standard Finding resilience in the lived experiences of women offenders

Rebecca Gomm is researching the impact of approaches and interventions which work for women offenders. This involves exploring the positive impact of approaches and intervention within contexts of adversity and trauma in women offenders’ lives. Rebecca started the research in Durham in 2011 and is currently working towards completion of her PhD in Criminological Psychology in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University.

I thought I would start this blog post with a brief oversight of the approach I am using from phenomenology (study of lived experience) with my research on women offenders. This includes an outline of why I am using this approach and some reflections along the way. Future posts will detail the development of my research, which I believe is a valuable approach for privileging accounts of under-represented individuals and groups, within context.


Words of encouragement posted on a women’s centre wall.

An argument for the ‘value’ of the experiences of women offenders

I was initially attracted to using a phenomenological approach for my research with women offenders because it is something which can be used to argue for the value of experience. It is an approach which can be used to elevate understandings of the meaning of experiences, as an alternative to methods which make truth claims based on the ‘scientific method’. That is, methods which seek generalisable findings to explain objective phenomena. In practical research terms it has enabled me to form a truly holistic picture of the ‘lived experience’ of women offenders, to inform upon approaches which build resilience.

Lived experience is the term often applied to phenomenological approaches, which are concerned with the essential qualities of experience. The focus of such an approach is upon the enabling of understandings as they occur for someone. These understandings can be explored to reflect ‘embodied experience’, such as with some examples of aggression research. A phenomenological approach can also be applied with greater emphasis upon ‘meaning making’ within context, which is the focus of my research with women offenders.

The approach I am utilising in my research is called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), which is concerned with the experience of an individual in a particular context. It is an approach which can demonstrate a commitment to ‘lifeworld‘ (experienced or lived world) contexts, as experienced by an individual. This particular approach is viewed as a psychological method, although it is an approach that resonates with and can also utilise other methods used across the social sciences. IPA is an approach which comprises phenomenology and interpretation (or the study of hermeneutics). It is an approach to qualitative research which brings phenomenology and interpretation together.


A women’s centre in London with specialist support for women offenders.

One of the aims of IPA is to account for the fact that people are immersed in cultures, relationships and particular ways of experiencing. That is to say that meaning making and matters of care and concern do not occur in isolation – they are part of lifeworld contexts in all its richness and complexity. Essentially, a researcher with a commitment to this approach is providing an account of meaning making in particular contexts – and should strive to explore and enable understandings of these.

With regard to my research with women offenders, this approach has provided insightful accounts of approaches which work to support them. This is at the level of meaning making with a focus on contexts of adversity and abuse. Within the criminal justice system, women comprise a group which provide “particular challenges” (Justice Select Committee Report, Ministry of Justice, 2013) – although the concern outlined regarded what “counts”, rather than what has value.

The IPA approach is not concerned with truth ‘claims’, but an approach which seeks to provide insightful accounts based on what is close to the meaning making for the individual. In my view, the strength of this particular approach is that it does not make ‘truth’ claims of objective reality. It is about enabling understandings, rather than establishing fact – it enables important insights and understandings of how people make sense of their experiences. This is arguably something which holds real value and contrasts strongly with approaches which do not account for complexity – or contexts of adversity.


References and Further Reading

Eatough, V. & Smith, J.A. (2006) ‘I feel like a scrambled egg in my head’: An idiographic case study of meaning making and anger using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 79, 115-135.

Gelsthorpe, L. (2011) ‘Working with Women Offenders in the Community: A View from England and Wales’ in R. Sheehen, G. McIvor and C. Trotter (eds) Working with Women Offenders in the Community, pp. 127-150 Oxon: Willan Publishing.

Giorgio, A. (1997) ‘The theory, practice and evaluation of the phenomenological method as a qualitative research procedure‘. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 28(2): 235-260.

Lyons, E. and Coyle., A. (2007) Analysing Qualitative Data in Psychology. London, Sage.

Smith, J. A. (2011) ‘Evaluating the contribution of interpretative phenomenological analysis’. Health Psychology Review 5(1): 9-27.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research. London, Sage.

Towl, G.J. (2010) ‘Concluding Themes: Psychological Perspectives and Futures’ in G.J. Towl and D.A. Crighton (eds) Forensic Psychology, pp. 416-420 Chichester: BPS Blackwell.

Worrall, A. and Gelsthorpe, L. (2009) ‘What works’ with women offenders; the past 30 years. Probation Journal 56(4): 329-344.

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