11 November 2021

The Sounds of Criminal Justice

Natalie Christian reviews the recent panel discussion titled ‘The Sounds of Criminal Justice’ organised by the Centre for Criminological Research.

Image of Natalie Christian

The Sounds of Criminal Justice’ was the second event in a series being held by the Centre for Criminological Research (CCR), exploring how sights, sounds and the art can be utilised in innovative criminal justice research. This was the first hybrid event in the series with both in-person attendees and a number of people watching via Zoom. The event was chaired by Dr Lindsey Rice (Sheffield) and the panellists were Dr Leila Ullrich (Queen Mary's), Dr Kate Herrity (Cambridge) and Dr Mark Brown (Sheffield). Having faced challenges with my own PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic, only being able to have limited face-to-face contact with participants, I was particularly interested in this event to assess how I could better employ technology to overcome methodological difficulties.  

First, Dr Leila Ullrich delivered a presentation exploring knowledge production through WhatsApp surveys. She discussed how this research was developed due to frustrations with the lack of bottom-up, qualitative research with refugees in Lebanon. Participants were sent survey questions via voice notes and discussed their perspectives on their safety, individual needs, social relationships and their visions of the future. Dr Ullrich explained that using WhatsApp for research required a greater level of listening: to background noises, to tone of voice, to emotion and to different voices otherwise marginalised. This increased the depth of interaction with participants and lead to increased inclusivity for those struggling with literacy, who were on the move or displaced. Participants were also able to participate on more equal terms, as knowledge producers, since they could speak without interruption and steer their own narrative. WhatsApp is a potentially powerful tool for conducting research as it is easy to forward information to large networks, researchers can keep in touch with participants over a longer period of time and it is also open to the visual. Using WhatsApp was also viewed as a positive by many participants who had anxiety around paper, not just because it is a valuable resource, but due to the fact it is more formal and there is a certain gravity that comes with putting something on paper. This made me think about my own research with criminalised women who have experienced domestic abuse and the worries surrounding having their story on paper. For example, it may be distressing for these women to see their story written out or there may be a fear of an abuser finding documentation.

Dr Kate Herrity was next to present on listening to power in prisons. Dr Herrity’s presentation centred on an aural ethnography at HMP Midtown, with the aim of analysing the prison soundscape and what this can tell us about how power operates in prisons. Dr Herrity described how the unusual nature of HMP Midtown added an interesting layer to the research. Due to the old architecture, single wing and use of a bell to mark points in the daily prison regime, sounds were more easily felt as vibrations. Dr Herrity drew attention here to the work of Dr Laura Kelly-Corless on the experience of deaf people in prison. Focusing on sounds within the prison extends beyond vision but also gives a sense of space and as much as sounds can remind someone where they are, they can also remind a person where they are not. Dr Herrity also referred to hauntology, a framework deployed by Dr Mike Fiddler in the previous seminar in this series. Hauntology reflects upon how ‘spectres’ or spirits of an alternate or ‘lost’ future might affect current or past discourse and recognises such ‘haunting’ has great impact. Dr Herrity considered this with regards to whether smell, taste, cold and sound transverse time, space, memory and being and acknowledged people in prison may be haunted by their past, present and future. By foregrounding sound, we can open ourselves to new ways of considering violence (both symbolic and literal) within prisons, as well as operations of power and how this understanding affects our ideas of order. As part of my research, I have been interviewing criminalised women about their experiences of domestic abuse and it may be interesting for me to review transcripts to see if any of the women refer to certain smells, tastes or sounds within this or whether they perhaps identify with the idea of being haunted by a ‘lost’ future. 

Finally, Dr Mark Brown presented on sensory deprivation and considered whether sound is enough within research. Dr Brown reflected on the potential benefits and limitations of remote research, drawing upon his research team’s use of voice technologies in undertaking a cross-national, multi-site, remote research project during the COVID-19 pandemic. This research comprised of an evaluation of crime prevention and criminal justice programming in West and Central Asia. Dr Brown discussed some of the complications surrounding voice technology, detailing that during this research he had to rely on phone conversations and voice notes rather than video calls due to low bandwidth. Listening was a central feature of the research and on occasions Dr Brown joined participants’ team meetings in order to listen and make sense of the situation. In the case of Dr Brown’s research, utilising voice technology had some benefits for logistics and security and meant gaining access to otherwise off-limits areas was possible and participants were afforded a greater level of protection and anonymity as they were ‘not seen to be talking’. However, during the research, burnout was common and there were problems with rapport. Even though some areas became more accessible, others became less so and researchers experienced residual conflict. Dr Brown also described the difficulties associated with researching something that you can only hear and cannot see and added that such methods were perhaps more suited to higher level research objectives where perceptual data is adequate. I was grateful to Dr Brown for his honest reflections on what it is like to conduct research in uncertain and difficult situations.

All three presentations offered great insight into how we can better appreciate the ‘sounds of criminal justice’ and employ listening technologies to our benefit as researchers. What I took away from this event was also the need to listen to what is happening beyond the talking and that appreciating and giving thought to background noise or other sounds of note may enrich future research. In terms of incorporating technology beneficially within my own research, I certainly think using voice notes may be seen by participants as more user friendly and convenient. The use of voice notes seem to lend itself to more of an ongoing conversation, negating the need to be in the same location or take a long period out of the day to be interviewed. 

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. More information on this series can be found here. 

About the Author

Natalie Christian is a third year PhD student within the School of Law at Sheffield University. Her thesis focuses on domestic abuse and desistance from crime. As part of this research, she has commenced interviewing practitioners in both the public and third sector as well as women with lived experience of domestic abuse and the criminal justice system. This is in order to explore the relationship between criminalised women’s experiences of domestic abuse and how such experiences might shape or impact their journey to desistance.

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