This paper aims to introduce and teach readers step-by-step how to conduct a meta-ethnography within the field of criminology. In order to accomplish this, we purposefully selected a very narrow area of study, professional criminals as presented in well-known classic criminological monographs and then further restricted it to a rational choice perspective, a theoretical rubric easily addressed via the meta-ethnography. These limiting decisions were done so that readers would not get lost in the substance of the meta-ethnography. A search of qualitative research monographs and related online bibliographic databases identified a total of 32 research monographs, 6 of which met the inclusion criteria for the critical appraisal process. Following the methodological approach offered by Noblit and Hare’s (1988) traditional meta-ethnography analytical framework, 24 of the most prevalent rational choice concepts were identified and collapsed into a Line of Argument Synthesis of 11 metaphors highlighting the intrinsic and nuanced connections among taken-for-granted rational choice concepts (e.g., rationality, perceptions of risks/costs/benefits, etc.), criminal decision-making processes, and related lifestyle. The implications of meta-ethnography as a methodological tool for theoretical assessment in criminology and criminal justice are discussed.
Within criminology, meta-analyses of quantitative studies are a robust analytic technique in assessment and evaluation of theory. Meta-analysis involves the coding and classification of study characteristics and findings relating to an identified topic, followed by a rigorous quantitative analysis that can, in turn, provide a more reliable understanding of the body of work. However, broader adoption by the discipline has been slower than that observed in other social science disciplines, according to Wells (2009), who contested that the use of meta-analysis has been delayed in the discipline because it is a “composite-derived field of study” (p. 288). Ideas and methodologies have been adapted from several other disciplines (e.g., economics, sociology, psychology, biology) and have taken longer to evolve. Furthermore, despite its rich history of ethnography, meta-syntheses of qualitative research have remained completely absent from criminology.
Qualitative research synthesis (QRS) is an iterative process that involves the identification, comparison, reduction, interpretation, and synthesis of a large body of qualitative works. QRS may be used to systematically categorize and synthesize existing qualitative studies, identify gaps in specific bodies of research, and provide different perspectives than those offered by quantitative approaches. In addition, QRS adds depth to individual qualitative studies and may aid in theory development (Major & Savin-Baden, 2010).
Meta-ethnography, a form of QRS analogous to the meta-analysis of quantitative studies, is an effective technique for the integration of key findings and concepts found within qualitative studies examining similar phenomena (Bondas & Hall, 2007; Hodson, 2004; Maher & Hudson, 2007; Major & Savin-Baden, 2010; Noblit & Hare, 1988; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2007; Sandelowski, Docherty, & Emden, 1997; Zimmer, 2004). The objective of meta-ethnography is to provide a greater wealth of knowledge and a more extensive understanding of both the theory and the related phenomenon being studied through the systematic identification, comparison, and integration of relevant albeit critical themes and concepts across targeted studies, leading to theoretical reappraisal, elaboration, and new insight into the phenomenon (Bondas & Hall, 2007; Campbell et al., 2003; Doyle, 2003; Noblit & Hare, 1988). Unlike meta-analyses of quantitative data, which attempt to reduce data findings to a unit of commonality and are aggregative in nature, meta-ethnography aims to enhance theory through the interpretive synthesis of data and a reconceptualization of critical theoretical constructs (Campbell et al., 2003; Noblit & Hare, 1988; Sandelowski et al., 1997). While this form of QRS has been gaining popularity among qualitative researchers in health care and the social sciences over the last decade, it has remained conspicuously absent from the fields of criminology and criminal justice.
The primary objective of our study was to demonstrate the application of a meta-ethnography process and thereby provide readers with a step-by-step approach explicating its utility as a qualitative research method analogous to meta-analyses. Therefore, we purposefully selected a very narrow area of study (professional criminals) and a theoretical rubric familiar to most in the discipline (the rational choice perspective) so that readers can more easily focus on the methodology of a meta-ethnography and not be diverted by substantive and/or theoretical elements of the study.
Throughout the past decade, researchers from several disciplines have become increasingly interested in QRS as they recognized the need for a methodological tool to better evaluate qualitative research findings (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2007). Advocates of qualitative research who were determined to find a “qualitative counterpart to quantitative-meta analysis” (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2007, p. 3) have encouraged the critical appraisal and synthesis of qualitative research with the goal of developing “a full understanding of a phenomenon, rather than generate predictive theories” (Suri & Clarke, 2009, p. 402; Also see Jensen & Allen, 1994, 1996; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002a, 2002b; Sandelowski, Docherty, & Emden, 1997; Walsh & Downe, 2005; Whittemore, 2005). Methodological advances in QRS (e.g., Doyle, 2003; Noblit & Hare, 1988) and the critical appraisal of qualitative studies in general (e.g., Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b) have fostered the recent development of QRS studies in health care, education, and the social sciences (e.g., Campbell et al., 2003; Hodson, 2004; McCormick, Rodney, & Varcoe, 2007; Also see Major & Savin-Baden, 2010).
Qualitative research synthesis is characterized by the systematic and comprehensive identification and examination of qualitative studies with an interpretive emphasis on the findings; it uses a constant comparative method (i.e., interaction between the data, a selected set of qualitative studies, and guiding theoretical framework that are constantly being examined throughout the research process) to provide deeper insights into the phenomenon as a whole through the recognition and refinement of shared theoretical concepts (Campbell et al, 2003; Doyle, 2003; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In this way, QRS is distinct from meta-analysis (i.e., focus on the aggregation of study findings) and moves beyond narrative-based literature reviews (i.e., focus on providing descriptions and summarizations of general findings of qualitative research studies and attempting to link them in a linear manner) in that QRS focuses on synthesizing (i.e., integrating) the substance of qualitative data and bringing to light conceptual themes which, as a whole, are “greater than the sum of parts” (Campbell et al, 2003, p. 672; Also see Doyle, 2003; Hodson, 2004; Major & Savin-Baden, 2010; McCormick et al., 2007; Noblit & Hare, 1988; Suri & Clarke, 2009).
While qualitative research synthesists have differed in their naming and employment of QRS methods, (See Bondas & Hall, 2007; Major & SavinBaden, 2010; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2007; Sandelowski et al., 1997; Zimmer, 2004), the goal of identification, comparison, reduction, interpretation, and synthesis of a large body of qualitative work remains common across these techniques. Meta-ethnography is one form of QRS with the goal of providing a greater wealth of knowledge and a more extensive understanding of both the theory and the phenomenon being studied through the recognition and integration of patterns and concepts found in the data. Meta-ethnography is used to synthesize ethnographic accounts by forming analogies between the studies and presenting individual findings in a new interpretive and holistic context. We have applied the meta-ethnography process to qualitative studies of professional criminals within a rational choice framework to provide the reader with a step-by-step demonstration of its utility.
Although we consulted several past studies employing a meta-ethnography approach that offered templates for reading, appraising, and synthesizing qualitative studies as well as recommendations for enhancing the meta-ethnography process (e.g., Campbell et al., 2003; Doyle, 2003; Hodson, 2004; McCormick et al., 2003; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b), we used Noblit and Hare’s (1988) original model of the meta-ethnography process to guide our analytic strategy. Our decision to use this model was based on: 1) its abil ity to serve as a guiding framework for demonstrating to the reader how to conduct a meta-ethnography while including enhancements to the process offered by other qualitative researchers; 2) its familiarity in the literature; and 3) because it was the most appropriate method for the synthesis of interpretive accounts found in the form of research monographs that comprised our sample. Therefore, our analytical strategy was grounded in Noblit and Hare’s (1988) seven phase approach:
Phase 1: Getting started—identifying an intellectual interest that may be informed by qualitative research and is worthy of a synthesis effort;
Phase 2: Deciding what is relevant to the initial interest—purposefully selecting studies appropriate for the synthesis effort and excluding studies not bound by the case requirements specified at the start of the synthesis process;
Phase 3: Reading the studies—the repeated and dynamic process of carefully scrutinizing the texts throughout the synthesis process;
Phase 4: Determining how the studies are related—identifying key concepts to be coded and recognizing similarities, differences, patterns, and themes across the sample of texts;
Phase 5: Translating the studies into one another—creating a list of common metaphors (i.e., holistic interpretations of concepts) that can be used to represent concepts across the entire sample;
Phase 6: Synthesizing translations—synthesizing metaphors in a way that provides a broader view of the phenomenon while preserving the original contexts and meanings of the initial concepts;
Phase 7: Expressing the synthesis—effectively and appropriately communicating the synthesis to the audience in a meaningful way (See Noblit & Hare, 1988, pp. 26-29).
The beginning of any meta-ethnography involves the identification of an intellectual interest that may be informed by qualitative research (i.e., a comparison of a given set of studies) and is worthy of a synthesis effort (i.e., the integration of study findings). The synthesist must identify the specific purpose of the meta-ethnography, keeping in mind that the general purpose of a meta-ethnography is “synthesizing understanding from ethnographic accounts” (i.e., using induction and interpretation to produce new knowledge that is both integrative and interpretative), while considering the intended audience (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 10). The synthesis of qualitative studies requires interpretive explanation whereby the meaning of social phenomena (i.e., the potential connections and interactions of these phenomena in different situations) may be understood by a larger audience and through multiple perspectives (Noblit & Hare, 1988). The research interest may relate to a broad or narrow phenomenon and the continual reading of relevant studies (i.e., interpretive accounts) may continue to influence how the synthesist approaches and shapes the initial interest throughout the synthesis effort (Noblit & Hare, 1988; Paterson et al., 2001).
The selection of a guiding theoretical framework for the synthesis effort: 1) assists the synthesist in defining relevant ideas and concepts; 2) guides the sampling process; 3) establishes a foundation for interpreting the findings; and 4) assists in defining the phenomenon under study (Paterson et al., 2001). The synthesist should derive conceptual and operational definitions of concepts from both the data and the guiding theoretical framework (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Engaging in a research process that allows for the constant interaction between data and theory aids the synthesist in determining how well the concepts used in the synthesis “fit” (i.e., the concepts’ applicability to and representativeness of the data) and “work” (i.e., the relevance and explanatory power of the concepts) by approaching and developing concepts in the context of interactions between concepts as they are described in the monographs, as well as how concepts are originally defined in the guiding theoretical framework (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 3; Also see Strauss & Corbin, 1994).
The primary objective of our study was to demonstrate the application of a meta-ethnography process by providing readers with a step-by-step approach in its use as a qualitative research method in assessing key criminological constructs in the related ethnographic research literature. We purposefully selected a very narrow area of study, professional criminals as presented in well-known classic criminological monographs; we further restricted our study to a rational choice perspective (RCP), a theoretical rubric familiar to most and easily addressed via the meta-ethnography.
Once the initial interest is determined, the synthesist must purposefully select studies appropriate for the synthesis effort and exclude studies not bound by the case requirements specified at the start of the synthesis process. Deciding what studies should be included in the study (i.e., boundary conditions for case requirements) is based on the interests of the audience and the synthesist, as well as the availability, comparability, and credibility of the relevant studies (Noblit & Hare, 1988). The sampling strategy is purposive and not exhaustive, because the goal of a meta-ethnography is an “interpretive explanation and not prediction” (Doyle, 2003, p. 326; Also see Campbell et al, 2003; Noblit & Hare, 1988). The goal of a meta-ethnography is not to predict future behavior or provide “a means to a greater ‘truth,’” but rather to take into account multiple perspectives, consider new ways to approach and reflect upon the data, and provide a holistic interpretation of the phenomenon being studied (McCormick et al., 2008, p. 936; Also see Noblit & Hare, 1988).
Since ethnographic research is likely to be in monograph or book form, searches for appropriate studies may require computer assisted searches of online libraries and a review of references at the end of relevant studies, as well as assistance from researchers familiar with the general area of study. A Critical Appraisal Process (CAP) should be employed to assess the qualitative integrity of the monographs selected for the sample; several checklists exist for the purpose of evaluating qualitative research studies, such as use of a Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (Campbell et al., 2003; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b). The CAP is employed across the initial sample for purposes of assessing each monograph’s conceptual and methodological framework, sampling strategy, analytical plan, reliability (i.e., consistency), construct validity (i.e., transferability) and theoretical/conceptual relevancy (Campbell et al., 2003; Doyle, 2003; Kirk & Miller, 1986; Lincoln & Guba, 1985, Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b; Treloar, Champness, Simpson, & Higginbotham, 2000). The goal of the CAP is to screen out cases that are either inappropriate for inclusion or are of poor quality (Campbell et al., 2003; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b). Across published QRS studies, sample sizes vary according to breadth of topic, research questions, objectives, and methodological/analytical approaches. For QRS studies of a singular concept and specified context, sample sizes ranging from 2 to 10 are “optimal to provide sufficient yet manageable data” (Major & Savin-Baden, 2010, p. 54; Also see Doyle, 2003; Finfgeld, 1999, 2000; McCormick et al. 2003; Protheroe, Rogers, Kennedy, Macdonald, & Lee, 2008; Russell, Bunting, & Gregory, 1997; Sandelowski et al., 1997).
We employed computer assisted searches (e.g., ISI Web of Knowledge/ Web of Science, Google Scholar, etc.) and then formally reviewed noted bibliographies of these indexed studies for identification of additional qualitative research monographs not previously identified by search engines. These search procedures revealed 32 monographs containing the criminal experiences and life histories of professional criminals. The qualitative methods employed within the 32 monographs considered for inclusion within the sample varied from informal yet guided conversations, direct observations, and in-depth structured interviews resulting in case studies and life-histories with varied sample sizes.
The boundary conditions for case requirements (i.e., inclusion/exclusion criteria) (Campbell et al., 2003; Doyle, 2003) for our research consisted of the following: (1) Monographs were researched that consisted of narratives focusing on the lives of professional criminals, (2) Corresponding methodological, analytical strategies, and findings were grounded in basic qualitative research principles, (3) The featured theoretical construct was a rational choice perspective, and (4) Monographs were authored by either a researcher or co-authored with a participant (i.e., a professional criminal). The CAP process of our study revealed that several monographs (a) were not qualitative or ethnographic accounts but rather journalist renderings of professional criminals, (b) lacked evidence of an easily discernible research methodology, (c) were not “pure” qualitative research accounts but rather joined as an adjunct in a mixed methods study of professional criminals, and/or (d) its study population were either not of professional criminals as conceptualized by those who have previously studied this offender group (e.g., viewing crime as a career, exhibiting higher levels of organization, risk management and rationality rather than what may be seen in the criminal activity of street offenders, thereby offering them greater levels of status and success (see Adler, 1993; Chambliss, 2004; Klockars, 1974; Steffensmeier, 1986; Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005; Sutherland, 1937) or included multiple subgroups of offenders. These coding processes become over-complicated when trying to collect “detailed information for a specific identifiable group” (Hodson, 2004, p. 13). The topical similarity and methodological comparability of the monographs chosen for the final sample of a meta-ethnography are important determinations to make at the beginning of a complex synthesis process; the monographs initially selected that did not meet the inclusion criteria for our CAP were excluded from our final sample so they would not jeopardize the quality of the final synthesis (Bondas & Hall, 2007; Campbell et al., 2003; Hodson, 2004; Maher & Hudson, 2007; Noblit & Hare, 1988; Sandelowski, Docherty & Emden, 1997; Zimmer, 2004). The CAP process led to the final sample size of six qualitative research monographs whose characteristics are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1. Study characteristics of final sample
Once the final sample has been determined, the synthesist engages in the repeated and dynamic process of carefully scrutinizing the texts. While reading the studies, the synthesist is focusing on the substantive details of the accounts and identifying metaphors throughout the synthesis process, according to Noblit and Hare (1988), who used the term metaphor to refer to “themes, perspectives, organizers, and/or concepts revealed by qualitative studies” (p. 14). Within a meta-ethnography, metaphors are translations of analogies that are complex, abstract, and preserve the relations between concepts (Noblit & Hare, 1988). The creation and interpretation of metaphors in the synthesis process is influenced by the phenomenon under study, the guiding theoretical framework, and the perspective of the synthesist. The purpose of identifying Phase 3 as a distinct phase is to remind the synthesist that the synthesis is a dynamic process that develops throughout the entire meta-ethnography process (Noblit & Hare, 1988).
In order to conduct a synthesis, the synthesist must identify the relationships between the monographs in a way that allows the interpretive accounts to be “put together” (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 28). An heuristic approach is adopted (see Kleining & Witt, 2000; Moustakas, 1990; Seidel, 1998) whereby the synthesist creates a list of theoretically relevant concepts based on recurrent themes and concepts derived from the broader literature and identified within the final sample. Each monograph within the final sample is carefully reviewed allowing for the number of concepts deemed important for inclusion to expand and contract as commonalities between the concepts found in each monograph emerge. A documentation strategy is implemented in which etic codes (i.e., developed from the related literature and related concepts) are created for each concept to aid in the synthesis process (see Table 2). The documentation strategy’s heuristic process allows for the constant revision of conceptual and operational definitions as long as they are grounded in the data, guided by theory, and aim to illuminate relationships, patterns, and themes within the sample (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). For example, the concept of “Enjoyment” in our study was joined with the concept of “Excitement,” because the data suggests that these emotions were tied closely together and viewed as some of the non-monetary benefits experienced by the offenders. In addition, the concept of “Specialization” was subsumed within the “Career Opportunities/Transitions/Trajectories” concept because references to offender specialization were made in the context of an offender’s career path. The review process demonstrated that the concept of specialization was not common or salient enough to contribute to the synthesis or offer conceptual clarity within the RCP framework on its own. Several other concepts were derived from the broader literature (e.g., “Shame/Embarrassment,” “Anxiety,” “Fear,” “Morals/Values,” “Guilt,” and “Necessity”) or the monographs (e.g., “Situational Opportunity,” “Opportunity from Tips,” “Anger,” and “Property”). These items were also subsumed within other concepts or removed from the final list of concepts for this reason. Throughout the review process, the synthesist also identifies “key descriptors” and records specific words or lines of text to maintain the “salient language” of the books in the sample (See Table 3 for examples) (Doyle, 2003, p. 333). The synthesist chooses key descriptors that will preserve the original meanings and contexts of the monographs while also facilitating the creation of metaphors; the synthesist uses his/her own personal judgment to choose key descriptors based on an examination of the monographs and familiarity with the texts.
Table 2. Theoretical concepts, etic codes, operationalizations, and examples
Table 3. Examples of key descriptors
Once the documentation process is complete (i.e., the list of concepts, operationalizations, etic codes, and key descriptors has been created and finalized), the synthesist manually counts the etic codes for each monograph to determine the overall prevalence of the identified concepts. While counting the etic codes does not provide insight into the substantive meaning of the concepts (e.g., a high prevalence of etic codes representing “perceived probability of costs” or “perceived risks” in our study did not necessarily indicate that offenders viewed certain criminal activities as being particularly risky), this process facilitates the subsequent analytic processes of the synthesis by encouraging the synthesist to identify similarities/differences and common patterns/themes across the monographs. The importance of the individual concepts is determined through the careful observation of the data (e.g., the language used, the meaning of concepts in the context of other concepts and across each of the monographs). By the end of this phase, the synthesist is able to make an initial assumption about how the monographs are related (Noblit & Hare, 1988).
The identification of theoretical concepts within the monographs of our sample and the corresponding coding process were based on contemporary models of the rational choice perspective (RCP) because they offered a more conceptually complete theoretical framework for explaining individual choice compared to the early economic models that disregarded social, psychological, and situational factors (Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Clarke & Cornish, 1986; McCarthy, 2002). This more holistic RCP approach brings notions of human rationality vis-à-vis the process of choice to the foreground in an attempt to examine the link between respective RCP theoretical concepts and criminal decision-making processes (e.g., target/victim selection and risk management) while recognizing an offender’s limited (i.e., bounded) rationality and making the distinction between criminal involvement and criminal events (Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Clarke & Felson, 1993; Grasmick & Bursik, 1990). The concepts that were identified as relevant to the decision-making processes of the professional criminals that were included in our sample were derived from the broader RCP literature and were frequently referenced or identified as important by the authors of the monographs or the professional criminals themselves (e.g., Carmichael & Piquero, 2004; Carroll & Weaver, 1986; Cherbonneau & Copes, 2006; Clarke & Cornish, 1985; Clarke & Felson, 1993; Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Grasmick & Bursik, 1990; Hochstetler, 2002; Hochstetler & Copes, 2003; Jacobs & Wright, 1999; Paternoster & Simpson, 1996; Tibbetts, 1997; Zimmerman, 2008).
Since one of the objectives of a meta-ethnography is to offer conceptual clarity within the guiding theoretical framework, we also included the traditional concepts of expected utility (i.e., perception of the probability, intensity, and salience of costs and benefits) to assess the utility of the operational enhancements made by contemporary RCP models and to clarify concepts that have often been taken for granted within the RCP framework. The final list of key concepts, etic codes, and operationalizations are provided with examples in Table 2. Examples of key descriptors used in our study are provided in Table 3.
We then identified the RCP concepts that had the greatest prevalence among the sample of monographs included in the final sample by counting the number of times their respective codes were recorded. The most prevalent RCP concepts across the monographs in the sample were: (1) “rational techniques,” (2) “perceived risk,” (3) “crime as a way of life,” (4) “criminal subculture,” (5) “crime as business,” (6) “career opportunities/ trajectories/ transitions,” (7) “money,” (8) “offender status,” (9) “opportunity,” (10) “connections with the law,” (11) “incarceration,” (12) “cost management,” and (13) “excitement/enjoyment.”
The traditional expected utility concepts were also highly prevalent in each of the monographs included in the sample, with the highest prevalence of references to the perceived probability of costs, the perceived intensity of costs, and the perceived intensity of benefits, with the lowest prevalence of references to the perceived probability of benefits. The counts of the etic codes are displayed in Table 4.
Table 4. Counts of etic codes
The identification of RCP concepts and their respective prevalence in the data provided the opportunity to recognize similarities and differences between the monographs in the sample, as well as identifying overall patterns and themes across the sample as a whole. The most overwhelming similarity between the offenders in our sample with respect to their motivation to offend was their desire to make money. While respect and thrill were also commonplace among the perceived non-monetary benefits of these offenders, the primary benefit in their criminal activity was the acquisition of money and the spending of it. Other similarities between the offenders in the monographs were their constant adaptation and progression of methods and techniques (rational techniques), their use of the “fix” as a risk/cost management strategy (connections with the law), their clannish behavior (criminal subculture), their understanding of criminal classes (criminal subculture), their belief that prisons do not rehabilitate (incarceration), their perceptions of places or situations getting “hot” (perceived risk), and the difficulty in going straight due to an isolation and/or estrangement from legitimate society in conjunction with the constant temptation and opportunities to engage in criminal activity (career opportunities/trajectories/transitions/specialization) (See Table 2). While each of the professional criminals in the sample possessed specific attributes and highly specialized skills (e.g., awareness, heart, confidence, wits, front, ability to manipulate), certain unique attributes and skills were observed to pertain to specific types of offender subgroups. A successful professional fence, for instance, must have a comprehensive knowledge of the theft and business worlds and maintain working relationships with both legitimate and illegitimate members of society.
Two themes found within the sample consistent with the RCP and professional criminal literature, respectively, were that professional criminals exhibited high levels of rationality in their criminal activity; they used highly developed skills and relied on planning and risk management strategies that were constantly being developed. In addition, they viewed crime as a business; they were dedicated to their work and used specific angles and techniques to maximize their profit. Common risk management strategies were related to the planning and execution of crimes, the disposal of stolen goods, the fixing of cases, and controlling the situation. At the same time, and despite some feelings of invulnerability, most of the offenders in the sample also believed in “the law of averages” and considered being arrested a part of the criminal lifestyle. Most of the offenders attributed their arrests to the luck of the police or their own greediness/carelessness. Overall, if one was careful and engaged in the rational techniques described above, the professional criminal may have been frequently arrested, but was only “occasionally convicted, and very rarely compelled to do a bit” (Sutherland, 1937, p. 122). They were frequently arrested because of their known presence in the criminal subculture (which often made them prime suspects in a number of cases) but they were only convicted if they could not “fix” the case prior to or during the trial, which was certainly not the norm (thus making time in prison highly unlikely). In the rare occasion that one was actually caught and sent to prison, the professional criminal viewed incarceration as an opportunity to learn new techniques and fine-tune criminal methods in order to avoid future incarceration.
Another theme within the sample was the oscillation of criminal activity within an offender’s career (e.g., specialists and generalists, full-time operating and moonlighting, desistance and a return to a criminal lifestyle). These offending pathways were based on the skills, opportunities, and desires of the offender and were often age-related (Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005). Across the monographs in the sample, the theme of career oscillations represented a non-dichotomous view of desistance and acknowledges that many trajectories are possible over the course of a criminal career. Additional findings across the sample were consistent with the criminal career literature. Professional criminals used strategies to increase confidence and reduce fear or anxiety (Cherbonneau & Copes, 2006; Hochstetler & Copes, 2003). They developed criminal identities and self-perceptions of expertise and prominent criminal status resulting from consistent success in their criminal endeavors (Hochstetler & Copes, 2003), and internalized criminal self-concepts became embedded into the decision-making process and often shaped their criminal activities and decision-making processes (e.g., level or frequency of offending, perception of the risks and rewards of the situation) (Hochstetler, DeLisi, & Puhrmann, 2007).
Several authors occasionally referenced other monographs included in the sample to address specific issues(e.g., Steffensmeier’s (1986) reference to Sutherland’s(1937) issues of specialization; Steffensmeier’s (1986) reference to Klockars’ (1974) necessary conditions for becoming a fence; Steffensmeier & Ulmer’s (2005) reference to Sutherland’s (1937) basic features of thievery). In addition to facilitating the process of identifying similarities, differences, patterns, and themes across the monographs, these references also demonstrated how the concepts used in the synthesis “fit” (i.e., the concepts’ applicability to and representativeness of the data) and “work” (i.e., the relevance and explanatory power of the concepts) within an RCP framework(Campbell et al., 2003; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Further, these references demonstrated the ability of our meta-ethnography to place the lives of professional criminals in a historical context; this is due to the inclusion of books written in a wide range of time periods(1937-2005), as well as the inclusion of two books that present case studies on the same offender 19 years apart (i.e., the study of Sam Goodman’s criminal career in Steffensmeier’s The Fence (1986) and in Steffensmeier & Ulmer’s Confessions of a Dying Thief (2005)). For example, several elements of the professional criminal lifestyle that have evolved from their original conceptualization by Sutherland (1937) include the professional criminal’s ability to predict or determine one’s earnings at any given time and a desire for and enjoyment of the thrill found in criminal activity. Additional insights gained from the review process with respect to the professional criminal subculture across this time period include: professional theft is“falling apart” because thieves will do anything for money and do not exhibit the same kind of loyalty to one another anymore; there is still a stratification system (i.e., “pecking order”) but levels of respect for higher classes of criminals have declined over the years; there are new languages being used within the subculture; there is less of a criminal code and increased risk due to the impact of drugs and the federal government on professional crime; and there has been an evolution of the structure and social organization of criminal offending as a response to changes in price, supply and demand, and law enforcement (Chambliss, 2004, p. 69; Also see Adler, 1993; Klockars, 1974; Sutherland, 1937; Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005, p. 218).
Once theoretical concepts, similarities and differences, patterns, and themes were identified, we had a better understanding of how the RCP concepts originally identified within the sample might take on new interpretive meanings and be integrated on a holistic level. The final analytic step became the reduction and synthesis of these concepts in a way that provided a broader view of the phenomenon while preserving the original contexts and meanings of the initial concepts (McCormick et al., 2003).
In order to conduct a synthesis that fits with the sample used in the study, it is first important to determine how the studies are related to one another. Noblit & Hare (1988) suggest three ways in which the studies may be related: 1) a reciprocal translation (i.e., direct translation)—ethnographies are synthesized when they are generally about a similar phenomenon; 2) a refutation (i.e., translation of refutational accounts)—ethnographies possess competing explanations of a similar phenomenon; or 3) a line of argument—ethnographies are viewed as parts of a whole. Once the relationships among the studies are determined, the synthesist creates a list of common metaphors (i.e., holistic interpretations of concepts) that can be used to represent concepts across the entire sample. Translation using metaphoric reductions involves “treating the accounts as analogies” and expressing them through “idiomatic translations” of salient categories of meaning (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 28). The metaphors are not literal translations of text, but rather are translations of the meanings of the text. Translations should maintain the key concepts and metaphors of the individual monographs in the context of the other monographs while comparing all of their respective interactions across each of the accounts (Noblit & Hare, 1988). Metaphors are considered adequate when they meet the following five criteria: economy (i.e., parsimony)—“the simplest concept that accounts for the phenomena” (p. 34); cogency—metaphors are non-ambiguous, non-contradictory, and non-redundant; range—ability to integrate a wide range of data relative to a similar phenomenon; apparency—successfully demonstrating the meaning of the data; and credibility—the metaphors are understood by the audience (Noblit & Hare, 1988).
By engaging in the iterative/heuristic process of reviewing concepts, similarities and differences, themes and patterns, and key descriptors in our study, the synthesist was able to reduce 24 concepts derived from the RCP literature and the data (as guided by the RCP framework) into 11 adequate metaphors: “larceny sense;” “respect;” “networks;” “prestige hierarchy; “subculture;” “money;” “adventurous deviance;” “competitive play;” “loopholes of morality;” “commitment;” and “career oscillations.”
The synthesist created these metaphors to serve as holistic representations of the most common and salient concepts/themes found in the data that also maintained the original language of the monographs; the synthesis of these metaphors aimed to provide an integrated and interpretive perspective of the lives and decision-making processes of professional criminals. The definitions, descriptions, and examples of these metaphors are provided in Table 5.
Table 5. Definitions, descriptions, and examples of metaphors
The purpose of the synthesis phase within a meta-ethnography is to attain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and higher levels of conceptual clarity within the guiding theoretical framework, rather than what would be offered by any of the individual qualitative studies (Campbell et al., 2003; Estabrooks, Field, & Morse, 1994; Noblit & Hare, 1988). The primary objective is to preserve the perspectives of the participants in each research monograph as well as the interpretations of the original authors, while presenting concepts and metaphors in a new interpretive and holistic context (Kirk & Miller, 1986; Noblit & Hare, 1988). The general purpose of a meta-ethnography is “synthesizing understanding from ethnographic accounts” (i.e., using induction and interpretation to produce new knowledge that is both integrative and interpretative), while considering the intended audience (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 10). The synthesis of qualitative studies requires an interpretive explanation whereby the meaning of social phenomena (i.e., the potential connections and interactions of these phenomena in different situations) may be understood by a larger audience and through multiple perspectives (Noblit & Hare, 1988). The synthesist accomplishes this by placing the metaphors into a new interpretive order; the synthesis of metaphors (i.e., translations of analogies that are complex, abstract, and preserve the relations between concepts) tells a story about how the metaphors are related or connected, how they may be “put together,” and how they may represent the data in a holistic manner (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 28).
Since the monographs selected for synthesis in our study were representative of a specific criminal subculture, the most appropriate analytic technique for our study was a line of argument synthesis (Noblit & Hare, 1988). This type of synthesis allows for the drawing of inferences about a particular culture or organization as a whole by examining studies based on its component parts and is “essentially the construction of an interpretation” (Noblit & Hare, 1988, p. 74). The line of argument (Figure 1) for our study revealed several important factors concerning the lives and decision-making processes of professional criminals within a rational choice framework.
Figure 1. Line of argument synthesis
First, there are several factors that secure one’s place in professional crime that may be organized along a cyclical path that is in perpetual motion. In order to be considered a “professional,” an offender must possess “larceny sense,” which has been conceptualized in our study as having business sense and a special set of skills and attributes that increase the likelihood of success when used in a rational manner. Whenever working, a criminal must devote all available time and effort to the careful planning and execution of each criminal act; crime commission requires just as much hard work as any legitimate business. In order for one to employ a successful business attitude of crime, one must possess the skills necessary to be successful (e.g., discipline, patience, and “people skills”) and also work hard to successfully implement these skills while staying up to date on new laws, methods, and opportunities in order to finely tune one’s own methods and criminal strategies (Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005, p. 349). The professional criminal does not rely on physical or manual skills but rather takes advantage of mental abilities such as one’s “wits, ‘front’, and talking ability” (Sutherland, 1937, p. 198). The professional criminal must also manipulate one’s appearance and project the image of a conventional lifestyle to avoid being detected in the first place. Unlike street-level criminals, professional criminals understand the importance of planning, ingenuity, and delaying gratification in order to achieve a much bigger pay off in the long run. Professional criminals are persistent offenders due to their ability to apply their specialized skills and attributes to one’s criminal endeavors (i.e., ability to evade the law and avoid negative consequences of their criminal acts), and are successful offenders due to their highly rational approach to one’s criminal activity (Also see Cherbonneau & Copes, 2006; Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Hochstetler, 2002; Paternoster, 1989).
Once the professional criminal becomes proficient in the implementation of these skills and has attained the reputation of being successful, he earns the respect of other criminals. Respect is both a symbol of status as well as a reward in itself, for professional criminals find pride in their work and pleasure in earning the admiration of others. Professional criminals who earn such a reputation take great pride in their success and perceive themselves as surpassing other criminals who lack their special technical, intellectual, and intuitive skills (Hochstetler & Copes, 2003). Along the different pathways of a criminal’s career, the level of respect one has achieved then determines a place in the “prestige hierarchy,” a vertical stratification of offending classes. Professional criminals must maintain the skills, techniques, and attributes that led them to a life of professional crime in the first place in order to remain at the top of this hierarchy. Their establishment in the prestige hierarchy promotes the development of criminal identities and self-perceptions of expertise and prominent criminal status (Hochstetler & Copes, 2003). As time goes on, the professional criminal’s place in the prestige hierarchy also affords one the benefit of congregating with other elite classes of professional criminals outside of the criminal activities themselves. This subculture is a clannish underworld where language, criminal codes/rules of ethics, and understandings are shared among professional criminals. The subculture of professional criminals also leads to the creation of criminal networks, which exist as a web of relationships composed of friends, acquaintances, and partners. These networks offer opportunities to learn, refine techniques, or engage in specific criminal activities, potentially leading back to the development of skills within their repertoire of “larceny sense.”
While the elements of this cycle are not dependent on one another in a strictly causal manner, they do represent the fluid nature of a professional criminal’s career. If any of these links should dissipate (e.g., violation of a code of ethics leading to a loss of respect, the loss of skills due to age), the cycle may be broken, leading to the disappearance of networks, and the ultimate casting out from the top of the prestige hierarchy or the expulsion from the professional criminal subculture altogether.
At the center of this cycle, the professional criminal has three main motivations: “money,” “adventurous deviance,” and “competitive play.” Money refers to the primary objective and most important component of criminal offending among this sample of professional criminals: the acquisition of material wealth. Other important motivations and benefits for the professional criminals in this sample are a sense of “adventurous deviance” (i.e., the thrill inherent in the criminal act) and “competitive play” (i.e., the ability to match wits with others). It is important to recognize that these professional criminals do not create arbitrary risks, and their inclination toward adventure and thrill-seeking activities is not impulsive by nature. Professional criminals actively seek out and identify criminal opportunities that pose the least amount of risk (i.e., avoiding crimes that possess high levels of danger or publicity), carefully plan and execute the criminal act while taking into account potential situational factors (e.g., how to obtain and dispose of property, how to fix a case (i.e., use connections with law officials to escape punishment in which an arrest is unavoidable)). Professional criminals have solid connections with law officials on several fronts (e.g., police officers, lawyers, court officials), so that if caught one would be able to handle the situation without much fear of legal recourse.
Professional criminals also engage in several mental processes which serve as “loopholes of morality.” This metaphor illustrates the rationalization processes of professional criminals, in which they justify their actions by maintaining a positive self-image, focusing on the corruption of the average citizen, and denying responsibility or injury to others. While morals and values do not affect how a professional criminal views crime in general (i.e., as a deterrent factor), they often act as a prism through which certain criminal acts, lifestyles, and classes (i.e., types of offenders) are viewed and/ or rationalized and are a necessary part of the professional criminal’s mental processes. If these offenders felt shameful of their actions and could not rationalize their guilt, they would be unable to remain personally committed to their criminal lifestyles (Also see Cornish & Clarke, 1985; Green, 1989; Greenberg, 1981; Pogarsky, 2005)
A professional criminal’s commitment is based on the rewards and positive emotions acquired through one’s criminal activity, including appreciation of money, prestige, power, and collegiality with fellow professional criminals. Further, professional criminals who are committed to the lifestyle: a) have achieved skill levels and confidence that minimize perceptions of risk during criminal activity, b) have developed sophisticated target selection procedures and risk-management strategies to increase the probability of success; and c) no longer fear prison and view incarceration as an opportunity to refine one’s skills and strategies (Hochstetler & Copes, 2003). While professional criminals are committed to their way of life for the majority of their career, certain factors may contribute to career oscillations, the trajectory of their career path (e.g., specialization, background operation, desistance). These trajectories are not cut-and-dried, and oscillations within the criminal career are subject to “considerable ebb and flow … as offenders adjust to shifts in tastes, abilities, and opportunities” and deal with potential losses (e.g., financial, acquired knowledge, identity, reputation, power, fun/ excitement) and problems (e.g., fatigue, respectability, depression) that may result from a downward shift in their criminal activity and/or lifestyle (Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005, p. 302).
One of the most important insights gained through the line of argument synthesis is the fluidity of the professional criminal’s career. While there are individual motivations and components that shape the path of a professional criminal’s career and provide a sense of commitment to crime over an extended period of time (which in turn may dictate specific decision-making processes depending where they are along this path), these factors are also highly dependent on one other. Within the cycle of sub-cultural and hierarchical factors based on skills/attributes and status/respect, many of the concepts included in the line of argument co-exist in a delicate balance of criminal offending. For example, a good reputation among professional criminals may lead to the development of certain contacts that provide an offender with particular criminal opportunities. These opportunities may require a specific set of skills that a professional criminal develops over time, and in conjunction with continued interaction with these particular networks, may result in specialization (Steffensmeier & Ulmer, 2005). This path, as well as all career trajectories among professional criminals, is different for each offender and relies on the interplay between the factors in the line of argument synthesis.
The final step of the synthesis process is to effectively and appropriately communicate the synthesis to the audience in a meaningful way. The translations of studies achieve synthesis when they are presented in the audience’s particular language; the audience can then view the phenomenon in the context of the new perspective or interpretation. Further, the synthesis must be presented in an appropriate form and use intelligible concepts to be effectively communicated to the audience (Noblit & Hare, 1988).
The line of argument synthesis of our study is graphically displayed (Figure 1) to clearly illustrate to the reader the interaction and fluidity of the metaphors identified in the sample of monographs. The synthesis was not expressed this way to signify causality between decision-making points or life-stages within a professional criminal’s career, but rather to convey how each element of the cycle is strongly influenced by the continual flow of the other elements. The graphic depiction of the line of argument also displays the main motivations of professional criminals and the processes inherent in one’s commitment to the lifestyle.
The primary objective of our study was to demonstrate the application of a meta-ethnography process by providing readers with a step-by-step approach in its use as a qualitative research method in assessing key criminological constructs in the related ethnographic research literature. In order to assess the feasibility of applying a meta-ethnography across the criminological literature we examined the lives and decision-making processes of professional criminals within a rational choice framework. Professional criminals, an offender group that has rarely been studied in criminology yet who exhibit many elements of rational choice in their decision-making processes, provided a universe by which shared concepts of rational choice could be systematically identified, coded, and synthesized. From a theoretical standpoint, the line of argument synthesis offered a specific model of the professional criminal’s career within an RCP framework, taking into account motivations and other factors central to the decision-making processes. The line of argument synthesis offered within our research may be used to aid future studies that attempt to model the detailed decision-making processes of a particular class of offenders, specifically those whose accounts are mostly available in the form of ethnographies and other forms of qualitative materials. Further, the introduction of meta-ethnography to the field of criminology in general provides an innovative and valuable technique for qualitative researchers who intend to enter the field for data collection.
Through the use of a meta-ethnography among a sample of qualitative studies of professional criminals (offenders who exhibit many tenets of the RCP), our study recognized the RCP’s immense explanatory power with respect to professional criminals. Further, we were able to conceptually refine and develop the RCP as a theoretical framework by successfully demonstrating how 24 concepts derived from the RCP literature and the data (as guided by the RCP framework) could be reduced to 11 metaphors that could be synthesized in a way that maintained the meanings of these original concepts while presenting them in a simplified and holistic manner within the context of professional criminals; our meta-ethnography enhanced the parsimony and transferability (i.e., generalizability) of qualitative research findings relating to a specific phenomenon through the identification (Phases 1-2), comparison (Phases 3-4), reduction (Phase 5), interpretation (Phases 5), and synthesis (Phases 6-7) of RCP concepts found in the six monographs included in our sample, offering a greater understanding of both the RCP and the lives and decision-making processes of professional criminal than what might otherwise have been gained from the individual monographs and communicating this to the audience in a meaningful way (Sandelowski et al, 1997).
Some criminologists may contest that focusing on decision-making processes and crime over the life course is a tangent of focus within a rational choice framework, and that it is more important to study the specific crime (situational factors) and not the career of the criminal/offender (Cornish & Clarke, 1986). However, our meta-ethnography illustrates the utility of viewing crime as a way of life and addressing the involvement processes of professional criminals as well as the criminal events themselves. In this way, levels of rationality and patterns of decision-making processes can be examined over the course of a professional criminal’s career (Cornish & Clarke, 1986). The RCP recognizes that the attractive features of crime may vary with persistent offenders depending on one’s criminal lifestyle, one’s status in the community, and the availability of alternatives throughout one’s criminal career (Hochstetler et al., 2007). In addition, growing levels of expertise may lead to changes in learning and information processing strategies over the course of a professional criminal’s career (Carroll & Weaver, 1986). Our line of argument synthesis demonstrates that the RCP is well-equipped to explain the variation in criminal motivation, opportunity, and decision-making processes over the life course of professional criminals.
Our research demonstrates the use of meta-ethnography as a tool for qualitative research synthesis in the field of criminology. While the analytic process is time-consuming and labor intensive, the reward of the process may be seen in the depth of insight gained into the phenomenon under investigation and the potential for providing conceptual clarity within the guiding theoretical framework. The quality of the final synthesis is determined by the commitment to the analytic process and the synthesist’s faithfulness to the seven phases outlined in this article.
One limitation of our study is the lack of methodological consensus in terms of meta-ethnography sampling and analytic techniques (Sandelowski et al., 1997; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002a). We attempted to reconcile this by closely adhering to Noblit and Hare’s seven phase analytical approach (1988). Other limitations within the current study pertain to the difficulties in locating qualitative literature, such as difficulties in identifying appropriate books to include in the synthesis through searches or references of books that have been obtained, and the absence of computer programs to aid in the coding and analytic processes, thereby increasing the chances of human error in the complex analytic processes employed in a meta-ethnography (Campbell et al., 2003). In addition, Lincoln & Guba (1985) and Doyle (2003) suggested the use of member checks (i.e., contacting the original authors of the books in the sample) to contribute to the internal validity of a meta-ethnography; our study’s only measure of internal validity pertains to the careful implementation of grounded theory methods to assess the consistency of data across the sample and relative to the RCP framework and does not benefit from this added measure of validity. As an additional analytical step, a Critical Appraisal Process (CAP) was employed to assess the qualitative integrity of the final sample relative to the RCP framework.
An additional limitation worth noting in this study focuses on the nonuse of multiple coders. However, our application of the meta-ethnography was used as a teaching tool and the detailed documentation strategy and heuristic process we used were taken to minimize the inherent and legitimate concerns for coding bias. It is recommended that future studies implementing a meta-ethnography use multiple coders to aid in the analytic process and check inter-rater reliability with respect to the selection of concepts, etic codes, key descriptors, and metaphors.
While including two monographs that study the same offender (i.e., Sam Goodman in Steffensmeier’s The Fence (1986) and Steffensmeier & Ulmer’s Confessions of a Dying Thief (2005)) may help provide historical context in the meta-ethnography, the perspective of the offender (Sam Goodman) and author (Steffensmeier) used in these monographs may have had a larger influence on the creation of metaphors and the synthesis process than the other monographs in a study (due to the small sample size used in a meta-ethnography). However, both of these monographs possess unique and fruitful data that offer new insights into the concepts derived from the other monographs in the sample as well as the guiding theoretical framework. The inclusion of Confessions of a Dying Thief (2005) also presents a new voice within the synthesis (i.e., Ulmer’s perspective and interpretations of Sam’s criminal accounts).
This study has demonstrated the utility of applying a meta-ethnography across a particular theoretical framework vis-à-vis qualitative research monographs. We encourage the continued use of this methodological technique (and qualitative research synthesis in general) in the field of criminology and criminal justice, with the recognition that a diverse set of offender groups and theoretical frameworks may be used as long as the study embraces qualitative methodological techniques and aims to offer explanations that are interpretive in nature. For example, persistent offenders who were not considered professional as conceptualized within our study would serve as a suitable offender group to study in a research endeavor implementing a meta-ethnography within an RCP framework. Further, comparing and contrasting the lives and decision-making processes of persistent offenders and professional criminals using this methodology would: 1) allow for the assessment of the explanatory power of the RCP with respect to a group of offenders who are persistent but not professional; and 2) provide further conceptual clarity within the RCP framework by exploring the efficacy of RCP concepts in a comparative context relative to these two specific offender groups. By implementing a meta-ethnography that can make these kinds of comparative and interpretive statements, the efficacy of the RCP as a theoretical framework can be more sufficiently assessed with respect to the explanation of criminal offending in general.
Future studies employing a meta-ethnography approach may also revisit alternative approaches and recommended enhancements to Noblit and Hare’s (1988) original model (e.g., Campbell et al., 2003; Doyle, 2003; Hodson, 2004; McCormick et al., 2003; Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002b) to assess the utility of these recommendations and identify the potential for additional enhancements to the methodology. For example, documenting the number of within-sample citations (i.e., a monograph’s reference to another monograph within the sample), similarities across the bibliographies of the monographs, and reviews of the monographs included in the sample may also be presented in table form to help the reader identify the links between the monographs in the sample and assess the influence of each monograph within the field.
Research studies that embrace this type of highly iterative methodological process may enhance the transferability (i.e., generalizability) of qualitative research findings and offer a greater understanding of theory than what might otherwise be gained from individual studies (Sandelowski et al., 1997). Without efforts to integrate the findings of different qualitative studies which address a common research area, “qualitative research will remain underutilized in practice disciplines” (Sandelowski & Barroso, 2002a, p. 215). Our efforts are an initial step in moving meta-ethnography more toward the practice disciplines of criminology and criminal justice.
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Douglas J. Wholl is a doctoral student in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida. His research interests are criminal decision-making processes, the death penalty, and qualitative research methods and analysis.
Wilson R. Palacios, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Miami (Department of Sociology). His primary research areas of interest are in the social epidemiology of illicit drug use/abuse, illicit drug markets (ethno-epidemiology), and qualitative research methods and analysis.
John K. Cochran is Professor of Criminology and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of South Florida. His research interests are in testing micro-social theories of criminal behavior, macro-social and cross-national theories of crime, and assessing elements of the death penalty debate. He has over 100 publications in peer-reviewed journals.
Christine S. Sellers is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida. She is co-author (with Ronald L. Akers) of Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application, now in its sixth edition with Oxford University Press. She is also the author of several journal articles appearing in journals such as Criminology, Justice Quarterly, Sociological Quarterly, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, and the International Journal of the Addictions.
The authors wish to thank Drs. Jody Miller and Richard Tewksbury for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript.