Interviewing power research sensory Uncategorized Victimology

Sensing towards justice: The importance of attending to the sensory when interviewing victim-survivors


‘you were so afraid

of my voice

I decided to be

afraid of it too’

-rupi kaur, Milk and Honey

Recently, whilst designing a research project, I decided to look back on and examine my own experiences of participating in criminological research. I wanted to reflect on how we design and conduct research, bringing in knowledge of how it feels to be on the other side of the screen. I am a victim-survivor of abuse and have taken part in a small number of academic projects relating to this over the years. As I have only taken part in online interviews, and with an awareness many victim-survivors will experience the process differently to the way I do, I decided to investigate, and this is where I discovered a gaping hole in our conversations. There is plenty written about ‘ethical’ practice with victims of crime (Newman et al, 2006; Burgess-Proctor, 2014), how academics experience conducting their own research (Rice, 2009; Ross, 2017), and how methods may be experienced by participants (see Hlavka et al, 2007 and Campbell et al, 2009). But notably, almost all of this is written by and filtered through researchers, usually based on post-interview questions about the participant’s experience of the process. I question the effectiveness of this. How freely can those who have just sat in their vulnerability critique those imbued with more power? Participants do not have the same space to communicate for themselves about their experiences of taking part, and it seems that this has resulted in the loss of some of the nuance of emotions and sensations that taking part in research as a victim of crime can elicit.

Your research projects come into our lives suddenly and unexpectedly. Most often this is via a social media post, perhaps seen on a Saturday afternoon whilst I am sat with my family. There is a juxtaposition in this, the softness and warmth of my home against the harsh reminder of the world that exists outside of and prior to this new reality I have created. The pain which permanently exists under the surface is brought to the fore. But something about the research draws my interest and makes me stop, or go back to it. Curiosity perhaps. Most people don’t want to hear about my past, my existence is too uncomfortable for them to acknowledge and so they strip it from me on my behalf. We don’t have to talk about that. But I want to talk about it, and suddenly my head is bursting with things I didn’t know I wanted to say.

The words are almost tumbling out as I type a controlled message offering my time. Tap, tap, tap. My finger hesitates over the little arrow before I hit send. An odd thing about participating in research as a victim of abuse is that alongside the desire to be heard, worry and shame creep in at this point. Worry because I now have all these things I want to say, and if they say no I will have nowhere to put them. I will be left scrabbling to contain them again. I know I will be disappointed because the child within who couldn’t speak now desperately wants to be heard. The shame sits in my having contacted this ever-so-important person at all. Abuse lies, tells you that you have nothing of value to offer. Shame is the feeling of taking up too much space, and of needing to squash yourself into the smallest possible version so as not to trouble anyone. I am probably wasting their time.

Something that often goes unconsidered when designing time or resource pressured research is how we will communicate with people if they do not fit our study, or if we have finished data collection. Sometimes these limits are framed as ensuring researchers are not ‘over collecting’ data so as not to upset people unnecessarily, which while intended to be ethical, is actually cruel in its denial. What may seem like an innocuous email to say no thank you, might be experienced as deeply painful to someone who has already given something of themselves. If it has to be, effectively communicating why the decision has been made alongside a sincere acknowledgement that you appreciate them taking the time to get in touch can make all the difference to someone who has been repeatedly told they are not enough.

But in this case they say yes, and the interview is arranged. The screen flicks on, and the things most immediately apparent to me are that I am not in control, and the attention is entirely on me. In a way which is hard to put my finger on this feels reminiscent of the crimes I experienced. The distance through the screen mimics the disconnect I once felt with the world around me. The invisible bubble. The Untouchable. Suddenly I am acutely aware of the chair digging into my back, of not knowing where to put my arms and legs. Everything feels wrong. I feel myself shift uncomfortably whilst I try to project the image that everything is okay. Smile. That’s what ‘in control’ looks like, right? Is it? I can’t quite remember. Adrenaline floods my body; I can hear my heartbeat and I can feel that I am shaking slightly. Thump-thump, thump-thump. I clench my muscles in an attempt to regain some control. All of my senses tunnel in on this interaction, and everything else around me almost ceases to exist. There is an eerie stillness in being hyperaware of your breathing, of the tenseness in your body, in perceiving the other person, offset by the relative silence around me as my brain mutes out background information. But I want to do this. I focus on the questions, and on saying what I want to convey. Time and space begin to contort as I narrate both in the then and the now.

I wonder what the researcher sees in this moment. I suspect not much. Many victim-survivors, especially adult survivors of childhood trauma, are experts at masking pain. We often hide our experiences for many years, learning as children to live in disguise. Online research makes it easier for me to mask my distress. I can position my screen so that all you see is my face. So that you don’t witness the shaking, the shifting, the fiddling with a piece of Blu Tack. Abuse taught me how to disassociate my mind from my body, and I subconsciously do that now. I have learnt to mute myself, to deny my own physicality. I have learnt to silence myself before I am silenced, as a form of control. To exist in a half form so that I might be palatable.

Researchers may develop a strategy for managing participants distress, but in order to implement this we need to have perceived it. This can be difficult if someone is not visibly upset. Using Fricker’s concept of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ (2007), it is hard for me to communicate my experiences in a way which others will understand without showing them the physical effect on me. Abuse is inherently sensory, I can explain it only in how it felt, in sounds, and smells. Without this framework it is hard for others to comprehend, but this level of detail can be hard for researchers to hear, and so many reject it. ‘I don’t want you to get upset, shall we stop’, centres the researcher and inadvertently communicates that this may be becoming too much for you. That you want to stop. For me, my becoming upset isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In fact this may be one of very few spaces I can express myself in an authentic way. ‘Remember that this is your space, we can do whatever you need ’ communicates that the participant is in control, and gives someone whose “no” has previously been ignored permission to advocate for themselves. To be present in their whole form. To exist.

Afterwards the adrenaline floods out of my body, like a tidal wave has crashed and dissipated, leaving me tired and drained. But this experience has also felt freeing; I have put down some of the heavy stones which I carry. Brené Brown once said that “shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement. Shame cannot survive being spoken” (2012). In the very act of speaking, in a scenario where I have the safety of remaining anonymous, some of the shame I feel has been drawn out and leached. I have released it, and it less so belongs to me. Each time I speak, my body feels a little lighter to inhabit. I feel proud, and the warm swell that starts in my chest grows and spreads down each arm and into my fingertips. I feel bigger somehow, like an unfurling, and it is one of those rare occasions where it feels good to take up space. To have grasped at power in the choice of speaking. Of, in some small way, helping those who will come after me. In this moment I feel strong, and defiant.

Something that has come to interest me is the question of whether there is a risk that participants may feel emotions ‘outside of normal experience’, and I wonder who’s experiences we are using to define ‘normal’? To those who have not experienced trauma, what I have described would seem to be ‘outside of normal experience’. But I exist within and navigate this space every day. When I watch a film or go online, I do so knowing that I could be confronted with abuse at any time. I go out in public knowing that men will sometimes stand a little too close behind me. I have learnt to navigate and manage these things because abuse is a life sentence. I will never cease to be a victim-survivor. There is an arrogance in the assumption that I do not live with my experiences outside of academia’s research interests.

My identity has been forcibly and irrevocably changed, but that does not mean that I will never be in a position to talk about my experiences. Yes, talking about it is painful, but the silencing hurts more. Returning to Fricker’s work (2007), there is violence in the testimonial injustice inflicted on those who have experienced abuse, in the academy’s refusal to accept our right to frame our own narrative and make our own decisions about our ability to participate safely. The chokehold of his hand and of his threats now manifests in the chokehold of others’ discomfort, and in my fear of being cast out. The body has an horrendous ability to remember and replicate the bodily sensations of being silenced. And so important things remain unspoken, and I remain unseen. Being told my truth cannot exist in the world because of someone else’s perception of what is an ‘acceptable’ level of emotion is akin to having my voice removed once more. It is the imposition of power, of being spoken for, in others attempts to manage ‘risk’.

As soon as I was made a victim of abuse my entire existence became defined by risk. My risk of poor mental health. Of relationship breakdowns. Of chronic illness. Nothing is ever defined in relation to my strength. My power. My capacity to create change. I am an adult with the rights to make my own decisions, and I can assure you that victim-survivors do not speak without careful consideration and assessment first. Finding the balance is tricky, but in our desire to protect our participants we must also take care not to stifle those who want to speak, because of our failure to confront our own discomfort and fear. If you are not prepared to hear then do not do research with victims of crime, or you will compound and become complicit in the violence of our forced dissonance from the self. 

Going back to rupi kaur’s poem, every day I become less afraid of my own voice. But in it’s assertions that it is acting in my best interests, I feel deeply the silencing and rejection from an academy which is afraid of hearing me.

Reference list

Brown, B. (2012) Listening to shame. [online video] Available from

Burgess-Proctor, A. (2014) Methodological and ethical issues in feminist research with abused women: Reflections on participants’’ vulnerability and empowerment. Women’s Studies International Forum, 48.

Campbell, R., Adams, A., Wasco, S., Ahrens, C. and Sefl, T. (2009) Training Interviewers for Research on Sexual Violence: A Qualitative Study of Rape Survivors’ Recommendations for Interview Practice. Violence Against Women, 15(5).

Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Hlavka, H. Kruttschnitt, C. and Carbone-López, K. (2007) Revictimizing the victims? Interviewing women about interpersonal violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(7).

Kaur, R. (2015) Milk and Honey. Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Newman, E., Risch, E. and Kassam-Adams, N. (2006) Ethical Issues in Trauma-Related Research: A Review. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(3).

Rice, C. (2009) Imagining the other? Ethical challenges of researching and writing women’s embodied lives. Feminism and psychology, 19(2).

Ross, L. (2017) An Account from the Inside: Examining the Emotional Impact of Qualitative Research Through the Lens of “Insider Research”. Qualitative Psychology, 4(3).

custody Emotions Psychology sensory

Interrogating the senses: Cognitive interviewing

Kate Herrity

Sensory criminology stresses the utility of broader, sensory experience for understanding processes of criminal justice. In doing so, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of over-emphasising the novelty of such approaches, but this would be to overlook the ways in which the sensory is deeply embedded in criminal justice practices. There are a host of exciting and innovative projects and people in a number of fields, doing vital work such as Forensic architecture, a research agency investigating an array of human and nature rights abuses, based at Goldsmiths using all manner of innovative approaches both applied and theoretical. Their Saydnaya project with Amnesty international is a persuasive demonstration of how the sensory can be combined with other techniques to powerful effect. They met with survivors and used their testimony to create an account of what went on behind the prison walls, using architectural and acoustic modelling. Kate McClean’s work in Sensory maps is another example of the ways foregrounding the sensory provide a means of deepening and broadening our understanding. The Odeuropa network, and their site host a number of innovative cross-disciplinary initiatives. It is not new developments I wish to focus on here, but the contention that the value of attending to the sensory is evident in established criminal justice practices – specifically in the form of cognitive interviewing – and that acknowledging this raises interesting and important questions for criminology.

Cognitive interviewing (CI) demarcates emotions and the senses, usefully distinguishing between these separate realms of experience. CI and the ideas that underpin it, provide an example of how sensory sources of knowledge are embedded in forms of criminal justice. Exploring these methods further reveals how an absence of dialogue between practice and theory has – in the case of the sensory – left theory lagging behind. Attending to the broader uses of sensory experience provides powerful instruction for research practice, and a means of deepening our understanding of violence and its impact.


Cognitive interviewing is a technique used for accurate information retrieval and/or “research synthesis” in social science, forensic and health settings (e.g. Miller et al. 2014; Beatty and Willis 2007). CI is a means of improving the quality of questionnaire data as well as a host of other applications for gathering information, but has gained greatest traction as a technique for interviewing victims and witnesses following a crime – most usually of a more serious, violent nature. In England and Wales CI was nationally wheeled out in 1993 (Shepherd et al. 1999). Its implementation across Australian, American and Canadian police services has been somewhat piecemeal though encouraging witnesses to “rely on their senses” in the process of interview retrieval has a long history, if often focused on speedily concluding investigation and suspects’ testimony (Alpert et al 2012). It has been demonstrated to be more effective than either standard interviewing or hypnosis (Geiselmen et al 1985). Its precision has been built upon in subsequent refinements in both practice and theory, while retaining its two core objectives: retrieving as much accurate information as possible, while safeguarding the wellbeing of the interviewee.

How does it work?

CI works to increase the amount and accuracy of memory retrieval, by circumventing the trauma, arousal and/or anxiety induced by witnessing or being involved in a violent event and minimising the conflabulations (the filling of gaps in memory with believed but false recollection) and inaccuracies that can result. CI places the health and wellbeing of the interviewee at the centre of the process by increasing their agency and control over the course of the interview. This is underscored by the crossover in use of these techniques in therapeutic and forensic settings. While cognitive interviewing has been enhanced and further developed, the basic cognitive theory and principles of memory its retrieval remain; i)in times of stress and trauma memory is better elicited when the broad conditions of the event are recreated, ii)when the subject is encouraged to think about all manner of detail, and iii)when they are encouraged to revisit the event from different points and iv)different perspectives.

These four points of memory retrieval strongly insinuate the sensory. They encourage the foregrounding of detail and perspective which might otherwise be regarded as peripheral, thereby utilising the weaknesses and quirks of memory while under duress; e.g. the trauma and/or distress of being caught up in a violent event. Lieutenant Jason Potts illustrates this point when he quotes Lisak (2002): “Victims are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat”. Reliving rich and vivid sensory experience, or “flashbacks”, characterise intrusive recollections; a “hallmark” of post-traumatic stress disorder (Clancy et al. 2020). Lee Broadbent’s tweet powerfully illustrates the debilitating effects of these intrusive, traumatic revisitations for witnesses, victims and those caught up in the aftermath of violent events. Effects cognitive interviewing can work to manage.

It is increasingly acknowledged that these techniques are useful when interviewing suspects too. This more accurately reflects the significant number of perpetrators of violent offences who are identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated symptomscknowled. Acknowledging the complicated relationships between victim, perpetrator, violence and trauma also works to disrupt the simplistic binaries we tend to ascribe these categories (e.g. Ternes et al. 2019).

Why this matters

Cognitive interviewing has the subject/participants wellbeing at its core, providing a means of extending greater agency and control over the narrative course. This allows those being interviewed to reflect on their responses in was which extricate their emotional response from their recollections. In this way, sensory memories form part of a broader repertoire of coping strategies, lending greater power to the interviewee in ways which safeguard their wellbeing and protect them against additional trauma. This distinction between feeling and feelings, provides a useful means of distinguishing the sensory from the realm of emotions for which it often provides a powerful conduit. While memory of our senses can offer a compelling means of evoking emotion, they are entirely separate facets of human experience. The senses are not emotions and collapsing them risks obfuscating both our recognition of the epistemological and methodological potential of the sensory and our understanding of how we make sense of our world.

Potts persuasively argues that cognitive interviewing can enhance police legitimacy when dealing sensitively with victims and witnesses of crime. He demonstrates the value of considering how these long-established knowledges can be better and more consistently incorporated into practice. In the social sciences, these approaches to working with people who may be vulnerable and/or have suffered traumatic experiences, offers instruction for how we may proceed more ethically in the field. Attending to the sensory highlighted this in my own practice, providing me with a means of working carefully when researching sound in the prison environment. Considering the utlity of cognitive interviewing also serves to validate the role of the sensory in understanding matters criminological. In this aspect of criminology, theory is substantially behind practice. We speak about the iterative process between research and theory but attending more closely (and carefully) to the sensory reveals a chasm in communication between those of us who talk and teach and those of us who do and practice. The deeply embedded practices and wisdom of CI illustrate how impoverished our thinking can be in the absence of these conversations.

Being more sensitised to the sensory onslaught which characterises the aftermath of trauma allows us to better comprehend the profound toll of those working with violence and its aftermath. Accounting for how the sensory can be a source of intrusive recollection and distress allows for a more sensitive response to victims of violent crime, as Potts persuasively argued. More controversially, perhaps, this also carves out space for considering the impact of violence – as well as the often complicated and pre-existing relationship with it – for those who engagined in it. It is not so much the extension of these techniques in the field of interrogating suspects I argue for here, but rather what this affords us in greater and deeper understanding of a complex criminological phenomenon. Often, representations of violence become couched in those tensions between moral and legal discourse, to the detriment of disinterested inquiry. We cannot see, hear, smell, feel for the emotions that so frequently characterise responses to criminal justice (Karstedt et al 2011).

CI is an example of the ways in which the sensory informs practice and understanding in the realm of crime investigation. It also demonstrates the value of honouring the iterative process between practice and theory as it extends beyond our academic realm[1]. Here is a means of clearly distinguishing between our sensory and emotional worlds, and an opportunity to reassess our understanding of violence and trauma. Far from being a frivolous novelty, or an academic indulgence, exploring the ideas underpinning the development and deep-rootedness of CI illustrates the profound source of understanding offered by our senses.

For more on this, and the potentials of sensory methods for understanding criminological practices and processes, please see our forthcoming chapter: Herrity, K., Schmidt, B., Warr, J.J. “Sensory “Heteroglossia” and Social Control: Sensory Methodology and Method in Dodge, M., Faria, R. (eds) Qualitative Research in Criminology: Cutting Edge Methods. Springer


Alpert, G.P., Rojek, J. and Noble, J. (2012) ‘The cognitive interview in policing: negotiating control’, Australian Research Council, Centre for Excellence in Policing briefing paper, issue 13. Available online:

Beatty, J.C., Willis, G.B. (2007) “Research synthesis: the practice of cognitive interviewing”, Public Opinion Quarterly 71(2): 287-311.

Broadbrent, L. (2021) [Twitter]12th August, Available at Accessed 12th August 2021

Clancy, K.J., Albizu, A., Schmidt, N.B., Li, W. (2020) “Intrinsic sensory disinhibition contributes to intrusive re-experiencing in combat veterans” Nature: Scientific reports, no. 10, article no. 936 [online]:

Geiselman, R.E., Fisher, R.P, Mackinnon, D.P. and Holland, H.L. (1985) “Eyewitness memory enhancement in the police interview: cognitive retrieval mnemonics versus hypnosis”, Journal of Applied Psychology 70(2): 401-412.

Karstedt, S., Loader, I., Strang, H. (2011) (eds) Emotions, Crime and Justice. London: Hart Publishing

Potts, J. (2020) blog post “Enhanced interviewing techniques to improve memory recall” National Police Foundation 28th September Available at: Last accessed: 03/11/21

Shepherd, E., Mortimer, A., Turner, V. and Watson, J. (1999) ‘Spaced cognitive interviewing: facilitating therapeutic and forensic narration of traumatic memories’, Psychology, Crime and Law 5(1-2): 117-143.

Ternes, M., Cooper, B.S., Griesel, D. (2019) “The perpetration of violence and the experience of trauma: exploring predictors of PTSD symptoms in male violent offenders” International Journal of Forensic Health Vol.19, No.1

[1] I argue this, as well as demonstrate the instructive value of lived experience in my sensory penalities chapter: