Foreword: Entering the Field and Leaving Intact

Published 15/06/2016
Type Editorial Comment
Author(s) Professor Yvonne Jewkes
Corresponding Authors Professor Yvonne Jewkes, Research Professor in Criminology, University of Brighton

In July 2013 I was invited to give a plenary talk at the British Society of Criminology conference, the theme of which was ‘Criminology on Trial’. I am honoured that my presentation that day has helped to inspire this special collection of thought-provoking articles written by colleagues at relatively early stages of their careers. In my talk, I decided to put ethnographic fieldwork on trial and I discussed why I think that many established academics do a disservice to new scholars contemplating entering the field for the first time, by writing up their methodology and findings as if everything has gone completely smoothly. They have entered the field without any problems concerning access or ethics, they have gained a rapport with every one of their participants, elicited rich and novel data, and left the field with it (the field), and their own mind, body and self entirely intact. But as this collection testifies, anyone who has conducted criminological ethnography knows this to be untrue – and the tricky process of ‘getting in, getting on and getting out’, as ethnography is so often characterized, does not necessarily get much easier as one makes the journey from fledgling researcher to ‘quirky professor’ (see Carl, this volume). No matter how ‘established’ we are in our careers, how well connected or experienced, or how resilient we imagine ourselves to be, we all face obstacles (sometimes insurmountable) in the course of our research lives, and we all confront challenges in the analysis and writing-up phases of our studies (Fleetwood, this volume). Yet rarely do we discuss them in our work.

I also put ethnographic research in criminology on trial because, in contrast to many other social sciences, criminology has largely resisted the notion that qualitative inquiry has emotional dimensions, often reflecting aspects of the researcher’s own biography and life experiences. Not only do subjectivity and the self nearly always inflect our research, to the extent where ‘fieldwork is, in part, the discovery of the self through the detour of the other’ (Hunt, 1989: 42) but, when done properly, reflexive, self-attuned ethnography has the capacity to reach and uncover data that we might not otherwise have access to; indeed Liebling (1999) has gone so far as to state that ‘emotions constitute data’ (my emphasis; see also Liebling, 2014, Rowe, 2014). Examples of recent scholarship that illustrate the point – with a frankness that goes well beyond classic sociological studies (Becker, 1967; Merton, 1972) of ‘insider/outsider’ positionalities, or deciding whose side we are on – include Wakeman’s (2014) account of participant observation with heroin and crack cocaine users and dealers, as a former user and dealer himself; the contributions in the 2014 special issue of Qualitative Inquiry 20(4) on ‘Doing prison research differently’; and the chapters in The Pains of Doing Criminological Research, edited by Beyens et al. (2013).

Criminological ethnographers face a multiplicity of emotional challenges, including; being superficially judged by our research participants (Waters, this volume) and our peers, ‘bearing witness’ to the frequently painful experiences of others, and dealing with the intended and unintended consequences of the research after the data has been collected and the research published (Sparks, 2002; see also Liebling, 2014; Reiter, 2014). Such tensions illustrate the contested terrain on which we operate. Typically, though, the researcher does not record their feelings about such matters, or even how they navigated these difficult obstacles (if they do provide such reflection, it is conventionally consigned to an appendix). Their presence in the field is seen as an intrusion, and admissions of fear, anger, shame, disgust, excitement or empathy are understood as being in tension with objective thought, reason, or strategic self-examination (Katz, 2002). Consequently, the process of doing criminological research in all its daunting, exhausting, exhilarating, responsive, opportunistic, on-a-wing-and-a-prayer messiness (words that will never appear on a university ethics application form!) does not feature in written up, published accounts, which is why this special issue on ‘Entering the Field of Criminological Research’ – with its particular emphasis on the relationship between research and self – is so welcome. The articles contained in this issue avowedly reject the possibility of emotionally objective ethnography and discuss how working in criminological settings and listening to the accounts of offenders, victims, politicians and peers inevitably intersect with our own experiences, so that each cannot help but shape our interpretation of the other.

While qualitative research in many criminological fields, including studies of imprisonment, is undeniably enjoying a revival (see, for example, Drake et al., 2015) – if indeed, it ever experienced an eclipse (Wacquant, 2002; Crewe & Jewkes, 2010) – there are many more obstacles to entering the field with a sense of academic freedom than existed when I began my career in the 1990s. University committees that make judgments on the ethical dimensions of our research, government review panels that exist to ensure that our ideas and projects meet their strategic objectives, and funding councils whose ‘dark arts’ decision-making processes can make the pursuit of knowledge seem like a lottery with little chance of success, have all played a part in neutralizing the complex human relationships, potentially risky (or outright dangerous) situations, and emotionally-charged topics that used to be our stock-in-trade. Moreover, the ‘impact’ agenda, which has been embraced by HEFCE and RCUK, and looks set to gain further momentum in the run-up to the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), has made the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake a thing of the past. In the current age, knowledge must be practical, applicable and, ideally, technically useful. More importantly still, this type of knowledge has a monetary value and is generated in order to be sold. The unfortunate result is that those university departments which fail to turn ideas into profit are simply closed down (Ishiyama & Breuning, 2011).

Against this backcloth, there is a sense in which researchers become machines, doing the research, finding the findings, that will be most useful and palatable to the specialist While it is still true that academic scholars write for each other, as well as for our paymasters, we now do so with the specific requirements of the REF in mind, and early career researchers are under particular pressure to abandon all thoughts of quirkiness (which might actually equate to principle and passion) in order to be submitted to a given unit of assessment. This bureaucratization and commodification of our research results in a very particular kind of publicly accessible knowledge, whereby acknowledging emotional investment in one’s research might present a barrier to getting published. As Drake and Harvey (2010) have argued, there is an unspoken understanding that if we disclose the emotions that underpin and inform our work, our colleagues will question its ‘validity’ and perhaps even our suitability to engage effectively in criminological research. In order to ‘get in’, ‘get on’ and ‘move up’ in one’s career as a criminologist, one quickly learns to repress emotions, or at least to express them in language and tones that convey professionalism, not passion.

For me, this is puzzling in a field in which many of us spend our careers studying stigmatized or vulnerable ‘others’ in settings where differential indices of power, authority, vulnerability and despair are felt more keenly than most. Expressions of unease at practices of power and punishment, and desire for separateness from those administering them, more-or-less go with our territory, as Becker remarked back in 1967. Indeed, such feelings are among the reasons why many of us are drawn to the study of deviance, crime, criminalization and punishment in the first place. Yet, once in the field we put these feelings to one side. Writing about prisoners’ auto/biographies, Joe Sim (2004) argues that criminology’s fixation with methodology, objectivity, restrained language and appropriate form means it does not know what to do with prisoners’ reflexive narratives. Equally, it might be argued that these fixations discourage any form of biographical or emotional intrusion by the researcher (Jewkes, 2012, 2014).

For some ethnographers, however, the greatest challenge comes from reconciling the personal contradictions inherent in the process. How do we account for the presences and absences in our research, the unintended consequences, and the fact that the neatly wrapped-up, published presentations of our work are manifestly incomplete (see Preiser, this volume)? How do we resolve the inevitable tensions that arise from positioning ourselves, or being positioned by others, on one side or another? How do criminologists resolve the personal, ethical dilemmas associated with ‘keeping on side’ with gatekeeping officials and authorities (even if only to gain access to the field), while being critical of the structures, processes and organisations that those individuals support? These kinds of issues go to the heart of criminological inquiry and many of us grapple with them constantly in our research lives. On recently being informed by a colleague that something I had written had ‘upset’ some members of a prison estates board at the Ministry of Justice, I assumed I should feel admonished, but I did not. In publicly criticising the design of recently built prisons in England and Wales – these anodyne, ‘value-engineered’, pile-’em-high-and-build-’em-cheap, warehouses that rack and stack medium-security prisoners in high-security conditions (a violation of human rights that is somehow sanitized by the euphemism ‘future-proofing’) – I have found myself in the curious position of being denied access to some of those prisons, while being asked to advise numerous individual and collective stake-holders about how future prisons can be designed and planned differently in order to achieve positive outcomes for prisoners and staff. My belief that those elements of human environment and existence that have transformative power must over-ride the desire for consumption and profit, have not always been popular with the bureaucrats who are answerable to ministers and private share-holders. But neither have they been received kindly by some reformists and abolitionists, who have reductively characterized reform through design as a superficial or futile exercise, akin to applying lipstick to a pig. Furthermore, the idea that the goal of good prison design should be to give prisoners hope of a meaningful future, in order ultimately to drastically reduce the prison population, is sometimes received with ambivalence by those mindful of the promises made to economically lagging communities, such as Wrexham in North Wales, where the new prison due to open in February 2017 will bring over 1,000 jobs and £23million per year to the local area. Our research is often conducted within a political landscape full of potential minefields (Liebling, 2001), but if we do not successfully navigate this awkward terrain, we risk producing partial, irrelevant or even Utopian research that is produced solely for the benefit of a small number of fellow academics (Sim, 2004).

The criminological research process is, then, an inherently personal, political and partial endeavour that involves numerous challenges, including from our own community. For me, objectivity and balance may not only be impossible and impractical goals, but may also be undesirable if these qualities neutralise important issues and lead to what Sim has described as ‘theoretical reductionism and political timidity’ (2004; 113). I have argued elsewhere (Jewkes, 2012; 2014) that a more honest and reflexive approach to qualitative research would provide a benchmark for others trying to process their experiences and feelings about the research they undertake, and this is probably the reason why my plenary at the British Society of Criminology conference was well received by scholars who had recently entered the field for the first time, or were contemplating doing so. The contributions to this special issue are testimony to my belief that emotional experiences can serve as a powerful intellectual resource, resulting in the research experience being positive and ‘unusually life affirming’ (Jewkes 2012: 66).


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