Re-engaging with ‘real life’: reflections on empirical research post-lockdown  

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…

  1. 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 actual pandemic. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Expect bureaucracy

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


Luhrmann, Baz. (1999), Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen), Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack, available at Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen – YouTube

Schmich, Mary (1997), Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young, Chicago Tribune, 1st June, 1997, available at Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young – Chicago Tribune.


Victoria Canning, University of Bristol


Twitter: @Vicky_Canning

Images: courtesy of the author

Why Were Prisoners Left Off the Covid-19 Priority Vaccination List?

Despite calls from health experts to prioritise the vaccination of prisoners, the UK’s punitive society prevented putting prisoners above law-abiding citizens.

Rosie Judd is a Politics and International Studies graduate from the University of Warwick with an interest in social politics. Her studies have focused on understanding how societal opinions govern day-to-day policy matters, particularly in light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 vaccination programme presented a difficult challenge to the UK justice and punishment system: where do prisoners fit in our public health policy? For many, such a conversation was about the absolute health of inmates. Prisons were viewed as hotbed climates with porous borders that required the priority vaccination of inmates for their, and public, safety. Indeed, previous infectious outbreaks in prisons demonstrate the severity of prison walls.

However, where health experts were arguably naïve was their assumption that the vaccination list was simply a health matter. Rather, the list was a convergence of health and crime and punishment, which in our punitive society, meant that prisoners would not be put above law-abiding citizens. Really, no matter the strength of the health argument (which was strong), ideas on crime and justice triumphed. So, rather than discussing why prisoners should have received the vaccine first, it is more useful to understand exactly why prisoners could not be prioritisied.

First, is how we characterise prisoners. In today’s punitive society we adopt a harsh view on criminals. They are stereotyped as unruly, dangerous, career offenders who keep such labels even once they have served their punishment. With such labelling, punishment is more commonly administrated through i) retribution; where offenders morally deserve a penalty, and ii) incapacitation; where the prisoner is removed so they do not pose a threat to the public. There are other aims of punishment, such as rehabilitation, but these are subordinated to more penal aims. This punitive landscape is well evidenced by the steep increase in prison populations, where despite crime rates falling we still decide criminals need to be locked away.

Second, is what the aim of the punishment is. Today, society demands criminal justice is for our benefit, at the expense of what is best for prisoners’ own improvements. For example, we do not lock away prisoners to primarily help them, but to make us feel safe. Naturally, punishment and justice policy may have benefits to prisoners. However, this is a secondary thought to how law-abiding citizens benefit from the decision.

Third, is who directs prisoner characterisation and the focus of punishment. Notably, the public has increasingly demanded, or taken interest in seeing, expressive punishment. We view crime as an incredibly personal, emotional experience and therefore want to be involved in both how justice is administrated and how it affects us. Our inflated belief that crime is a national epidemic means that we demand harsher punishments too.  Of course, it is important to remember that these opinions are heavily shaped by the media. Given we care about these issues based on our personal consumption of them (i.e. the way we feel they will affect us), how the media directs us to think about crime will impact our attitudes. Therefore, with over-reporting of violent and sexual crimes to stories of ‘soft prison life’, the media is guilty of scaremongering the public and shaping their penal demands.

However, why exactly does public opinion on crime and punishment matter? For there are other matters we have opinions on but do not drive policy on as much. Fundamentally, the public has a key role in crime. We need to report crime, act as witnesses and jurors, or provide evidence, without which would undermine the success of our punishment and justice system.  Public trust is required to ensure we fulfil our roles, so it is vital that the government responds to public expectations of the system. Additionally, the government will serve public interest for electoral success. For contemporary politicians, punishment and justice policy is the opportunity to prove they will ‘get things done’ and act in favour of public interest.

So, today then we have a punitive criminal justice system which: i) constructs criminals as dangerous, ii) prioritises law-abiding citizens and iii) listens to public demand over expert advice. We have a society divided by ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the ‘law-abiding’ and the ‘criminal’ – in which there is a clear order of preference. When health experts tried to argue that prisoners should be prioritised, this was asking us to completely overturn today’s attitude on crime and punishment. First, how we depict criminals would have to be based on vulnerability and hardship. Second, what the focus of crime and punishment is would have to prioritise criminals over law-abiding citizens. Third, who drives such decisions would have to be led by experts not the media and public.

Problematically, such changes are arguably difficult to induce and without these changes prisoners were never going to be prioritisied for a Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, even though the government did not actually prioritise prisoners, inflamed media coverage of the idea demonstrates the impossibility of the proposal. The government is not in a place yet to forgo public opinion on justice and punishment.

So yes, the Covid-19 vaccination programme was always going to require prioritisation. But no, deciding the list was not a simple health exercise. Rather, the vaccination list was the convergence of ideas on health and crime and punishment, which in our punitive society generates a contrast to serve the helpless and punish the contemptible. It was such an intersection that health experts failed to properly acknowledge and therefore why their bid for prisoner priority vaccination was never successful.

As a concluding thought, note the impact of failing to prioritise prisoners. With a lack of vaccines prisoners have been stripped of nearly all their opportunities: seeing family, undertaking education, and general day-to-day interaction. A report by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons found most prisoners have spent over 90% of their time behind their cell door, with disturbing levels of well-being decline. Of course, law-abiding citizens have faced enormous restraints on livelihoods too. However, we must remember that such dramatic prisoner restrictions have risked indefinite rehabilitation failures – crossing the line between Covid-19 prevention and ensuring offenders re-enter society as better citizens. Failing to prioritise prisoners, not only illustrated exactly what our criminal justice system is but reinforced the dwindling focus on rehabilitation we have in this country.


Rosie Judd, Warwick University


Photographs courtesy of author 

Bend or Break: Resilience in Pandemic Policing

A reflection on the Centre for Police Research and Learning annual conference about resilience in policing and publics.

Dillon Ashmore

Dillon Ashmore is a second-year student and research assistant at the Hague University of Applied Sciences studying Safety and Security Management Studies. Dillon’s research interests include policing, intelligence and criminalistics.

The Covid-19 Pandemic presented a new type of critical incident to police globally that included several unprecedented elements, namely its reach, its uncertainty, and the legal implications of the restrictions related to it. In addition to these elements, due to their close contact with members of the public, the police were at a heightened risk of exposure to Covid-19. This risk, due to the nature of police roles as maintainers of public order and servants to the local community was unavoidable and complicated policing.  Moreover, the expansion of police responsibilities beyond the aforementioned traditional roles to include working with the government to contain the spread of the virus further sapped police resources and capabilities. This adversity, navigating a complex health crisis with additional responsibility, challenged the police’s capabilities to not only respond in the short term to the scenario but also rebound strengthened and more resourceful. In essence, policing during the Covid-19 Pandemic was characterised by a need for resilience. 

The relationship between the police and resilience was the focal point of this year’s Centre for Policing Research and Learning’s annual conference, “Resilience in Policing and Public” hosted by the Open University. For three days, from April 26th to April 29th, a host of guest speakers explored and explained the multifaceted effects of the pandemic on the police and every dimension of this institution including its organisational structure, its workforce and operational policing. These speakers came from both policing and academia, a combination that enhanced the various talking points throughout the conference with experience and research.  As a student of Safety and Security Management, the notion of resilience is of particular interest to me. Not only does it signify an emerging approach to risk management that contrasts mitigation, it also, as described by Gooren (2019) urges safety and security professionals to pay attention to their organisation’s core purpose and integrity. These values are often compromised by safety and security but in disturbances such as the current pandemic, they are revitalised which can lead to quality improvements of the system they belong to. Thus, in attending this conference I had an opportunity to greater understand resilience within the police system through observing collaboration between police and academics using critical challenge and the exploration of research ideas and evidence. In this article I will reflect on the conference, the talks it entailed and how it expanded my knowledge of policing and resiliency on a holistic level.

The first day of the conference focused on the challenges faced by the police force in the early days of the pandemic in England and Wales. To police it in a unified manner the police forces throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland adopted a ‘one UK policing approach’. To accommodate this, the multiple frameworks within the UK’s police were standardised to ensure a one-fold police response was maintained. Policing the pandemic, codenamed Operation TALLA was then characterised by the ‘4 E’s’ approach. This approach determined how the police interacted with the public through engaging, explaining, encouraging and as a last resort, enforcing Covid-19 restrictions. Theoretically the 4 E’s guided police on how to conduct Covid related activities however it was not without its issues. Primarily there was a lack of clarity provided to staff as to where the police stood with regards to legislation, regulation, and guidance. The failure to articulate the differences between the three to officers created confusion and consequently the enforcement of protocols that were guidance rather than legislation, for instance, the maintenance of a two-metre distance between those out in public. Consequently, the media coverage of those involved in policing the pandemic disproportionately focused on the mistakes and confusion of the police rather than their successes.

Additionally, the adoption of new legislation, regulation, and guidance by the government at an unprecedented rate meant that the police were operating in a sophisticated yet hectic political environment, one which they were inadequately prepared for. As described by Chair of the National Police Chief’s Council, Martin Hewitt, the chaos and confusion amidst the pandemic demanded the police to abandon, adapt, accelerate, and adopt new approaches to policing. This demand for the police to absorb and persist through the adversity it faced characterises resilience. The police illustrated resiliency through the maintenance of professional relationships on all levels, the collection and distribution of data, maintenance of public engagement and public confidence in addition to officers demonstrating proactivity through the rapid adaption of internet communication systems into their modus operandi. These adaptations undertaken by the police during the pandemic are consistent with what Bonnano and Diminich (2012) label as emergent resilience, where favourable adjustments emerge in the face of chronically aversive circumstances.

The second day of the conference progressed with the theme of resiliency but deviated from analysing it solely through the lens of the pandemic and approached it from the lens of climate change. The first speaker of the day DCC Julian Moss of the West Mercia Police Force discussed the lessons his force had learned from previous floods in his home county and those which surrounded it. These lessons he argued can be adapted to other crises including the current pandemic. Among those lessons, he emphasised the importance for the police to draw on their previous experiences for learning and training, after all, history is the greatest teacher. Moreover, playing to your strengths and refusing to accept poor performance are also important in responding to an unfolding crisis. However, above all else, DCC Moss stressed that the police must expect the unexpected, which is a tenet of resilience.

This talk was followed by a discussion with Neil Edwards on the criminogenic factors that are induced by climate change and how they impact policing in the UK.  Edwards explained that climate change will increase the emergence of criminogenic factors including heat stress, insecurity, uncertainty, and fragmentation in years to come. This is an issue that has already been explored by academics including South and Brisman who predict that rising sea levels will trigger mass immigration into regions including Northern Europe which consequently intensifies the fear of crime and public disorder in these countries. Moreover, the increased focus on environmental crimes will change the repertoire of crimes, their structure and subsequently the corresponding legal framework. The consequences of this are predicted to be increased individual, group, corporate and state crime, which will all put pressure on existing police resources. In addition to these plenary presentations, several sessions ran parallel to each other on the topics of mental health and wellbeing of emergency responders in the UK, the consequences of organisational injustice, and social media resilience and policing. Each of these talks, despite tackling different topics, were connected through the emphasis of the conference’s focus on resilience in the police and policing scholarship.

The final day of the conference focused on organisational resilience within the police force. Several speakers approached the topic from a plethora of directions for instance Dame Stella Manzie explored it from the perspective of adaptability whereas Jean Heartley approached it in the context of the political interface between the police and formal governance. Both approaches highlighted the demand for resilience and adaptation within the police. In addition to these, Dame Manzie addressed the existing threats to resilience within the police: change without consultation, lack of resources and lack of visibility. However, what stood out to me the most was the discussion led by Paul Walley on how improvement science can be utilised to build resilience in the police. Improvement science as a concept focuses on the methods and theories which can be applied to create improvement consistently. This concept, Walley proposes, can be used within the police to contribute towards resilience by developing problem-solving and solution implementation capabilities. This would be achieved through the implementation of Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles which would offer practitioners a structured approach to understanding problems and locating solutions. What resonated with me about this topic is how it pushes an organisation to its extremes. How I understand this is that improvement science explores how to reduce the gap between what is actual and what is achievable. Additionally, the constant focus on exploring ‘what works’ was of interest to me as it coincides with the cliché “there’s always room for improvement”.

As the conference drew to a close, I reflected on it in its entirety. The keynotes, presentations and research projects not only illustrated the resiliency demonstrated by the police from both an academic and practical perspective but also the underlying issues the pandemic brought to the surface. The presentation of both academic and practical perspectives was a selling point for me in attending the conference as it made it very applied in nature. Moreover, the information conveyed at the conference contributed to enhancing my understanding of resilience and how it is relative to the fields of safety and security. Reflecting on the conference I would say that I understand resilience as something which can be defined as both a process and an outcome. In defining it as a process, the capabilities of resilience are dictated by the degree to which it is endorsed by the police. It is tied to the police’s mission and sense of purpose in addition to their sphere of control. The former is imperative as without them the resilience of frontline officers who rely on that sense of mission and purpose would be eroded. Similarly, there will be many things outside of an officer’s control and it is important to emphasise that the focus should be on that which they can control otherwise energy will be expended and the capacity of the police drained. Thus, in maintaining a sense of mission, purpose and establishing spheres of control, the police can foster agency-wide resilience.  When interpreted as an outcome, the police force can be seen to have been resilient as it evidences good outcomes in the face of adversity. Keeping in line with this interpretation, the police ‘bouncing back’ to their former level of functioning in the face of the Covid-19 demonstrates resilience. Regardless of how resilience is interpreted, it is clear to me that during the Covid-19 pandemic it was demonstrated as both a process and an outcome that ensured the police force bent but did not break.

Dillon Ashmore, Faculty of Public Management, Law and Safety, The Hague University Of Applied Sciences  

Photos courtesy: author and Tim Dennell – Police asking if journeys are essential during lockdown.Coronavirus Album: