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Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service

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Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.

I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.

Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.

Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.

Terrorised into compliance

Edvard Munch, (1893) The Scream

Learning and teaching is a complex business, difficult to describe even by those in the process of either/or both. Pedagogy, as defined by Lexico is ‘[t]he method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept’. It underpins all teaching activity and despite the seemingly straightforward definition, is a complex business.  At university, there are a variety of pedagogies both across and within disciplines. How to teach, is as much of a hot topic, as what to teach and the methods and practices are varied.

So how would you feel if I said I wanted Criminology students to quake in their boots at the prospect of missing classes? Or “literally feel terror” at the thought of failing to do their reading or not submitting an assessment? Would you see this as a positive attempt to motivate an eager learner? A reaction to getting the best out of lazy or recalcitrant students? A way of instilling discipline, keeping them on the straight and narrow on the road to achieving success? After all, if the grades are good then everything must be okay? Furthermore, given many Criminology graduate go on to careers within Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ maybe it would be useful to give them a taste of what’s to come for the people they deal with (1977: 209).

Hopefully, you are aghast that I would even consider such an approach (I promise, I’m definitely not) and you’ve already thought of strong, considered arguments as to why this would be a very bad idea Yet, last week the new Home Secretary, Pritti Patel stated that she wanted people to “literally feel terror” at the prospect of becoming involved in crime. Although presented as a novel policy, many will recognise this approach as firmly rooted in ideas from the Classical School of Criminology. Based on the concepts of certainty, celerity and severity, these ideas sought to move away from barbaric notions and practices to a more sophisticated understanding of crime and punishment.

Deterrence (at the heart of Classical School thought) can be general or specific; focused on society or individuals. Patel appears to be directing her focus on the latter, suggesting that feelings of “terror” will deter individuals from committing crime. Certainly, one of the classical school’s primary texts, On Crime and Punishment addresses this issue:

‘What is the political intention of punishments? To terrify, and to be an example to others. Is this intention answered, by thus privately torturing the guilty and the innocent?’

(Beccaria, 1778: 64)

So, let’s think through this idea of terrorising people away from crime, could it work? As I’ve argued before if your crime is a matter of conscience it is highly unlikely to work (think Conscientious Objectors, Suffragettes, some terrorists). If it is a crime of necessity, stealing to feed yourself or your family, it is also unlikely to succeed, certainly the choice between starvation and crime is terrifying already. What about children testing boundaries with peers, can they really think through all the consequences of actions, research suggests that may not be case (Rutherford, 1986/2002). Other scenarios could include those under the influence of alcohol/drugs and mental health illnesses, both of which may have an impact on individual ability to think through problems and solutions. All in all, it seems not everyone can be deterred and furthermore, not all crimes are deterrable (Jacobs, 2010). So much for the Home Secretary’s grand solution to crime.

As Drillminister demonstrates to powerful effect, violent language is contextual (see @sineqd‘s discussion here). Whilst threats to kill are perceived as violence when uttered by young, black men in hoods, in the mouths of politicians they apparently lose their viciousness. What should we then make of Pritti Patel’s threats to make citizens “literally feel terror”?

Selected bibliography

Beccaria, Cesare, (1778), An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, (Edinburgh: Alexander Donaldson), [online]. Available from: https://archive.org/details/essayoncrimespu00Becc/page/n3

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Jacobs, Bruce A., (2010), ‘Deterrence and Deterrability’, Criminology, 48, 2: 417-441

Rutherford, Andrew, (1986/2002), Growing Out of Crime: The New Era, (Winchester: Waterside Press)

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