The survey will take place in the wake of a Gallup poll published yesterday showing the vast majority of the public supports taking the law into its own hands. Three-quarters of those questioned said vigilante action could sometimes be justified; nearly half expressed little or no confidence in the police.
Researchers want to assess whether widespread public dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system is responsible for recent incidents such as the attempt to kidnap a suspected local thief by two Norfolk men, later jailed for five years, or whether underlying social factors - such as the erosion of close communities in many parts of the country - are more important.
Dr Ian McKenzie, of the Institute for Police and Criminological Studies at the University of Portsmouth, who is planning the research, said: 'We really need to establish how big this problem is, whether it is something which occurs in both urban and rural areas or in certain police forces.'
The research comes when not just vigilantism but many other types of 'para-policing' - such as private security patrols and neighbourhood watch schemes - are a rapidly growing part of life in Britain.
It will be given added urgency by the poll in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, showing public confidence in the law is falling to a remarkable extent.
Seventy-six per cent of those questioned thought people were sometimes justified in taking the law into their own hands, with only 21 per cent
A total of 44 per cent said they had 'not very much' confidence in the police, or 'none at all', while 9 per cent thought it was very or fairly likely that a vandal would be arrested, a figure that rises to 26 per cent for muggers and 22 per cent for burglars.
Dr McKenzie, a former Metropolitan Police superintendent, said: 'It is very easy to say that the growth of vigilantism is all due to public disquiet with the criminal justice system. But issues like the homogeneity of communities and psychological factors could be equally important.'
Yesterday's poll findings brought a swift response from Michael Howard, who has made public partnership with the police a key objective since moving to the Home Office last month. 'We don't want vigilantes, but we do want vigilance. We want citizens who are prepared to take it on themselves to help the police . . . within the law,' the Home Secretary said.
He will attempt to reassure Tory opinion about the government record on law and order at the party conference in Blackpool in October, where a large number of resolutions underline constituency concern. He is expected to outline new measures to tackle crime in the next Queen's Speech, with plans to safeguard people who inform the police about criminals in their communities.
Mr Howard is also reviewing the law of self-defence after a public outcry over the acquittal of a man for the knife killing in south London of Robert Osborne, a music teacher who had challenged his attacker over tyre-slashing.
Ministers believe it may be dangerous to tamper with the law allowing self-defence, but Mr Howard believes the case - in which a key witness did not appear - underlined the importance of bringing in measures to protect witnesses and informants.
Home Office proposals also include making it a criminal offence to attempt to discover the identity and whereabouts of a protected witness, and more protection for informants prepared to be witnesses in court.
The position of the police on vigilantism is unequivocal: 'The legal position is quite clear. Anyone who undertakes a responsibility to impose law and order must act within the law,' said John Stevens, Chief Constable of Northumbria and the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on crime prevention. Only the police were accountable and trained to deal with law enforcement, he said.
Those engaged in 'self-styled street patrols' had to be aware that they were fully accountable for their actions and of the 'potentially divisive' effect on their communities.
Private guardians, page 4
Leading article, page 25