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The Reflective Process

Reflection is recognised to be a crucial process in many disciplines, yet the privileging of such reflexive accounts is shied away from in much written research. In prisons, prisoners, staff, and management must constantly reflect upon their actions in order to advance—it is a key element in the majority of offending behaviour programmes that prisoners often have to engage with as part of their sentence plans. The visiting researcher should be no different. Schon, in encouraging professional reflection in and on action, makes the point that:

when we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way. Often we cannot say what it is that we know. When we try to describe it we find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously inappropriate. Our knowledge is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. It seems right to say that our knowing is in action. (Schon 1983:49)

This situation is the same for everyone—we all know different elements of life in different ways. The subjectivity of the lived experience is unavoidable, even if we wished to live some other way. What is vital, however, is the personal acknowledgement of such internalised subjectivities, in an effort for those reading your work to be able to see the research and its interpretations through the writer’s eyes. The reflective notes within each substantive chapter aim to provide this viewpoint for the reader. Not only this, but as Jewkes (2012) has recognised, it allows those following in the researcher’s footsteps to see the process as it really was (as opposed to the sanitised, ‘happy-go-lucky’ versions so often published).

For example, once in the prison, as I spent more and more time there, I began to experience the negative effects of being in such an environment—feelings of stress, empathy for prisoners that resulted in emotions, and so on. By taking notes on these feelings with my observations, the field notes turned into a reflexive diary that would be of use later in adding depth to the interview data, in addition to becoming a manner through which to purge myself of (some) emotions and stresses, and thus a way of debriefing in confidence to ‘someone’ who would not become overburdened by my experiences. In this research, issues surrounding the positioning of the researcher in relation to the participant and consideration of my role in shaping the knowledge that emerged were the most pertinent.

This matters in gendered prison research. Many of the early prison sociological studies were undertaken by men about men, but did not acknowledge this fact. If they had been more reflexive in this regard, perhaps their research could have been subjected to greater scrutiny— on the one hand, the male gender allowed these individuals access to the male social sphere within the prison, but one could question what this prevented them from seeing or hearing. How did the fact that both participants and researchers in these studies were men impact upon the interpretations made of the prison social setting, particularly when one considers the fact that the shared masculine cultural script may have left some ‘normal’ masculine behaviours and activities unexamined? By considering the standpoint of the researcher in a process of reflexivity, extra dimensions of the research open up. This is why reflexivity is of particular importance, particularly in prison research where the setting is generally closed off to the public eye—the manner in which interpretations are made may have wider implications as fewer others are able to scrutinise the conclusions drawn due to the relative lack of comparable knowledge, highlighting the reflexive interdependence of researcher, method, and analysis (Piacentini 2007: 155).

In this research, the research diary emerged as an extremely useful addition to the interview data, supplementing the transcripts and observations more than I had ever imagined, creating a new layer of interpretation with regard to the role of the researcher in the creation and manipulation of the research setting (a process that is regularly acknowledged in constructivist accounts), but also how the research setting can have impacts upon the researcher, which in turn shapes the outcome of the research process. It was an attempt to examine the impact on the research of the ‘baggage’ (Arendell 1997: 343) of those involved in the interview. I had always realised that my presence in the prison and as a researcher would shape the outcome of the research, but had never considered the possibility of the research and the prison/prisoners/staff shaping me and my personal identity/individuality. The research diary as a method of ‘emotional attentiveness’ (Piacentini 2007: 153) and a record was highly worthwhile and valuable—it allowed a deeper understanding of my role in the formation and interpretation of data, and from which to begin considerations as to the minimisation and relevance of the influence of subjectivities in the wider theoretical and empirical setting. My diary recorded observed interactions, my emotions, stresses, and apprehensions, and my concerns about the impact I was having upon the research.

Jewkes argues that ‘“wearing a mask” is arguably the most common strategy for coping with the rigours of imprisonment’ (2005: 53)—the reflexive diary enabled some investigation of the nature of the mask worn by the researcher and, of course, the researcher’s own identity in the research context. Arguably it is key not to detract from the overall focus upon the prisoner experience by undertaking ‘self-indulgent navelgazing’ (Cunliffe 2003: 990), yet at the same time, as Liebling noted, ‘it is impossible to be neutral. Personal and political sympathies contaminate (or less judgmentally, inform) our research’ (2001: 472). As such, it is essential to recognise one’s ‘subjective positioning’ and personal feelings regarding the research prior to its actual commencement, but it is also a useful process as it allows some recognition of the ‘multiple places to stand in the story’ and the ‘multiple levels of emotionality’ (Piacentini 2007: 163) of the researcher.

I came to this research project with little practical experience of allmale institutions, with no direct experience of researching or interviewing individuals on such a scale, particularly within the prison institution. Such feelings of wishing to help rather than hinder, and my apparent naivety, could have put me at risk when interacting with the prison population, though in practice actually seemed to be of benefit. King and Liebling state the rule: don’t ‘continue once compassion fatigue sets in’ (2008: 445). I did not, and I am still highly sensitive to the emotional aspect of imprisonment. Yet, as Warr notes, ‘it is possible to have an empathetic understanding of other people’s experiences through research’ (2004: 578), which may even be ‘a significant guide to or even source of valuable data’ (Liebling 1999: 147). Although I did my best to encourage trust and rapport with individuals, I could not justify risking my personal safety by entering into a reciprocal relationship with regard to the exchange of personal information, but by maintaining a professional and friendly, albeit private identity, it is hoped that participants were put at ease in the interview process.

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