Content and thematic legal case analysis: A valuable form of criminological research

Dr Sally Kennedy1

1Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Content and thematic analysis of legal case records can produce original, comprehensive, and systematic criminological and justice-based data which can test, consolidate, and supplement pre-existing knowledge or produce unique findings. The approach is less common than large-scale quantitative research projects. However, this article argues the methodology deserves greater attention and recognition regarding its possible contributions to criminology. This article outlines a step-by-step guide to the methodology, including explanations of the types of research questions which can be explored, the selection of relevant cases, the inductive and deductive development of a codebook to define variables and create inclusive boundaries to analyse raw data, and how descriptive content and key themes can be used to produce a critical analysis of the sample. Whilst this method can be used for many areas of criminological interest, this article utilises reported and publicly available judicial decisions involving international extradition requests to Australia to highlight the type of data this method produces, and how it can be used to advance criminological and justice-based scholarship. This process allows an insightful comparison of trends and inconsistencies, as well as complex connections between social, political, and reform issues to be explored. Links to broader criminological tensions and theories can also be examined. The article also highlights legal case analysis as a key method of promoting legal empiricism by providing an example of the significant criminological implications of this methodology and how it can lead to the development of context-dependent theory. The article concludes by re-enforcing the legitimacy of content and thematic analysis of legal cases as a relatively simple, flexible, and valuable form of criminological research.


Dr. Sally Kennedy is a Sessional Academic and Research Fellow in Criminology at Deakin University (Victoria, Australia). She specialises in transnational justice administration in national courts. This includes research examining extradition, territorial sovereignty and sovereign power, legal geographies within the digital environment, treaty compliance, individual rights and fairness, and global crime control. She works primarily with qualitative data and has experience in thematic and legal case analysis, often within a comparative context.


Dec 09 2021