Indicators and strategies to develop credible outcomes in qualitative research: young people, compliance and community supervision

Mairead Seymour and Ren Meehan


Drawing on a study of young people in the criminal justice system, conducted by the first author, this chapter discusses the use of indicators and strategies utilised to support the production of credible and robust qualitative research. Qualitative research facilitates open-ended investigation and seeks out detailed and nuanced accounts based on personal experiences and perspectives. It is framed on the premise that there are multiple realities involving individuals’ subjective views, meanings and interpretations (Creswell, 2009).While these are commendable characteristics to gain insights into the social world, qualitative research is criticised for what is considered its arbitrary approach to investigation, its failure to provide a strong rationale for the methods used, an absence of transparency on the analytical procedures and the production of findings and conclusions in a non-systematic,ad hoc manner (Noble & Smith, 2015). Leung (2015) levels further criticism in suggesting that there is an absence of clarity and consensus as to how quality should be assessed in the qualitative research field. These criticisms are pertinent because without demonstrated evidence of credibility, the impact of research on the development of new knowledge, theory or reform of legal, policy or practice issues is compromised. The resulting message is clear. There is an onus on those conducting research to ensure that the practices and procedures adopted in qualitative research are sufficiently transparent and robust to produce credible research outcomes.

Concepts of reliability and validity as traditionally understood in the research field are associated with “a world that can be quantifiably measured through defined rules of enquiry”. This presents challenges for much “real world” research, which is based on multiple realities and subjective perspectives where the singularity of truth is not accepted (O’Leary, 2017, p. 56). Thus O’Leary argues that a challenge for those engaged in research is to become familiar with “indicators of research integrity” or measurements of research credibility (2017, p. 67). This chapter focusses on reliability and validity as indicators of research credibility, exploring their applicability in qualitative investigation and outlining strategies for their use, drawing on examples from a research study.

The key learning points in this chapter are:

  • • Understanding the importance of research credibility in qualitative research investigations;
  • • Being able to identify suitable indicators to assess research credibility;
  • • The application of strategies that enhance the credibility of the process and outcomes of qualitative research investigations.

Overview of the research study

The study from which illustrative examples in this chapter are based explored compliance with the requirements of community supervision in the youth justice systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland (Seymour, 2013). Community supervision is undertaken as part of a court order following conviction in a criminal court and is undertaken by the Probation Service in Ireland and the Youth Justice Agency or the Probation Board in Northern Ireland. Compliance with community supervision is an important legal, policy and practice imperative because without supervisees’ cooperation, the potential to positively impact on their offending behaviour is compromised and judicial confidence and public credibility is undermined. Compliance is a complex term and its meaning varies across the circumstances in which it is applied. For the purposes of this study, Bottoms’s (2002) distinction between short-term and long-term compliance was utilised. Short-term compliance refers to compliance with the requirements of community supervision, while long-term compliance relates to compliance with the criminal law through the avoidance of further offending. Researching compliance is challenging because it is not a static concept. Existing evidence highlights that individuals’ motivation to comply changes over time and is framed within the context of their life circumstances, norms and values, external incentives and disincentives, as well as their perceptions of the legitimacy of the requests made to comply (Bottoms, 2002; Robinson & McNeill, 2010).

The objectives of the study were as follows: firstly, to understand how compliance was constructed and operationalised from the perspective of young people and practitioners. This was important in establishing how decisionmaking about compliance was navigated. Secondly, it sought to provide insights into young people’s experiences under supervision, their motivations to comply and their perspectives on desistance from offending. Identification of the approaches employed by practitioners to promote compliance and respond to non-compliance was the third objective. A fourth objective was to explore the dynamics in the relationship between supervisors and young people and their perceived impact (or not) on compliance.

The theoretical framework underpinning compliance on community supervision suggests that compliance is motivated by internal and external factors

(see Bottoms, 2002). Internal factors include individuals’ values, habits, attachments and perceptions about the legitimacy of the request to comply. The latter is grounded in the evidence base on procedural justice whereby individuals are more likely to comply when they perceive fair treatment by the authority' figures seeking their compliance. In contrast, external factors involve incentives and disincentives, for example, reduced monitoring on supervision or being returned to court for non-compliance.The decision to comply' involves a multiplicity of motivations and these are likely' to change over time (Fagan & Tyler, 2005;Tyler, 1990). Robinson and McNeill (2010) developed Bottoms’s (2002) work further in critically analysing the nature of compliance. They suggest that supervisees adopt different stances depending on their motivation to cooperate and/or make broader changes in their lives. These stances range from supervisees being fully committed to community supervision, to those who capitulate on recognising there are few alternatives, to others who resist supervision, disengage from it or ‘game play’ as part of the process.The study' was also influenced by the literature on effective practice in community' supervision and desistance. While some evidence exists to link effective practice with improved compliance (Trotter, 2013), the literature indicates that broader social-structural and personal issues such as gaining employment, establishing a relationship and becoming a parent also act as key catalysts for change (Barry', 2006; Bottoms & Shapland, 2011).

As already stated, a qualitative approach was taken to capture the detailed perspectives of participants about compliance on community supervision. The study' had a number of data collection strands and those relevant to this chapter are outlined in the following paragraph.

The first strand of data collection consisted of five focus groups involving 33 probation officers and youth justice practitioners, the majority' of whom were professionally qualified in youth and community' work, education or social work (Seymour, 2013).The focus groups facilitated the co-construction of knowledge among participants on their decision-making and the strategies they used to manage young people’s compliance and respond to their non-compliance. The second strand involved in-depth interviews with young people on community supervision. The inclusion criteria were based on age and time on supervision. A minimum period of six months under supervision was deemed necessary' for young people to have sufficient experience of supervision to inform the research.Young participants were aged 18 and 19 years.1

The rationale for selecting older rather than younger supervisees (under 18 years) was due to the retrospective aspect of the study, which required participants with experience to reflect on past and present perspectives. Probation officers identified young people who met the criteria and a meeting was arranged with the researcher to explain the study and the voluntary nature of participation. Of the 24 young people approached, 20 agreed to take part, three refused and one was unable to participate due to health reasons. Interviews lasted between 40 minutes and one hour and took place at probation offices, educational or community facilities or, in a small number of cases, in participants’ homes. Data collection took place within four geographical areas on the island of Ireland and included supervisors and supervisees from urban and rural areas. All interviews and focus groups were digitally recorded, transcribed and reviewed before the analysis process commenced.

Young people had been under supervision for an average period of 22.7 months at the time of data collection. Most had a lengthy history of involvement in offending and had been assessed as being of moderate or high risk of reoffending. According to practitioners, defining what constitutes compliance and non-compliance with supervision requires specialist knowledge and experience of young people to distinguish between behaviour characteristic of their developmental stage and more identifiable resistance and unwillingness to engage in supervision. Practitioners’ perceptions of young peoples compliance on community supervision were not restricted to their attitude and behaviour during appointments. Other aspects of young people’s lives that influenced their views included young people’s behaviour in the home, their attendance and behaviour at school, training or employment, their association with anti-social peers and/or their consumption of alcohol, drugs and other substances. It appeared that being non-compliant in other aspects of their lives negatively impacted on practitioners’ perceptions of young peoples commitment to change their offending behaviour.

Strategies focussed on encouraging compliance were communicating expectations of supervision and the consequences of non-compliance to young people. These approaches were perceived by practitioners as being fairer and more effective than reactionary responses to non-compliance. Practitioners identified the development of positive working relationships with young people as the key component in promoting compliance on community supervision. Relationships were built through practitioners’ persistent efforts to establish contact and support young people despite their initial resistance to supervision.

Two-thirds of the young people described shifting perspectives in their attitude and behaviour towards compliance. Participants reported that initial scepticism, resistance and game playing gave way to more positive perceptions of community supervision over time. They identified the support provided by their supervisors and supervisors’ willingness to advocate on their behalf as contributing to changes in their motivation to comply with supervision. The development of positive relationships with their supervisors culminated in a willingness to accept ‘straight-talking’ and directive guidance. The legitimacy derived from being treated in a fair manner was important in encouraging compliance and is evident in the broader literature on procedural justice and reduced offending (Fagan & Tyler, 2005;Tyler, 1990).

Changing motivation to comply with supervision was also attributed to factors outside the supervisory context. These factors included young peoples evolving developmental maturity and changes in their life circumstances such as the establishment of relationships, commencing training or employment and/or becoming a parent.

Overall, it could be said that for those who perceived change, their obligation to comply was enhanced when they developed social and psychological attachments within and outside the supervisory relationship. Not all young people changed (n = 6). They stated that they wished to change, but the challenges associated with doing so were perceived as insurmountable. Some explained that they had tried and failed, while others believed that their offending was associated with external factors, such as drugs and peers, about which they considered they had limited control. A desire to avoid imprisonment was the main motivation for compliance, but few were hopeful and as a result viewed prison as inevitable.

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