17 December 2021

Sights, Sounds and Art keynote speech: A review

Maria Sklavou reviews the recent keynote speech delivered by Dr Jo Deakin (The University of Manchester) as part of the 'Sights, Sounds and Art: New Directions in Criminal Justice Research' seminar series.

Image of Maria Sklavou

‘‘I’m not f’ing doing that!’: Tears, Tantrums and Laughter in Arts-based Participatory Research’ was the keynote speech of the series ‘Sights, Sounds and Art: New Directions in Criminal Justice Research’ hosted by the Centre for Criminological Research (CCR) at the University of Sheffield. The speech was delivered by Dr Jo Deakin (Manchester) and the session was chaired by Dr Mark Brown (Sheffield). I was really looking forward to that keynote address, and it did not disappoint. 

The event took place virtually, due to pandemic-related reasons, but the online environment did not take anything away from a wonderful speech, which served as a great conclusion to an overall insightful and innovative series. The speech tackled a topic of pivotal importance, not just for criminologists, but for all researchers, regardless of disciplines. The main theme running throughout the session was the value of participatory research, with a focus on arts-based methods, particularly insofar as ‘vulnerable’ research participants are concerned. 

Dr Deakin began her presentation by usefully indicating that the session’s title, ‘I’m not f’ing doing that’, speaks to the power struggles that are present in research settings, especially when it comes to researching ‘vulnerable’, hard-to-reach and socially excluded or stigmatised groups. Dr Deakin then challenged the audience to think about how research ‘success’ should be defined, and whose interests research should serve. Importantly, we were prompted to think more critically about the ‘scientific method’ and how far we can adhere to these methods, even where they lack the capacity to explore all the complexities of the relevant topic. This is an insightful point, as the pervasiveness of the scientific method does not often allow room for reflexivity or alternative methods that challenge the power imbalances between ‘researchers’ and ‘research subjects’. In this respect, this presentation was refreshing and important in the broader context of doing research that sees reflexive practice not merely as a solitary act of concern for the researcher’s role in the process but stretches it to include co-operative acts of knowledge co-production by researcher and participants. 

Dr Deakin drew upon three projects that she has worked on, to illustrate the rich, situated knowledge that can be generated by a creative collaboration with research participants: 1) PROMISE, a large European Commission  project looking into the opportunities and barriers of social engagement of youth; 2) Conversations about Radicalisation, a smaller-scale project exploring the experiences of teachers and students regarding the British government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’, an agenda to prevent terrorism and radicalisation; and, 3) MiMEN, another European Commission project, about the experiences of migrant young men in the UK. During the main part of her presentation, Dr Deakin expanded on interesting examples of participatory research stemming from these projects, to not just showcase the value, but also to reflect on the challenges of the framework. Whilst recognising that there is no specific ‘how-to’ guide regarding participatory research, Dr Deakin emphasised that it is important to acknowledge that participants are the ‘experts’ in the issues concerning their own lives, and that, ideally, participation should run throughout a research project, where this is possible, by being incorporated in the stages of collecting data, analysing it, and disseminating it. 

A memorable example of the opportunity provided through participatory research was from the Conversations about Radicalisation project, where an artist created and performed a musical poem based on quotes that emerged from a series of workshops with students and teachers about the government’s counterterrorism ‘Prevent Strategy’. Dr Deakin reflected on how surprising it was to the research team when the poem revealed that the concept of ‘safeguarding’ had positive connotations for teachers, as part of preventative efforts against radicalisation and terrorism, while being perceived negatively by the students, in a context of ‘policing’ and ‘control’. Such findings show the value, not only of arts-based methods, but of participatory research more generally, to shed light on the complexities of participants’ experiences by giving voice to groups who are not frequently ‘heard’ in research settings – such as children, in this case. 

This fantastic session inspired me to draw parallels between Dr Deakin’s insights and my own research, which, among other things, looks at the experiences of persons who are attracted to minors in four different countries. Given that minor-attracted individuals tend to be harshly stigmatised throughout western societies, participatory research can be of great value in giving them voice and unlocking narratives that would be suppressed by ‘objective’ research following only the scientific method. Participatory research has the potential to shift some readily taken for granted assumptions of conventional research. However, it would be interesting to see whether power imbalances, albeit more inherent to the scientific method, can also make their way into participatory research, by, for example, granting the right of participatory engagement to some groups of people but not others. 

Overall, this was the perfect epilogue to a great seminar series by the CCR, which challenged the audience to stretch the boundaries of qualitative research methods and to keep a more open mind about some innovative ways in which research can be done.    

This event was part of the CCR’s new four-part seminar series called ‘Sights, Sounds and Art: New Directions in Criminal Justice Research’. The series is generously funded by the British Society of Criminology and the School of Law, University of Sheffield. It focuses on the use of innovative research methods within criminal justice scholarship. 

About the Author

Maria Sklavou is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, a Graduate Teaching Assistant, and a CCR-PGR representative. Her research takes a social constructionist approach to paedophilia, child sexual abuse, and relevant preventative policy making in the USA, the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. As part of this, she has interviewed persons who work in related professions/organisations, and persons attracted to minors across these four countries. Her aims are to: 1) explore the conceptualisations of paedophilia and CSA, understood as social constructs, 2) propose that paedophilia and CSA can be understood within a preventative policy making milieu, 3) compare the relevant contexts in the four countries, and 4) look at how participants understand these constructs and relevant social contexts, themselves, and their work.