Exploratory research looks forward

There has been a lot of focus, through ‘what works’,  on experimental research methods. Such approaches are confirmatory – in that they look to prove or disprove a point through large data sets using randomised control trials for example. These make a very important contribution, to objectively justify investment or policing resources as you get a strong evidence base to base your deployment decisions on, rather than using intuition or guess work.

Mixed methods philosophy advocates using a variety of approaches to cross-corroborate data searches, and that balance of diverse techniques strengthens rather than weakens a single style approach. In that spirit, EMPAC is pleased here to be able to help strengthen that balance of approaches in policing research, by advocating for the benefits of a complementary form to the experimental – the exploratory.

Exploratory research looks forward in a more speculative manner; asking more what if rather than just what worked. It’s like a form of cognitive reconnaissance. Some might consider this a form of ‘weaponising’ research, but since the police are in a real-life war against crime, why not? It offers much to our research toolbox, particularly in contemporary policing, given the highly entrepreneurial and agile nature of criminal exploits. The focus is much more on tomorrow rather than yesterday: there’s more of a focus on predictability, re-imagining, and scenario testing. That’s why exploratory research is a well-established tool for military and political intelligence and insight. Kott and Ownby (2015), of the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), have covered the benefits of creating the mind space and time to then proactively deploy adversarial reasoning, for example, that allows you to go beyond game theory and move more into cognitive modeling and deception planning. See more here: – https://www.darpa.mil/.

Compare this to policing analytical approaches and it highlights, in start contrast, just how historical or ‘archeological’ many policing analytical approaches are. Policing intelligence could benefit so much from a more exploratory approach, rather than just a confirmatory tactic, as using the latter relegates policing to an institutionalised second place to the winners amongst fast moving criminality.  Exploratory research is proactive; confirmatory research is, like a lot of modern policing, reactive, yet ironically, often cumbersome and slow.

Maybe it’s time for policing research and analysis to get more aggressive and less passive?

One of the strategic reasons policing analysis has ended up being confirmatory is down to the somewhat peculiar definitions of analysis and research that have been adopted professionally. This has resulted in analysis being perceived as its own cycle, when in reality, analysis is part of the research cycle. The implications of analysis living in its own world means that it misses the proactivity of the research mindset. Let’s look at an example of how analysis alone can really miss opportunities. Analysis essentially can only analyse what it already knows about. The analyst searches existing data to make sense of it; but if the data is not ‘already in the box‘ you won’t get anything back. The researcher, on the other hand, gets out and goes find new data – new knowledge – that is, in turn, analysed. Analysis is that ‘making sense’ of data: but if you’ve not gone out to get the data in the first place you’ve nothing to make sense of!

There are many jumping on the bandwagon of exploratory approaches. The Central Intelligence Agency have been exploring adopting the adaptive simulation principles of superforecasting, influenced by psychologist Professor Philip Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project (see more here:- https://goodjudgment.com/).The potential of anticipation, rather than reaction, is not only smart: it’s vital to get ahead rather than be left behind. There’s a need for policing, in both its academic research and in its internal professional analysis, to wake up to the benefits of balancing its current reactive capacity with more ‘front foot’ investment.

If you are interested in growing your exploratory research capacity contact us at:- john.coxhead@empac.org.uk


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