Afterword: The Case for Criminological Autoethnography

Published 15/06/2016
Type Editorial Comment
Author(s) Dr Stephen Wakeman
Corresponding Authors Dr Stephen Wakeman, Liverpool John Moores University

It is with great pleasure and a deep sense of honour that I offer you the following thoughts to close this special edition of the British Journal of Community Justice. In the spirit of autoethnography I offer them to you here in the first person, and it is pleasing to know that I have to make no apology for this – the fact that you have read this far is testament to our shared belief in the place of the self in criminological writing. In some respects, this is a daunting task; how exactly is one supposed to follow the fantastic collection of essays that precede this brief afterword? It is not an easy job, but one that I am genuinely honoured to do. My goal here is not to review or summarise the contents of the essays, but rather to see if I can offer some thoughts as to why they matter collectively to contemporary criminology and its methodological groundings.

I will not make the mistake of assuming we have gleaned the same insights from the works collected in this issue, they are far too diverse for that, and ethnography – as practiced by the scholars in this volume at least – is too complex to have any sort of fixed meaning ascribed to it. But I can be confident of one thing I hope; that this volume presented its reader with a learning experience. As I was taught it, this is what good ethnography (what real ethnography) does best – it provides an intellectual space through which the ‘telling about’ of one cultural context enables critical thinking about it, but also about other cultural spaces too. While reading here about recreational drug users, inmates of an Ecuadorian prison, bouncers and political figures, I was struck by the amount of time I spent thinking about heroin addicts in rehab, about mixed martial arts cage fighting, and about casino gambling. In fact, I lost count of the number of times where one of the tales told here guided me into thinking a bit differently about both the group in question, and another (often unrelated) one at the same time. And this right here, this is the beauty of ethnography when it is done well. When presented in the way it is in this special edition, as critical and analytic autoethnography, it permits – it encourages even – its reader to think about their research areas/interests in new and alternative ways. In this respect, the collected authors from above (and certainly the editors too!) have my eternal thanks.

But why is an afterword even needed here then? Why does it matter what I think about these works now? What makes my thoughts so important? Am I not just making the fatal mistake that too many would-be autoethnographers make and drifting off into some sort of hazy bubble of non-productive, self-obsessed navel gazing? Surely the research projects we have just read about – like all the others we read about in our journals and hear about at our conferences – are not about me, and neither are they about their respective researchers either? Surely, they’re about the participants, about the stories that need to be told to change the world? Well, yes and no. For me, ethnography is about telling stories that all too frequently go untold, yes. And it is about helping change the world too, of course it is. But, it is also about me too. It is about its practitioners’ worlds, their understandings of them, and the ways in which they might be able to impact upon them for the benefit of others. I think this sort of thing matters, and I think that it matters that we acknowledge it too. The ways in which the authors of the articles in this volume have done so here illustrate why exactly this matters like it does. The pretence towards objectivity that – whether acknowledged or not – all too frequently characterises criminological research needs to be abandoned. This can best be achieved through thinking about ourselves more in our research, and through telling about ourselves in it too; through thinking about ourselves in terms of the good, the bad, and the ugly. It can be achieved by thinking about the ways in which our biographies, emotions, hopes, dreams, fears, antagonisms and desires have coloured our experience in the field, and how this in turn has coloured our understandings of what we saw there and how we learnt from it.

If there is one thing that is made clear in this volume, it is that we can do this as researchers; we can think critically about who we are as people and how this impacts upon our work. Granted, it is not always easy, but at the same time it need not be that difficult either. Let me break another of our outdated writing conventions and pose a question to my reader – did you notice in Carl’s essay the brief remarks about studying criminology possibly being rooted in a ‘rebellious streak’? Likewise, did it register when Fleetwood opened up her article by quickly letting us know she was travelling abroad as a ‘middle-class white kid’? Maybe it did, and maybe it did not, but either way the point here is the same: by simply revealing these things about themselves the authors tell us something of their world that structures their research and in so doing, they invite us to ask similar questions of ourselves and what structures our own. It is the answers to these questions that makes autoethnography the method that it is. It is the answers to these questions that allows autoethnographers to challenge some of our discipline’s long established ways of doing things.

By way of an example, I will revert to my own work rather than make impositions on the  biographies/experiences of the authors in this special edition. Asking questions about my past addiction to heroin, in the light of my observations of its use in ethnographic fieldwork, allowed me to attack prevailing theories of drug addiction (see Wakeman, 2014). Because of a willingness to look at the intersections of biography and research, I was able to develop my theory in ways which challenged some of the orthodox academic perspectives on the subjects I study. Whether or not my theory is in the end superior to the established positions I critique is largely irrelevant (and certainly not for me to judge) – the point is, it is different, it is challenging of intellectual hegemony, and it is genuinely dialectical. Tell me, is this not what progressive critical scholarship should be all about? If your answer to this questions is ‘yes’, then permit me one more – does it not then hold that autoethnography is the ideal method of critical criminological analyses?

But it is more than this still – autoethnography does not just challenge theory, it can also challenge some of our discipline’s long-held power structures as well. Recently I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference on ethnography, and during my talk I asked the audience a quick question. I asked them how many of the voices they hear talking about crime at criminology conferences would they describe as ‘authentic’ (authentic in that the speaker had direct personal experience of what they were talking about)? Everyone laughed. They laughed because the number was so small, and because in the cold light of day, there was perhaps little else to do other than laugh. We laughed together through our shared recognition of the fact that we seem to have built ourselves a discipline so characterised by what Jock Young (2011) called ‘physics envy’ that right from day one, it discourages any incursions from the messy worlds of authentic selves. Our first-year undergraduates are told to refrain from writing ‘I think’ in their earliest teaching sessions, and the process snowballs from there to the point where journal articles contain only brief footnotes on researcher biographies (sometimes not even that), and monographs usually only contain something tokenistic at the back in the form of a ‘methodological appendix’. The knock-on effect of this is reasonably straightforward, yet hugely problematic – the dominant voices in our field become all too frequently detached from the lived realities of its subject matter as understood through experience and research. They also appear to become disproportionately middle-class, White, and male (and it is perhaps for this reason that some of the sternest opposition I have come across to the use of autoethnography has come from White, middle-class men – read into this as you will).

Even with the above in mind however, I do not think this future is all bad. After reading the essays collected here, I actually feel a sense of hope for the future of criminology. If there is one end point to make in this respect then, it has to be this: criminological autoethnography can provide a productive way forward for any criminologist willing to give it a try. It can not only act as a counterweight to some of our field’s core problems, but it also offers us the opportunity to embrace new ways of knowing about our subjects. The real beauty of the autoethnographic approach then is that it can provide a means by which both our discipline’s dominant theories – as well as the dominant, privileged voices that propagate and protect them – can be challenged and transcended. In this respect, and as so comprehensively demonstrated by the essays collected here, it is perhaps the method of a genuinely progressive critical criminology.

The case for criminological autoethnography has been made. Over to you.


Wakeman, S. (2014) Fieldwork, biography and emotion: Doing criminological auto ethnography. British Journal of Criminology, 54(5): 705-721. Young, J. (2011) The Criminological Imagination. Cambridge: Polity.