Reflections on collaborative research with sixth form sociology students within a university setting ­

As part of their study into crime and deviance, staff and students in the Social Science Department of North Leamington School designed and undertook a collaborative crime mapping research project at Warwick University.

The initial impulse for the research came from a comment from a student in the study group who casually referred to an area in our town as “Heroin Heights”, This area was also referred to as “The Bronx” by local postal workers. The intimation was that this area had higher rates of criminals residing within it. The discussion that followed led on to the idea that this was a form of reputationall labelling which could be tested through empirical research by combining census data and court records.

As a PHD researcher working in the school, J.Saunders, booked the Teaching Grid (innovative learning space) in Warwick University Library for large scale plotting of the data to take place on a number of screens in real time. This enabled the testing of our hypotheses using google maps and correlations of a number of different sources. We used the following procedures and resources.

Creating a collaborative map of offender residence by electoral ward boundaries From our initial simple reputational label we then broadened research to test the various hypothesis e.g which areas have high or low levels of offenders and correlations with a “zone of transition” or unemployment rate, deprivation and others.

Stage One -­ Making the map

We set up a google account as an administrator and then invited others to join and collaborate in map. As making the map is a little awkward collaboration can save time.

Maps of town electoral wards can be found here (ONS at ward level)

We created superimposed the ward boundaries on the shared google map.

It was useful to first make a hardcopy map (available from a local newsagent or petrol station) as a prototype to refer to when creating the computer version. This “old school” method did save time and avoided frustrating zooming in and out on the computer. When editing the map we saved often, to avoid loss of work in case of drop outs. Eventually we had a map of the town divided into wards and ready for the data input from the court records.

Stage two ­- Collected and highlighted known offender residential data

At the local library we collected and photocopied recent reports from magistrates courts detailing those convicted of offences and their addresses (by street). These are available in local newspapers and a suitable period of time e.g 6 months was collected. On these photocopies we used a highlighter marking convictions of those who lived in the town.This saved time when inputting the data. A detailed discussion about the ethics of the research developed at this stage.

Stage three – Inputting data onto the map

We found this relatively straightforward but somewhat tedious. For each offender residence (by street) we dragged and dropped a placemarker on to the map. To find difficult addresses use a tab or second computer. An example of the map is below.

 Stage four – investigating correlations

This was far more theoretically challenging. At this stage, debate took place based upon sociological theories of crime and deviance e.g social disorganisation, zones of transition and reputational labelling.

Some of this data was recent and some older dating back to the 2001 census.The 2011 census data provides an excellent opportunity for an update and is available now. The issue of rates was discussed as there are different populations between wards. A simple spreadsheet enabled us to compare these and work out which wards had higher and lower rates of offenders within them.

General reflections on how the project worked pedagogically

Overall, in discussions with the students, the project was seen as a success, not least of all because doing original research on alocal area was highly relevant and interesting. The use of collaborative methods rather than individual or smaller group work was also novel. Part of the rationale was to give students the experience of visiting the university itself and actually do some sociological research in that environment.This generated enthusiasm at the time and for further
study beyond the sixth form.

As teachers we piloted the approach first before going to Warwick. Contingency plans could be put in place for the technical issues that arose (e.g for freezes/drop outs). Internet speeds in the UK may be part of the problem as some countries have upload speeds four times faster. Technically if the system was seamless if would have enhanced the experience.

The visit to the university by students clearly focused their minds on future aspirations. All are now studying at universities.Seeing the central map on the large screen develop in real time made the teamwork element really tangible and enjoyable. Overall the theoretical discussions felt a little crowded out by the data input and technical aspects of the research. On the other hand the students by doing, rather than merely reading about research found out about the hard graft involved in any empirical study and this was valuable.The more theoretical discussions took place later in the week. Many unexpected issues arose on the fly that stimulated debate. The use of crime mapping in this way did highlight future potential and limitations.

We are now developing a follow on study of religious belief in the community which will incorporate more qualitative research and embed video and audio podcasts within the maps. This update has been influenced by the “Reading the riots” research done at LSE. The students learned about the process of research itself and the results showed that zone theories and reputational labels may have a grain of truth but the reality is more complex and capable of many different interpretations.

­ Chris Bowen & J Saunders


Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft

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