The terms evaluation and research are sometimes used interchangeably. Often, they use the same tools and use the same methods. Even so, they have different purposes, they respond to different audiences’ information needs, and expect their results to be used in different ways.
Basic research addresses general and fundamental questions that are not easily answered:
♦ What motivates an offender to change?
♦ Why do some young people join gangs while others do not – and why do some of those who join leave while others stay?
♦ What is the interplay between mental illness and offending?
♦ How can offenders become contributing members of society?
Because these questions are fundamental and answers to them would be far-reaching, the prospect of even partially answering them is energizing – even though the practical use of the knowledge gained is uncertain. This leaves some to view basic research as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Applied research has a more practical purpose. It is undertaken to answer questions about how to accomplish a task better or more efficiently. As such, applied research establishes connections among goals and objectives, actions taken and results obtained:
♦ How can our community corrections program effectively reduce the recidivism rate in half?
♦ How do we motivate criminal offenders to enter and successfully complete our substance abuse program?
♦ What criminal justice policies will help us reduce crime in our area and improve public safety?
♦ How much money can we save by implementing a jail diversion program?
Purpose of Research
Research is directed toward increasing knowledge, the primary aim being more knowledge or understanding of a particular group, problem or issue. The strict definition of scientific research is to perform a methodical study in order to prove a hypothesis or answer a specific question.
Finding answers is the end of all research. Whether it is the answer to a hypothesis or a seemingly simple question, research is successful when it produces answers. Sometimes the answer is no, but it is still an answer. Therefore, questions are central to research. If there is no question, then the answer is of no use. Without a question, research has no focus, drive, or purpose.
Research usually produces generalizable knowledge based on inference from studying a small group (a “sample”) to a larger population. Credible research requires time to adequately test an approach, often in more than one jurisdiction, before communities can adopt it on a large scale.
Types of Questions Research Addresses
There are three basic types of questions that research projects can address:
1. Descriptive studies are designed primarily to describe what is going on or what exists. Public opinion polls that seek only to describe the proportion of people who hold various opinions are primarily descriptive in nature.
2. Relational studies look at the relationships between two or more variables. A public opinion poll that compares what proportion of males and females say they would vote for an education tax is essentially studying the relationship between gender and support to education.
3. Causal studies determine whether one or more variables (e.g., a program or treatment variable) causes or affects one or more outcome variables. If we did a public opinion poll to try to determine whether a recent education tax advertising campaign changed voter preferences, we would essentially be studying whether the campaign (cause) changed the proportion of voters who would vote for or against the tax increase (effect).
The three question types can be viewed as cumulative. That is, a relational study assumes that you can first describe (by measuring or observing) each of the variables you are trying to relate while a causal study assumes that you can describe both the cause and effect variables and that you can show that they are related to each other (Web Center for Social Research Methods).
Evaluation has several distinguishing characteristics relating to focus, methodology, and function. As used by the Office of Justice Programs, evaluation:
1. Assesses the effectiveness of an ongoing program in achieving its objectives;
2. Relies on the standards of project design to distinguish a program's effects from those of other forces; and
3. Aims at program improvement through a modification of current operations.
Evaluation is concerned with answering questions about issues that arise in everyday practice. A distinguishing characteristic of evaluation is that, unlike traditional forms of academic research, evaluation is grounded in the everyday realities of organizations. Evaluations can be conducted of programs, processes, products, systems, organizations, personnel, and policies.
Evaluation therefore answers questions like:
♦ Does it work?
♦ Does it do what we want it to?
♦ How well does it work?
♦ Does it work for the reasons we think it does?
♦ How much does it cost per benefit gained?
♦ Does it have side effects?