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by Peter Moskos

March 18, 2010

Police, Ethography, Sociology, Crime, and How Things Work

I always like academics who can explain things simply. I rarely find any greater knowledge or meaning hidden behind esoteric words and jargon-filled academic prose.

Here's Professor Jay Livingston on the difference between ethnography and survey research. While it's not a distinction that most non-academics give two-beans about, it's a great description. From A Shot of Ethnography:
Survey research shows the relation between variables. Ethnography tells you how things work. Ethnography is about knowing who the players are and how they think. I remember Robert Weiss saying that if you’re a survey researcher and you want to know about cars, you get a sample of cars, and you discover that a car has an average of 5.38 cylinders, 164.7 horsepower, etc. (this was so long ago that he also included something about carburetors). But if you’re an ethnographer, you get a car, you open the hood, and you try to figure out how all those parts fit together.
I might also add that a participant-observer would watch a car race.

A quantitative-methods person would try and tell you everything about cars, despite never actually having seen one in person.

A journalist would sit in the passenger seat go for a ride.

And to really understand cars? You've got to get in the driver's seat and go!

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