An oral history of supervision

I was tidying up some admin today and came across the final report of an oral history project Beth Weaver and  I completed a few years ago. I know that several people in the Action have an interest in the history of supervision — and in oral history in particular — so here’s the short summary of the project from that report. [A longer paper based on some of these findings can be accessed at:    Helping, Holding and Hurting]

The project employed oral history methods in interviews with 25 people who were probation educators (n=2), officers (n=11) or probationers (n=12) in Scotland in the 1960s. The aim was to explore the interstices between ‘official’ accounts of probation history, practitioners’ experiences and the experiences of probationers themselves, thus producing a rich and multi-layered account of the construction and experience of probation as an historical penal practice.The probation officers and educators were recruited through snowball sampling. Arranging and completing these interviews proved to be time-consuming. Many potential respondents (most of whom were in their 80s) had health problems; several interviews had to be cancelled or rescheduled and so these interviews were not completed until early in 2009. Eleven of the ex-probationer participants were recruited through 4 separate newspaper adverts early in 2009. One was recruited via his former probation officer. Again the process of securing interviews was not straightforward. Although people chose to respond to these adverts, their other commitments and, occasionally, a degree of ambivalence about participating, often meant that repeated attempts to conduct interviews were required. The last of these interviews was not completed until July 2009. All of the interviews were fully transcribed and data analysis continued until the end of award period. It was a challenging process, given the need to analyse in depth both each narrative in itself, emerging themes across narratives and across different types of narrative (practitioner and probationer).

The main substantive findings of this project are as follows. Probation officers’ accounts of their pathways into probation work reveal the significance not only of the types of religious and political values that one might expect to find associated with humanitarian endeavour, but also of more mundane needs for meaningful work that carried a degree of social status. Their accounts of their selection and recruitment suggest a preoccupation (amongst the selectors) with the creation of a workforce capable of engaging with people in adversity but unlikely to disrupt established hierarchies within the court system. Probation officers were often ambivalent about the power and status of courts and judges; though they sometimes experienced this as marginalising and even oppressive, they were also attracted to the associated status lent them as officers of the court.

Although they recollected their formal training to varying degrees, probation officers learned the job principally from their peers – and such processes of professional socialisation may have had a conservative effect, ensuring continuities with earlier eras and diminishing the practical impact of new strategies and techniques. Perhaps partly for this reason, the approaches to practice that they described were much less imbued with theories of ‘social casework’ than might be expected from a reading of official and academic sources of the time. Routine practice, most of it with young people, was focused principally on diversion and containment, with casework or ‘treatment’ approaches reserved for the small number of adults on probation, particularly those with mental health problems.  In the course of their work, probation officers were also highly conscious of their engagements with local communities, working in a patch-based system to build ties to informal sources of social control and support (families, churches, employers, youth organisations, former probationers). They actively used such ties to try to bind probationers; ‘binding’ them sometimes in the sense of healing but often in the sense of restraining.

Many of these themes find echoes in the accounts of the probationers’ experiences. Their recollections of probation were also rooted in particular places – most often communities simultaneously characterised by mutual support and chronic disadvantage. Frequently, their accounts linked this wider context of adversity to a range of family problems and to the attractions of peer group ‘gangs’ during their adolescence. Most were on probation as juveniles, as first offenders and for minor property offences. They had little recollection of pre-trial assessment and recalled the court as an alienating place through which they were processed rather than in which they were engaged. Almost all had very clear recollections of their probation officers – for better or worse – and could still articulate the powerful sense of intimidation they experienced in their first encounters; intimidation that was commonly based on both physical presence and social status.

The impact and experience of probation seems to have been highly contingent on the officer’s capacity to bridge the social distance between officer and probationer and to establish communication and mutual respect. Where officers succeeded in communicating care and hope, positive effects often resulted in the short or long term, but where they failed to do so the process of supervision became at best formulaic and superficial. Although officers’ accounts understandably stressed the ‘helping’ aspects of probation and many probationers recognised and celebrated this, probation was also experienced as both a ‘holding’ and a ‘hurting’ experience. Most often helping, holding and hurting combined together in individual accounts of supervision. The holding elements included support and protection but also containment and surveillance, often though the mobilisation of the informal ties referred to above. The hurting elements included rare accounts of sexual and physical abuse of probationers by probation staff, but more typically related to the burdensome nature of supervision and to the pains (including incarceration) that followed enforcement action. Notably, some of the holding and hurting elements of supervision were deemed tolerable because they were underwritten by relationships of care and support. But in the absence of such relationships, or where such relationships broke down, the burdens and pains of supervision were significantly magnified.

Returning to the overall aim of the project, the main implication of this study is that we cannot properly make sense of probation or of penality if our accounts of it rely too heavily on ‘official’ sources that are detached or abstracted from the relationships and interactions between particular people at particular places in particular times. Indeed, in an important sense, beyond a narrow legal definition, probation has no meaning, no character and no architecture that defines it, until it is invented in and through its associated human processes and practices. In these processes and practices, bridging the social distance between the punished and the punishers is critical. It matters for instrumental reasons because influencing people’s lives is contingent on the legitimacy of the relational authority that an authority or a professional possesses. But it also matters for normative reasons because doing justice to people is not merely an abstract process of applying the proper rules, processes or procedures; it is also a human process of communication and engagement – or of the failure to communicate and engagement.

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