Using social network analysis to study crime: Navigating the challenges of criminal justice records

David Bright, Russell Brewer, Carlo Morselli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)
40 Downloads (Pure)


The use of social network analysis to study groups of offenders engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking and terrorism has grown in popularity over the last three decades. Along with such growth, however, researchers have been confronted with a suite of challenges related to the use of data extracted from criminal justice records. In this paper, we review these challenges through a discussion of the extant empirical literature utilizing social network analysis approaches that draw data from the criminal justice system. First, we outline and discuss the different types of data used across this literature. Second, we chronicle the challenges that have emerged across the field of criminal networks via a comprehensive review of the literature. In particular, we draw on the documented experiences of researchers in the field, including our own, and detail “archeological” approaches that future researchers can utilize to adapt and overcome said challenges. The use of criminal justice records can suffer from a number of limitations, mainly with respect to accuracy, validity and reliability. Such data may include errors, both intentional (e.g. aliases, false information) and unintentional (e.g. transcription errors), including missing data. The use of criminal justice records present particular problems with defining the network boundary as the boundary as determined by law enforcement or prosecution agencies may not correspond to the boundary as defined by network members. We conclude by offering a number of recommendations for researchers about data collection and preparation when utilizing criminal justice records.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-64
Number of pages15
JournalSocial Networks
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • Court files
  • Criminal justice records
  • Criminal networks
  • Department inquiries and commissions
  • Illicit networks
  • Investigative records
  • Offender databases
  • Prosecution files


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