Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Balancing Act: Securing Access and Staying Independent



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Joanne van der Leun and Maartje van der Woude, Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology, Leiden University. This post is the second installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Decision-making in the Dutch Borderlands organised by Maartje.

As the previous blog post illustrated, researchers in the Netherlands do secure entry into law enforcement organisations. We have had the opportunity before, for instance, with the ‘regular’ police and the Aliens police. Colleagues are often puzzled why law enforcement organisations such as the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee―which has a military status and deals with matters of national security―would open up to researchers. Not many social scientists or socio-legal scholars are fortunate to have such direct access. Depending on the country under study, aggregate data such as police figures, are often accessible for research purposes only after following special procedures. Yet, in order to understand law enforcement better, outcome data are severely limited. Take police figures. They say something about actual crime, but also about police priorities and societal changes. We just don’t know how much they say about all these potential influencing factors and what mechanisms play a part in shaping the outcomes. Outcome data can be highly informative, but they leave ‘the best bits unexamined,’ as Pressman and Wildavsky once noted.

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Studying Practices

When looking at the broader research field on law enforcement decision-making, researchers should focus more on day-to-day practices and deliberations. As Loftus recently argued, ‘there is a strong need for a series of ethnographies, incorporating observation and interviews, to scrutinise the culture and practices of state and non-state border police on the ground.’ How do law enforcement officials reach decisions in practice? How do inspectorates combat infringements in the labour market? How do different agencies cooperate across borders and traditional boundaries? Especially in a time in which there is a renewed interest in socially-relevant research, we need to rethink the type of studies that are rooted in a strong tradition. Participant observation in a natural setting is obviously the most valuable research method to capture both the actions and interpretations of what people do and the ways they make sense of everyday situations on the ground. Although there are several observational studies conducted in different countries, rich empirical work on day-to-day enforcement strategies are relatively rare in our field.

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Why this State of Affairs?

One reason for this state of affairs can be found in the gap between academia and practice that seems to have grown wider over time. Despite calls for a public sociology and criminology, there is still a strong emphasis on publishing highly specialized academic articles in journals. Within this context, the time-consuming nature of participant observation may scare researchers off. And conversely, law enforcement agencies may have no idea what researchers might have to offer them. Or they may not be very open to potentially critical intruders who might even go as far as to reveal operational information. Last but not least law enforcement officials may be put off by critical scholars who have opinions about the phenomena they rarely study in practice, a complaint we heard more than once.

How to Overcome Barriers?

If we really want to generate relevant insights into law enforcement strategies, there is sometimes the possibility of becoming an ‘embedded researcher’ in their projects and operations. Researchers in this role may obtain much better data than they would otherwise have and organisations may benefit from a type of knowledge they wouldn’t normally have in-house. Another option is that researchers actively look for law enforcement agencies to cooperate with, which can in similar ways result in findings that benefit both parties. In this context, Loader and Sparks refer to the importance of so-called democratic under labourers. As part of an overall public criminology, they see the ‘democratic under-labourer’ as an academic who―among other things―is actively reaching out to law enforcement agencies for research opportunities in order to contribute to better―that is, science based―law enforcement and criminal justice policy. Obviously, for academics to act upon their inner democratic under-labourers, it’s still necessary to tackle the barriers mentioned above.


In order to really break down the barriers, scholars and police must build knowledge of each other and a good understanding of our different aims and responsibilities. Knowledge and trust take time to build. It’s important to be patient. Good guidelines are also necessary. The organisation has to respect the researchers’ independence and to accept their findings, even when they are unwelcome. Researchers on the other hand have to be responsible in how they report and how they anonymise their findings.

Critical Questions

‘Embedded’ research raises suspicion. How independent are researchers really? Can they be as critical as they would like to be? Do organisations really open up or do they engage in a kind of ‘play’ in order to fool naive researchers? Our experience is that these matters are to a large extent in the eye of the beholder. Clever guidelines, transparency, and a good division of responsibilities can largely prevent these issues becoming problematic. The only critics who don’t buy this are usually critics that don’t like the outcomes of the research or the approach as such. Yet, there is no way they will ever be convinced.

How to Proceed from Here

A final observation is that standard textbooks on research methods in the social sciences rarely discuss the issue of access to law enforcement agencies in an in-depth way. Aspiring researchers must largely find their own ways. A crucial way to overcome this, apart from reading about ethnographic methods,  is by starting to exchange experiences more actively so that researchers can learn from each other, either face-to-face or in written form. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

van der Leun, J. and van der Woude, M. (2016) The Balancing Act: Securing Access and Staying Independent. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/balancing-act (Accessed [date]).

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