A picture says a 1000 words: Using inclusive methodologies with those at risk of offending

In this blog, Mark Jones and Debbie Jones share their experiences of conducting inclusive focus groups with adults that have offended or are at high risk of offending.  They suggest that, when appropriate, researchers can be bold and step away from the confinement of the methods texts that sometimes hold us back and endeavour to make societal changes happen in practice. The blog describes their decision making during research design, how they employed Pictorial Narrative Mapping, and how this enabled those without a voice to feel valued and heard and to benefit from the research process. 

Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

The study was the first of its kind in Wales and set out to examine the role of Higher Education within the context of prevention of offending/reoffending within a community setting. The research was funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE), and sought to understand the role of Higher Education in facilitating the aspirations of those at risk of offending/reoffending who wish to desist from offending behaviours. You can read a blog for the SRHE that presented the findings of the study here and the original blog on methodology here.

A key strength of the project was that it brought together academics, third sector and statutory agencies and those at risk of offending/reoffending. The research was therefore very much a partnership and this was a key value and driving force of the research. This blog focuses on two interlinked aspects of the project: the methodological philosophy we adopted in the study; and the use of a Pictorial Narrative Approach to data collection and analysis. 

Values versus Rules
Our study worked with those at risk of offending/reoffending as partners and sought to empower and encourage aspiration by carrying out research through ‘doing with’ rather than ‘researching on’ participants. This can therefore be described as an anti-oppressive process and was underpinned by a hybrid approach of participatory action and community engagement and learning. With this in mind, our approach challenged some of the accepted guidelines for effective research design - one example being our decision to move away from the more accepted text book guidance regarding focus groups size and structure.
Many researchers prescribe focus group size and conclude that five to eight is an effective size, with others suggesting that focus groups with over twelve participants lose coherence and value. Guidance on the ethics of focus groups  suggests that researchers need to ensure all voices are heard, which can be difficult due to group dynamics and dominant voices - especially so within discussions that are of sensitive contexts such as our research. Indeed, in addition to recalling their experiences of education in the context of offending, many of our sample expressed experiences of multiple challenges and barriers in their day to day lives which might lead some to consider them as ‘vulnerable.’ 

However, one of the key strengths of the project was that through collaborative discussions with our research partner ‘The Hub’, it became apparent that to limit the number of participants and try to organise smaller groups would in fact lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion. It was clear that if we wanted to understand the experiences of the participants, many of which were traumatic and still ‘raw’, then the structure of the focus group had to be engaging, therapeutic and, most importantly, on the terms of the members of The Hub. Therefore, to carry out the focus group in line with ‘text book’ instruction would have been in total contradiction to the philosophy of the organisation and indeed our inclusive ‘research with’ approach. 

Adopting the view that the value/ethos of the project outweighed the ‘rules’ of focus group design, led us to break with convention and support all sixteen members of The Hub who turned up on the day to participate in the focus group. The members who participated that day shared their experiences of education and also of vulnerability, not only with us but with the wider group. Indeed,in acknowledging the vulnerability of participants in research, consideration needs to be given to the seriousness of the vulnerability and researchers should develop their approach in relation to the lived context – and this is what we did whilst in the room that day. At times the conversation fluctuated away from the crib sheet of questions as participants struggled to articulate the day-to-day challenges they experienced - some of which are evident from the pictorial accounts in this blog. 

Creative Narrative Approaches that Enhance Storytelling

‘Story telling’ is nothing new and is in fact a facet of our humanistic behaviours that helps us to make sense of the world we inhabit. Many cultural criminologists have adopted a narrative approach within their research and in recent years have started to explore the role of visual methods as a way to enhance knowledge and engagement with research, to provide a break with the taken for granted view of social reality, and to ‘democratise’ crime control. 

We really appreciated that whilst many studies have used creative means of data collection such as drawing, poetry or photography to enable those with limited confidence, linguistic or literacy capacity to participate fully, some have pointed out that not all participants have the capacity to be creative. As researchers with an extensive background in supporting marginalised communities and using qualitative methods in research, we were really drawn to using a fairly new approach called ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping’ which has been identified as providing a holistic, nuanced account of the phenomena under study. 

Adopting the Pictorial Narrative approach enabled the members in the focus groups to vocalise their response whilst observing an analyst draw her interpretations of their views. We found this approach worked really well in that it captured the discussions clearly and in a way that the focus group members could see and therefore relate to. This ‘live’ approach also motivated people to comment, acknowledge and start new threads of conversation. This meant immediate triangulation of data analysis, which is something that has been identified as bringing about increased trustworthiness of findings. 

It was clear the process and approach was positive and arguably therapeutic with all members thanking us for the opportunity to take part in the pictorial approach, as the following quote and visual representation summarises:

“This is great! Can we have a copy and then we can go back every couple of weeks and think about what we said today and see if we are getting to where we want to be.”   Pete

A ‘strengths’ outcome for participants

A strengths-based approach in social work practice requires a shift in thinking from the practitioner and movement towards supporting people to reflect on, identify and self-direct their own positives and future development goals. When using such an approach in research, the research process should offer a safe space to reflect on positive factors that can be acknowledged and utilised to transform into new goals, aspirations, and future directions.

These notions capture the philosophy of our research and our desired impact and outcomes. The impetus for the project came from the community and the ethos of the Hub is that the service is user led, and so using this approach gave all sixteen participants a strong voice. All members were heard and listened to with their stories captured accurately by the artist. Each of their narratives was illustrated and at the end of the engagement event the participants were delighted to see that all their voices were included. 

It was also apparent that the participants saw this method as a way to measure their own progress and future intentions as the quote above demonstrates.  Measuring any form of intervention or personal development towards desistance has been shown to be problematic, but as Pete’s quote illustrates, there is power in narrative/visual methods in enabling those at risk of offending to acknowledge where there are, the strengths they possess and the transition to their new identity – whether that is through higher education or something else. 

Members had identified their strengths and felt more positive following the focus group, with a greater sense of self-worth. This is illustrated well by John, a participant who was really emotional after the focus group and came back to thank us for supporting him to have his voice heard.
“I’ve never in all my life had someone just listen to me and let me speak, and you know, really listen. It has made me so happy, I really feel good and I can look to the future. Thank you.” John


The benefits of using a value driven process and a Pictorial Narrative Mapping approach to this project are clear. Using creative, inclusive, and non-standard approaches can be extremely useful from a scientific point of view, offering deeply satisfying and valued experiences for both research participants and researchers. The approach also offers shared power and clear ethical integrity. when working with some of the most vulnerable people in society the approach creates a context where there is personal growth from being part of the research process and so in this way is an embodiment of a strengths approach to social research. 

In conclusion we would suggest that when appropriate, be bold and step away from the confinement of the methods texts that sometimes hold us back as researchers and endeavour to make those societal changes happen in practice. Our research might not change how Higher Education reaches out to those at risk of offending across the whole sector but what we have done is enabled those without a voice to feel valued and heard and, in our view, this has been the true value of this project. 

Author Bios: Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. [email protected] Twitter @A_HigherPlain.

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. [email protected]  Twitter @debjonesccjc. 

Our lead partner in this research is The Hub in Swansea which we are proud to have worked in partnership with and we would also like to thank the SRHE for funding this exciting and hugely enjoyable project. You can read the full report of this research for the SRHE here.