The Uses of Ethnography for Policy Makers and Practitioners

Ric Curtis, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Travis Wendel, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The increasing demand for "proven results" has placed criminal justice policy makers, practitioners and researchers in the position of having to more frequently justify the utility of their approaches. Meeting the gold standard of evaluation is a laudable goal, but there are often obstacles that make randomized control trials impossible, incluing time constraints that demand timely, if "unproven," answers to pressing problems. This paper describes some of the primary uses of ethnography for policy makers and practitioners, focusing especially on it's usefulness in exploring emerging problems, its ability to produce information in a timely fashion, and the utility of the "thick" descriptions that ethnographic methods provide.

Some of the important findings that have been made by ethnographers--for example, the onset and waning of the crack epidemic--are discussed in terms of subsequent responses by other researchers, policy makers and professionals. The ability of ethnographic approaches to rapidly assess and respond to emergent social problems--like increasing homicide rates or public health crises--is described using examples of fruitful partnerships between researchers, practitioners, policy makers and community residents. Finally, the ability of ethnography to provide rich examples that best illustrate a particular problem is described, underscoring the utility of this method to policy makers who must often defend their choices to the general public.

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Updated 05/20/2006