Rod Earle outlines his concerns about aspects of a recent court case in which a judge offered reading advice to a white supremacist criminology student. Drawing on Toni Morrison’s (1993) seminal analysis of whiteness and the literary imagination, Earle suggests the case has alarming implications that have been overlooked and underplayed.
On 31st August 2021 Ben John appeared at Leicester Crown Court to be sentenced for downloading 67,788 documents from Nazi, neo-Nazi and similar white supremacist, antisemitic websites. The documents included information about bomb-making materials and techniques. John had previously been referred to the UK’s counter-terrorism Prevent scheme because he had come to the notice of the police and university authorities at De Montfort University where he was a criminology undergraduate. The police described him as a white supremacist with Nazi sympathies and he was charged with ‘possessing a record of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act.
In court, after considering reports, the judge in the case, Timothy Spencer, a senior resident judge and QC, opted for a two-year custodial sentence, suspended for two years, but it was his remarks to John in court that propelled the case into the newspapers and that should alarm criminologists. Spencer’s characterisation of the 21-year old’s behaviour as ‘an act of teenage folly’ is one thing, but his instruction that John should read more widely and that the judge provided a list of his preferred works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen was another . In passing down his sentence, Spencer instructed that John should be returned to court every four months where he himself would test his understanding of these great authors, remarking: “have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.” (BBC 2021; Richardson 2022)
As the unusual features of the sentence and the judge’s remarks became a news story I was alerted to it by a criminologist endorsing the sentence and the judge’s remarks on social media. For them the sentence was ‘excellent’ because reading such books and being encouraged to ‘really read’ them was far more likely to rehabilitate John than a period of custody. Others appeared to agree that a judge declining to impose an immediate custodial sentence and opting for a particularly ‘creative’ alternative was to be welcomed. I was aghast. The issue of racism had evaporated.
Before becoming a criminologist, as a youth justice practitioner I wrote hundreds of pre-sentence reports for teenagers. I know how difficult it can be, ethically and practically (Evans 2016). On some few occasions in the Crown Court I may have contributed to a surprise non-custodial sentence. Even now, still, as a criminologist that leans toward abolitionism, a small part of me wants to pay tribute to the author of the pre-sentence report if their work contributed to this non-custodial outcome. However, the judge’s remarks suggested a huge can of worms around which the criminological community remained relatively and characteristically silent. As I pointed out in my letter to a national newspaper (Earle 2021) the case clearly raised the issue of white privilege. In courts. In the judiciary. And, by implication, for criminology. It couldn’t be more obvious could it, I thought. A white judge, the white canon of English literature, a white defendant, an issue of white terrorism. Imagine if it had been otherwise and a young Muslim, perhaps named Rafiq Khan, was found to have downloaded thousands of inflammatory documents from ISIS-type and Al Qaeda-related websites. Imagine that this young man had already come to the notice of the police. What books and cultural icons might have sprung into the judges highly trained legal mind as potentially suitable remedies? None, probably. A long custodial sentence and possibly some liberal hand-wringing about a tragic waste of life is the best ‘Rafiq’ could hope for.
In 2008 this imaginary scenario, only worse, came very close to happening. A Muslim student, Rizwaan Sabir, who was reading for a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and an Algerian member of staff, Hicham Yezza, were both arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorism. They were held in custody for seven days in solitary confinement and were eventually released without charge. After a long campaign, supported by no lesser academic figure than Noam Chomsky, the truth emerged. Sabir had downloaded a copy of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual from a US Government website, a publication that was freely available to purchase from Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths and could be loaned via the local library. The police had manipulated the evidence about the 140-page manual in that they misinterpreted the nature of the document to a key witness, Dr Rod Thornton, who was Nottingham University’s in-house academic expert on terrorism and insurgency. In his formal police interview, Thornton was misled by the police into saying that Sabir’s possession of the document was irrelevant to his studies and research. This is because the police told him that Sabir possessed a 5,000-page bomb-making manual known as the Encyclopaedia of Afghan Jihad. Thornton’s statement, acquired through manipulation, was then used by senior officers running the investigation to justify Yezza and Sabir’s arrest (Townsend 2012). After a sustained campaign in support of ‘The Nottingham Two’, and legal proceedings brought by Sabir in 2011, the police were eventually forced to pay £20,000 in compensation to Sabir for his ordeal, apologise for his detention outside his home on suspicion of terrorism, and correct a series of intelligence logs that wrongly claimed he was a convicted terrorist. Characteristically, their internal investigations concluded that no officer was guilty of misconduct and no apology was offered for the way the men had been treated. Sabir went on to complete his studies and a PhD on counter-terrorism, and is now a lecturer in criminology.
What interests me about the John case is that the judge’s ‘affective proximity’ to John, his whiteness, triggered Spencer’s liberal reflexes and paternalistic sentiments, resulting in the extraordinary remarks made in court about the intrinsic virtues of studying a narrow range of iconic English literature (Tickell 2022). And the way some criminologists appeared to identify with this feature of the case above any others. Despite the lethal attacks of white supremacists in the UK, Norway, the USA and New Zealand, and evidence of the rising frequency of racist attacks in the UK and the increasing traction of fascist ideology across Europe, the judge did not fear the man in front of him, did not sense the threats in his actions or the huge reservoirs of racial animosity that sustained him – he felt sorry for him and found him pitiable – he identified with him. As I stated in my letter, if the characteristics of white privilege are sometimes hard to pin down, here was a case where they were self-evident.
Equally problematic was the judge’s identification of a ‘solution’ that mobilised the myth-image of the benign effect of an enlightened (i.e. white) cultural education, and the apparent alignment of some criminologist’s with, and sympathy for, it. His sentence and accompanying remarks are not a ‘creative’ or ‘inventive’ feature to be embraced by criminologists, they are a clear expression of white power. They are profoundly and dangerously reactionary (Mondon and Winter 2020; Buck-Morss 2003). The ideas expressed in the remarks are central to the white liberal imagination and the notion of cultural superiority that propelled 19th century colonialism (Morrison 1993). Racism, and its corollary of race, promotes humanity as divisibly hierarchical with white people and white cultures at the apex. This historic crisis in the narration of what it means to be human recurs again and again within criminal justice systems. Casually reproducing the exclusionary violence of race in the phrases and sentiments expressed by the judge is an appalling act of white privilege in which John was only the most obvious beneficiary. It should have no place in the 21st century, no place in criminology and no place in court (Phillips et al 2022 – forthcoming).
BBC (2021) Ben John: Right-wing extremist gets suspended jail sentence – BBC News [accessed 19/09/21)
Buck-Morss, S (2003) Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left, London. Verso.
Earle (2021) A racist, a judge and a clear case of white privilege | Letters | The Guardian
Evans, J. (2016) ‘Artful Dodgers: The role of unreliable narrators in the production of authorised histories and assessments of young people in conflict with the law’, Deviant Behavior Vol 38:9
Mondon, A and Winter, A. (2020) Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, London. Verso.
Morrison, T. (1993) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, New York. Vintage
Phillips, C., Parmar, A. and Earle, R. (2022) ‘Seeing is Believing: How the layering of race is obscured by ‘white epistemologies’ in the criminal justice field’, Journal of Criminal Justice Education (forthcoming)
Richardson, A. (2022) Angelique Richardson | Reading Sentences · LRB 4 October 2021
Tickell, A. (2022) English Literature, Racism and Rehabilitation – OpenLearn – Open University
Townsend, M. (2012) Police ‘made up’ evidence against Muslim student | Police | The Guardian [accessed 25/11/21)
About the author
Rod Earle works at The Open University where he is a senior lecturer in youth justice in the School of Health Wellbeing and Social Care. He helped to form the BSC Race Matters Network and is a founder member of British Convict Criminology.
[The author acknowledges with thanks the helpful comments and support of the Race Matters Network Co-Chair, Dr Monish Bhatia, Dr Rizwaan Sabir of Liverpool John Moores University in the preparation of this Blog].
Mohwak scholar Taiaiake Alfred has remarked that in settler colonies, reconciliation is another form of re-colonisation. The “reconciliation of Indigenous people to colonialism”, in Alfred’s words, do not challenge structures of power that deny First Nations people substantive rights. We draw on Alfred’s observations to highlight the agenda of Southern Criminology. This increasingly influential school while seeking to engage epistemologies of the South reinscribes colonial relations of power, including colonial hierarchies of knowledge. It does so by uncritically bringing together the North and the South through a working partnership in criminology.
The standpoint of Southern Criminology was recently updated by lead-author Professor Kerry Carrington in the British Society of Criminology blog. A key purpose of the blog is to take to task ‘decolonial theory’ in Criminology by accusing it of essentialising Indigenous knowledges, making unfair criticisms of Western Criminology and presenting ‘crude simplistic critiques of southern criminologies’. Our blog represents a defence of decolonising frameworks. We point out numerous false claims and inconsistencies in Carrington’s blog. Among these are that decolonial theory is ‘negative’. We contend that challenging colonial legacies in criminology is crucial for building more inclusive ideas and praxes.
Colonisation is not a metaphor
Carrington opens her blog by questioning the division of the world between North and South, centre and periphery and/or First and Third World. She claims these demarcations universalise theories of the North to cast the South as backwards. To buck this trend, Southern Criminology advocates for the equal acceptance of the North and the South, in which criminologists accept that the South is not lesser than the North. A move that, according to Carrington, would contribute to cognitive and global justice.
In conceptualising the South, Carrington describes it ‘as a metaphor’ for inequality. The blog does not contend with real power relations where inequality is not a metaphor. We assert this in a similar way to Tuck and Yang’s contention that ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’. Inequality is countenanced in everyday colonial institutions that dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, destroy sacred sites, steal Indigenous children, kill Indigenous people in custody, condone racist policing, deny Indigenous people basic rights and silence Indigenous critiques and systems of knowledge. Unequal power relations have assured that First Nations people are hyperincarcerated across settler colonial societies and that Australia’s Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on the planet.
Carrington’s choice of words, such as North and South, understates past and present structures of oppression. A telling omission in her language (and analysis) is the lack of reference to geo-political divisions of “colonisers and the colonised”. By failing to confront ongoing colonising relationships, the type of ‘Southern Criminology’ Carrington champions cannot challenge this divide. This is highlighted in its main mission to ‘democratize’ knowledge by promoting a partnership between the North and South through simply expanding ‘the repertoire of criminological knowledges’. The blog rejects the proposition that the ‘epistemologies of the south and north, east and west, Indigenous and non-Indigenous’ are ‘dichotomous’ or ‘mutually exclusive spaces or categories’, hence neglecting the colonising dynamics embedded in the construction of the divisions.
A decolonising lens reveals why these differences exist. Blagg and Anthony contend in Decolonising Criminology that the existence of the colonial world and its epistemologies, including its criminological mindset, relies on the colonisation and assimilation of Indigenous people and knowledges. Inferiorising Indigenous peoples and knowledges justifies colonisers’ self-proclaimed superior ideas and intrusive practises. Colonisers regarded Indigenous people as trespassers on their own land to enable settler violence and land take over. Constructs of Indigenous people as outlaws justified frontier massacres and segregation.
Universities are a symptom of colonial forces and their constructs of Indigenous people permeate the academy and research. Criminology in colonised states is preoccupied with identifying, quantifying, explaining, and fixing Indigenous “criminality”. The blog claims that bridges can be built between these approaches of the North and approaches in the South. However, a decolonial lens identifies that the North’s deficit discourse relating to Indigenous people stands at odds with the discourse of sovereignty of Indigenous people and the colonial harms of penal institutions. How can the colonising impetus of the North sit alongside theories of critical resistance and Indigenous self-determination? Conceivably, they cannot. If there are to be attempts at a reconciliation, the terms should be governed by principles of Indigenous self-determination to recognise the legacy of epistemological oppression.
Decolonisation seeks to disrupt the structures and theories of colonisation that are intent on eliminating Indigenous people. Juan Tauri’s decolonising research calls into question Criminology’s ‘veil of scientism’ that perpetuates ‘myth construction’ of Indigenous people’s inferiority and the colonial state’s superiority. Decolonial research has a different agenda (in relation to furthering Indigenous sovereignty and resistance), asks different questions (about the colonial harms of the state and ruling class) and applies decolonising methodologies (that radically critique colonial institutions, elevate the voices and knowledges of Indigenous people and accept different forms of knowledge sharing – song, poetry, art, film, ceremony etc). It supports a post-disciplinary approach in which university disciplines are not the central repository of knowledge production. It also challenges the focus of much of Criminology on policing, surveillance and prisons, and instead recognises that colonial harms against Indigenous people operate in a broader carceral network for which penality is only one site.
Southern Criminology’s false representation of decolonial approaches
Repeatedly through her blog, Carrington accuses ‘post-colonial/decolonial theories’ of reductionism and essentialism. Carrington states, ‘One of the problems with theories of decolonisation, has been the tendency to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’. Carrington cites Cain (2000) to suggest that decolonial critiques of Western Criminology engage with a ‘romanticization of “the other”’. Cain’s article, however, is not an analysis of decolonial thinkers. Rather, it takes aim at the ‘western criminology of orientalism’ because it ‘romanticizes the other’ (Cain 2000, 239); the reverse of what Carrington claims in her blog. The issue of misrepresentation of other’s work arises with Carrington’s use of de Sousa Santos’ work. Carrington also relies on de Sousa Santos (2014: 212) to argue that post-colonial/decolonial theories ‘reify and essentialise concepts, such as Eastern or Indigenous knowledge’ (Carrington’s words, not de Sousa Santos’). However, de Sousa Santos does not state this about post-colonial/decolonial theories. Instead, he identifies this trend in the Global North. In the cited reference, he critiques
both the reified dichotomies among alternative knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge versus scientific knowledge) and the unequal abstract status of different knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge as a valid claim of identity versus scientific knowledge as a valid claim of truth).
Following on from de Sousa Santos, decolonial approaches recognise that Indigenous knowledge – in its multiplicity of forms – is scientific knowledge. It provides a method for understanding the world and for continuing survival. Decolonial approaches can also use the tools of statistics to challenge colonial institutions. The research of Palawa woman and Professor Maggie Walter’s is a testament to this approach. In these ways, decolonial approaches reject that Indigenous knowledge is homogenous, “romantic” or reified – these are all ideas that stem from the Global North. Rather, it recognises the need to reclaim Indigenous knowledges from the melting pot of colonial knowledge and from misappropriation. As Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2008, 62) attests in Decolonizing Methodologies,
[C]olonialism not only meant the imposition of Western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law arid government, but the imposition of Western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures.
We can draw from Carrington’s use of other scholars’ work that misrepresentation can contribute to false claims. There is a high importance for criminologists to accurately present other scholars’ work in order to further knowledge.
Spurious claims of Southern Criminology
To defend Southern Criminology against decolonial approaches, Carrington claims that Blagg and Anthony’s book Decolonising Criminology reference ‘very few Indigenous scholars’. A careful examination of the text demonstrates that the contention is false. There are over 200 publications authored by Indigenous scholars, organisations and people on the ground that are quoted and cited. There would be few Criminology texts that could make this claim. To name a few Indigenous authors across the settler-colonial lands of Australia, Canada, New Zealand: Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Alfred Taiaike, Jackie Huggins, Eve Tuck, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Peta MacGillivray, Pat Dudgeon, Amanda Porter, Jeff Corntassel, Alison Whittaker, Nicole Watson, Juanita Sherwood, Vanessa Davis, Peter Yu, Gallarrwuy Yunupingu, Willie Ermine, Martin Nakata, Sákéj Youngblood Henderson, Renee Linklater, Eddie Cubillo, Moana Jackson, and Ambelin Kwaymullina. By contrast, Carrington makes scant references to Indigenous researchers in her blog and article she and her co-authors’ published in the British Journal of Criminology, including from the country she occupies, Australia.
Not only does Decolonising Criminology reference Indigenous scholars in significant numbers, but more importantly, their ideas are centred – not because the authors reify them, but because they provide new understandings, Indigenous understandings derived from Indigenous lived experience. These have been silenced for over 500 years and, to use the blog’s own words, giving voice represents ‘cognitive justice’. The book is a challenge to criminological research that largely neglects the impacts of penality on Indigenous people and practises of Indigenous resistance and sovereignty. Key ideas in the book include Gaykamangu’s and Gaymarani’s analysis of the relationship between Indigenous and Western laws; Marie Battiste and Sákéj Youngblood Henderson’s notion of Indigenous Knowledge; Larissa Behrendt’s examination of the colonisation of Indigenous women; Audre Simpson’s concept of Indigenous refusal; Irene Watson’s critique of international law in the context of Indigenous sovereignty; Yin Paradies’ analysis of institutional racism and Juan Tauri’s critical examination of restorative justice. Decolonising Criminology includes a foreword by Wiradjuri woman and Pro Vice Chancellor First Nations Engagement, Professor Juanita Sherwood who states (2019, ix), ‘This book challenges the colonial epistemology of one truth and explores the expertise of First Peoples of Australia and their ways of knowing, being and doing regarding their experiences, circumstances and unfair treatment.’
Southern Criminology’s inconsistencies
There are a number of inconsistencies within the Southern Criminology schema and claims as set out by Carrington in the blog.
First, despite arguing that decolonial approaches essentialise Indigenous knowledge, Carrington claims that she herself has adopted a decolonial approach. Indeed, the title of her blog reads, ‘Decolonizing Criminology through the inclusion of epistemologies of the south’. She writes in the blog, ‘the southernizing of criminology pursues practical decolonizing projects’. The attempt to criticise decolonial approaches, on the one hand, and claim them, on the other hand, is inconsistent. It signals Southern Criminology’s gesture of claiming the decolonial space on its own terms while actively marginalising its decolonial and Indigenous detractors.
Second, Carrington criticises scholars who perceive the decolonial limitations of Southern Criminology, on the basis that they publish in ‘privileged journals in United States and England’. She does not appreciate the irony that her seminal piece on Southern Criminology was published in the British Journal of Criminology. In her blog, Carrington prides Southern Criminology on a conference co-hosted with the University of Oxford. With no disrespect to these forums, it is disingenuous to criticise decolonial thinkers who may engage in these forums. It also neglects the journals that are founded or edited by decolonial scholars such as the open-access journals, Decolonization of Criminology and Justice and Journal of Global Indigeneity. In response to Carrington’s claims on this issue, it can be argued that the best place for decolonial and Indigenous scholars to ensure their critique reaches Southern Criminologists is to publish in the journals that they clearly prefer because they do not cite or submit to decolonial or Indigenous journals.
Third, despite Carrington imploring intercultural exchange, she refutes a resurrection of ‘alternative origin stories or “founding fathers”, as some decolonial theorists have done’. Without identifying who these decolonial theorists are or the nature of these origin stories – in other words, without offering evidence to support her claims – these claims amount to an unevidenced rejection of alternative knowledges. Does she intend to demean stories about Country that are passed down by ancestors? Her denial of alternative stories is inconsistent with Southern Criminology’s calls for a cross-pollination of knowledge and perpetuates the dismissal of Indigenous knowledges.
Fourth, the blog suggests that the tendency of ‘theories of decolonisation … to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’ makes invisible the ‘gender of coloniality’. Carrington claims that ‘southern feminisms’ aim to ‘decolonise and democratise feminist theory … by embracing a mosaic of epistemologies’. However, Carrington’s own work eschews the epistemologies of Indigenous women. As discussed in the following section, deep seated concerns by Indigenous women scholars, including Amanda Porter, Crystal McKinnon and Marlene Longbottom, with Carrington’s methods and findings in her numerous publications on women’s police stations have remained unaddressed in her work.
Southern Criminology in practise
Carrington’s recent research on women’s police stations signify the importation of assumptions of the Global North. Far from questioning the role of the police in women’s lives, especially its brutalising impacts on Indigenous women, Carrington seeks to layer gender into police operations. Injecting gender into policing operationalises Carrington’s objectives for Southern Criminology ‘to decenter, democratize and pluralize knowledge by injecting it with knowledge from the south and the periphery’.
Carrington et al assert that the Argentinian model of women’s police stations ‘would be good for Aboriginal women’. She states (2020),
Australia does indeed have much to learn about how women’s police stations respond to and aim to prevent gender violence. If appropriately staffed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous teams trained to work from both gender and culturally sensitive perspectives, police stations designed to specifically respond to gender violence, have the potential to significantly enhance the policing and prevention of gender violence across Australia.
Carrington assumes that place-based practices from one side of the globe can be exported to another side of the globe. This is reminiscent of Western Criminology which applies, for example the family violence model from Duluth, Minnesota (which centres police and courts) to Indigenous people in remote Australia. Conversely, because the women’s police station model is from Argentina, ostensibly part of the ‘good South’, does not make it any more appropriate for Indigenous women. Carrington’s universalising methodology – where all practises from the South can be transferred – is tantamount to essentialising the South. This replicates one of the key critiques of the domination of ‘the North’, which is at the forefront of Southern Criminology, namely its long hegemony over the development and global transfer of theories, policies and interventions.
What this body of research reveals is that Southern Criminology reinstates the penal institutions that threaten Indigenous communities. This is because Southern Criminology ‘is blind to coloniality and, therefore, has yet to break away from criminology’s modern epistemological and ontological underpinnings’, as Eleni Dimou describes. It ignores calls by Indigenous scholars and campaigners to defund police. When Southern Criminology speaks of building bridges in Criminology, it amounts to incorporating elements of the South into the penal structures of the North. It has no regard for the fact that Australian Indigenous women who die in police custody often do so under the watch of women police officers. Women police officers served as the custody supervisors and lockup keepers when Indigenous women Tanya Day, Ms Dhu, and Rebecca Maher died in custody in Australia in recent years.
Confronting oppressive criminal institutions as a pathway to unity
In her blog, Carrington describes decolonising research – which identifies the colonial logic in penal enforcement – as ‘negative decolonial projects’. She claims that they ‘damn all criminologists as “racist”, “westerncentric” “control freaks” on some sort of “bandwagon”’, and once again she does so without providing any evidence to support her assertions. By contrast, Carrington venerates Southern Criminology’s projects for ‘bridging global divides’ and not setting out to ‘denigrate the contribution of metropolitan criminology’.
However, it is racism, its manifestation in Criminology and translation in carceral practices that are divisive and negative. By calling into question the deep-seated precepts of Criminology – namely, the criminality of the ‘Other’, the defence of penal institutions and the righteousness of universalising Western methods – we can imagine a different world. We can imagine a world that promotes collectivity, human rights, and Indigenous self-determination rather than one that depends on exclusion, hierarchy, and racism. A decolonising agenda is based on unifying humanity by dissolving the structures that divide us.
About the authors
Collectively and individually, our research identifies the colonial legacies in penal institutions, criminological thought and the broader carceral network. In our work and activism we seek to decolonise the carceral and criminological agendas so we can move beyond them.
The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. The world changed for all of us.
Victoria Canning is a Senior lecturer at University of Bristol, co-coordinator of European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control, associate director at Border Criminologies, trustee at Statewatch. Violence, harm and torture researcher. Actively against border harms.
I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but this last 18 months has been challenging – not only in the everyday ways we all quickly came to know, but for undertaking empirical research. No doubt many of us pondered if and how Zoom could really replace ‘real life’ interviews. How would focus groups run when it’s hard enough to pull people together pre-pandemic, never mind during enforced isolation? As an activist ethnographer, being pulled from communities I usually work with was a new and fresh kind of research hell – how could I continue authentic critical discussion on border harms if I’m sitting day in day out on my own in what would become an isolated office for 18 months. Yes – it’s fair to say there were layers of problems we were all abruptly presented with, and always in the shadow of the new ‘C’ word and the anxieties it brought with it. Research barriers seemed endless.
Whilst many managed to adapt to the ‘new normal’ (who doesn’t hate that term by now?), there is perhaps now a secondary challenge to consider: going back to the old normal as lockdowns come to an end and the ‘in person’ world begins to open up again.
In this short blog, I will reflect on just that – re-entering the ‘real world’ with a project I am working on in Denmark. It won’t fit everyone’s research, and might even be completely unrelated to yours, but some of the processes may resonate. It was to include a six week stay, epidemiological analysis, and focus groups, all focusing on organizational responses to survivors of sexualized torturous violence. In any case, it is fair to say that nothing turned out like it was supposed to.
Here is a bit of an insight into how things have developed, what fell on its face, and mainly what things have been like since getting back to it. To quote Mary Schmich ‘my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience’, but let’s see how it goes…
Take it easy on yourself
The impacts of both the actual virus and the lockdown have affected everyone. Sure, not everyone has been equally impacted, and some demographics and individuals have been hit harder than others. But the world changed for all of us.
The extent of this change didn’t hit me until I was back in empirical ‘real life’ mode. The project I’m working on is with the Danish Institute Against Torture and was awarded by the British Academy in – wait for it – March 2020. After a long time formulating it with colleagues here, all we wanted to do was get started. Barrier after barrier understandably arose: people could not access the archives to translate the torture files needed for the epidemiological aspect of it. People were hyper busy and, well, dealing with an actualpandemic. Suddenly we were all forced to recognize more was happening than our own bubble (but more on this later).
As soon as I was double vaccinated and likely to travel, planning began. It would now have to be less than six weeks. Focus groups weren’t allowed. Interviews were. In any case, I was desperate to get started – virtual meetings have been great, but (for many people) human interaction needs more than this. Video software increases our own self awareness so rather than natural expressions; it can be a little wooden. When I’m presenting, I want to gauge when I’m making sense, when I’m talking nonsense, and when my Northern Irish dialect has left colleagues stumped. I couldn’t get all that from the virtual world.
After so much anticipation, planning, changing to address barriers, the last thing I anticipated was feeling anxious, a little lost, overwhelmed and – bizarrely – homesick. I’ve never been an anxious person, and probably since my undergraduate degree have never really worried about presenting to crowds. Many people do experience presenting as opposite to this, and many people have experienced or often get anxiety. In short, no matter how relaxed or not that you normally are, be aware that lockdown can change how we feel in public. Confidence, sociability and ability to engage for long periods of time have definitely reduced. Even texting and emailing to arrange meetings, interviews or activities is draining in a way it wasn’t before. Months of reduced contact definitely plays with patience and willingness to be flexible (read: I’ve become a bit of a crank…).
So, the advice here is threefold. Firstly, recognize that this is all fine. We’ve been under utterly bizarre circumstances and dealing with exacerbated work and social stress. Build downtime into schedules where you won’t be prioritizing other people’s time schedules. And make sure to use it. Secondly, don’t over stretch yourself or your schedule. It is tempting to cram as much in as possible we might feel we have lost so many other opportunities and indeed time when some things were put on hold. Some things are more tiring than before – like using facial muscles in conversations that have been hibernating since March 2020. Thirdly, not everything will go to plan, but at this point it is worth realizing that the world will still turn if a few interviews don’t go ahead or some data isn’t useful. Of course, I didn’t apply this to myself at the time, and can confirm you will only end up exhausted and absolutely no further on.
Take it easy on others
It is easy to forget that everyone else has had a tough time, especially if you are relying on others to help with your own work. Things like Zoom fatigue and long covid have not gone away, and anxieties about the use of social space can be felt differentially. What is OK for you is not OK for everyone. Moreover, many sectors experienced intensified workloads, and the shift from online only to dual spaces comes with its own extra energies and time restraints. Plan with people in advance, but keep in mind that everyone is busy in their own way. For those who have lost others during the pandemic, being pushed back to the old normal can have its own issues.
Let’s look at two examples when this advice would have been useful in hindsight. The first was presenting a workshop in September – the first ‘in person’ presentation I had given since March 2020. As mentioned, I’m seldom nervous about presenting my own work. But this occasion – 18 months into isolation – was nerve wracking, stomach churning and sweat inducing… and this was with a friendly crowd! Then the chair (Andrew Jefferson) welcomed everyone to their first workshop in 18 months. I’d been so anxious about being out of practice that I hadn’t stopped to think everyone else is also slowly edging into ‘real life’ too. People were just as cautious, but also enthused to be back in a covid-secure room with their colleagues. (As a side note, if you work with students, keep this in mind – in person events can be a lot to take, even for the most confident of people).
The second example is on using people’s time. Some people I was working with were so busy that only the lunch hour was free. Research is important, but so are working conditions. If a person only has lunch free for actual work (not socializing), they are too busy. It is tempting to force people into activities when your own time is limited, but in a worst case scenario there is now still a chance for discussion online.
A lot of it. The extent to which travel allowances and regulations are changing is difficult enough for governments to keep up with, never mind researchers. Moreover, the complex differences between countries and even regions need specific focus and clearance. In the Danish case for example, the UK was a green area except for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland which is, well, most of the UK. Things like PCR tests changed between regions, and whether or not a locator form was needed was completely unclear. By all accounts, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
The pace of change also may mean that there can be no singular point of contact to ask, so build in time to check around – and really do. Sorting out covid-risk assessments, PCR booking and other travel forms was at least a full day’s work. At the same time remember that it is practically impossible for any one individual administrator to be able to know all this. If you manage teams or researchers, it is a good idea to embed these time requirements into overall planning time. The last thing you will want is a surprise on how much time it takes, or worse – to miss doing a small task that will be required for entry to another country and thus risk the project or time spent on it anyway.
Embed keeping well, and not just in the neoliberal sense
We are all told how important wellbeing and self-care is, even as universities (and many other environments) intensify workloads and reduce our capacities to build looking after ourselves into our working environments (which I have talked about at BSC conferences before).
This doesn’t change the significance of looking after ourselves, or how important it is that we do so as we come out of lockdowns – whenever that may be where you are. Workplaces have an ethical requirement to ensure our wellbeing. Take as much as you can that is of relevance to you, and build in what matters to you most when on fieldwork. I always admire people who can start with early morning yoga and an herbal tea – if that is you, crack on and build it in. I’m much more likely to be found outdoor swimming or staring vacuously at shop windows, internally complaining about the price of things I’ll never buy before opting for a beer in the end. Whatever – just make sure you do it, even if ‘it’ means doing absolutely nothing.
And if and when things get too much, use the systems in place that we often refer students or others to, but don’t always do ourselves. Again, workplaces have an obligation to support you – and so they should. Take what is available if it’s right for you.
Don’t overly sweat barriers and hiccups as much as we all used to
The penultimate piece of advice here is one I never seem to take myself, but swear to do going forward. If we have collectively learned anything, it is that there are much bigger things in the world that can – again in the words of Schmich – ‘blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday’. After such a turbulent era, it’s worth regrouping and thinking about what is realistic, what is essential, and what is unlikely to fit without causing you and others unnecessary stress. If something can be picked up later without causing undue issues, do so. If someone is too busy to meet during a research stay, let them choose a time for a virtual meeting when it suits them later on.
This is especially important if you are in a position of influence and have capacity to make post-lockdown research life easier for others. Collegiality, avoiding unnecessarily short deadlines, ensuring work/life balance should really be how we build going forward. A lot of people have lost, a lot have faced undue anxieties and stress, and a lot of things have changed even if in small ways. People do not need to be bubble wrapped, but we do need time to adjust.
Finally, this meandering blog started with Mary Schmich’s approach to advice. If you haven’t made time to listen to ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ since the late 90s to hear the rest of it, now is as good a time as any. It might even be the most useful advice here.