Unpicking social work practice skills: an interactional analysis of engagement and identity in a groupwork programme addressing sexual offending
Mullins, Eve Louisa
The importance of the working relationship between people who have offended (clients) and criminal justice social workers (practitioners) as a vehicle for promoting rehabilitation is increasingly recognised. To build and maintain effective working relationships practitioners must demonstrate key practice skills, including empathy, warmth and respect. Previous research has used quantitative methods demonstrating links between aggregated categories of practitioner skills and outcomes post intervention, and qualitative research interviews retrospectively exploring individuals’ views of compulsory supervision or intervention. However, this research has not clarified how these skills are demonstrated in interaction, how they function to promote engagement or the potential micro-mechanisms of change which contribute to rehabilitation and desistance, i.e. the cessation of offending. To address these gaps, I used the innovative qualitative methods of discourse analysis and conversation analysis to examine what happens when practitioners and clients talk to each other, what happens in the ‘black box’. I analysed video-recordings of twelve groupwork sessions from the groupwork programme for addressing sexual offending in Scotland, ‘Moving Forward: Making Changes’. This rolling programme works with adult men convicted of sexual offences, legally compelled to attend. Five practitioners and eighteen clients participated in the study. I transcribed and analysed the video recordings in detail using discourse analysis, specifically discursive psychology, and conversation analysis. These methods enable a micro-level examination of the talk-in-interaction, to consider what people are doing in their talk and how they are doing it, e.g. how practitioners demonstrate empathy. In the analysis I demonstrated the tacit practice skills of empathy, warmth and respect are evident in talk as actions that maintain co-operation in interaction and build solidarity; i.e. managing face, handling epistemic authority and facilitating empathic communion. I further outlined some of the conversational resources practitioners used to ‘do’ these actions, promoting engagement whilst pursuing institutional goals. Through this talk, practitioners shape and direct how clients tell the story of who they are, although clients can resist this. In this way clients’ narrative identities were actively and collaboratively constructed and negotiated in the talk-in-interaction. Aspects of identity considered to promote desistance, e.g. presenting a good core self or a situational account for offending, were presented, encouraged, developed and attributed. Talk about risk also contributed to the construction and negotiation of clients’ identities. Practitioners and clients expected clients to demonstrate they are aware of and attending to the risks around their behaviour, highlighting risk discourse as central. Risk in this sense was used discursively to demonstrate change and agency over the future, establishing a nonoffending self. However, risk talk could challenge clients’ self-image and threaten ongoing engagement. This study highlights the suitability of discourse analysis and conversation analysis to access the ‘black box’ of criminal justice social work intervention. Routine and common-sense practice skills were made visible, making these more accessible to practitioners to reflect on and develop more responsive and reflexive practice. Finally, criminal justice social work interventions are sites where clients’ narrative identities are constructed, as such potential sites for developing non-offending identities. This study highlights this process is inherently and necessarily relational. In developing forward looking self-stories, which encapsulated features of desistance and risk, narratives of rehabilitation were constructed at the interface of the client and the institution.