(2001) 41, 421–430
ALLEGIANCE AND AMBIVALENCE
Some Dilemmas in Researching
Disorder and Violence
AL I S O N LI EB L I NG and BETSY STAN KO *
This issue arises from our deep commitment to criminological research and the need for honest accounts of its complexity and emotional intricacy. We wished to share, with neophyte researchers but also with others, some of the dilemmas we have faced and what these dilemmas signify. We aimed to encourage those who have embarked on difficult and sensitive research topics to reflect upon, and find meaning in, their own dilemmas.
As scholars, new and experienced, we write about actions that cause the suffering of many individuals—law breakers, law enforcers and victims. Yet by and large, we criminologists are professionals whose task is to observe and analyse account after account of the kinds of havoc individuals, groups or the state mete out. We are expected to do so in objective and reasonable prose, often discarding the turmoil encountered as irrelevant and standing in the way of the data. We rarely consider that such turmoil constitute data
(Liebling 1999; and see Pickering, this issue). We face moral turmoil, as we witness or become part of, scenes of violence, struggle or maltreatment. Why is there so little dialogue on these matters? Haines and Sutton (2000) writing in this journal have likened criminology to a ‘secular religion’ that should be characterized as a paradigm with a moral discourse. The authors assert that ‘all work—our own included—has a religious or moral dimension’ (Haines and Sutton 2000: 147). With this we agree. But both of us have come to understand that no matter what our individual reputations in criminology as a discipline1 we cannot avoid squalid politics and ethical predicaments when researching crime and violence.
Some criminologists may wonder why others are affected by the unhappy subjects we choose to study. In a presentation a few years ago, a leading criminologist mused that he could have been a professional bird watcher rather than a student of crime. At the time,
Stanko envied this criminologist’s honesty when he admitted that the substance of criminology seemed to him uncontroversial and apolitical. Of course, bird watchers must get worked up about the deterioration of the environment that affect the life and happiness of feathered creatures. There are probably more people with membership of animal and bird welfare organizations in the UK than criminologists in the world. But somehow bird watchers can be uncontroversial voyeurs of birds because it is pleasurable.
Although some criminologists have been accused of being voyeurs of others’ suffering, the controversy about politics and the emotional toll of criminal harm never seem far
* Respectively, Senior Research Associate, Cambridge Institute of Criminology, UK; Professor of Criminology, Royal Holloway,
University of London.
Stanko is known as a feminist advocate; Liebling is known as a relatively tame critic of the prison, albeit one whose choices of research topic might belie this image.
© the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD) 2001
LIEBLING AND STANKO
behind. What is wrong with us that we have had sleepless nights from doing the kind of work we do?
This issue had its inception in a seminar for researchers of violence sponsored by the
ESRC Violence Research Programme in April 1999. Throughout this seminar, we assumed that the kinds of experiences we have had as researchers—sleepless nights, encounters with danger, problems with articulating what violence means to different people in different contexts—were common to all. Many of the funded projects on the
ESRC’s programme raised methodological issues few researchers have addressed or resolved in print. How does a researcher safely and accurately collect information about violence and prostitution while conducting interviews with working women in the