Outline and assess the importance of self-report studies for the sociological understanding of crime 
Self-report studies are a quantitative method of collecting data on crime. They tend to use surveys (through either interviews or questionnaires, or a combination of both) to get respondents to report on their own criminal behaviour, whether or not their behaviour is known to the police. This data enables researchers to understand ‘hidden offenders’ (offenders about whom the police don’t know) and to help uncover the dark figure of crime (crimes not reported and therefore not known about).
Perhaps the best example of a self-report study was the Farrington Study, a longitudinal study exploring the criminal behaviour of 411 boys from 397 families over the course of their lives. This study was able to uncover the extent of criminal activities of these individuals – much of which were never recorded in official statistics (93% of the participants admitted to having committed at least one offence that they had never been caught for). It was also able to show the peak offending ages of the participants (17/18), their patterns of criminal behaviour and their rates of reoffending. Other forms of crime data – police statistics and victim surveys – could never offer this level of information on a particular group. Self-report studies in general can offer more information on the age, gender and social class of offenders than other forms of data can. This shows the value of self-report studies in understanding the behaviour of a sample of individuals.
However, the scope of self-report studies is limited. Firstly – unlike police statistics and victim surveys – they only really have the potential to focus on a limited range of criminal behaviours, mainly low level crimes and anti-social behaviour. Those who have committed more serious offences for which they have not been caught are unlikely to reveal this to a researcher conducting a self-report study, and even though such studies promise confidentiality, this would have to come with a disclaimer for ethical (and legal) reasons that any serious criminal behaviour self-reported may have to be passed on by the researcher to the authorities. Secondly, self-report studies tend to be limited to smaller groups and samples. Police statistics have the advantage of having the whole nation as their sample, whereas victim surveys – while usually smaller-scale – have the potential to reach huge samples: The Crime Survey for England & Wales (CSEW) for example, is a national survey which interviews over 50,000 people every year. In the UK, a ‘national’, longitudinal self-report study was attempted in 2003 (the Offender, Crime & Justice Survey), but was a one-off and not an ongoing method like the CSEW.
Self-report studies are also subject to the same problems as any small scale survey: Their samples are generally too small to be representative, they are reliant on the honesty and memory of participants (which compromises their validity), they assume that the questions asked and definitions used (in this case, definitions of crimes) will be interpreted the same by every participant and they assume that every social group is equally likely to self-report.
Many sociologists might argue that police statistics are a better method of understanding crime; they are the biggest record, have the biggest sample, are officially sanctioned and can be traced back for decades, making them very useful in identifying patterns, trends and changes in crime. However, police statistics only record crimes reported to the police by the public, which many sociologists believe is only a tiny fraction of total crimes – and they are also influenced by different police practices (e.g. different priorities of different forces; discretion of individual forces and officers; cuffing and coughing). Other sociologists may argue that victim surveys are a better method; these can uncover hidden, unreported crimes and their victims – potentially on a larger scale that self-report studies. However, victim surveys also have their restrictions – they cannot find out about ‘victimless crimes’, which self-report studies can.
Overall, self-report studies on their own do have value. For finding out about lower-level crimes and, particularly, for exploring patterns of criminal behaviour in specific (small) groups they are very useful. They can also be useful in identifying ‘hidden offenders’; those whose criminal actions (again, usually lower-level), escape the attention of the police. Beyond this, they are very limited. However, no method of criminal data collection on its own is free of problems, and therefore for gaining a true sociological understanding of crime, it may be best to examine a range of different data and collection methods, rather than relying on any one method in isolation.
Crime & Deviance
A2 Unit: G673