A framework for comparative research on supervision?

This guest post comes for Louise Brangan, a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh. It is based on a presentation she delivered at an ESRC funded seminar on ‘Devolution and Criminal Justice’ at Queen’s University  Belfast on 13th September 2013.

The benefits of comparative criminal justice research are plentiful. The contrasts created by comparative study often highlight taken-for-granted values and can illuminate specific practices or understandings that may have previously gone unremarked. Moreover, it can help us account for similarity and difference in penal practice. The best comparative criminal justice, however, is founded on specificity – what exactly are we comparing? This post is a brief overview of a blueprint for comparative work which I am employing for the study of penal politics in Ireland and Scotland. However, the basic features would be easily transferred to most areas of penal practice.

When exploring occupational sites of penal power, we need to first conceptualise these places for the process of comparative research. Firstly, like all occupations, penal practice is constrained by official rules, demands and boundaries. These institutional contours are important characteristics which inform the operation of penality. Secondly, institutions are operated and animated by people. These practitioners operate within a collective institutional culture which shapes how issues of penality are understood. Consequently, we need to look both at the institutional and administrative frameworks and at their inhabitant agents and how they understand and mobilise the practice of penality. History is the third dimension of this comparative framework. The past is ever present, it shapes the modes in which people work and think today and comparative research must attend to historical legacies in each context.


Institutions provide the conceptual framework for this comparative approach. This draws attention to how penal practice is organised, charting the specific institutions which shape and direct penal practice and practitioners. Exploring institutions requires a focus on the rules – those characteristics that formally shape any working sphere. Institutions and their features matter because they provide the rules of the game, they are very concrete regulations which outline expectations. Each institution has a stated set of standard expectations; defining what actors are obliged to do, formally shaping their workloads, day-to-day routines and habits. They are the very concrete frameworks which outline the procedures for penal agents and the demands of their work. These institutional channels also provide paths for action, inaction and interaction. Elucidating how they differ between jurisdictions is an important first step in comparatively reviewing distinct patterns in penal practice.

The finer detail and dimensions of this institutional framework is similar to David Garland’s recent presentation on the penal state outlined by Fergus in a recent post so I won’t rehash it here. Nonetheless, it is important to stress the need to map the sites of offender supervision within the wider penal-institutional topography. What other institutions or bodies are they connected to? To what agencies or branches of government are they responsible? If there are number of agencies involved in offender supervision then the next step is to map the dispersal of power between them.

Agency and Culture

If we have comparatively mapped the institutions which inform penal practice, we know where it is situated within the broader relations of the institutions of penal power and we can see how this varies from one context to the next. The next comparative step we need to take is to fill these institutions with the dynamism of agency, examining the cultural currents that exist inside these criminal justice occupational sites. In attending to culture and agency we are comparatively assessing the embedded mores, values, beliefs, penal sensibilities and fears of penal actros — all of which form a sort of shared world view, or institutional ethos.

Employing interviewing and ethnography as a methodological approach allows us to speak to people and to observe their routines – allowing us to unravel the networks of meaning and capture the texture of values and beliefs which are the enduring and constitutive sensibilities which shape how issues of penality are understood.

One important point should be added here. Within this framework there is room for happenstance; actors are not cultural or institutional automatons. Both chance events and human agency (meaning the power to interpret values differently or to approach the rules of the game in a new way) can be vital sources of change in penal practice and not factors that should be sidelined. The vagaries of events and of human action within these sites of penal practice must be part of the explanation of how the routines of penal practice are informed.

This project is about comparatively creating a rich sense of place – exploring the subjective orientations of actors within the institutional sites in which they operate. This allows us to better understand ‘penality-in-practice’ (McNeil et al 2009:420). Top-down changes in policy rationales are not neatly grafted onto the criminal justice cultures below the political arena. The perceived import of policy in the minds of practitioners is mediated through the values and perceptions of agents and the institutional rules which bind them. Variations in the institutional composition and the subjective orientations of penal agents can illuminate how and why policy changes are operationalized, assimilated or even resisted in divergent ways across various sites of penal practice.


A comparative project such as this must also confront issues of historical legacy and path dependency. To understand the variation in characteristics of penal practice between jurisdictions we need to review their distinct histories and antecedents. Understanding the present requires an excavation of both the institutional architecture of the past and the ideational tones of the culture therein, tracking how they have evolved. These historical preconditions of practice have left a legacy which shapes current action and understanding. This has methodological repercussions, creating a need for oral histographies within the research tool kit. Along with looking at those who presently work in criminal justice arenas, we also must encourage those who worked within these sites to recall and reflect upon their work.


While this post is something of a whistle-stop tour of this comparative approach, hopefully it indicates a road map for comparative criminal justice research which can be conceptual, empirically rigorous and historically grounded. This may seem daunting as this comparative approach has depth, bringing us inside the sites of penal practice and connecting these to the broader institutional structures of penal power. However, exploring the variation in cultural currents and institutional context of penal practice and the historical trajectories that underpin them can yield rich new insights into how and why penal practice operates in distinct and diverse ways between and across jurisdictions.


McNeil, F; Burns, N, Halliday, S; Hutton, N and Tata, C (2009) Risk, responsibility and reconfiguration – Penal adaptation and misadaptation, in Punishment and Society, Vol 11(4): 419-422

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