Qualitative data-collection involves collecting data that reflect feelings, attitudes and emotions about people’s experiences. Such data tend to be richer in detail than data obtained by quantitative means. The attitudes of ethnic minorities are shaped by the fact that police forces in Britain tend to be predominantly white. Sociologists, since Skolnick, have discussed the existence of a ‘canteen culture’ that can reinforce racial prejudice. In addition, the Macpherson Report following the Stephen Lawrence murder found evidence of institutional racism in the Metropolitan force.
This introduction explains the nature of qualitative research, introduces the basis of ethnic-minority attitudes towards the police and brings in important ideas like canteen culture and institutional racism.
A qualitative approach to researching this would be centred on trying to understand the factors and meanings that lie behind the attitudes of ethnic minorities. As such it is closely associated with Max Weber’s concept of ‘verstehen’. Qualitative research is needed to tease out the evidence suggested in the Item that relations between the police and black and other ethnic-minority communities are problematic, especially among young black males where there can be a lack of trust and a degree of hostility.
The qualitative approach is further unpacked here and linked to Weber’s concept of ‘verstehen’.
Qualitative data are normally collected in the interpretive tradition through small-scale research studies. Such an approach in this case would seek to understand the attitudes of ethnic minorities towards the police through methods such as semi-structured or unstructured interviews. Unstructured interviews are informal sessions with the interviewer asking open-ended questions; in this case about attitudes to the police. The idea is that respondents are free to answer in depth. However, a potential problem here is that researchers could ask leading questions or put across an anti-police bias, which might encourage the respondents to exaggerate their experiences.
Further ideas and the qualities of the qualitative approach are explored here. Specific methods are discussed, followed by an AO2 evaluative point about the dangers of biased and leading research.
A qualitative approach ought to collect data that are high in validity. This is not guaranteed, but is expected if qualitative practices and methods are used that encourage minority ethnic groups to ‘open up’ and give honest answers about their experiences with the police. However, such research tends to be small scale and almost impossible to replicate, and so tends to be low in reliability.
Somewhere in this answer the examiner would expect content identifying qualitative research with being high in validity and low in reliability. Note how in this paragraph validity is addressed in one sentence followed by reliability in the next. This is good practice; examiners regard answers as weak when they talk about validity and reliability in the same sentence.
A strength of the qualitative approach is that it is good for researching sensitive issues. Semi-structured or unstructured interviews can be quite lengthy, enabling both trust and a rapport potentially to be developed between the interviewer and the respondent. However, because samples tend to be small this can question the representativeness of the research group. In addition, with non-standardised questions being asked, it is difficult to make generalisations. These are general weaknesses of the qualitative approach.
This paragraph is balanced in terms of presenting a strength of the qualitative approach followed by two weaknesses.
In conclusion, it can be seen that adopting a qualitative approach when investigating minority ethnic groups’ attitudes to policing seems logical in that this approach gives a detailed insight into people’s attitudes and experiences. Consequently, as an approach it should offer an environment in which respondents can open up and produce data rich in validity. However, there is a risk that the sample may not be representative or there may be a tendency to exaggerate and lie, and safeguards need to be put in place to limit the effect of this.
This is a balanced conclusion that summarises justification for using the qualitative approach, but at the same time recognises potential difficulties.
Topic 2 Sources of data
1 Quantitative data (NB it is possible to collect some qualitative data through open questions).
2 Open questions are ones where respondents are encouraged to express themselves in their own words. This is in contrast to closed questions where respondents either choose from a multiple-choice list or give a simple answer that is along the lines of ‘yes’/‘no’ or numerical.
3 Questionnaires constitute a quantitative approach that is associated with research high in reliability. They may also be viewed as high in reliability because they are standardised in the sense that everyone is asked the same questions and this contributes to their reliability as a method.
4 One advantage of using electronic questionnaires is that respondents do not have the inconvenience of posting them back. A second advantage is that sending out global electronic questionnaires does not incur expensive postage costs and responses can be almost instantaneous if people complete them quickly. Finally, timely reminders can easily and quickly be sent out to encourage the completion of the questionnaires.
5 Although questionnaires are generally viewed as high in reliability and low in validity, this does not negate the possibility that questionnaires can have high validity. Questionnaires that search for answers from issues that are clear-cut and straightforward should achieve high validity, provided there is no misinterpretation of the questions and people do not deliberately mislead the researcher with their answers. The key weakness with questionnaires is that there is no one present to check if the answers are honest or not.
6 Provided the sample chosen is representative, the answers given by the respondents should be generalisable to the whole population. However, researchers have no way of knowing with questionnaires completed at home or online that the correct person is completing the questionnaire. If the wrong person is completing it, the research may be neither generalisable nor representative.
7 Coding refers to the process of allocating a number to each answer. All the ‘coded’ answers are then included on a spreadsheet that can be analysed for relationships and trends. Today this job is usually done by software. Given that most coded questionnaires are now read electronically, this makes the task of recording and analysing results quick and easy for the researcher.
8 Interpretivists tend not to like questionnaires because they only reflect the sociologist’s view of what is important. Closed questionnaires assume that the sociologist knows all the right questions and answers and that any alternatives experienced by those filling in the questionnaire are unimportant. Respondents may feel forced into making responses that they do not really agree with, or they may react by not responding at all. Questionnaires therefore may only reflect the researcher’s interpretation and knowledge of the social world.