Practising supervision: Innovative research methods?

This post comes from Jake Phillips, who reflects on his experience of the ‘Practising Supervision’ working group at the recent Malta meeting.

This was the second time I had attended a COST event. The first was the conference in Liverpool but this was the first time I felt like I really got stuck in and that, for me, is what made the meeting so enjoyable. Rather than spending two days listening to others, the majority of the meeting was spent working in small groups thinking about how to go about conducting a small but innovative piece of research into what it means to practise supervision across Europe. I decided to join a subgroup which was working on using practice diaries to investigate the practise of supervision – something which has not been done on a large scale, as identified in the book Offender Supervision in Europe.

We began by looking at other research (from outside the realm of community sanctions) which had used diaries as a method of research. This led to a discussion about how structured we wanted to make our diaries which resulted in a wide ranging conversation about what kind of data we want to generate and how it might be used. One issue which came up, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the time that it might take for practitioners to complete the diaries on a daily basis – we were keen to ensure that they don’t place too great a burden on practitioners’ daily lives. This informed our decision to make our diary entries relatively structured which we hope practitioners will complete on a daily basis, giving us a picture of a ‘day in the life’ of a probation worker. We decided that the structured nature of the diary necessitated a follow up reflective interview in order to examine the processes and mechanisms which underpin the general picture generated by the diary itself (for the pilot we plan to use these interviews to think about how the diary entry process went in order with a view to use to refine and amend the tool for a larger piece of research). We also discussed ethics and access and it was clear that these varied considerably across jurisdictions – at the moment we are planning a very small pilot but it was clear that these might present considerable issues when we come to do the research on a larger scale. Finally, we thought about how we could make the diaries useful to practitioners themselves and considered how we could use them to conduct action research alongside the generation of the data – we hope that by including a space for practitioners to reflect on their day as part of the diary entry they will be able to learn something new about their work.

Having created a basic version of the diary tool the Practising Supervision working group reconvened and we heard about how the other subgroups had got on in their discussions around visualising probation and using observations to research probation. It was interesting to note that many of the same issues had arisen (such as how structured to be when designing the initial tool/instructions for participants, as well as issues around access and ethics). For me, the most interesting observation was that all subgroups had decided to use interviews to augment their primary mode of research. Whilst such a mixed methods approach might result in deeper and more nuanced data, it made me think about whether we need to work harder to move away from using interviews (the method which has been used most widely in probation research) or whether there is something inherently useful about them, above and beyond these innovative methods we are involved in developing. In essence, I wondered whether we were using innovative methods for the sake of it, or whether we were simply being constrained by what has come before. I think that this is partly a product of the international nature of the research – all subgroups decided to impose some structure on the initial use of their innovative method and I suspect this is because of the different contexts in which we work: there is a need to set parameters when doing comparative research in different legal frameworks, languages and with differing levels of resources  in order to ensure that everyone is focused on the same thing. The answer to this question will, hopefully, come out in due course once we’ve managed to actually do some research and then reflect on the process which will result, again hopefully, in a special issue of the European Journal of Probation on using innovative methods when researching probation. For now though, all members of the subgroup which is using practice diaries have agreed to pilot our tool with at least one practitioner in each jurisdiction and will report back at the next meeting in Belfast in October where, I’m sure, we’ll all be engaged in yet more interesting (and sometimes thorny) discussions about how best to go about conducting comparative research into the practise of offender super vision.

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