Research methods

This chapter will explore the methods used to carry out the study upon which this book is based. This will involve outlining the research problem and the methods that were used throughout the study including the site and sample selections. Researching in a prison raises many methodological issues, particularly surrounding access, procedures and ethics. The methods used to address and overcome these issues will be outlined. The data collection and analysis procedures will be explained, and the chapter will conclude with a look at the methodological limitations of the study and the ethical safeguards that were put in place.

Given the potential impact that prison education can have on the lives of those who undertake it, it is widely under-researched. Most studies in the area use recidivism rates to quantify the success of prison education. Such an approach only demonstrates the impact of prison education on one sole outcome — reoffending. This may overestimate causality on the one hand by ignoring any intervening circumstances which might also result in reduced reoffending. Moreover, it does not provide any meaningful insight into the process through which prison education can impact an offender’s ability to cease their offending behaviour. An objective of the current research is to add to the understanding of this intervening process and gain some insight into the process through which prison education can result in desistance from crime. There have also been calls for prison education to become more social capital than human capital focused (Costelloe, 2003). With this in mind, given that social capital is proposed as having a strong role in facilitating desistance, another objective of this research is to address these gaps by looking for links among prison education, social capital and the desistance process.

Research methodology

Given the exploratory nature of the current study, the interpretative approach was particularly appropriate. The use of qualitative methods to examine prison education, while relatively uncommon, can lead to much richer, deeper data than that which would be expected of a quantitative approach (Bryman, 2016).

The qualitative interview is a method of gaining rich insights into experiences, opinions and attitudes (Fontana and Frey, 1994; May, 2001; Denscombe, 2017). In the case of the semi-structured interview the interviewer can maintain more control through the use of a specified list of questions or conversational prompts. This style is much more conversational than with the structured interview, and the focus is on the interviewee elaborating on points of interest and giving open-ended answers (Denscombe, 2017). This approach fitted well with the current research that aimed to be exploratory, yet had a particular focus and specific objectives that required a degree of control over the topics covered by the interviews.

However, while the interpretative approach was suitable to the investigation of most of the research questions, achieving the objectives relating to social capital required the use of methods from the quantitative paradigm. The indicators of social capital can be observed qualitatively, a method used by Farrall (2004). However, they are usually measured by quantitative methods (Lin and Erickson, 2008). In the prison context, prison-based surveys must take account of literacy problems and a self-completion questionnaire is generally seen to be unsuitable (Davies et al., 2011). This requirement did not prove methodologically problematic in designing the research since the survey could be administered at the same time as the semi-structured interviews (Bryman, 2016). A simultaneous methodological triangulation approach was adopted (Morse, 1991). Simultaneous methodological triangulation is appropriate where the researcher wishes to compare both qualitative and quantitative data gathered concurrently to determine how the themes identified in the qualitative element compare with the statistical data (Creswell et al., 2003), such as in the current study. Another advantage to this method was that there was only one data collection phase (Creswell et al., 2003), which is desirable in the prison setting where follow-up access to prisoners who have participated in one phase of data collection may be impossible due to transfers, early release or temporary release measures.

Data collection

Once the research methods had been chosen, the next task was to identify and gain access to the research population. The study population comprised prisoners who were serving or who have served custodial sentences in Irish prisons. It was also decided to include a small number of ex-prisoners who had participated in prison education in order to gain a retrospective perspective of whether and how prison education had helped them in reintegration and desistance.

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