How can we design and conduct research that explores the relationship between ethnicity and crime? And how can this be carried out comprehensively, ethically and sensitively? How can research on ethnicity and crime avoid perpetuating criminalizing stereotypes and being complicit in reproducing essentialized representations of minority ethnic groups and ‘othering’ them? In the following piece I draw on my experiences on conducting empirical research on British Asian communities and perceptions of crime and the criminalization of British Asian and Black youth.
Issues of ethnic diversity and racism are features of most criminological research questions: minority ethnic groups are disproportionately stopped and searched by the police, victimization is experienced across ethnic groups in uneven ways, processes of criminalization are inextricably linked to racialization, black males are more likely to be imprisoned and the representation of Black and Asian people amongst the criminal justice professions (particularly at senior levels) is strikingly low. Most criminological questions and puzzles need to think about and around ethnicity and racism. Ethnicity also needs to be understood in relation to gender, class and citizenship – all of these factors are woven together and impact upon the lived experience of minority ethnic groups in dynamic ways. The theory of intersectionality suggests that rather than considering factors such as ethnicity and gender independently, it is the interaction between them and the ways in which they reinforce each other that is key.
Trying to represent the group you are researching in a conceptually meaningful way is central to ‘good’ research in this field. Criminology has long been criticised for its inaccurate representation of diversity, for example, the heterogeneity of minority ethnic groups is often masked by the representation of these groups (Asian, Black, White) as being the same internally (Hudson 2008). Criminological statistics and research too often use the term ‘Asian’ thereby obscuring any differences between British Pakistanis, British Bangladeshis and British Indians. Although there may be shared political struggles amongst these groups, the conflation of nationality, language, geography, religion and a vast array of histories into easy categories such as ‘Asian’ or ‘Black’ can present an inaccurate reflection of the different experiences of members belonging to these groups and perpetuate stereotypes and myths of sameness based on physical attributes. Ethnic boundaries are often presented as concrete rather than porous and mixedness is rarely considered in any detail.
My own research on stop and search, showed how important it is to appreciate the nuances of ethnic identity in the experience of British Muslim and British Sikh men, in order to effectively understand the ways in which these groups felt profiled by the police. British Asian Sikhs who were stopped and searched by the police under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 felt as though they were targeted because they were assumed to be Muslim by the police. This and had implications for these groups in terms of their conceptualization of intra ethnic boundaries and notions of belonging and citizenship. It was therefore imperative for my understanding of ethnic categories and my research questions to be able to document such detail. Had I simply asked and categorized my participants as ‘Asian’, this would have been missed. This research showed how ethnic group formation is constantly in flux and ethnic boundaries are constantly negotiated. Ethnic identities and ethnic boundaries are also influenced by citizen’s perceptions of authority and institutions such as the police.
A close understanding of the history of race and racism and the concepts of ethnicity and postcoloniality are important and can inform the ways in which research questions are crafted, framed and asked. For example, scholarship within Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies and English Literature has critically examined the fluidity and mutability of ethnicities as well as other representations of Black and Asian Masculinities which are able to provide key insights to the issues that criminologists address. Human geography has shown how minority groups may perceive their neighbourhoods differently and how experiences of racism can shape such perceptions (Amin 2003). Crossing disciplinary boundaries opens up a rich resource that can furnish your research design and collation with a critical lens and provide a depth to the interpretation and analysis of your findings. Although first time researchers may consider this a hostage to fortune, crossing into different disciplines has been valuable and transformative for my own research frames and methodological design – I have integrated sociological concepts of conviviality, diaspora and cosmopolitanism into my work, adopted a deconstructionist lens and combined it with my empirical findings and learned about how processes of Orientalism and Occidentalism continue to reproduce and fix cultural representations of ‘others’ in society.
In trying to incorporate the above mentioned epistemological thinking and conceptual tools into my research frame, I refrained from using tick box categorizations for ethnicity, and rather, I asked the same participants to describe their ethnic identities at multiple stages of the research process. I was alert to the need to capture intersectional processes as opposed to focussing separately on ethnicity, gender, generation or class. It was the very connections between these social cleavages that I was often most interested in excavating. An understanding of the importance of diaspora enabled me to ask participants questions about their migration histories and trajectories to the UK, which allowed me to better understand feelings of belonging and citizenship and to adopt a transnational lens when thinking about processes of identity formation and masculinities, for example. Notions of hybridity and negotiated identities opened my eyes to capture the interesting ways in which ethnic identities were mutable, contradictory, and playfully subversive. A close reading of the history and dynamic nature of racism ensured that I was alert to the ways in which at the institutional level, social activity could be seen as reproducing existing (racist) structures.
Criminological research on racism and ethnicity has also tended to focus on making comparisons between ethnic groups (e.g. the experience of black offenders and white offenders, black victims and Asian victims) and although this is important work, the binary logic of difference, which dissolves diversity into these differences, is perhaps something that criminologists should look beyond (Hudson 2003). As socio-political concerns for countering terrorism, controlling migrants, violence amongst Black and Asian groups continue to intensify, criminological responses need to perhaps engage more meaningfully and more reflectively with diversity, structural racism and the lived realities of multi-ethnic living in contemporary society.