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.

References

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.

Contact

Victoria Canning, University of Bristol

Email: Victoria.canning@bristol.ac.uk

Twitter: @Vicky_Canning

Images: courtesy of the author

Refugee Week 2021

The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary.

https://refugeeweek.org.uk/

This year’s refugee week begins today, 14th June 2021 with the theme ‘we cannot walk alone’. The aim is to encourage all of us to reach out and help someone new. This week is close to my heart as border criminology is one of my key research interests. I am strongly committed to impactful research, activism and contributing my time and resources to helping refugees and making those fleeing persecution feel welcome in the UK’s hostile environment. As the resident border criminologist, I want to introduce Refugee Week activities at the University of Northampton but also to suggest how we can help ensure nobody walks alone.

The University of Northampton is hosting a week of talks in conjunction with Northampton Town of Sanctuary. Beginning on Monday at 2pm we welcome Gulwali Passarlay who fled Afghanistan at the age of 12, travelling alone through 8 countries to the UK where he was eventually granted asylum. Having spent the last few years interviewing, supporting and advocating for refugees I have heard many stories of survival. No two have been the same but each shares such painful paths that I cannot imagine. Each time I hear a refugee speak about the situations they fled I feel humbled, and grateful that despite its array of flaws, the UK is safe. In our Outsiders module, students were recently asked to challenge assumptions of minority groups. Hearing the stories of refugees from the mouths of refugees is enough to shatter any assumptions, rhetoric and media narratives about those fleeing persecution so for those who have undertaken or will sit the module next year this is a must!

On Tuesday 15th June at 2pm there will be an introduction and update to the City of Sanctuary movement.  Being a City (or Town) of Sanctuary means committing to becoming a place which welcomes those seeking safety. The movement extends to universities, many of which offer Sanctuary Scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees. The Northampton Town of Sanctuary movement wants the University of Northampton to become a University of Sanctuary. Dependents of asylum applicants who arrive in the UK as children, go to school and college here, make friends, speak English, and have GCSEs and A-levels, are then unable to continue in their education as they would be liable to pay international student fees. Asylum seekers currently receive £39.63 per week from the government and are prohibited from seeking employment. They are not entitled to student finance. They are at the end of the road, forced to sit quietly and wait for the letter to come through their door with a decision.

In my own research, many of the asylum seekers I interviewed had been in the asylum process for years. For those who arrived as children and attended school here, once they left college and all their friends were going to university, they were left behind with nothing to do. This had enormous impact on their mental health and their sense of identity. They hid their asylum-seeking identity from their friends in fear of judgement, creating false narratives about who they were. This was often due to past experience of xenophobic abuse after disclosing their immigration status at school. Upon leaving school they would further advance these false narratives, making up stories about why they were not working or going to university. Just one of the people I interviewed managed to secure a Sanctuary Scholarship, despite many of them submitting applications. Having seen the impacts of exclusion from higher education, I want to see every university being a University of Sanctuary, but let’s start with the University of Northampton.

The third talk of the week is delivered by Emma Harrison from IMIX, an organisation which delivers valuable work in changing the conversation around migration and refugees. We’ve all seen the headlines and media reports of ‘illegal immigrants’ (the term ‘illegal immigrant’ infuriates me but that’s another future blog). We’ve heard Priti Patel’s plans to overhaul the ‘broken’ immigration system. The plans include further criminalisation of people seeking safety, avoiding death, rape, persecution, war; and extreme sentencing rules for those who help them reach a place of safety. The media and political rhetoric are relentless and a change in the conversation is desperately needed. I often feel hopeless about my work, that the work of myself and other border criminologists falls on deaf ears. I was at a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote was discussing the abolition of immigration detention. Immigration detention is pointless and harmful and research outputs have been good at pointing out the harms but perhaps we need to tell them what they want to hear: immigration detention is a pointless waste of money. I am looking forward to listening and hope I can pick up some tips to alter the way I communicate findings to different audiences. This talk is on Wednesday 16th June at 2pm.

The final talk of the week is delivered by a representative from the British Red Cross on Friday 18th June at 11am. The British Red Cross do a range of invaluable work from practical support such as supplying clothing and food, to finding missing family members of people seeking sanctuary. The talk will be focussed on the work the organisation does in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire during the pandemic. One of the first things I intend to do when I move to Northampton is to familiarise myself with the local service provision for refugees and asylum seekers and get involved so for me this will be a good place to start.

I encourage all our students to attend at least one of these events. They are all virtual so you could even listen while you sunbathe in the park. To attend, please email Nick who will forward a link. For our students who are interested in supporting refugees, we have a Student Action for Refugees branch at the university who coordinate student efforts to help refugees. There are many other ways we can all contribute to making sure people do not ‘walk alone’. We can read books such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains or The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, or watch one of the films free on the British Film Institute’s Refugee Week event. We can have conversations with others and try to think about what refugees might be going through. Next time you see a news report about a conflict talk about what you would do in that situation, what belongings you would take, which of your family would you leave behind? Having conversations such as these helps to build empathy and compassion. We can go further to challenge racist and xenophobic assumptions. I often ask, ‘what is your fear?’ to which I can invariably rationally explain why whatever they disclose will not materialise. Do one, all or some of these things. But I implore you to do SOMETHING to contribute not only to Refugee Week but to making the UK a more welcoming place.

Article posted by amycortvriend

Originally posted on Thoughts From the Criminology Team and reposted with permission.

After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author