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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Research that works for everyone: using inclusive methodologies to understand aspirations of higher education towards desistance from offending

by Mark Jones and Debbie Jones

In this Blog we share our experiences of conducting research with adults that have offended or are at high risk of offending and who also experience other challenges relating to mental health, substance use, housing, health, and education. This is our second Blog that discusses a project, funded by SRHE, which sought to understand the role of Higher Education in facilitating aspirations of those at risk of offending/reoffending who wish to desist from offending behaviours. You can read the first Blog that presented the findings of the study here. This blog focuses on two interlinked aspects of the project: the methodological philosophy we adopted in the study; and the use of a Pictorial Narrative Approach to data collection and analysis.

The study was the first of its kind in Wales as it set out to examine the role of Higher Education within the context of prevention of offending/reoffending within a community setting. A key strength of the project was that it brought together academics, third sector and statutory agencies (who seek to support and divert adults at risk of first time offending and those seeking support with desistance from offending) and those at risk of offending/reoffending. The research was therefore very much a partnership and this was a key value and driving force of the research.  We offer three areas of interest for this partnership project with The Hub who offer provision for ex-offenders, their families and the wider community.

Values versus Rules

Our study adopted an anti-oppressive approach and was underpinned by a hybrid approach of participatory action and community engagement and learning. It therefore worked with those at risk of offending/reoffending as partners and sought to empower and encourage aspiration by carrying out research through ‘doing with’ rather than ‘researching on’ participants. With this in mind, it challenged some of the accepted guidelines for effective research design – one example being our decision to move away from the more accepted text book guidance regarding focus groups size (Stewart et al, 2014) and structure (Sim and Waterfield, 2019).

Many researchers prescribe focus group size and conclude that five to eight is an effective size, with others suggesting that focus groups with over twelve participants loose coherence and value (Ochieng et al, 2019). In addition, Sim and Waterfield (2019) discuss the ethics of focus groups and suggest that the researcher(s) need to ensure all voices are heard, which can be difficult due to group dynamics and dominant voices – especially so within discussions that are of sensitive contexts such as our research. Indeed, in addition to recalling their experiences of education in the context of offending, many of our sample expressed experiences of multiple challenges and barriers in their day to day lives which might lead some to consider them as ‘vulnerable.’

However, one of the key strengths of the project was that through collaborative discussions with our research partner ‘The Hub’, it became apparent that to limit the number of participants and try to organise smaller groups would in fact lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion. It was abundantly clear that if we wanted to understand the experiences of the participants – many of which were traumatic and still ‘raw’, then the structure of the focus group had to be engaging, therapeutic and most importantly, on the terms of the members of The Hub. Therefore, to carry out the focus group in line with ‘text book’ instruction would have been in total contradiction to the philosophy of the organisation and indeed our inclusive ‘research with’ approach.

Adopting the view that the value/ethos of the project outweighed the ‘rules’ of focus group design, led us to break with convention and support all sixteen members of The Hub who turned up on the day to participate in the focus group. The members who participated that day shared their experiences of education and also of vulnerability, not only with us but with the wider group. Indeed, Gordon (2020) suggests that in acknowledging the vulnerability of participants in research, consideration needs to be given to the seriousness of it and researchers should develop their approach in relation to the lived context – and this is what we did whilst in the room that day. At times the conversation fluctuated away from the crib sheet of questions as participants struggled to articulate the day-to-day challenges they experienced – some of which are evident from the pictorial accounts in this Blog.

Creative Narrative Approaches that Enhance Storytelling

Sandberg and Ugelvik (2016) point out that ‘story telling’ is nothing new and is in fact a facet of our humanistic behaviours that helps us to make sense of the world we inhabit. Many cultural criminologists have adopted a narrative approach within their research and in recent years have started to explore the role of visual methods as a way to enhance knowledge and engagement with research, to provide a break with the taken for granted view of social reality, and to ‘democratise’ crime control (Francis, 2009; Brown, 2014; Carr, et al, 2015; Sandberg and Ugelvik, 2016).

As researchers with an extensive background in supporting marginalised communities and using qualitative methods in research, we were really drawn to using a fairly new approach called ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping’ which has been identified as providing a holistic, nuanced account of the phenomena under study (Lapum et al, 2015). We really appreciated that whilst many studies have used creative means of data collection such as drawing, poetry or photography to enable those with limited confidence, linguistic or literacy capacity to participate fully (Glaw et al, 2017), some have pointed out that not all participants have the capacity to be creative (Brown, 2014). Therefore, adopting the Pictorial Narrative approach enabled the members in the focus groups to vocalise their response whilst observing the analyst draw her interpretations of their views. We found this approach worked really well in that it captured the discussions clearly and in a way that the focus group members could see and therefore relate to. This approach as it was ‘live’ also motivated people to comment, acknowledge and start new threads of conversation which meant immediate triangulation of data analysis which is something that has been identified as bringing about increased trustworthiness of the findings (Glaw et al, 2017).

It was clear the process and approach was positive and arguably therapeutic with all members thanking us for the opportunity to take part in the pictorial approach, as the following quote and visual representation summarises:

“This is great! Can we have a copy and then we can go back every couple of weeks and think about what we said today and see if we getting to where we want to be.”   Pete

A ‘strengths’ outcome for participants

Dybicz (2011) discusses the use of a strengths-based approach in social work practice and concludes it requires a shift in thinking from the practitioner and movement to supporting people to reflect, identify and self-direct their own positives and future development goals. Zimmerman (2013) suggests that when using such an approach in research, the process should offer a safe space to reflect on positive factors that can be acknowledged and utilised to transform to new goals, aspirations, and future directions.

These notions capture this research’s philosophy and desired impact and outcomes well. The impetus for the project came from the community and the ethos of the Hub is that the service is user led, and so using this approach gave all sixteen participants a strong voice. All members were heard and listened to with their stories captured accurately by the artist. Each of their narratives was illustrated and at the end of the engagement event the participants were delighted to see that all their voices were included.

However, it was also apparent that the participants saw the value in this method as a way to measure their own progress and future intentions as the quote above demonstrates.  Measuring any form of intervention or personal development towards desistance has been shown to be problematic but as Pete’s quote illustrates, there is power in narrative/visual methods in enabling those at risk of offending to  acknowledge where there are, the strengths they possess and the transition to their new identity – whether that is through HE or something else.

It was clear therefore that members had identified their strengths and felt more positive following the focus group with a greater sense of self-worth. This is illustrated well by John, a participant who was really emotional after the focus group and came back to thank us for supporting him to have his voice heard.

“I’ve never in all my life have someone just listen to me and let me speak, and you know, really listen. It has made me so happy, I really feel good and I can look to the future. Thank you.” John

Conclusion

The benefits of using a value driven process and a Pictorial Narrative Mapping approach to this project are clear. Using more creative, inclusive, and non-standard approaches can be extremely useful from a scientific point of view, offering deeply satisfying and valued experiences for both research participants and researchers. The impact and outcomes of such approaches offer shared power and clear ethical integrity and when working with some of the most vulnerable people in society also create contexts where there is personal growth from being part of the research process and so in this way an embodiment of a strengths approach to social research. So in conclusion we would suggest that when appropriate, be bold and step away from the confinement of the methods texts that sometimes holds us back as researchers and endeavour to make those societal changes happen in practice. Our research might not change how Higher Education reaches out to those at risk of offending across the whole sector but what we have done is enabled those without a voice, to feel valued and heard and, in our view, this has been the true value of this project.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain.

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc. 

Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

You can read the full report of this research for the SRHE here.

References

Brown, M (2014) ‘Visual Criminology and Carceral Studies’ Theoretical Criminology 18(2): 176-197

Carr, N, Bauwens, A, Bosker, J, Donker, A, Robinson, G, Sucic, I, and Worrall, A. (2015) ‘ Picturing Probation: Exploring the Utility of Visual methods in Comparative Research’ European Journal of Probation 7(3): 179-200

Dybicz, P (2011) ‘Interpreting the Strengths Perspective Through Narrative Theory. Families in Society’ The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 92.10.1606/1044-3894.4132

Francis, P (2009) ‘Visual Criminology’ Criminal Justice Matters, 78

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16: 1-8 

Gordon BG (2020) ‘Vulnerability in Research: Basic Ethical Concepts and General Approach to Review’ The Ochsner Journal 20(1): 34–38 https://doi.org/10.31486/toj.19.0079

Lapum, J, Liu, L, Hume, S, Wang, S, Nguyen, B, and Harding, K (2015) ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping as a Qualitative Analytic Technique’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 14(5)

Ochieng NT, Wilson K, Derrick CJ, and Mukherjee N (2018) ‘The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation’ Methods Ecol Evol 2018 9:20–32 https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12860

Sandberg, S and Ugelvik, T (2016) ‘The Past, Present and Future of Narrative Criminology: A Review and an Invitation’ Crime, Media and Culture 12(2): 129-136

Sim, J., Waterfield, J. Focus group methodology: some ethical challenges. Qual Quant 53, 3003–3022 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00914-5

Stewart DW, Shamdasani PN, and Rook DW (2014) Focus Groups. Theory and Practice (3rd edn) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Zimmerman MA (2013) ‘Resiliency theory: a strengths-based approach to research and practice for adolescent health’ Health education and behavior: the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 40(4): 381–383 https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198113493782


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Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.

This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.

It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships.  Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.

However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.

In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

References

Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8

Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396

McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf

Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong

Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918

Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334