6th November 2017

Visiting student Ellen Van Damme reflects on her short visit to the SCCJR at the University of Glasgow:

“Stop!” Catherine, my Airbnb host and guardian angel pulled me back to the sidewalk. Cars do not stop for pedestrians in Glasgow?!

It was my first day and Catherine was walking me to Ivy Lodge, where the SCCJR is housed. On our way there, I quickly wanted to pass by the beautiful Harry Potter-building (aka the main university building) to register. “Quickly”. Haha, little did I know I would have to go back and forth five times before I could finally collect my student ID.

“You are almost registered, you just need to tick this box, upload another file, contact that person and then come back.”

“But I will only be here for five weeks?!”

You must love the University of Glasgow in all its beauty and bureaucracy.

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At the SCCJR, Aurore Garnier welcomed me warmly and showed me around. It was still the beginning of the semester, so not everyone was in the office. But day by day new people kept on coming in and offering me tea (only nine cups and the same number of bathroom stops later I understood that this was a polite form of welcoming someone). People are so nice and friendly here! But then noon. Hmm … no kitchen table to have collective lunch breaks I see? So I asked PhD candidate Neil Cornish about this, and from that day on I never had a lonely lunch break again.

New people kept on coming in and offering me tea … people are so nice and friendly here!

But what was the purpose of my research stay at Glasgow? And moreover, what did I gain from it? Based at KU Leuven in Belgium, I am doing research on the role of women in and around gangs in Central America. I am completing my first year as a PhD student, and already having done three months of exploratory field research (and obviously being more lost than found), my co-supervisor, Dr Mo Hume (of the Politics department), invited me to come to Glasgow to reflect on my research in another environment.

More specifically, I needed to finalise the draft of my methodology chapter and start analysing the data from my exploratory field research. What struck me immediately was the difference of being in a School of Social & Political Sciences, as opposed to being in a Faculty of Law in Leuven. Given the strong focus on doing field research across different disciplines (criminology, political sciences, sociology, urban studies, etc) here in Glasgow, I ended up having countless interesting interactions, both formal and informal, on what it is to do research in the ‘real’ world.

I ended up having countless interesting interactions, both formal and informal, on what it is to do research in the ‘real’ world

When I started writing this blog, I had just had a cup of tea, in one of the many cozy coffee shops around Glasgow, with Dr Alistair Fraser, who has many years of experience in doing ethnographic research on gangs in urban Glasgow and Hong Kong. Alistair shared his experiences of communicating research findings with different types of (non-academic) audiences. He asked: “Did you take a look at the SCCJR blog yet?”

So I did, and started reflecting more on my personal experiences at the SCCJR. I was fortunate to follow a couple of classes by Dr Susan Batchelor on ‘Gender, Crime & Criminal Justice’; a course not being taught at my university and as such very enlightening for my study. I was also given the opportunity to present my research at an SCCJR working lunch seminar, nicely organised and coordinated by PhD candidate Javier Velásquez Valenzuela, during which I received questions and feedback from experienced researchers coming from other backgrounds, which subsequently was very enriching for the further focus of my PhD. Likewise, during a meeting of ethnography group, a network organised and attended by PhD students from social sciences, I was given the opportunity to discuss some of the issues I had encountered while conducting my exploratory field research, which again turned out to be very inspiring.

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My research stay as a whole was very enriching on an academic level. To highlight only a few lessons learned or ‘intellectual revelations’, if you wish, I would say that I learned to take more ownership of the subject I am studying and be more clear and frank in my arguments; referring to what “I” argue, instead of what “we” think. Also, I experienced the importance of a ‘writing retreat’, as I was released from my day-to-day assignments, and could isolate myself to fully focus on the PhD in an environment that does not have the ‘office culture’ I am used to.

I learned that most gang research still starts from a patriarchic perspective within a ‘malestream’ criminology

Finally, although I was sometimes doubting if the specific focus on women in my research makes sense, I learned that most gang research, especially in Central and Latin America, still starts from a patriarchic perspective within a ‘malestream’ criminology. However, since there is not ‘one feminism’, nor one way of conducting feminist criminological research in the study of gangs, I became aware of the need to indulge myself even more in the areas of critical, and more specifically feminist, criminology.

And then there were of course the uncountable (informal) conversations from which I gained more than I could have expected. I learned about the history of Glasgow and its subsequent connection with crime and gangs during a stroll through the People’s Palace. A PhD student from computer sciences explained how to safely store and encrypt my data over a cup of coffee. I had endless conversations with my supervisor, Mo, on risk assessments, the goods and bads of doing field research in Central America, as well as  the politics of Colombia and future (research) plans. I am so blessed to have been surrounded by so many lovely and intelligent people with whom you can go from discussing Bourdieu’s vision on masculine domination, to UK class differences within a university setting, to why cats are cooler pets than dogs.

Although I will probably end up as a headliner in a Scottish newspaper – “Crazy Belgian pedestrian collides with Glaswegian pink cab” – I do hope to come back to the SCCJR in a wee bit of time!

Read more about Ellen and her work here.