chapter  3
Researching relationships in correctional practice
Pages 19

This chapter aims to focus upon how relational research can be effectively carried out and how relationships can be used in order to facilitate highquality research. It will provide a rationale of my methodological approach and outline the techniques that were utilised within my doctoral project. The chapter will outline the reasons for using an action research paradigm and present a synopsis of the two studies that occurred prior to this project, as part of a wider research agenda. Details of the project, its sample and ethical issues will be addressed in order to provide a clear overview of the doctoral project that occurred between December 2012 and April 2014. In light of the cyclic nature of this research strategy, this chapter will also dedicate some time to the development of the visual tools that were used, drawing upon two studies that occurred prior to this project from June 2011 to October 2012. Uncovering knowledge specific to relationships and interpersonal interac-

tion poses many challenges. For instance, within any relationship, the relational experience is articulated (and somewhat limited) through language and is socially constructed for each individual involved. What may be deemed as a ‘good’ relationship for one individual may not be considered ‘good’ by another, and so pluralism exists that recognises that there are some elements of relationships that are unknowable or impossible to articulate. How one might experience unconditional positive regard may involve feelings, thoughts and physiological responses, yet these may differ from one individual to the next and during different moments over the course of the relational journey that is playing out. Relationships are therefore a challenge to research and recognition into the socially constructed nature of them is important. This ultimately became an issue that I was deeply rooted in unravelling, through a participatory approach that utilised new and innovative methods to try to capture knowledge around relationships. And so, a number of questions presented themselves before I embarked on this research. First, how could I create an environment in which individuals could feel at ease to discuss and explore meaningful relationships honestly and willingly? Second, how might I be able to capture these insights in order to create rich knowledge that moves us forward both theoretically and within practice? Third, how would my own relational experiences impact on such ventures and influence my own

interpretation of the knowledge that was unearthed. This chapter addresses some of these key issues to provide new methods to uncover relational knowledge. The project took a purely qualitative approach in response to Higgins’s

(2009) argument that when using qualitative methods within criminological research, the distance between the researcher and those researched is shortened and the values of the researcher can be used to mould the research. From reviewing the literature, distance featured within both the prison and correctional literature (see Liebling, 2005; McNeill and Robinson, 2013) and creating a research climate that was conducive to my research values relating to this project was a priority. Within the interviews, reducing the visibility of the powerful researcher over the powerless researched was an obstacle, as levels of trust to ‘outsiders’ may have led to participants who were not receptive to relational discussions. And yet, Marshall and Rossman (2006) and Goodley et al. (2004) recognise that participants do not have a passive role within qualitative research, but an active role that enriches interpretations of the world around us. Guba and Lincoln (1994) highlighted this power imbalance between the ‘expert’ researcher and the relatively powerless participant and I embraced a participatory position with the hope of alleviating differences where possible. Framing the offender as an ‘expert’ in their own life and relationships meant that their legitimacy was acknowledged and a process of co-construction was nurtured. The offender voice has become a popular term used within the academic community and seems almost tokenistic, when attempting to secure research funding. This was certainly not my personal experience as I can openly acknowledge that I have learned about correctional relationships through my relationships with individuals who offended. Whether this has been moments of insight, periods of difficulty or episodes of resistance, I have found great value in these relationships. Overcoming relational obstacles was challenging during my days as a practitioner, and yet through this journey I have secured a strong faith that relational difficulties can be overcome through listening and perseverance. McWilliam et al. (2009) acknowledge that a participatory perspective assumes that by listening to experiences, knowledge transpires through human interaction and interpretation. Throughout this research endeavour, I have found my commitment to enhancing the offender voice has grown stronger and I feel passionate about offender inclusion. I adopted this standpoint because I value the offender as an individual and believe their experiences can illuminate relational research. Cooper (2001) highlighted that within social work practice, there needs to

be a greater emphasis on co-constructing viable relationships with services users, with the purpose of promoting anti-oppressive and participatory practice. This inclusion needs to also exist within probation and prison practice, in order to create a culture which recognises the importance of the offender voice and bridges the gap between knowledge and practice as well as ‘them and us’. There are a number of opportunities where this can take place more

intrinsically within the organisational structures of these institutions. Providing practitioners with the tools to carry out more primary research opportunities throughout their career would reinforce the importance of developing accessible and valued evidence-based knowledge and promote a more organic learning culture. Within the current Probation Qualification Framework, practitioners are encouraged to carry out literature-based explorations rather than primary research. The process of carrying out primary research through an application to National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is both lengthy and challenging and a coordination of evidence-based knowledge to practice lacks co-ordination and implementation. This highlights the lack of value that is placed upon research currently within criminal justice in England and Wales and the missed opportunities for policy-makers, practitioners and academics to transform practice. Giving practitioners (and offenders) this opportunity with greater autonomy could hold great significance as practitioners would effectively feed practice, through primary research endeavours, promoting greater investment in their role and their skills in building generative theory. Cooper (2001: 726) recognised that by promoting generative theory within practice, a ‘humanisation’ of human science could hold great value in seeking new and alternative ways of practice. Under the ideas of Transforming Rehabilitation and the promise of opportunities for innovation and creativity, such a venture could be well justified, if such a promise is genuine.