Written by Danica Darley, PhD student in the Department of Sociological Studies
As a fledgling criminologist and social researcher, I spend too much time thinking about the type of research I want to do. Thanks to people like Professor Dick Hobbs, I’ve been able to see how I could use my own experiences to shape the kind of researcher I want to become – one that places human experience (feelings and all) at its heart, whether this is through telling my own stories or those of other people. Stumbling upon ethnographic and auto-ethnographic studies allowed me to see how this could be possible. However, unlike in some of the other social sciences, criminology has often rejected the idea that good qualitative research can involve autoethnographic elements (Jewkes, 2012). Wakeman (2014) argues that the establishment of criminology as a social science led to its preoccupation with objectivity, methodology and systematic ways of knowing. As Jewkes (2012: 65) goes on to highlight, this serves only to “discourage any form of biographical or emotional intrusion by the researcher”. She continues that not only does the academy churn out researchers that are taught to be rational and objective in their approach, any expression of emotion and disclosure of feelings are heavily frowned upon with any signs of self being relegated to field notes. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. More recently, criminologists have come to question the removal of emotion, feelings and passion from their research and many more fascinating stories that involve ‘the self’ have come to the forefront (e.g. Liebling 1999; Ferrell 1999; Phillips and Earle 2010). Earle (2018) suggests that auto-ethnography is a developing area of criminological analysis and that it is uniquely placed to facilitate connections between the researcher and the subject.
It is in this context that I attended the session organised by the Department of Sociological Studies and the Sheffield Methods Institute entitled Ethics and Integrity in Auto-Ethnographic Research at the University of Sheffield. The session was organised to try and unpack some of the thorny issues surrounding the many ethical dilemmas involved in auto-ethnographic research. First up, Dr Steve Wakeman from Liverpool John Moores University discussed his own take on auto-ethnographic work which considers the stories of heroin users from an insider’s perspective. As a former heroin user himself Dr Wakeman approaches his work with ‘an ethics of self-care’. In his presentation, he argued that if we do research that involves our heart and what he calls “biographic-emotive identification”, we can expose ourselves to the potential for over-identification and importantly this can have significant effects on our individual wellbeing as well as on what we learn through the process. As a counter to this, Dr Wakeman suggested the idea of ‘reflexive representation’ to think about auto-ethnography and in particular the ethical challenges that it presents. At its centre, reflexive representation involves telling stories through ourselves, our histories and our emotions. However, getting the balance right of how much reflexive representation we need to do is tricky. Too little reflexive representation and we risk not being true to ourselves, not challenging set practices and convictions and therefore risking our own intellectual integrity. But too much reflexive representation can risk ‘a messiah complex’ where the researcher’s experience is presented as the only experience, which has the potential to devalue other, perhaps different, experiences. This reflection is essential when considering how we can ethically carry out auto-ethnographic work in order to protect ourselves and others in and outside the academy. Dr Wakeman went on to highlight that traditional ethical issues around anonymity can become complex in this type of work as stories are rarely told in isolation.
Next, Dr Rebecca Collins from the University of Chester, spoke about her auto-ethnographic work that examined her own embodied emotional response to being a life drawing model, as well as an artist who draws life models. Dr Collins pointed out that for her one of the ethical challenges in auto-ethnographic work was her ‘double insider status’ which she suggested made her feel doubly fallible and doubly blind to other ways of seeing. She went on to highlight that the process of challenging yourself and reflecting on the whole process is key to understanding and addressing these issues. Interestingly, Dr Collins suggests that in order to do ‘good’ auto-ethnography we need to be prepared to do things that feel difficult, that it’s important to park our own discomfort and challenge our own biases and constructed differences. Dr Collins also emphasised the ethical challenges that auto-ethnographic researchers face around leaving the field – “coming and going and coming back again”. She went on to suggest that in order to navigate this we need to critically think about who we are doing the research for and question what our research environments do for us.
Both Dr Wakeman and Dr Collins reiterated that one of the ethical challenges of auto-ethnographic work is giving yourself permission to make space for you. That it is vital that we understand our mechanisms of self-care and what they look like. Giving ourselves (as researchers) time to think about our own positionality helps with this, considering who am I? Why am I reacting like this? What don’t I want to tell people about me? Am I keeping anything to myself? In order to do truly ethical auto-ethnographic work, respecting who we are and our biographies is vital, but so is communicating the needs that this brings.
Clearly one of the key messages around how we ‘do’ ethics in auto-ethnographic work is the time that must be taken to ensure our work is reflexive. This reflexivity goes hand in hand with the aims of good relational work that prioritises trust and taking the time to develop relationships with those we work with. To ensure auto-ethnographic work is truly ethical, time and care must be taken by all those involved. It is also clear that auto-ethnographic work can lead to more diverse voices being heard, if people are free to study and interpret their own experiences it can only contribute to the democratisation of knowledge. If as institutions of power, the academy really wants to make the changes they purport to, it is perhaps about time we start changing some of the systems that have shaped the way that we do research. An overhaul of the ethics system to create room for a more flexible approach would be a great starting point.
Earle, R.(2018). Convict criminology in England: developments and dilemmas. The
British Journal of Criminology, 58(6), pp.1499-1516.
Ferrell, J. (1999). Cultural criminology. Annual review of sociology, pp.395-418.
Jewkes, Y. (2012). Autoethnography and emotion as intellectual resources: Doing
prison research differently. Qualitative inquiry, 18(1), pp.63-75.
Liebling, A. (1999). Doing research in prison: Breaking the silence? Theoretical
Criminology, 3(2), pp.147-173.
Phillips, C and Earle, R. (2010), ‘Reading Difference Differently: Identity,
Epistemology and Prison Ethnography’, British Journal of Criminology, 50(2), pp.
Wakeman, S. (2014). Fieldwork, biography and emotion: Doing criminological
autoethnography. British Journal of Criminology, 54(5), pp.705-721.