Conducting qualitative research with informants that have perpetrated violence, whether criminal or political, is not for the faint of heart. Recording stories that include harm to others through violence can be difficult, as indeed can sifting through transcripts of violence during data analysis. The aim of this series of blogs is to begin a conversation regarding some of the challenges researchers may face, and offer some insights that may be of value during the research process.
Firstly, a few words about definitional aspects of violence are in order. As researchers, we often begin to analyse data in our minds before the interview is even complete. Such thought processes can influence our follow up questions and requests for clarification. Indeed, the impressions of meaning we gather during interview can influence our approach to data coding and analysis. Therefore, it is important that researchers are equipped with some insights into types or components of violence. Notwithstanding the complexity of the concept of violence itself, two central aims of violence have been put forward by Imbush (2003). The first is the intentional killing or injuring of individuals through physical violence for the purpose of achieving domination over others. Secondly, psychological violence has the purpose of dominating others through intimidation and fear. This form of violence, ‘aimed at the mind, the soul, the psyche of a person’ (Imbush, 2003:23) is often achieved through the threat of physical violence. Analysis of data on violence perpetrators informs us that there are multiple motivating factors for participants. Toch (1992) identified two types of violence: instrumental violence is that which is used as a means to an end, to obtain financial or political benefit of some kind. Violence can be intentionally designed to achieve a practical outcome, such as the collection of financial debt. Violence could also be used to intimidate witnesses in a trial, dominate a community and ensure that residents are too intimidated to cooperate with law enforcement, or make a specific geographical area ungovernable by the dominant political force. Violence can also be used as a recruiting tool; a spectacular attack has propaganda value. Such violence is instrumental in nature, and as such it communicates planning and careful perpetration. Hostile violence, on the other hand, is that which erupts due to personal disputes and during retaliation, it is ‘undiluted expressions of revenge or destructiveness’ (Toch, 1992:1). Nevertheless, Toch cautions that the tendency to view violence as one type or another, as evidenced by much academic work on the topic, is in error. Toch (1992:2) offers clarity when he argues that ‘Real-life encounters tend to yield eclectic admixtures, composites of goal and rage, purpose and hate, reason and feeling, rationality and irrationality. Instrumental and hostile violence are not only kinds of violence, but also violence qualities or components’. Therefore, in seeking to decipher the motivations for engaging in violent acts, researchers should be open to the complexities of motivation. Actors can be motivated by ideological or personal reasons, and most often by a combination of the two. Such awareness allows the analyst to examine each violent account with an open mind, to identify important themes in each incident and then of course to be able to compare themes across incidents and across transcripts. The point here is that violence perpetration is complex in a variety of ways, and the analyst should be aware of that before she interviews respondents or engages with the data.
It is the unfortunate case that many research projects appear to be designed without significant consideration of the complexities and nuances involved in successful and valid qualitative research. This is especially true when qualitative research is just one element of a multi-method approach. Two issues are essential for consideration: first is how suitable the research topic is for the proposed location. While this may seem very obvious it is a consideration that is often overlooked. Creation of consortia can be structured by the presence of particular academics in various countries, pre-existing relationships between research institutes, centres, and individuals, as well as a need to include specific nationalities and ethnicities, maintain a gender balance, and a host of other reasons. It is foolhardy to design and initiate a research project with an attitude of figuring out access at a later date. Qualitative research does not exist without qualitative data, and data depends on access. Much time, hassle, and indeed money, can be saved by placing access as a central consideration in research design. There are two questions in this regard, first research design must ask if the target population actually exists in all of the proposed locations (communities, cities, states etc). Second, if they do, then what may be a broad viable strategy for accessing the target population. If a project is researching education, health, or sports related topics, for example, then the lack of focus on access may not be problematic. However, in crime related matters, and most especially serious violence such as organised crime or terrorism, access must be a central focus during project design. How foolish would it be to design a project on serial killers and seek to conduct research and access the target group in a city or country with no history of serial killers? The suitability of all locations where qualitative research will be conducted can therefore easily be overlooked. A qualitative researcher can therefore find herself tasked with locating and accessing informants in a country with no significant target group presence.
The second important issue is the development of the qualitative research questionnaire. The success or failure of an interview begins with, and often depends on, the design of a flexible yet comprehensive and informed questionnaire. Of course, an experienced researcher can overcome a poor questionnaire and manage the interview regardless. However, it is better to have a questionnaire that is designed to cover important aspects that the researcher wishes to investigate while still leaving room for flexibility and divergence. Such a design requires significant knowledge of literature on the specific phenomenon being researched. The questionnaire needs to be free, as much as is possible, of biased assumptions to knowledge, must be able to illicit responses on numerous aspects of the respondents lived experience, and must reflect a clear agenda, in this case understanding the motives and drivers for perpetrating political or religious violence. Once again, it is imperative that such questionnaires are designed in consultation with experienced qualitative researchers who are immersed in the subject matter at hand.
As academics we like to see ourselves as rational and teachable, with critical thinking skills. Therefore, when we spend time in intimate discussion with people who appear to be ideologically possessed, it can be more than disconcerting. Indeed, it can challenge our own values of tolerance and objectivity that we strive to maintain in our role as researchers. In other words, it is quite possible that we will not like the person whom we meet, we will not respect their insistence on moral superiority, and we may judge their defence of violence as evidence of their ideological and moral corruption. Writing of her experience researching state violence in Brazil, Huggins states that ‘the researcher working in this field must solicit the accounts of morally indefensible violence perpetrators’ (Huggins et al, 2002:26). The researcher who may not appreciate the moral conviction of people who have perpetrated violence or who may have a naïve and somewhat immature understanding of the power of ideology, can find himself in an insecure and intimidated mental and emotional state during interview. An appreciation of the role of morality in violence causation can assist the researcher in her quest for objectivity and presence of mind during interview.
Violence researchers very often find that perpetrators commit even the most horrendous acts for what they perceive to be moral reasons. Criminologists studying gang crime, organised crime, the night-time economy, and even football hooliganism, concur that much criminal violence is moralistic in nature (Katz, 1988, Hobbs et al 2003, Jacobs & Wright, 2006). In other words, violence is perpetrated in order to enact justice when an individual or group judge that they have been offended against. It is therefore a moral act, an act that delivers justice. Many of us hold strong convictions regarding our conception of justice, whether social justice, criminal justice, or otherwise, and are active in our professional and personal lives to advocate for justice. Justice is an exceptionally powerful concept that elicits strong emotions that leave little room for doubting the righteousness of ones convictions and course of action. As violence researchers, we should not be surprised when we encounter such convictions amongst those who have perpetrated horrendous violence for personal or political gain. If we are properly prepared for such revelations from research participants, and ready to pry and ask them to expand on these themes, we can hopefully gather rich data that allows us to see into the moral reasoning behind decisions to perpetrate violence. We may even discover that in their demands for justice they are just like us, though we should guard against the temptation to think that in different political or social circumstances, we could be just like them. Such speculation will ensure that we miss what makes them unique, and render our quest to understand them mute. Another challenge can be meeting with people with whom we share broad political, social, or religious aims or beliefs. This can be true for the left-wing academic who may be researching left-wing extremism, an Irish Republican researcher researching Irish separatism, or a devout religious researcher working on religious extremism. Researchers with a strong sense of political or religious conviction may even struggle to consider violence by ‘their side’ as real violence at all. Indeed, Dubet (2003:937) states that although researchers may agree that ‘violence is a bad thing…when an act of violence appears to be useful and desirable, it is often difficult to regard it as violence at all’.
These pitfalls speak to the necessity, on the part of the researcher, for a detachment, at least temporarily, from one’s own subjective morality when interviewing people who have committed violent acts. The researcher needs to also strike a balance between otherness and fascination. In other words, due to both the legal and moral barriers that separate the researcher from the researched, the field worker can experience a great distance between herself and her respondent. It can be difficult to envision how to speak across this barrier, how to phrase questions, how to understand the informant. Researchers will do well to keep in mind that the respondent is not a puzzle to be solved, but rather, a human being with a story to tell. On the other hand, researchers, especially those new to the craft, must resist any temptation towards fascination or romanticism of violent perpetrators. Such an attitude similarly creates distance, though this time more of a fog of unreality that leaves little room for objectivity, through which the truth or reality of the persons actions cannot be seen. Remember, the research interviewee is just a human being with a story to tell. Even the most violent perpetrators do not perpetrate violence most of the time. They are people with many of the same interests and concerns as the rest of us, however something propels them to action and they inflict grave harm onto others. It is the researchers job to find that something.
Needless to say, data cannot be violent. Data, for qualitative research, is just words. These words however make up stories, often accounts of disturbing behaviour and attitudes, including violence. Violence is an extremely complex phenomenon that challenges the senses of observers. It asks us many difficult questions, such as what are the motives of the perpetrator, what influence did social or political context exert on the attackers decisions to be violent, and what about mental health, personal dispositions and beliefs or the influence of others. Violence research instructs us that few people fit neatly into the category of victim or perpetrator, with many perpetrators being victimised at some point in their lives. These facts are especially true with what may be termed ordinary or non-political crime. Nevertheless, a case can be made that even with political or religious violence, feelings of victimisation are rife amongst even the most brutal violence perpetrators. These considerations of personal victimisation are key for understanding the motives of political or religiously motivated actors who actively support or perpetrate violence.
Due to the abhorrence that very many people have for violence, it is quite easy, and also tempting, to discuss such insights as simply excuses for violence. However, the qualitative researcher is tasked with understanding events as the interviewee saw them, with understanding the ‘lived experience’ of those she interviews. Such as approach indicates a sophisticated and effective approach to qualitative research and data analysis. It does not indicate an acceptance of the perpetrator’s account as a justified or unavoidable method of political action. To explain is not to excuse, and the qualitative researcher should not avoid explaining out of fear that she will be accused of excusing.
We seek to gain insight into the ‘inner worlds’ of respondents, and that does not only refer to their thoughts or emotions at the time of perpetration. Rather, we must listen to the stories of their lives, their upbringing, the political or religious context within which they grew, their perceptions of personal or community victimisation, their efforts to resolve their issues in non-violent ways, and, finally, how they concluded that violence was acceptable or perhaps unavoidable method for furthering their political or religious aims. It is I think legitimate for the researcher to ask herself: ‘what would I have done instead?’. If the researcher found herself as a catholic youth in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, subject to endemic oppression, state violence, and attacks from a majority community, would she have remained non-violent? Possibly so, and indeed many did in just such circumstances, but many also chose physical force resistance. The point here is that the researcher is obliged to examine the stories of violence perpetrators in detail. It is somewhat disconcerting that Islamist attackers state that western foreign policy is their primary gripe, yet so many analysts want to discuss the mental health of attackers, and so much time and effort is spent by other analysts convincing the reader that, from a mental health perspective, terrorists are no more crazy than the average citizen. Further, the researcher needs to be particularly careful when analysing political violence as narratives on political and religious violence abound in the media, and ‘experts’ provide their testimony on news programs. Further, political parties of all stripes are not shy of offering their particular take on the motivations and moral character of violent actors. It is therefore perfectly natural and indeed expected that the researcher will have a mind full of ideas regarding political violence. To summarise, researchers simply need to listen to what their respondents say, read and reread transcripts, take every sentence seriously, do not assume that she knows what the respondent means. Instead, concentrate on understanding what the story is that they told. This approach of course is practical and no more than common sense, yet it is sometimes missed by researchers.
Dubet, F. (2003). Juvenile and Urban Violence. In, Heitmeyer, W, Hagan, J (eds) International Handbook of Violence Research. Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands
Hobbs, D., Hadfield, P., Lister, S. & Winlow, S. (2003). Bouncers: violence and governance in the night-time economy. Oxford University Press
Huggins, M. K., Haritos-Fatouros, M., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2002). Violence workers: Police torturers and murderers reconstruct Brazilian atrocities. Univ of California Press.
Imbush, P. (2003). The Concept of Violence, in Heitmeyer, W, Hagan, J (eds) International Handbook of Violence Research Vol 2, Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands
Jacobs, B. & Wright, R. (2006). Street Justice: Retaliation in the Criminal Underworld, Cambridge University Press, New York
Katz, J. (1988). Seductions Of Crime, Basic Books, USA
Toch, H. (1992) Violent Men: An Inquiry Into The Psychology of Violence, American Psychological Association, USA