A CRITIQUE OF THE BRITISH CRIME SURVEY
The British crime survey (BCS) has its origins in two seminal studies carried out in America in the mid-sixties (Ennis 1967; Bidermann & Reiss 1967). They asked randomly sampled households if any person in the home had been a victim of crime within the previous year, and if the matter had been reported to the police. A similar study was carried out in London in the 1970s (Sparks, Genn & Dodd 1977). In both studies, despite the many methodological problems identified by the researchers, both governments were sufficiently persuaded as to invest in national large-scale surveys.
The BCS is one of the largest social surveys carried out in England. It is primarily a ‘victimization’ survey, in which respondents are asked about their experiences of crime. These are mainly property crimes of the household (burglary) and personal crime (theft from the person). The reference period for the survey is from January 1st in the calendar year preceding the BCS, up to the date of the interview. The reference period and the wording and structure of the survey have remained constant since its introduction in 1982. The BCS has been an annual survey since 2000/2001, before that it was bi-annual from 1982.
The survey sample for the BCS is 40,000 people aged 16 years and over, having initially been 15,000 people in the same age range. The exclusion of the under 16 age group in the survey has raised concern from both the NSPCC and several other children’s charities, that a great deal of crime against a vulnerable group is being missed and unreported. Genn (1982) also suggests that sexual and domestic crimes are under-reported in the BCS, however new touch screen computers for such incidents may help alleviate this concern. The survey sample for the BCS is collected from the postcode address file (PAF), which is in turn drawn up from the national census. Although the census is meant to be compulsory, the numbers of uncompleted census forms are increasing. Thus not all the population eligible to be included in the BCS will be included, these discrepancies do not fall into the realms of sampling error, as the numbers involved are relatively small in comparison to the overall survey. Comparisons between the sample proportions and the census proportions are therefore seen as a valid method of testing the validity and representativeness of the BCS sampling survey. The BCS has been criticized by Genn et al (1987) for missing people living in hostels, bed-sit accommodation and the homeless, who themselves may be some of the highest risk categories in society. A booster sample has been added in recent years of 4,000 ethnic minority people to see if their experiences of crime differ from those of the general population.
A questionnaire-based survey is used for the BCS, as it is the cheapest, quickest and most easily quantifiable form of research methodology for such large-scale social surveys. As Sellitz et al (1976) say ‘questionnaires can be sent through the post, whereas interviewers cannot’. A questionnaire also produces very quick and quantifiable data; it is relatively easy to transfer data into a quantifiable form. The BCS offers the respondent a very high degree of anonymity, which in respect of the delicacy of some of the areas covered in the survey is desirable to both parties. The questionnaire-based survey also cuts down the opportunity for interviewer bias and demand characteristics.
Perhaps the most limiting aspect of a questionnaire-based survey is the inability to prompt, probe and clarify certain areas of enquiry. The survey deals in absolutes, and doesn’t allow for human emotion and conjecture. The survey also relies upon the self-motivation of the respondents in participating in the survey. In this respect, the sample may not be adequately represented in certain sections of the community. Elliot and Ellingworth (1992) have suggested that in areas of high crime, the population become apathetic to crime, and therefore are less likely to complete a victim survey. The conditions under which the survey is completed may also offer cause for concern. Has the right person answered the right questions? Also have the questions been answered in the correct order? These questions may have a bearing upon the legitimacy of the collated data.
One of the main limitations with the BCS is the narrow field of categories that The BCS reports compared to that of official police statistics. The BCS does not calculate commercial or corporate crimes (shoplifting, vandalism and burglary) Kershaw et al (2001). White-collar crime, fraud and motor offences and so-called ‘victimless crime’ such as possession or drug dealing are also not included. To get a truer, purer overview of crime statistics, the police and BCS must agree a formula and categories on which they will both agree and accurately report. Hough and Mayhew (1985) have freely admitted national surveys are much less successful in obtaining certain information about some types of incidents than others.
Another criticism of the BCS was argued by Hazel Genn (1988) who pointed out the deficient way the BCS records ‘multiple victimization’. She pointed out that the BCS only allows up to six separate crimes to be recorded on each survey. This meant that multiple crimes such as domestic abuse and persistent harassment could only be counted as six crimes, and the rest were put together as one crime. These disparities were first highlighted by Spark (1977) in the recording of police statistics, and point to a ‘dark figure’ of crime which may in some circumstances be as much as eleven times higher than the official figures.
The BCS has been criticized by the left and feminist writers (Dobash & Dobash, Mathews & young, Genn, Stanko 1986-90) for distorting peoples ‘real’ experiences of crime. These concerns created several local crime surveys in inner-city areas. The focus of these surveys was to uncover areas of criminal behavior missed by the BCS, and to show how crime is unequally dispersed among the population. These smaller more focused studies found a disproportionate amount of crime concentrated in small areas. The studies also suggested that people in these areas were more likely to be victims of certain crimes, The Islington crime survey (Jones et al 1986) found that householders were 33% more likely to have been burgled than the statistical average reported in the BCS. The smaller studies also showed wide variations between sub-groups, and illustrate a ’fallacy of talking of the problem of women as a whole, or men, white, black, old, or youths’ (Young 1988). Instead he argues that criminological analysis should start with the subgroup in which people live their lives.
Another major flaw in the BCS is the categorization of crime; a minor or petty crime is counted equally as a major crime in the final statistics. This anomaly was pointed out by (Sellin and Wolfgang 1966) who created a weighted index for crime. They argued that by counting all crime as equitable, the perception of overall crime would become distorted. The perception of crime is something that cannot be addressed in a questionnaire-based survey. The perception of crime affects more people than crime itself. The fear of crime for the most vulnerable in society can mean a dramatic loss of quality of life.
The BCS is far from a perfect research tool, it has many flaws with the collection and presentation of the collected data. It does give a more accurate representation of the total numbers of crimes being committed than police figures, however the severity of many of these crimes is open to closer scrutiny. The politicization of the BCS has also meant that many people have lost faith in the whole survey. All parties pick and choose aspects of the survey, which suit the hot topic of the day. There seems to be no better way of collating so much data quickly than using a questionnaire based survey, it may be possible to use the internet with secure passwords, and however this is open to the same bias and demand characteristics as the current survey.
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