Public Criminology, the Quantitative Skills Gap and Pedagogic Reform: Some Reflections

Public Criminology, the Quantitative Skills Gap and Pedagogic Reform: Some Reflections

John Martyn Chamberlain 

I have been preoccupied lately with how best to ensure that the next generation of criminologists in the United Kingdom are fully equipped to undertake the task of securing the continued intellectual robustness and practical utility of the discipline and its ability to engage in a critique of contemporary forms of commonplace and uncritical ‘crime talk’. I know that I am not alone in this regard. Over the last two decades, within the context of the emergence of the new ‘sovereign state’, debate has developed internationally surrounding the increasingly marginalised role criminological research plays in relation to both media representations of crime and criminal justice policy and practice.

An explanation given for this is that constraints exist within criminology as an academic discipline as a result of its concern with critiquing public and expert discourses surrounding crime, rather than solely pursing a ‘public-facing’ agenda. Alternatively, for other scholars of crime and criminal justice, the value of pursing exploratory research and independent critical thought for its own sake remains foundational to criminology as an independent and autonomous discipline concerned with critiquing the governmental crime control project.

However, regardless of how one views the (re)emergence of public-facing forms of criminology, and related debates surrounding the rigour and value of criminological research and thinking within the academy, to my mind such debates reinforce the importance of promoting reflexive forms of criminological practice. Not least because there is clearly a perennial need to seek to raise the status of criminological studies in general, particularly if we are to avoid promoting self-indulgent and self-referential forms of navel-gazing research and thinking. Furthermore, there is, I would suggest, an important gap in current thinking here. I do not think as a discipline we have as yet adequately tackled the issue of just how we are going to ensure that we educate our future crime scholars and practitioners so that they possess the thinking and research skills necessary to engage in critical forms of citizenship under the complex socio-political and ideological conditions associated with ‘late-modernity’. Additionally, a key barrier to achieving this is, I would suggest, the quantitative ‘skills-gap’ undergraduate criminology students currently possess as a result of the low profile afforded to numerically-informed forms of criminological practice within the academy.

In focusing on this matter I am aware that mixed messages surround the role played by quantitative research evidence within criminology. Given the long-standing emphasis placed by government, policy-makers, criminal justice practitioners and criminologists on crime surveys and statistics, it is not surprising that quantitative methods feature heavily in the criminological corpus and public perceptions of how criminology should focus itself as a public service discipline. A general bias within criminology toward quantitative research can certainly be deduced from examining the methodology adopted by empirical research studies published in leading criminology and criminal justice journals. However, international variation arguably exists. For example, Tewksbury, Dabney and Copes (2010) undertook a detailed content analysis of leading academic journals. They found that only 5.7% of published articles in American criminology and criminal justice journals (i.e. Criminology, Criminology and Public Policy) relied on qualitative data and analysis compared to 27.2% in leading international journals (i.e. British Journal of Criminology, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology and the Canadian Journal of Criminology).

It could be said that these variations serve to explain why quantitative research methods tend to occupy a smaller role within undergraduate curricula in the UK than they do in the US. Yet internationally it is recognised in western higher education systems that, regardless of the emphasis placed on quantitative research within the curriculum, undergraduate criminology students worldwide tend to possess high levels of statistical anxiety and a concurrent tendency to avoid numeric study tasks, including quantitative forms of data analysis. Furthermore, the generally low levels of quantitative literacy and research skills possessed by criminology graduates is a particularly pertinent matter given that debate over the future of criminology and the skill-set possessed by its practitioners and scholars is occurring against the background of the recent establishment nationally in the UK by The Nuffield Foundation, the ESRC and HEFEC, of the Q-Step programme (Nuffield Foundation 2012).

The Q-Step programme seeks to enhance current provision of Quantitative Methods (QM) teaching across UG social science degree programmes in the UK and emphasises innovation in the delivery of QM teaching. This programme has come about as a result of the recognition that there is a long-standing history of poor QM teaching provision within the social sciences and humanities (British Academy 2012). Hence it follows that the problem of ensuring our criminology graduates possess the necessary skills to make an intellectually rigorous public contribution – be it as citizens, scholars or criminal justice practitioners – does in some key respects go beyond the confines of criminology as a distinctive discipline and appears in fact to be to no small degree a shared problem across the social sciences more generally.

To my mind it is important to be clear from the onset that today’s criminologists can address these issues in a positive and forward looking manner. The use of large-scale survey methods to capture snapshots of criminal activity and the victim experience of crime, alongside the dynamics of criminal justice processes and outcomes, is tightly bound up with the emergence of criminology as a discipline as it has sought to generate a statistical evidence base from which to simultaneously influence and critique governmental practice. This provides QM teachers and their non-QM counterparts within the discipline with an opportunity to work together to embed the analysis of numbers inside a skills-based supported teaching narrative which spans substantive disciplinary theory and practice modules, operating in conjunction with broader methods-based teaching, in an integrated, thought provoking and engaging manner. After all, is it not a primary responsibility of us all in our role as educators, to show students how we as reflexive criminologists engage in a collective critique of ideas and the evidence which underpins them?

In conclusion, as a discipline, we need to take advantage of the fact that society is preoccupied with the topic of crime and deviance, and furthermore, that we all in one way or another use both words and numbers to explore it on a day to day basis. With this in mind, I would conclude that critical social scientists need to do much more than simply seeking to measure the impact of changes introduced as a result of the Nuffield sponsored Q-Step programme. We also need to be using this opportunity to establish the basis for a reforming agenda of pedagogic and practice-based change which speaks directly to broader contemporary concerns about the future direction of the discipline of criminology itself.

British Academy (2012) A position statement – society counts, quantitative skills in the social sciences and humanities. London: British Academy.
Tewksbury, R, Dabney, D and Copes, H (2010) The Prominence of Qualitative Research in Criminology and Criminal Justice Scholarship Criminal Justice Education 17: 297 – 322.
Nuffield Foundation (2012) Programme background – promoting a step-change in the quantitative skills of social science undergraduates, London: Nuffield Foundation


John Martyn Chamberlain is Associate Professor in Medical Criminology, University of Southampton.