Setting knowledge free

Dr Ella Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, tells us about a unique research project collaborating with undergraduate students and former offenders.

Criminology is an (inter)discipline which has often been guilty of leaving out some of the most important voices in the study of crime. The stories of offenders have been dismissed or misrepresented and the views of experts privileged over witnesses and victims of crime. Traditionally, the voices of criminology undergraduates have also been left out of research and they have been expected to act as bystanders at the scene of the crime rather than active investigators in their own learning.

In the last couple of decades this orthodoxy has begun to shift. The advent of convict criminology (Ross and Richards, 2003) has brought the important knowledge of former prisoners into the academy (for example, Earle, 2016; Honeywell, 2021) and collaborative pedagogies in Higher Education have seen a ‘students as researchers' approach begin to gain ground (Walkington, 2015; Sandes et al., 2006), including in the study of offender experience (Deary et al., 2011).

The Criminology team at Bath Spa, with its diversity of practitioner, academic and pedagogic knowledge, has been a keen champion of these types of collaborative scholarship. In the most recent academic year, the team was given the opportunity to create a unique group research project that draws together the insights of a former offender with the developing research skills of undergraduate students, guided by academic staff experienced in the theory and practice of criminal justice.

Investigating the barriers to engaging with the creative economy

The project was initiated by Professor Kate Pullinger, Director of Bath Spa's Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries (CCCI). The Centre presented the initial research question and the financial support to investigate the barriers to engaging with the creative economy in the South West of England.

Dr Ella Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Bath Spa, took the lead for the Criminology team, designing a research project that sat within an existing Level 6 module, Narratives of Crime. The research specifically addressed the barriers to employment in the creative industries encountered by former offenders and used a narrative case study methodology to explore how barriers (and opportunities) to employment were narratively constructed by a single, former prisoner, Tajah Stevens, who is currently studying and working in film and TV in the South West Region.

Student involvement

The case study was designed to sit alongside and complement other module content and students could choose to opt into the role of research assistant or not, without their decision impacting on their academic grade. All students were involved in initial research, producing an interview schedule, conducting a narrative interview with Tajah and analysing the resulting data. However, for the research assistants, their analyses went on to inform a final report detailing findings and recommendations for greater inclusivity in the creative industries. In addition to supporting a growing, shared research culture among students and staff at the university and enhancing students’ employability skills, this type of group research also yielded methodological innovations.

Confirming findings through consensus

As a type of qualitative research, narrative analysis has not been without its critics, particularly in terms of its perceived lack of methodological rigour (Loh, 2013). Trustworthiness, as postulated by Lincoln and Guba (1985) has served as a reasonably robust defense against these criticisms (Loh, 2013) and the innovative use of multiple researchers in the current research project served to enhance this trustworthiness further. Using a type of ‘triangulation’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 315), which seeks to confirm findings through consensus, the strength of agreement achieved in this particular study extended well beyond what would be deemed a necessary requirement for robustness.

No less than 15 student research assistants were recruited to conduct individual narrative analyses of the narrative interview data, which then underwent a thematic analysis conducted by the lead researcher before being written up into a final report of the group’s findings. The number of identifications of a particular narrative feature in the research assistants’ analyses were taken as an indication of the significance of that particular feature. Particularly strong findings found consensus in around two thirds of the research assistants’ analyses.

Identifying the barriers and opportunities

The findings of the study yielded a number of surprises both in terms of the specific barriers and opportunities identified and their sources. The key barriers to employment were constructed as a criminal record and drug addiction. However while a criminal record is often articulated in the resettlement literature as a direct barrier to employment (Nacro, 2015: 4) in the case study a criminal record proved to be more significant as an obstacle to gaining access to Higher Education and relevant learning in creative theory and practice, rather than rejection by creative employers.

Indeed, Tajah identified more opportunities than obstacles in terms of creative employers, naming a number of employment offers he had secured, from small film commissions to an opportunity to crew on a mainstream commercial TV series. Meanwhile, education was seen as occupying a more important role in achieving a successful career trajectory, and discrimination in selection processes in the HE sector were highlighted.

Of equal, if not greater significance was the identification of drug addiction as a barrier to creative employment. This was constructed as being beyond Tajah's control, and he was ‘a slave to my addiction’. This highlighted the role of internal barriers to employment, suggesting that self concept and agency may be at least as important as material and structural factors in gaining employment in the creative sector. The importance of internal factors was also evident in the opportunities narrated by Tajah, and personal growth was identified in 12 of the analyses conducted by research assistants as being central to his success. It may be that these internal factors are more complex and difficult to address, and to some degree outside of the scope of the creative sector to change.

However, the last key finding suggested some practical steps that may improve inclusion in the sector for former offenders. This was based on the importance of supportive relationships identified in the case study and five different individuals were identified, who in some way had shown belief in Tajah's potential.

Recommendations for the creative sector

Based on these findings two key recommendations were offered for the creative sector. Firstly, in terms of addressing discrimination in Higher Education, it was proposed that creative employers may bridge some of this gap by proactively offering training programmes for those still in prison or post-release.

Secondly, the importance of supportive relationships was also identified as an area that the creative sector may engage with. It was suggested that a shared sense of outsider status between former offenders and the community of creative practitioners (Becker, 1963) may lead to the potential for empathy between the two groups, which could be capitalised upon in order to develop supportive networks, shown to be a key opportunity to employment in the current case study. It was also noted that there were a number of limitations to this case study, not least the very small sample size.

With this in mind a final recommendation was a call for further research into this area in order to develop a richer picture of the obstacles and opportunities encountered by former offenders seeking employment in the creative industries.

Research team

Simpson, E., Badesha, H., Black, H., Cooper, D., Elmes, L., Fielding, A., Lewry, N., Milner, A., Perkins, B., Peters, I., Roberts, H. Stefanovic, K., Walsh, S., Walton, W., Welham, T. and Williams, X.


Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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