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Systematic Social Observation

Brunton-Smith, Ian (2018) Systematic Social Observation In: The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Criminology. Oxford Handbooks . Oxford University Press (OUP). ISBN 9780190279707

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Systematic Social Observation (SSO) is the application of rigorous, replicable, and generalizable approaches from survey methodology to field observation (ethnography). With its roots in early symbolic interactionism in the late 1920s and 30s - where the emphasis was on participant observation to study social interactions (e.g. Thomas et al., 1933; Whyte, 1943; Barker and Wright, 1955) – SSO provides researchers with independent, robust, and quantifiable data about the forms of social interactions most commonly obtained through qualitative inquiry. Introduced to criminology by Reiss (1968; 1971) in his detailed analyses of violence in police-citizen encounters, it was the work of Taylor and colleagues in Baltimore city which first demonstrated how SSO approaches could also be used to measure qualities of the urban environment including physical disorder, social incivilities, and housing quality (Taylor, Gottfredson and Brower, 1984; Taylor, Shumaker and Gottfredson, 1985). They showed that SSO could provide researchers with independent assessments of the urban environment that were considerably more detailed than available administrative sources like the census and land registry data. SSO was further cemented in the methodological toolbox of environmental criminologists by the work of Sampson and colleagues as part of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHCDN). In particular, with the development of ecometrics – the science of measurement applied to ecological settings – researchers now had a robust methodological foundation from which to judge the quality of ecological measures, and make corrections for measurement error (Raudenbush and Sampson, 1999).

More recently, SSO for ecological assessment has evolved again. Data about the environment around survey respondents’ houses is now routinely collected by interviewers during the fieldwork process, and this information is now being incorporated in research (Brunton-Smith and Sturgis, 2011). Whilst questions remain about the quality of this data (Andresen et al., 2013; West, 2013; Casas-Cadero et al., 2013), this represents an extremely cost-effective source of SSO data for researchers. Perhaps more interestingly, the rapid growth of the online mapping tool Google Street View now provides an unprecedented amount of recorded observational data on environments across the globe which researchers are only just beginning to engage with (e.g. Badland et al., 2010; Clarke et al., 2010; Odgers et al., 2012). Methodological challenges with this data remain, however Google Street View unquestionably represents an exciting opportunity for the widespread and routine adoption of SSO in studies of ecological settings.

Item Type: Book Section
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Sociology
Authors :
Editors :
Bruinsma, Gerben J.N.
Johnson, Shane D.
Date : 29 March 2018
Depositing User : Clive Harris
Date Deposited : 01 Jun 2018 11:53
Last Modified : 24 Oct 2018 09:43

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