A potential for democratic emancipation? Policy and discretionary practices in probation service

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)

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How can offender supervision in the execution of state-sanctioned punishment integrate instances of democratic emancipation and thereby inspire participatory citizenship for disenfranchised clients?
This project balances an interest in social work and its prospects for delivering emancipation through motivational agency, on the one hand, with an attentiveness to recent developments in Scandinavian criminal policy, on the other. In an attempt to “bridge” these interests, the research focuses on offender rehabilitation. The dissertation comprises two empirical parts. Firstly, it presents a document analysis in a Scandinavian context wherein certain developments toward penal populism and managerialism (a managerial turn) in the discourse on offender rehabilitation are identified. The empirical basis for this part are policy documents such as white papers, organizational strategies and political framework agreements. Secondly, it consists of an ethnographically inspired analysis of empirical materials collected during field work in two local Danish probation offices where I took part in the daily routines, incl. supervisory meetings and team exercises, as well as conducting semi-structured interviews with probation officers and their clients. The dissertation is based on a social constructionist perspective and the analyses primarily rely on discourse and discretion theory. The policy documents studied in the first part constitute a distal context for the day-to-day work in the offices. Yet, through the various analyses it is argued that the managerialist tendencies identified in the documents are reflected in the offices and impact the beliefs and practices of the probation officers via the intensive presence of office manuals. These manuals, it is argued, link the distal to the immediate as they micro-manage and streamline not only documentation and case-handling but also the probation officers’ the rehabilitative efforts. It is argued that insofar as these rehabilitative efforts are so comprehensively scripted, the prospect of such efforts facilitating platforms upon which clients may genuinely and sustainably realize their democratic worth and participatory ability is questionable. Consequently, particular interest is paid to subtle instances in which the probation officers’ rehabilitative or emancipatory practices, and the motivations behind them, seem to transgress the manual-based reality of the offices. These transgressive acts are theorized and conceptualized as instances of “democratic emancipation”, as they produce a less scripted situation that allows for genuine participation and greater self-determination. In the offices, democratic emancipation manifests in exceptional social situations in which the probation officers, in their own words, “go out of their way” or “help outside the box”. Yet, these are also elusive situations, not always recognized or intended as such by the probation officers, as they manifest like everyday interactions between client and probation officer where they seamlessly “go off script”. Identifying these situations empirically, describing the ways in which they disrupt the manual-based reality in the offices, as well as theorizing their emancipatory potential, constitute the main findings of this dissertation.
Translated title of the contributionEt potentiale for demokratisk emancipation?: Policy og skønsbetinget praksis in kriminalforsorgen
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • School of Social Work
  • Johansson, Susanna, Assistant supervisor
  • Svensson, Kerstin, Supervisor
Award date2023 Oct 27
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-89604-76-6
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-89604-76-6
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Sept

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2023-10-27
Time: 10:15
Place: G:a köket 128, Allhelgona kyrkogatan 8, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Carr, Nicola
Title: Professor
Affiliation: University of Nottingham

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Social Sciences
  • Social Work

Free keywords

  • probation service
  • offender supervision
  • emancipation
  • social work
  • managerial turn


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