Examine some of the advantages and disadvantages of using official statistics to study crime and deviance. (12 marks)
Sociologists can use a wide range of methods and sources to study crime and official statistics can be an important source of information about crime. Although official statistics are often heavily criticised by sociologists they provide a potentially useful source of secondary data, if used cautiously.
Official statistics have a number of apparent advantages to the sociological researcher. Firstly, they are relatively cheap and readily available. Government statistics are published annually; they provide data on crime across the whole of the UK and also provide insight into regional differences in crime. As such, official statistics can thus be regarded as providing a good starting point for researchers. Also, official statistics enable sociologists to make comparisons over time and between different parts of the country and between different types of area, e.g. rural/urban. For positivist sociologists (following Durkheim’s method), official crime statistics can be seen as providing a measure of crime which is representative, reliable and valid. Official statistics thus provide a true picture of the extent and nature of crime.
Of course, those who support the use of official statistics – such as Roger Matthews and many other sociologists interested in influencing policy would recognise that crime statistics can be heavily criticised. However, those supporting the use of official statistics argue that the deficiencies of official statistics can be minimized by using self-report studies and victim surveys. The government conducted British Crime Survey (BCS), for example, is an annual survey of people who have been victims of crime. By comparing this source with other official statistics, a more accurate estimate of the real rate of crime can be achieved. This is a form of triangulating – use several sources or methods to investigate a topic.
Official statistics on crime do of course those have disadvantages. Firstly it must be noted that government statistics –apart from the BCS – only show the rate of recorded crime. This means that they only reflect crimes known to the police. This in turn means that these statistics are dependent on either the police identifying criminal activity or on the public reporting crime. As many sociologists have noted this provides considerable scope for a lack of validity to creep into official statistics. Simon Holdaway’s participant observation study of the British police for example, suggests that the occupational culture of the police means that police officers apply and interpret the law using ‘discretion’ to benefit themselves, e.g. by making their job easier. Equally, Dick Hobb’s observational study of crime and policing in the East End of London shows how the police operate a ‘give and take’ trading relationship with criminals, thus sometimes turning a blind eye to offences in order to gain information.
All of this suggests that official statistics are perhaps in fact, a much more suspect source of data for the researcher. On the basis of Hobb’s and Holdaway’s research, it would seem clear that official crime statistics may well be very lacking in validity and they may also lack reliability, as different officers and different police forces may treat the same events in very different ways. Indeed, sociologists such as Box have also argued that the representativeness of official statistics can be questioned. Box claims that official statistics reflect selective law and order enforcement and thus are biased. Box’s point is easily to illustrate. The picture of the typical criminal emerging from official statistics is young, male, working class, urban, and disproportionately black. If researchers take official statistics at face value, it would have to be argued that this is the truth about crime in the UK; this of course can be challenged, since work by sociologists on white collar crime suggests that this is at least one more area where the work of law enforcement agencies is biased.
In summary, as Hindess has suggested, official statistics are often treated in a positivist manner, as if they provide cast iron factual data about crime. Yet, as the BCS has shown, in 1997 only around 57% of robberies and 26% of vandalism were reported and only 44% of the estimated total of crime. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as the ‘iceberg effect’ or the ‘dark figure’ of crime. In short, this points to the key weakness of official statistics on crime – their lack of validity. It is worth noting here though, that some statistics can be very accurate – in the case of crimes which tend to have a high level of reporting, e.g. burglary or car theft (for insurance purposes).
In conclusion then, whilst researchers should not overlook the weaknesses of official statistics, this should not prevent them from making use of a source of data which is easy to gain access to. However, in doing this, researchers have to be aware of how official statistics can be combined with other sources in order to check their validity, reliability and representativeness. Provided researchers are aware of the disadvantages, as well as the advantages, of official statistics, they can be a useful tool and provide insights into the scope and nature of crime. There are though, no research methods or sources of data which are without faults; researchers therefore tend to use triangulation in order to examine a research problem from different perspectives.
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