Assuming Identities Online: Linguistics Applied to the Policing of Online Paedophile Activity

Tim Grant, Nicci MacLeod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)
40 Downloads (Pure)


This paper 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 paper 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-70
Number of pages20
JournalApplied Linguistics
Issue number1
Early online date30 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


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