Ethnographers’ well-being: is it worth protecting it?

One of today’s last panels at the symposium “Resisting the Eclipse” (Link) was aimed at highlighting and sharing the pains of prison ethnographers. The only problem when doing ethnography is not only linked to epistemology but concerns also the researchers’ mental, physical and emotional well-being. Alison Liebling, Deborah Drake & Jennifer Sloan, with the question/metaphor whether the process of research is rather sinking or swimming shared they own experiences of prison ethnography. What emerged (and what I perceive emerging) is the launch of a new conscience, a new way of academically sharing the research process more in depth. When it usually comes to fetching information on how to conduct ethnographic research in prison, the researcher-to-be is struck by questions related to the epistemology of the research, on the best way to avoid becoming native, on how to be reflexive, triangulate etc.

What emerges is that the process of research is not just a mental challenge or, at last, the outcome of the struggle between inner “tendencies” (theories, ideosincrasies etc) and the “scientific” rigor. In a more “understanding”  way, some remind us about the importance of how we react to the “thing” when it is alive and bites. Very few, if none, highlight the stories behind the research process, of how one actually survives this experience of facing a stressful situation without having and not being totally allowed to use their own coping skills.

The ethnographic research in prison is one of a kind. In ethnography the person’s sensitivity is required to discover the obvious, to narrate what goes on in the everyday; let the  smells, the awe-inspiring architecture of the prison struck you; the words and actions of those who we are researching. – every day.

Prison officers and those who live the everyday of the prison develop coping skills that are vital in stopping this awful environment slip into your fibers and affect your brain, your psyche, your own self. What a prison officers can do is to make the extreme environment become part of the everyday, get used to it, becoming native and learn how to use certain “skills” to survive.

It is quite unimpressive to see how some officers develop a tough skin and distance themselves from this environment, its intrinsic nastiness and – most lethal than all – its unpredictability.

The researcher cannot make use of these skills and has to expose themselves to the inputs coming from this environment and that, with the passing of the time, become sharp knives in the already tired and devastated psyche of the researcher.

What emerged yesterday is that there is a gap in the academic context  (perhaps result of the masculinity still intrinsic to the academic environment) of proper training and sharing of skills that make the difference between an awful and isolated experience and a series of researches carried out without all the pain that today is involved in the process.

Yesterday was a moment when I felt we should celebrate more these “heroes” of the field, hear their stories as “war” veterans and learn more from them. What is needed is a change in the mentality of the research process and further fairness towards those who will came after us. It is not fair to not depict the pains and struggles of the everyday life as researchers and it is a moral imperative to put every possible effort towards creating a shared knowledge of how to survive this extreme environment.

Once again, the researchers have neglected the most important tool of the job: ourselves. If we allow the next researchers to forget this important lesson, it will be affecting the quality of the research and the process of knowledge that we are trying to put in place with the ethnographic research.

But, from the other point, if we share the knowledge and expertise on how to survive the prison will we be living the research experience at its fullness? Is it there there risk of making the exotic familiar before actually starting our research?


Desistance and the structure vs agency conundrum: fiction or reality?

In desistance research the work of the “usual suspect” desistance scholars (Maruna, Farrall, Laub and Sampson etc..) has lead to the following conundrum: what does come first between structure and agency? What is the one that starts the whole process? Does personal change lead to a re-definition of the structure or the other way round? (see Giddens in relation to structure and habitus).

The question has been posed in an interesting article by LeBel, T., Burnett, R., Maruna, S., & Bushway, S. (2007) and has a suggestive title: “The Chicken or the Egg of Subjective and Social Factors in Desistance”.

While the questions is interestingly stimulating, and yet there is more an agreement on the fact that there is need for research on this topic than on the exact order, the question that follows is: why is knowing the exact order of the two important?

Assuming that either the structure or the agency have a specific role in desistance, how does this translate in policy and further intervention?

Agency without structure will soon jeopardise the persons’ change while the other way round won’t be having much effects. What might be more important is rather knowing whether there is a structure ready to welcome an ex-service users’ agentic change.

Are there in place structures to help the process? That is: are we paving the road to desistance?

Private sector involvement in the CJS

After a day at the conference “Private Sector Involvement in Criminal Justice” (check the link for upcoming materials) my mind is still rumbling and pondering: what does happen when a private organisation, used to provide services, enters the criminal justice context?

Listening to the presentation of Richard Morris (Managing Director of G4S – one of the major firms currently involved in the provision of services in the criminal justice sector) I couldn’t stop thinking about how the language of private organisations is still far and yet to be integrated to the challenge these companies are trying to face.

The word “performance” does not fit into any of the (limited) knowledge I have of the process of desistance or, as Alison Liebling calls it: human flourishing. In a contract agreement where performances are defined by numbers, there is little space to evaluate the true improvements (AKA “rehabilitation”) of the service users (AKA offender).

In order to receive the 10% of the value of their contract, contractors have to produce a result: reduce re-offending by 5%. The scholars researching on desistance are quite aware of the fact that 12 months are no indicators of true change: until death an ex-offender can still re-offend.

So, how to make sure service providers are actually able to serve one of the key objectives of the MoJ? How can private companies reduce re-offending and, at the same time, make human beings flourish?

When private organisations will be able to move away from the corporate culture to embrace a more human enterprise?