Surveys, Focus Group, & Design
Criminal justice research utilizes a variety of research methods. One of the most important methods is the survey approach to collecting data. Surveys are extremely useful when data needs to be collected from specific populations or when the data is qualitative in nature. Surveys also provide a means for collecting data which is not observable such as learning how inmates spend their free time in prison. There are four basic methods of performing surveys which include:
1. In person surveys
2. Telephone surveys
3. Computer-based surveys
4. Focus group surveys
These survey methods each have advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the population size and budget constraints of the research project, survey choice can be determined. Circumstances and the form of data often determine the method of surveying.
In Person Surveys
In person surveys range in complexity with some being a list of yes or no questions administered to a participant or being in depth interviews. The major advantage and reason for using in person interviews is that the researcher is trying gain data concerning some research problem that is not easily observed such as patterns of criminal behavior. This is especially useful in rare situations or limited population sizes. For example, the in-person survey is highly effective in obtaining information from serial killers because this is a small population which is not open to random sampling. Another major benefit of the in-person survey is the fact that it:
…provides for personal contact between the researcher and the subject. Such a situation presents many possibilities. Because of the face-to-face relationship, interviews generally bring about a higher response rate than mail surveys. Being on the scene, the interviewer can clear up any misunderstandings or confusions the respondent may have in interpreting questions. Additionally, the interviewer can also act as an observer and not only record verbal responses but also make note of his or her own impressions regarding the respondents and their environment (Hagan, 2014).
However, in person surveys are prone to some issues such as researcher bias. Having the researcher present can impact the survey results due to the participant answering in a way that he or she feels is what the researcher wants to hear (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). This is problematic for in person surveys and why these surveys must be designed in an extremely objective manner. The other problem with in-person surveys is that they are time consuming and expensive. A researcher must conduct the survey in a one-on-one setting and this limits the amount of time that the researcher can spend conducting interviews due to budget constraints (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). As such these types of surveys are generally used in situations where data is difficult to obtain from any other method or when there is an extremely small population.
Another method of surveying which is utilized often is the telephone survey. This form of survey has the advantage of reducing cost and time by eliminating field personnel (Hagan, 2014). The form of survey also reduces the problem of researcher bias due to the fact that it is easier to detect patterns of bias developing by monitoring the process. This involves using a recorder to analyze surveys. This method of survey also has the advantage of being able to interview individuals who are difficult to reach or large numbers of people spread across geographic areas. However, this survey approach has the disadvantage of lacking the ability to obtain in-depth data that is only present in face-to-face interviews. This method also is problematic because it tends to focus on people who are not random in nature. For instance, if you wish to conduct interviews of ex-criminals, you will only be able to survey those who are willing and were the criminal justice system. This excludes many people who may be criminals but have not served time or been arrested. Although not as much of an issue today, there is also the issue of numbers being unlisted or people not having phones. These factors also exclude portions of the intended population making it less random.
Computer-based surveys are another form of survey that has advantages and disadvantages but is quickly replacing other survey methods. There are two forms of computer-based survey with the first being the use of the computer to make data collection more accurate and efficient. Researchers can use software to manage the data and directly input it into the survey during a face-to-face interview (Hagan, 2014). This method also works when the survey can be placed on a computer for use in longitudinal studies in which participants fill out the survey in an ongoing manner. This methodology also allows for surveys to be given randomly on websites or through email. The advantage to this method of surveying is that it can eliminate interviewer bias and obtain more standardized responses as well as maintaining anonymity (Hagan, 2014). However, this method also has the disadvantage of lacking depth and has a high refusal rate (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). Computer-based surveys are best used with large populations in which data can easily be obtained through simple question and answers.
Focus group surveys
Focus groups are another survey method that researchers utilize in situations where information concerning something needs a particular experience or specialization. For example, a group of investigators in police departments may be formed as a group to discuss specific aspects of a crimes. Because the members of the group are professional investigators their combined experience can be surveyed to discover data that may be missed in individual interviews or with question-and-answer surveys. The problem with the focus group is that it needs to be mediated or managed properly in order to maintain its focus. As well, the face-to-face nature of the group with the researcher brings back into play the response bias issue experienced in face-to-face interviews (Cardon, 2014). This method is also limited because the as groups grow larger, they are prone to being less effective due to communications issues. These groups are also expensive because they are more time consuming than other methods. Focus groups are best used in situations which special knowledge of issues is needed in order to collect data appropriately.
While different surveys have their different functions, all surveys share certain design characteristics which provide advantages and disadvantages to the general use of surveys. In general, surveys are:
· Surveys are relatively inexpensive compared with observational studies.
· Surveys are useful in describing the characteristics of a large population.
· They can be administered from remote locations using mail, email or telephone.
· Very large samples are feasible, in most instances, making the results statistically significant.
· Standardized questions make measurement more precise by enforcing uniform definitions upon the participants.
· Standardization ensures that similar data can be collected from groups then interpreted comparatively.
· Usually, high reliability is easy to obtain — by presenting all subjects with a standardized stimulus, observer subjectivity is greatly eliminated (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009).
Surveys in general have the benefits of:
· A methodology relying on standardization forces the researcher to develop questions general enough to be minimally appropriate for all respondents, possibly missing what is most appropriate to many respondents.
· Surveys are inflexible in that they require the initial study design (the tool and administration of the tool) to remain unchanged throughout the data collection.
· The researcher must ensure that a large number of the selected sample will reply.
· It may be hard for participants to recall information or to tell the truth about a controversial question.
· As opposed to direct observation, survey research (excluding some interview approaches) can seldom deal with “context” (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009).
These general advantages and disadvantages in surveys are typically realized in the survey design. For example, no matter which survey type one uses, loaded questions will create a response bias. For example, if a question is constructed in which the question elicits a particular response this biases the results of the survey. Asking a question such as, “Don’t you agree…” is an example of question that implies that the participant should agree.
Another area of design is found in the ability of the survey to create valid and reliable data. Typically, surveys can be performed in a manner that is repeatable which allows for the measurement of the confidence interval (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). The confidence interval is a range of values that shows a specific and defined probability of having a measure of the population parameter. For instance, it could be a range of facts where there is a 80% probability of including the population mean (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). As such surveys, if designed properly and if they have a large enough sample, they can show significance and be considered valid.
However, there are instances, such as focus groups and face to face interviews which it is difficult to obtain large samples or random samples. In these instances a stratified sample, which groups smaller groups of the large population is needed. This methodology uses the statistical ratio to represent each group in the sample size (Aron, Aron, & Coups, 2009). However, in most instances the sample sizes of most surveys are large enough that this is not necessary and this makes surveys a strong statistical tool.
Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Coups, E. (2009). Statistics for psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Cardon, P. W. (2014). Business Communication. Developing Leaders for a Networked World Chapter 9: Persuasive Messages. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Company.
Hagan, F. E. (2014). Research methods in criminal justice and criminology (9 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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