This article uses a research project into the online conversations of sex offenders and the children they abuse to further the arguments for the acceptability of experimental work as a research tool for linguists. The research reported here contributes to the growing body of work within linguistics that has found experimental methods to be useful in answering questions about representation and constraints on linguistic expression (Hemforth 2013). The wider project examines online identity assumption in online paedophile activity and the policing of such activity, and involves dealing with the linguistic analysis of highly sensitive sexual grooming transcripts. Within the linguistics portion of the project, we examine theories of idiolect and identity through analysis of the ‘talk’ of perpetrators of online sexual abuse, and of the undercover officers that must assume alternative identities in order to investigate such crimes. The essential linguistic question in this article is methodological and concerns the applicability of experimental work to exploration of online identity and identity disguise. Although we touch on empirical questions, such as the sufficiency of linguistic description that will enable convincing identity disguise, we do not explore the experimental results in detail. In spite of the preference within a range of discourse analytical paradigms for ‘naturally occurring’ data, we argue that not only does the term prove conceptually problematic, but in certain contexts, and particularly in the applied forensic context described, a rejection of experimentally elicited data would limit the possible types and extent of analyses. Thus, it would restrict the contribution that academic linguistics can make in addressing a serious social problem.
Bibliographical noteThis is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Applied Linguistics following peer review. The version of record Grant, T., & Macleod, N. (2016). Assuming identities online: experimental linguistics applied to the policing of online paedophile activity. Applied linguistics, 37(1), 50-70 is available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/applin/amv079
Funding: ESRC (ES/L003279/1).