This post comes from Jake Phillips, Doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge.
I have been following this blog with great interest over the last few months and thank those involved in the Discovering Desistance project for bringing a much needed discussion into the public domain. I have been particularly interested in Fergus and Shadd’s discussions on learning about rehabilitation from disciplines beyond those traditionally associated with work with offenders as well as Fergus’s suggestion (in his ‘Four forms of ‘offender’ rehabilitation’ paper, available on the ‘Useful Resources’ page) that the dominant mode of practice in rehabilitative work at the moment, which is encapsulated by the What Works paradigm and the Risk-Needs-Responsivity model (RNR), has failed to take account of legal, moral and social forms of rehabilitation. What’s more, as Fergus and others have also argued, the implementation of the model has been simplified to: ‘Employ social learning and cognitive behavioural strategies’. The reason for this particular interest is that I am hoping to conduct research into this idea in the future (pending funding!).
My argument begins from the idea that cognitive behaviouralism has become the doxa within correctional practice. Behavioural therapy is presented as an ‘“objective knowledge” verified by an experimental test… devoid of any inherent prescriptive thrust or implicit system of values’ (Woolfolk and Richardson, 1984: 777). However, this is not so clear-cut, as Woofolk and Richardson continue:
The close affinity of the Weltanschauung of behavior therapy and that of modernity can be seen clearly by examining the presence in behavior therapy of four distinct but interrelated aspects of modernity: technicism, rationality, amorality, and humanism. (1984: 778)
This isn’t the place for a detailed critique of Woofolk and Richardson’s argument: it is sufficient to say here that behavioural therapy, of which cognitive behaviouralism is a close relation, is closely linked to the ideology of modernity: one of progress, rationality and the infallibility of science. For this ideology to have become the doxa means that the reality of practice (or policy at least) has become ‘indissociable’ from the ideology underpinning cognitive behaviouralism and that alternative ideas are ‘thrust beyond the very bounds of the thinkable’ (Eagleton, 1991: 58). We can see this clearly in the dominance of cognitive behaviouralism in ‘accredited programmes’ on offer by probation services around the world (see the STARR Final Report for a look at how many programmes across Europe use cognitive behavioural approaches). Fortunately, the work of Shadd, Stephen, Fergus and others have begun to (re-)introduce alternative ideas in response to the increased reification of cognitive behaviouralism as the only means to help offenders desist from offending.
As Eagleton argues further, an ideology becomes the doxa once what is universal appears to be natural. It results in ways of thinking about reality in terms of ‘common sense’. Statements such as “it goes without saying” or “Of course!” prevail. But this is not the case: an ideology becomes universal and natural because of the ideology’s ‘tacit denial that ideas and beliefs are specific to a particular time and place’ (Eagleton 1991: 59). As Seung’s (1996: 170) reading of Socrates suggests, ‘as long as one lives in the domain of doxa, one is enslaved to the prevailing opinions of the social world’.
The problem is that where a doxa exists any opposing ideology gets subsumed by the ideology. Thus, in order to displace a doxatic ideology, the ideology first needs to exposed and alternative ideas need to be leveraged into the resulting ‘gap’. This is where the interdisciplinary perspective comes in: work with offenders is not the only arena in which people’s behaviour is explicitly changed. Rather, there are numerous examples of academics, professionals and the general public engaging with others to encourage compliance with social norms. What’s more, there are a variety of methods that are making an intervention in fields where a doxa exists – these fields represent useful starting points for exposing the ideology of cognitive behaviouralism and the similarities between them can be used to fill the resulting gap. I call these methods ‘uncommon sense’ approaches to changing people’s behaviour.
Schools and pedagogy
There is a growing body of alternative pedagogies in the field of education. Hart et al.’s (2004) book Learning Without Limits encourages teachers to work beyond the limits imposed by preconceptions of ‘ability’. This links with probation practice because all offenders are labelled according to risk. In turn, this affects a probation officer’s belief in their ability to change (something I’ve seen in my doctoral work). One of the main criticisms to be levelled at the RNR model is that it concentrates on offenders’ deficits to the detriment of their possibilities. Thus, according to the ‘without limits’ thesis, correctional practitioners should avoid emphasising an offender’s (in)ability to change and instead prioritise the process of change. Whilst the Good Lives Model (put forth by Tony Ward) already adopts this stance, there has been little done on looking to work in other disciplines that espouse a similar methodology.
Westwood argues that the ‘the typical approach to behaviour problems in schools is to be reactive and aversive rather preventive’ and proposes the Positive Behaviour Support model which is ‘proactive and reduce[s] the likelihood that serious problems will arise’ as an alternative (2007). Probation has to be, by its very nature, reactive and it utilises many of the same methods seen in the ‘typical’ classroom: namely punishments and rewards that are utilised to make people comply (a similar approach can be seen in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme in prisons), But it doesn’t have to be this way. What other models of working with ‘difficult’ people exist in other disciplines that can be applied to probation practice? Students who are excluded from school and the work conducted in pupil referral units are of particular relevance. Probation officers and teachers undertake similar work in this regard: both have to reintegrate people who have been excluded from a society or community. In turn, this raises the possibility of using criminological literature on compliance to influence the way teachers manage behaviour because desistance theory can shed light on how a pupil might desist from future disruptive behaviour.
We have all seen programmes like Super Nanny in which rewards and punishments are utilised to coerce or cajole children into behaving ‘well’. Such a method of dealing with children has become the doxa within parenting guides (one has only to flick through some of the most popular parenting books to discern such a trend and everyone has heard of the use of star charts etc.) However, several alternative means of encouraging ‘good’ behaviour in children exist. For example, Kohn (2007) uses psychological research to advise parents to avoid the ‘common sense’ approach of rewards and punishments and instead provide children with unconditional love and reason. Wang and Aamodt (2011) argue that, contrary to popular opinion, learning self-restraint and will-power need not be unpleasant for the child. Interestingly, these attributes play an important role in several influential criminological theories. Importantly, these authors redefine desirable behaviour by asking whether we want children to be compliant in the short-term or happy and independent in the long-term. These questions are already being applied to offenders through concepts such as primary and secondary desistance. ‘Uncommon sense’ parenting can also shed light on the aetiology of ‘problem’ behaviour: Cohen, the author of Playful Parenting, for example, agues that ‘aggressive play’ is simply a manifestation of a child’s need to come to terms with the limited choices they have in their life and so should be encouraged (within limits): could such an idea contribute towards a better understanding of the onset of, and desistance from, deviant behaviour? Although desistance theorists might argue that a desistance model of practice would be incompatible with the very theory of desistance, I believe that there is potential in looking to research and ‘parenting guides’ to explore how else we might encourage long-term compliance with social norms as opposed to the current focus on short-term compliance with technical conditions of a Community Order.
‘Recovery’ advocates in the field of drug treatment argue that recovery is preferable to maintenance on drug replacement therapy (e.g. methadone). This links with critiques of probation policy’s tendency to predicate short term reductions in reoffending over long-term changes in identity. The government has proposed prioritising recovery over maintenance and these changes in policy and practice and so I am interested in how these changes will play out in practice, and how the idea may work more broadly with offenders. It’s interesting to note that these shifts are similar to the way parenting gurus redefine desirable behaviour in children.
The work done by desistance theorists has already gone a considerable way towards leveraging a critique of cognitive behaviouralism into the small gap that exists between reality and the ideology but this research will expand the empirical and theoretical basis of this work by taking a distinctly interdisciplinary approach. Needless to say, this research is still in a nascent stage and any comments would be appreciated! I still have more questions than answers, including:
- How can the research on children translate to adult offenders?
- What exactly is the ideology underpinning cognitive behaviouralism (my explanation above is far from sufficient)?
- What are the implications of using texts that are distinctly partial in their approach (many of the parenting books mentioned above read like propaganda texts at times, despite being based on ‘evidence’)?
- Where else can we identify examples of ‘uncommon sense’ approaches to dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour and what can they tell us about the work of rehabilitative work with offenders.
Sorry this post has turned out to be so long… hope it is of some interest.
Eagleton T (1991) Ideology: an introduction. London: Verso.
Hart S, Annabelle D, Mary Jane D and Donald M (2004) Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Kohn A (2007) Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York: Atria Books.
Seung TK (1996) Plato rediscovered: human value and social order. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wang SA& Aamodt S (2011) Welome to Your Child’s Brain. London: Bloomsbury.
Westwood PS (2007) Commonsense methods for children with special educational needs. London: Taylor & Francis.
Woolfolk RL and Richardson FC (1984) Behavior therapy and the ideology of modernity. American Psychologist 39(7): 777.