Reasons Behind the Rise in Shoplifting Cases and Ways to Deal with the Issue

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The past few years have been witness to an abrupt increase in levels of shoplifting cases around the United Kingdom. According to the Association of Convenience Stores’ 2018 Crime Report, 950,000 incidents of shoplifting theft were reported across the country, creating a noticeable contrast with the amount reported in 2017 with 575,000 cases (Byers, 2018). A significant percentage of the shoplifting demographic is believed to consist of adolescents, with the greatest number of incidents observed within groups of young people aged between 14 and 16 years of age (Farrington, 1999; Hirtenlehner et al., 2014; DeBuck and Pauwels, 2018). Although the majority of reported shoplifting cases are committed by adults, Farrington (1999) argued that shoplifters may often commit their first offences at ages as young as 10. Keeping that fact in mind, it is crucial to focus on research centred on the younger population. A considerable number of youths may eventually extend their shoplifting tendencies into their adult years, creating a cycle of recurring shoplifting and other theft related crimes (Baker, 2013). This essay will aim to juxtapose and explore the methodological justification for the usage of quantitative self-report surveys and qualitative interviews when investigating the theoretical question ‘Which social factors are responsible for the development of shoplifting behaviour in adolescents?’ and how they may aid us in studying this under-researched area of criminological analysis in greater depth. Additional research of this particular question may assist in paving the path towards the conceptualisation of novel preventative methods, reserved for the purpose of reducing the percentage of shoplifting cases within the country’s population.

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In spite of the magnitude of this criminal phenomenon and its significant potential of being a subject of interest to a number of social scientists and criminal justice practitioners, it has gained abnormally low levels of awareness within the sphere of consumer behavior literature (Cox et al., 1990; Krasnovsky and Lane, 1998). Thus, due to the deficit of research focused solely on adolescents who shoplift, this paper will also aim to draw conclusions from empirical evidence extracted from investigations focused on exploring adult shoplifting behaviour as well as research exploring reasons for general delinquent behaviour in adolescents. Consequently, the suitability of applying research methods used on adult sample populations towards adolescent samples will be analysed and discussed. Past research on the precursors of shoplifting behaviour had a general tendency to prioritise the study of demographic factors (for example age, gender or socioeconomic status) rather than systematically examining social influences as a significant factor in explaining adolescent shoplifting (Ling, 2010). Additionally, quantitative research methods were generally favoured over qualitative within investigations of delinquency (Carlson, 2010). Some scholars such as Guba and Lincoln (2004) speculated that such a preference was a result of the dominance of positivist approaches to social research, wherein models of scientific analysis such as constructivism, which draws on the belief that social phenomena is under constant construction and alteration due to social development are prioritised over interpretivism. Interpretivism on the other hand, which is largely associated with qualitative research methods, functions on the belief that studies must focus on exploring the true meaning behind social phenomena rather than focusing on its frequency (Van Maanen, 1979; Guba and Lincoln, 2004, 2005; Carlson 2010). In light of these pre-existing conceptual debates and issues, the following essay will examine the methodological justifications for the usage of quantitative self-report surveys investigating opinions of large populations and qualitative interviews. Upon a brief juxtaposition of the two methods, the paper will discuss the main challenges this sphere of criminological study poses for researchers. To what extent the two methods succeed in expanding our knowledge in a philosophical and methodological context will be discussed, as well as whether the results they produce are reliable enough for the possible development of preventative methods.

Adhering to the philosophical ideas which are fundamental to the positivist model, Quantitative surveys are generally believed to be suitable for the investigation of attitudes within large samples, for examining theoretical validity and for the determination of causes and explanations for social phenomena as well as examining how participants tend to perceive and respond to certain aspects which the researcher is focused on exploring (Sieber, 1973; Tonglet, 1999; Bryman, 2003). The quantitative self-report survey method however, has its weaknesses as a research tool. It often fails to offer the researcher a more comprehensive understanding of certain human behavioural and cognitive aspects, with the results oftentimes being too general to be applied to more unique, exceptional cases (Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Tonglet, 1999). Quantitative surveys have also been criticised for dedicating too much focus to social structure rather than the details of its development, as well as having the occasional tendency to over-simplify rather controversial and serious societal issues (Van Maanen, 1983; Tonglet, 1999). Finally, the nature of self-administered surveys has also got the ability to be problematic in regard to its reliability when it comes to the subject of participant’s responses. This is especially true if the survey touches upon a subject that is either socially unfavourable or happens to be of a delicate matter for the respondent, sometimes resulting in an undesirable falsification and alteration of the answers given by the participant (Nettler, 1978; Williams, 1991; Tonglet, 1999). This can be considered especially relevant considering the young age of some of the potential participants within the research on adolescents who shoplift.

Qualitative interviews on the other hand, fall under the philosophical paradigm of the interpretivist model. This method has arguably aided some researchers in obtaining a more detailed understanding of shoplifting, including research conducted on the younger shoplifting population. In an investigation by Grigoryeva (2018) which explored how parental disciplinary practices may assist in explaining adolescent problem behaviours (including shoplifting tendencies), the youths were interviewed within their homes by trained professionals. Taking into consideration the fact that the sample consisted of children and adolescents believed to be at ‘high risk of behavioural problems’, by conducting the interviews within a familiar environment the researcher managed to arguably work around the potential limitation of possible dishonesty in the responses given by the youths out of fear of negative repercussions. Some of the drawbacks of qualitative interviews however, are almost precisely reversed advantages of quantitative self-report surveys, which also applies to its advantages (which happen to be the weaknesses of the quantitative self-report research method). As argued by Tonglet (1999) this methodological approach often depends on limited samples which were selected by the researcher, who may have concealed motivations for their participation in the study. As the characteristics of the samples is often remain unknown, this becomes a limitation as the results cannot be easily generalised in regard to the general population. Nevertheless, these limitations are often compensated through the provision of the researcher with an arguably intricate and unique insight on shoplifting behaviour, something which is not easily obtainable especially if the quantitative self-administered survey methods are used. (Tonglet, 1999).

When comparing and observing the characteristics of quantitative and qualitative methods, it is essential to consider the fact that the two methods have the ability to produce differing data, especially as they often happen to examine separate aspects of social phenomena (Mintzberg 1979; Tonglet 1999). Therefore, it is safe to assume that both methods fall under the risk of being met with distinct challenges within this sensitive research area, which incongruously aids in revealing their limitations. Within the context of studying the elusive adolescent shoplifting population it becomes a genuine challenge for researchers for a number of reasons. As argued by Cox et al. (1990) much of the previous shoplifting studies collected data from adolescents which were already in custody, and although the data on apprehended individuals is often available for researcher’s access it does not always outweigh the drawbacks which this nature of research poses. Taking into consideration that a very minor fraction of adolescents who shoplift is usually apprehended, meaning that not only are the research samples likely not to be as demonstrative of the population as is desired, it also makes the collection of direct data through the usage of interviews and administration of surveys significantly more challenging (Griffin, 1984; Cox et al., 1990). Researchers may also be met with heightened levels of underreporting of juvenile shoplifting crimes, adding to the difficulty of collecting a sufficient participant sample (Klemke 1982; Cox et al., 1990) Furthermore, the interrogation of adolescent taken into custody is frequently carried out in a manner which they may find stressful, therefore often leading to the youth’s falsification of responses which they may give (Klemke 1982). Another common limitation is the lack of a control group with individuals who do not shoplift, the absence of which may not allow for an adequate comparison between adolescents of similar age groups or backgrounds (Cox et al., 1990). In attempts to avoid the impact of some of these challenges, researchers picked between the quantitative and qualitative research methods in accordance to their intrinsic limitations and attempted to transform them into methodological strengths. Cox et al. (1990) did so while utilising a self-administered quantitative survey when researching the pervasiveness and social factors which may explain adolescent shoplifting. By obtaining adolescent respondents from the general population, and giving them the permission to remain anonymous, Cox et al. managed to obtain a set of results which were significantly more expansive and representative in comparison to a similar investigation conducted by Klemke (1982) of how much more common adolescent shoplifting became in a matter of eight years. This may in turn demonstrate that while quantitative self-administered surveys may be effective in exploring the expanse and frequency of adolescent shoplifting tendencies, it may not be as useful at illustrating which particular social impacts may be to blame for the formation of such behaviour.

Qualitative Interviewing on the other hand, may prove to be of more use in that respect. Interviewing is often viewed as an effective and popular method of collecting data for qualitative research which focuses on individual cases and their causal social factors (Creswell, 2005; Carlson, 2009). Whilst youths may find the process of an interview significantly more stressful and intimidating than adult participants, thus creating an ethical challenge for the researcher, it is also likely that a correct questionnaire design and professional interviewer with previous experience of working with vulnerable participants (Biddle et al., 2013). In light of these assumptions, Carlson (2009) aimed to investigate possible resolutions for adolescent problem behaviour which included offences such as truancy, substance abuse, and, of course, shoplifting. Carlson argued, that aside from certain biological predisposition factors, environmental social factors may also be responsible for adolescent antisocial behaviour. Upon conducting in-depth interviews with seven participants, he came to the conclusion that although the qualitative interview research method assisted him in getting to know the more intimate and unique details about the complex reasons for the adolescent’s antisocial behaviour, there were some significant limitations. Unlike in the self-administered surveys, the sample size was noticeably smaller and therefore allowed for far less opportunity of the applicability of the research findings to the rest of the shoplifting adolescent population. Carlson urged fellow investigators to exercise caution when applying the findings of investigations with such minor samples to people other than the participants. The investigation was concluded with the recommendation that the themes which were outlined within the investigation must be subjected to quantitative research for the securing of further reliability. Additionally, it is likely that although self-administered surveys may lack the depth and focus on individual causal factors which qualitative interviews are able to attain, it is significantly methodologically easier to gather a sizeable sample of people not only in regard to the time differences required for individual interviews and administration of surveys, but also due to the fact that participants may retain their anonymity within a population which is already initially challenging to track down and investigate.

There is, however, an alternative method of approaching this issue which may assist in both decreasing the limitations of the research methods and avoiding the negative toll which conceptual issues of the subject matter may pose for the researchers. Although quantitative self-administered surveys and qualitative interview research approaches are often presented as incompatible, with the reason for this being the principle that the two methods cannot be unified due to their ontological and epistemological differences (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Tonglet, 1999). Nevertheless, some scholars have expressed significant quantities of support towards the methodological idea of integrating both research methods in order to counter their characteristic limitations and strengths (Bryman, 1989; Filstead, 1979; Van Maanen, 1983; Tonglet, 1999). However, it cannot be said that this method was met with universal acceptance amongst researchers. Reichardt and Cook (1979) for example, disagreed with the usage of a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods, arguing that the methods must be picked specifically to suit the research question and believing that only this approach could guarantee reliable results (Reichardt and Cook, 1979; Tonglet, 1999). However, attitudes towards mixed methodology have since become more liberal with increasing amounts of researchers deciding to approach certain issues using it instead of favouring one particular method, which means that there is hope in regard to further expansion of our knowledge on the social impacts which may initiate shoplifting behaviour in adolescents.

In conclusion, it can be said that although using the two methodologically and philosophically differing research methods grants researchers with the ability of obtaining varying sets of results in regard to the aspects which they set out to expand their knowledge on, they also come with their individual limitations. As the qualitative interviews and quantitative self-administered surveys are often designed to be largely focused on separate aspects of an issue, they typically manage to work on reducing their methodological drawbacks by tailoring the research design to match both the aims that their investigation is attempting to meet and work on marginalising on the strengths of the chosen research method. This variation in research possibilities between the methods often means that certain research questions remain ‘out of bounds’ within some investigations, limiting the possibility of expansion of knowledge on a subject, which is especially concerning if the research is concentrated on a sensitive matter like factors impacting juvenile shoplifting behaviour. It is safe to assume however, that through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, investigators may manage to obtain results which envelope a wider ‘scope’ of factors, creating increasingly more multi-faceted and detailed results. If designed in a correct and appropriate manner, the quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews may create a balance as they insert their methodological strong points into the weaker aspects of the other research method. This approach may therefore reduce the manners in which conceptual issues of this controversial topic may affect the reliability and validity of the investigation’s outcomes, hence producing more accurate results which could then further promote our understanding of this complex social issue.

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