Handbook of Quantitative Criminology

pp 225-247


Systematic Social Observation in Criminology

  • Stephen D. MastrofskiAffiliated withAdministration of Justice Department, George Mason University
  • , Roger B. ParksAffiliated withSchool of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
  • , John D. McCluskeyAffiliated withDepartment of Criminal Justice, University of Texas at San Antonio


Systematic social observation (SSO) came to criminology at the hand of Albert J. Reiss, Jr., who, in the 1960s, encouraged social scientists to shed some “nonsensical” views about the limits and benefits of different forms of observing social phenomena (Reiss 1968, 1971b). Reiss objected to the notion that direct observation of social phenomena in their natural setting was work for solo researchers using qualitative methods, while survey research was suitable as a group enterprise with many researchers using a systematized protocol to gather quantified data. Reiss argued that both direct social observation and survey research were in fact forms of observation that must confront the same set of challenges to produce interpretable information, that both were amenable to either solo or group practice, and that both could be used effectively for discovery or validation of propositions about social phenomena. Beyond these insights, Reiss’s important contribution to criminology was the development and practice of the techniques of SSO. Acknowledging that others before him had associated social field observation with the sorts of systematic protocols that had become popular in survey research, Reiss demonstrated how SSO could be used to answer important questions about what influences police–citizen interactions, with implications for theories about police–citizen relationships and for public policies concerning justice, race relations, and crime control. Since Reiss, criminologists have expanded the application of SSO more broadly, but it is still used relatively infrequently.