Here goes…

In a few hours, I head off to Brussels for the first meeting of the working groups of ‘Offender supervision in Europe’. About 40 leading scholars from around Europe (representing 19 countries) will be sharing their reviews of existing research in four key areas: experiencing supervision, practising supervision, decision-making and supervision, and European policy and practice. Needless to say, I’m intrigued to find out what these reviews of research will reveal.

Admittedly a little late, I put the finishing touches to my own review of ‘Experiencing supervision in Scotland’ about half an hour ago… I have already uploaded it to out website, so if you are interested in what 50 years of research can and can’t tell us about the experience of supervision in one small country, click on the link below…

Experiencing Supervision in Scotland

For those of you too busy to read the whole paper (it’s 5,000 words), here’s the punchline:

“Looking at the substantive findings from these studies across 50 years of offender supervision in Scotland, the main message would seem to be that the experience of supervision is a highly variable and contingent one. The meaning, substance and impact of supervision is constructed somewhere in the interplay between the offender’s characteristics, attitudes, disposition and situation, and the characteristics, attitudes, disposition and situation of the officer. But both of these key actors are themselves influenced by multiple social systems. For the offender these systems may be personal, familial, peer group related and environmental; for the officer they are personal-professional, team-related and organisational. The wider social context of penality also influences both the construction of the practice and experience of supervision (McNeill, forthcoming; Robinson, McNeill and Maruna, forthcoming). Given that the experience of supervision is nested within these various systemic and personal influences, it is perhaps no surprise that it is so contingent in its forms and so vulnerable to personal and social interactions. In consequence, the experience of supervision emerges as a dynamic and fluid one.

However, our grasp to date of these interacting influences upon supervision – and of the complexities of supervision as a lived experience – is seriously constrained by methodological limitations of three main sorts. Firstly, there is a probable selection bias in many (but not all) of the studies reviewed above, in that they often rely on self-selection of respondents and/or are affected by low response rates. There is reason to believe that the picture of supervision that they present is likely to be skewed towards those with favourable supervision experiences, who are more likely to be in contact with services, to be traced easily by researchers and to respond favourably to research access requests. Secondly, the studies reported above (Malloch and McIvor’s aside) are relatively insensitive to issues of diversity and how they impact on supervision, tending to treat offenders as a relatively homogeneous group. Thirdly, these studies rely on accounts of supervision rather than on observations of supervision. These accounts may be influenced by social desirability biases (e.g. anticipating that the researcher expects positive responses, or wishing the interview to reflect favourably on the supervisor) and perhaps by anxiety about reporting adverse experiences (i.e. where to do so might be perceived as risking negative reactions and adverse consequences from supervisors). Both limitations may tend to produce an artificially or at least unrepresentatively positive account of supervision.

By implication, a richer (and more accurate) grasp of the lived experience of supervision seems to require the development of more fully ethnographic studies of probation – studies which take diversity seriously and which are specifically prospective in nature, observing and engaging with the experience as it happens, rather than relying on retrospective accounts of it. Only such an approach seems capable of generating a properly cultural account of supervision as a lived experience in its inter-personal, social and organisational contexts.”  

After the meeting, I’m hoping we’ll be able to post a lot more about the findings of other people’s reviews, and about opur discussions.

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