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“Truth” at the age of uncertainty


Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties.  The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex.  After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield.  It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!

There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time.  I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing. 

So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality.  This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry.  This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating.  In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make. 

A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions.  In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation.  The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter. 

This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience.  The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience. 

Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy.  This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice.  Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic.  The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each.  This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information.  The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence.  The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.

This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance.  We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest. 

Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London

How literature failed me as a black student

My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.

My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.

While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.

With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?

After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic

Interview with a sex offender

BD sex offender

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

“Was this your first arrest?”

“Yes I’ve been in trouble with the police before, but just like cautions, like some old man called the police because we played football on the grass near his house. That was literally only about a couple months before i got arrested… for rape.”

I had just turned 20 years old when I conducted my first interview with a sex offender.  I was prepping for my dissertation in the summer before my final year, conducting research in a probation office I volunteered at. I was allowed to observe, teach and in the final week I would be able to interview 3 males I had been observing. I interviewed the first two males who both I had taught some very basic numeracy skills to, they were both as they were in my observations, very calm and just trying to get through each day without breaching their probation orders.  My final interview was with a young male who I had been helping prepare to apply for a construction worker card, which would allow him to apply for building work. In my months of observing and teaching him I felt like he was no different to males I went to school with or anyone you would pass on the street. I did not want to know what his crime was, as a probation mentor that was never my focus, nor my business to know.

Ethically speaking, I was challenged by the idea that I was conducting an interview and research with the consent of an individual who in my eyes did not understand the concept of consent. That may seem like a harmful way to view this man and the outlook of his time in probation as ultimately it was about reform and reintegration after his time in prison. I have progressed a lot since this day and I no longer view this person so hopelessly in my memory, then again, I am unsure of what he is doing now.

Each time I remember the interview and my experience there, I have different thoughts and different feelings, which I suppose is human nature. I also get annoyed at myself that I cannot seem to understand  or rather pinpoint my own thoughts on it, I go between thinking what I did (teaching) was a good thing and it may have helped him, to thinking what I did was waste my time on someone who probably didn’t deserve it in many people’s eyes.

I had always felt I was very understanding of those labelled ‘ex-offenders’ and the cycle they can become trapped in. But before this experience, I had always worked with those whose crimes seemed relatively minor comparatively. Sexual violence is not something to me that is as simple to categorise or try to understand.  I remember getting home a few hours later and sobbing for a victim I knew nothing about other than her perpetrator.

The experience has always stuck with me and made me appreciate the complexity of not only sexual offences but also the role of reform with sexual offences. It has led me to explore research around sexual violence and I have recently been exploring the work of Elizabeth Stanko and also revisiting my books by Susan Brownmiller. Both examine the role of the victim of sexual violence and raise questions about how historically sexual violence has been viewed.

This is a personal experience and not something I think everyone will relate to, but from experiences shared, there are lessons to be learnt.

The number’s up for quantitative research! Or is it?

teddy-bear-2855982_960_720

As my colleagues will no doubt confirm, I’m not a fan of numbers. Although, I always enjoyed maths, particularly algebra, my distaste for numbers comes when they are applied to people. Whilst I appreciate there are a lot of us, somewhere around 7.6 billion on the planet, the reduction of a human to a number doesn’t sit comfortably. This aversion to numbering people partly stems from academic study of the Holocaust, which was facilitated by the Nazi’s determination to reduce individual human lives first to digits and then to ashes. It also comes from my own lived experience, particularly in education, of knowing that individuals can and do change.

Criminologists such as Stanley Cohen (1988), Nils Christie (1997) and Jock Young (2011) have long recognised the fundamental flaws inherent in much quantitative criminology. They recognise that numbers are often used to obfuscate and confuse, taking readers down a route whereby they are presented as having their own intrinsic meaning, entirely distinct from the people whose data is being manipulated. Furthermore, those numbers are deemed scientific and authoritative, having far more sway than qualitative research predicated on finding meaning in individual lives.

Despite my antipathy to numbers, I have spent the last few months studying attempts to quantify a particular prison population; ex-servicemen. Much of this research is flawed in the same way as recognised by the eminent criminologists above. Instead, of answering what appears on the surface to be a straightforward question, many of these reports struggle to even define what they are trying to measure, let alone make sense of the measurements.

All this has made me think about the way we measure “engagement”. Last week, as you may have noticed from Manos’ entry, was the blog’s first birthday. Underneath, the professional front page lies, what WordPress rather hopefully describes, as ‘Stats’. From here, it is possible to identify the number of visitors per day, month and year, as well as the number of views. There is also a detailed map of the world, displaying all the countries from which these visitors are drawn. In essence, I have enough data to tell you that in our first year we have had 3,748 visitors and 5,124 views from 65 countries.

All of this sounds very encouraging and the team can make statements about how views are up on the period before, or make claims that we have attracted visitors from countries for the first time. If, so inclined, we could even have a leader board of the most popular contributor or entry; thankfully that doesn’t seem appeal to the team. If I wanted to write a report, I could include some lovely, bar or pie charts, even some infographics; certainly if you look below you will see a rather splendid Wordle which displays 233 different categories, used a total of 781 times.

Blog birthday wordle

However, what exactly do we know? I would argue, not a lot. We have some evidence that some people have visited the blog at least once, but as to how many are regular readers; we have no clue. Do they read the entries and do they enjoy them? Again, no idea. Maybe they’re just attracted by particular pictures (the evidence would suggest that the Yellow Submarine, Kermit, the Pink Panther and tattoos do exceedingly well).[i] There is some evidence that many of the visitors come via Facebook and Twitter and these offer their own illusion of measurable activity. Certainly, Twitter offers its own ‘Analytics’ which advises me that my tweet containing Manos’ latest blog entry earned an impressive 907 ‘Impressions’, and 45 ‘Engagements’ which equals an ‘Engagement Rate’ of 5%! What any of that means; your guess is good as mine! Does scrolling mindlessly on your newsfeed whilst waiting for the kettle to boil count as an impression or an engagement? Should I be impressed or embarrassed by a 5% engagement rate – who knows? If I add it to my imaginary report, at least I’ll be able to add some more colourful charts to accompany my authoritative narrative. Of course, it will still be largely meaningless but it should look splendid!

More concerning are the repercussions to any such report, which would seem to imply that I had total control over improving such metrics and if they didn’t improve, that would ultimately be down to my inertia, inability or incompetence. Of course, the blog is a voluntary labour of love, created and curated by a group of like-minded individuals… However, if we consider this in relation to criminology and criminal justice, things take a more sinister turn….the numbers may indicate something, but at the end of the day those numbers represent people with their own ideas, concerns and behaviours. Discussions around payment by results seem to miss this vital point, but of course it means that failure to achieve these results can be blamed on individuals and companies. Of course, none of the above denies quantitative data a place within Criminology, but it has to be meaningful and not just a series of statements and charts.

Now, I’ve got my anti-quantitative rant of my chest, I’ll leave the final words to Nils Christie (1997) and his command to make criminology exciting and passionate as befits its subject matter. In his words, avoid ‘[l]ong reports of the obvious. Repetitions. Elaborate calculations leading to what we all know’ (Christie, 1997: 13).

Instead we should always consider:

[h]ow can it be like this? How come that so much criminology is that dull, tedious and intensely empty as to new insights? It ought to be just the opposite, in a science based on material from the core areas of drama. Our theories are based on situations of conflict and heroism, danger and catastrophe, abuses and sacrifices – just those areas where most of our literary heroes find their material. And still so trivial! (Christie, 1997: 13).

Rather than mindlessly churning out quantitative data that looks and is perceived as sophisticated, as criminologists we need to be far more critical. If you don’t believe Christie, what about taking heed of Green Day’s command to ‘question everything? Or shut up and be a victim of authority’ (Armstrong et al., 2000).

References:

Armstrong, Billie Joe, Dirnt, Mike and Cool, Tre, (2000), Warning [LP]. Recorded by Green Day in Warning, Reprise: Studio 880

Christie, Nils, (1997), ‘Four Blocks Against Insight: Notes on the Oversocialization of Criminologists,’ Theoretical Criminology, 1, 1: 13-23

Cohen, Stanley, (1988), Against Criminology, (Oxford: Transaction Books)

Young, Jock, (2011), The Criminological Imagination, (London: Polity Press)

A revised and reworked submission of this entry was published on the British Society of Criminology blog on 1 June 2018.

[i] This point will be “tested under experimental conditions” by the gratuitous inclusion of a picture showing teddy bears “reading”.

Why you should trust your work

design, desk, display

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

It is only human to doubt yourself in certain situations; however, academia can be a problematic situation to doubt your ideas and abilities. It can lead you to change your standpoint unnecessarily and also create so much stress that you give up on an idea or project entirely.

I deal with this less so now since my university experience but still regularly and I felt it may provide comfort to those currently studying or recently graduated, these examples are personal and are only two of many. In particular I want to address doubting your own ideas and work and how important it is to keep challenging those thoughts.

Upon starting university, my first ‘big essay’ (I describe this with humour as it was 3000 words, but as a first year that can seem like quite the ask) was a biographical assignment. This assignment required an interview with a family member or anyone who would be willing to talk to you and to apply that to research by highlighting some key events/accomplishments. I feared writing that essay as I had many friends with parents who were lawyers or grandparents who had been in the war or immigrants. These stories surely would be so interesting and my essay on my dad who worked in a warehouse would be seen as boring, perhaps. This was my first experience with fear and doubt over my work, but then I did the interview, wrote the essay, took a deep breath and submitted. Turns out it was one of my favourite pieces of work and the programme leaders liked it. It was an honest essay and while not glamorous, it was personal to me and that made the approval and grade that more rewarding.

In my second year, I conducted my placement at a probation office and based my research around a case study of one male who was doing an English class and aimed to discuss the success of that class. After around 8 weeks of observations and an interview with the male. I went to my seminar leader at the time (@paulaabowles) in a complete panic and almost teary-eyed. I told her how I felt my research was not good enough because the male was lying to me, in fact he was almost lying to the whole probation experience as he was more or less just turning up to tick the boxes he needed but then conducting his behaviour differently to me in certain situations and the interview. I felt I had failed as a researcher and also as a teacher almost, as I was assisting in the teaching of the class he was in. I was then told some of the great truths of research and also why I had not failed and actually I had done very well.  My research was good research and I just had not realised it. The research didn’t find what I wanted it to, in fact it found the opposite, which was still good research. My research which I had titled ‘Playing the system’ had actually proved to not be a failure and my doubts were unnecessary but not anything to be ashamed of.  As in my quest at the time to find answers of why was I such a ‘bad researcher’ and interviewer, I found a plethora of other people online and among peers with the same doubts over some great work they had produced.

Whether it be doubts or fear of speaking up in fear of failure or sounding stupid, I hope others may be able to see not only are they not alone, but actually you are normal because of these doubts. We should just maybe work on believing in our work more and not waiting to get the approval of others for those ideas. With this I feel it is fitting to use one of my favourite quotes from Bertrand Russell:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

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