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Understanding Comparison in Criminal Justice Research: An Interpretive Perspective

NCJ Number
International Criminal Justice Review Volume: 18 Issue: 4 Dated: December 2008 Pages: 389-405
Max Travers
Date Published
December 2008
17 pages
This article examines some implications of “interpretive philosophies” of social science for conducting comparative research in criminal justice.
Methodological debate surrounds research efforts to compare social phenomena in societies with different histories, languages, political and legal systems, and cultural values. Positivism as a philosophy of social science encompasses a range of positions, but has the common aim of identifying laws of social science by conducting experiments based on measuring variables in the social science sphere as is done in natural science. Under positivist philosophies, fixed laws constrain and shape human behavior across societies, which provide the foundation for comparing social phenomena in different societies. Interpretive philosophies, on the other hand, argue that social science must address meanings and consciousness that emerge from humans’ free will, such that fixed laws associated with natural science are misplaced or inappropriate. From the interpretive philosophical perspective, conceptual problems arise even in comparing groups and institutions with similar cultural values in the same society. These problems cannot be effectively addressed by greater care in defining variables or conducting measurements; they require a significant change in how comparative research is viewed. In framing this debate for comparative criminal justice research, this article’s central argument is that whereas many criminologists follow the positivist philosophy in comparative research as though it is the accepted standard, there is an alternative way that focuses on identifying the distinctive meaning of each human institution and activity. The challenge for interpretivists is to conduct a thorough analysis of each institution and activity without gravitating toward the positivist framework of causal explanation while avoiding the problem of relativism associated with postmodernism and constructionism. This article shows how this challenge is addressed by drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Australia’s children’s courts. 9 notes and 75 references