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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

”Will it matter what you say?” – reflections on what motivates interviewees to participate in research

By Ann-Karina Henriksen, postdoctoral researcher at Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University.

A year ago I was engaged in fieldwork in Danish secure institutions. On and off during a year I spent a few days in different secure care units, where I participated in everyday life and interviewed staff and young people about gendered practices and experiences of being confined (Henriksen 2017). As I set up an interview with one of the boys, he wanted to know whether talking to me would be worth his while. He asked, “So before we start, can you tell me something about you as a researcher. I mean like your status. Will it matter what you say?” He caught me off guard with his critical inquiry into the potential impact of my study. Most of the young people were eager to share their stories and happy to break the routine and boredom of secure care. His query spoke to a question which is significant to most types of research, but especially that conducted with marginalized or vulnerable populations. What do interviewees expect will come from their participation at a personal, institutional or policy level, and how can we align their expectations with our intentions and priorities? Reflecting on participants’ motivations and adjusting expectations is vital not only because it shapes data production, but also because failure to ‘deliver’ may convey the sense that what they say does not matter.

Not all the interviewees expected the research to result in social change at a larger scale, but rather seemed to hope that telling their story would have some impact on their personal situation. One of the young girls I interviewed had been placed in a secure unit for protective care. When I interviewed her, she had been confined for seven months, and she was frustrated with the institutional inaction to find a suitable placement with treatment. She told me she had complained to anyone who would listen, “I even wrote the mayor!” When I returned to the unit four weeks later and found her there, I was surprised. Her frustration had grown, but so had her apathy and silent distress. She was less talkative and stayed more in her room. The staff were also clearly appalled at the inaction of her case manager to find placement outside secure care. That night she tried to commit suicide. She was under 24-hour surveillance, so a night watch found her in time. I was sleeping in a room just outside the unit and saw the ambulance arrive and leave without her 20 minutes later. I could hear quiet turmoil in the unit and then everything went silent. Witnessing such extreme expression of frustration and powerlessness is one of the pains of doing prison or secure care research. The next day she was mostly in her room and I found it improper to impose. Sometimes I wonder whether her suicide attempt, which was not her first or last, was also a communication to me as an outside researcher. Insights from reflexive ethnography urges researchers to consider not just how we experience the field, but how we also shape the field by our presence, making things happen that would otherwise not have taken place. Did she expect me to intervene or respond in some way that would matter in her situation of powerlessness? I suspect at some level, that telling her story and relaying her experiences of confinement, was motivated by making me a witness to her injustice and a small hope, that what I saw, heard and felt could push for change.

I also met a boy, who made me promise not to tell. He said, I could never write anything about his story that anyone would recognize. I listened with disbelief and anger as he told me about his experience of living with the fear of violence in confinement. He was beaten by his unit peers on his second day of arrival, and for as long as those peers were in the unit, his everyday life was all about avoiding potential violence. He feared severe beating and having boiling water thrown at him. During my stay the staff confirmed his narrative of living in fear, recalling with a kind smile how he used to need adult protection all the time, because the unit peers were united against him. The young boy would not let me speak about this to anyone. He seemed satisfied with narrating his experience to an empathic listener. I however, found it critical that while unit staff had managed to keep him physically safe, they had jeopardized his mental health by confining him to a space of violent potentiality. Living in constant fear seriously jeopardizes the mental health of young people and the strain it imposed on this young boy was not consistent with the intentions of secure care placement or the Convention of the Child.

As I started analysing the data and drafting the first journal articles, I was troubled by revisiting these emotional situations and the institutional critique that they called for. After presenting a neat theoretical paper, a prominent scholar confronted me saying, “Stop all the glossy theorizing. This is a human rights issue and that’s how you need to write about it!”. This urged me to lay out the data in more detailed empirical analysis, and to engage in a dialogue with management and staff in secure institutions on the harmful institutional logics and practices. I had meetings with managers and presented my findings at staff meetings. My critique addressed problems related to the confinement of young people with severe psychiatric troubles, who do not receive psychiatric treatment, and the marginalization of girls when they are placed in units where all the other young people are boys.  I continue to voice my concern in national media to push for political awareness and institutional change. Change happens incrementally and critical research, however uncomfortable it may be, is pivotal in that process. 

Giving voice to vulnerable and marginalized groups places an ethical responsibility on researchers to reflect on who says what to whom and why. While institutional change is the motivation for some, others hope for support or personal relief. By reflecting on their motivations, expectations and hopes, we can strive towards making what they say matter, and as researchers we get slightly closer to ‘getting it right’ when analysing complex field relations and interactions.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Henriksen, A. (2018) ”Will it matter what you say?” – reflections on what motivates interviewees to participate in research. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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