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(2001) 41, 472484


Theory, Practice and Allegiances in Prisons Research
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 authors 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 subordinateby far the most common in criminologythat 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.

the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD) 2001


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 everyoneoffenders (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

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.
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).



degree, at least during the research fieldwork process). This is following Webers
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 canto some extentdescribe 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 Verstehensubjective understanding of situated
meanings and emotionsresearchers 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 recognizeat a barely conscious levelpasts, similarities, understandings, in each other.
Researchers draw on their personal, artistic, emotional, human resourceson 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
That is, there is a difference between what Gouldner calls accommodation, and strategyoperating with some self-restraint in
order to forestall or offset potentially greater restraints levelled at us by powerful others.
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.



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 researchand 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 Sykess Society of Captives; Beckers 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

There is, of course, more to descriptive studies than description. There is also analysis. These activities can, with effort, be
separated, to some degree.
And as Richard Sparks once remarked, only God manages it!
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.



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. Dont 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 imprisonmentto depict it as uniform and as little more
than civil war (a society engaged in a struggle with itself; Garland 1989: 1011). Both of


these characterizations are severely limited; complacent, according to Gouldner (1975:

54). As he argues:
To have a sense of mans 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: 523)

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 some exploration of senior managers perspectives. We spent a total
of nine months in the establishment, with the aim of taking a broadly appreciative
approach (see Liebling et al. 1999). We discussed our results with staff and prisoners, at
some specially convened and some existing group settings. The report contained some
positive messages, some negative ones and an analysis of the way things were and ways
forward. The research was published quickly and circulated widely (Liebling and Price
1999). Both staff and prisoners told us we had got under the skin of the prison, and that
what we had written reflected a world they recognized. This was despite the fact that staff
and prisoners held (not surprisingly) very different views about our subject. Both groups
(and others) responded very positively to the research and took its critique seriously,
engaging in a very real consideration of its implications.
The key issue in our account related to the use of discretion by prison officers. We
argued that there are presently two competing models (not mutually exclusive, but ideal
types) of prison officer workthe rule following or compliance model favoured by
risk-averse officials or those who make and manage policy (Model A); and the negotiation model actually delivered by most prison staff (Model B) (except in exceptional
cases). There are dangers in both approaches. Each model has rather different implications for our vision of how prisons work, how staff should be selected, trained and
managed, the type of relationships prison officers develop with prisoners, and how order
and security are legitimately obtained. Each model (or each ideal type) can make
competing claims for legitimacy (see Liebling 2000). We argued that whilst prisons are
managed, and policies are conceived and evaluated under the assumptions of Model A,
in practice most of what goes on in prison goes on under Model B. Little guidance or
reflection takes place on how to bridge this gap. This analysis constituted in many ways
scathing critique (managerial terrorism, one governor remarked), but it was accepted,


and those in senior positions within the prison service engaged in amicable discussions
with us about its ramifications.8
Is it possible, as Becker hints, that in seeking to appreciate competing perspectives we
are successful at achieving neutrality9 in relation to the two or more groups at hand (say,
prisoners, staff, and senior managers), but have (implicitly or explicitly) a third or more
enlarged perspective, which still amounts to a side or view, or position. This is simply a
statement of the largely taken-for-granted epistemological argument that the social
world cannot be viewed without also being interpreted in the light of theories, whether
those theories are acknowledged or not (Bottoms 1999; also Gouldner 1975). The
question is whether this larger view amounts to a distortion or impediment to good
quality, valid work, and whether it can be made explicit:
Our problem is to make sure that, whatever point of view we take, our research meets the standards of
good scientific (sic) work, that our unavoidable sympathies do not render our results invalid (Becker
1967: 246).

Gouldner suggests that this third perspective is precisely the task of sociology:
Isnt it good for a sociologist to take the standpoint of someone outside of those most immediately
engaged in a specific conflict, or outside the group being investigated? Isnt it precisely this outside
standpoint, or our ability to adopt it, which is one source and one possible meaning of sociological
objectivity? Granted all standpoints are partisan; and, granted, no one escapes a partisan standpoint.
But arent some forms of partisanship more liberating than others? Isnt it the sociologists job to look at
human situations in ways enabling them to see things that are not ordinarily seen by the participants in
them? . . . It is only when we have a standpoint somewhat different from the participants that it becomes
possible to do justice to their standpoints. (Gouldner 1975: 567).

Achieving a position that is sensitive to and takes account of the standpoints of more than
one group is a question of research style and method, as well as a question of honesty,
responsibility and reflection. Whatever side we are on, Becker argues, we must use our
techniques in such a way that a belief to which we are especially sympathetic could be
proved untrue (Becker 1967: 246). Becker is anxious that the apparently simple solution
of interviewing the superordinates as well as the underdogs leads to a problem of infinite
regression: the superordinates have superiors too, and each will argue that the world is as
it is because those above them determine that it is so (pp. 2467). But this is surely to
misconstrue the nature of agency, power and constraint, the complexity of the hierarchy,
and the grasp that individual players at all levels have of their own room to make choices,
hold different views, to challenge others and to make sense of their own position. He
is correct that we should acknowledge through whose eyes we have sought to study
the prison. But unlike Becker, who sees each study taking one side at a time, I prefer the
sociologically more challenging project of seeking to appreciate the prison world with
more of those who shape it present. This is, surely, a valuable analytic task.

The path of such research has not always been so smooth, as those who know the ongoing story of Incentives and Earned Privileges
will be aware (see between the lines in Liebling 1999). Research projects can be seen as credible but dangerous, and become subject
to delay. It is interesting that in such cases, the individual establishments involved in the research often respond constructively to
critical findings, as they seek to improve their performance. It is at a more senior level that the research is regarded as unwelcome.
Neutrality between parties is not the same as impartiality (see Liebling and Price 1998; Harrison 1992).



Politics and prison research

Any research takes place within a political landscape, and can have political consequences, whether this is directly sought after (as some political-activist criminologists
might) or considered irrelevant. The search for truth can still take place, provided that
political goals do not override this search, and a strong empirical base is pursued (see
Bottoms 1999: 33, on the primacy of truth; and Gouldner 1975: 55-6 on its complexity).10
But this is a difficult business.11 There are pressures operating at several levels and many
minefields to fall into (see Liebling 1999). Let me use a recent example. I was asked in
August 1999 by the Prison Service to lead a small independent survey of prisoners views
about a large London local prison. The request came as a result of an early warning
offered to the Director General by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that a damning
unannounced inspection had just been completed and the published report was likely to
be highly critical. There were allegations of brutality and intimidation, and indications
that prisoners were in a state of sheer terror. There were growing differences of opinion
between the Director General and the Chief Inspector as an increasing number of such
critical reports were being published, apparently targeted at high profile establishments
in one area of the country. It looked as if the Chief Inspector might be waging a political
campaign. On the other hand, it was possible that this large London local was in a very
poor state (despite some contra-indications). Independent evaluation was necessary.
I was invited to consider carrying out the work, to form a judgment, and report to the
Director General on the views of prisoners about the prison.12
The project was of interest for several reasons. It would be well resourced (and would
involve a team), I would have access to sensitive information, there was a clear research
question and the Director General was genuinely interested in receiving an honest
account. The issues raisedabout staff-prisoner relationships, the use of discretion, the
operation of segregation unitswere issues of major and cumulative interest to me at
the time. There were several risks: I might disappoint either the Director General or the
Chief Inspector by being critical. It was possible that staff were out of control, and that
litigation and disciplinary action was inevitable. Staff at the prison were feeling bruised
and defensive, and might be hostile to any further inquiry. Prisoners might have worked
out that being critical of London local prisons to outsiders was a new and effective game,
as a result of media interest in previous newsworthy breaks. There might be all types and
degrees of hidden agendas lying behind the research request. One open agenda for the
research was that, in addition to achieving a clearer picture, there were guarded hopes
that it might help in the handling of publication. The political complexity added
interest (it is surely part of any penological research agenda). In the interests of truth
(motivated by genuine curiosity), I decided to accept the request, making a few
suggestions as to whom I would like on the team.13 Wasnt it all, however daunting, part of
the larger task of seeking to understand prisons?
Gouldner describes the search for truth as the search for something more, for other values that may have been obscured,
denied. . .for wholeness and human unity, a quasi-religious impulse (p. 556).
Even Socrates never insisted that all views must be at hand before the dialogue could begin (Gouldner 1975: 10).
For an account see Liebling et al., 2001.
There is of course a legitimate question about how researchers come to be invited to carry out such weighty tasks. A reputation for
integrity and independence within the Prison Service can create the risk of being regarded as in the Prison Services pocket in other
circles. This is a frustrating but creative tightrope to walk.



The outcome of the research was a very critical report. Prisoners did not feel safe from
staff, they did not feel respected; they were not involved in constructive activities in
prison and they did not feel that they were being assisted to maintain contact with their
families. There was a very strong culture of intimidation in the establishment, and an
amazing unwillingness by senior managers to acknowledge these difficulties.
Staffprisoner relationships were poor and there was an unhealthy preoccupation with
discipline in the prison. Staff were suffering from high levels of sick absence, low morale
and a lack of direction (Liebling et al. 1999). Our report was treated with caution, it was
handled in mischievous ways, the Governor of the prison was removed and our results
were not published, despite a real attempt at diplomatic presentation. We were however
invited to engage in discussions with people in high places about the quality of life in the
establishment and some of the reasons for its distressing culture. We developed the study
into a much broader project about measuring the quality of prison life, and those
responsible for the management of the prison involved us in their decision making about
its future and in discussions about similar problems in other establishments. It was
difficult not to be outraged by what we found. One senior official asked us for individual
cases giving evidence of physical brutality. We had undertaken the survey on the understanding that confidentiality was assured. Those prisoners who did talk about direct and
indirect instances of brutality did not want to be named and had not complained for fear
of the consequences. What is the researchers role in these circumstances? Is neutrality
desirable, achievable, relevant? The research was arguably significant in achieving some
(still resisted) acceptance of the truth about the prison and its culture. One wrong move
by the research team (speaking to the press, giving evidence in prosecutions, seeking
early publication) would have discredited this truth and rendered it powerless. As it is,
the power and influence of the study was precarious and limited. The political outcome
depends on the integrity, activities and continuing attentions of key players in a prison
service which is largely resistant to neutral truths, when these truths are unexpectedly
There have been other difficult situations. Should we accept invitations to carry out
research on policies we disapprove of? Should we remain in institutionscollecting
datawhere violence and brutality are practised? What should we do when we disagree
with our colleagues about our own practices? These are taxing and vital questionsand
in practice, are resolved in unsteady and imperfect ways. There is high emotional
drainage along the wayand always the threat of treading on a live mine in the
More mundane difficulties abound. Research teams are increasingly asked for feedback on research results at early stages on a project. During one project, for example,
our emerging results showed major differences between an establishments wings in
the use of a new policy, and major differences in wing style. We discussed the results
with the governor of the prison half way through the research as requested, only to return
to the prison on a subsequent occasion to find that the senior staff had been completely
reorganized, to even the wings out a little. There was a wing manager reshuffle. Staff
greeted us more or less warmly on our next visit, but a few remarked sharply, Oh, its you
two, back again. Does this mean I have to pack my office up?. I have also been caught up
in power struggles between senior managers in conflict, with emerging research findings
or my off-the-record comments about them being used as a weapon in the crossfire. I
have witnessed the same happening to colleagues.


What these examples illustrate is that any social research is also a human process and it
can therefore be fraught with personal dilemmas. All research is political, potentially
volatile and hazardousit involves other people, living and working in complex worlds
where power lies in both expected and unexpected places and is used in frightening
ways; dilemmas have to be resolved situationally and spontaneously. Research is a
political act because it involves wielding power, wading in other peoples power and
perhaps feeling powerless. It involves subjecting our selves to challenge and change,
sometimes to the edge (Ferrell and Hamm 1998). It takes political astuteness and
distance and, above all, being true to the data. There is a need for an ethic of rigour; a
thorough attention to detail; consistency; knowledge of the field; and some thought
given in advance to ethics (for example, fairness) and politics. Even given all of the latter,
mistakes and difficulties are always possible.14

Towards a (Mild) Social Constructivist, Adaptive Theoretical Approach


Anthony Bottoms argues, in his discussion of the relationship between theory and
research in criminology, that we need to balance the practice of theory with the practice
of empirical social science, in order to improve our understanding of the (in the end
real, empirical) social world, albeit one we all perceive and interpret from a standpoint of
some sort (Bottoms 1999: 56). He argues that, unless we opt for epistemological
relativism (which he rejects), we must accept that some theoretical accounts interpret
the real world more accurately and convincingly than others (p. 6). Those which work
well provide us with recognizable interconnections between different parts of the
complex world (p. 11).
What he saysthat some theories are better than others, and that interconnections
matteris equally true for the empirical part of the theory-research enterprise. Some
empirical projects are better than others and present us with more adequate versions of
the real world. Those which look in more than one direction to account for social
phenomena (like the problem of order in a prison, the functioning and purpose of small
units for difficult prisoners, the development of private prisons, or the causes of suicide
in prison) do a more adequate job than those which look only through the eyes of
prisoners, prison staff or senior managers (or families, or ministers, and so on), particularly when the aim of the project is to assess or evaluate. Those which acknowledge interconnections (relationships) between existing perspectives do better still. No issue can be
taken for granted (for example, the hypothesis that officials have power) or is too trivial
for our attention (for example, the possibility that there are several other sides to the
story). As Bottoms argues in relation to theory, good synthesis (the combination of parts
or elements to form a whole) is difficult, but is better than unthinking eclecticism, where
no attempt is made to create intellectual harmony between discrete elements (Bottoms
1999: 14, citing Flew 1979).

And then what you need is a good friend.

This unwieldy heading is taken from a recent article by Bottoms (1999), in which he makes a case for the continuing welding of
theory and empirical data (where theory both grows out of and is used to steer data collection), in relation to criminological research
more generally, within a non-relativistic intellectual framework (that is, where the world can be known).



My argument, following his, is that empirical research requires the same attention to
synthesis. Serious attempts to synthesize (analyse the whole) have to make sense of
different perspectives. Allegiance to a single perspective or unthinking eclecticism (the
taking on board of different perspectives but no attempt to synthesize them) in empirical
research, are both limited approaches, which at their worst are difficult to distinguish
from administrative or politically driven inquiries and investigations. Analysis (the
difference between administrative empiricism and good quality research) involves
reflection, deconstruction, moral engagement and sensitivity to possible political consequences. Synthesis between different or competing perspectives, within this broad
analytic framework, sharpens our focus in exactly the same way that Bottoms describes
when theory and data are welded together in an ongoing cumulative search for the
truth (Bottoms 1999: 15). In this sense, our allegiances, and our struggle to balance
them, can be a crucial part of our research.
This is not the view of some of my colleagues, whose allegiances are clearer, whose urge
to protest and defend the offender are more marked, and whose moral courage and
sense of what is right sometimes troubles me. I was intrigued to read Laurie Taylors
account of his recent interview with Robert Reiner (for Radio 4s Thinking Allowed).
Twenty years ago, Reiner suffered the wrath of the hard left by refusing to go along with
the simplistic view that the police were no more than instruments of the state who
cynically used the issue of crime on the streets as an excuse to introduce more repressive
social control (Reiner 1998: 845). Radical students of the day referred to the police as
fascists and Nazis. Reiner, whose own parents had survived the holocaust, argued that
the police were neither paragons nor pigs: they were doing the tragically inescapable
job of managing, often coercively, the symptoms of deeper social conflicts and malaise.
Was this too conciliatoryor the careful perspective of a man who understood, at a very
deep level, the need to understand? Taylor retells Reiners encounter at a police
conference (see Reiner 1998: 90-2), where an official from the Police Federation
declared to a group of chief constables that:
no one should talk to him because he was born in Hungary and [is] therefore a dangerous red. When
Reiner asked the man how he knew the details of his birthplace, he calmly replied, Ive seen your file.
He never mentioned the incident to friends on the hard left. It might have aroused too much envy.
(Taylor 1999: 7)

To address these questions about perspectives in the end includes accounting for the
biography or psychological configuration of the observer: who is the I who observes and
interprets? How do we define intellectual integrity; and is it possible to have what Stan
Cohen described (Cohen 1998: 99) as a double loyalty, both to political and social
values, and to social scientific researchand to keep them in any sense distinct? To
believe in the possibility of some social science truths (for example, is there brutality in a
local prison and what form does it take?) does not necessarily imply that there is a fixed
reality or master narrative at the level of explanation (see again Cohen 1998). We can
suspend our value judgments until we have a better sense of what is (or even, for the
sceptical, what might be). Our values are of course relevant when we are more deliberately analytic about our discoveries, when we seek theoretical insights, when we are
working out what their meanings might be, and, if possible, in our realist moments,
what ought to flow from them. As Cohen argues: our persistent scepticism . . . takes
place at a different level from our policy choices (Cohen 1998: 119). Critical and


theoretical reflection has a major relevance because it makes facile gestures difficult
(Cohen 1998: 120, citing Foucault). To achieve this important goal, we need to persist in
research activities that are apparently irrelevant, as well asat the same time asthose
that are.
Does this amount to closet positivism? I doubt it. Cohen argues that there are
different levels of value-driven activity: a commitment to honest intellectual enquiry; a
political commitment to social justice; and the pressing demands of social realitypolicy
makers and assorted citizensasking for short-term humanitarian help. He maintains:
It is quite possible to recognize the contingency of your values, language, and conscience, yet remain
wholly faithful to them. (Cohen 1998: 122)

These values are in tensionbut living with this complexity is a more legitimate route to
take than trying to control or eliminate it. There are other important questions to ask: in
our accounts, what role does gender play, in our attitudes towards ourselves and in
others attitudes to us? Where does any truth liein allegiances, in careful research
methods, or in a set of principles applied to all human agents in a research encounter
subordinates and superordinates alike? Or in all of these, cautiously brought together?
These are important and difficult questions, with serious consequences for the
researched. Whose side are we on? The side of prudent, perhaps reserved, engagement.
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