Katrin Mueller-Johnson

Katrin Mueller-JohnsonPlease write a bit about your background.

I was born and raised in Berlin in Germany. My father was a bus mechanic, and my mother a civil servant working for the department of education. I loved growing up in Berlin in the late 1980s and 1990s, it was a very exciting place to be. I studied law and psychology at the Free University of Berlin until Masters Level and then left for Oxford for what I thought would be just a single year abroad. However, studying at Oxford opened doors to so many new exciting ideas and academic opportunities that going back to Berlin and settling down to practicing law would have felt like leaving a party early. Instead, I took up a PhD at Cornell University in the USA, where I studied how the knowledge gained from decades of child witness research could be applied to the investigation of elder abuse. This was followed by 15 years at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, where I slowly morphed (arguably) from a legal psychologist into more of a criminologist. In 2019 I returned to Oxford to take up an associate professorship at the Centre for Criminology and now live in Oxford with my husband, my two children (5 and 11 years) and our black cat Minou.

What led you to a career in academia?

When starting university, the idea was that I would become a practicing lawyer.  But during my law studies I grew more and more interested in how the empirical reality of the implementation of legal norms and their consequences matched up with what was intended by the law maker. And in particular I was interested in the intersection between individual decision-making and the law.  Luckily my university had one of the few departments of forensic psychology and psychiatry in the country, and it had a strong focus on victimisation studies, as well as a clinic for child abuse victims. Hooked on these two areas of legal decision-making and victimology, I applied to study psychology in addition to my law studies, and, eventually, I was admitted as the first student at my university to study for both an undergraduate law degree and an undergraduate psychology degree in parallel, and wrote my Masters thesis on an empirical case record analysis of the criminal prosecution and sentencing of child abuse in Berlin. But at this point it still didn’t occur to me that I could possibly have a whole career in academia. That moment came when my social psychology professor, Hubert Feger, gave me my first student research assistant job and later nominated me for a prestigious scholarship that then allowed me to come to Oxford for what was then called the MSt in Legal Research at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. Without his kindness and mentorship I would never have made it into academia. This experience, along with my background as a ‘first-generation academic’ has made me acutely aware of the important role we have in mentoring and in shaping the aspirations and careers of our students and young researchers.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

Over the years I have continued an interest in the eyewitness and earwitness literature, but while at Cambridge I conducted a lot of very applied research with criminal justice practitioners, mainly in the policing field. This led to a greater appreciation of the divide between beautifully controlled, often laboratory based, academic research (which is what legal psychologists typically love) and what is possible to control or achieve in the field (which is why practitioners often don’t use the tools/ procedures that psychologists recommend as best practice). This experience has moved me away from the lab towards more ecologically valid designs. I have continued my interest in victimisation and highly vulnerable groups and extended it little by little to include work on victims of human trafficking and on the effects of poly-victimisation.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I am working on different aspects of online sexual victimisation of children and young people. In one project I am examining cases of youth sexting (i.e. the sending and receiving of self-generated nude images or videos) reported to the police and try to create a typology of the different victim and offender constellations as well as criminal justice outcomes. In another project that I am currently preparing I am looking at the effect that chronic exposure to extreme child sexual abuse imagery has on child abuse investigators and internet content moderators and explore interventions that could help to alleviate symptoms of secondary traumatisation, such as flashbacks.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I enjoy art exhibitions, theatre, cinema, dancing. I also love being in and around the water, particularly scuba diving, wild swimming and, back in the day, I rowed. The highlight of last year, when summer travel was cancelled due to Covid, was the purchase of a couple of kayaks. With these I took my two children up and down the Thames, from Wolvercote down into Oxford, and I have found that there are spots along the river and canals where the blackberry bushes grow so close to the bank that you can pick berries from your boat!

What is the best thing about living/working in Oxford?

 The best thing about living in Oxford is for me the intellectual stimulation. There are so many interesting people from so diverse backgrounds with such intriguing projects and ideas, in the faculty, in college, in every-day non-work community contexts, or even, perhaps most unexpectedly, in the playground (where I still spent a lot of time). I have had fantastic talks with other parents about cutting-edge research while also, of course, keeping half an eye on my son.  I also look forward to the galleries and theatre venues reopening this summer, talks being back in person, and for Oxford cultural life to get going again in its fullness.  Katrin Mueller-Johnson in a kayak

On this page