Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • By Matt Hall

    In the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK saw a discouraging rise in hate crime. As headlines furled out- Police call emergency meeting to deal with post-Brexit vote explosion of racist hate crime (Daily Mirror) and Brexit: Wave of hate crime and racial abuse reported following EU referendum (The Independent) – it may have felt like we were in the midst of an epidemic. As a researcher interested in the interplay of far-right extremism and hate crime, getting an accurate picture of the figures is a priority.

    The summer of 2016 alone engendered a catalogue of politicised tragedies, both nationally and abroad. Orlando, Jo Cox, Brexit, and terrorist attacks in Nice and Munich – each potentially a trigger event to be exploited by extremist groups. Now we await further anticipated spikes following the invoking of Article 50 in March, and at key junctures throughout the protracted, years-long process of leaving the EU. For hate crime scholars, accurate information on the EU-Referendum spike is key to understanding what might lay ahead.

    As evidenced by national police statistics and third-party reporting services, the spike in hate crime was all too real. However, months later, there were suggestions that spike may have been the wrong word. Instead, for many, a “lasting rise in hate crime” (The Independent) was the general impression, despite NPCC figures having indicated a decline back to expected rates by mid-August. The expressly divisive nature of Brexit as a trigger cannot be completely ignored when exploring figures. Nonetheless, there are numerous forms other than hate crime in which normalised far-right nationalist sentiments can express themselves.

    When interrogating the figures themselves, two further contexts emerge. Firstly, and most easily disaggregated from the given numbers, is the expected increase in reporting rates between July 2015/16. All monitored strands of hate crime recorded to the police have been steadily climbing since 2011 (Home Office) due to initiatives aimed at encouraging victims to report. This increase in reporting should not be misunderstood as anything but welcome.

    Weighing for the second context is more onerous. What proportion of the remaining figures could be explained by amplified public vigilance to hate incidents? It seems likely that at least some of the increased reporting, particularly of public order offences, may have been encouraged by the flurry of coverage and anecdotes spanning social media. Was this something partially resembling the moral panics extensively written about by criminologists and cultural theorists, such as Stanley Cohen and Stuart Hall, through the 1970s and 80s? The overzealous use of the term ‘epidemic’ by parts of the press would certainly suggest as much.

    Tentatively, I am proposing three contributors to the reported post-referendum hate crime spike: (1) an increase in hate behaviour – people felt a new license to express their prejudices; (2) an expected year-on-year increase in reporting rates; and (3) amplified public awareness leading to transient increases in reporting of routine hate crime. The challenge is how to disaggregate (1) from (2) and (3). This would offer a much more valid figure for the spike in actual hate incidents. If we can develop informed valuations for expected spikes following events like Brexit, then we may be on our way to measuring the impact of far-right exploitation of them on violence. This could help us plan appropriate interventions. But first and foremost, we need to refine our gaze to changes in hate crime rates, rather than reporting behaviours.


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Jo Smith

    On 18th January 2017 PhD students from the Sociology Department organised a departmental symposium titled ‘PhD Fieldwork: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Loving my Research.’ Attended by Masters students, PhD students and academic staff, this day provided an opportunity to explore some of the different methodological and ethical issues facing us as researchers. We were delighted to host a wide range of speakers.

    Opening the symposium were PhD students from the Sociology Department. Amy Kirby talked about her experiences of coming to terms with the ‘them and us’ divide during her ethnographic research into the criminal courts, whilst Emily Setty highlighted some of the challenges and rewards of conducting research with young people. Annie Bunce provided an insight into her attempts to try and balance the demands of different groups in her prison-based research. Melissa Pepper reflected on her decision to adopt a mixed-methods approach to her research into policing, and Jo Smith explained what she saw as the advantages of using online research methods in her study of online misogyny. Finally, Nadia Harizadeh-Yazdi spoke about her experiences of researching a sensitive subject in her work of childhood cancer.

    Together these papers showcased the diversity of work being conducted by the post-graduate students in the department, in terms of the subjects being explored and the methods being used to collect data. They also highlighted the extensive thought and reflection being given by the PhD students to the methodological and ethical aspects of their work.

    As well as providing helpful questions and comments throughout the day, members of the academic staff presented papers on their research experiences. Professor Jon Garland provided a fascinating – and at times unnerving – account of his research into the English Defence League. Lightening the mood, Dr Tom Roberts spoke about his use of ‘walking methods’ and how these might provide insight beyond those obtained when only using interviews. Dr Corinna Elsenbroich managed to convince many of the technophobes in the room that agent-based modelling is for everyone, introducing a number of us to a method that we had never really considered before.

    We were also delighted to welcome guest speaker Dr Bina Bhardwa, from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research based at Birkbeck, University of London, to talk about her ethnographic fieldwork in dance settings. She provided us with a down-to-earth account of dealing with ethical and methodological issues in the field – quite literally, given that some of her research took place at music festivals. Of particular interest were her accounts of how she managed issues of obtaining consent from intoxicated nightclub participants, her discussion on walking the line between ‘researcher’ and ‘friend’, and her descriptions of some of the unusual situations in which she found herself conducting her research.

    To finish off the day attendees took part in a workshop in which involved discussion of some various research worries and how these could be addressed.

    It was apparent throughout the symposium that seemingly disparate research projects have faced similar challenges when it comes to designing and implementing fieldwork – reassuring for those of us who sometimes feel we are the only ones struggling. If there was one take home message from the day, it is that it is ok to worry about our work, but that we should not let these worries stop us loving our research.

    The symposium organising committee would like to thank everyone who contributed to the day, including all of the speakers and attendees, and Louise Jones for her help in organising refreshments. We are particularly grateful to Dr Paul Hodkinson for encouraging us to arrange this symposium and for his help in organising it.

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