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

BSC Blog of the Year Award 2020

A discussion by the 2020 Blog Award winners, hosted by the 2018 winner Lambros Fatsis.

The following interview was originally intended and recorded as a podcast for The British Society of Criminology. The aim was to celebrate the British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award 2020 that the interviewees (Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham) and their colleagues (Elizabeth Cook and Keir Irwin-Rogers) won, for Violence in Our Cities; a blog article that is based on the authors’ chapters in a recently-published book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope. Due to technical glitches and errors, however, our original interview failed to materialise— much to our dismay. What follows therefore, is a discussion in written form between Anthony Ellis and Luke Billingham, with Lambros Fatsis who won the first-ever British Society of Criminology Blog of the Year Award in 2018. While such interviews are usually conducted and hosted by Helen Jones from the British Society of Criminology, this brazen hijacking or take-over was envisaged as an opportunity for the BSC’s Blog of the Year Award winners to talk and listen to each other.  

LF:I would like to start by teasing out your reflections on violence in the light of the recent anti-police protests- following the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as well as the most recent wave of #BLM protests, by asking you to tell us more about how or if you make sense of such events as what you describe in the blog as a crisis of ‘mattering’

A&L: I think ‘mattering’ is an important concept and we speak in the blog of a ‘crisis of mattering’. I think this is potentially applicable to not just the young men from poor inner-city areas who are the ones largely caught up in the violence in our cities that we discussed, but groups across the globe united by their precarious circumstances and their disposability. The BLM movement is partly a reflection of this – of knowing that the system does not value or care for you. We cited French Philosopher, Alain Badiou, in the blog, who speaks of vast swathes of people across the globe who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’. Capital effectively no longer requires their labour nor even their recognition necessarily; it does not care about them, and automation, particularly the rapid and dramatic shift towards this during the Covid-19 pandemic, signals perhaps a further drift into this situation of a ‘crisis of mattering’. Because, let’s face it, capitalism knew before Covid-19 that it could effectively operate without certain forms of labour. So now this has started to take place, can we seriously expect that it will reinstate them in a post-Covid future? Will the experience and trauma of the pandemic usher in a new era of social conscience, empathy and care? I really hope it can because the evidence is mounting now that the extreme inequality that has grown in the past several decades cannot continue without increasing the risks of social disorder and breakdown. For me though, it further confirms what Winlow and Hall described several years ago in their book ‘Rethinking Social Exclusion’ where capitalism in its advanced technologically-driven state, now seems to be utterly incapable of absorbing some groups into the productive process. Yet, the truth is that many members of excluded populations, including the young men fighting and dying on the streets of our cities, largely remain absorbed in – through attachment to consumer culture – the very system that has basically stuck two fingers up at them. So, for me, we see a strange dyad between exclusion and inclusion behind this crisis of mattering. The pandemic is like a spark to a pile of wood doused in flammable liquid. The arrival of Covid-19 into the corrupt unjust world created by zombie neoliberalism is, for now, pushing us further into an interregnum where we wait for something else to appear or to emerge, but all the while we must face the unrest that this generates.  

L.F:What I found really interesting in your blog was the way you centred and focused on gendered and sexual violence in the home as a form and type of violence that hardly made noisy headlines, compared to the so-called ‘knife crime’ epidemic that you discuss at length in the piece. Can you tell us a bit more about that, especially following recent and belated awakenings to the reality of violence against women- following the murder of Sarah Everard and the policing of the vigils that were organised in her memory?

A&L: Our co-author, Lizzie Cook, has recently co-written an interesting and important piece addressing this which we referred to in the blog, in particular the idea that the knife is out of place in public and therefore becomes subject to much more attention and concerted attempts to exert control over it. In contrast to its functional place within the home for preparing food for example. The home is of course the very place where, evidence tells us, women are more at risk of violence. And while domestic violence receives greater attention from the state and criminology than it did historically, the knife crime epidemic is another example of the tendency to direct attention towards more visible violence particularly taking place amongst the ‘usual suspects’ – young, poor, working class males. But, simultaneously, the paradoxical element to that was how attention has been drawn to what austerity and inequality have done to parts of English cities, like London, which is important and needs to be given attention. What I personally find depressing and unfortunate about that though is that the evident damage of austerity, or what Vicki Cooper and David Whyte called ‘the violence of austerity’, has not led to any significant political resistance against it. Even now, as we assess the economic wreckage of Covid-19, talk of future austerity measures, the need for fiscal discipline and ‘how will we pay for this?’ dominates the agenda of mainstream politics. Even many supposedly on the political Left, who equate the harms of austerity as partly causative of the recent rise in serious violence and a driving factor in the recruitment of vulnerable young people into illicit markets, still talk the economic language of neoliberalism.   

But coming back to the issue of violence in the home, I think we can see elements of the paradoxical tendency that we allude to in the blog. For instance, the knife crime epidemic becomes a problem of certain ‘estates’, communities or groups, often young ethnic minority males, and therefore becomes geographically and socially limited in scope. Those city spaces and groups come to exist beyond the periphery of civility, they become regarded as barbarous zones and people. Yet, we know from the evidence that domestic dwellings can be incredibly violent and sites of multiple forms of harm. However, the home is rarely regarded in the same way as particular parts of our large cities. Similarly, the domestic homes’ role in contributing towards the violence on our streets is often not fully acknowledged either. For some of the men I have interviewed, for example, violence begins at home, in the shape of intimates, often fathers, that attempt to toughen them up, that tell them to steel themselves against a merciless, unforgiving world.

LF: I was also wondering about your thoughts on where we look for violence and the harms and dangers of such selectivity; given that we seem to be bothered only by certain kinds of violence rather than others. State and police violence for example is seldom seen or read as violence but as a response to violence so I was wondering if your current and future work addresses that question at all?

A&L: I think this speaks to the core paradox at the heart of human violence and the question of social order. Philosopher Vittorio Buffachi wrote several years ago that ‘if violence is the problem, it is also the solution’. Similarly, Rene Girard and Jean Pierre Dupuy draw attention to the often neglected and taken for granted issue of what becomes known as ‘good’ violence and ‘bad’ violence. This is incredibly difficult to comprehend because we become accustomed to focusing upon the ‘bad’ violence committed by the groups we focused upon in the blog and often do not fully acknowledge what becomes regarded as the ‘necessary’ or ‘good’ violence. In reality, states are capable of inflicting much greater harm upon society than the young men we were concerned with in our blog. The irony here is that despite claims from scholars like Steven Pinker that our ‘better angels’ now hold sway over us, humans have come to possess in recent decades and in this recent era of ‘peace’, the means to inflict violence on an unprecedented scale. In this irony lies the potential for complacency and this is a real danger to us and our collective future.             

LF: You also briefly allude to progressive and fairer futures in your blog article and –having a soft spot for the realisation of utopias; as a shameless abolitionist– I was wondering if you could bring some light and hope to this session by giving us some examples of what such a fairer and more progressive vision looks like to you?

A&L: In our contribution to the book we spoke about what you might call more smaller scale changes that could be introduced in the immediate term. We suggested England and Wales could learn much from Scotland’s, and other states’, public health approach to addressing violence, which seems to have had some success. But this relies on real political will and also perseverance. The demand for immediate results in politics often undermines initiatives that in the long-term could provide much better results and outcomes. Beyond these kinds of interventions, there is of course the opportunity for utopian thinking and the Covid-19 pandemic should act as a catalyst for thinking deeply about the kind of society we want to live in. We need to look at political economic solutions for not just violence, but the range of challenges we face: future pandemics, climate change, for example. For me the cat is now out of the bag in regards to the capabilities of the state to respond to social and health problems: in particular, the absurdity of the oft-used analogy of household finances to explain government spending. An analogy used frequently to justify the cruelty of austerity. Economist Pavlena Tcherneva wrote recently in her book ‘The Case for a Job Guarantee’ that when people ask how can we pay for a programme like this, or how can we fund a green low-carbon future, or how can we end poverty, we must always answer: ‘the same way we paid for the pandemic’. Neoliberalism is on the ropes again, its legitimacy really is in tatters as it has proven once again unable to effectively respond to social problems and there are murmurings of discontent and acceptance of the need for change at the macro level, even amongst previously staunch advocates of it, such as the chair of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab. Strangely, the issue remains, can we actually land the decisive blow and move forward with a more progressive and fairer agenda?   

LF: Thank you both for such richly stimulating responses to my questions and I hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I did. As a concluding coda, I wanted to end with a reflection plucked from the work of the always brilliant June Jordan whose reflections on violence chime well, I think, with your own thoughts on the matter: ‘Extremity demands, and justifies, extreme response’, Jordan writes, adding that ‘[v]iolation teaches violence. Less than that, less than a scream or a fist, less than the absolute cessation of normal events in the lock of abnormal duress is a lie and, worse than that, it is blasphemous ridicule of the self’. 

Dr. Anthony Ellis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford and the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence, which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.

Luke Billingham is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and a violence reduction researcher at the Open University. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people

(Dr.) Lambros Fatsis is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author of Policing the Pandemic (with Melayna Lamb) and Public and their Platforms (with Mark Carrigan).

‘Crime and Harm: Challenges of Social and Global Justice?

The conference has, at its centre, themes that are amongst the most pressing for criminologists (and society): the harm/crime interface; gendered harms; reflecting on justice in light of Black Lives Matter; and decolonisation.

Looking ahead to the annual BSC conference at the Open University

As we hurtle towards the start of this year’s conference, we thought it would be a good idea to spend a little time introducing it and signalling what is to come.

We are confident that this will be an exciting, innovative, and timely exposition and exploration of many important and pressing issues. Naturally, our planning and thinking around the conference has been heavily influenced by events over the past eighteen months – in terms of its online delivery, and the areas of focus. The conference has, at its centre, themes that are amongst the most pressing for criminologists (and society): the harm/crime interface; gendered harms; reflecting on justice in light of Black Lives Matter; and decolonisation. These themes are also closely linked to much of the curriculum and research at The Open University, which has always been critical and pioneering, as well as the enduring social justice and equality mission at the heart of the institution.

Our initial expectations for the conference have already been surpassed through the fantastic response we have received from our plenary speakers, our presenters, and those just wanting to attend. We are grateful for the support and enthusiasm we have received for the conference. We are delighted to have a diverse set of plenary speakers, all of whom are internationally renowned in their respective fields of teaching and research. These speakers will be presenting from locations across the globe – from the UK, Australia, and the USA, to Hong Kong, Canada, and various countries in Europe.

It goes without saying that hosting the conference this year has come with a number of challenges, and the wider circumstances have required us to adapt in terms of moving to online delivery and dealing with the difficulties this has thrown up. This seems apt given the nature of The Open University and our focus on online delivery of programmes – albeit, within a blended model of teaching. Yet, it has still been a challenge in terms of how best to organise and run such a large and complicated conference online.

We hope the product of our efforts will prove to be a rich and stimulating three days. While much of the conference programme illustrates a tight connection with the conference themes, the diversity of topics and disciplinary backgrounds within these parameters remains remarkable. So too is the mix between some well-established names in the field, up and coming early career researchers, and those just beginning to dip their toes in conference waters.

We have five plenary sessions (one on each conference theme, plus a postgraduate one), seven sessions for papers (encompassing up to fourteen rooms per session), a postgraduate workshop, various publisher stands and activities, and many activities within the dedicated networks session.  There will be a special edited edition of the CCJ in the run up to the conference and a special journal edition from the BSC published from papers presented at the event.

While the fully online nature of this year’s event may preclude the traditional face-to-face opportunities to meet, catch-up and network over food and drinks, we very much hope there will be plenty of spaces to establish new connections and relationships throughout the duration of the conference. Beyond the serious academic stuff, we have a range of fun social activities built into our programme, ranging from ‘Crim Dine With Me’, to live music, and a magic routine! Clearly, we cannot quite hope to match the fun and frolics that have characterised previous BSC conferences, but we have at least invested energy into making the social side of the conference just as memorable as the academic discussions.

We plan to post a more substantial follow-up piece following the event, to reflect upon the key messages and next steps, so please do look out for that.

For now, thank you in advance to everyone for taking part in this year’s conference — we very much look forward to welcoming you!

Tony Murphy and Keir Irwin-Rogers

(on behalf of the OU organising team)

For information about the conference please see the BSC website