The Steve Hall column Beneath the Surface
For decades the ethnographic method has been one of the sharpest tools in the criminologist's box. What better way to find out exactly what criminals do, why (they think) they do it and what the local cultural and material contexts in which they operate look like and feel like? Statistics present only the broadest and indeed most unreliable picture; victim surveys do what they say on the tin – survey only the victim's perspective; and hanging around Crown Courts asking criminals to fill in questionnaires is one the most fruitless activities I can think of.
Since the early days of the Chicago School of Sociology, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the ethnographic method, taken from anthropology into sociology and criminology, has provided us with what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called the 'thick description' without which we can't even begin to analyse cultural meanings and motivations. Here we see the nuances of desire, meaning and human relations in operation in their everyday contexts. We also need to understand how these nuances are embedded in broader structural and ideological contexts, but that's another issue; without this rich data, we have little – we might even say nothing – to go on. So why is it that this vital method is getting more difficult to use within criminological research?
Part of the answer lies in the rise to power of Institutional Review Boards in US universities and Ethics Committees in Europe.