these participants and arrested them in front of their families and neighbors. Once detained, they were booked, fingerprinted, and blindfolded before being transported to the basement prison. Once inside the simulated prison, their clothes were taken, they were deloused with a spray, and they were given a uniform with an identifying number. They were also made to wear a chain around their leg to remind them of their status.

Once prisoners and guards were interacting with one another, signs that the environment was impacting their behavior became quickly evident. The first day passed without incident but the second day began with inmate rebellion. Guards responded by stripping the inmates and taking their beds. One inmate who protested loudly was put in the “hole.” Because they were outnumbered, the guards began to use psychological responses such as providing privileges for good behavior. At first the inmate group showed solidarity in their rebellion, however, as the days passed, this solidarity diminished. Prisoner 8612 was the first to complain of health issues and to request release. “Superintendent” Zimbardo responded by asking him to return to the prison and be a snitch in order to receive additional privileges. When Prisoner 8612 returned, he told the other prisoners that they could not quit. This initiated a sense of hopelessness among the prisoners, that they would not be released no matter how much they rebelled. Not long after returning, Prisoner 8612 began showing signs of severe psychological stress and uncontrollable rage. No longer able to ignore him, and only 36 hours into the experiment, Prisoner 8612 had to be released.

Over the next few days, there was a visitation period during which prisoners’ families came to the basement prison, a preemptive strike by the staff and guards against a possible escape attempt, a visit from a priest, and a visit from a lawyer. Even with all this, the guards’ harassment and humiliation of inmates increased. When Prisoner 819 protested, he was verbally harassed and placed in the hole. When he met with the priest, he began to cry uncontrollably. “Superintendent” Zimbardo brought him to a “rest and relaxation” room. While in the room, the guards had the other prisoners verbally berate Prisoner 819. When “Superintendent” Zimbardo returned to the room, Prisoner 819 was crying again. Although release was an option, the prisoner instead wanted to return to the prison to show the other prisoners that he could be a model inmate. Eventually, after Dr. Zimbardo reminded Prisoner 819 who he was, and that the prison was not real, he decided to leave. In replacement, a new prisoner, Prisoner 416, joined the experiment. He rebelled from the outset, going on a hunger strike immediately. By this point, however, the other prisoners had become acclimated to their environment and refused to join Prisoner 416 in his protest. Upon continuing his food strike, Prisoner 416 was placed in the “hole.” He was continually harassed and was eventually left in solitary confinement overnight due to his refusal to eat. The next morning, a graduate student not participating in the experiment came to Dr. Zimbardo and expressed outrage at the way the participants, particularly the prisoners, were being treated. Prior to this point, Dr. Zimbardo and the other participants were so caught up in their roles that they could not separate reality from the experiment. It was only when an outsider responded that Dr. Zimbardo realized the study must be discontinued.


While the study did not last as long as intended, only six days instead of two weeks, the results did reveal psychological consequences of the simulated prison environment. After his visit, the priest mentioned that the prisoners were acting like “first timers” based on the fear and emotion he witnessed. In general there were three types of prisoner responses observed during the study. The prisoners would (a) rebel, (b) passively react, and/or (c) take on the role of model prisoner. Not only were prisoners affected, the prison guards were also changed during the experiment, acting in ways they would not have outside of their prison guard role. There were three types of guard personas observed during the study, (a) the good guard who tried to help the prisoners, (b) the tough but fair guard, and (c) the sadistic guard who reveled in his role, taking joy in the humiliation and harassment he was asked to impart on the prisoners. The effects were so prominent that Dr. Zimbardo himself recalls being caught up in his role as prison superintendent, again showing the impact an environment, even a simulated environment, can have on a person’s psyche.

Problems with the Experimental Procedure

Although the Stanford Prison Experiment took place 40 years ago, it remains a prominent example of how social science experiments, though well intended, can turn unethical and be damaging to participants. Based on the extensive interviews and surveys conducted after the experiment, it was found that the participants had suffered during their time in the experiment. For one participant, Prisoner 8612, the experience impacted his life significantly as he went on to become a prison psychologist. The lack of control and understanding he felt drove him to study psychology and eventually to apply his knowledge to the real prison environment. Because Dr. Zimbardo was caught up in his dual roles of lead researcher and prison superintendent, he admits he lost sight of the effects the study was having on the participants. Although it was recognized that suffering resulted from the experiment, in hindsight, Dr. Zimbardo has discussed the good to come from the study. First, he insists that the participants were able to overcome and rebound from their experience because they were otherwise healthy, as shown by the battery of tests given prior to the study beginning. Also, the study stands as a testament to the “power of the situation” and just how impactful situational elements can be to those involved. Finally, due to the results, Dr. Zimbardo was able to make many suggestions for prison reform. He contends that although there were costs to conducting the study, there were also benefits that should not be overlooked.

In This Chapter You Will Learn

To demonstrate an understanding of the ethical nature of research

To discuss the guidelines put in place to reduce harm to research participants

To describe what it means to be a social scientist

To formulate a research question

To explain the process of sharing research through written work


Most of the chapters in this text will speak specifically to different forms of sampling, data collection, and data analysis. To begin, however, it is important to understand how research is guided by ethics and how approval to conduct research can be impacted by design. Perhaps the bottom line is that if ethics are not considered at the outset of a research study, there is the possibility that the research will never begin.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most well-known and widely discussed social science experiments, particularly because of how it impacted those who participated. Due to this and research resulting in more severe consequences, there developed a realization of how research subjects can be negatively affected by their participation. As a result, many safeguards have been put in place to protect human subjects in the research process.

Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice Research

“It’s all relative.” Have you heard this saying before? If so, you know this reference infers that time and place impact how events are viewed by individuals and societies as a whole. Ethical relativism refers to the belief that how we think about ethics varies from one time to another, one place to another, and from one person to another. What was considered ethical in the 1800s may be very different from what is considered ethical in the 21st century. Ethics can be defined as those recognized rules of conduct that govern a particular group. This group may be aligned on cultural grounds, professional grounds, or otherwise brought together by common interests.

Most professional disciplines have an established code of ethics. In fact, without a code of ethics in place, organizations and individuals may be seen as unprofessional. The American Medical Association,2 the American Bar Association,3 and others have published codes to which members of the discipline must adhere. Criminal justice professionals have established codes, and this also includes criminal justice researchers. In general, there are two broad types of ethical guidelines for those conducting research in criminal justice. First, there are internal guidelines. These are guidelines or codes of ethics developed within the discipline or perhaps by an individual university. External guidelines, on the other hand, may include legal codes, constitutions, or even precedent case law. Each of these limits and guides the behaviors of those conducting research in criminal justice. Compliance with these limits and guidelines falls to one or more monitoring agencies. For example, Institutional Review Boards employed by universities are responsible for monitoring research conducted by university faculty. The criminal justice system generally, and federal and state agencies specifically, are also responsible for protecting human subjects. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services4 has a major role concerning ethical guidelines for researchers.

There are many reasons why studying ethics is important to researchers, particularly those in criminal justice. First, researchers may be privy to confidential and personal information about their participants. This information may include mental health records, abuse histories, and criminal histories among other sensitive information. Second, findings of criminal justice research may be used to guide public policy. This means that research has consequences for public agencies, including law enforcement agencies, the courts, and corrections departments. Therefore, researchers must ensure that their research is not misleading. Criminal justice research may also have negative implications for those involved as participants. These implications may be physical, psychological, social, financial, or professional. Indeed, in the Stanford Prison Experiment, the participants, particularly the mock prisoners, were faced with psychological distress during and after the experiment.

Unethical Research

While research with severe consequences will be presented to you, more common examples of unethical behavior in research include activities that are not life threatening. For example, students are often warned against plagiarism when completing writing assignments for their classes. Researchers are also expected to submit original work and to not take credit for someone else’s work or ideas. Second, research fraud occurs when researchers report findings that are fabricated or when they do not report limitations to their work that could impact the interpretation of the findings being reported. Additionally, if researchers misuse or misappropriate funds they have been given to support research endeavors, it would constitute unethical behavior. Again, while not necessarily causing bodily harm or immense psychological distress, these and other behaviors are indeed unethical and can have grave professional consequences for those found to be engaging in such deception. While codes of ethics exist today based on the knowledge that research may be harmful to individuals, it has taken years for such guidelines to develop. During this time, history has seen many unethical research studies undertaken, including those in social science.

Research for Purposes of Science and Medicine Some of the most visible examples of unethical research come from the Nazi occupation of Germany. During World War II, the Nazis performed countless harmful medical studies, including the testing of new drugs that exposed test subjects to diseases and to poisons, and subjecting participants to extreme temperatures and altitudes.5 Additionally, prisoners in concentration camps underwent mutilating surgeries and post-mortem dissection, among other atrocities.

Following the war, these horrific acts came to light and led to international regulation of medical experimentation. Such studies were not only present in Nazi Germany, however. The United States has also faced its fair share of unethical research. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study,6 which began in the 1930s, is a well-known example of unethical biomedical research that also led to the development of ethical rules of conduct and protections for human subjects. The goal of this study was to see how syphilis affected the infected person. Although a cure, penicillin, was discovered during the time of the study, the U.S. Public Health Service withheld the medication from 425 uneducated black men who had tested positive for syphilis. These men were not told of their diagnosis and were also not told that they were participating in research. While they were offered free medical care, they were not actually being treated, causing the men to suffer and eventually lose their life to the infection. In the 1940s through the 1970s, U.S. government officials were also sponsoring thousands of harmful experiments, including those involving radiation. While the government officials claimed their activities were in the interest of national defense, participants were not made aware of the experiments and therefore were not willing participants.

Another example involves chronically ill patients at New York City’s Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital.7 In the 1960s, researchers were interested in studying transplant rejection and began to inject chronically ill patients with live cancer cells. While researchers claimed to have received oral consent from the patients, there was no documentation. Further, the patients were not told they were being injected with live cancer cells. Despite the fact that the researchers in this study were convicted of fraud, deceit, and unprofessional conduct for their actions, the principal researcher was later elected vice president of the American Cancer Society. Also in the 1960s, researchers at New York’s Willow-brook State Hospital8 began deliberately injecting patients, mentally defective children, with the hepatitis virus. The virus was also being passed through fecal matter and spread quickly from resident to resident. Researchers claimed that since the virus would have spread anyway, it was best to give it to the patients under controlled conditions.

A final example involves the use of prison inmates as test subjects. In his book, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, Allen Hornblum (1999)9 gives a detailed and harrowing account of the human experimentation occurring in the 1960s and 1970s among inmates incarcerated at Holmesburg Prison located outside of Philadelphia. These experiments included the testing of all sorts of products from perfumes and deodorants to new medications and chemical agents. As harmless as some of these experiments may have seemed at first, they left many inmates with long-lasting physical and psychological scars. When asked why they participated in the experiments, the majority of inmates responded that the monetary reward was worth the risk. Unfortunately for some, the consequences of their participation as test subjects ended up being more harmful than they had anticipated. At times this was because the researchers were not truthful with the test subjects about the possible outcomes of the tests. Eventually, the testing of experimental products and chemicals on prisoners—many of whom may have been coerced through payment and experimented on without informed consent—fell out of favor. Lawsuits began to appear and outsiders looking in brought the debate to the public’s attention generally and to the attention of legislators specifically. However, it was not until the mid-1970s that these experiments were finally halted. It would be a decade before such experiments on inmates were made illegal.

These research abuses represent some of the most serious and egregious but unfortunately, they are not the only examples that exist. The use of shock therapy, the testing of drugs such as LSD for their truth serum potential, and the many experiments that involve withholding potential helpful medications from control group participants have all come under great scrutiny by the public. Due to the actions of these researchers and others, there now exist limitations on human subject research, some of which were developed prior to the unethical studies discussed above yet not followed. Before discussing those restrictions, however, there are a few examples of unethical research endeavors in the social sciences that must be discussed.

Research for Purposes of Social Science Medical researchers are not the only ones who have engaged in illegal or extremely unethical research. Social science researchers have conducted their own share of ethically questionable research studies. The Stanford Prison Experiment represents one such case. Around the same time, Laud Humphreys and Stanley Milgram conducted two of the most well-known examples of ethically questionable social science research.

As a doctoral student in the 1960s, Laud Humphreys10 was interested in studying the sexual encounters of homosexual males in public restrooms for purposes of completing his dissertation. For his study, Humphreys decided to act as a “watchqueen,” or voyeur, when these activities were taking place. He then followed unknowing participants to their cars and copied their license plate numbers. Humphreys used this information to find the participants’ home addresses and, once he had this information, went to their homes disguised as a researcher interested in interviewing the men concerning their mental health. His findings were published in a popular and controversial work entitled, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (1975). The ethical question resulting from Humphreys’ activities was whether it was right to put those individuals who engaged in these sexual encounters at risk of being discovered by their loved ones without their permission. After all, Humphreys never asked for the participants’ informed consent to participate in his study. The other questions raised concerned the appropriate nature of field research and when it is acceptable to use deception for the purpose of conducting such research.

Also in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram was a psychologist employed at Yale University. His study on obedience is another experiment that engendered a great deal of controversy once made public.11 The study was driven by Milgram’s interest in the horrific activities that took place during World War II in Germany, particularly those driving the Holocaust. Knowing how soldiers and others carried out the orders given to them, he wanted to examine how far individual study participants would go in harming another when told to do so by an authority figure. To do so, Milgram set up an experiment for which volunteers were paid to act as a “teacher.” They were given four dollars for one hour of their time. These “teachers” were monitored and given instructions by an authority figure, the experimenter, who instructed them to give shocks to the “learner,” a member of the research team. The shocks increased in strength from 15 to 450 volts with the number of questions the “learner” answered incorrectly. Shocks at the highest level on the electroshock machine were marked XXX, signifying danger.

The “learner” was in a different room from the “teacher,” or test subject, and, while the “learner” was not actually being shocked, he feigned harm by yelling and protesting the shocks. The experimenter used pre-scripted encouragements to prod the “teachers” to continue with the test despite the “learner’s” protests. Although initially unsure, many of the “teachers” continued with the shocks after being told to do so by the experimenter. After the experiment, the “teachers,” or test subjects, suffered emotional distress about what they had done. While a debriefing process was thought to have stemmed these feelings among the participants, the study continues to be used as an example of how social science experiments can cause harm to human subjects. Even with these consequences, however, the importance of this study continues to be felt today. As an example, the torturous activities that took place at Abu Ghraib in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 left the public wondering how far U.S. soldiers would go if given orders that were unethical and whether receiving the order from a commanding officer lessened their responsibility.


Current Applications of Classic Situational Obedience Research

Two classic studies of situational obedience have been discussed in this chapter, as relates to methodology and ethical controversy surrounding the impact on research participants. The opening case study provided an overview of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, which was conducted in the early 1970s. As you may remember, for this study, college students were recruited to participate and were given the role of inmate or prison guard in a simulated prison environment. Also discussed in this chapter was a study conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s in which participants were directed by a “researcher” to shock a person (the “learner”), with whom they did not have visual contact, with increasing severity when the “learner” answered questions incorrectly. Unknown to the participant, the “researcher” and the “learner,” the person pretending to be shocked, were both a part of the study. The purpose of the study was to see whether and how much the participant would increase the severity of the shock based on the direction of the “researcher,” or authority figure, even when confronted with shouts of pain and refusals to go further from the “learner.” Both of these studies were conducted to examine situational obedience to authority and the lengths that individuals would go in certain situations if only because they were told to do so by someone they perceived to have authority.

Recently the Milgram study was re-created by ABC News: Primetime in collaboration with Santa Clara University.12 After consulting with the American Psychological Association about what precautions needed to be taken, researchers were able to stem the psychological impact on the participant by reducing the severity of the “shocks” given to the “learner.” The recreation, which included 70 participants, was also unique in that it included female participants and tested participants when partnered with someone else to see if the influence of the partner would outweigh the influence of the authority figure (i.e., the “researcher”). While over 45 years had passed since the original study by Milgram, the results were strikingly similar. Over half of the men and women, 65% and 73% respectively, followed the “researcher’s” advice to increase the severity. In Milgram’s original study, 65% of the male participants followed the instructions of the authority figure, giving increasingly dangerous shocks to the “learner.”

A practical application of these findings, particularly the Stanford Prison Experiment, was made recently when the brutality at the hands of U.S. military personnel was revealed at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.13 While there exist those who object to this argument,14 Zimbardo and others have discussed the “power of the situation” and how, while under normal conditions these soldiers would not have committed acts of torture, it was the unique situation they were in that influenced their behavior. Similarly, Milgram’s study was in part based on an interest in Nazi Germany and how Nazi soldiers could act so inhumanely to fellow German citizenry under authority of the Third Reich. Especially today, as the world continues to see war as a common occurrence, it would not be surprising if additional applications of social science research regarding authority or situation-bound behavioral explanations take shape.

Restrictions on the Study of Human Subjects

In 1946 the doctors responsible for the Nazi experiments were brought to trial in Nuremberg, Germany. At these trials, the doctors were found guilty as war criminals of torture, murder, and other offenses. Resulting from these trials was the Nuremburg Code.15 This Code was a 10-item directive putting forth instructions for human experimentation. The Code directed that researchers must gain voluntary consent from human test subjects prior to using them in medical research. Among other items, researchers must also have a humanitarian purpose for conducting their research and must experiment on animals first if at all possible. The Nuremburg Code was the first international code for conduct of research and protections for human research participants. Following the creation of the Nuremburg Code, in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,16 which entitled each human to certain rights and freedoms. Following the adoption of this Declaration, there was a push for human rights in all aspects, including research involving human subjects. In 1964, the World Medical Association passed the Declaration of Helsinki,17 which further outlined ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. While slow to develop, these international codes and declarations made it clear that medical researchers conducting research with human subjects were no longer free to do whatever they pleased.

HEW Guidelines

In 1971, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW)18 put forth guidelines for research with human subjects. These original guidelines were similar to a “Miranda warning”19 for researchers and directed them to gain not only voluntary consent, but also informed consent by

giving a fair explanation of the procedures to be followed,

providing a description of the potential risks and benefits of participating in the study,

disclosing alternative procedures for conducting the research,

offering to answer any questions concerning the study, and

instructing the participants that they are free to withdraw their consent at any time without penalty.

When implemented, these guidelines applied only to federally funded research, although individual states also adopted similar provisions in order to keep federal funding. Like states, universities receive federal funding and therefore must also abide by the research guidelines. As much research is conducted by those working at universities, these guidelines impact the majority of research being carried out today. While most public entities are bound by these guidelines, private organizations and agencies are not. While they cannot violate the law (e.g., kill someone) in the name of research, they are free to conduct research without following ethical guidelines as long as they are not receiving federal funds.

National Commission for the Protections of Human Subjects

Although the HEW guidelines were in effect, it was not until 1974 with the National Research Act that the HEW was required to codify the previous policy into federal regulations. Following this directive, the HEW formed the National Commission for the Protections of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Members of this Commission drafted the 1979 Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects, or the Belmont Report20 for short. A key area for the drafters was to resolve the issue of informed consent for field researchers. The argument was that social science research has lower risks than medical research and therefore should have fewer restrictions. As was mentioned above, while social science research is not in the same category as biomedical research regarding potential harm, the possibility of harm to social science test subjects does exist. Therefore, the Belmont Report included three important principles for researchers. The first principle, the principle of respect for persons, directed researchers to treat human subjects as autonomous; subjects must be given information about the study so that they can make informed decisions as to whether or not they want to participate. This principle recognized that those persons with diminished autonomy (e.g., children, mentally disabled) may need additional protection beyond informed consent. The second principle, the principle of beneficence, stated that researchers must maximize the benefits of research and minimize any and all possible harm to research subjects. The final principle, the principle of justice, concerned the selection of human subjects and stated that risks and benefits must be dispersed equally. For example, researchers could not include men only for beneficial research with little risk and women for high-risk studies. When feasible, selection should be as equal as possible with regard to gender, race and ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, and the like. Following the Belmont Report, decisions regarding research on human subjects have been decentralized. Specific to researchers at universities, these decisions are made by an Institutional Review Board.

Institutional Review Boards

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) were originally created in 1974 for federally funded research under the first HEW guidelines.21 They exist today to check for compliance of both federally funded and nonfunded research. For nonfunded research, board members are responsible for ensuring that research complies with federal and state laws governing the protection of human research subjects. In order to do this, IRBs review research proposals and may approve a protocol, ask for appropriate modifications, disapprove, or terminate all research activities falling under their jurisdiction. The IRB’s authority is limited, however, to the evaluation of safety and risk. It is not the role of the IRB to decide whether a proposed research project is worthwhile or not, but instead to determine whether the research design is harmful to participants, and generally, whether the benefits outweigh the risks of the research.

Based on their review, the IRB can require modifications to the research design or require that researchers provide additional information to participants. In order to be approved by the IRB, researchers must show that their research minimizes risk through design, that the benefits outweigh the risks involved, and that there will be an equitable selection of subjects. Researchers must also show that they will seek and obtain informed consent and that the consent is documented appropriately, most likely on a consent form. Additionally, researchers must have a plan for monitoring the data collection process to ensure it is conducted according to plan and also that adequate provisions exist to protect privacy of the participating subjects and maintain confidentiality of the data. While these are generally the items IRBs require in order to approve research, there may be additional protections for vulnerable populations, which will be discussed later. Once a proposal is approved by the IRB, annual reviews of continuing research are conducted to confirm that the research has not deviated from its original design. Members of the IRB are also responsible for investigating suspected or alleged violations of research protocol, complaints by research participants, and violations of institutional policy. These investigations may be conducted through an audit and, if researchers are found to be not following their proposed design, they may face penalties.

Because of their duties, members of IRBs must be neutral and objective. Decision-makers should have no interest in the research study under review. Generally an IRB will have at least five members from various disciplines with one member being an expert on vulnerable populations. IRBs should also be demographically diverse and have at least one member who is not affiliated with the institution. This may be a community member. Can you think of a reason why it is important to have a nonaffiliated member? Most importantly, it lends to objectivity of the IRB’s review process.

There are two general types of IRB review of proposed research. A full board review is only necessary for certain proposals in which the risk to the participants is more than minimal. This means that there is more risk than the human subject would encounter in her normal daily activities. Proposals involving vulnerable populations (e.g., prison inmates, terminally ill patients) always require a full board review. Again, the purpose of such a review is to assess whether the anticipated benefits of the research justify anyone taking the risks involved. In a full board review situation, the majority of the board must give approval. Other than approval, the board may disapprove, approve with appropriate revisions, or decline review due to the proposal not meeting the standards of research needing review. The second type of review is an expedited review. This is the most common and is used for certain types of research where the risk is no more than minimal. For an expedited review, the research can be approved by the IRB chairperson; a meeting of the full board is not required. As long as they do not involve vulnerable populations, there are also research projects that may be exempt from IRB approval. These generally include observations of nonsensitive public behavior and the use of secondary data if publicly available or de-identified (i.e., research subjects cannot be identified from information collected by the researchers and are thus anonymous) by the original researchers.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is a cornerstone of research with human subjects.22 It is a process in which participants are told accurate and relevant information about the study in a way that is easy to understand. This includes the disclosure of known risks, benefits, alternative procedures, and the offer to answer any questions the participant may have. Study participants must also be informed that they can withdraw their consent at any time without penalty. Having all of this information at the outset allows the participants to make an informed decision about their participation. Once informed, the participant must provide consent. In order to consent, a person must be competent. Persons must be competent in order to comprehend what they are being told. Persons may not be competent for reasons including age and mental capacity. If competent, and once informed, the participant must agree to participate in the research study. This agreement must be voluntary in that participants must not be coerced or in any way feel pressured to participate. Informed consent is always an issue with vulnerable populations23 due to unique risks to these persons and also the question of whether they are able to fully consent voluntarily. Because of this, special precautions are necessary. While you have seen the term “vulnerable population” above, it is now time to describe these populations. First, due to their capacity for understanding, children cannot give informed consent. In order to have children participate as human subjects, researchers must have consent and assent. Researchers would first request consent from the parent or guardian following the informed consent procedures outlined above. Following, children over age seven must assent, or agree, to participating. If they do not assent, they cannot be forced to participate even though the parent or guardian has given his consent. Vulnerable populations also include those with questionable capacity to consent such as the mentally ill, the mentally deficient, and those under the influence of controlled substances. The terminally ill are also seen as vulnerable particularly because they may be willing to participate in risky research, including drug trials that may be harmful to them. Additionally, comatose patients and the fetuses of pregnant women are vulnerable, as they are unable to give consent. Finally, due to the relationships involved, prisoners, students, and employees are also considered vulnerable. Prisoners may feel like they have to participate because of their situation, that there may be a penalty or negative consequence if they do not or that they may receive leniency if they do participate. The same goes for students and employees, especially if the research is being conducted or suggested by their teachers or employers. In these situations, there is a coercive influence that precludes consent from being voluntary and therefore extra precaution is normally required. While this is the case, researchers quite frequently conduct research using students as participants. You may have even participated in research being conducted by your professor or another professor or graduate student on campus. When this happens, it is especially important that the participants are made aware that there will not be negative consequences for nonparticipation. Some researchers may offer extra credit or other incentives to increase student participation. Incentives are often left to the discretion of the researcher; however, negative consequences should never be a consideration. IRBs will ultimately govern how student subjects are recruited and what they are promised as well as how they are informed that there will not be negative repercussions for nonparticipation.

Sensitive Issues in Criminal Justice

Besides the vulnerability of their subjects, there are other issues criminal justice researchers must take into consideration regarding risk. Stigmatization is one of these issues. Studies of illegal behavior, lifestyle, or victimization may stigmatize a person. For example, if researchers enter a prison to conduct research on prison rape, those inmates who participate may be looked at suspiciously by other inmates, particularly if the participant has been victimized in the past. Following the study, that inmate may face repercussions from a victimizer who thinks they have “snitched.” Likewise, researchers must also be careful not to single out participants in the free community. For example, if children in a class are singled out for experimental sessions with a school counselor over a period of time, those children may be teased by the others.

Monetary Reward

Another issue that may arise is the payment of participants by researchers for their participation. Think for example about a homeless man offered ten dollars to participate in a research study. If he was not offered ten dollars, would he have been just as likely to participate? Payment can come in many forms. It may be monetary, it could be a gift, it could even be extra credit in class. Officially there are no clear rules on payment, whether it should be used, and, if used, how much should be paid. Research proposals involving payment are examined on a case-by-case basis by IRBs.

Methodological Considerations

As communities within the United States are particularly diverse, one methodological consideration is a possible language barrier between researchers and research participants. Researchers must be careful to properly prepare for their subjects. This may mean having surveys in multiple languages or having a multilingual staff. Other considerations that must be made concern the type of research being conducted. Research may disrupt the routine of an agency. What if a researcher wants to survey 500 inmates? If approved, the state correctional agency must rework their entire daily schedule to have a place for the surveys to be administered and to pull the sample of inmates needed to participate. Undoubtedly, this is not an easy task. What about research that may involve the withholding of beneficial treatment? As you will learn in Chapter 5, an experimental design generally involves the use of a control group that does not receive the treatment being given. If this is beneficial treatment, such as medication that may serve as a cure to a currently terminal illness, is it fair to withhold it from those participants? Another challenging issue involves the observation of or participation with those under study. Because the researcher is there, the participants may feel like they need to impress or show off and this may lead to their acting out in a delinquent or criminal manner. Therefore, the research may be the reason why criminal acts occur. Additionally, research may uncover criminal behavior. Interviewing or surveying individuals about their offending backgrounds may lead to issues of confidentiality, which will be discussed next.

Confidentiality and Anonymity

Especially important in criminal justice research are issues of confidentiality and anonymity related to participation as a research subject and the information shared as a result. Confidentiality infers that, although the researcher may be able to link the information given on a survey or during an interview to the particular research participant who gave it, this link will not be revealed in the publication of the findings. Results may be given in aggregate, or group, form but information will not be linked back to the individual participants. Even if participants do not give identifying information during the study, they may have been asked to sign an informed consent form from which the researcher has access to their name. Confidentiality maintains that the researcher will not release these names, that their participation will be kept secret. Anonymity infers that the participant’s identity will not be known, even to the researcher. For example, research subjects may be asked to participate in an online survey. Consent is assumed by completion of the survey and there are no questions included in the survey that ask for respondent’s personal or identifying information (e.g., name, address). Therefore, even the researcher does not know who participated in the survey, leaving participation completely anonymous.

Procedures for ensuring confidentiality include keeping data in places where only the principal researcher has access. This may be on a password-protected computer or in a locked file cabinet. Researchers may also substitute code numbers for names so that, if breeched, participant responses cannot be traced back to the individuals from which they came. Additionally, any hard copies of data files or analytic results should be disposed of properly by shredding or otherwise destroying. It is not enough to put these in the recycling or trash bin. It is important for researchers that all research staff be educated on issues of confidentiality and anonymity so that, when made, these promises are not broken.

Certificates of Confidentiality

Now, you may be wondering about confidentiality and whether there may be consequences for keeping research data confidential. While shield laws, which extend government immunity from prosecution for not divulging confidential and anonymous research information in court, do exist (see the 1973 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, Section 524[a]), with some exceptions, these generally apply to federally funded research only. However, there is generally no recognized privilege between researchers and their participants, and therefore, researchers may be subpoenaed to testify about what a research subject has told them. Here, a researcher may have to make a decision between testifying and protecting confidentiality. If they choose to protect confidentiality, they may face penalties, including possible jail time, although this happens infrequently. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken a step to protect researchers in this regard. Certificates of Confidentiality24 can now be applied for by researchers using human subjects for sensitive research. These certificates “protect against compulsory legal demands, such as court orders and subpoenas, for identifying information or identifying characteristics of a research participant” and the authority of the certificate has generally been upheld when challenged in a court setting.25 There may also be negative consequences for the researcher if they decide not to keep the confidentiality they promised. Future subjects may no longer trust that the researcher will keep promises of confidentiality and therefore may be less than truthful when participating in research studies under their supervision. Beyond criminal liability, there are other ways in which researchers may be held liable for their research findings. Researchers may also be sued in civil court for libel or slander. Additionally, researchers may face financial, professional, social, and personal consequences for the research they conduct and the findings that result.

So far, this chapter has provided discussion concerning the ethicality of research and the use of human subjects. Now it is time to introduce the reader more generally to research with particular attention to some basic principles of research. Indeed, one of the first steps in understanding research methods from a consumer standpoint is to become familiar with the language of research.


Crime Prediction Software

Nationwide, there is a new trend taking place, the use of computer-aided prediction in the prevention of criminal acts. From the East Coast to the West Coast, these programs are being utilized by criminal justice officials to respond to criminal behavior before it happens. As controversial as it may be to make life-altering decisions based on something that may happen instead of something that has happened, the use of computer-based prediction systems seems to be a welcome addition to the criminal justice tool box.

Dr. Richard Berk, Professor of Criminology and Statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed one such program that is currently being used in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.26 Dr. Berk’s prediction software has been utilized to predict which individuals serving a sentence under community supervision (i.e., probation or parole) are more likely to commit future offenses such as murder. Being able to predict which offenders are at higher risk, either for future offending or victimization, can inform community supervision officers as to the level of supervision they should provide. Dr. Berk contends his software can also be useful in sentencing decision, including how much bail should be set for a certain offender.

Other software programs have been implemented by criminal justice agencies across the country. The Florida State Department of Juvenile Justice uses such software to determine which juvenile offenders are at highest risk for recidivism.27 Identified offenders are given a specialized treatment plan based on their high-risk status. Additionally, in Santa Cruz, California, law enforcement has begun to use prediction software to determine where in the city they should focus their efforts to prevent crimes from occurring.28 These location-specific projection programs work by analyzing crime-related data and identifying patterns as to which locations in the city are at highest risk for law breaking to occur on any given day.

While prediction systems have existed for decades, these were generally based on offender history, scales, and other survey responses in need of individual interpretation. Computer software provides an advantage: the ability to sort and analyze this information in a much shorter time frame. As many of these software products are still being tested in cities in which they have been implemented, research will show whether others (individuals or locations) were missed by the programs. Determining the ability of these programs to effectively predict high-risk elements should be the next step in their continued use.

A Language All Its Own

As discussed in Chapter 1, we are all consumers and producers of research whether we know it or not. While this is the case, when you pick up a research article for the first time and begin to read about the methods used by the authors, you may feel a bit “lost in translation.” Anything can be confusing until you are exposed to it—this is particularly true concerning research methods. Until you have been taught this language and how to apply it, approaching research can be daunting and intimidating. However, once you become familiar with the terms and processes that are utilized by researchers, you will be much more comfortable deciphering what a researcher or an author of a research article is trying to tell you.

Criminology as a Social Science

Criminology is a social science. This means that in order to study a social phenomenon, crime, we apply the scientific method. Sometimes we rely on our faith or philosophy to make sense of the world. However, philosophy or theology and science are quite different. Theology is sometimes quite subjective and propositions therefore cannot be scientifically measured or proven. For example, if one were to say that a crime occurs because the criminal is possessed by the devil, how do we prove this? Scientific principles indicate the ability to measure, replicate, and verify. In order to measure something, we must be able to observe it. As with the devil example, how can we measure the devil’s work if we cannot observe the devil? Next, in order to prove that a research finding or measurement is not a mistake, a researcher must be able to replicate the finding using the same methods. Only through replication can we have confidence in our original findings. For social science research, it may be important to replicate findings many times over so that we are assured our original finding was not a coincidence or chance occurrence. Finally, not only is it important to reveal a connection between two phenomena, it is also important to verify that this connection is real. Ultimately, you cannot verify your findings unless you are able to measure and replicate. Only through repeated measures can we verify that the results found are true. For example, if a researcher wanted to study the relationship between low socioeconomic status and crime, they could measure this in a number of ways. Researchers could survey prison inmates or arrestees to ask them about their income and previous employment. Researchers could also use official statistics and plot arrests or calls for assistance on maps in order to see if there are more arrests in areas that are known to be low income. In order to replicate, these surveys or maps could be conducted or developed across a number of cities and/or states. Following these replications, researchers would review the data to determine if the findings from the original study were verified.

Social Science as a Discipline

While these three steps (measurement, replication, and verification) describe the scientific method, it is important to recognize that social sciences are different from hard, or physical, sciences. In research for physical sciences (e.g., physics, biology, or chemistry), there may be less replication needed to prove something is true. One only needs to stick their hand in boiling water once to know that it is going to bum. Although you can replicate this, you may be certain that the result will be the same no matter whose hand it is or where you are boiling the water. The other major difference is related to this expectation. Physical sciences are governed by laws and principles such as Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation. When certain conditions are present, certain things always happen. When an apple breaks away from the tree, it always falls to the ground. The social sciences, including criminology, are different in this regard. These disciplines operate on more probabilistic notions. This means that something is more or less likely to occur when certain conditions are present or not present. Social scientists can never be 100% certain that any event will occur; only that something is more or less likely to occur given the conditions. For example, it is not realistic to expect that everyone who grows up in a single parent household will become delinquent. While that condition may put a child more at risk for delinquency due to the fact that there may be less supervision, among other things, not everyone who grows up in a single parent household will turn to delinquency. In fact, many individuals from single parent households go on to be very successful. You may have been raised by a single parent and instead of committing crime, you are enrolled in a class about studying crime. In criminology we are often looking for risk factors, the conditions that make something more or less likely to occur. When we seek to understand criminality and why it occurs, it is particularly important to realize that we will never be able to predict with certainty the cause of criminality in all cases. Instead, we attempt to find those conditions that make crime more likely than not and focus on those when creating programs and policies to deter or respond to crime.


Objectivity indicates a neutral and nonbiased perspective when conducting research. It is truly a foundation on which scientific research is based. Objectivity is the opposite of subjectivity, which refers to one’s beliefs, opinions, and perspective. If researchers are subjective instead of objective, their prejudgments and biases may creep into their research design and consequently impact the findings. Therefore, while it is not unethical to have opinions and judgments, it is important that these do not impact researchers when carrying out their research. For example, if a researcher has a great disdain for sex offenders and he is placed in charge of evaluating a sex offender treatment program, can you see how his feelings may impact his findings? It could even be that the researcher consciously or subconsciously sets up the research to show that the treatment program is not working or to minimize the positive results of the program so that it is no longer used with the intention that sex offenders will serve longer sentences instead of being rehabilitated and released. As another example, it is often suggested that researchers do not study groups of which they are a member. This could be that the researcher is too close to the group under study and will not recognize when things happen that are unnatural. It may be very difficult to maintain their objectivity when observing their friends, family members, or colleagues. So, while it is only natural to have opinions and feelings based on past experiences, it is important to recognize these and to ensure that they do impact our research endeavors.

Categorizing Research

Over time, different types of research have begun to be categorized based on

methodology utilized by the researchers to collect and analyze the data;

how research results will be utilized; and/or

intentions of the researchers.

First, there are two major types of research based on the methodology used to collect the data. Methodology indicates the methods used to gather information. You will learn about many different types of methodology while reading the chapters that follow, including types of sampling procedures, experimental designs, the use of surveys and interviews, and the use of observation and participation, among others. Qualitative research incorporates methods that are sensitizing. This type of research involves developing a deeper understanding about a particular group or activity. For qualitative research, researchers may live with the group under study. They may participate in their activities as if they were a member of the group or they may observe the activities as an outsider looking in. The point is to immerse oneself into the lifestyle of those under study so that you can truly understand their perspective. Earlier in this chapter, Humphrey’s study of sex in public restrooms was discussed. This is an example of a researcher actually participating, as a “watchqueen,” in the activities under observation. Chapter 6 will discuss this study and others involving qualitative methodologies in more detail. Quantitative research, on the other hand, implies that researchers will be counting and measuring some phenomenon. Researchers will take a concept such as crime and will attempt to put a numerical value on it. Can you think of ways that crime can be measured numerically? Quantitative research on crime could be conducted using arrest rates, calls to the police, victimization rates, and many other types of numerical measurement. Based on these methodologies, the main difference between quantitative and qualitative research is that qualitative research attempts to explore “why” things occur the way they do and quantitative research examines “what” has occurred. So, quantitative research examines what the evidence shows while qualitative research explores why the evidence shows what it does. It should be noted, however, that research projects do not necessarily have to be one or the other. In some cases, researchers combine both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in their research.

Research can also be categorized by how the results of the study will be utilized. Pure research refers to research conducted to develop or further develop a discipline. Its goal is to achieve new knowledge for the sake of achieving new knowledge. The development of a new theory to explain criminality would be an example of pure research. The other category is called applied research. Applied research has more practical concerns. Usually this type of research is conducted to answer questions currently impacting a certain field, perhaps to address immediate policy concerns or to determine whether a program will be continued or terminated. Much of the research you will encounter as a criminal justice professional will be applied in some way. It could be that the chief of police is interested in understanding how mandatory arrest policies impact domestic violence victims or that the director of a community supervision department is interested in knowing which programs aid probationers in successfully completing their sentence. In answering these questions through research, one would be using a more applied approach.

Similar to pure and applied research, another way research can be categorized is by its intention, or the reason for which it’s being conducted. There are four general categories. First, for descriptive research, researchers seek to describe a particular phenomenon. This type of research is not intended to understand the cause or to explain why something is occurring; it only provides a description of what is happening. For example, a researcher may want to determine what age group is most crime prone and whether this is the same for females and males. This type of research will most likely be quantitative in nature. For the second category, exploratory research, researchers seek to grasp what is going on regarding a particular phenomenon. For example, a researcher may want to better understand the process of prison gang formation, reasons why the gang forms, how members are recruited, and the like. This type of research may involve qualitative methodologies and is useful when there is little information available on a particular subject. For the third category, explanatory research, researchers seek to identify causes and effects related to a certain topic. For example, a researcher may be interested in the relationship between poverty and crime. Explanatory research determines whether something is more or less likely, so the question that may be posed is whether crime is more or less likely in high poverty areas. Finally, evaluation research is conducted to determine the impact of a program or policy. It may determine whether a program is cost effective, whether it was properly implemented, or whether it worked as intended. For example, evaluation research may examine whether a zero tolerance policy has decreased misconduct among students in a certain school district or whether a juvenile offender program, such as a boot camp, has been successful in reducing recidivism.

The Role of Theory in Research

Some of you may have already taken a course in criminological theory and therefore have been introduced to the terms paradigm and theory. For those of you who have not, a paradigm is a school of thought. A paradigm is an umbrella term under which information can be organized. There are three main paradigms under which criminological theories are structured in criminology. There is the classical paradigm, the positivist paradigm, and the critical paradigm. Under each of these paradigms there are many theories developed along similar ideas. For example, under the positivist paradigm, the overriding theoretical perspective woven into each theory is that crime is predetermined, or caused by something outside of an individual’s control. This cause may be biological, psychological, or sociological in nature. A theory has been defined as “a set of interconnected statements or propositions that explain how two or more events or factors are related to one another.”29 One quality of a useful theory is that it has been empirically verified, that is, it has been tested many times to verify that its propositions are true. Therefore, a great deal of research in criminology is theory driven.

Whether you are developing and testing theory or deriving a new research project not related to theory, you must have a critical eye. Critical thinking is imperative to good research. There are two general foundations to critical thinking that lend to research design. The first is deduction. Deduction is the process of first utilizing a theory and its tenets to then develop a specific hypothesis. The aim of deductive thinking is to test a particular hypothesis in order to confirm whether the propositions of the broader theory are true. For example, labeling theorists contend that once an individual is labeled in a negative fashion, such as a criminal or addict, they internalize this label and act accordingly. Researchers may test this theory by determining if individuals who are formally processed through the criminal justice system (i.e., arrested and convicted) are more likely than those who are diverted and handled informally (i.e., no conviction on record if diversion program completed successfully) to reoffend. If those who are formally processed are more likely to reoffend, controlling for other factors, this lends support to labeling theory. Induction works the opposite way. Inductive thinking involves applying what is known about one or a few cases to an entire group. Findings from exploratory research may then result in a theory regarding the group or topic under study. For example, in a qualitative study of one Mafioso, his characteristics and activities may be applied to all individuals involved in organized criminal enterprises. Interestingly, at the beginning of a research project, we are often using deductive and inductive reasoning without even knowing it.

Creating a Question and Hypothesizing

When a researcher begins a research project, one of the first steps is choosing a research question. Oftentimes this first step can be overwhelming as our interests may be quite broad. For example, you may be interested in researching human trafficking; however, this is a very broad topic and would need to be narrowed in order to sustain a workable research study. Research questions related to this topic may relate to offenders, victims, services available for victims, consequences of victimization, or government responses. Furthermore, you may want to focus on one specific country. This may be a source country or a destination county. As you can see, this topic, like many others, has many layers that can be explored. If you have a choice of topic, it is good to select something you are interested in. That way, you are more likely to be interested in answering the question you pose instead of feeling like the project is only a means to an end. In other situations, such as evaluating a program for your employer, it may be very easy to decide what the research question is in that the questions have really been provided for you based on the need of the organization or agency for which you are employed.

FIGURE 2.1 | Steps in the Research Process

For purposes of our discussion, let’s ask the question “Is there a relationship between type of victimization (i.e., human trafficking or not) and likelihood of reporting to law enforcement?” Once you have figured out what your research question will be, the next step is to determine the concepts important to your question. The process of developing concepts involves putting a tag or name on some event. Concepts may include trafficking, victimization, poverty, and reporting among others. After developing your question and understanding which concepts are employed in answering the question, you will develop a hypothesis. Hypotheses are statements about the expected relationship between two concepts. These are often based on previous research findings and may be derived from a particular theory. There are two types of hypotheses, the research hypothesis and the null hypothesis. The research hypothesis states the expected relationship in positive terms. In the case of reporting human trafficking victimization, the research hypothesis could be that being a human trafficking victim makes one less likely to report the victimization to the police. The null hypothesis, on the other hand, assumes that there will be no relationship between the concepts in question, that is, type of victimization is unrelated to official reporting. The best way to remain neutral and objective in research is to assume the null hypothesis is correct.

Once you have developed your research questions and hypotheses, the next step is operationalization. Through this process, you are giving the concept in question a working definition, or determining how each concept in your study will be measured. For the example question regarding human trafficking and official reporting, you may operationalize human trafficking as a person being brought from one country to another for means of forced labor, using force or coercion. Poverty may be measured by income or employment prior to being trafficked. Official reporting could be measured by whether the victim reported her victimization to law enforcement either in the source or destination country. What if you were interested in the relationship between intelligence and crime? How would you quantitatively, or numerically, measure intelligence? What if you were interested in the relationship between being a problem student and delinquency? How would you determine who is a problem student? The process of operationalization is key to your research project. If you do not know how a concept is to be measured, you cannot begin to collect your information. Further, operationalizing your concepts will often lead you to the type of information you need. For example, if you are interested in problem students and you want to measure this by how many disciplinary infractions each student has received, you may ask the students through questionnaire or interview about their history of disciplinary infractions or you may go to the dean of students or other administrators in order to get official records regarding which students have been disciplined formally.

Once you have determined how the concepts should be operationalized, they become variables. Variables signify concepts that have been given a measurement. As with types of research, variables can be quantitative or qualitative, depending on the type of measurement. For example, if you are measuring trafficking by how many victims are trafficked to a particular country annually, it is a quantitative measurement; however, if you are measuring why victims are trafficked to that particular country, this would be more qualitative. There are two types of variables important to your research. The independent variable is the cause. It determines, or precedes the other variable in time. The dependent variable is the outcome. In the case of type of victimization and official reporting, if you hypothesize that type of victimization (i.e., human trafficking) makes one less likely to officially report the victimization, then your independent variable will be human trafficking and your dependent variable will be official reporting. As another example, if you think that intelligence makes one more likely to succeed, the independent variable would be intelligence and the dependent variable would be success. It is important to note that the role of the variable may change depending on the research project in question. For example, in a study that asks whether poverty causes crime, poverty is the independent variable and crime is the dependent variable. However, in a study that asks whether crime causes poverty, it would be the opposite. Crime would serve as the independent variable and poverty as the dependent variable. Can you think of a scenario in which crime causes poverty?

Besides independent and dependent variables, there are also extraneous factors or correlates that should be taken into consideration when conducting research. These are factors that relate to, but do not cause the outcome. For example, weather is often cited as a correlate to crime. In the summer months, crime is often higher. Can you think why this may be? Usually individuals are outside more, and thus more vulnerable to victimization. So, does warmer weather cause crime? No; however, it is a factor that is related to vulnerability. In the human trafficking example, it could be that in the victim’s home country law enforcement officials are corrupt and therefore they are unlikely to report. In that case, official reporting would be related to perceptions of law enforcement rather than to the type of victimization the victim has experienced. There are many other extraneous factors in social science research, and it is important to understand how these may impact your study and your study findings.

Reliability and Validity

Reliability and validity are two very important concepts that you should be aware of when designing your study and analyzing your data. These two terms will be revisited throughout this text, but for now a general explanation will be provided so that the concepts are no longer foreign to you. Oftentimes researchers must rely on others for information. For example, if you are using official data, you must trust that law enforcement officials and others were truthful in their reporting. You also must take into consideration that not all crimes come to the attention of law enforcement and therefore are not counted in official data. These unreported offenses are often called the dark figure of crime. Researchers attempt to measure the dark figure of crime by using self-report data. Researchers may ask respondents how many times they have committed criminal acts or how many times they have been victimized. However, there are issues with self-report data as well. For example, it is difficult to know whether a respondent is being totally truthful when completing your survey or responding to your interview question. Each of these issues relates to reliability and validity of your findings. Reliability and validity address the quality of a study’s methodology and therefore also pertain to the quality and believability of the findings resulting from the study.

Reliability pertains to ensuring that the responses you receive when utilizing questionnaires or interviews are reliable, that if you ask the same person the same question at a different time, you will get a similar answer. To determine whether responses are reliable, there are steps that can be taken. For surveys or interviews, you may ask the same questions in different ways. For example, you may ask about a respondent’s grade point average and later ask him if he is a good student. Reliability may also be an issue when you have more than one person coding or analyzing information. In Chapter 7, you will learn more about this relating to content analysis and issues of interrater reliability.

As for validity, there are many different types of validity in research; some impact the research design while others impact the measuring instrument. Validity refers to the accurateness of your measurement. Validity may relate to factors that threaten an experimental design and therefore impact your findings. In Chapter 5, you will be introduced to many internal validity threats, including selection bias, history, and maturation. The presence of these factors may explain away the relationship you find between your independent and dependent variable, thereby making it spurious, or false. There also exist external validity threats that affect the ways in which your findings can be used. In Chapter 3, you will learn about sampling and how researchers often use a representative subset of a population instead of studying the entire population. When using a sample, it is always best if researchers can generalize their findings back to the larger population; however, this is not always possible. For example, if you do not have a representative sample, you cannot generalize your findings back to the larger population. Additionally, validity plays a role in survey research. A researcher must determine if their research instrument, or survey, and the questions included are valid, whether they are measuring what they intended to measure. For example, a classic question utilized in research to measure fear of crime is, “Are you afraid to walk alone at night near your home?” This may be problematic, however, because this fear, if it exists, may not be directly related to crime. Can you think of what else this question may be measuring other than fear of being victimized? Your instrument has to include the right questions in order to illicit the responses needed. If a question does not measure what you intended to measure, then it is not valid. There are four types of validity related to research instruments that will be discussed further in Chapter 4. These are face validity, content validity, construct validity, and pragmatic validity. As you will learn in Chapter 4, there is much work that goes into creating a research instrument prior to administering it. Ultimately, if the researcher does not have a valid, reliable response or is not measuring what she intended to measure, her efforts will be wasted.


Examining the “CSI Effect”

While in years past most people in the United States did not give a second thought to criminal investigative techniques, today many are fascinated by the process based on what they have learned from film and television. One television show in particular, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), has been discussed and researched as to its relevance and impact on our culture. Specifically, researchers have expressed interest in examining how shows like CSI and others have influenced decision-making when taking part in the criminal justice process.

One study conducted in 2006 did just that, surveying 1,027 randomly summoned jurors as to their television viewing habits and how these may have impacted what they expect from the trial process.30 Focusing on forensic scientific evidence in particular, 46% of jurors in the study expected that such evidence would be a part of every criminal case that came before the court. Over 20% of the sample expected to see DNA in every case, 36% expected to see fingerprint evidence in every case, and 32% expected that firearms laboratory evidence would be a part of every criminal trial. Viewers of CSI were also more likely to have higher expectations related to evidence presented at trial. According to the researchers, the good news stemming from the study was that respondents did not rely solely on such evidence for conviction or acquittal. Other factors, such as victim or witness testimony, also influenced decision-making, even among frequent viewers of CSI.

The potential for television shows, whether documentary-based like 48 Hours Mystery or fictional like CSI or the Law & Order franchises, to impact our daily lives has been recognized, especially as these shows increase their viewership. Researchers are interested in examining this phenomenon from many angles, not only exploring how perceptions based on what is presented as reality on television impact the criminal justice process but also how it may impact criminal justice education. For example, how many of your fellow classmates were influenced by what they have viewed on television when selecting a criminal justice class or even criminal justice as a college major and how well did their expectations match the reality? These and other questions can be addressed through research and, as viewership continues to grow and more television shows are created, it is likely that we will see increased study on what now has been so popularly coined the “CSI Effect.”

Information Literacy and the Structure of Research Papers

Now that you have been introduced to the language of research, it is time to examine the process of how research is shared with others. When one is developing a research report, paper, or article, there are generally five sections that should be incorporated. First will be the introduction section. This section is very important because it is the first chance the writer has to catch the readers’ attention and to let them know why the information or research being presented is worth their attention. Usually, this section is not very long compared to the length of the report; however, included will be the major details that will be examined in the report, including the research question(s) being explored. Following the introduction section is typically a literature review. The literature review is where the writer provides the reader insight on any previous research that has been conducted on the topic. This is also where the writer will make the case for his hypotheses, as hypotheses are usually developed based on the findings of past research, assuming past research exists on the topic. The third section is generally called the methodology section. In the methodology section, the writer provides the details of the study for the reader, including the procedures used to answer the research question(s). The research question(s) and hypotheses driving the study should be reiterated and the process of data collection, including the population of interest, the sampling procedure, the method of data collection, and the plan of analysis, should be described. The next section relays the findings or results of the research being conducted. In a qualitative study, the writer may describe his observations or the activities he was able to participate in. If a quantitative piece, the writer may include tables presenting the statistical results of the analysis of data utilized. Research articles or papers on research studies should generally conclude with the fifth section, where the writer discusses his findings in terms of their importance. In this section, limitations that may have impacted the study should be noted. Program or policy implications related to the findings may also be given. The writer may also suggest areas for future research related to the topic. All in all, this is where the writer emphasizes the point of the research project for the reader. While this is a basic structure for research reports and papers, it is always best to check with your professor, employer, or editor prior to beginning any writing so that you are aware of the structure they expect.

As mentioned above, the first step in developing a research project is choosing a research topic and, from that topic, selecting one or more research questions. There exists, an unlimited number of topics for researchers to examine. It is also important to remember the significance of replication so, even if a topic has been researched, an attempt to replicate previous findings is a valid research project. For those of you who may be unsure of a topic, you may begin your search by reading local, national, or international news reports to see if you become inspired by a topic covered or you may also want to dive into the academic literature for ideas.

Regardless of whether you have a topic or you are looking for a topic, you will need to make yourself familiar with academic and particularly the empirical research that has been published. As a student, you may have already conducted literature searches for research papers you were asked to write for other courses. Irrespective of whether you are writing a research paper, an empirical research or evaluation report, a thesis or dissertation, or an academic research article, you will begin by familiarizing yourself with the related literature. There are many places to find literature; however, you must be careful in distinguishing scholarly publications from nonscholarly works. Primary sources are always best. Primary sources include published books, journal articles, and some government reports. Secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, and news reports. Secondary sources usually involve summaries of primary source work and, while they may offer suitable information related to the research design, they often do not provide the detail you need to write a quality literature review. Another term you may hear when beginning a literature search is peer review. Peer review is a form of quality control most commonly related to academic journals. If a journal follows a peer review process, when a manuscript is submitted it is sent out to be reviewed by experts in the field to determine whether the manuscript is suitable for publication. Publication outlets that are not peer reviewed do not gamer as much respect from the academic community as there is less control for quality of the material published.

Books and academic journals can often be found in print in your library, although as we move further into the electronic age, many of these sources can also be found online through your library. For example, your library may subscribe to electronic journals or to research databases such as EBSCOhost and ERIC through which you can search for individual books and articles by subject, keyword, author, or other search terms. If you are looking for a book or journal that your library does not own or subscribe to, you may look into whether your library has an interlibrary loan system. This would allow you to borrow the book or obtain the journal article from another library through your library membership. Online searching has become more prevalent, and in many cases, can provide you with information that you otherwise could not obtain. It is important, however, to be able to ascertain whether the information you find online is reputable. As an example, many students rely on general websites for information; however, did you realize that on many websites, anyone can submit information? There are entries on numerous websites that are complete works of fiction. The bottom line is that not everything you find online is reliable and you may end up with misinformation if you are not careful. Reputable websites may include government websites, university websites, and some organization websites such as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website, the Bureau of Justice Statistics website, and the National Institute of Justice website. For example, if you are searching for information on services available to victims of domestic violence, it may be best to go to the service organization’s website to obtain information about the services they provide. You may also visit the website for the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Violence Against Women for information about services for domestic violence victims. So, as these examples show, while quality information can be found online, you must be smart about where you are searching and you must view everything with a critical eye to ensure the provider of the information is trustworthy. Once you have collected a solid foundation of information related to your topic, you then must read through this information to grasp what has been found previously and what issues exist that remain to be examined. Unless you have a true understanding of your topic and the information available, your review of the literature will be lacking and you may have a difficult time developing a quality research question.


The Controversy Regarding Embryonic Stem Cell Research

One recent example of the controversial nature of research, in this case medical research, pertains to the use of human embryonic stem cells in medical studies. Stem cells, as they are commonly known, are cells within the body that have unique capabilities, namely the ability to regenerate growth.31 Medical researchers have long touted stem cell use for treating injuries and diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, which have become more common the United States in recent years.

The majority of the embryonic stem cells used for medical research are obtained from embryos that were donated after not being used in in vitro fertilization procedures. These embryos are destroyed in the process of acquiring the stem cells needed for study. The ethical or moral issue regarding the use of stem cells relates to whether a human embryo constitutes “life.” This is quite similar to the controversy surrounding abortion.

Under President George W. Bush, there existed a ban against federal funding for stem cell research. As such research is often costly to conduct, this ban severely limited the ability of medical researchers to conduct stem cell studies. In 2009, President Obama reversed this ban, allowing for federal funds to be used for promising stem cell research.32 The executive order signed by President Obama also required the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop ethical guidelines for stem cell research.33

The most recent turn of events for stem cell research was a lawsuit brought on by two researchers, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, against the use of embryonic stem cells.34 This case hinged on a piece of legislation known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, passed by Congress in 1996, which prohibited the use of federal funds for research in which embryos would be discarded or destroyed. While Chief Judge Royce Lamberth for the U.S. District Court in Washington at first sided with the researchers, placing a temporary ban on funding for such research, in July 2011 the chief judge reversed his decision and dismissed the lawsuit brought before the court.

There is no doubt that this case is not the last that will come before the court regarding embryonic stem cell research. As with abortion, the ethical divide regarding the destruction of embryos does not seem to be lessening. It is important to note that this discussion has centered on the use of federal funding only and that stem cell research conducted with private funds remains relatively unaffected by such rulings. The change in federal policy brought on by President Obama, however, has certainly allowed for more studies using embryonic stem cells by increasing the funding sources for such research. As long as the NIH and all other appropriate guidelines are followed, such research is now considered an acceptable means to better understand the use of embryonic stem cells in medical treatments.

Chapter Summary

This chapter has provided the reader the basic information needed to begin the process of being an informed consumer of research. First, the ethical and sometimes unethical nature of research in criminal justice was discussed. Much has been learned from unethical research of the past and, while occurrences of unethical research still arise, these are few and far between due to the regulations and monitoring now in place. As oftentimes our research involves human subjects, it is important that researchers not forget the guidelines put in place to keep research participants safe from harm. Along with a discussion regarding research ethics, this chapter also has presented the basic language of research and the knowledge one needs to embark on a research project. The chapters that follow will provide the information you need to further develop your understanding of research methods. So, while you have come far, there is still a long way to go to understanding the various elements of research. It is important to remember, however, that you are probably already familiar with much of this information; you just have never thought of it from a researcher’s perspective.

Critical Thinking Questions

1. Name and describe three examples of research studies that were deemed unethical after being conducted. What were the reasons these studies were deemed unethical?

2. What is the role of IRBs and why is it important to have them?

3. What does it mean to have informed consent from a research participant?

4. Why is it important for a researcher to be objective?

5. Describe the research process from the creation of a research question to variable development.

Key Terms

applied research: Practical research that may involve evaluating existing or proposed policies or programs

Certificates of Confidentiality: Certificates awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to protect researchers from court orders to identify information or characteristics of a research participant

concept: A clear idea regarding a particular subject (e.g., crime) based on that subject’s characteristics

deduction: The process of using a theory and its tenets to develop one or more specific hypotheses

dependent variable: The outcome variable; the variable dependent on what occurs with the independent variable

ethical relativism: The belief that how we think about ethics varies from one time to another, one place to another, and from one person to another

ethics: Recognized rules of conduct that govern a particular group

hypotheses: Statements about the expected relationship between two concepts

independent variable: The variable that determines and precedes the other variable in time

induction: The process of applying what is known about one or a few cases to an entire group

informed consent: Voluntary consent required from competent research participants after participants have been given accurate and relevant information about the study regarding procedures and possible risks and benefits to participation

institutional review board (IRB): A group of individuals selected to review research proposals to check compliance with federal and state law; determines whether research should be conducted based on a risk-benefit ratio

methodology: The techniques utilized to gather information or data for research purposes

operationalization: The process of giving a concept a working definition; determining how each concept in your study will be measured

paradigm: School of thought; way to organize information within a discipline

peer review: A form of quality control most commonly related to academic journals; process by which submitted manuscripts are sent out to be reviewed by experts in the field to determine whether the manuscript is suitable for publication

probabilistic: An event or outcome is more or less likely when certain conditions are present or not present

pure research: Research conducted to achieve new knowledge in the development of a discipline

qualitative research: Research that is sensitizing or helps to develop a better understanding about a particular group or activity for which there exists little information; qualitative research is more descriptive and less numerical

quantitative research: Research that involves a numerical measurement of some phenomenon

shield laws: Laws extending government immunity from prosecution for not divulging confidential and anonymous research information in court

theory: A statement explaining how two or more factors are related to one another

variable: An operationalized concept allowing for specific measurement

vulnerable populations: Regarding informed consent, those populations for which there are unique risks and a question of whether their consent is fully voluntary or not coerced; examples include prison inmates and terminally ill patients


1 Zimbardo, P., Producer/Director. [Videotape]. (1991). Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment. California: Philip Zimbardo.

2 See American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics. http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-ethics/code-medical-ethics.page.

3 See American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_table_of_contents.html

4 See http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/ for more information on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Human Research Protections.

5 Heydecker, J. J., & Leeb, J. (1975). The Nuremberg Trial: A history of Nazi Germany as revealed through the testimony at Nuremberg. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. http://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/

7 Mulford, R.D. (1967). Experimentation on human beings. Stanford Law Review, 20(1), 99–117.

8 Krugman, S. (1986). The Willowbrook Hepatitis Studies revisited: Ethical aspects. Reviews of Infectious Diseases, 8(1), 157–162.

9 Homblum, A.M. (1999). Acres of skin: Human experiments at Holmesburg Prison. New York: Routledge.

10 Humphreys, L. (1975). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transactions.

11 Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371–378.

12 Borge, C. (2007, Jan. 3). Basic instincts: The science of evil. ABC News/Primetime. http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=2765416&page=l. Watch WebCast of Episode on ABC News website: http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/video?id=2769000.

13 Schwartz, J. (2004, May 6). Simulated prison in ’71 showed a fine line between ‘normal’ and ‘monster’. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/06/international/middleeast/06PSYC.html?ex=1399262400&en=91f8144cdf7dd44a&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND. Also see links on The Stanford Prison Experiment Related Links webpage: http://www.prisonexp.org/links.htm.

14 See Saletan, W. (2004 May 12). Situationist ethics: The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn’t explain Abu Ghraib. Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/2100419/.

15 For full text, go to http://www.research.buffalo.edu/rsp/irb/forms/nuremberg_code.pdf.

16 For full text, see the United Nations website http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

17 For full text, see the World Medical Association website http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/b3/.

18 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2004). Guidelines for the conduct of research involving human subjects at the National Institutes of Health. http://www.nccamwatch.org/research/human_guidelines.pdf.

19 Hagan, F. (2006). Research methods in criminal justice and criminology (p. 47). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

20 For full text see the National Institutes of Health webpage http://hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/belmont.html.

21 Office for Human Research Protections. (1993). IRB Guidebook. http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/archive/irb/irb_guidebook.htm.

22 See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Informed Consent webpage http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/policy/consent/index.html.

23 See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Vulnerable Populations webpage http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/policy/populations/index.html.

24 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2003). Guidance on Certificates of Confidentiality. http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/policy/certconf.pdf.

25 National Institutes of Health. (2009). Frequently Asked Questions: Certificates of Confidentiality. http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/coc/faqs.htm#278.

26 Bland, Eric. (2010 Aug. 22). Software predicts criminal behavior: Program helps law enforcement determine who is most likely to commit crime. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/software-predicts-criminal-behavior/story?id=11448231.

27 Higginbotham, S. (2010 April 14). Hmmm…software that predicts if you will do crime and time. GIGAOM. http://gigaom.com/2010/04/14/predictive-analysis-ibm/.

28 Goode, E. (2011 Aug. 15). Sending the police before there’s a crime. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/16/us/16police.html.

29 Curran, D. J., & Renzetti, C. M. (2001) Theories of crime (p. 2). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

30 Shelton, D.E. (2008). The ‘CSI Effect’: Does it really exist? NIJ Journal, 259 [NCJ 221501], https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/221501.pdf.

31 National Institutes of Health. (2009). Stem cell basics. NIH. http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/defaultpage.asp.

32 Childs, D. (2009 March 9). Obama reverses course, lifts stem cell ban. ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Politics/story?id=7023990&page=1.

33 National Institutes of Health. (2009). National Institutes of Health Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research. http://stemcells.nih.gov/policy/2009guidelines.htm.

34 Rovner. J. (2011 July 27). Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging stem-cell research funding. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/07/27/138760069/judge-dismisses-lawsuit-challenging-stem-cell-research-funding.


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