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Qualitative encounters in police research

posted on 2023-05-22, 13:04 authored by Fleming, J

Van Maanen (1978: 345-346) described his relationship with the police as 'a cop buff, a writer of books, an intruder, a student, a survey researcher, a management specialist, a friend, an ally, an asshole, a historian, a recruit and so on'; he was' part spy, part voyeur, part fan and part member'. I have been a 'professional stranger' (Agar, 1996) working with several police forces in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. There is no end to the roles in which you are cast by those you seek to observe and the roles you take on yourself in order to observe them. In one short chapter, J cannot illustrate all these roles and the dilemmas and frustrations they frequently pose, but in several short vignettes of policing research I have conducted in Australia, I can illustrate the diversity of ethnographic work on the police and demonstrate how various methods do or do not lend themselves to various situations. As the following vignettes make clear, the research invariably begins with a broader question and proceeds in an exploratory manner. As Hammersley and Atkinson (2007: 3) observe, the task is 'to investigate some aspect of the lives of the people who are being studied, and this includes finding out how these people view the situations they face, how they regard one another, and also how they see themselves'.

My work is primarily concerned with how police work. I ask questions like: 'how does the organisation "manage" sexual assault?', or, 'how does a police organisation's structures and systems accommodate community policing?' My primary questions are: 'how','what', 'why' and 'when'. The research site is invariably complex and contested and needs to be seen in its context to maximise understanding and to aid in explanation-building. Of course, the context will change, and in an organisation that is essentially conflict-driven, this change may occur on a daily basis. So, flexibility in research design and throughout the research process is essential - always having the ability to adapt the research plan and being prepared to reassess decisions as you go. The continuing analysis of the researcher's role in the research process is a crucial part of qualitative research. As Mason (1996: 165) has pointed out, in playing active roles, qualitative researchers are 'practitioners who think and act in ways which are situated and contextual but also strategic'. These are the characteristics of qualitative research that guide my way of wo"rking. The following sections outline in a sequential way some of the methods I have used to explore the ways in which police' do business'.


Publication title

Qualitative Criminology: Stories from the field


L Bartels and K Richards






School of Social Sciences


Hawkins Press

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Copyright 2011 Hawkins Press.

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