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Meet the Member: NatCen

In this #MeetTheMember blog, we speak to Caroline Turley, Director of Crime and Justice at the National Centre for Social Research. Caroline discusses some of the key research projects from her career, how NatCen has continued conducting vital research throughout the pandemic, and why its important to master the art of listening.

What is your background?

Since leaving university I’ve always worked in social research. As part of my MSc, I had a work placement at what was then the Police Complaints Authority (now the Independent Office for Police Conduct) where I interviewed people bereaved by police pursuits. After my MSc, I joined BMRB Social Research (now Kantar Public) where I carried out qualitative research across a range of policy areas. I joined NatCen in 2007, and I’ve been in the Crime and Justice team ever since.

What drew you to working in the criminal justice/voluntary sector?

My MSc and work placement at the Police Complaints Authority really cemented the idea of combining my interests in research and criminal justice. The people I had the privilege of speaking with for the police pursuits study made such an impact on me – I was struck by the importance of listening to people who’d experienced such trauma and who often feel unheard.

What does your role involve?

I lead NatCen’s Crime and Justice team. We carry out qualitative and quantitative research into an array of criminal justice issues, often speaking with people about their experiences of crime and the criminal justice system. Our recent studies include qualitative research for the Prison Reform Trust about women’s experiences of the Transforming Lives programme, as well as mixed-method research for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse about safeguarding practice in residential schools (in partnership with ResearchAbility). Our independent research is funded by government departments, the third sector and grant funding organisations.

Alongside research delivery, I sit on NatCen’s Research Ethics Committee, where we ensure that all our studies are carried out safely and ethically, with our participants’ and researchers’ wellbeing at the forefront. I also deliver training in qualitative research methods for the Social Research Association and to various public and third sector organisations.

Can you describe your organisation in a few sentences?

NatCen is the UK’s largest independent, not-for-profit research agency. We deliver robust research for government and charities, to help them make informed, evidence-based decisions about the big issues facing society. We’re made up of survey methodologists, evaluation experts and qualitative researchers. The Crime and Justice team is one cog in the NatCen wheel; we also have policy specialists in health and wellbeing, children and families, communities, employment, and equality and diversity.

What do you love most about working at your organisation?

Two things – the people, and our projects. I feel incredibly fortunate to work with talented people who are so committed to carrying out high-quality research, and who do so with respect and compassion for the people who take part in our studies. And I believe we do some of the most interesting and meaningful research in the criminal justice field. Over the years our research has helped to inform sentencing policy, the development of interventions for people with offending histories, and our understanding of extremism, to name just a few.

How is your organisation responding to the challenges of COVID-19?

A lot of our ‘in-person’ research has moved online. We’d done some qualitative research online before the pandemic hit, but not to this extent. It’s been interesting to see how online approaches compare to in-person. In some ways they’re very similar (the structure and style of questioning), but obviously you miss out on some of the non-verbal cues (all of them, if people opt to turn their video off). This can be challenging, especially in focus groups where it can also impact on the dynamic between participants. However, online approaches have been crucial for NatCen’s research on the impacts of the pandemic.

What has been your proudest moment/achievement at your organisation?

It’s hard to single out one thing, but I’ll always be proud to have been one of a team of people involved in a groundbreaking study funded by the European Commission Safer Internet Plus Programme, to understand online grooming across Europe. NatCen was part of a consortium that spoke to men convicted of online grooming in England, Belgium and Italy about their grooming behaviours and young people about e-safety messages. The research helped to inform treatment approaches for people convicted of online sexual offending, contributed to e-safety education initiatives in schools, and influenced legislation change for online grooming offences in Belgium and Italy.

Do you have any hobbies?

In ‘normal’ times, yoga. And I dabble – sporadically! – with learning Spanish. But, the combination of life under COVID-19 and a very energetic toddler means that hobbies have fallen by the wayside in recent months. Though my train track building skills have improved immeasurably. And we’ve done a lot of walking…

Favourite book?

It’s a tie between A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Both authors are such evocative storytellers.

One of the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, says, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ I’ve always loved that quote, and actually it’s very applicable to the work we do at NatCen too.

Favourite podcast?

I was just getting into The High Low, with Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes, when they announced it was ending. I shall have to work my way through the back catalogue instead…

What advice would you give to someone else in your role?

When it comes to doing qualitative research, my advice is to master the art of listening. When you’re learning about qualitative data collection, such as how to do high-quality in-depth interviews and focus groups, the emphasis is often on how to ask ‘good’ questions. But actually, those questions can only be achieved by listening properly to the people you’re speaking with.

Research organisations are a fast-growing part of the CJA membership. If you’d like to join our network for change and contribute your insights to our policy work for a fair and effective criminal justice system, email