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Participatory research as disruptive?: a report on a conflict in social science paradigms at a criminal justice agency promoting alternatives to incarceration

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This is an ethnographic study of a clash of two paradigms of knowledge in an organization that provides alternatives-to-incarceration programs for the criminal justice system in a large city. As a new program evaluator for the organization I used participatory action research to evaluate the programs he was assigned to study. Through an account of how that participatory research was dismissed as valueless, we can see the administrative demand in a dominant strain of criminology for data to appear objective and parsimonious, to rely on experts, and to take the form of aggregate numbers (statistics) used for risk management. Research is used instrumentally to secure continued funding, to enhance surveillance, and to enhance output. Overall, the dominant paradigm objectifies the human subject at the heart of its research, withdrawing credibility from him or her. The participatory research, housed in another paradigm, resists this process of objectification. Its end is social change through a process of consciousness-raising within a project of community organizing. Not all paradigms are created equal, however. Some are institutionally backed and others are marginal - or marginalized - in criminal justice. The case study is a narrative means of exploring the contours of each kind of knowledge and how participatory research is viewed, and rendered, insignificant from the standpoint of the mainstream standards of knowledge production.
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Keywords: alternatives to incarceration; critical criminology; institutional ethnography; new penology; participatory research; restorative justice

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Program in Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture, State University of New York, Binghamton, USA

Publication date: 2008-12-01

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