Desistance in Practice: Interaction in Criminal Justice Groupwork

This guest post comes from Steve Kirkwood, a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.

Knowledge Exchange seminar (Steve)

On 22 April, Beth Jennings (a PhD Candidate) and I ran a Knowledge Exchange Seminar at the University of Edinburgh, bringing together 35 stakeholders – mostly criminal justice social workers – to discuss the methods and preliminary findings from my research project on criminal justice groupwork. The research is relatively innovative in that it uses Discourse Analysis – which treats language as actively constructing reality and as fulfilling a range of social functions – and Conversation Analysis – which is concerned with the fine-grained analysis of conversation – to explore interactions in criminal justice settings. It is my view that this type of approach is one way of making connections between research on effective interventions and processes of desistance.

Knowledge Exchange seminar.

The research is based on the analysis of video recordings of criminal justice groupwork programmes, and because the videos are too sensitive to show, we showed short video extracts that had been recreated by actors. Creating the videos was an interesting experience in itself, as the idea was to have the re-enactments as close to the originals as possible, which created some interesting challenges for delivery – especially if the actor didn’t already have a Scottish accent!

At the event, I presented some of my preliminary findings, which highlight the way that some service users may resist or show ambivalence towards ‘pro-social’ identities, such as being a good father, and the social workers may orient to this ambivalence, teasing out opportunities or evidence for positive change, while other service users’ change narratives appeared to function as ‘resources’ to support these desistance processes. A key part of the event, which was heavily influenced by Professor Liz Stokoe’s Conversation Analytic Role-play Method (see ), involved breakout sessions facilitated by me and my colleagues Prof Bill Whyte, Prof Viviene Cree and Dr Eric Laurier. The sessions involved playing part of an extract, then stopping it to ask questions such as: “What is going on here?”, “What might happen next?” and “As a practitioner, what would you do next?” The idea is that a close analysis of specific instances of practice helps to make explicit key aspects of effective practice and encourages reflective practices that are informed by an understanding of interaction.

For me, the sessions highlighted how practitioners orient to a range of concerns in groupwork, including encouraging participation, reinforcing pro-social behaviour, conveying empathy, dealing with tricky/unhelpful contributions, drawing out and relating contributions to other group members, consolidating learning, and dealing with time constraints, often in subtle and highly skilled ways. I was amazed by the way that some participants at the event could predict what might happen next – including predicting changes in body language and things that would provoke laughter – and interested in those moments that departed from expectations.

The discussion gave me a greater understanding of how practitioners convert principles for effective practice into actual instances of interaction and how concepts related to desistance can be seen or understood in practice contexts. Feedback from participants suggested that focusing on specific instances of practice, informed by discourse analysis and conversation analysis, has real potential for enhancing reflective practice and building knowledge. For instance, it was suggested that a structured research project looking at ‘common scenarios’ in criminal justice might be useful for improving practice. I think this might help to open the ‘black box’ of criminal justice practice with benefits for evaluation research, theory building and social work / probation education.

I hope to be able to take forward this research in relation to one-to-one supervision in criminal justice settings. Saying this, it is important to note that some good reflective practices are already going on, particularly in criminal justice groupwork. The research methods I’ve been using also have some limitations, particularly in terms of the problems associated with taking small instances of practice out of context. Another important aspect is to be aware that the approach is intended to analyse interaction, not judge practice, and that the discussion of real instances of practice needs to be done respectfully and constructively. Overall for me it was great opportunity to discuss my research with practitioners and it was good to hear that the approach has some relevance and potential. Please feel free to contact me at for further information about the research. We are also in the process of seeking applicants for a Collaborative PhD Studentship that will develop this work – information can be found on this webpage under the title ‘”Examination of the practice skills for addressing sexual offending through groupwork”.