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on 4 December 2000
The book Offending Woman deals with the issue of power within the criminal justice system, the different discourses that are at work and the ways in which women are known and labelled within it. Worrall attempts to uncover any underlying assumptions, ideologies, policies and practises of the criminal justice system located within discourses, which are gendered in their development, their appearance and their effects. Worrall does not attempt to argue whether or not the female offenders should be punished but rather she is concerned with the ways in which the system is gendered and how professionals within the system attempt to fit them in to gender roles. Female offenders are always being examined within ideologies of domesticity sexuality and pathology. This generalising about females has the effect of homogenising them as a group and denying them their individuality. Worrall adopts a holistic approach to her research. She has examined the ways in which the relationships between female offenders and professionals within the system interact and gains a good overview of how it operates and the discourses at play within it. From the outset in her book Worrall sets out her main objectives and goes on to explain the methodology of discourse analysis, which she has adopted in her study. The crux of her methodology is her agreement with postmodern beliefs that there is no one universal truth and that knowledge is based upon the interactions of people, situations and institutions. More crucially it depends upon the interaction of that knowledge within the structures and strategies through which the legal professions operate. The outcome of this is that certain bodies of knowledge are privileged as 'facts', which then have the effects of truth upon the offending women subject to them. Women then are in Worrall's analysis victims of inequalities and injustices within the system. Worrall in adopting a holistic approach to the criminal justice system makes the point that no one part of the system should be subject to scrutiny on its own without looking at the other constituent parts when examining the assessments judgements and treatments of female offenders. In this way she succeeds in laying bare the myth of gender neutrality within the system. Worrall does not bluntly come out and say that she believes that female offenders are treated either more leniently or harsher than any male although she certainly drives at this. She leads no actual hard evidence for systematic discrimination against women within the system although it may, of course, be non-systematic and covert. She centres on the ways in which women are unfairly prejudiced by official discourses within the system. The ways in which women are 'known' through stereotyping and labelling and then judged in terms of their gender is one, which Worrall believes is inherent in all strata of our society. It is the techniques employed within the discourse to mute and produce and reproduce 'nondescriptiveness' which Worrall believes give an 'insight into the experience of all women' (p165). This method of using her research to highlight the broader issues concerning women's treatment in society in general is in my opinion well done. In analysing and compiling any data a researcher can be influenced by their own ideologies and pre determined assumptions. It is worth pointing out therefore that Worrall is as an ex probation officer herself. This will have benefited her in giving her an incite into the criminal justice system and its workings although it has the danger of introducing pre conceived notions and assumptions about some of the professional bodies being examined. For example she labels magistrates backgrounds as generally privileged but does not lead research to back this up. Researchers always have to be wary about their own subjectivity. Worrall goes onto express the belief that female magistrates could have more influence within the system by inputting more of their own subjective experiences as females although she does concede that this is very difficult within an environment where they themselves have had to conform to the judicial ideologies and discourse. This is objective and concedes that we do not live in an ideal world. A downside to this research has to be that any one analysis which privileges any one aspect of social inequality, as Worrall's book does in looking at gender, can fail to take account of other social inequalities such as race and class. Worrall falls victim to this in her choice of female offenders, choosing mainly single, separated or divorced women in her study and only including one black women, Carole. There is also a conspicuous lack of any real cultural mixture, which could be construed as suggesting that people from certain cultures do not offend or are not worth analysing. Another point, which devalues the research slightly, is the small selection of cases reviewed making it difficult to determine whether the results are representative of the majority of female offenders nationally. Worrall uses ethnographic interviewing and has not limited herself to enlisting fixed protocols in interpreting the data which has allowed her to be broad in her analysis and varied in her strategies of uncovering the underlying assumptions, ideologies and discourses. The surroundings of this type of interview may influence how the interviewee feels or inhibit their answers. This is an issue which is not addressed in any great depth by Worrall although on page 171 she does express a fear that in some cases she ran the risk of damaging the 'carefully worked at relationships' between probation officers and clients. By also utilising an open interview technique Worrall has been able to garner a great deal of qualitative information. The downside of this is that this method is less holistic than participant observation and open to reactivity. Worrall as an ex probation officer and processing the information could possibly bring a degree of subjectivity to her findings as could the agenda being pursued. Included at the rear of the book are specimens of letters sent to the different groups and a sample of the interview schedule to probation officers allowing us to determine what formats and subject matter the interviews included. It is of course difficult to tell whether any procedural reactivity was at work amongst the interviewees and therefore impossible to tell what information they held back or distorted. In general this is a well constructed and thought out piece of research
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on 12 July 2015
Important background reading
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