It’s been a few weeks since my last post, but I’m pleased to say that I finally have found some time to write. Recently a fellow Criminology lecturer came up to me and asked “so what are you researching right now”, now whilst that probably seems like an obvious question to ask another academic, it also made me think about the expectation of research and the assumption that we must all be researching something. But should we?
There are many reasons why we do research, and some reading this might think, there is an obvious answer; we are academics and that’s what we do. But this is too simplistic for me and also highly problematic. Being a subject ‘expert’ is now recognised through research grants and research publications, just knowing your subject area isn’t enough. I work with some great colleagues who read nearly all new journal articles in their field, who spend their summers catching up with new monographs and textbooks and yet they carry out little or no research of their own. In my eyes this doesn’t make them any less of an expert, in fact they are up to date on current debates and able to translate these in their teaching. In contrast, I have colleagues who conduct their own research intensively and, as such, have little time keeping up with newly published work. Yes this makes them ‘experts’ on their own topic, but they are often missing the bigger picture and unable to teach the broader discipline.
This brings me on to the next dilemma. Over the last few years Criminological research has grown immensely but in many ways this has proved problematic. Go to any national or international conference and it becomes obvious how niche research has become. In many ways these very specific small scale, localised, often tokenistic, studies have little impact beyond producing academic papers. There appears to be less engagement with the bigger issues, the core concepts and the theoretical foundations that criminology was built upon. This means that research is becoming more fragmented, more specialised and ultimately less impactful. How is it possible to encourage fundamental changes in policy or practice with niche projects? I often wonder if the desire to find the ‘gap’ in research is resulting in, dare I say it, meaningless research.
Maybe my ideas of impactal and purposeful research differ from others, and that’s ok (I hope!). I have sat through many many research papers that are interesting, but very few are groundbreaking. I consider this to be largely a reflection of the problems with REF (something I blogged about previously here) – academics are desperately seeking any opportunity to publish and often at the expense of quality, purposeful research. The demand to conduct research to get those papers and book chapters has resulted in fewer thought provoking and ideologically grounded pieces of work. Furthermore, there is very little that can be done with niche research in terms of policy and practice outcomes. I believe that this is a consequence of the industry rather than the choice of academics, but even so, it’s a path too many people end up taking. The demand for research that can be quickly turned around (i.e. 2 year projects) results in very small, sometimes poor quality, research being undertaken. Maggie Berg’s book ‘The Slow Professor’ illustrates this beautifully (do give it a read if you haven’t done so already), arguing that we need to slow down, take our time and develop work over time. Quick results and quick fixes won’t have lasting change, and from my own perspective long term changes are what are needed in crime and criminal justice.
A further difficulty of criminological research is ensuring that the fieldwork and results benefit those who are offering their time (and sometimes resources) to take part in the projects. Often researchers ‘sell’ their research projects to participants in a way that implies they will benefit either directly or indirectly from it. I don’t really see how this is possible given that much research has no impact other than generating high citation reports. If the only outcome of research is to have other academics read it, to inform their own research or teach students, then how is this benefiting participants in any way? What’s the aim of research if not to make change?
This has made me reflect on my own research and as such I’m taking a new approach. I am standing against the demands of REF and have decided to only do research that can make a real difference. I am going to take my time and develop research projects that will be undertaken over the course of years, not months. I will choose self published research reports over journal articles, I will choose to meet with criminal justice practitioners over academic conferences and I will happily turn down ego driven projects for theory/practice driven ones. More than often the desire to get a research grant is to buy our time, and pay for us to attend prestigious academic conferences. But actually research that is purposeful and impactful can be undertaken successfully over time without the academic bells and whistles attached.
Maybe all we need is to have more confidence and be more pushy. If I can look back in years to come and know that I least I tried to get the people in positions of power to listen and tried to make a difference to people’s lives then I will be satisfied. I know I won’t be satisfied looking back feeling guilty that I’ve wasted people’s time and exploited people’s vulnerable situations just for the purposes of academic acclaim.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this – as always thanks for reading!