A response to the accusations and returning to academic freedom

This week I published a new post, it was nothing more than a thought piece about how we refer to people in our research. This post received largely positive feedback (thank you to those for your messages of support) but it also received some extremely harsh accusations, which I would like to respond to. I do not believe Twitter is the platform for debates (especially with the number of keyboard warriors out there) but I believe I have the right to respond in a professional manner. I’m first going to address the accusations made about my post and then I want to address the bigger issue here, academic freedom.

I’m going to address each accusation separately, starting with the first that said I accused convict criminology of ignoring the harms of stigmatisation.
Nowhere in my post did I suggest anything of the sort. I said that whilst we teach that labels such as offender or convict can be stigmatising, they are embraced voluntarily by a group of academics for a positive purpose. My exact words in the post were “they own that label, and that is their right”. Labels are used by different people in different ways. I also acknowledged that some academics who have criminal convictions choose not to identify as a convict criminologist, again that is their right.

The second accusation was that I implied academics have no right to fight the corners of people they research.
I am very offended with this accusation. I have been researching crime and criminal justice for over 17 years now and feel privileged to be able to use research to help the hidden voices be heard. I never wrote anything of the sort in the post. What I said was that any terminology used to describe people we research should be agreed with participants, we should ask them how they want to be defined. This is done widely by many but there are still researchers who fail to ask participants how they identify themselves.

The third accusation is that I have denied academics the right to define themselves the way they want.
At no point did I say that or imply that. I said people have the right to define themselves any way they choose. But academics do not have the right to define or label their participants without asking participants how they want to be defined.

The fourth accusation is that I suggested academics have not consulted people they advocating change for.
Again this is a huge misinterpretation. I did say that many academics want to advocate generic changes without always consulting the people those changes applied to. I used the example of the label prisoner because in my experience some prisoners are comfortable with this term whilst in prison. My point was that everyone we research is an individual and we shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to be labelled the same. There are academics out there who do apply labels without consulting people, but I didn’t want to suggest this applied to all academics.

The final accusation was that I suggested academics had no right in advocating for different terms to be used.
Again this is not what I said. What I said was that, if advocating, then it should be based on the wishes of those people the terms apply to. I didn’t say this wasn’t happening, I just said it is something academics should consider if they don’t already.

Overall my post has been misinterpreted and as such misrepresented. In my brief response a couple of days ago I stated the key point of the post was that we need to ensure we give participants the power to label themselves and then ensure our research outputs mirror their chosen identity. Whilst many academics do it already, I wanted to use the post to question how many of us actually ask participants how they would like to be referred to in the outputs. That was it. There was no malice, merely pointing out an aspect of how we use labels in our research and scholarship. As I said before in the post, and I will say again, people have the right to define themselves any way they want.

So that’s my response to the accusations made. Whilst I didn’t need to respond, I felt it was important to have my say and defend my post. The accusations played on my mind a lot and one reason was the manner in which I felt attacked on Twitter, personally. The comments probably weren’t meant to be personal but they came across that way. I chose to create an anonymous blog for precisely these reasons. In criminology it can be really difficult to put a thought out there or say something controversial without getting a barrage of abuse on the back of it or be judged on a personal level. But I am a person, a person who feels offended by the accusations and mostly the, seemingly, aggressive manner in which the accusations were written.

The suggestion that I was bad mouthing convict criminology and belittling the work of academics could have a detrimental impact on my career had this blog not been anonymous. This is particularly worrying given that the accusations were wrong. But you see, once it’s out there, seen by hundreds on social media it is really difficult to defend yourself. This puts people like me, on the receiving end of such Twitter hatred in a vulnerable position. I mentioned early on in this post that I had received a lot of support for my post, which is true, but more than that, I received kind messages from people sympathising with the way in which it was responded to. Other criminologists shared with me times that people had publicly attacked their academic work on Twitter, told them they were wrong, and suggested their experiences didn’t matter.

This to me is the bigger problem. I have seen it happen at conferences too and it appears to be a growing problem. The absolute joy of academia is academic freedom. The freedom to research interesting areas of society, the freedom to ask challenging questions and the freedom to write. With that freedom comes debate, but it should be healthy, supportive debate. Even if we don’t always agree with someone’s work, we should always respect each other for at least trying to uncover new knowledge or find solutions to problems. The blatant attacking of people’s research at conferences, the nasty responses on Twitter, the demoralising reviewer comments are not healthy. They are not what academia was built upon. You can be supportive of people even if you disagree, this is what we teach our students. If my students treated one other the way some criminologists treat each other I would be appalled. We teach critical thinking, dignity and respect in my classes, it’s shame not all criminologists practice it. I have had colleagues cry on my shoulder at conferences because of the way another academic has spoken to them. I have had colleagues go on sick leave because of things said to them about their work. We don’t always get it right, our research isn’t always flawless and our ideas are never perfected, but we are all trying. We are trying to answer the big questions, we are trying to offer solutions to social problems, we are trying to be good at our jobs. So why can’t we all support each other in that, why can’t we respect each other for that and ultimately why can’t we just be nice to each other?

Thank you for taking time to read this post, it was difficult to write and I am truly sad and concerned about the way academics turn on each other. It is making me rethink whether there is a place for blogging criminologist as what has happened goes against everything this blog was designed for. So to finish off my post I just want to say thank you to all my supportive, inspiring and caring colleagues. Thank you to all of you who have provided such great engagement with my blog over the last two years. I’m going to take a well deserved break this summer, and I hope all my followers have a fun filled summer free from guilt and free from academic politics.

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2 thoughts on “A response to the accusations and returning to academic freedom

  1. Hi and I’m sorry to be bit late to the fray here, and that things have got frayed. I don’t want to add to the confusion or the antagonisms but feel I have something to contribute since I sometimes ply my trade under the banner of convict criminology. In that respect I was disappointed that you did not reference my book about convict criminology because I invest within it some intellectual time and energy exploring the vexatious terminology of convict criminology. I know it’s bit of an academic cliche to wail ‘didn’t you read what I wrote about bla blah blah’ but convict criminology suffers somewhat from having a reputation of being little more than a label, and a troublesome one at that. Part of the motivation to write it was to put a bit more meat on its bones so that people engaging with the concept and the practice would have a bit more to go on, particularly on this side of the Atlantic where it is a smaller and younger grouping of quite diverse individuals.
    One of the distinctions worth making is that it is a term (convict criminology) that tends to be adopted by people who have been to sent to prison, rather than having been sentenced in other ways for a crime or crimes. There are, inevitably, arguments about the validity of this distinction, but for me it is the deprivation of liberty and serving time in the most iconic of penal institutions, the prison, that makes a bit of a significant difference. I didn’t get much sense of that at all from your first post.
    I have just had an article published (on-line, advance) in the British Journal of Criminology, in which I try to extend and develop some of the issues you touch on in your blog. If you are interested in these issues I do hope you will read it, and I would be happy to discuss them.
    I am sorry to hear about the antagonistic aspects of the traffic your blog has attracted and all I can offer by way of consolation is that the resounding silence that has greeted my book is perhaps less injurious but equally dispiriting. It matters what we read, how we read and who we read, but the conversations that should and could follow can be poorly served by the kind of distance and anonymity that blogs can foster. So, while I am glad to see Convict Criminology being talked about, I am sorry it has generated more heat than light. For anyone interested in further discussion or exploration of the terminology, I welcome comments or correspondence on the ideas advanced in my book or the BJC article. If getting hold of the article is a problem, I am happy to forward a pdf copy on request. Contact me at r.earle@open.ac.uk

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  2. Hi Rod
    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree that the original post didn’t discuss the distinction of the convict criminology network, this wasn’t intended to come across as ignorant (apologies if it did). The purpose of the post wasn’t about convict criminology, hence why no reference to any literature was given (yet this small part of it received the most attention). I was trying to use it as a example of where terminology that can be negative in some contexts can be positive in others and that people identify themselves in different ways. Clearly, this was the wrong example to use given what happened! I look forward to reading your article, it sounds like exactly the sort of piece I would find interesting. You would always be welcome to write a post for the blog, it certainly isn’t my place to write a post on convict criminology.

    The post was a thinking out-loud piece on how people use, reject and accept terminology in different ways. None of my posts are ever designed to be anything more than this. The blog is my outlet for thinking, and all the posts are just my thoughts based on experience. The topics I write about are just ideas or reflections, the blog is my space to think out-loud. I never use the blog as a kind of substitute for academic writing (I do enough of that every day), it’s reflexive writing and sharing my perspective of working as an academic in criminology.

    I always welcome discussion on my thoughts (it’s the fun bit of academia), but on this occasion it was more than critical discussion, I was accused of saying things I didn’t say and it led to some on Twitter even name calling me. As I said in the response post, this is precisely the reason why it is anonymous, its a space for free thinking and discussion.

    Thank you again for your response, I hope I have explained why the post was written the way it was. I look forward to reading your new article.

    Warmest regards

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