Post by Mary Bosworth, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This post is the first instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Research Methodologies, organised by Mary.
It is no accident that we decided to start our themed blog post series with one on research methodologies. All too often relegated to appendices of books or to the ‘boring bit’ of graduate and undergraduate training, how we do our research, who we do it with and the kinds of decisions we make along the way are, in fact, central to academic inquiry. Most obviously, decisions we make about research methods shape our findings. They also raise a series of compelling, and sometimes, unsettling, ethical and moral questions. For those of us working with vulnerable populations (and who in criminology is not?), such matters can be messy, painful and unnerving. Remaining silent about them can generate personal anxieties and intellectual confusion. What we doing here? What is the point of our work? Are we getting things right?
Discussing how people conducted their study, and the problems, pleasures and frustrations of research reveals a far different picture to that usually offered in academic accounts drawing on the same material. In contrast to the finished product, which, in large part due to the requirements of academic scholarship and publishing, will present findings as though they flowed seamlessly from a set of original ideas executed without trouble in the field, accounts of research methods show a far messier reality. As the posts show this week, when we delve into that mess, we raise important (albeit uncomfortable) questions about ethics, affect and academic purpose.
In my own work in immigration detention centres, I have faced a number of personal and intellectual challenges. Often these have connected to quite fundamental issues. First, and most fundamental, immigration removal centres (IRCs) are difficult places to access. When I first approached the Home Office in 2009, only Alexandra Hall had successfully conducted any independent academic research inside British IRCs, and she had been prevented from interviewing detainees. I was counselled that the Home Office would not entertain any proposal and that I should try to get in via NGOs.
In fact, this advice did not end up being accurate. Instead, I found a willingness to support and facilitate my research that has been unlike most other people’s experience. There are a few reasons I think for this, some of which are methodological, and others of which relate to the pathway I took to requesting access. Although matters are changing, when I first began my detention work, there was no formal route to lodge a research proposal. Unlike the prison service, the detention services, which are part of the Home Office, had no formal structure for considering requests. So I had to set about finding a way to make contact. As a criminologist, I anticipated institutional suspicion and so I sought out contacts who might lead me into the Home Office. Turning to the institution I knew better, the prison service, I contacted former governors who had worked in detention centres and, through them, made my way slowly to the head of the detention estate.
What this strategy meant was that by the time I got to the primary gatekeeper, I had already been vouched for. My initial meetings with these governors also allowed me to sound them out about my research plans. They had all participated in research projects in their institutions, and held views about what would be useful, and feasible, in the detention environment.
It became apparent very early on, that research access would require methodological flexibility. The senior staff I met with first were all keen for an equivalent survey instrument to the one used by the prison service, which, many felt, had been key to the cultural and organisation shift referred to as the ‘Decency Agenda.’ Although I prefer qualitative strategies, civil servants and custody managers are more familiar with statistical evidence. Consequently, I took the decision to combine survey analysis with participant observation and interviews, and developed the Measure of the Quality of Life in Detention (MQLD)
It is difficult to survey people in detention. They are extremely anxious, often angry, and language, as you might expect, can be a serious barrier to communication. Lengthy questionnaires often feel like an imposition; an inadequate tool for those confronting an immediate separation from their loved ones. Under these circumstances, the whole notion of the ‘quality of life’ can seem risible.
And yet, despite such methodological limitations, the survey does differentiate between centres and populations, while shedding light on key aspects of these places. Based, as it is, in ongoing and long-term qualitative research, it is a responsive document in which we can test out ideas developed in partnership with detainees and staff and through which we can maintain a conversation with the Home Office and the private contractors. In so doing, it facilitates another important methodological task: retaining and widening access.
While some research projects may have a natural end, at present it is difficult to see one in this field. The complexity and politicisation of border control require a variety of research strategies. Alongside the survey, I have also been taking photographs, conducting open and structured interviews, and always, hanging around.
Academic study in IRCs is challenging not just because of access. There are also considerable ethical questions. What is the point of our work? What are some of the risks it may pose? Can academic study assist political progress, or will it always be co-opted? Might we damage those who we study, however unintentionally? What about the impact of our study on ourselves?
Unsurprisingly, I have no easy answers about any of these questions. They are, in most respects, applicable to all fields of criminology. We are, as a discipline, particularly dependent on those state agents whose work we critique, for permission to conduct our work. The effect of this relationship on our scholarship is complex. While a simple critique might find the discipline culpable, I think a more nuanced one should consider the longer-term consequences on policy and public debate of nuanced, academic research. The fact is that we cannot understand without some level of participation and engagement. Even so, that involvement comes at a cost.
As the series of posts that will run this week demonstrate, applied research poses many challenges. While some issues may appear to be simply practical or organisational, as the authors discuss, all of the choices that we make in the field have ethical, intellectual and emotional consequences. Sometimes such consequences may take us by surprise. No amount of reading can prepare you for what it feels like when participants cry, or show you their scars, talk about their daughter, yell at you, walk out of an interview, fail to show up, make no sense, are high on drugs, are boring, racist, sexist, off topic, long-winded, funny, friendly, good looking, smell, are from your home town, are children, elderly, and so on.
Sometimes research can be so painful, that we may experience secondary trauma. In the study of border control in particular, this risk is significant. At other times, we might select strategies that we later regret. We may never entirely persuade a suspicious population to trust us. For the most part the posts this week focus on problems. There are however also pleasures and thrills of fieldwork. Perhaps others will write in about those. In any case, as Ines Hasselberg will announce later this week, we would like to encourage researchers to discuss their practical experiences on a new forum we are launching this week. For whether its painful or not, research is always difficult, and sharing our experiences will help.
Themed Week on Research Methodologies:
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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Bosworth, M. (2015) Thinking and Talking about Research Methodologies: Why Should we Bother? Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/research-methodologies/ (Accessed [date]).