According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “investigation” is derived from the Old French word of the same name originally coined around the 14th Century. It is also similar to a Latin word “investigare” which means to investigate. But what does the word actually mean?

OED further notes that it is, “the action of investigating; the making of a search or inquiry; systematic examination; [and] careful and minute research.” An investigator is one who investigates and makes “close research” of a subject, event, or issue. Let us take a closer look.

As an investigator myself, I define an investigation as the systematic process of identifying violations of law or policy and pursuing information, in a legal and efficient manner, that will ultimately lead to one of the following outcomes:

  • The suspect is exonerated
  • The result is a successful administrative action (if a violation of policy or procedure)
  • A criminal prosecution and conviction for the offense

The ultimate objective of an investigation is the truth—explaining in detail what happened when it occurred, who did what, and how they did it.

Many people may not understand that investigations do not have to involve just criminal activity. Investigations are used in a wide variety of fields and occupations. Consider a “scientific investigation,” where a researcher utilizes the hypothesis-testing theory to identify some issue in the world of biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Or an art history major may wish to undertake an investigation of the origin of a particular painting. The “close research” they engage in will help them understand and make sense of the painting, the painter, and the subject.

Primarily people associate investigation with the legal arena. Whether it involves criminal investigations, civil investigations, or human resource-related investigations, investigation implies that there may be some possibility of wrong-doing or problem that must be fully examined. OED also supports this notion, because it cites a work from 1436 that talks about the King’s statutes and legal decrees.

An investigation is ultimately the search for the truth of the matter under review. It is a process designed to gather and examine all of the relevant evidence to help reconstruct a past event. For example, when a military aircraft crashes, an investigation is undertaken by authorities to identify the cause of the accident, what occurred (i.e., a timeline or chronology), and any other issues or problems. The results of the investigation are used to help prevent other crashes through policy changes, increased training, inspections, or general information/awareness.

Using a defined investigative process or methodology is critical. Otherwise, the attempt to track or trace what occurred, who the suspect is, and how they did it, could turn into a wild goose chase. Resources are wasted and ultimately, erroneous conclusions could potentially be drawn. In the legal context, this means that an innocent person could go to jail if the investigation is not done properly. A lot of practical and academic papers have been written about these types of investigative failures and problems.

Another portion of the OED’s definition is also vital to understand. It involves “details.” To make a careful, minute, or deep examination of an event (say, a crime), you need to “sweat the small stuff.” Details often make or break a case. Think of a single strand of hair left at a crime scene; the identification, preservation, handling, and gathering of that single hair could be the only definitive piece of evidence left by the suspect. It could mean the suspect gets the death penalty or walks out a free person, or no suspect at all is identified. The details make all the difference.

Interestingly, the use of the word “investigatingly” (as an adverb) also includes a definition that is important to our discussion. It means to do something in an “investigating manner” or “to inquire.” It also includes the word “questioningly.” Well trained and experienced investigators know that their one biggest skill must be to conduct thorough, unbiased, and well-structured interviews of sources, witnesses, suspects, and third-party information providers.

To question means to seek the truth, and probe for information. Investigators then record this information (usually in a comprehensive summary form, like a Report of Interview or an affidavit), which enables the information to be used in court in an appropriate manner. The OED cites a work from 1552, where the author notes that an investigator was an “expounder” (that is, one who states things in detail) and are “crafty searchers.” I prefer both, as they are both very applicable to investigations today.

Pursuing a career as a legal investigator and working on investigations is a wonderful career path. Whether at the state, federal, local government level or even as a corporate or private investigator, it allows you to meet a wide variety of people, work on some very diverse cases and subject matters. It even affords unique travel opportunities to places you would never think about.

There are a lot of careers out there that involve being a crafty searcher and a master inquisitor…what interests you? Stevenson University Online offers a Forensic Investigation master’s and certificate program that prepares students and law enforcement professionals to effectively conduct interviews and collect physical evidence for the purpose of synthesizing the results into factually accurate and objective reports and court testimony. For more information, contact us at or 1-877-531-7118.

Adjunct Professor Colin May, M.S., ’08, CFE teaches courses on Forensic Studies for Stevenson University Online. Professor May is a former federal criminal investigator and has worked on a wide array of fraud, money laundering, and other investigations for several federal agencies. He has written widely on fraud, forensic accounting, and investigation in Fraud Magazine, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, and the Journal of Public Inquiry.

Forensics, Law, & Criminal Justice