Multiple Methods in Malta or: the joys and pains of comparative research

This time, our COST caravan pitched the tents on the beautiful and hospitable island of Malta – Grazzi to Sandra, Mariella and Trevor! The spring sun was tempting, but we resisted and stayed indoors to continue the work we started in Bratislava last autumn. There, the different working groups had begun to develop ideas on how to actually study offender supervision comparatively. Meanwhile the multitude of methods under scrutiny is impressive: Supervising staff keeping diaries; giving supervisors and supervisees a ‘photovoice’; doing observations as well as  using vignettes are discussed and we will see pilotes in due course (some have been done already!).


Part of the Working Group on “Experiencing Offender Supervision” had decided to go quantitative. For the Malta meeting Jelena Zeleskov and Ioan Durnescu had prepared a good paper highlighting once more the relevance of aspects such as autonomy, the quality of relationship or legitimacy and fairness for compliance, for offender supervision as such and particularly for the experience of those undergoing it. They also made the connection to the supervisee’s human rights as laid down in various instruments – if we, for example, stress the relevance of the offenders’ “cooperation regarding interventions that affect them” (as in The Council of Europe’s Probation Rules) we should now how they perceive these interventions. But why choosing a quantitative approach? Well, at first there is a COST Action-inherent reason: So far this approach is missing and we promised to explore a variety of methods. Second, results may easier be generalized to the overall supervised population and, more important, a survey design with closed question makes it easier to obtain results comparable between jurisdictions and to process them. Thirdly, quantitative data sometimes seem to be harder to ignore for stakeholders – at least they have additional value when it comes to policy impact.

However, from Ioans and Jelenas paper and also from my own experience with comparative prison research using surveys it is quite clear how ambitious that task is and how stony the path to go. We all felt it when we were discussing the next steps. We even agreed quickly that we want to restrict the scope of the survey and we relatively easily reached consensus on the four dimensions we want to explore – the ‘general experience’ of being supervised (in a phenomenological way); the relationship with the main supervisor; legitimacy or fairness and the punitive content of supervision. But we found it extremely difficult to formulate proper questions. At least I had the impression of a Babylonian confusion which led us back to very basic questions about the nature of supervision, because everybody is necessarily travelling with his or her discipline, methods and domestic understanding of things in his or her luggage (and we could have done with a native speaker).

In all groups and in every comparative research we experience this kind of cross-country running, bumping into obstacles and going in circles – but hey, at least these are hermeneutic circles! Indeed in the end we did delineate a set of questions. I know that other groups make an effort to also describe the process of encircling the question and find a possible solution (or several), so these experiences are valuable in itself. They should be documented, for example for the training school. At the end of our four years we then could have something like a Vademecum (‘Va-de-me-cum’, lat., literally “go with me”), something like a “hitchhiker’s guide to comparative research on offender supervision”.

It could also warn possible users that sometimes doing comparative research and running in those circles is a painful thing. When I came back from one of our COST meetings I met a senior colleague who asked me about my current work. I said something about comparative research which prompted the reaction “O, so you are sure that you know your own stuff well enough?!” Well, I am not always sure. And in addition discussing punishment or supervision with sociologists from Belgium, lawyers from Greece, criminologists from Scotland or psychologists from Serbia may shatter your own beliefs and assumptions and somehow destabilize your scientific self. So why do comparative research in the criminal justice field?

I resort to one of the Mahatmas in this field, Hans-Heinrich Jescheck, who was the first director of the Max-Planck-Institute of Foreign and International Criminal law in Freiburg, Germany. Already in the 1950s he outlined why he thought comparative criminal justice research was important. The Max-Planck-Institute has two sections, one being the Criminal Law Section, one being the Criminology Section. So even if these thoughts relate to legal comparison, he took a socio-legal position and was aware of the necessity to include criminological perspectives. I am referring here to a paper written in 1974 on the comparative perspective in legal reform (criminal procedure, to be precise). He distinguishes four reasons or motives, obviously intertwined, for undertaking comparative research. The first is the need for “pure basic research”, ‘pure’ being a weak translation for the German ‘zweckfrei’ – meaning without immediate use and application. In that way comparative research simply seeks to gain new insights or knowledge (“Erkenntnis”). A later director of the Institute, Albin Eser, used the image of going to a museum (probably we must think of an ethnological museum) – looking at particularly interesting foreign norms or practices as if they were exhibits that attract us. In any case, Jescheck again, we must study law as cultural phenomenon in other countries and in doing so we study social problems the jurisdictions try to solve by applying the law.
A second reason to do it – and now already purpose and utility come into play – is that comparative research supports international cooperation and (this is my favourite!) helps to reduce intellectual arrogance and alleged superiority. It “culminates in carving out the communalities of all laws that, eventually, agree on the idea of justice”. It is interesting that he only looks at the communalities and that he is so optimistic about the common ground or a common good intention. Thirdly, comparative research helps interpreting domestic legislation, which must not only be read having in mind the historical path but usually has already taken in foreign influences. These thoughts can easily be transferred to criminal policies and programmes. Finally, comparative research serves, and is necessary for, legal and cultural progress. According to Jescheck, comparative legal studies may provide a supply of possible solutions (“Lösungsvorrat”) for social problems, already in a handy format – systematically organized and critically evaluated. The question remains whether law reform is always a remedy for social problems, nevertheless this thought again can be transferred to policies and practices. And again he takes a very optimistic perspective (also on the receptiveness of the legislator). To sum up: there is a whole range of good reasons to go on.

O yes, and there are some additional joys of comparative research: Travelling to interesting places; getting to know different cultures; meeting old friends and making new ones; eating, drinking and sometimes dancing with them; being challenged by other surroundings, concepts, languages and group dynamics are only some of them. All in all this helps to keep an open mind, welcoming new ideas …Valettahug


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