The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has a lively postgraduate community and many of our PGR students are involved in Engaged Research. In this series of blog posts, postgraduates from across the Faculty reflect on how their work engages with publics, uses co-creation and creates impact. In this month’s instalment, Criminology PhD student Hannah Wilkinson discusses her experience presenting her research on a public facing platform and developing a training programme for a specialist organisation.
Before I began my PhD in Criminology, I can remember trying to imagine what it would be like to produce a piece of research and what I would like to achieve within the three years. The main vision I had was for my work to connect with people wider than academia and for it to eventually make a difference, however big or small. At the time, I had no idea that these aims would come to fit the definitions of what I now know to be ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’.
My research explores the experiences of former military personnel (veterans), particularly those that have served in 21st century conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It seeks to generate a deeper understanding of identities, the lived experiences of serving in conflict and the return to civilian life.
A Degree of Caution?
Criminology is a discipline that appears to have mixed and often contradicting views on ‘public engagement’. As a critical criminologist, I have been trained to be cautious and questioning of ‘public knowledge’, to always ask: ‘who are the ‘public?’, ‘how is knowledge created?’, ‘who creates it and for what purpose?’, ‘who controls knowledge and with what power?’. As such, engagement within my research often comes along with wariness, considerable mental torture and over-analysis upon reflection!
My research topic is, however, one that can lend itself well to public engagement. Without thrashing out the debate of ‘who the public is’ here in this space, it is reasonable to claim that the majority of ‘the public’ have some idea about war, the armed forces, people that are/have been employed by the military, and that people can often relate to these topics in some way.
Engagement through ‘Reimagining Conflict’
I have recently become involved in the group, ‘Reimagining Conflict: Pedagogy, Policy and Arts’, led by Dr. Emma Murray. Reimagining Conflict is a group made up of academics and researchers from a range of universities, as well as charities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), practitioners and artists. The group is driven by a common goal of addressing problems of war in the 21st century and the lived experiences of those affected by serving in conflict.
What makes this group so exciting, is that it brings together a collection of people using a wealth of innovative and creative methods to not only research issues affecting veterans, but to actively engage the public with aims of empowering communities, sharing knowledge and having an impact on policy.
So far, I have been part of the Reimagine Conflict’s first project: ‘Reimagine the Veteran’. This has involved attending and contributing towards a number of events, as well as more notably recording a video interview about my research. In terms of engagement, this is a video that appears on a number of platforms, including YouTube, ‘Reimagine the Veteran’ and ‘Reimagining Conflict’ websites, Twitter and Facebook. It will also be used as a teaching tool, which contributes towards the pedagogical aims of the group.
Making the video was an incredibly valuable experience. It was a huge amount of fun and forced me to narrow my research down to the key messages and communicate these in accessible language. Alongside the wealth of positives, the process also left me feeling exposed and led to lots of ‘imposter syndrome’ type over-analysis! This video exists now – it is out there in the public sphere, for anyone to watch and, more scarily, comment on/scrutinise. However, this is exactly what makes the project so exciting.
The aim of Reimagine the Veteran is to engage with a large number of people using creative methods, to raise public awareness around the complex problems veterans can face, as well as to provide a space for veterans themselves to be involved in knowledge production and sharing. I feel very lucky to be part of this.
Engagement to Impact: Specialist Housing Provider
As with many things in academia, my involvement with a specialist housing provider was completely unplanned. A colleague discovered that the provider runs a scheme housing homeless veterans and kindly put me in touch. I initially visited the housing charity to find out more about the work they were doing with veterans and to ask if I could help in any way.
The first conversations I had there were so interesting and it was clear that both the staff and I could benefit greatly from forming a relationship and sharing knowledge. I have since visited a number of times, have provided a presentation about my research to the staff working in the veteran scheme and have more recently been asked to develop a training programme that will be delivered to a larger number of staff within the organisation.
As well as ‘engaging’ with the housing provider and sharing knowledge around my research, the relationship has also developed into generating measurable ‘impact’. This was never an intention of making a connection and has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Conversations have since translated into changes in practice, staff have expressed how my visits have helped the ways they work with veterans and think about their needs and I will also have the opportunity to gather formal feedback from staff a few months after the delivery of my training programme, to capture the impact it has had on their work.
Get out there!
‘Engagement’ and ‘impact’ are words that are becoming ever more important for PhD students to consider, especially as the post-PhD job market becomes increasingly more competitive. Every PhD is different and some lend themselves to engagement and impact more than others. Being part of ‘Reimagine the Veteran’ and working alongside the specialist housing provider has brought my PhD to life. Connecting with people outside of academia and knowing that my research is making a difference within practice is something that I feel very proud of and never expected to happen at this stage of the research. It makes all the hard work worthwhile and, if you get the chance, I truly recommend getting out of the office and into the field!
Hannah Wilkinson, PhD Candidate in Criminology, Keele University
 Working Title: ‘No Man’s Land? 21st century theatre of war experiences and their impact on former military personnel returning to post-conflict life’
 See for example, Public Criminology? (Loader and Sparks, 2011)