Design-Based Research in Criminology

Course content

Does imprisonment deter offenders from committing new crimes after release? Is imprisonment damaging to young offenders? And what about the association between unemployment and crime, which is cause and which is effect? Also, married men have lower crime rates than unmarried men, but is this because of other differences between those men or is marriage the causal ingredient?


Answers to these types of questions are important. Important decisions are based on them. Policies are made, laws are written. And public opinion is shaped by the answers. But even though most people have an opinion on these types of questions, remarkably few people are able to answer them in scientifically sound ways.  And few people even know of the methodological criteria for answering such questions.


Re-read the questions and notice how they all inquire about causal relationships. Does imprisonment affect crime? Prison -> behavior? A -> B. It’s really quite simple. But measuring it is quite demanding.


On this course you will become familiar with the methodological criteria for measuring causal effects. And you will learn how to search for, evaluate, and apply design-based approaches to answer questions related to causal effects. We will focus on questions from the research field of criminology (because it is the lecturers’ field of research), yet the methodological criteria and the logic of design-based research easily extends to other areas of research.


The course consists of three main parts (which each come with a minor student assignment—when compiled, these minor assignments will make up the main bulk of the exam assignment). In the first part of the course, we look at the methodological requirements for identifying causal effects. In the second part, we consult basic criminological theories, read empirical research articles, and discuss the applied research designs. In the third part, we discuss alternative research designs.


In the end, you will know reliable research designs. And you will know what it takes to answer the types of questions that were listed earlier. And, just as important, you will know which additional questions to ask when someone claims to answer those questions.


MA Research Methodology and Practice (MSc Curriculum 2015)

Course package (MSc 2015):

Welfare, inequality and mobility
Knowledge, organisation and politics
Culture, lifestyle and everyday life

Learning outcome

The course aims to provide you with solid knowledge on the literature on (statistical) evaluation, especially regarding the empirical challenges which you will encounter when aiming to answer causal questions.

You will also become familiar with a handful of criminological theories (which you need in order to understand why answering causal questions in criminology is a challenge). Put directly, you will learn which criteria needs to be fulfilled in order for a comparison of two groups to express a causal effect.

The course also aims to provide you with valueable skills for evaluating and creating/finding design-based approaches to answer causal questions. Notice that although the course uses theories and empirical examples from the field of criminology, the line of thought and the skills you learn on the course are applicable to almost any field of research. Put directly, the course enables you to critically assess the scientific value of any given way of answering causal questions empirically.  

Lectures, group discussions, and student presentations

All course material is in English.

As textbook we will use Dunning, T. (2012). Natural Experiments in the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

We will also read a number of research articles.

Basic skills in quantitative methods (e.g., conditional means, regression models, and statistical control) are advantagous but not strictly required.

Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Individual or group.
A portfolio assignment is defined as a series of short assignments during the course that address one or more set questions and feedback is offered during the course. All of the assignments are submitted together for assessment at the end of the course.
The portfolio assignments must be no longer than 10 pages. For group assignments, an extra 5 pages is added per additional student. Further details for this exam form can be found in the Curriculum and in the General Guide to Examinations at KUnet.
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

See learning outcome.

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Course Preparation
  • 80
  • Exam Preparation
  • 50
  • Exercises
  • 38
  • Preparation
  • 10
  • English
  • 206