Reforming me, reforming ‘us’

This guest post comes from Alejandro Rubio Arnal, a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow.

The aim of this post is to summarise the autoethnographic part of my research project for the MRes Criminology at the University of Glasgow (see Rubio Arnal 2016 for full dissertation) in order to examine how and to what extent my personal experience of engaging in the Distant Voices festival music events encouraged me to reform my dispositions towards people in prison or people who have been in prison.

Distant Voices was a public festival run by Vox Liminis in collaboration with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Amongst other things, the festival had the purpose of facilitating dialogue about punishment and reintegration between audience participants, artists, criminologists, people with convictions, their families and criminal justice practitioners (McNeill 2016, Vox Liminis 2014). My research was driven by the conviction that, taking into account the current state of affairs (Rock 2010), it is necessary to explore and contribute to that part of criminology that tries to go beyond academia and into the public sphere (Loader & Sparks 2010). I wanted to contribute to public criminology by studying how people experienced engaging in a public festival which explored what happens when ‘human stories, ideas and emotions’ about crime related issues are shared (Vox Liminis, no date).

Though encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions towards people in or after prison was not a direct aim of the festival, when conducting my initial analysis of the ethnographic study, I realised that the experience of engaging in the festival, had indeed encouraged me to reform my own dispositions (I use the word ‘dispositions’ to suggest something broader and deeper than just ‘attitudes’).

During the first music event, which took place on 6th November 2015, nine individuals participated in a songwriting process facilitated by Vox Liminis and led by two professional musicians. Two of the participants, who are regular collaborators in Vox events, had experience of being in prison and being released. During this event, the musicians shared five songs that had been written in prisons. We were then invited, either in groups or individually, to write a song in response, with the help of the facilitators and musicians. After we spent much of the day working on our songs, they were recorded. At the end we all listened to and talked about each of the new songs. IN and through this process, a very special atmosphere of cordiality, familiarity, trust and affection was created.

When reading my fieldnotes about that day, something became very clear to me: My experience of participating in this workshop encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions towards people in or after prison, and to reform them as a consequence. I believe that what encouraged me to do so was the discovery or reinforcement of the humanity of people in or after prison — — and the ways in which feelings of empathy towards them were nurtured.

This discovery or reinforcement of humanity and evocation of empathy took place during/through three different music-mediated dialogic episodes: (1) indirect dialogue with a person who had previously been in prison during the introductory part of the workshop, (2) in-depth reflection within myself focused on comparing a personal experience of returning home with a person’s re-entry from prison, and (3) direct dialogue with a person who had been in prison, ‘Lindsay’, during the writing process. These experiences made it apparent to me in a new way that people in or after prison are people who may have hope and may be positive about their future (during the first episode), that they had a life before being in prison (during the second episode) and that they have people outside prison who they miss (first episode). This evoked feelings of sympathy and empathy in me towards them, made me realize that they are not different from me, and encouraged me to feel admiration for their courage in facing situations that seem difficult to me. The most important episode of my participation in this event, and probably of the whole festival was meeting Lindsay. I believe one of the main reasons for my reconsideration of my dispositions towards her in particular, and towards people who have faced imprisonment and release in general, is the type of interaction we had: talking directly, looking into her eyes, face to face.

The second music event, ‘Distant Voices: In Song’ took place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. During it, professional musicians played 22 songs that had been written by people in or after prison, prison officers, criminologists and criminal justice workers. Listening to those songs, and interacting with Julian, who had previously been in prison and who now collaborates with Vox, encouraged me to reconsider my dispositions because firstly it gave me the opportunity to discover more aspects of the human experience of imprisonment and release that were previously unknown to me. Secondly, it increased my level of empathy towards people with these experiences. The feeling of being part of the event, and the fact of already knowing some of the people whose songs were performed during the concert were also influential aspects.

Despite having spent seven years studying criminology and two of them researching about reintegration, participating in this festival gave me the opportunity to confront the human side of people affected by imprisonment that was, until that moment, unknown to me. That happened during/through different types of music-mediated dialogic episodes/moments. This is what made the difference, and encouraged me to reform my dispositions.

These results, which were similar for those other participants that I spoke to who had also reconsidered their dispositions, albeit on a small scale, come from one of the first research studies of art-mediated dialogue about crime related issues. They highlight the important role that music-mediated dialogue can have in encouraging people to reconsider their dispositions and the important role of empathy and other emotions during this process. Through encouraging the co-exploration of different views and meanings that people attach to the world (Escobar 2011), engaging in music-mediated dialogue seems to counter stigma by opening up new ‘knowledge’ and reducing the emotional distance that is both a consequence of stigma and key to its maintenance.

Apart from this main finding, there is a broader issue which would also require more research: According to the data (not only about my own experience but also about others’ experiences) it seems that people do not suddenly reform their dispositions. Although turning points may be needed in order to challenge certain assumptions, in order to reform their dispositions individuals go through a process of reconsideration which is characterised by being quite reflective, and in which their previous beliefs are brought into question.

You might think that this sounds a lot like a rehabilitative process; what is different is that this is about (all of) ‘us’ changing, not ‘them’ changing. Perhaps the key lessons from my experience are about how experiences of music-mediated dialogue can dissolve the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

[Alejandro can be contacted at:]


Burawoy, M. (2004) Public sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. Social Forces. 82(4): 1603-1618.

Escobar, O. (2011). Public Dialogue and Deliberation: A communication perspective for public engagement practitioners. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Indermaur, D., Roberts, L., Spiranovic, C., Mackenzie, G., & Gelb, K. (2012). A Matter of Judgement: The effect of information and deliberation on public attitudes to punishment. Punishment & Society. 14(2): 147-165.

Loader, I., & Sparks, R. (2010). What is to be Done with Public Criminology? Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 771-781.

McNeill, F. (2016). Distant Voices: Coming Home — Creativity, Reflexivity and Research. 2016. European Social Work Research Association Annual Conference. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016]).

Rock, P. (2010). Comment on “Public Criminologies”. Criminology & Public Policy. 9(4): 751-767.

Rubio Arnal, A. (2016). Listening to Distant Voices. (Available online at: [Accessed 11/01/2017])

Vox Liminis (2014). Vox Liminis Annual Report 2013-2014. (Available online at: [Accessed 29/08/2016])

Vox Liminis (No date). Distant Voices. (Available online at: 29/08/2016])

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