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Critical Conversations on Criminology and Gender: Innovations in Research

Marian Duggan

In this article, Marian Duggan – the new Chair of the Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network, reflects on our 3rd Annual ‘Critical Conversations in Criminology and Gender’ Event.

Inspired by burgeoning developments in creative and innovative methodologies in criminology, 2019’s annual WCCJ ‘critical conversations’ event showcased an array of innovative ways of doing and communicating criminological research via visual methods, arts and multi-media methods, documents and the positioning of the researcher. While we fore-fronted methodological innovations, the conference reflected a rich feminist tradition of attending to critical issues of power and politics in research. As well as offering opportunities to share knowledge and experiences of using innovative methodologies, we intended that the day also offer opportunities for networking. As incoming Chair, I am delighted to share my reflections on the day’s events with you in this blog.

Approximately 65 attendees congregated at City, University of London. Speakers were invited to step outside of the confines of PowerPoint and were given around 15 minutes to share their research. We were delighted that all accepted the challenge, bringing along films, photos and art-works connected to ongoing projects. Our invited speakers included a mix of committed criminologists and those working in cognate disciplines, as well as a mix of established and early career researchers.

The day was divided into four thematic panels: 1) Film and photo, 2) Arts and multi-media, 3) Words and documents, and 4) Researchers and selves, before finishing up with a critical insight from our Keynote Listener, Dr Emma Wincup (University of Leeds). The day’s events were tweeted out (with presenters’ permission) under the #wccj2019 hashtag to @bsc_wccjn followers. Using these and others’ tweets (particularly those by Stigmatised Sexualities & Sexual Harm Research, @SSSH_research), we bring you this round-up of the day.

In the first panel (film and photo), Dr Wendy Fitzgibbon (University of Leicester) and Dr Camille Stengel (University of Greenwich) shared photos and discussed their use of Photovoice as a research methodology in their respective research projects. The synergies between their studies led them to co-author a journal article which was awarded the WCCJ 2018 Best Paper Prize, so a great start to the day indeed. Photovoice is the method of choice in the project currently being undertaken by Dr Tara Young (Kent) and Dr Susie Hulley (Cambridge) into how joint enterprise is affecting young people. The audience learnt how this creative method was shown to give voice to individuals while increasing their self-worth, proving to be transformative for participants and others who see similar experiences represented in the images. We were also guided on how best to employ the method, with advice including limiting the number of images per participant (to around 10) and having them think carefully when composing the photos. The ethics of such innovations were also covered by speakers, particularly in terms of representation, ownership and respecting anonymity. The final presentation was by Dr Shona Minson (Oxford) who has produced a series of excellent video resources on the impact on children whose mothers are sentenced to prison. Demonstrating how film offers instant communication with target audiences, the presentation was interwoven with snippets from one of the film to indicate how, where, when and why particular strategies had been employed throughout. Ethical considerations were as relevant here too, with issues of power, politics and positionality (of both the researcher and researched) discussed in some depth throughout. Shona highlighted the importance of having ‘buy in’ from participants, particularly those with significant status and authority, to elicit the maximum impact in disseminating the message.

Continuing with the interactive theme, Panel 2 (arts and multi-media) began with Dr Jo Deakin (Manchester) outlining the classroom dynamics of her arts-based research with young people and their thoughts on the Prevent Agenda. This method involved employing poetry writing, drawing, drama and physical games with school-aged young people to gain their trust and foster more open means of communication. Jo showcased several of the drawings produced by participants alongside the narratives they provided before signposting attendees to the online resource: Extremely Safe Radical Preventions. Next up was Dr Magali Peyrefitte (Middlesex) who reflected on her work using objects to open up narratives about migration, belonging and identity. Drawing out the importance of intimacy to her method, Magali described the story circle format she employed and participated in, while also providing pictures of some of the objects which featured in the research. Finally, Dr Fay Dennis (Goldsmiths) provided an interactive presentation whereby she played audio clips of her research participants alongside the pictures they had drawn to explain their experiences of drug taking. This powerful representation of emotion and sensation using image and colour excellently illustrated the additional understanding that can be gleaned beyond text.

After a delicious lunch, Panel 3 (words and documents) began with Dr Alpa Parmer (Oxford) and Dr Coretta Phillips (LSE) outlining their use of oral life history methods to explore race in relation to culture, structure and agency. Important points of note were being aware of what information stays with the researcher once the interview is done, and how sensory experiences can shed greater light on the data being gathered. Next was Dr Tanya Serisier (Birkbeck) who drew on her recently published book about feminism, rape and narrative politics to highlight the prevalence of fairy-tales in published rape memoirs. Finally, Dr Jennifer Fleetwood (Goldsmiths) introduced the audience to innovative research using podcasts, in particular My Favourite Murder, to explore routine, repetition and meaning in women’s first person narratives.

Presenters in panel 4 (researchers and selves) adopted a different approach, reflecting on their positionality in relation to their research and chosen methods. Dr Hannah Mason-Bish (Sussex) drew her recently published paper in which she outlined methodological issues relating to elitism, power and identity in what she termed the ‘elite delusion’. Returning to the earlier discussion of researching with people in positions of authority, Hannah reflected on the insider/outsider dichotomy and how this shapes the research according to how one’s status is interpreted by participants. Discussions of status and transitions in and out of identities and spaces were also key theme in Dr Ross McGarry’s (Liverpool) work on militarised identities and the meaning given to key sites that formed part of the celebrations of Armed Forces Day. The use of public space was also relevant to Dr Alex Fanghanel’s (Greenwich) presentation, which drew on her recently published book into the use of the sexualised female activist body in women’s and animal rights protests. Alex’s reflection on her own ethnographic participation in the research invoked questions about gender, rape culture and positionality. Finally, Rachel Stuart (Kent) ended on a similarly feminist note by discussing her research into webcammers and the access issues that come with researching stigmatised communities.

Dr Emma Wincup accepted our request to close the conference as our Keynote Listener. Emma is a long-standing network member and an expert in qualitative methods and feminist methods. She artfully drew together some of the latent themes and questions of the day, challenging us to think critically about the use of innovative methodologies for doing and communicating research. She reminded us that feminist research approaches, research on women and methodological innovation haven’t always been valued in criminology. Emma especially thanked our presenters for their candid accounts of their work, and sharing what happens when things don’t quite go to plan, as well as the personal commitments, and emotional impacts of doing criminological research. She made two observations about the potential of innovative methods in particular: firstly, their usefulness in ‘making the familiar strange’, both to respondents and ourselves, and secondly, their capacity to open up the seemingly banal or mundane for analysis. Emma concluded by reflecting on some pragmatic considerations in innovative methodologies – these are time consuming modes of data collection and communicating research, demanding new skills, training and collaboration. Furthermore, ethical issues become magnified and more complex. But, as the day’s presentations demonstrate, the kinds of data that can be generated have the capacity to communicate critical issues in novel and important ways.

This event was made possible thanks to the British Society of Criminology’s annual funding of the women’s network and a significant sponsorship from City, University of London’s Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Planning is already under-way for next year’s events. If you would like to join the Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Network, please email our Membership Secretary Dr Emma Milne on e.milne@mdx.ac.uk and provide your details (including up to five research interests) to be added to the WCCJ network database (overseen by Dr Gemma Birkett). Alternatively, to stay in touch and hear news from WCCJ and our members, join the Jisc-mail list. Finally, do take the time to visit our website.

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