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To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before ... (exploratory research)

A lot of research, particularly in the policing field, is what is termed 'confirmatory' - that is, the researcher has a pretty good idea beforehand of what they might find based on the fact they are testing already known theories, hypotheses and/or ideas. In that type of research, you are simply attempting to confirm or disprove what people believe is known*.

My favourite recent example is this type of work was a recent study conducted by the Barrie Police Service, where they analyzed calls for service data to determine whether they could detect any evidence of a "lunar effect" (ie. that the full moon causes spikes in criminal behaviour). Not only were they testing a popular old belief, but this was actually a replication of sorts of an early study that had similarly looked at possible relationships between the sun, the moon and crime. See below:

My understanding is that the Barrie study found no such effects.

I don't do much confirmatory work. Instead, a lot of what I do is exploratory research, meaning I tend to be attracted to research problems that generate little interest or attention, where people may have ideas, but no one really knows what's going on. Missing persons in Canada is a classic example of my interest in largely un-explored terrain. Victimization of individuals living in urban spaces known as 'skid rows', is another such example. Why do this kind of work? Tackling exploratory research leaves an area fairly wide open to the possibility of finding new patterns, new connections, new answers. It also leaves open the possibility of seeing things in a completely different way from other researchers - through integrating new theories and methods - to come up with something few (or no one) has done before.

Let me give just one example: I am currently working on a paper with Lorna Ferguson that looks at the direct role that inter-personal conflict plays in prompting many missing persons events. In essence, Bob lives with his adult son Doug. They get into a fight over house work, which turns into a blazing argument about Doug's unemployment status, promoting

Doug to storm off and "disappear" for several days. How do police understand and therefore potentially prevent or respond to such cases?

I suppose there's the obvious: frontline police personnel don't because there's not much they can do about people fighting.

Or is there something else?

And this is why we do exploratory research to uncover existing patterns and begin to make sense of things that might otherwise seem obvious ("the duh factor") using new potential theoretical frameworks.

What did we come up with?

Let's go back to what I said previously about how I used to conduct studies of victimization of marginalized individuals. I didn't just talk to people about the horrendous things they endured, I tried to figure out different ways in which they can and do deal with their experiences and the resulting trauma. In other words, I studied coping.

How might we potentially understand Doug, then?

By looking at the data in a totally fresh way (what researchers call 'inductively'), I let the data form a picture and when the picture emerged, I realized the pattern looked vaguely familiar. I then developed a 'working hypothesis', wherein I began to think the act of individuals leaving and disappearing might possibly be a form of coping. Doug might be fleeing because he is literally overwhelmed with a situation with which Doug he can't deal. I then cast around for some theories or concepts related to "coping" that might help me better explain Doug's behaviour.

To further test the feasibility of my "coping" idea as a starting point for possible future research - which is the aim of all exploratory work - we can look at witness reports related to his behaviours, to his possible state of mind (as evidenced through comments made in police reports), we can also potentially identify immediate and underlying stressors and we can look to see if there's any evidence in the file that Doug might use other coping strategies (drugs and alcohol, for example, being two forms of 'maladaptive coping' that are not infrequently seen in missing persons cases). If Doug has a pattern of running away during inter-personal conflicts, that again might be a good indicator this is not only a pattern, but an in-grained coping strategy.

If, through exploratory research, you build up a sufficiently compelling case for pursuing your new idea, then you can begin to develop clever ways to test that idea more thoroughly. Moving your exploratory research ever more cautiously into the realm of confirmatory research. With such confirmation, one can then begin to focus on how best to target prevention and/or response initiatives. Maybe what Doug needs is to be connected to a good counselor who can work with him on developing better coping skills, as opposed to having him tracked down by a police officer? Or, just maybe, Doug is extra-testy when it's a full moon out, and we need to tell Bob to check the calendar before nagging him? Just an idea.


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