WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? Theory, Practice and Allegiances in Prisons Research

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BRIT. J. CRIMINOL. (2001) 41, WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? Theory, Practice and Allegiances in Prisons Research ALISON LIEBLING* This article reflects on sympathy and the problem of taking sides in research.
BRIT. J. CRIMINOL. (2001) 41, WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? Theory, Practice and Allegiances in Prisons Research ALISON LIEBLING* This article reflects on sympathy and the problem of taking sides in research. It is impossible to be neutral, but is it possible to take more than one side? How far is our research distorted, and how far is it strengthened by forming a sympathetic understanding of those we study? What is the relationship between values and social science and how political are our choices about methods and perspectives? These age-old arguments are revisited in a contemporary context in which the superordinates as well as the subordinates feature in the author s research. The article asks whether synthesis is possible or desirable. These questions have important implications for researchers, but they also have significant consequences for the researched. In 1967, Howard Becker published an influential article in Social Problems: To have values or not to have values: the question is always with us. When sociologists undertake to study problems that have relevance to the world we live in, they find themselves caught in a crossfire. Some urge them not to take sides, to be neutral and do research that is technically correct and value free. Others tell them their work is shallow and useless if it does not express a deep commitment to a value position (Becker 1967: 239). He argues that, in fact, this dilemma is not about whether to take sides, but is about whose side we are on. It is impossible to be neutral. Personal and political sympathies contaminate (or less judgmentally, inform) our research. But do they distort it? This lingering worry is not explicitly addressed, but taunts us, as producers and consumers of research. Does acquiring sympathy for those whose worlds we study undermine our professional integrity? And does it matter which social groups draw these feelings from us? How do we tackle issues of publication, if our research results might damage or offend those we have come to regard almost as friends? The deep sympathy we may fall into with the people we are studying, Becker associates with deviants (Becker 1967: 240). It is this version of sympathy for the offender, the subordinate by far the most common in criminology that he is concerned about. He uses the term hierarchy of credibility to describe the typical accusation of bias levelled at sociologists who take the offenders view: We can use the notion of a hierarchy of credibility to understand this phenomenon. In any system of ranked groups, participants take it as given that members of the highest group have the right to define the way things really are... [C]redibility and the right to be heard are differentially distributed through the ranks of the system. (Becker 1967: 241) * Senior Research Associate, Cambridge Institute of Criminology, UK. The author would like to thank Tony Bottoms, Nigel Walker, Robert Reiner and Jonathan Steinberg for helpful and insightful comments. 472 the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD) 2001 WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? The charge of bias is provoked when sociologists refuse to give credence and deference to an established status order and give most of their time and attention to the typically unheard. Becker argues that more studies are biased in the interests of responsible officials than the other way around. Yet accusations of bias are disproportionately directed at those who study or privilege offenders. This is unjustified, he argues, because officials lie. They do this because they are responsible and things are seldom as they ought to be. Institutions are flawed, and therefore officials develop ways of denying and explaining away failure. Accounts by offenders may expose these lies and are therefore discredited. The sociologist who favours officialdom, however, will be spared the accusation of bias (p. 243). I want to consider this important question afresh: the question of bias and of taking sides. 1 What is the effect of sympathy on our work? Are there always sides to be taken, as Becker and others argue? What if our sympathies fall more broadly than on one group? What if we sympathize with everyone offenders (the subordinates), and those who label them, convict them, and wield power over them (the superordinates) too? What happens to the hierarchy of credibility then? We cannot deny its existence, Becker exhorts, but is it always so clear how it is constructed? Superordinates have other kinds of power as well as credibility, Becker asserts. What kinds of power, and to what extent? Who really gets to define reality in research and why? How political is the research setting (in my case, the prison) and the process? In what situations, by whom and for what reasons might prison researchers be accused of bias and how much truth is there in such assertions? Is there always and inevitably bias or can research seek to balance the competing perspectives of opposing groups? What is gained and what is lost by attempting to mediate in this way? In my experience it is possible to take more than one side seriously, to find merit in more than one perspective, and to do this without causing outrage on the side of officials or prisoners, but this is a precarious business with a high emotional price to pay. The only overt outrage I have encountered in my research career to date (and there has been little), has been from some other sociologists, for trying to include in my research an attempt to understand and take into account the perspective of officialdom (see Gouldner 1975, chapters 1 and 2 on being accommodating). This is despite the valid exhortations of Grimshaw and Jefferson and others that adequate policing research requires an exploration of the (under-researched) powerful and their decision making, as well as the study of suspects and all ranks in between (Grimshaw and Jefferson 1987). 2 Why is the same case not self-evidently true of prisons research? The lack of outrage encountered to date is not a sign that I have not been uncomfortably entangled in large and small scale politics, skirmishes and negotiations, but that is a different point, which I shall address separately below. There is of course a distinction to be made at least in principle between theoryneutrality (our vision of what is, and something which is impossible to achieve) and value-neutrality (our vision of what ought to be, which it may be possible to suspend to a 1 Gouldner argues:... as sociologists grow older they seem impelled to make a pilgrammage to... the problem of the relations between values and social science (Gouldner 1975: 1). Argh. 2 Although there was a certain amount of outrage encountered as a result of their study of policing (see Grimshaw and Jefferson 1987). And again in policing, Robert Reiner is credited with carrying out sophisticated and influential research which brought the wrath of the hard left during the 1970s because he appreciated the tragically inescapable task of managing, often coercively, the symptoms of deeper social conflicts and malaise (Taylor 1999: 7). 473 LIEBLING degree, at least during the research fieldwork process). This is following Weber s distinction between value-neutrality and value-relevance, but not necessarily accepting his case that value-neutrality should be our goal as social scientists (see Weber 1949; Gouldner 1975). The relevance of our research is its possible cultural, political and moral implications. We can to some extent describe what is without always making explicit what ought to be, letting the data speak for itself. The suspension of value judgment through the research (and most of the report writing) process may in the end be a more effective way to play a part in what ought to be. 3 Before I return to this important and difficult debate about values, let us return to the question of the effects of sympathy and taking sides. The Role of Sympathy in Prison Research Does acquiring sympathy for those whose worlds we study undermine or add to our professional integrity? It depends on how this influences our behaviour and where the boundaries lie. For the interviewing process in particular, but also for other aspects of the research enterprise, empathy is important. The capacity to feel, relate, and become involved is a key part of the overall research task. Research is after all, an act of human engagement. To achieve criminological Verstehen subjective understanding of situated meanings and emotions researchers have to be affectively present as well as physically present in a social situation. Some turmoil is productive. After all, how do we know? Human agents think with the body as well as with the mind. A glance may be felt as well as seen. We know, on walking into a room, that there has been an argument. We recognize at a barely conscious level pasts, similarities, understandings, in each other. Researchers draw on their personal, artistic, emotional, human resources on bodies of knowledge which lie beyond the orbit of traditional academic discourse (Ferrell and Hamm 1998: 257). Effective research is grounded in these investments, exchanges, understandings. In addition to technical skills, researchers need expressive immersion in the dynamics which construct deviance, crime, prison (p. 255). This dimension of sociological research is captured by (but is not necessarily restricted to) ethnography. Why ethnography? 4 The term derives from the Greek ethnos, meaning people, and graphein, meaning to depict (Ferrell and Hamm 1998). It is about human curiosity about and attentiveness to the lives of others. Its earliest beginnings were in anthropology. The dictionary definition of the term is the scientific description of races and peoples with their customs, habits and mutual differences (New Shorter Oxford). It takes the typically ancient Greek position somewhere between the presumption of pronouncing on everything, and the despair of comprehending anything (Bacon 1620, in Hammersley and Atkinson 1983). Ethnography appeals to our instinct to trust not 3 That is, there is a difference between what Gouldner calls accommodation, and strategy operating with some self-restraint in order to forestall or offset potentially greater restraints levelled at us by powerful others. 4 Its main features can be summarized as: a strong emphasis on exploring the nature of particular social phenomena, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about them; a tendency to work primarily with unstructured data, that is, data that have not been coded at the point of data collection in terms of a closed set of analytic categories; investigation of a relatively small number of cases, in detail; and analysis of data that involves interpretation of the meanings and functions of human behaviour, with an emphasis on description and illustration. Here, I am using the term broadly to cover activities like participant observation, and all the hanging out that might surround (for example), semi-structured interviewing. 474 WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? others rules and realities, but to trust the force of our own understanding, and do the hard thinking required in the art of inquiry. To do ethnographic research in a prison, you need time, the equivalent of a mud hut (e.g. a portacabin, in one recent experience), paper and a pencil. You might introduce a tape-recorder and other refinements, but what you need most of all is full use of your self. Ethnography is the most basic form of social research and resembles the way in which people ordinarily make sense of their world. Sometimes this is regarded as its major strength and sometimes this has been regarded as its major weakness. It can include observation, participation, interviewing and almost any other form of interaction between ourselves, the researchers and the social world. The critique of ethnography is that it is messy; it is beleaguered by confessional outpourings and it has not always critically addressed its own context as flowing out of colonialism (Marcus 1994, in Denzin and Lincoln 1994). So, although certain forms of ethnography have been criticized, as a basic social research approach it continues to be validated ethnographic classics (like Sykes s Society of Captives; Becker s Outsiders, etc.) withstand the test of time much better than many of their positivist competitors. Ethnography has departed from its traditional striving for objectivity and distance and its faith in the transparency of reality (Marcus 1994: 568) and has largely conceded to the value of involvement, perspective, and subjectivity. As a practice, it has a special value in the process of discovery, or in the remaking of realities. Ethnography grounds our thinking in the observable world in order to generate intellectual insight. Its approach accepts that world views are situated in meanings constructed by language, symbols and practices; it aims to fill the gap between correlation and explanation, through meaningful understandings. It asks what and why, looking beneath official definitions of reality. For this task, considerable skills, training and involvement are required. 5 But can we become too sympathetic, partial, native? Certainly. This is perhaps the central problem in social research: managing the tension between objectivity and participation (the old theological question of how to be in but not of the world). 6 We have to operate within clear boundaries set by the research task, but where are these boundaries? And who says? Do feelings of affection, identification, friendship, trust and allegiance belong in the research world? Perhaps the boundaries are not always so clear. In my experience (both my direct experience and the experience of watching research assistants and colleagues) there is a link between openness, warmth, devotion to the task, the capacity to be sympathetic, and the depth at which the research process operates. The more affective the research, in terms of shared feelings and experiences, the better the fieldwork gets done on the whole. 7 The question of what happens next and how the data are handled is another matter, requiring a little more distance. Allegiances developed during the research process make us wish to be sensitive and diplomatic throughout the analysis and writing process as well as rigorous. This keeps the field open 5 There is, of course, more to descriptive studies than description. There is also analysis. These activities can, with effort, be separated, to some degree. 6 And as Richard Sparks once remarked, only God manages it! 7 Although clearly this is not always the case and some researchers go native, breach boundaries or become over-involved. One of the difficulties of prisons research, in my view, is that those researchers who feel sufficient sympathy cannot bear very much prisons research, and those who are the best often move on to less painful topics. 475 LIEBLING to us, enables us to operate effectively, and makes the research process properly careful. Or does it? The Power and Credibility of Superordinates (in Prison Research) It is curious to me that a creed of sensitivity to our research participants seems to be accepted in some directions and not in others. Since the 1960s, the perspective of the subordinate prisoner (with occasional forays into the views of the next in line subordinate prison staff) has had intellectual hegemony in prisons research. Being appreciative towards the deviant or prisoner is a valid and credible enterprise. I wholly agree with this position (subject to a certain restraint on romanticism or noble savage versions of sympathy). But why is it less acceptable to offer the same degree of appreciative understanding to those who manage prisons. Is it because they wield power? Their voices are already legitimated? This assumption is simplistic, and confuses taken-forgranted assumptions or a political stance with objectivity. Why are we not so curious about the constraints under which the so-called powerful operate? Why are we not fascinated by the under-use as well as the over-use of power in real social practices? To what extent do we really understand the complexities of using authority, of being operational in a prison? Why is sympathy reserved for the offender and denied to those who (sometimes in good faith) work in criminal justice, with their own lives, stories, pains, motives and understandings (a question Gouldner (1975) also raised in his response to Becker)? Becker argued that responsible officials have sufficient power and credibility to define reality. They construct a version of the truth: they lie, because they are responsible and things are seldom as they ought to be. To take this for granted is sociologically naive. It is as false as the assumption that offenders always lie. Don t people, in the right research environment, just want to tell their side of the story and be heard? Some powerful officials lie, play games, fool themselves and others, or defend the indefensible. But so do some offenders. Most (in my experience) simply want to participate in the account: This is my world and I will share it with you. But you must treat it kindly. Nothing distinguishes the offender from the governor or civil servant, in this respect. As Gouldner argues: I cannot imagine a human sociology that would be callous to the suffering of superiors. A sociology that ignored this would, so far as I am concerned, manifest neither a respect for truth, nor a sense of common humanity. (Gouldner 1975: 36) Of course there are major differences in the respective freedoms and constraints of different players on the criminal justice stage. Prisoners are, whilst in prison, vulnerable to abuse and violence, neglect, indifference and brutality. There are many appalling examples of such realities (see for example, HMCIP 1999a, b) but there are also examples of their absence and of efforts to attain fairness, decency and civility against the odds. These features of the prison world make it more important to get at the realities and variations at senior levels of such institutions in credible and sensitive ways. Punishment is always beset by irresolvable tensions, as David Garland tells us (Garland 1990). Surely to ignore the ways in which these contradictions are administered and tensions handled is to simplify imprisonment to depict it as uniform and as little more than civil war (a society engaged in a struggle with itself ; Garland 1989: 10 11). Both of 476 WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON? these characterizations are severely limited; complacent, according to Gouldner (1975: 54). As he argues: To have a sense of man s common humanity does not demand a superhuman capacity to transcend partisanship. But a partisanship that is set within the framework of a larger humanistic understanding is quite different from one devoid of it. This is one difference between the merely political partisanship of daily involvements, and the more reflective and tempered partisanship which may well be such objectivity of which we are capable... There are works of art that manifest this objective partisanship. The dramas of the great classical tragedians are a magnificent case in point. What makes them great is their objectivity; and what makes them objective is their capacity to understand even the nobility of their Persian enemies, even the dignity of their barbarian slaves, even the bumbling of their own wise men. They do indeed express a viewpoint which in some sense does take the standpoint of both sides, and does so simultaneously. If great art can do this, why should this be forbidden to great social science? Gouldner (1975: 52 3) Balancing Competing Perspectives In a recent research project, a small team was invited to explore the nature and quality of staff-prisoner relationships in a single maximum security prison. We used a mainly ethnographic approach, and tried to look in detail at the attitudes and behaviour of staff and prisoners, with
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