Geographies of missing people: processes, experiences and responses

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Funding body and duration

Funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, this project will run for 3 years from January 2011.

Principal Investigators

Research Fellow


How often have you seen an article about someone who has gone missing in the newspaper or on television? While abductions and runaway children dominate newspaper headlines, the realities of adult missing people rarely make front page news, and yet these events can devastate the lives of those affected and take up huge amounts of police time and resources every day of every year. This project seeks to understand the realities involved in 'going missing', and will do so from multiple perspectives; using the voices and opinions of the police, families and returned missing people themselves. This data can shed light on a significant social (and spatial) problem and help us understand more about the nature of missing experiences. The purpose of such an endeavour is to understand more about how people go missing and how the police and families respond to such events. Such a focus holds value for both the police and families (the 'left behind') in that it updates and checks current knowledge about the likely spatial experiences of missing people (where they go, how far they get, how they are sometimes relocated for significant periods of time). Using police-based time frames, we will compare a range of experiences of short-term (below 14 days) and long-term (over 14 days) missing people, to find out more about how going missing involves different sorts of journeys, different critical uses of space and place, which in turn hold different implications for the identities of those missing.

It may be surprising to know that there are estimated to be over 250,000 missing persons reports every year according to the charity Missing People, and that dealing with just one case can cost the police over 20,000 (Gibb and Woolnough, 1995). Across 52 UK police forces different kinds of operational searches are undertaken, and often rely on individual officers making crucial decisions about the missing person and where they might go. This project seeks to assess how different data-driven spatial information might influence such operations. This project seeks answers to the questions such as 'how do we know where missing people are likely to go'?; 'how can we improve that knowledge'?; 'how might police and family search strategies involve different geographical knowledges and assumptions'? and 'what do the experiences of returnees tell us about the lived geographies of the missing'? Answers to these questions potentially hold huge relevance for police and families searchers.

Have you ever asked yourself what would it feel like to go missing, to leave it all behind? Academic geographers are particularly interested in the relations between people, place and space. When people go missing, these relationships get disrupted, or take on unusual characteristics. Understanding more about missing experiences will improve geographical theories of self development and how selves are often quite unstable in relation to society and space. Such a focus has potential implications in understanding going missing as an example of what might be termed a 'crisis geography'. While still respecting 'going missing' as a right of some people, attention to crisis geographies of mobility will help us understand better whether going missing can/should be seen as a health-related event, which may be then acted upon in various ways both before, during and after the missing event. 'Giving voice' to people who have formally been missing represents a way to check these conceptual assumptions and suggestions. Most policy, strategy and operational actions that occur in response to a missing event also happen with no reference to the voices and experiences of people who go missing. This study will be the first substantial UK study to incorporate the views of returned adult missing people (and their families) via face-to-face in-depth interviews, in order to get behind the news headlines, and to understand what is at stake for all involved.

Outputs from the research


Geographies of missing people:processes, experiences and responses (SIPR Annual Report, 2011)

Missing Persons: Understanding, Planning, Responding (Grampian Police)

For further information, contact and downloads of project reports and other publications

Hester Parr

Dr Hester Parr

Penny Woolnough

Dr Penny Woolnough

Nick Fyfe

Professor Nicholas Fyfe

Olivia Stevenson

Dr Olivia Stevenson